Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Out of Iraq

I've been back for over 3 weeks, so it's past time I write about my trip. My first priority was to post my pictures from the trip and that took much longer than I expected. You can find them either on my Facebook page or at I'm still working on the captions for them. So beyond posting the pictures, I'll just blame it on writer's block. Now that I've started, I'm finding a lot to say. This entry is all about getting down to South Africa. I'll write another two or three blog entries about my time in Africa.

I had a fantastic time on my trip, even better than I hoped. My luggage never got lost, every place I stayed was terrific, I didn't get mugged as I anticipated, none of the food made me sick (well, not for long), and every location was beautiful. I intentionally didn't worry about any money I spent while I on the trip. I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and not the time to be counting nickels and dimes (or South African rand even). After I got back home and checked my credit cards, I figured out I spent about $8,000. It was worth every dollar and I have no regrets about the cost.

When someone does a 1-year tour over here, the government pays for an airplane ticket anywhere in the world for the person's mid-tour leave. So the good news is the government pays for it. The bad news is you are dependent on the government to get you there. My travel to the continent took a little longer than I expected. The morning I was flying out of Iraq was very foggy. So I spent an extra 4 hours hanging around the passenger terminal, reading, and standing in Army formations. Apparently it's a natural instinct for Soldiers to fall into formation when standing in a group. Not quite so natural for an Airman, but I did my best impression of a Soldier. When we eventually did get to Kuwait, there was more standing around and formations. After some time, I got my commercial ticket and a cot in a large tent. The cot had a lovely green plastic cover, like you would have for a kid who wets his bed (no comment), but no linens. I was told a lieutenant colonel doesn't rate linens. Thankfully the BX was still open so I could buy a travel pillow and fleece blanket.

Other than shivering through the night, I didn't mind spending a day and a half in Kuwait. 1. I wasn't in Iraq. 2. I had time to make more of my travel arrangements (planning ahead is for wimps). 3. I didn't have a care in the world. It was a nice break from the usual frenetic pace of Iraq. The evening after I arrived in Kuwait, I took a 1-hour plus-long shuttle from the base to Kuwait City International Airport. So what did I do there? You got it, more waiting. My flight wasn't for another 5 hours and I couldn't even check my bags for another 2 hours. I went to Caribou Coffee, a place I frequent often back in the States, and enjoyed more time to relax.

From Kuwait I stopped in Dubai before making my way to Johannesburg. I was flying on Emirates Air and they are based in Dubai, that is why I stopped there. Dubai airport is huge! The bus ride from the airplane to the terminal was 20 minutes at least. During the ride, I saw the world's largest building that has been in the news lately, Burj Dubai. No surprise, it's big and it towered over the rest of the city. Inside the terminal was a multitude of stores and restaurants. The stores were the usual electronics, books, and clothes but there was even a grocery store. If you ever have the chance to fly Emirates Air, I recommend them. Every chair has its own entertainment center. I watched a couple of movies, including District 9 (it's set in Johannesburg, so I figured I had to watch it), during the flight down to Johannesburg. If you have money to burn, I recommend flying first class on Emirates. They have the newest chairs, the ones that lay completely flat and have a curtain you can put around yourself. My government-paid ticket wasn't nearly that nice but it did the trick, it got me to Africa.

During the next week (I promise I won't take another 3 weeks), I'll write about Johannesburg, Victoria Falls, Kenya, and Cape Town. If you have any questions or if there is something specific you want to know, please let me know in the comments.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving in Iraq

Let me say up front, I had a great Thanksgiving. If I can't be with my family for a holiday, the next best place is to be deployed with my Air Force family. This Thanksgiving was definitely better than my two Thanksgivings in Virginia. It's just not possible for it to be better than last year's Thanksgiving though. Last year I was with my mom, Terry, John, Henrik, and David for Thanksgiving, mom and Terry's wedding, and mom's birthday. Nothing could top that.

This is my third deployed Thanksgiving. I don't remember much about the last one in 2004. I fondly remember the one in France in 1994. My unit had a small corner of a French Air Force base. People in the unit set up tables and decorated the central room of the building where our offices were. There was quite a selection of food spread out over the tables. I filled up a plate and took it back to the office I shared with two enlisted Airmen. We had our fill of some very good food and great conversation. Yep, that was a good one too.

I worked on Thanksgiving, but it was a slow day so I mainly worked on getting ready for my upcoming trip. At lunchtime, a group of over 20 people from work went to the DFAC together. The DFAC was all decked out. There were streamers all over the place and Thanksgiving-themed paper decorations everywhere. What was really impressive though were the decorations made from food. There was a life-size turkey made from potato chips. A 5-foot long alligator made from pineapples and a watermelon for the mouth. Bread baked into different shapes, 4-foot long sheetcakes, a gigantic cornucopia, and a huge eagle that I have no idea what it was made from. There were even more decorations, such as a Statue of Liberty and Taj Mahal (I guess for the Indians at the first Thanksgiving?), but you get the idea. Why don't I have a picture of all that? That's a story in itself.

I'm watching people run around at lunch taking pictures and wondering why I didn't bring my camera. I decided I would stop by the DFAC at dinner, whether I was hungry or not, with my camera to get pictures then. So after work, I went to my room and grabbed my camera. I decided to go to the BX to pick up a few things before going to the DFAC. I got all the way to the entrance of the BX before I realized I forgot my ID card. You need it to get into the BX or DFAC. I went back to my office, grabbed my ID card, and returned to the BX. When I got back to the BX, it was closed because there had been a fire inside. I stood around for about 15 minutes before giving up on it opening soon. I headed over to the DFAC to take pictures and grab something to eat. I went inside the DFAC, took out my camera, and...dead battery. UGH! Oh well, I had a second Thanksgiving meal (ham instead of turkey this time) and went back to my room to watch the Lions lose. The picture below is from a coworker who took a picture of the lunch group.

Hope everyone had a blessed Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Into Africa

Those of us who are here for a year get a 2-week vacation. The Army has a similar policy. Usually it is taken at about the half-way, or 6-month, point. I hit 6 months last week. I'll take my leave just short of being here for 7 months. I like that because I'll have less than 5 months left after I return. The military provides us with a commercial airline ticket to anywhere we want to go. I'm sure my mom would prefer I come home to see her, but I decided to take a trip to Africa.

I'll fly out of here on 30 Nov and initially go to Kuwait. I'll wait there until the military can get me on a commercial flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. I plan on spending a few days there. I'll check out the city, including some museums. I'll also do a day safari in Kruger National Park. From there I'll fly up to Livingstone, Zambia. I chose there because it is the closest city to Victoria Falls. Unfortunately it is the dry season, so the falls won't be in their full glory. Oh well. I'll also check out some parks in that area. Nairobi, Kenya is the next stop after Livingstone. There are multiple museums in the city, national parks are nearby, and Mount Kenya isn't far away. I'll take a day trip to see Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (I decided to pass on the 6-10 day trip for climbing the mountain). I'll leave Nairobi and go back to South Africa, Cape Town this time. I have wanted to go to Cape Town ever since I saw pictures from a visit by friends of mine. I love that the mountains are right next to the ocean. I'm going to experience both, Table Mountain and the beaches. I'll also go out to the Cape of Good Hope and go where I can see sharks and penguins. I'll spend some time relaxing before I have to return to Iraq.

Obviously I'm very excited about the trip. Not only am I looking forward to the experience, but I'm ready for a break from here. I'm also looking forward to wearing civilian clothes, not shaving, and having a beer. My mom is concerned about the crime rate in African cities. She said she'll be happy when my trip is over. I asked her, "So you'll be happy when I'm safe and sound in Iraq?" We had a good chuckle about that.

I promise to give you a recap of the trip and provide pictures when I get back.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

My New Office

Shortly before I arrived at Balad, my office was finished being built and my predecessor moved into it. The building I am in has been there since this was an Iraqi base. It had a courtyard that was closed in to create additional offices including mine. Being a new office, it had nice clean white walls and a new tile floor. My furniture included a new modular desk with a matching vertical bookshelf, a comfortable mesh desk chair, and a large leather chair that was very comfortable. Once my 40+ inch flat panel TV was hung on the wall (it took 4 months to get someone to do it!), it was a great office to work in and watch football on Saturday and Sunday nights (after work hours, I promise I'm not wasting your tax dollars). Easily one of the best offices in the building.

I'm talking about it in the past tense because I recently was moved to another office. A few weeks ago the general told me he wanted my office for a waiting room for his visitors. He said he chose my office because it is the closest to his (which is true) and I shouldn't take it personally. However, this news came at the same time as a couple of other less than stellar comments about me, so it was hard not to take it personal. It took a couple of days to get over it. I was happier though when I found out there was another room in the headquarters building so I wouldn't have to find some place in another building. When it came time to make the move, it wasn't that big of deal to me.

My new office isn't as nice as my old one, to put it nicely. Considering Iraq's history, I could imagine it being used as a place to beat up people Saddam didn't like. It has a prison shower motif to it due to the dingy yellow tile on the floor and walls. The only thing missing is a drain in the middle of the floor. I still don't mind the move because I was given a large wooden desk that I really like and I don't look around the room anyways. When I'm in there, I'm focused on my computer screens. What did bother me was the constant stream of people coming by my first day in the office to offer their condolences for me getting shafted. I appreciated the concern, but I had heard it enough by the seventh person. I did laugh when someone asked me if I knew where my stapler is (Office Space reference). The pity party died off after a couple of days and it's no longer a big deal.

I only bring this up because of the latest development. We had a heavy thunderstorm Friday night. When I got to my office, I could tell the ceiling in my office leaked. Where did it leak? Right above my desk where I have all of my electronics--two computers, two phones, and two monitors. Thankfully nothing was damaged. There is a duct right above my desk that obviously wasn't sealed very well. I could put my desk on the other side of the room, but then I would be looking right into the ladies' bathroom. Um, no. Instead I put in a request to get the duct sealed. Hopefully they take care of it soon (at least faster than they installed the TV in my old office; speaking of the old office, I don't think it has been used once in the 2 weeks it has been a waiting room). The forecast called for another thunderstorm last night, but thankfully it missed us. In the meantime, I'll break out the umbrella and trash bags to cover everything. Still beats the heck out of being in a tent in the middle of the desert.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

If You Can't Laugh at Yourself...

I don't usually do CrossFit on Saturday but decided to last weekend since I missed a couple of days during the week. The class starts at 0545. I wanted to be sure I didn't oversleep (it's been a problem for me). I woke up at 31 past the hour. I got up and got dressed. After I left my room, I checked my watch. The time was 0046. I thought crap, I'm late. It took a few steps for my brain to start working and realize not only wasn't I late, I was 5 hours early. I chuckled at myself (it was definitely a moment worth a chuckle) and went back to bed. I did manage to wake up at the right time and made it to class on time.

Last Sunday I joined other people from my office for a softball tournament to kick off the government's annual charity drive. I love playing softball, but I'm beginning to think it doesn't like me. In the first game we played, I hit a fly ball into the outfield. It should have been an easy out, but it bounced off the outfielder's glove. I was between first and second when I saw that happen, so I turned on the old-man jets. They burned out pretty fast. I felt a twinge in my left hamstring as I got to second base. We were behind at the time, so I had to decide if I should push it or pull up. I pushed it. Somehow I scored on the play, putting us ahead. We ended up losing by two runs but it was exciting for a little while. In the second game, I was playing shortstop. There was a guy on first when a grounder was hit to me. I bobbled it a little bit but then grabbed it with the intent to step on second and make a throw to first to try for the double play. When I looked up after bobbling it, the guy coming from first was on top of me and I couldn't avoid him. He ran into me full speed. I went flying. I was rolling around on the ground, saying words I won't repeat here, and desperately trying to breathe. It was a few minutes before I could catch my breath. Someone asked me how I was doing. I said I've had better days. I then asked the guy who ran into me if he played linebacker. He said no, strong safety. I was told later the guy was at least 6'2" and 220lbs. All that matters though is I got the out. We later lost that game in extra innings by 1 run. We were eliminated from the tournament and I hurt like heck, but we had a lot of fun.

This morning I ran in the Army 6.8 Miler. The race is actually 10 miles long. I was supposed to meet my racing partner, Andria, at 0345 and the race started at 0445. I woke up at 0500 (told you I've had a problem with that). As soon as I woke up, I knew I was late. I rolled out of bed, got dressed, and put my contacts in. I didn't know the race course, but I knew it went by my housing area. I found the course and followed it back toward the start. After walking for about a mile, I saw Andria. She was pissed! She asked where I had been and what my excuse was. As I said, she was pissed. I ran with her. She was moving really fast (probably because she was pissed) and I wondered if I could keep up with her. As we ran and talked, she eventually forgave me. We did really well, better than either of us expected. We hoped to run under 9-minute miles (I should say I hoped and Andria agreed to run slower so I could keep up with her). She finished in under 1:17, which is about 7:40-minute miles. I was happy to keep up that pace and still felt strong at the end. She got an Army Ten Miler shirt when we finished. I looked around but didn't see any Army 6.8 Miler shirts.

So wherever I end up in life, at least I'll have myself to laugh at.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Missing Kenin

For those who don't know, Kenin is my dog. Outside of my immediate family, he is the most important "person" in the world to me. I adopted him in April 1997. There were some growing pains as we learned to live together. Most of the pains were mine as he did some damage to my new house--tearing out all the window screens when I left him outside, digging a whole in the living room carpet, and chewing up the moulding in the kitchen, to name a few things. Thank God for a handy father and father-in-law. But then, and now, he is well worth any trouble he caused me.

That was never more true than when my ex-wife asked for a separation in June 2006. This was just weeks before we were to drive out of Alaska together to make our way to my next assignment at the Pentagon. So when I drove out of Anchorage, it was just Kenin and me in the truck. He was my copilot for the drive from Alaska to Virginia, including stops in Vancouver and Michigan (like an AF copilot, he wasn't much help with figuring out where we were going). I have some great pictures of him standing on the back seat looking out the window. Our first extended stop was in Vancouver to visit my brother John. All three of us enjoyed the few days we had together. From there we made the cross-country drive to see my mom and other brother David in Michigan. Although it would have been nice if he had taken his turn behind the wheel, he still makes a great traveling companion. We had a great visit in Michigan. Kenin loves running up the stairs to my mom's condo. After a week in Michigan, it was time to drive to Virginia and finish our 5,000-mile odyssey.

The first year or so in Virginia was a very difficult time in my life. The future of my marriage was very uncertain. I had a decent apartment, but it was very lonely. I received a lot of support from my family, especially my mom. However, they of course couldn't be there in Virginia with me. I don't know if I could have handled coming back to the apartment day after day if Kenin wasn't there to enthusiastically greet me everytime. There is a dog park just a 10-minute walk from the apartment. We went there often, although I should have taken him more than I did. We also went on many hikes. We went to almost every park in Northern Virginia that had a trail and even out west to the Shenandoah Valley. I'll treasure those memories for the rest of my life. I give my mom and Kenin credit for getting me through that time.

When I thought I might be deploying, my main concern was what to do with Kenin. Because of how important he is to me, I wouldn't leave him with just anybody. I asked my mom who she thought would be willing to take him. She suggested Mark and Teresa. Mark's family lived next to mine when we were growing up, so we've known each other our whole lives. Our families remain very close. Teresa didn't hesitate to say yes when my mom asked her. At that time I thought I was going to be gone for just 6 months. When I found out it would be a year, I called Teresa and again she said yes without hesitating. God's hand was obviously on this decision because I could not have found a better family to leave him with. Mark and Teresa send me updates on how he is doing, my mom tells me how well he is being taken care of, and even Jenny, Mark's sister, has visited him and told me how happy he is. I am very grateful that he is with such a loving family.

Other than when I first dropped him off at Mark and Teresa's house, I haven't really felt like I am missing him. Even when I received updates on him, it didn't affect me much. However, when Jenny sent me pictures of her and Mark and Teresa's kids playing with Kenin, then I missed him badly. I especially felt his absence when I saw this picture.

That is such a classic look for him and brings back such great memories. For a while I had the picture set as my computer's wallpaper. I would "pet" him before shutting down my computer for the night. I told Jenny not to feel bad that the picture made me sad because I love it and am glad she sent it. So now I think about him more and I still miss him, but it is okay because I know he is doing well.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Apparently the Detroit Lions defense wasn't! Losing to the Saints 45-27 and letting their QB throw for 6 touchdowns. It wasn't shown live here, which is just as well. It was replayed on Monday, but for some reason I didn't feel like watching it.

Despite the inauspicious start for the Lions, I'm still thrilled the football season started. I, like many others here, have been looking forward to this for weeks. Watching football over here, like many other things, is just a little bit different. We are 7 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, so the early college football games start at 1900 and the early pro games start at 2000. I can usually watch either half or all of those games. It is bedtime for me when the mid-afternoon games are starting. The night games have already started when I wake up in the morning, so I can watch part of them before church on Sunday or work on Monday and Tuesday. The daylight savings time change will make it easier to see the night games but harder to watch even the early afternoon ones. Wah!

Those who know me know I'm a diehard Michigan Wolverines fan. Of course I root for my alma mater, the Air Force Academy, but I live and die with the U of M. All last week I was looking forward to the Michigan-Notre Dame game. For me, ND is the second most hated rival behind Ohio State. I spent all day last Saturday looking forward to the game since it started at 2230. At game time, I was comfortably settled into my recliner (yes, I'm spoiled) and ready for some football. I watched the game nervously as it went back and forth. About halftime, which was around midnight, I almost fell asleep. I am so glad I stayed awake. What a game! When Michigan scored the go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left in the game, I had to restrain myself from yelling and possibly waking up my neighbor. I was also really excited when CMU (where my brother John went to school) upset MSU on a last second field goal (sorry Jenny). I can't wait for the rest of the season (in fact, I'm watching the UM/EMU game as I type this).

In addition to watching the games, it is nice to have something to look forward each week other than work. People mark their time here in different ways. Some people count each day. That would drive me crazy. The DFACs (aka chow halls) have different specialties on different days. One day will be Chinese, another Mongolian BBQ, another Arabic, and so on. So some people mark their day by when their favorite food is being served. Even after 4 months here I still can't remember the DFAC schedule, so that doesn't work for me. I'm not counting down my days, but I am looking forward to football making the time pass. Also, I already figured out I'll have 3 months left after the Super Bowl and I'll be close to finding out where my next assignment is. Therefore, football is my calendar.

Watching football brings a taste of home to the deployment. I can't say this enough, I have it good that I can watch the games, especially in the comfort of my room. I don't have to get dressed up to watch the game at a rec center or, even worse, not be able to watch the games at all and have to wait a day or two to get results. Hallejuah for the Armed Forces Network and having a TV in my room and office (where I'm at now). Go Blue, go Air Force, and go Lions!

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I mentioned in the past doing the CrossFit exercise program. The centerpiece of the program is the workout of the day (WOD). The WODs vary widely, but they always include some combination of metabolic conditioning (aka aerobic activity), Olympic weight lifts, and/or gymnastic movements (i.e., pullups, pushups). Many of the workouts are "named" WODs. The names are either those of girls or heroes. The hero WODs, such as Murph (I'll explain where the name came from later), are usually pretty brutal.

This past Saturday a group of nine of us met at 0530 at the stadium that is on base to do Murph. There were six men and two women doing the workout. The ninth person was Vanessa (the woman I dropped during the fire muster but who carried me without a problem). She did Murph on Friday so she was there to be our motivator, timer, and photographer (I'll post my pictures when I download them off my camera). The workout is running a mile (we did it around a 1/4 mile track), doing 100 pullups/200 pushups/300 air squats, and then running another mile. Oh yeah, you do this while wearing your body armor vest (about 25-30 pounds). We broke down the pullups/pushups/squats into 20 sets of 5/10/15. Some people didn't wear the vest and others, like me, took off the vest part way through the workout. Vest or no vest, it is a very difficult workout.

We all started together on the run. Some people took off like a shot and some of us (yours truly) were happy to plod along at a more modest pace. The "like a shot" group completed the mile in under 7 minutes. I came in at over 9 minutes. Then it was time to start the real part of the workout. The first couple of sets went pretty well. After that I started to feel the effect of the vest. Before we started, we attached resistance bands to the pullup bars. So when I got tired, I put my foot in the other end of the band and used it to help me up. I still did full movement pushups and squats. While I was in the middle of my exercises, one of the guys took off to do his second 1 mile run. Someone asked me what set I was on. I said I'm not going to tell you now after seeing that guy take off (I was only on 8 or 9). After 10 sets of the exercises, half the workout, I dropped the vest. I kept plugging away and eventually completed the exercises. I might have been able to do the pushups and squats with the vest on, but there is no way I could have done the pullups. I put my vest back on for my second 1 mile run. I ran (if you can call it that) at an even slower pace than I did my first mile, but I wanted to do it right. I had hopes at one time of beating Vanessa's time. She completed Murph in 1 hr, 8 minutes. I started my run at 1 hr, 1 minute, so I knew there was no chance of beating her (as I said in the fire muster, I knew she could kick my butt). I finished the WOD in 1 hr, 12 minutes.

So why is that session of self-abuse called Murph? As I mentioned earlier, it is named for a hero, Navy LT Michael Murphy. Here is what the CrossFit website says about it:

"In memory of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan June 28th, 2005. This workout was one of Mike's favorites and he'd named it 'Body Armor.' From here on it will be referred to as 'Murph' in honor of the focused warrior and great American who wanted nothing more in life than to serve this great country and the beautiful people who make it what it is."

That doesn't begin to tell you what a hero LT Murphy was. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor. He was a Navy SEAL on a scouting mission in Afghanistan when his 4-man team was ambushed by over 50 enemy. LT Murphy deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire so that he could get in a better position to radio for help. During the attempt to rescue the SEALs, a helicopter was shot down killing all 16 aboard. The SEAL team continued to fight against an overwhelming force. Eventually, three of the men, including LT Murphy, were killed and only Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SEAL) Marcus Luttrell was rescued. You can read the entire story here.

So why does anyone do something like Murph? For me, it's the same reason I do triathlons, the upcoming AF Half Marathon, or other events like those. It is a challenge to test myself. Also, even though I dropped the vest halfway through the exercises, I felt very proud of myself for finishing the full Murph. I'm not saying I'm looking to do it again anytime soon, but I'm glad I did it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fire Muster

A fire muster is a fire department competition consisting of several different events from a dummy drag, putting out a "fire" using a bucket brigade, rolling up a hose, and spraying a hose at a target. All of the activities resemble training the firefighters use to keep their lifesaving skills sharp. Each challenge is just a sample of the complex and vital job for firefighters and first responders. Basically, the events gave us non-firefighters an opportunity to walk in their shoes. The team event included 24 five-people teams from across the base competing in four challenges against each other. All this took place on a Sunday morning, 9 August.

I was on a team with the wing's lead lawyer (Josh), two people from his staff (Jim and Kat), and the wing's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (Vanessa). All of us had to participate in each event. The first one was a series of different firefighter carries. We started with Vanessa using the fireman's carry to carry me the length of the basketball court. She then set me down and we switched. I only got a few steps before I fell flat on my face and dropped Vanessa on her behind. Thankfully she was very understanding. I was incredibly embarassed. We got back up but lost valuable time. Not surprising, we were in last after the first event.

It was an intense competition, Jim is really into it.

Next was the bucket brigade. We had to put our bucket in a pool, run over to a wooden house, and throw the water on top of the house. A tube in the house poured the water into a large trash can next to the house. We had to run back and forth until the trash can was about 2/3 full. I think I redeemed myself for the earlier fall. So if you ever need someone for a bucket brigade, I'm your man. Our team did much better in that event, 9th place and we moved up to the middle of the pack overall.

Josh and Kat leading the way, look at my form rolling out the hose!

Next event required rolling out two firehoses the length of the basketball court, connecting them together and to a water supply, and then spraying the wooden house until a softball popped out the top. I thought we did pretty well, but we ended up near the bottom.

Josh looks like a pro on the firehose and Kat looks like she is hanging on for dear life.

Josh is on the hose and I'm second, trust me.

The last event was called "tug of war" but it was actually two teams facing off against each other with firehoses. The teams both sprayed at a target on a rope over the court, the object being to push the target past the other team's line. It was a best two out of three. Those hoses put out a lot of water and it was impossible to see anything. We got spanked twice. Overall, we ended up tied for third from the bottom. Oh well, I had a blast and look forward to doing it again while I'm here.

The happy, albeit soaked, team.

My fellow blogger, Jake, also participated in the team event with his coworkers. He was manning the hose for his team for the "tug of war" competition. He was incredible and they just blew people away. Unfortunately, they ran out of water or else I'm sure Jake and his team would have won that event.

There was also an individual competition called the Firefighter's Challenge. It is known as the toughest 2 minutes in firefighting. I wish I had signed up for it but I was a scaredy cat. It was basically an obstacle course. The course was carrying a "hotel pack", a firehose folded up and tied down, the length of the basketball court and then back through a set of cones...pulling on a rope tied to a rolled up firehose at the far end of the basketball court until you pulled the hose to you...using a sledgehammer to hit a large tire with a sandbag in it along and then off a 6-foot long bench...running the length of the court and dragging back a firehose; after getting to the free-throw line, turning on the hose and spraying a ball off the top of a cone...climbing up and down a 15-foot ladder three times...and finally dragging a 180-pound dummy the length of the court. Whew! It was a lot of fun to watch. There were men's and women's competitions and a team competition between the senior officers in the wing versus the senior enlisted of the wing. Vanessa, the women I dropped, took third place in the women's competition. She definitely could kick my butt, so I'm glad she didn't after I dropped her on hers. This is a picture of her doing the dummy drag. The guys around her are spotters so that she doesn't fall. She did an amazing job!

All in all, it was a great way to spend a Sunday and fun to do something different. It certainly helped me appreciate what firefighters have to go through.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Gamble

The Gamble is the title of a book by Thomas Ricks that I have been reading for the past couple of months (too much tv watching, not enough reading). It is the second book Ricks wrote about the Iraq War. His first book, Fiasco, described the disaster that ensued after our invasion of Iraq in 2003. The title of The Gamble is a reference to the surge in troops and effort in 2006 that essentially prevented a disaster, both on the ground here in Iraq and for the US on the international stage. The surge was more than just an increase in the number of boots on the ground. It was also a major change in strategy, operations, and tactics. At the strategic level the focus shifted from figuring out how to get out of the country as painlessly as possible to protecting the Iraqi people. Operationally, US forces began working with and even hired insurgents who had been attacking them just weeks or even days prior. The significant change in tactics was putting troops out into the local populace. This helped the troops learn the area they were protecting, ensured insurgents couldn’t move into the area after the US left, and, most importantly, encouraged the Iraqis to assist in the security operations rather than tacitly or overtly supporting the insurgents. No one can now say the surge didn’t work (I was among the skeptics at the beginning).

I assume you heard about the 30 June deadline for us to move our forces out of Iraqi cities. That date was established as part of the Security Agreement signed between the US and Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki, the leader of Iraq, declared 30 June as a national holiday on par with Iraq evicting the occupying British forces in 1920. Not exactly a “thanks for a job well done.” You may have heard about a memo from a senior advisor in Baghdad that was recently leaked (go here for a link to a NYT article about it). This advisor, Col Reese, says we should declare victory and go home. The current plan is to reduce our combat forces in Iraq to 50,000 (currently about 130,000) by August 2010. Col Reese says we should completely leave the country by August 2010. At the end of The Gamble, Ricks presents many competing theories about how long the US should remain in Iraq. They range from proposals similar to Col Reese’s to keeping combat forces here indefinitely. The author himself thinks we are only at the halfway point of our time here, meaning we will be here until 2015 or later. My problem with all of those theories is they are based on what the US wants to do. What about the Iraqis?

I think there soon will be a second gamble in Iraq. The gamble this time will be by the Iraqis though, not us. Not only have we left the cities, but now we defer to the Iraqis to lead operations against the insurgents. I’ve often heard times when the Iraqi Army told our guys to stay home because they don’t need us. I don’t have a problem with that. This is their country and they should shoulder the responsibility for it. I’m just not sure the Iraqis are ready for it. Regardless, I think whoever wins their national elections in January 2010 will tell us it is time for us to go. We may get until August 2010 just because the sheer logistics of it, but they will want us out sooner rather than later. Sorry mom, I don’t think this means I will be coming home early. The Iraqis will need the USAF and other, specialized groups to remain because they don’t have the capability to replace us yet. The rules for us are changing and they are being written by the Iraqis. I’m certain, whether they are truly ready or not, they will become even more assertive after next year’s elections. I pray that they are ready.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Another Voice in the Desert

I am in the same building as the wing's Public Affairs office (essentially the AF press corps). I was talking one day with one of the guys in the office. He heard I was writing a blog and was interested because he is writing one too. So we talked that day, and since then, about what to write on and how to say it.

Jake is writing his blog for the Arizona Daily Star. They want him to give an Airman's perspective on what it is like to be over here. He is an excellent writer (quite honestly, he is much better than me) and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading his posts. Here is the beginning of the latest one:

Day 23: No pressure
07/24/2009 12:52 PM
SSgt. Jacob Richmond
So, this is what it’s like to be a military journalist at war.

Back at home, the stories we write are often specialized and geared toward our own military audience; and when our stories are good enough to transcend that category, they’re usually covered by the “real media” (a victory in the public-affairs world). Today, though, after a rare chance to interview a group of true heroes in the combat zone, I realize that their story is one only I can tell. The real media isn’t here to cover it, and even if they were, they don’t have the military perspective to pull it off the right way. So, it’s on me.

It only gets better from there. I encourage you to visit his blog, Indirect Fire, to read the rest of that post and his other writings.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saying Hello and Goodbye

An interesting thing about being deployed is the number of people you meet. The length of AF deployments are usually 4 months, 6 months, or 1 year. The 6-month deployment is now the most common of the three. Since I’m here for a year, I’ll watch the people that were here when I arrived depart, I’ll greet their replacements and also see them leave, and I’ll see the replacements’ replacements arrive. I’ll be happy to see them though because I know they will be here until I leave.

So I’ll work with more people than at a usual assignment because of the frequent rotations. On the plus side I get to meet a lot of people. I love hearing people’s stories. We have young enlisted Airmen who man a desk at the entrance to our building. One day I talked to a young woman who is currently a dental assistant (they pull people from across the AF to do various security details). She plans on getting out of the AF in the fall. She will then use her GI Bill benefits to go to school full-time to finish the last year of her Bachelor’s degree. Then she will go to dental school and become a dentist. That is just one example of the quality people here and everywhere in the military today. A negative of the constant rotations is I say goodbye to a lot of people that have become good friends. Just last week a friend I made since getting here left. She plus two others are the people I usually go to meals with. The other two are leaving in the next couple of months. That will be tough. When a friend is leaving, there is a moment I wish I could be leaving too. But the moment passes because there is still a job to do and there are new people who are counting on you and you are counting on them.

A definite plus is running into people I knew previously. In May there was a ceremony to mark the change in command of one of the squadrons on base. An Academy classmate of mine who is deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq unexpectedly showed up for the ceremony. We were in the same squadron at the Academy and I hadn’t seen him since we graduated in 1992. Another classmate who was in our squadron was also at the ceremony. So out of roughly 25 people who graduated from our squadron that year, three of us were at this ceremony in Iraq. As we looked around we realized three more of our classmates (but from different Academy squadrons) were there. Pretty amazing. Other people I’ve seen since getting here include a good friend I worked with at the Pentagon, a former squadron commander of mine (who is now a general), and someone I met on a previous deployment. As big as the AF is, about 330,000 people on Active Duty, sometimes it can seem like a small community.

I say this at the end of every assignment, and I’m sure this one will be no different, it is the people who make an assignment special and memorable. The details of the job fade pretty quickly from memory. I tend to remember more about the location, but even a great location (such as my assignment in Alaska) doesn’t mean as much as the people I work with. The camaraderie, the shared experiences, and getting to know people are all things I treasure. So even though I know I will say goodbye (or at least, until next time), it is well worth it to say hello.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

God is good...

All the time. All the time... God is good.

Our new priest, Fr. Paul, started his homily with that challenge and response. Even before then I could tell he was going to be different than our last priest. Fr. Nguyen was good, but I was never stirred by him. By the end of today's mass, my heart was on fire. In addition to the challenge and response, he also uses chants throughout the mass, which I like.

In his homily, he told about a poor carpenter who desperately needed a job and was hired by a rich farmer. On the first day of work, his truck got a flat tire on the way in so he was late. While at work, his electric saw broke. At the end of the day his truck wouldn't start. The rich farmer had to drive him home. When they got to the house, the carpenter asked the farmer if he would come inside to meet the carpenter's wife and two young daughters. As they were walking up to the house, the carpenter reached out and rubbed the leaf of a small tree. When he got inside, he was happy and smiling and he gave his wife and daughters hugs and kisses. Inside the house was a very happy place. As the farmer was leaving, he asked the carpenter why he rubbed the leaf on the tree. The carpenter said, oh, that is my trouble tree. When I get home I leave all my troubles on the tree rather than make my wife and daughters sad with them. Fr. Paul said Jesus is our trouble tree.

Fr. Paul is from Nigeria. His full name is Paul Obi Amaliri. He said he gets called Fr. Paul, Fr. Obi, Obi Wan, Obi Wan Kenobi, or Fr. Amaliri ("which sounds Italian but isn't"). He said he'll answer to all of them. He arrived in the US less than 10 years ago to get his master's degree in St. Louis. He then moved to Tulsa, OK, where he was until he joined the AF. He joined just less than a year ago and is now stationed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. He told us not to ask what he thinks of Nellis because, as we all know, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

He obviously has a very good sense of humor. At the beginning of mass, his microphone wasn't working. So he told a story about a priest who was at a new church and his microphone wasn't working. The priest started the mass with the sign of the cross, but instead of saying "The Lord be with you", he said "There is a problem with this microphone." The congregation dutifully responded, "And also with you."

I am very excited about him being here (obviously!). I think his arrival is just the lift my spiritual life needs.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

As I write this blog, I am amazed at the multitude of options available for personal communication between the homefront and the war zone. Especially when you consider the options from previous wars. Back in WWII, you really only could mail letters. Considering how much troops moved around both in the Pacific and European theaters, I'm sure it took weeks or longer for mail to arrive. In Vietnam, troops and families still mainly relied on snail mail. It probably was more efficient, if for no other reason than the theater of operations was pretty small, but I'm sure it still took a week or more. I'm sure guys in Saigon or the larger posts could communicate via phone, but there were a lot of guys in remote outposts that wouldn't have that option. When you compare that to what we have now, it is mindboggling.

- Telephone. I can make two morale calls a week and my mom can call me twice a week. The connection is made through a military base, such as the Pentagon, in the US, so the only cost is for domestic long distance. I use a calling card my mom gave me, which has a rate of about 3 cents per minute. But that's not the only phone option. Cell phones can be bought in the BX here. I heard the airtime cost is 25 cents per minute. Ouch. (The woman sitting at the computer next to me just dropped her cell phone. What timing!) I have no idea what plans are available for texting, but I'm sure people are doing that too. I've also seen people using satellite phones. I'm sure that rate is over a dollar (or dollars) per minute. I've seen multiple people with them though.

- Computer. There are the obvious methods of e-mail and blogging. I have also chatted with my brother, friends, and even my mom! I am still active, as are many here, on the social networking site Facebook. I can't access Facebook at work, so I am less active on it than when I am in the States, but it is an option. One that I don't do but is very popular here is Skype. It is a very low cost way to have video teleconferences. You'll see somebody put a webcam on a computer and soon he/she is talking with and looking at his/her spouse and kids. Just amazing and great for the family back home and the person here.

- And of course the old standby, snail mail. My mom mailed packages to me and they have arrived in less than a week. Letter mail is just as fast or faster. Of course, I also can get my magazine subscriptions and bills too.

I'm certainly grateful for all the options. Being able to communicate with family and friends is a huge morale boost, regardless of which method we use.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What I Love

As we celebrate our wonderful country's birthday, I feel inspired to list many of the people and things I love. No list like this can ever be complete, but I will do my best.

1. God
2. Mom
3. My dad (gone 5 years and I still love him just as much)
4. John
5. David
6. Henrik
7. Terry
8. Kenin
9. My faith
10. The United States of America
11. Freedom
12. Jenny and the boys
13. My cousin Theresa
14. My friends and relatives
15. LR
16. Northern Michigan in the fall
17. Snow falling
18. Country music
19. Mountains
20. Ice cream
21. The Internet
22. Baseball
23. Golf (although it is a love-hate relationship)
24. Football, especially U of M football--Go Blue!
25. Red Wings
26. Hearing the National Anthem sung
27. Fireworks
28. Beautiful women
29. Patriotic movies
30. Having good health
31. Volunteering
32. Sleeping in
33. Hiking
34. Overnight backpacking
35. Technology
36. Learning
37. Being a graduate of the AF Academy
38. Traveling, especially my parents taking us to Europe in 1984
39. Someone doing something they never thought they could
40. Good Shepherd Catholic Church and everyone there
41. Reading the Sunday paper
42. Sudoku
43. My mom's pumpkin pie
44. Babbling brooks
45. Marge and Elaine (can't believe I almost forgot them!)
46. My AF family
47. Linux
48. Trivia
49. Lists
50. myself (I think it is important to love yourself)

Thank you to all who read this and everyone who supports our troops. God Bless you and the US of A. Happy 4th of July!!!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Time Flies When You Are Having Fun

Multiple times last week I meant to post an update to my blog. Then it was, I'll do it Friday...okay, I'll do it Saturday...definitely Sunday... So here I am on Monday finally doing it, and this isn't even what I intended to write about. But since I made an issue about the week flying by, I thought I'd talk about what happened during it. There's surprisingly little considering I felt I never had time to write.

I've been having some health issues off and on lately. Mainly sinus pressure, but also nausea, headaches, fatigue, etc. Last Sunday I ended up sleeping about 7 hours during the day. When I was awake I mainly laid in bed and watched the US Open golf tournament. Nothing special happened Monday and, really, looking at my notes from last week, there wasn't a whole lot going on throughout the week. It's the little pop-up jobs that take up so much time. However, there were two projects I worked on last week.

Starting on Tuesday I coordinated a visit here by two colonels from Baghdad. Basically, I coordinated their schedule for while they were here and which offices they would visit. That took up a good amount of time right until Friday evening when they cancelled just before they were supposed to fly up here. Oh well, hopefully they can visit another time.

The other main project I worked on last week was putting together an application package for the squadron commander's selection board that meets next month. Squadron command is the opportunity for 2 years to lead anywhere from 100 to 800 people on a specific mission. Although not required, it is considered a key step toward making the higher ranks of colonel and general. I'm not so concerned about the chance for promotion (although it would be nice!) as I am the opportunity to lead a group of people and see if I can do it. The idea of being a commander is a little scary but also exciting. Putting the application together required me to write a paragraph explaining why I think they should select me and write a paragraph on behalf of my commander about me. I loathe writing self-promotional pieces and struggle through the process. That's why it took me 3 days to get it done when the instructions say it should take 60-90 minutes. My commander reviewed it and made some changes but kept most of my material. I resubmitted it and now just have to wait until about September for the board results to be released. This is my last chance to apply to the board, so I'm hoping for good news.

Saturday, what did I do Saturday? What did I do that is other than oversleep. I set my alarm but forgot to turn it on. I woke up that morning about 4:30am but that was way too early to get up so I went back to sleep. I woke up again later but didn't look at the clock so I had no idea what time it was. In the last few weeks there have been a few times I woke up in the middle of the night, was wide awake, and couldn't fall asleep for over an hour. I thought this was one of those times. After tossing and turning for a few minutes, I decided to look at the clock and see if it was close to time to get up. There was a good reason why I was wide awake, it was after 9am! I finally rolled into work around 10am. Thankfully it was a slow day, so no one noticed.

Saturday evening we had an awards dinner for the people on the staff. There is a small group from the staff who I usually eat lunch and dinner with. I enjoyed the chance to have dinner with the other people on the staff in addition to my usual group. After people were given their awards, we watched a video that was made for the outgoing wing commander. It was hilarious! Well, probably funnier for us here than it would be for any of you. After the dinner, a few of us got together to smoke cigars (I passed on that), have some near beers (I had one of those), and talk. It made for a nice way to end the week.

Sunday morning I woke up and planned to go for a run. I stepped outside though and it was like pea-soup fog, except it was dust not fog. I didn't think it would do my body any good to run in that, so I went to the gym to run on the treadmill. I showered afterward and went to church. I wasn't needed as a Eucharistic Minister, so I filled in as an usher since our usual ushers were gone. I definitely get more out of the service when I have a role in it. After mass, I returned to my CHU and called a friend. We talked for a while and had a great conversation. After I hung up the phone, I was playing on my laptop but my head started to hurt. I decided to lay down and ended up sleeping for 2 hours. When I woke up, my head hurt even more. I popped a couple of Ibuprofen and then went to join some friends at the movie theater. We saw the movie "The Proposal" with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. If you like romantic comedies, you'll like that movie. It is cute and there are some very funny moments.

I meant to do some work after the movie, but I just couldn't get motivated. Instead I went back to my room, played some video games, and worked on my bike. I talked with my mom when she called at 8pm and then went back to working on the bike. I finished it up and took it out for its maiden voyage around the housing community. I have a light on the front handlebars, so thankfully I didn't hit anything. The bike is nothing fancy. It only cost $200, I couldn't even buy wheels for a road bike for that amount. However, I really enjoyed riding again and am looking forward to putting some miles on it.

So that catches you up with what I've been doing other than writing in my blog for the past week. I will try, emphasis on try, to write another post later this week.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mission and People

I’m sure some of you have wondered why I volunteered to come to Iraq (I know my mom has). The two main reasons are the mission and the people.

I have been in the military for 17 years. I have never had more job satisfaction than during the times I was deployed (South Korea was close because the circumstances were very similar to a deployment). Most of the time when we are at our home stations we are training to do the deployed mission or working on organizing and equipping our units so they will be ready to do this mission. So here you get to do the things you have been training months or even years to do. I haven’t met anyone yet who prefers practice to the real thing. The simple truth too is that I am in the military and this is where the action is. I would feel I hadn’t done my part if I didn’t spend time in Iraq or Afghanistan sometime during the 7+ years our military has been operating in at least one of these two countries. When I am done with my career, I want to be able to say, “Yep, I was there.” I hope that makes sense and doesn’t sound bloodthirsty or like I’m looking for a thrill. I’m in the service and this is the place to be.

When you deploy, you leave behind family, friends, coworkers, and all that is familiar. You are thrust into a foreign environment and have to start anew. You quickly get to know your new coworkers and develop relationships. If you don’t, your deployment will be significantly more difficult. Someone told me recently that he uses the more personal forms of communication (face-to-face meetings and telephone) over here more often than he does back in the States. Due to our military’s rotation policy (most Airmen are here for 4 or 6 months), you have to develop work relationships quickly because the players change frequently. Over here rarely do you have years of knowing someone so that you can communicate effectively via e-mail. You need the people who you are deployed with to be part of your social network too. You can’t be with your family and friends, so those around you here become your support structure. We are brought together by our shared experience of being here and working together for the same purpose. Finally, you meet amazing people during deployments. Yes, they are serving their country and putting themselves in harm’s way. But I’m talking about how they go above and beyond while they are here. One person volunteered over 1,000 hours at the hospital. Other people have started or are running a charity to help out local children (check out People are amazing even doing the mundane. We have kids (18-to-20-year-olds are kids to me now) checking IDs at a checkpoint outside during a sandstorm who smile and are more courteous than people working in a store in the US. Now I’m not saying people don’t do wonderful things or aren’t great people back in the States. But over here it is more apparent because we are so close together and it is more impressive considering the circumstances.

Do I like making my mom worry, leaving my dog behind, or giving up the comforts of home? No. But I have no doubt I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I e-mailed this to a few people, but I figure my blog is a better way to get the word out about this wonderful program.


WHAT IS IT? Operation School Supplies is a KRAB Chapel sponsored humanitarian outreach project that puts bags of school supplies directly into the hands of local children and their teachers. It directly impacts the next generation of nation builders here in Iraq and shows them that we care about them and the importance of education so freedom can flourish.

WHAT IS THE NEED? In mid August, five (5) schools will be opening not too far from our gate. The Army, who takes the bags of school supplies out to the children, have requested one thousand (1000) bags of school supplies for the new schools (200 per school). We want to provide for all of these children, but unfortunately we do not have enough school supplies on hand to make that many school supplies bags.

HOW CAN I HELP? Attached is a flyer explaining the Operation School Supplies program, what items are needed, how people can donate supplies and how to mail them here to be part of this nation building program! Please send supplies soon so we can be ready for the five school openings in August! Be part of a program that directly impacts local children’s lives!

Thank you for your assistance! Without you there wouldn’t be an Operation School Supplies Program!

Fr. Mark P. Rowan, Ch, LtCol, USAF

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One month checkup (6 days late)

Last Monday marked 1 month for me in Iraq. I thought that a good time to review how I am doing personally. However, I traveled last Monday on short notice to Kirkuk and was there for 3 days. I've been busy catching up since I returned, so here is my 1 month and 6 day checkup.

Professionally. I really enjoy the challenges of my job. It is not clearly defined and I don't have anyone telling me specifically what to do, so I have a lot of latitude. I recently felt like I wasn't doing anything of consequence. Shortly after that I felt I had more work to do than I could possibly get done. I think overall I will be busy but there will be times when it will be slow, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. My biggest concern is not getting all the things done I want to do during this year. I had several things I wanted to complete during my first month here and some of them are still works in progress. I'll talk more in another post about what deploying means to me professionally.

Emotionally. I feel I am doing pretty well emotionally. Working in a one-person shop can be lonely at times. I typically have a bad habit of staying at my desk all day. So I've made a commitment to get out of my office everyday to either visit with other people in my building or go to other offices. I've stuck to that so far. I've spent time with friends outside of work a few times, probably more than I did in DC (in fact I have to leave shortly to meet up with friends to see the move "The Hangover"). I also recently got to see some very good friends that I hadn't seen in a while. I really enjoyed that. The important thing is for me to stay engaged with other people.

Spiritually. This is the one area that is not going as well as I would like. I am going to church every week and I'm regularly a Eucharistic Minister at mass. However, I don't feel as engaged spiritually as I would like. Sometimes I'm almost going through the motions. I haven't been consistent with reading the daily e-mail I receive through my Cursillo group. Most importantly, I haven't done any volunteer work since I have been here. For me, volunteering is putting my faith into action, that has especially been true since I arrived in Virginia in 2006. There are two primary options for volunteering, the hospital and the fellowship center next to the chapel. I've inquired about volunteering at the hospital, but I haven't heard back from them. I need to pursue that more aggressively, I know I'll be happier if I do.

Physically. I'm feeling good and getting into shape. I avoided the crud (cold/flu like feeling) that many people get when they first arrive, so that was good. I like the challenge of the CrossFit program (I'm still sore from Friday's workout) and plan on sticking with it. I want to get back into running and swimming. I just need to get off my butt and get started. I have a goal of completing an Olympic distance triathlon (1km swim, 40km bike, 10km run) while I am here (still need to get a bike). Except for a few meals, I'm sticking with my vegetarian diet. I could still eat healthier though by laying off the fried foods like onion rings. I'm looking forward to being a lean, mean, (not really) fighting machine when I leave here.

Overall, I would say it has been a very good first month. I'm looking at my time here as if it was any other assignment, so I'm not counting the days or focused on when I'm leaving. Just trying to do the best I can each day. I don't plan on doing these checkups each month, but I'm sure I'll do at least one or two more.

Thanks to all of you and everyone who has and continues to support me and the rest of our service members over here. That means more to us than you will ever know. God bless.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

VIP Visit

We had some very important visitors last weekend, NCAA football coaches. The head coaches for Ohio State (boo!), UCLA, Wake Forest, Texas, and Mississippi were here, but the only one that really matters is Coach Troy Calhoun from the Air Force Academy. The coaches visited the hospital and Security Forces Group before going to one of the rec centers for an autograph session. I went there and was able to speak with Coach Calhoun for a few minutes. He is a very humble person and just loves coaching the Academy cadets. He is a grad (Class of '89) and I'm glad he is our coach. He autographed an AFA t-shirt for me (no, that's not me in the picture with him). I'm glad I got to meet him. You can read an article by our Public Affairs pros about the visit here. This is another example of the many activities going on here.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I previously told you about my CHU, so now let me tell you about my housing community and the base. There are multiple housing areas on base, I don’t know exactly how many or how big they are. The base has over 25,000 people, so obviously there is enough housing for at least that many people. Within the housing communities, the CHUs are organized into pods. There is nothing special about a pod, it is just a way of organizing the CHUs. For example, I live in B-32. Our housing community has a town square area. Within that area is our housing office, chapel, BX (a small store), gym, recreation center, drop off laundry service, do-it-yourself laundromat, barber shop, Subway, cyber café, coffee shop, library, and muscle therapy (aka, massage). The bigger places, such as the gym and chapel, are semi-permanent facilities. Some of the other facilities, such as the Cyber Café and Subway, are in trailers. The gym has everything you could want; there are two rooms full of aerobics machines, a room full of weight machines, a room of free weights, and a general-purpose fitness room, which is where my CrossFit class is. Outside the gym are three basketball courts and two sand volleyball courts. The rec center has pool tables, two large-screen TVs for watching movies, a video game area with multiple consoles, and tables where they regularly host card tournaments. I haven’t gone to muscle therapy yet, although I thought about it after straining my neck during CrossFit. Other than a dining facility, you could easily spend all your free time in the housing community.

The base itself is quite large. There are two other gyms similar to ours. There is also an outdoor Olympic-size swimming pool with a 10-m platform, an indoor swimming pool, and a stadium. Apparently this base was used for training by the Iraqi Olympics team. There are two other BXs, both bigger than the one in my housing community, and rec centers. Each BX has a food court area (Pizza Hut, BK, etc.) and additional specialty stores such as an electronics store and a gift store. There are at least four dining facilities. I’m not sure of the exact number because there are four official DFACs, but I know of other chow halls on base too. There is a movie theater that seats several hundred people and shows first-run movies for free. I have seen “Star Trek,” “Terminator,” and “Night at the Museum 2” since I have been here. The food at the Turkish restaurant on base is quite good and a nice alternative to the DFACs, although it is hard to beat free food and plenty of it. An Iraqi bazaar where merchants from the local area can sell their wares just opened today. Not only does that benefit us, it helps the locals get a business started.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a hospital on base that does amazing things for anyone who needs it. I was at a brief yesterday where two military doctors, one AF and one Army, talked about two locals they treated for gunshot wounds to the face. The doctors showed us x-rays of the damage the bullets caused (basically one side of each man’s face was destroyed), pictures of the surgeries (definitely not for people with queasy stomachs), and then after pictures of the reconstructive surgery. Wow! I hate to think what life would have been like for those two men if our doctors had not been here. There are stories like that from the hospital on a regular basis.

The bottom line is we are well taken care of here, from security to our health to our mental well-being. All of those things enable execution of the various missions on the base, whether it is flying, moving equipment and people, or anything else. The US military, especially the Air Force, learned that if you take care of the people, the job gets done. That is especially true when deployed overseas. All of these services make it easier to take of everything from the basics, such as eating, to recharging your batteries so you can work your next shift. If you are bored here, it is your own fault.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More Pics from My ECP Visit

Here is our group walking on the road away from the gate. You can pick me out in the pictures because I am the one wearing a leather shoulder harness.

On either side of the T-walls (the large concrete barriers) are farmers' fields. Grapes are being grown in this one.

We are at the end of the road talking about the local area. The village across the road (over my left shoulder) used to be the officer and NCO housing for the base when it was run by the Iraqi Air Force.

Security is not only about protecting our people, but also keeping Iraqi civilians safe. So this sign, and others like it, are there to ensure there aren't any misunderstandings.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

It’s Not the Humidity, It’s the Heat

Some have asked about the weather here. In a word, it’s hot. For a second word, it’s dry. For the next several months, we won’t see a drop of rain. The predicted temperatures for today through Monday are 100/68 (68 is the lowest temp I’ve seen in my 3 weeks here), 104/75, and 106/79. Although it gets cool at night, by 0800 it is in the 90s. Don't feel sorry for me though. My CHU (containerized housing unit) is well air-conditioned and I have an air conditioner in my office that I can adjust the temperature for and turn on/off. Because of the kind of work I do, about the only times I am exposed to the heat is going to/from work, meetings, and meals. The people who take the brunt of the heat are the Security Forces (SF, aka police), aircraft maintainers, airfield operators, construction, and others like that. They deserve credit for getting the mission done under these conditions.

The other day I had the opportunity to visit the base’s East ECP (entry control point), basically a base gate. This entrance is used by the local nationals (LNs, we have an acronym for everything) who need to come on base either to work or visit the Air Force Theater Hospital (As an aside, our hospital does an awesome job taking care of our troops, the locals, and even the enemy. The day I visited the ECP, a 5-month old was brought to the hospital because he wasn’t breathing properly. They resuscitated and took x-rays of the baby and we saw the family leaving as we were coming back on base). I spent an hour walking around seeing how our SFs provide base security and process people. I was VERY impressed. I’m grateful the men and women of SF are there. It is hot and dangerous work. Because of the threat, they have to constantly wear their body armor and helmet. By the end of my hour touring the ECP, I was soaked to the bone with sweat. Kudos, and prayers, to them and all the Airmen, Soldiers and Marines who are patrolling in the cities, villages, and countryside.

I said it is dry, but I should also say it is dusty. The dust gets everywhere. Sometimes the sun looks more like the moon because of all the dust in the air (makes for beautiful sunsets though). My green boots now look tan. We are told to clean our air conditioner filters weekly because of it. It does rain here though, from October/November through March/April. And you know what happens when you add rain to dirt, you get mud. Apparently it gets so muddy here that you have to take an extra pair of shoes with you everywhere so you can change into clean ones when you go into a building. We even have something called MudCon (mud condition). When MudCon is in effect, vehicles must be sprayed down with pressure washers any time they are going near where aircraft operate. That way they don't drop mud near an aircraft and the aircraft then sucks it up into its engine. It is definitely never dull here. :)

I find that I’m adjusting to the weather. Last week I wasn’t feeling well. I went outside into the heat (probably high 90s at that time) and immediately felt better. Also, I find I don't start sweating as soon or as much when I am outside. But I still get to work in air conditioned comfort, so slap me if you ever hear me complaining about the weather.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

17 years and 1 day

Normally, as the calendar approaches 27 May, I think back to my graduation from the Air Force Academy on 27 May 1992. It didn't click at all this year. Last night as I was eating dinner at the DFAC (I was told it stands for Dining Facility; I assumed each letter stood for a word, such as Dining Facility All Conditions or some other military jargon), this year's graduation was being broadcast on the Pentagon Channel. Riveting television for sure. Watching this year's class graduate reminded me of my graduation. The Vice President as the commencement speaker and presiding official. Graduates' names being read, squadron by squadron. Graduates saluting the VP, then each other, and then hugging at the bottom of the platform. The beautiful weather.

Okay, well not so much that last part. We had a driving, bordering on freezing rain the day of our graduation. The weather was so bad the VP couldn't land in Colorado Springs, but instead flew into Pueblo and was driven up, which takes over an hour. All the graduates, family, and friends were waiting, in the rain, during this time. I think all of us were soaked to the bone and frozen by the time the ceremony started. The VP gave a long (and boring) speech on family values. This was during his public spat with Candice Bergen over her TV character, Murphy Brown, becoming a single mom. The Academy uniform for graduation includes white pants. You could clearly tell what color underwear people were wearing when they went up for their diplomas. I don't think there has been a louder cheer for when the last squadron, my squadron, was announced. In the picture of me shaking hands with the VP, he is turned away and talking to the cadet holding an umbrella for him. Thanks. The traditional flyover by the AF demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, was cancelled for only the second time in the history of the Academy. If nothing else, it was memorable.

Despite all that, I am very grateful for that day and all my family and friends who sat through it to support me. I am also grateful for the intervening 17 years and all the support I have received during them. I firmly believe each military assignment is what you make of it. Some have been better than others, but there is something good about all of them. I feel blessed by the places I've traveled, the experiences I've had, and the people I've met. Okay, I better stop before I get too sappy. Not to mention, I'm not done with this career yet. There is still more good to come.

Okay, that didn't really have anything to do with being in Iraq, but I warned you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Post 1, but not Day 1

It took me a while to set this up and find out I could do it while at work. It is somewhat difficult to get on the Internet outside of work, so I couldn't do this if I couldn't post at work.

For those of you I haven't been updating, let me catch you up. I arrived in Iraq on 8 May after leaving the US on 3 May (I stopped in Qatar for a few days). The guy I replaced greeted me at the terminal and helped me get settled in. We had a week of overlap, so more than enough time for him to hand the reins over to me. Yes it is hot and dusty here, but you get used to it. I've been told a lot of people develop respiratory problems here, but so far (knock on wood) I haven't had any problems.

Let me run you through a typical day of mine. I wake up at 0530 (military time, it's just easier). I go to the gym to do CrossFit. I love CrossFit because it changes everyday and it kicks my butt. After my workout, I go back to my room to shower and get ready for work. I go to the chow hall (they're called DFACs here; nope, I don't know what that stands for) and grab breakfast. I'll usually get it to go so that I can check e-mail and read intelligence reports while I eat. When I get to my office (I have my own office), I check work and personal e-mail to see if anyone loves me. Then I'll read reports and take care of any hot or quick tasks before going to the daily 0900 wing update. That runs about a half hour and it is back to my office. My meetings vary, but there aren't too many of them. Most of them are on Friday and Saturday, and there is even one on Sunday. Most people work 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. I work 7 days a week, but I have reduced hours on Saturday and Sunday so it is about equal to 6 days. We are here for the job, so might as well be at work. When I am in my office, I am usually reading messages, fighting the e-mail monster (it exists even here in Iraq), coordinating with people locally or even back in the States, or working on my list of to-do's. There is always plenty to do, so I am keeping busy and time is passing fast. I'll call it a day between 1800-2100, depending on what I have to do and how motivated I am. So that is a day in the life.

A little on the living conditions. When I first got here, I was in what is called a dry CHU (containerized housing unit). It is a roughly 10'x10' room with two bunk beds, two wall lockers, two night stands, and a few other odds and ends. Dry means it doesn't have running water. So I had to walk to another trailer to go to the bathroom and yet another to take a shower. This past weekend though I moved into a wet CHU. I still have my own room, but I share a bathroom with another guy. It is wonderful not having to get dressed and walk outside when I have to go to the bathroom or take a shower. My new CHU also has a single queen-sized bed instead of the bunk beds, only one wall locker but it also has a closet, a desk, and a recliner. It is also much bigger than the other room. I get the better room because of my rank and because I'm here for a year. I'm grateful.

Many of you know that I have been a vegetarian for the past 3+ months. I have been able to maintain it, but it has been difficult. The DFAC near me is small and has limited food choices. I find myself eating too many grilled cheese sandwiches and onion rings. If I drive farther (I have a Ford F-150 to drive around--boo Ford, but yeah I've got my own set of wheels), I can go to a larger DFAC that has more vegetarian options. Still, I'm thinking I may eat vegetarian most of the time but have meat (but never red meat) now and then. I'm concerned about getting enough protein since I don't have access to soy or tofu products here. I figure I need the protein with the workout program I am doing. Separate from the vegetarian issue, the food tastes good and they serve you too much of it. Also, dessert is available at every meal. I need to workout just so I don't gain weight.

There is more I could say but it is dinner time so I'll save it for another post.