27 May 2010

Sun tea, iPods, and other assorted things

Life in the TOC (tactical operations center) can be very slow.  First off, the TOC is basically just a glorified office with radios and lots highspeed Army computer and technology things (by highspeed, I mean you could pick them up at Best Buy for $49 and they would actually work).  While there is always something to do, it can be on the monotonous side and it closely resembles the movie Office Space.  Instead of the TPS reports we have the PERSTAT (a list of where everyone is).  We hear about the PERSTAT throughout the day and attempt to work through the various reasons why it doesn't have the correct cover sheets or doesn't match the memo that came out.  Occasionally important people come in and we have to yell special phrases and stand in certain positions until they order us to stop.  I suppose it is humorous through an outside perspective.

In order to keep ourselves from devolving any more rapidly than we already are, we find various ways to amuse ourselves.  Recently, I have found the lovely temperatures in Iraq are perfect for making tea in the giant, dirty bottled water containers we get.  With the climate here, it's possible to have it steeped to perfection in about 15 minutes and through the miracles of refrigeration we can knock it down to about room temperature in about 24 hours.  It's exciting because its a deviation from water, water with half a packet of Gatorade, or water with a full packet of Gatorade.  We also have Rip-Its a Red Bull knock off, but I have to slow down on those as I think I start to annoy people after 3 back-to-back.  It's probably not exciting to anyone outside of here, but the prospect of being able to do anything that even slightly resembles cooking is entertaining.

As far as the iPods go, I have heard more Lady GaGa on this deployment than I thought physically possible.  Admittedly, she occupies some space on my iPod as well, but she gets a lot of play time and invokes much thoughtful discussion (usually involving her gender or how she looked in specific videos).  The unit that we replaced was generous enough to gift us iPod speaker docs, and I don't know what we would have done with out them.  The TOC runs 24 hours shifts and the iPods really never stop playing (they do switch as different shifts come on to accommodate varying music tastes).  It's interesting the mixes that get played as well as the common ground that everyone agrees to.  Bob Marley seems to be the median.

Care packages have started to come in.  Our parent unit gave us several boxes sent by an elementary school in California.  The TOC is now decorated with a barrage of Policy Memos, letters from school children, shift rosters, maps, radio frequency lists, and other assorted important paperwork.

That is all for now...

26 May 2010

Sometimes Awkward Phase

Now that the Company is for the most part together in one place we begin a somewhat awkward phase of the deployment.  Learning to live here and learning to live with each other for the long haul.  For me at least the realization that we are now in Iraq and this is our lives for the next however many months is somewhat daunting.  Not too mention that (as much as I genuinely love everyone here), we must deal with being "married" to the people we deployed with.

While bonds are certainly strong in situations such as these, it can also be tested while everyone learns to live in even closer proximity to one another.  So far everything is going well in that department aside from the occasional bickering.  It's hard not to be frank and honest with people that we eat with, sleep within slapping distance of, share meals with, and go on shopping excursions with.  Occasionally we (okay I) come off to blunt or just have a bad day (picture of my bad day poster forthcoming).

We have much better living conditions now compared to the open bay barracks of Wisconsin and the festival tents in Kuwait.  We now live in 10' X 10' CHUs (containerized housing units).  Thankfully, I have a great CHUmie and we don't work together directly so it's not likely that we will end up in some horrific homicide situation.  The work spaces are still somewhat confined and we work 12 hours shifts so those of us that work together see a lot of each other.  It always amazes me that we can continually generate new topics of conversation during the waiting part of "hurry up and wait".

As far as the people go here, again I think they are all great.  We have already been through a lot together and our first weeks on the ground have shown us that our strength as a unit will ultimately affect our personal resilience.  Having been through this process before, I know that it's much like a family.  We will all have our falling outs but ultimately we are in this as a team.  It's all a process as a Reservist to slowly let go of some of our individuality in order to make sure that everyone is taken care of.  I think in many ways, being here is much easier than being the family member left at home because we have a stable set of stand-ins for those that we left behind.  They may not be as attractive and they are a lot weirder, but we know that they will be there each day (mostly because they lack few other options).

Until later...

25 May 2010

A Day in the Life of...

After learning from the comments on the last post (and Facebook comments) that people really are interested in the mundane details of our lives here, I have decided to attempt to share some of those details.

Much of my day consist of staring into a computer (well actually two - one for secret stuff and one for non-secret things).  I am largely confined to the 5 foot radius around my computer, but occasionally I am fortunate enough to attend various meetings (by occasionally, I mean at a minimum daily).  All of my work involves coordinating training activities and the various components of actual missions.  It seems relatively simplistic and straightforward, but the Army is extremely efficient in creating bureaucracy and inflicting it upon people.  Not to mention the overall mission structure is complex and there is a lot of coordination that must take place due to the fact that our trucks and soldiers now carry more electronics than a BestBuy (I was going to say Radio Shack but do they even sell electronics anymore?).

While I very much enjoy my actual job, I spend a large portion of my day yelling, complaining, and threatening people about the use of our civilian vehicle (referred to as a non-tactical vehicle or NTV in Army speak).  The NTV turns each day into a perverse game of capture the flag in which everyone tries to get the vehicle and obscure its where-abouts while every third person who walks by my desk ask where it is.  Despite a number of systems put into place to keep track of these vehicles (we only own 2) it continues to prevail as one of my more frustrating issues (this along with people not filling the water refrigerator back up).

Other than that life here is somewhat surreal.  Every office and living areas is contained within large concrete walls and it's like living within a giant maze.  Somehow we have all figured our way around, but navigating involves memorizing a series of landmarks in order to find the correct concrete cube containing your destination.  I get lost trying to find my room every other day.  We walk everywhere or take public transit (there is actually a good bus service here and we own a bus for the company).  The buses are small little Japanese creations that somehow fit as many people as a normal bus in like 1/4 of the space.  The roads are really bumpy and torn up (which is somewhat of a travesty considering we are horizontal engineers and horizontal engineers build and repair roads).

Until later...

23 May 2010

And I'm Back

I've been thinking about what and how to write in order to update people what's going on during this deployment, but it's not possible.  Accurate descriptions evade this experience for a variety of reasons.  One of those being OPSEC (or Army speak for operational security).  On a tangential note, I hate Army acronyms.  I suppose they are meant to be time saving devices, but seriously how can you save time when you spend more time explaining the acronym than it would have taken to actually utter the words which it abbreviates.  I digress.  It's difficult to explain what I see here because descriptions could endanger the lives of the people I work with as illustrations might provide clues as to which threads might unravel our defensive and offensive mechanisms.  Our trucks, the living areas, our water supplies... now describing seemingly inconsequential pieces of the larger picture of Iraq life might give away too much information.  I'm not trying to be paranoid, but it's a very fragile feeling to be here, outside the security of home.  Many people's lives balance precariously on pieces of technology that the enemy... no, the terrorist...no, bad people... no, the other side needs very little information on in order to undermine.

Secondly, this place is depressing from many aspects.  It's an environmental travesty for one.  The entire base is littered with plastic, water bottles, wrappers, discarded pieces of scrap metal, worn vehicle parts, or abandoned defensive positions.  Oddly we don't really seem to care.  "Draw down" is the phrase of the day and aesthetics are most assuredly playing second fiddle.  We live in what feels to be a bubble (or a series of connected bubbles) in the middle of a desert.  Somehow despite the surroundings we manage to enjoy all the luxuries of the states (in terms of running water and food items).  Not that I'm complaining about the food or the showers but it's still depressing when you think of our ecological footprint here.

Other than that, it's difficult to figure out what we can write about and what we can't.  The stuff that filters out isn't all that interesting to talk about.  There are a lot of really powerful dynamics changing within the Army today, but most of them are difficult to understand from the outside.  The others are dangerous to get caught up in.  While it would be great to bring them into the public forum, that's not the nature of this beast.

I'm trying to figure out how to balance the limitations of what can be posted here against my need to show what the deployment is all about, but it's going to take some time.  Until then...

10 May 2010

Pictures thus far...

Here we are getting on the plane to start our trip to Iraq.  20+ hours of travel time just to Kuwait.

Here is the best picture I have of the Ziggurat in Ur (it's really close).  I will get a better one soon.  I tool this with my cell phone camera.  Why I still carry a cell phone that I can't get service on is beyond me.  Force of habit I guess.

09 May 2010

A Dusty Grey, Smelly Place

After a few days of flying.  Wandering around bases in Kuwait.  Lots of trying to find WiFi.  Lots more reading.  And a pretty vicious mosquito attack resulting in an oddly swollen hand (I look like I'm wearing a Hulk hand), I've finally arrived at my destination in Iraq.  It's dusty, somehow muddy, hot, and everything is surrounded by 20ft blast walls.  It's very difficult to get oriented as it's completely flat and everything moves from one group of walls to the next.  The ground is stained by salt everywhere and there is only sparse vegetation.  At times it seems that the ground, the horizon, the walls, buildings, and the sky are all just different shades of the same color.

We have a lot of work ahead over the next few days working to pick up on all the work habits of the unit we are replacing and assuming control of their projects.  Hopefully everyone is acclimated by now, but if they are anything like me it's hard not to be completely exhausted by all of this moving around.  I'll try to post some pictures soon.  Until then, Happy Mother's Day everyone!

08 May 2010

Food Rules - Book Review

I was admittedly somewhat skeptical when Michael Pollan’s Food Rules was released.  It seemed to be trendy, cliché, and just another manner of jumping on the local/organic bandwagon.  I say this being a complete fan of all of Pollan’s other works, but my impression from the publicity was that he had gone the way of many celebrities and was simply pushing a commercial product.  I was wrong.

I ran across a copy of Food Rules on a free bookshelf in Kuwait and picked it up out of a sense of curiosity.  It’s remarkably short (both in overall length and the amount of text), but it packs in a lot of information in terms of wading through what we should and shouldn’t consume.  Oddly enough he dispels volumes of ambiguity regarding diet choices without really saying anything definitive.  As he does in In Defense of Food, Pollan simply provides a loose set of guidelines regarding the food we eat.

I found the book at a great time as I have an opportunity to transform my diet for the better (I must say the desert is not the place to do this as the fluctuations in energy levels during the transition are a bit rough).  Pollan offers sage advice and doesn’t trap the reader into a set of overbearing dietary restrictions that take the fun away from food.  In fact, Food Rules does a lot to turn eating more into an adventure where the reader can become excited about the food they put on the table as well as the people they are eating it with.

In terms of writing style, Food Rules is an easy read.  It’s easy to read in a single sitting and it’s interesting enough to whip through.  The illustrations are well done and add a certain vividness to the text.  I recommend that you read it before your next trip to the grocery store as it allows you to feel empowered and informed about your food choices (as opposed to the overwhelming sense of confusion and frustration that usually goes along with the journey).

Cross Posted on LocalPlan.org

Gentlemen of the Road - Book Review

It’s been sometime sense I’ve finished a work of fiction.  Not for lack of trying, but for lack of getting into a really good story.  I happened upon Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road on a free bookshelf in Fort McCoy (this will develop into a theme at some point).  It was certainly the reintroduction to fiction that I needed.

Chabon provides a fast, paced and action-filled journey through the Khazar Empire as a moody, physician (Zelikman) and a weary African warrior (Amram) become unwillingly tangled in an adventure that doesn’t seem to end.  The book seems to have no intended direction instead following the lead of the characters who are guided by their past demons and desires to avoid further involvement in the affairs of others.

The already complex, lives of Amram and Zelikman descend into a tumultuous chain of events involving bloody battles, plundering, and the occasional coup upon the introduction of Filaq (a weak and defenseless prisoner whom they are charged to protect).  Filaq’s rather dubious origins and shifting connections to royalty manage to seal Amram’s and Zelikman’s fate and link them to an unavoidable destiny.

Chabon offers no shortage of plot twist in his beautifully descriptive short novel.  He drops the reader dead into the center of the Khazar Empire and builds the environment in which the characters reside as the story progresses.  Gentlemen of the Road hits the ground running leaving the reader to catch up with a story that has been ongoing for some centuries before the story picks up.

07 May 2010

Exploring Kuwait

So after enduring the heat for a couple of days, I am getting re-acclimated to desert life.  It's actually very nice weather until after midday and then with the wind it feels like someone is chasing us around with a hair dryer.  Kuwait is much different then Afghanistan in terms of what's available and how much money the Army has invested here.  When I was in Afghanistan, it was more or less a forgotten war.  Having seen trucks and equipment moving back from the Iraq border, I am beginning to think we will be in better shape this time.  We went on several convoys in Afghanistan in HMMWVs with cloth doors covered in sheet metal and sand bags on the floor in a vein attempt at deflecting blasts.  Everything I have seen on this deployment is fully up armored.

We went out and about on a firing range today and got to drive off the main base for a while.  Other than US convoys and other US Foward Operating Bases, there really wasn't much to see.  Just miles and miles of desert.  We are working on completing our last training requirements before venturing into Iraq. 

As I mentioned earlier, the weather is not horrible here.  As the sun sets, there is usually a nice breeze that calms things down and brings down the temperature quickly.  We had a brief lightning storm this evening, and right now the weather is perfect for walking around.

Very few people have gotten used to the time change, and unlike bases in the states, this base never sleeps.  There are several 24 hour activity areas (including a KFC, Starbucks, etc.).  As I write this some people are just waking up from naps and wandering off to see what they can get into.

I hope to have an address soon, but given the availability of everything here, I can't think of anything I would need sent.  There is always a huge selection of books, including new, best-sellers.  I am enjoying working my way through Michael Pollan's Food Rules at the moment (review forthcoming).

That's it for now.  If anyone has any questions, please post them in the comments and I will see what I can do to answer them.  One of the long-term goals of blogging about this deployment is to expose people to the behind the scenes and between the lines aspects of war (if you would call this that).

05 May 2010

And So It Begins...

So we've finally made the big move. After over 24 hours of traveling
we arrived in Kuwait (via Canada and Germany). It's not too hot yet as
we hit the ground around sunset, but we've been told to expect a hot
morning. The food in Kuwait was good and the accommodations in terms
of internet access and phones is much better than what we had in Fort
McCoy. This place has 24 hour food joints, multiple PXs, and pretty
much any recreational amenity you can ask for. We'll see how Iraq
compares in a couple of days.

I occupied my time on the flight with an autobiography of John Lennon,
a book on water and food shortages, copious amounts of caffeine, and
lots of sleep. I took some videos to show how exactly we occupy our
travel time and I'll attempt to post them soon. Other than that
things are good, everyone is safe, and everyone is happy to finally be
free of Fort McCoy.

Posted for Josh by Stephanie