Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Final Week

Yep, this is my last week in Iraq. There were times I thought this moment would never come, but now I'm amazed it is here. I am definitely ready though. We talk about running all the way through the finish line. I think I got a leg cramp last week. Three days in a row I was bone tired. My motivation is also seriously lacking. I'm trying to stay focused on the things I have to get done this week.

I was asked if I will miss this place. I won't miss being here, but there are aspects of it I will miss.

First and foremost, the people. The people are not much different from those I work with back in the Pentagon, but the shared experience of being here changes things. Last night was a perfect example. I finished my day by having dinner with my State Department friends. One of their translators is an Iraqi-born woman whose family owns a restaurant in Arizona. She is an amazing cook. She made a huge spread of food for the State group, a reporter and cameraman from Fox News, and me. We enjoyed some delicious Iraqi food and great conversation. That type of experience isn't unique to here, but I appreciate it more when deployed because it is a nice escape from being here.

The job. The sad truth is, as a member of the military, working in a combat zone is what I train and prepare for throughout my career. I'm certainly not a warmonger, but over here I see a direct application of what I do and immediate results. I've received a lot of positive feedback lately, so I feel I made a difference here. I don't get the same job satisfaction at the Pentagon. This is one of the main reasons I volunteered to deploy to Iraq. For lack of a better phrase, this is where the action is and I wanted to come here to do my part.

The simple life. When I was back in the States in February, I was just blown away by all the options us Americans have, whether it's shopping, eating, things to do, or whatever. There is something to be said for a more simplistic lifestyle. I'm not talking Walden Pond simple here, but less distractions, less noise (okay, other than the frickin' F-16s taking off, someone please make them stop! sorry), less commercialism. The lack of options draws people together and makes it easier to focus on things such as staying in shape.

So while I will happily say goodbye to Iraq next week, in some ways I will look back fondly on my time here

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Out in the Real Iraq

Last week I was able to go off base into a couple of local villages for the first time. Being an agricultural area, the people here live pretty simply. So what I saw is much different than what someone in the Baghdad area would see. Not surprisingly, walking through the villages reminded me of being in Africa. This area was not favored by Saddam Hussein, so they have mostly dirt roads, inconsistent electricity, and lack clean water. The houses are mostly mud and brick construction with mud or cinder block walls separating yards, although there are some places nicer than others. I saw a building that was bombed by Coalition Forces back in 2003 and looks like nothing has been done with it since.

People came out and saw us as we walked around. You will occasionally get people who will give you a dirty look, but most seem happy to see us. Kids come up to us to shake our hands and ask for money, candy, or toys. Unfortunately, we taught them to do that when we gave handouts as what we thought was a goodwill gesture. That is symbolic for what is happening at the local government level. The Iraqis want us to solve their problems by telling people what to do, throwing money at it, or doing another construction project. We are trying to get them to develop Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems by working within their own political and budgetary system. Those systems aren't working very well yet though, so I am sure it is very frustrating for the Iraqis. Building a democracy is tough work and will take many years. I hope Iraq continues down that path and I wish them well.

The first day I went out was to see a local government in action. We parked our MRAPs (the huge armored trucks) next to the town hall and walked in. Some of the guys stayed there to attend the city council meeting while I went with another group to walk around town. We were escorted by several soldiers who ensured no danger came our way, so you don't need to worry mom (I know it is pointless to say that). Our first stop was to see a local police officer. One of the guys with me works with the local police and judges, so he talked with the Iraqi police officer about various cases they are working. He promised to provide any info he received about a couple of guys we are looking for and we promised to look for evidence to help build the case on someone the Iraqis have in jail, pretty normal police work. The next stop was to see the judge. The courthouse is not like we think of courthouses. The judges have offices where they hear evidence and make their rulings. Being the important Americans, we were escorted past men and women waiting to make their case before the judge. My friend had never met this judge, so mainly it was a social call. The judge even had chai (hot tea) brought in for us. My friend told us later that it is unusual for a judge to do that. We left the courthouse and went back to the town hall. One of the soldiers went to a local store and brought back fresh flatbread and candy bars for us. The bread was delicious. I then went into the council room to watch the rest of the meeting. I didn't have anyone to translate the discussions for me, but it didn't look much different than a city council meeting you would see in the States. I don't know if that is a good thing or if I should feel sorry for the Iraqis. After the meeting, we returned to our MRAPs and went back to the base.

The next day a group of us accepted a mayor's invitation to have lunch at his house. It was an opportunity for us to have a local, home-cooked meal and having the Americans at his house gives him wasta (basically, power). We piled into the MRAPs again and drove out to his village. The MRAPs are too big for some of the local roads, so we parked and walked about half a mile. Again people were out and the kids came up to us and walked with us. Not surprisingly, the mayor had a very nice house. He had a gated driveway and a very green front lawn. The mayor came out to greet us and introduced his children to us. The whole time we were there, we only saw men and children (boys and girls). The women remained in a different part of the house, which is traditional. There were also other local politicians and businessmen there (again, all about the wasta). We went inside into a traditional room for visitors. Here are one of the other guys and I sitting in there.

We socialized for about an hour before tables were brought in. The Iraqis have an interesting way of eating. At one end of the tables, the men set up one group of food that included lamb, lamb in rice with fried noodles and peanuts, fish, soup, vegetables, and bread. There were three more groups like that. Here is the group that was by me:

About 15 of us stood around the tables and just started digging in. We didn't sit down. We didn't have plates. We didn't have utensils (other than a spoon for the soup). You just grabbed food either by using the bread or with your bare hands. Three Iraqis across from me posed for a picture with one of the guys taking a bite of a piece of lamb. After the picture was taken, the guy put the half-eaten piece of lamb into the dish with the rest of the meat. I made sure I didn't pick any food from that side of the plate. All of us ate until we had our fill. The soldiers who escorted us, if they were brave enough, came in and got to eat also. Some of the men then cleaned up after us. We sat back down to continue socializing. Naturally, chai was offered. After being there about 3 hours, we posed for some pictures, said our goodbyes, and walked back to the MRAPs with of course the kids escorting us. It was great to get off base and just be able to relax with some local Iraqis.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter in the Land of Islam

I stole the title from the pastor's sermon during this morning's Sunrise Service. I decided to go to the Protestant service rather than mass because I figure how many times will I have the opportunity to attend an outdoor service while the sun is coming up over Iraq. Hopefully just this once. Despite the wind and the haze obscuring the rising sun, it was a beautiful service. I really enjoy the contemporary music they played. The pastor gave a great sermon on "He is risen." Maybe it's the Catholic in me, but I can't say I was that inspired by the "inspirational dance." Still it was well worth getting up at 5am to go. Afterward, the buddy I went with and I went to breakfast.

I've spent the rest of the day just relaxing. After breakfast I took a nap and got up in time to go to lunch. Some days you just have to be a bum. I have a meeting today, but I decided not to go into work. I worked every other day--Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and even Groundhog Day--but I'm not going to work on this, the holiest day of the year. Although I'm not sure blogging and eating a chocolate bunny rabbit are the best ways to honor the resurrection of our Lord either. Oh well, Happy Easter!

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Taste of Iraq

I haven't had the opportunity to eat in a local restaurant or at an Iraqi's house yet, although I hope to before I leave. However, I did get to eat some authentic Iraqi food the past few days. On Thursday, two friends of mine went to an Iraqi restaurant that is off base. They had leftovers and shared them with me. There was shaved lamb, Iraqi pickles, something like pico de gallo, sautéed peppers, a rice dish, and, the staple of any Iraqi meal, pita bread. We made kebabs, aka sandwiches, with all the fixings. Fantastic. One of my friends, Sara, kept tearing off pieces of bread, picking up lamb with them, and then putting hummus on top. Delicious, but she kept giving them to me and pretty soon I was stuffed. Although the DFAC food is good, this was wonderful and a much appreciated change of pace.

I was invited by the same friends to join them for lunch at their office yesterday. Sara is well known for being a fantastic cook. She was born and grew up in Iraq before moving to the US. She started cooking Saturday night and finished about 1pm Sunday. The spread she laid out for the seven of us there was of Thanksgiving proportions. She made leg of lamb plus lamb meet for kebabs. There were two different rice dishes, potato curry with meatballs, tomato and pepper salad, hummus, and, of course, bread. We finished with traditional Iraqi chai (hot tea). This was by far the best meal I've had here. She did all this with only a two-burner hotplate and microwave. Amazing.

So I'm certainly not hurting for good food over here. It's a good thing I'm working out regularly.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Front Lawn

You thought I was joking before when I said I would talk about my front lawn, didn't you? Nope, I even have proof:

Okay, so it would get me kicked out of any homeowners association in America, but at least it is green. So much of this place is brown, gray, or some variation of both of them. There is concrete everywhere, such as the T-walls that are at the top of this picture. People paint their unit symbol or other designs on them just to break up the scenery. So something green, anything green, is worth celebrating. The area around the base is not nearly so brown. We are located in the breadbasket of Iraq. The surrounding area is all farmland. One of the most popular crops in this area is grapes. I've been lucky that I've been able to fly off base in a helicopter, so I've been able to see all the green that surrounds us. Here is an example of what I'm talking about:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dodgeball: A True Old Dog Story

Yesterday we knocked off early from work to spend some team building time hurling rubber balls at each other at high speeds. Or as it is more commonly known, dodgeball. Over 20 of us squared off on a basketball court with about 10 balls. Being a believer of leading by example, I was promptly hit by a ball in the first game, thus making me the first person eliminated. Adding injury to insult, I jammed my thumb when I tried to catch the ball. Thankfully it was on my left hand, so I was able to spend another hour being pummeled and occasionally pummeling someone else (don't worry mom, I didn't hurt anyone). It was a lot of fun and quite the workout.

After the adrenaline started to wear off, I realized my thumb was swelling up and really frickin' hurt. Another guy and I went to the chow hall for dinner. I put together a salad and sat down to eat it. Only one problem: the salad dressing is served in those individual-serving foil packets. Try opening one without using your left thumb. Not so easy, is it? After a couple of minutes of wrestling with it (because I'm too stubborn to ask my buddy for help), I finally got it open just enough to squeeze the dressing out. The time since then has been a lesson in evolution. (Sidebar: I'm a Christian but I believe in evolution. I believe it is God's hand at work.) I now truly appreciate how important opposable thumbs are. I've struggled with getting dressed, reading a book, being a Eucharistic minister (think about wiping the chalice with the purificator), and numerous other mundane tasks. I think working out tomorrow morning is out of the question. At least until my thumb turns back to a normal human color and has most of its former functionality. Despite the thumb, I had a good time at dodgeball and would do it again (once I forget how the rest of my body aches too).

I'll close this entry asking you to remember the Duranso family. Al Duranso--husband, father, and grandfather--passed away recently. The Duransos lived down our street when I was growing up and are related to us on my mom's side of the family. Having lost my dad, I have an idea of what they are experiencing. I also know that I was comforted by the love and support we received from our family and friends. So I ask that you keep the Duransos in your prayers during this difficult time for them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patty's Day!

Hope everyone is having/had a wonderful St. Patrick's Day. I myself had a great day. I woke up at 5:10 to join my friends for a 5K run the base was having. Unfortunately I didn't get a t-shirt, but I had a great time anyways. The eight of us who went to the run together went out for breakfast afterward. When I got back to my room, I goofed off for a little bit before going into work late. Nothing special, good or bad, happened at work. At the end of the day, another guy and I did a radio interview with a woman in the Florida Panhandle for a radio station in Iowa. If you figure it out, let me know because I was confused. We had a good time with it. We talked about how the State Department, Army, and Air Force are working together to work with the local Iraqis to make this area better. I look forward to hearing how it turns out. I'll post the link once it's available online. So even though there was no beer (green or otherwise) involved, it was still a very good St. Patty's Day.

For those who didn't see it on my Facebook page, I stole this from Fr. Chuck's blog, the priest at my home parish in Alexandria, VA, and he got it from a mutual friend of ours.

Paddy was driving down the street in a sweat because he had an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking place. Looking up to heaven he said, ‘Lord take pity on me. If you find me a parking place I will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of me life and give up me Irish Whiskey!’ Miraculously, a parking place appeared. Paddy looked up again and said, ‘Never mind, I found one.’

Monday, March 15, 2010

Holy Cow, Yes It's a New Blog Entry

As my time in Iraq winds down, I thought what do I wish I had done during my time here. I decided it was reading and writing more (I'm feeling pretty good about the amount of arithmetic I've done). So in order to be more prolific (seeing as how I haven't written in almost 2 months, this paragraph already qualifies as "more prolific"), I decided I shouldn't wait to write an epic but instead write shorter pieces more often. Here is hopefully the start of something.

The big news today is I submitted my 2 weeks' notice to the general. No, this doesn't mean I'll spend my remaining time in Iraq kicking back at the pool drinking Mai Tais. Although that may be good preparation if my next assignment is Hawaii. What it means is I told him I need to quit one of the two jobs I've been doing for the past 5 months. I've been stressing lately that I've been messing up times two. If I tried to concentrate on one, the other suffered, and vice versa. So I did poor at both of them. The general told me I could quit the one job when he gave me the second one, so I only have my own stubbornness to blame. The rest of the day went great once I had that load off my shoulders. I also feel a lot better about my remaining time here.

I still plan on writing about the rest of my African trip. If nothing else, it'll be something to remind me when what's left of my memory is gone. Until then, I'll write about deep, introspective topics such as my front lawn. Until next time, cheers!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Africa: The Beginning

My first stop in Africa was Johannesburg. The airport is nice but a madhouse. When I walked into the main terminal, there was the usual large crowd of people waiting. There were also plenty of people offering taxi or tour services. I wasn't sure when the government would get me there, so I didn't even have a hotel room reserved yet. I stopped at the tourist information desk and asked the lady where she recommended. I looked at the list she gave me and chose the $100 a night place over the $300 a night ones. It wasn't especially fancy, but it was very nice and had a great (and free!) breakfast. It was located in a gated community among some very nice houses. So it was a safe place but nothing was within walking distance.

While at the tourist information desk, I also asked about tours. I had hoped to go to Kruger National Park, but I was told it was a 2-day trip and I didn't want to use all my time in Joburg for that. So then I looked at options in and around Joburg. I eventually decided on a driving tour of Joburg and Soweto, a visit to the Apartheid Museum, and a trip out to the area known as the Cradle of Humankind. The tours were a bit pricey (over $300 for 2 days), but I was getting personal service by a trained tour guide driving me around in his car. Desmond (that's him below) was extremely knowledgeable about the area and its history and could speak 10 of the 11 languages commonly used in the area. I learned a lot from him as we drove around the city. I was also glad he was the one driving. I wasn't ready to drive on the left side of the road in a city of over 9 million people.

Day 1 was spent driving around Joburg and Soweto. Joburg is, at best, a mess. Many businesses left the city in the early 90s after apartheid was lifted because of fear the country would descend into anarchy. So the downtown area is a collection of abandoned buildings. People from other African countries are now squatting in them, have set up stalls along the streets, and walk everywhere with no regard for vehicle traffic. There are some areas of downtown that are flourishing because the government has cleaned them up as part of a concerted effort to look good for the 2010 World Cup. Still, most of the businesses are in the northern suburbs now. Soweto, a township of Joburg, is another area the government is cleaning up. Desmond grew up in Soweto, so he knew the area well. First he showed me a 4-room house that was built by the government and is the most common lodging for the locals. Our next stop was what used to be the most common lodging for locals, a shantytown (now euphemistically called an informal settlement). Even here the government is doing what it can to make conditions better by providing electricity and water delivery. After that we went to a Catholic church, the only church that remained open during the Soweto Uprising of 1976, an important step in the fight against apartheid. You can still see bullet holes in the ceiling from when police went into the church to break up peaceful gatherings. Our last stop of the day was the Apartheid Museum. I was amazed how they justified the reasons for their policies and the measures they took to keep them in place. There was a section on Nelson Mandela. He is quite a man to go through what he did and still believe in a non-violent solution. I am inspired by stories like his, Gandhi's, and MLK's. It was a long but very interesting day.

The second day was a drive out into the countryside to visit an excavation site and museum that are part of the Cradle of Humankind. The drive out from Joburg was about an hour and a half through very pretty countryside. Desmond continued educating me on South Africa. We went to Sterkfontein Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the so-called Cradle of Humankind (I say so-called because Kenya also claims to be the Cradle). Many fossils have been found in the caves, including Mrs. Ples, the earliest human ancestor fossil found. Walking through the caves was a good time. I joined up with a group of accountants on a field trip. The ladies were giggling anytime we had to crawl under or over rocks. I'm surprised some of them made it, it was 200 feet down into the caves and not your basic walk in a park. The next stop was Maropengo, where other fossils have been found and there is a museum about the Cradle of Humankind. The museum has many hands-on displays and would be a great place for kids, but not so great for adults. Another benefit to having someone else drive--I slept on the ride back to Joburg. I took it easy the rest of the day, even going clothes shopping at a mall near my hotel.

All-in-all, Joburg was a good way to ease into my vacation. Two days was plenty of time. The only reason I would go back would be to see Kruger. Next stop: Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls.