Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Been there, done that, got the medal

I think I've finally caught up on all the work I procrastinated over the weekend. One of the good things about procrastinating is that today I discovered a new spreadsheet that had a lot of the information that I had been digging through other spreadsheets for... already in the right categories! It saved me hours of work! Maybe I should spend more time browsing and less time manipulating Excel. Although playing with numbers in Excel is a good distraction to keep me from having to use Powerpoint... Despite my chronic calendar watching, I was too busy yesterday to realize that it was my 30th consecutive day in Iraq. That qualifies me for a new medal to wear on my uniform: the Iraq Campaign Medal. It joins several other ribbons and medals I can wear to say that I've "been there, done that." Frankly, this was one medal I thought I would never wear. If all goes well, this will be the only medal I earn while over here (except for the end-of-tour award). I hope to avoid those sorts of medals that require valor and heroism. Not that I am not filled with valor and all that stuff, but it would mean things had gone really bad if I had to be heroic. I got more mail today! I was pleasantly surprsied to receive a letter from a Vietnam Vet who happened to find this blog while browsing, and is offering to send some magazines to the troops I work with. I'm sure they will love a break from the routine reading material (Stars and Stripes newspaper!) and it's great to see one generation of soldier taking care of another. Halfway through another week. Time's flying for me. Hopefully for eveyone else, too!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The grass is greener on the other side

I think I'm suffering the same fate as most people back home, trying to work on the Tuesday after a 3-day weekend. All the work that I put off over the last three days has come back to haunt me, so I'm still working late in the office trying to finish up. Or at least partially catch up so tomorrow won't be as ugly as today was. But I'll spare a few minutes to post about something amusing I see every day.

What do you see unusual in the below picture? Hint: it's green.

Did you say grass? Congratulations! You win a free trip Iraq to walk on the only lawn on the base.

I'm really not sure why they have grass growing there... almost every time I walk by there is someone watering it (you can see him in this picture, too). Perhaps it's the fact that it's located at the ROWPU (I think that means Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit) and they're trying to impress people at the purity of their product. Or maybe it's overflow that won't fit into the water tower. In any case, it's actually nice seeing green grass in the middle of a desert. Even if the temperature is 109.

I got my first "care package" today, a small envelope from my mom that only took 6 days to get here. Impressive! I think we're at the mail hub for the whole country... it comes here first. Your results may vary, of course.

The other news of the day is that they finally emptied my office of all the old electronic equipment (copiers, non-working TVs, etc.) that had been in here before. It's now a very large, and even somewhat clean, office. Now to begin decorating the walls...

Monday, May 29, 2006

A moment of remembrance

Happy Memorial Day. I actually made a comment to a friend at lunchtime about that saying, having been thinking all weekend about how solemn the occasion is supposed to be. I even got slightly annoyed at watching news coverage of people actually *gasp* having fun on Memorial Day. I just finished attending a very moving Memorial Day service here. Although I've attended similar services in the past, it gives a whole new meaning to hear people recount memories of their own leaders and fellow soldiers. At the end of the service, every individual had the opportunity to walk forward and place a flower at the base of the memorial and offer a salute. I did so with moist eyes, remembering not only the stories I have heard of those who have given their lives in the current war, but those, like my father, who have sacrificed their lives for freedom in wars past. But the chaplain's message during the service gave me perspective. Yes, the loss of those who have died is a moment of sadness, but it need not end there. They died protecting freedom, and freedom is spreading through the world. That is a cause for celebration. That is a reason to say "Happy Memorial Day." So please, take a moment today to quietly remember those who have died for freedom. And then, in their honor, please enjoy that freedom they so valiantly protected. Because freedom ain't free.
Back home now I know you're prob'ly sleeping, But over here it's the middle of the day. I finally found some time to write a letter, Sittin' here a half a world away. I heard about all them folks protesting, As if I really want this war. But that don't stop me from believing There're just some things worth fighting for. And if I die before you wake, I pray the world will take A good look at what God's given us. If we could only understand Everything is in His hands. All we need is a little faith and trust. I want you to know it ain't too high a price to pay If I die before you wake. Tell everybody that I miss them, and I can't wait to get back home. Until then, I'll serve my country and be proud to wear this uniform. And if I die before you wake, I pray the world will take A good look at what God's given us. If we could only understand Everything is in His hands. All we need is a little faith and trust. I want you to know it ain't too high a price to pay If I die before you wake. No, it ain't too high a price to pay if I die before you wake.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Bazaar Day

The weekend of half-work-days continues. After church this morning, I went shopping at the Iraqi Bazaar. On Saturdays and Sundays they allow some of the local nationals to come in (under escort, of course) and set up shop. They have a lot of the same items as the "official" concessionaires, but they are much more willing to bargain. They also have some items that can't be purchased at the exchange, such as DVD titles. For example, a 10-DVD set containing the first 5 seasons of the TV show "24" would have only cost me $45 if I had bought it. I'm wondering if Iraq has any laws about copyright infringement. On the way to the bazaar I passed by the outdoor pool, another relic of the old Iraqi air base. There was quite a bit of a party going on there, with music, people diving off the 3 and 5 meter platforms, a water volley-ball game, and people generally having a good time. It's sort of surreal seeing such an atmosphere in the middle of a military base in a war zone; certainly a detachment from reality. It was another hot day (106 again, I think) and I probably would have been tempted to join in if (a) I had a swimsuit, and (b) I didn't look scary in my swimsuit. I think I'm above the target age range for this type of party. I think I'll ask my wife to fix (a) but I'll stick to doing laps in the indoor pool. In a continuation of the Memorial Day weekend tradition I've carried through on in the last two posts, I'll close with some lyrics we sung at the service this morning.
My country,' tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride, from every mountainside let freedom ring! My native country, thee, land of the noble free, thy name I love; I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills; my heart with rapture thrills, like that above. Let music swell the breeze, and ring from all the trees sweet freedom's song; let mortal tongues awake; let all that breathe partake; let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong. Our fathers' God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing; long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light; protect us by thy might, great God, our King.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue

There's a little bit of a party atmosphere on the base this weekend. Granted, work still needs to be done, and those who have work to do are doing it, but it seems like everyone is being given some well deserved time off this weekend when their units can afford it. May being the national "Asian Pacific American Heritage Month," there was a celebration today which was essentially a luau, complete with kahlua pig and hula dancers. (Although in deference to local customs, wearing much more than the coconuts and grass skirts.) And if Polynesian music wasn't your style, then you could go to Toby Keith's concert.

The concert was set up in the stadium where, during Saddam's reign, the Iraqi national soccer team practiced and played. It was big enough to comfortably seat (or stand) the 2000 or so people who came for the performance, sponsored by the U.S.O.

While I'm not a huge country music fan, I was pleased to recognize more than half the songs. Toby started out singing how he'd "like to get down with my boys in Afghanistan and Baghdad city too / I am a red, white and blue blood graduate of Honkytonk U" and a few other songs which I didn't know, but quickly got into familiar territory when he told us that he was opening up several restaurants in Harrah's Casinos in several cities (including Las Vegas). They're named I Love This Bar and Grill (another song he performed) and the management has been instructed to offer a free meal and beer to soldiers who patronize the restaurants, filled with memorabilia from his many U.S.O. tours.

He finished up with several songs I know and enjoy, including Courtesy of the Red White and Blue, What Happens down in Mexico Stays in Mexico, the closing song A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action, and the encore, Whiskey For My Men and Beer For My Horses. But he got a standing ovation for one of his more famous songs, which I'll quote in its entirety in honor of Memorial Day and the heroic men and women that I have the honor of serving with now, and those who have gone before and will come after. Make sure you put out your flags this weekend.

I'm just trying to be a father, Raise a daughter and a son, Be a lover to their mother, Everything to everyone. Up and at 'em bright and early, I'm all business in my suit, Yeah, I'm dressed for success from my head down to my boots, I don't do it for money, there's still bills that I can't pay, I don't do it for the glory, I just do it anyway, Providing for our future's my responsibility, Yeah I'm real good under pressure, being all that I can be, And I can't call in sick on Mondays When the weekends been too strong, I just work straight through the holidays, And sometimes all night long. You can bet that I stand ready when the wolf growls at the door, Hey, I'm solid, hey I'm steady, hey I'm true down to the core, And I will always do my duty, no matter what the price, I've counted up the cost, I know the sacrifice, Oh, and I don't want to die for you, But if dyin's asked of me, I'll bear that cross with an honor, 'Cause freedom don't come free. I'm an American soldier, an American, Beside my brothers and my sisters I will proudly take a stand, When liberty's in jeopardy I will always do what's right, I'm out here on the front lines, sleep in peace tonight. American soldier, I'm an American, An American, An American Soldier

Friday, May 26, 2006

It's not as hot in the dark

The temperature got up to 106 today, hot enough for everyone to run their air conditioners again, and cause the inevitable string of power failures throughout the afternoon. I finally gave up and took some of the afternoon off (although the power was out at the movies too) and came back in to work later in the evening when it had cooled off (and demands for power were less.) I'm hoping this doesn't become a regular occurence as the summer progresses. Other than the difficulty in getting work done, it was otherwise a good day, as the weekend approaches. Tomorrow evening is the Toby Keith concert, and I'm debating whether I want to crowd into a stadium with thousands of people, or perhaps find a spot to enjoy the music from the periphery. I guess I'll find some friends who are going and go with the flow. There are some Memorial Day services being held here and there on the base this weekend, so I'll definitely find one to go to. Services like that are always a bit more emotional when you're closer to the war, and standing next to people that you know might not be here the next day becuase they are standing up for freedom. And with that thought, I'll close with the final verse of our national anthem.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand Between their loved homes and the war's desolation! Blest with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.” And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Today was a relatively uneventful work day, but an important milestone for chronic calendar watchers like me. The most important thing is that I got a pay raise! Today is the 18th anniversarry of my commissioning date. Granted, it's not very big of an increase (I'll get a bigger one with the annual inflation adjustment) but it's enough to afford a few "Chocolatos" at the local Green Beans Coffee stand (the military base equivalent of Starbucks!). The other milestone reached today, also affecting pay, is that it's my 31st day in a combat zone, qualifying me for the Savings Deposit Program, a neat benefit where I can invest money at a guaranteed 10% rate of return as long as I'm here. That sure beats most other investment options these days. The weather continues to get hotter and hotter. Today it was supposed to be 104, but I think it may have exceeded that. And although it is very dry, there must be water somewhere to support the mosquito population. Or whatever it is that is eating me alive. I finally asked around enough to find out that garlic tablets are supposed to help (although they take a few days to kick in.) Even if they don't help repel mosquitos, they're good for my heart! That's it for today. "Over the Hedge" opens over here tomorrow, so I may try to get a movie night in...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


So more than one of you noticed the absence of a post yesterday. It's good to know you notice! Sorry if any of you were worried. I do have a good excuse.

Yesterday afternoon and evening (and well into the wee hours of the morning) I got to ride along on a Convoy Logistics Patrol (CLP, pronounced "clip"). It was my first time "outside the wire" (the "wire" refers to the barbed-wire fence surrounding the base) and is probably one of the most dangerous things I've done in my life. Fortunately, it was uneventful (that means nothing bad happened) but very educational.

The purpose of my ride was as part of my job advising the battalion on tactics. It's hard to give accurate suggestions without actually knowing what they do so I got to observe them in action. Here's a picture of the HumVee that I got to ride in, as they were setting up for some of the pre-convoy training drills.

It was interesting to see how much of the tactics (and actual operations) were the same as what we learned in our training at Fort Jackson and in Kuwait. I definitely felt like I understood what was going on, and I was able to learn even more about some of the specific ways my battalion and its batteries do business.

The vehicle I rode in was updated with all of the latest armor modifications, which made me feel partially secure. And then add to that my full "battle rattle" of body armor and other items (see picture at left) and I felt about as safe as I possibly could be.

After we all got ready and tested out all our equipment, we met up near the gate to the base to prepare to escort the convoy, a mix of trucks hauled by contract by Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) and another company that the government contracts with, which hires mostly Third Country Nationals (TCNs) as their drivers. The troops often joke about them as they don't generally speak English, are difficult to direct (the phrase "herding cats" is heard often), and are rumored to be "KBR rejects". Below is a picture of the convoy just before we rolled out the gate to carry important supplies to a nearby Forward Operating Base (FOB).

As you can see by the slowly darkening sky, we ended up starting the convoy after sunset and it was dark throughout the entire thing, other than the rather bright lights that they used to light up the road as we drove along, so I didn't get too much of a chance to look at the scenery. Still, what I did see was interesting. We passed a few local nationals, mostly teenagers. The majority of them smiled at us as we went by. Some ignored us. Some stared with an unreadable expression.

The trip was only supposed to be about an hour each way, with an hour or two wait. Because of a variety of events, it ended up being a two-hour trip there, a four hour wait, and the expected hour back, but I didn't get to my trailer until 4 a.m. and I wasn't about to try to find an internet connection to do my update then. So here you are after a halfway decent morning's sleep.

Interestingly, when I told my wife about the convoy beforehand, I mentioned that of all the possible routes I could ride, this was probably the safest one, and I would be safer than sitting around on LSA Anaconda with the mortar threat. How true this turned out to be. The most exciting part of the evening was after we had already returned to the base and were getting ready to refuel the vehicle. A mortar landed not too far away from us as we drove along... close enough that the driver floored it to get out of range of a possible second shot! Yikes. Maybe I *was* safer outside the wire.

That's it for the excitement. Back to my desk job for a long, long time.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Major Confusion

If you've been reading this blog since I was writing about uniform issue at Fort Jackson, you'll know that I am wearing the Army uniform, called the ACU (Army Combat Uniform, I think) rather than the usual Navy uniform (DCU, for Desert Camouflage Utilities). The motivation, I think, was for my protection if I was out with an Army unit: I wouldn't stick out as being any different than they are. Well, other than the fact that a label on my chest says "U.S. Navy" instead of "U.S. Army" I do look the spitting image of a soldier, and regularly, several times a day, I'm being referred to as a Major (my equivalent rank in the Army). I've given up correcting people on it. After all, there are worse offenses. (Like not wearing your reflective belt after dark!) Things are starting to settle into a routine, and my afternoons/evenings seem to fly by while keeping me interested in learning new things, and employed by putting my analytical skills to work. I truly am enjoying my job, if not the location. And the chow really isn't half bad. I've discovered that there's a racquetball court over at the gym, and have decided playing chase-the-ball sounds like a lot more fun for a cardio workout than running laps on the track. We'll see if my skills have atrophied in the 8 years since I last played. Tomorrow will be an interesting day, for reasons I'll explain in tomorrow's posting. For now, it's off to call my son and congratulate him on surviving to age five. :)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Battery Change

The title of today's post is the front page headline on The Anaconda Times, a weekly newspaper put out by the 3rd Corps Support Command, the organization that runs the base. The full story is on page six, and talks about B Battery, 1-17th Field Artillery, one of the units in the 181st Transportation Battalion. I've linked to this week's issue here, although it might not be available yet. Try later if your first click didn't work! I've also added a permanent link to the sidebar so you can keep up with future issues (or browse for them on the MNC-I website, also linked.) I like it when papers (or TV shows) show you a bit of what the guys do here, because I don't have to worry about whether I'm allowed to say what I say. I also like it because it highlights some of the best of the soldiers here and the variety of jobs they do which all support the team. I really appreciate the great group of men and women that I'm working with. I had a chance to "recharge" my own "batteries" today, sleeping a bit late and only working a half day. I did make another commitment to my already busy schedule when at the end of the church service today they made an announcement that they needed volunteers for the worship team, most especially a keyboard player since their last one left last October. So I'm now the new keyboardist. (They were overjoyed to hear I'd be here a year. Happier than I am at the prospect! *grin*) I hope I'll have time to make the practices! I just finished enjoying another movie at the theater (Goal! The Dream Begins). It's really a rather ornate theater, much better than anything back in the states. Although it has the military base touches (the movie begins with a playing of the national anthem) it's otherwise a luxurious escape from the desert realtiy outside, with marble floors, a balcony with box seats (I tried one of those tonight) and free tickets (the popcorn and coke combo set me back $5.) I'm fully rested and ready to hit the deckplates running tomorrow. Er, there aren't deckplates here. I'll have to find out the Army equivalent!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Relic of a past era

It's finally Saturday, and I have some time to breathe. I'm amazed at how fast this last week has gone. I hope the rest of them go just as fast. Every day as I walk into the building where I work, I pass a Soviet-made T-72 tank. Here's a picture of me with it. One interesting thing that tank reminds me of is how much the world has changed. Twenty years ago, the Soviets were our enemies. Ten years ago, Iraq was an enemy. Now, I eat dinner at the same table as soliers from the Iraqi army and the former Soviet Union (some good guys from Georgia -- the country, not the U.S. state -- just passed through). How things change. We're enjoying a cool spell in the weather. It's been in the mid-to-high nineties all week. And believe it or not, it's actually comfortable, thanks to a slight breeze. It keeps threatening to rain, but we haven't had more than a few sprinkles. I'll enjoy a half-day of work tomorrow -- we get the morning off -- and then it's back to hard work again. I'm actually enjoying it.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Is it Friday already? I guess so. The past few days have gone by quickly, and I'm surprised to realize that I've been in Balad for a week already. I thought time was moving fast during the training, but it's /really/ flying by now. I just hope that pattern keeps up. I'm definitely ready for the "breather" worked into the schedule on Sunday morning. Each day brings a new technological toy. Today I got a program installed on my computer that lets me participate in a collaborative conference... a big three-way call with people at bases all over Iraq. That's nothing new, really, but this is software I hadn't seen before. One of the neat toys was a little graphic of the speaker and the audience with different colors you could click if you were confused, or even a little purple color to click if you wanted the speaker to go faster. I liked that one. Thanks to technology, I also now have a huge, and I mean HUGE map of Iraq on my wall. It's about six feet tall and six feet wide. I'd take a picture of it to show you if it wasn't classified! Anyway, I just need to figure out what to do with it now. I'm working on getting approval to move to a different hooch. There are some units closer to where I work, which would be nice. And it would be nice not to have the people on either side of me blaring TV or music past midnight on one side, and as early as 5am on the other. Good thing I brought earplugs with me (and even those don't always help). Maybe I'll get lucky and get an "end unit" next time. That's it for today! The weekend approaches.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Bureaucracy is alive and well

When you go halfway around the world from Washington D.C., you sometimes expect that bureaucracy might take a back seat. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I spent a few hours today battling red tape, placed in our path by some of the various staffs down in Baghdad at the Al Faw palace. It's become similar to what we experience from the Pentagon, and as such, the palace (because of its shape) has been dubbed the "Octagon" by troops over here. So much for eagerly trying to change the world overnight. Seems the world-changing will have to go through a committee. In other amusing news, the DFAC changed their menu today. Steak and Seafood was moved from Wednesday nights (I had prime rib and lobster last night) to Thursday night (Tonight I enjoyed a T-bone steak and king crab legs!). While those of us who are surf and turf aficionados enjoyed the repeating meal, those who were looking forward to (formerly) Thursday's Mongolian Barbeque were quite disappointed to miss it this week. It's now on Wednesday. You would think that if they were going to switch Wednesday and Thursday's meals, they would do so any day other than between Wednesday and Thursday, wouldn't you? I guess not. One of the best bits of personal news for me is that I now have internet connectivity in my office. I'm updating this blog right from my office where it's almost 9pm and I've been working 13 hours. (I needed a break.) And now I've got to finish up and get back to work again.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hot, hotter, hottest

I thought when it was 104 two days ago that it was hot. I thought when it was 106 yesterday that it was hot. Today, it got up to a balmy 109 degrees. Amazingly, it wasn't that bad. Not that bad, of course, until the fact that everyone's air conditioners were running overtime caused the entire base to lose power. Fortunately, everyone had generators that picked up for the "important" electrical loads, but those did not include air conditioning. Fortunately, that problem should not recur tomorrow. We're all talking about breaking out our jackets as a cold spell comes through with a forecast high of only 94. Other than relying on sunlight for work during the afternoon (not a problem) and running a few extension cords around to power up important things, it was an uneventful day. I remained busy, and I got a lot done, and I'm really learning a lot about how business gets done here. It's actually pretty exciting, and I'm amazed at how smoothly such a complicated process goes. Country music fans will be pleased to know that Toby Keith is coming out here to perform next weekend. I think I'll attend!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Office

I posted a few days ago about "the hooch" so it's time to describe the office I get to work in. It's huge. Probably about four times as big as my hooch. And while they're still working on getting us hooked up to phones and internet and a very large TV screen (for training, nod nod) I'm already getting the idea that the office might be a better place to hang out than the hooch. Perhaps that's their plan to keep me working late hours. It's working already, even with only one operating computer, as I'm getting a full 12 hour work day in without even trying. And I feel guilty for leaving "early". I guess it comes from the at-sea routine of working 16-hour days. In any case, work is keeping me busy, and busy is keeping me from watching either the clock or calendar (I barely know what time it is and I don't know what day/date it is) and that's a Good Thing (tm), at least early on in this deployment. I still haven't quite mastered the bus schedule. Or perhaps the buses themselves haven't mastered it. There are 8 different routes, and I picked the one that would get me closest to work today... and waited 40 minutes for the bus! And then the second bus on the same route came within a few minutes afterward. You'd think they would space themselves out a bit more. I think I've learned my lesson, though, to catch one of the more frequent busses that gets me reasonably close, and then walk the difference. I'm looking into buying a bicycle... something I may regret when the rainy season arrives. One thing I've (re)learned over the last two days of watching operations work in the battalion is just how much responsibility is given to some of our young (compared to me!) soldiers. We have some really good guys leading the charge over here and I'm honored to be serving with them. And I'm striving to help them do their jobs better.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Care Packages!

In my excitement over the "Iraq Confidential" segment (I just saw a trailer at ! Watch it! Warning: language may not be suitable for younger viewers) I forgot to post my new mailing address for the inevitable care package that you'll want to send. First off, let me give you another address. The Chaplain at the service I attended yesterday is collecting toys, clothes, and school supplies to be distributed to Iraqi children. Before you send anything to me, please send something to him to help in our battle to win the hearts and minds of the people. Your gift may prevent a future insurgent! Mail your goodies to: [name and address removed as the individual has now transferred] Now, for those of you who absolutely insist on sending *me* something, here's my address: [address changed! contact me for current address] Some guidance: - Do NOT send anything perishable or that will melt (like chocolate). Your package will probably sit out in 100-plus degrees for hours or days before delivery. - Most packaged snacks I can buy, including my favorites of beef jerky, sunflower seeds, and trail mix/nuts. So don't fret if such items would make your package heavy or bulky. - I would really appreciate artwork to put on the walls of my hooch and my office at the battalion, be it in the form of posters, pictures, or most desired, hand-drawn works of art from the children in your lives. - Electronic media (books, movies, TV shows, or music on CD/DVD) would be very useful. - Boot socks are light, needed, and make good packing material. Pale green is a good color. :) Thanks in advance! Remember, NO CHOCOLATE!

Road Warriors!

Greetings from the end of my first full day at my "final" assignment! The learning curve is steep, but I have to give my compliments to those that trained us up to this point: I actually understood 80 percent of what I saw today. The call sign "slogan" for the battalion I'm with, which will find its way into my email signature, is "Road Warriors!" As I mentioned before, they are responsible for security for supply convoys throughout Iraq, and they have a full workload every day. It's an amazing process, and it's very interesting to be right in the middle of it. The introduction to key leaders and staff members went pretty much the same. At first, when they saw "Navy", they were curious what on earth we were doing there. The Sergeant Major even asked, "Is this a student exchange program?" But once they learned who we were and why we were there, we were welcomed enthusiastically. Everyone is being very helpful to us, and we're trying to assure them that we are going to work as hard as we can to return the favor! One important thing I found out is that the TV show "Monster Garage" has filmed a few segments with the 181 Trans. Previously they aired a segment where they upgraded a Humvee with a 900-hp engine. They recently filmed another segment that I'll quote the teaser below. I highly encourage you to record this on your VCR, TiVo, or whatever other means you have. These are the guys I'll be working with, and the place I'll be working. The teaser even indicates it'll give you a taste of camp life. Watch it! IRAQ CONFIDENTIAL WITH JESSE JAMES Discovery Channel: Sunday, May 28, 9-11 PM and repeats at 1-3am Military Channel: Monday, May 29, 9-11 PM "Accompanied by a small production crew, Jesse descended onto a secret location just outside of Baghad to bring a little piece of home to the mechanics who help protect their fellow soldiers out in the battlefield. Jesse, armed with a caravan of equipment and parts, rounds up a group of unknowing heroic builders to restore a damaged Humvee that was hit during an insurgent attack. The troops of the 181st Transportation Battalion welcome this diversion from the everyday horrors of war and embrace the opportunity to showcase their talents. IRAQ CONFIDENTIAL WITH JESSE JAMES is a glimpse into what everyday life is like for these soldiers. Jesse gets to put a human face to this war, he experiences what it's like to be caught in the middle of a mortar attack and he visits the ER where American doctors help treat our soldiers, as well as the insurgents."

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Hooch

Before I get into the daily update, let me pause to offer a Happy Mother's Day to my mom and my kids' mommy! I love you both! Real work starts tomorrow morning, so I was able to spend the day buying cleaning supplies and getting a good deep cleaning done on my "hooch", the portion of a trailer where I'll live for the next year. I grabbed a few photos to give you a guided tour. This is the view from outside the wall of concrete that surrounds my housing area. These concrete walls are everywhere on the base, surrounding housing areas, offices, and just about anything that needs protection from rocket attacks. I presume they would also contain the effects of a mortar, as well. You can see that the ground is covered with gravel, somewhat of an improvement over the dirt/mud down in Baghdad, although I'll withhold a complete review of the benefits of gravel until I see what happens when it rains. Once you pass inside the concrete, you can see all the trailers in the housing area, all surrounded by sandbags. There's a series of concrete steps creating a walkway to each of the individual trailers. To the left is my trailer; I have the middle section. As you can see, each of us has our own air conditioner, which is remarkably efficient. It got up to 104 degrees today and was still comfortably cool inside. It's not that bad outside, either, to be honest. Mainly because it's not very humid. It's that "dry heat". My friends in Las Vegas probably recognize it! Whoever lived in my hooch before me must have been from New York because there's an "I (heart) NY" bumper sticker on the door. I haven't bothered to take it down, because I kind of like New York too. To the left is the view from just inside the door. You can see the lovely twin bed with yellow (yes, yellow) bedding provided courtesy of KBR. I might be splurging at the exchange for some other sheets. Or maybe someone can send me some 600 thread count sheets in a care package? After the last few days of putting my bare feet on the tile floor, I decided to splurge on a little persian rug. One of the interesting side effects of troops rotating in and out of a base is that they tend to leave things that will do them no good at home. I picked up this corner TV stand which had been abandoned. Now I just need to find someone who's leaving, so I can grab a cheap TV! I've used the area under the stand as a nice storage spot for my "battle rattle" (body armor and other accessories). I've put my stand-up wardrobe storage area on the wall opposite my bed. There's another bed in the room (lower ranking officers and enlisted end up two per room) which makes a convenient horizontal surface to toss things temporarily. It might work out as a good couch once I manage to get a TV for my TV stand! And that's the tour of my living quarters. I have lots of wall space that I'm allowed to thumbtack things to, so I'll put out the call now for photos, posters, and anything else you think I should hang on my wall! And I suppose you'll want an address to send it to... I'll post that tomorrow.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Ten Percent Solution

I noticed today that I've been away from home for 40 days now. That means I've just broken into double digits, having completed 10% of this deployment. And I haven't even started really working yet! But I have the remaining 90% of my tour to work hard. We finished up our briefings and orientations today with the 3rd Corps Support Command (3 COSCOM) who is in charge of all transportation of all supplies in Iraq. I've learned a lot about the process (very impressive!) as well as all the Army's different classes of supplies. Class I is food, Class III is fuel, Class V is ammunition, etc. I finally figured out why Army bases have a "Class Six" store for the "personal items". Conveniently, Class VI is not a very high priority for the convoys to ship. Go figure. The powers that be have finally decided on my assignment. I will be supporting the staff of the 181st Transportation Battalion here in Balad. Their home station is Mannheim, Germany. They are one of the largest transportation battalions here in Iraq. And they are really looking forward to our arrival. I'll probably start the "real work" on Monday. That gives me one more day to get settled, and perhaps catch this afternoon's screening of "Mission Impossible: 3" at the theater. I've been learning more about the air base each day. It turns out there's about 30,000 people here. 10,000 civilians (most of whom are contractors for KBR (Kellogg, Brown, and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton) who manage the dining, housing, buses, and other facilities), about 5,000 Air Force personnel running the airlift (C-17s, C-130s for the logistics, F-16s for air support) and about 15,000 Army personnel. Oh, and about 30 Navy guys, but that number is growing. While most of the facilities here are still temporary in nature, the base has a much more "completed" feel to it, as it was taken over largely undamaged from the Iraqi Air Force. Unlike Camp Victory in Baghdad, there are lots of (paved) roads, sidewalks, and buildings designed to actually work on an air base. Because of its key location and central logistics point, it will probably be the last base that we (the U.S.) leave as we draw down our forces. Accordingly, there is actual construction in progress, most of it hardening the existing structures to make them safer. The base is large enough that while walking is possible, it's nothing you want to do every day. But there are (KBR-operated) buses that go pretty much everywhere, 24 hours a day, so one of the most important tasks for me over the next few days is to figure out how to get to work, chow, and my "hooch" in the most efficient manner. Off to enjoy one of my last days off for a while...

Friday, May 12, 2006


Well, I had an enjoyable flight in a Blackhawk from Baghdad about 50 miles north to Balad, Iraq. Not the city proper, but the airfield, Balad Air Base, and the huge Logistic Support Area (LSA) next to it called LSA Anaconda. The base earned a nickname of "Mortaritaville" because it gets frequent mortar attacks (called "indirect fire" in Army lingo). Not as many recently as in the past, but the first one was only 2 hours after I landed, and there's been another and I haven't yet been here 24 hours. Still, just because there's an attack on the base doesn't mean it's anywhere close to me. This huge place sprawls over 15 square miles, and there's a sophisticated warning system to detect incoming rounds. I haven't had much time to explore, but I have already seen the indoor pool (which I'll make use of!), the outdoor pool, the full size theatre (Eight Below is popular this month), and I've visited two of the four dining facilities (we get real silverware!) There's allegedly a mini-golf place on base here somewhere but I haven't located it yet. The most exciting part for me is the fact that I have "permanent" lodging, and was finally able to unpack my seabags into a wall closet. I have 1/3 of a CHU, "Containerized Housing Unit", essentially a truck trailer split into three rooms. That gives me a 12 foot by 14 foot space all to myself and it's quite nice. Some of the more senior officers get "wet trailers" where they have two rooms on the outside, and a shower/sink/toilet in the middle. I still have to hoof it to the latrine and shower, but that's fine. I'll post pictures when I get some time to actually finish "moving in". By the way, the more popular slang for one's room is their "hooch". Although I know I'm going to be in Balad, there's still some final shuffling around as they decide the best unit to employ me with. So I'll save a longer discussion of that for my next mail. For now, it's off to more meetings as we learn more about what we'll be doing here. The Army has been looking forward to our arrival and is treating us very well!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Come on in, the water's fine!

With a day off, I did some more exploring in Camp Victory, and finally was able to locate the swimming pool in the Australian forces area of the camp (again, a relic of Saddam's palace grounds.) It looked very inviting, but I unfortunately didn't plan ahead and bring a swimsuit so I had to settle for visions of a poolside barbeque (or in Aussie slang, a "barbie"). I did see (not pictured) a few blokes sitting around beachside sipping some (non-alcoholic) brews. They seem a lot more laid back than the American forces. Speaking of water, it's worth noting that the "tap" water here is non-potable. We're warned to not even brush our teeth with it, favoring bottled water instead. Fortunately, there is plenty of that, and I'm led to understand that this camp is actually beginning to produce its own bottled water. Good for them. If things go as planned, my next update should be from somewhere else in the "sandbox". Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Loaded for Bear

I'm still playing the waiting game for a flight, but that doesn't mean the day was wasted. I finally got issued a lot of the remaining items I needed, including lots of computer equipment and, more importantly, my ammo. Yep, that's right. I'm now armed and dangerous. I have enough bullets to start a small war, or perhaps go hunting. Speaking of hunting, I had occasion today to visit the medical detachment here to get an immunization. It seems the medics have set up shop in what was apparently a hunting lodge on Saddam's vast palace property. A lot of the camp area was apparently a hunting ground stocked with animals, and if you were a "Friend of Saddam" you would be invited to join the club and go hunting. The sign below apparently marks a boundary where they probably didn't want armed Baathists wandering beyond.

In addition to the other issued items, I also got a few more pieces for my body armor, completing the set. I feel like quite the turtle now when I walk around in it. Which, I suppose, is supposed to be the intent. I just hope that I never have to actually put my "shell" to the test.

Off to do some more packing. I'm glad I didn't bring much of my own stuff, as I now have five bags full of Army issued items. But hopefully within a few days I'll finally have a "home" that I can unpack in. Living out of a sea bag is getting very tiresome.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Wooden Nickels

Today was the last day of our training, including a final exam. I'm leaving the classroom (and the bug zapper) behind. I am now officially certified as a Subject Matter Expert. Or, more accurately, I have a good baseline to start the real learning "on the job". Our group is preparing to scatter, with several of us headed different directions. It's a waiting game now, as we stand by for flights to our respective bases. In the mean time, we now have plenty of time to... well, there's actually not that much to do other than eat the great food (tonight's "hamsters" a.k.a. chicken cordon bleu, were especially good). I think I've played tourist enough on this base. I could always do more shopping at the bazaar. Speaking of shopping, the Post Exchange (run by AAFES, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service) apparently doesn't like to keep track of change, so when you buy something that doesn't work out to an even dollar, your change comes in "gift certificates" of various denominations from 5 cents to 25 cents. Since paper is made of wood, would that make the 5 cent piece a wooden nickel? Some of us tossed around the idea of getting some card stock and a good color copier to make our own currency, but we decided the card stock would probably cost the same amount as whatever money we'd make. That, and attempting to buy a Playstation with about 500 paper quarters might draw a bit of suspicion. I'm glad that after several long weeks, the training is over and the real job begins. Time to get busy and start making an impact. Well, as soon as I can catch a flight there...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Rose Colored Glasses

I experienced my first sand storm today. Well, actually, I stayed inside a building for the worst part of it, but was walking around during the aftermath. Basically it's really high winds, and all the brownish sand flying around through the air makes everything have a brownish-orange tint. It reminded me a lot of back home in Monterey with the fog, except as if I were looking at it through rose-tinted glasses. On the bright side -- or, more accurately, the not so bright side -- the dust obscures the sun, so it's a bit more cool this afternoon. Unfortunately, it's not quite as enjoyable when you can't take a deep breath without feeling like you're filling your lungs with dust. Speaking of an obscured sun, I figured when I came here that keeping my solar powered watch charged would be the least of my worries. But actually, wearing a long-sleeved uniform all the time keeps the watch face covered, and my battery started running low. Perhaps that's a sign I need to start my running program again, to get that watch out in the sun for a little bit. About the only other news to report is that my proficiency with the bug zapper is improving. Four flies have met their shocking demise, and my finger has regained sensation. Bzzzt!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

It's raining inside!

Last night we discovered that the information provided by our tent's previous occupants was partially correct. It did indeed get wet inside when it rains. However, not quite in the manner we had expected. As I mentioned previously, many folks put their bags on top of cots, expecting that a heavy rainstorm would flood in from the ground up, so "high ground" would be safe. As I also mentioned previously, I played the odds, leaving my bags on the floor under my cot. Last night we got a heavy rainstorm, and there was no flooding from below. What ended up happening was that water would seep through the seams in the tent material, causing it to "rain" inside the tent below some of the seams. The worst drippage was closer to the outside of the tent, and those near the center were safe and dry. I managed to luck out with only a few drops headed my way, most landing on the outside of my sleeping bag's waterproof cover. And my bags fared well underneath my cot. Not so the pile of bags on the cot a short distance away, where they were placed (near the walls) to stay dry, and ended up getting dripped on from above. We all live and learn. We spent most of the day trying to get the mud off of our boots. Of course, by the afternoon, all the mud had turned into caked dust and came off easily, although the sweep-up operation got a bit dusty. Since the Sunday I left home, I've managed to be traveling every Sunday for the last month. This will be my first opportunity to attend church since March, and fortunately they have scheduled an evening service that I can attend after our training hours are over. It will be interesting worshipping with everyone carrying weapons around the church, but such is the reality of the situation. So I'll end this note and head off to try to find out which one of Saddam's former palace buildings got turned into a chapel.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Time flies when you're zapping flies

Most of today was again spent in training, with the last hour being the worst because something was going wrong with the air conditioning and it was a bit hot. The room temperature read 34 (Celsius), and it wasn't until afterward that we did the math to figure out that was about 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Ouch. It was actually cooler outside. I'm not sure where it came from, but some how a portable bug zapper made its way to my desk early on in the day. It looks like a plastic tennis racket, with a criss-cross of wires where the net would be. There's a button to press to activate it, and a little label which reads, "Do not touch net when red light is on." I, of course, was foolish enough to believe that label. While goofing off and demonstrating to the guy behind me how I could touch the net, I released the button a few seconds before poking my finger into the net and getting my finger zapped. Ow! Everyone had a chuckle at my expense, and the tip of my finger is still a bit numb. I guess even when the light goes out one has to exercise some caution. In happier news, about an hour later I did successfully zap a fly that had been buzzing around my head. There was a nice little spark, and the smell of charred insect wafted around for a few seconds. I think I know what I want to ask Santa for in my Christmas stocking. During lunch today, I made my way over to the "Bazaar", a section off the main exchange where you can buy more "local" items and pretend you're outside of the nice safe camp. There were a lot of interesting things, and I plan to return sometime when I have more time to browse. Since I skipped the DFAC, I decided to patronize a fast food joint for my first time since arriving. I had not known until now that Burger King had a triple whopper. That's the news for today. Off to call my wife and celebrate "Boo Day"!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo

Today was a fun day, because we finally got to get some practical training on the gear we'll be responsible for. We all got issued super-tough laptops, and I was in my element doing software installs in a few minutes, and then spending a few hours helping some others who were having difficulty. (Mom, you're not the only one!) I'm really looking forward to the work I'm going to be doing. It will be interesting, somewhat fun, and very important. I realized somewhat belatedly that it was Cinco de Mayo, and didn't take advantage of the taco bar at the DFAC. But it's just not the same without a cerveza or a margarita, both of which were forbidden. I guess I'll just have to find other holidays to celebrate. I'm settling into somewhat of a routine here, which is good for the time being. Time is passing and I'm remaining motivated. I'm still not settled at my final destination, though, so another good thing keeping the time moving is the anticipation of the next stage. It's easier to think of the next few days, or the next week, than try to wrap your brain around the next year. I've explored enough to have figured out all the shortcuts between the places I need to go each day, and am learning new things, too. Like how the Australian contingent here has a swimming pool (and, we suspect, alcohol!) I keep looking for a down-under "mate" to befriend, but haven't seen one yet.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

It's raining, it's pouring, the blogger is snoring

It was another busy day and I continue to grow smarter, or at least I know a lot more facts than I did yesterday. Hopefully some of them will be useful over the next year. I'm sure many of them will be. One pass-down point we got from a group ahead of us is that our tent tends to flood when it rains. It rains rarely enough that the ground gets sun-baked and hard, and the rain doesn't have anywhere to go. Many people have been putting their bags on top of their cots when they leave for long periods of time, just in case that happens, although it's been dry since our arrival. Until last night, at about midnight, when we got a mini-thunderstorm. I think I was one of two people in the 30-man tent who did *not* get up and scramble to put their bags somewhere. I decided to risk it and rolled over to go back to sleep. Turns out my gamble paid off, as it was apparently nothing compared to the rain they get in the "rainy season" which just ended. Hopefully I'll be in more permanent digs by the time a real rainstorm arrives. And speaking of thunderstorms, or noisy things overhead, the office where my group works is in the landing pattern for the blackhawk helicopters that fly to and from the base. It's one of the loudest reminders about where we are and the fact that there's a war going on out there, since it's relatively quiet most of the time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Paper or Plastic?

Wednesday is apparently "Steak and Crab Legs" night in Baghdad. Did I mention we eat well? I guess we lucked out because Saturday was "Steak and Crab Legs" night in Kuwait, and we managed to catch that for our first real meal after 3 days of MREs. I feel like I'm eating like a king. Note to self: start workout routine soon. Before you get too envious, let me remind you that the lack of "permanence" of things that I mentioned about buildings and such also extends to the dining establishment. There's no permanent utensils. We eat off plastic plates with plastic knives, forks, and spoons, and pretty much everything is disposable. Obviously this presents difficulties cutting steak (unless you have your handy dandy leatherman tool) and is a very difficult proposition when dealing with King Crab Legs. Oh, well, some sacrifices must be made. They also have "near beer" (non-alcoholic beer) as one of the drink options. It does not get very good reviews. I've been content with "Coca cola light" (the Arabic version of Diet Coke) and a bottle of gatorade to go. We had a full day of training today, and I know a lot more than I did 10 hours ago. Of course, it once again feels like I'm on the business end of a fire hose trying to take a drink. Fortunately we're learning a lot about the other people out here who we'll be working with/for and what they can do for us. "One team, one fight." It seems the Army is very happy to have us here, and they're looking forward to us doing big things. I hope we meet their expectations.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

This site (not) under construction

We had a few meetings and did some administrative stuff today, and in between those I set out on foot to explore the base. I got a lot better feel for directions hoofing it myself via main roads and remembering landmarks than I did following our "tour guide" around through various shortcuts yesterday. It's surprising how big the camp is. I had read some criticisms of our presence here along the lines of building "permanent bases" and with a description of all the amenities (exchange, fast food, etc.) one would think it resembled a small town back in the states. But it's quite the opposite. At first glance it would look as if everything were under construction. Concrete barriers everywhere, the occasional heavy equipment. But everywhere you go, all the buildings are temporary. We're living in temporary tents. Even the "permanent" lodgings here are just trailers that can be picked up and moved somewhere else if/when needed. The only permanent buildings are the ones we took over from Saddam's palace and surrounding grounds. Of course, those are pretty nice buildings. The Al Faw palace, which we had a meeting in today, has a sign indicating it was built after the 1991 gulf war, during the period of sanctions. Obviously the money for the "oil for food" program wasn't exactly going to the food... For being in the "desert" there is a lot more water around here than I would have expected. I guess we're near the Tigris river, and there are lakes and ponds (and large mud puddles) throughout the camp. The bug that just landed on my screen reminded me to tell you that mosquitoes are a minor nuisance (obligatory pause to scratch a bite). Long work days start tomorrow, although I have officially lost track of which day of the week it is now. Tuesday, I think? I guess it doesn't really matter. Anyway, I better get rested up!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Living the Good Life in Iraq

Goodbye Kuwait, Hello Iraq. It was a long day, although not in the way I expected. We were able to get up at the gentlemanly hour of 6 a.m. for our flight up to Baghdad. Although the flight itself only took an hour, the preparations included loading all our bags (about 400 of them) onto a truck, then unloading them from the truck to pallets at the airport, then riding a C-17 to Baghdad, then repeating the truck loading and unloading evolution to get to our tents. We worked together as a team (fire-bucket-brigade style) and got the work done relatively quickly, but it was still tiring work in the hot sun. One of the members of our group who has been here a while gave us a quick tour of "Camp Victory", our temporary home for the next several days while we do yet more training before heading off to our final destinations. One of the stops was the Al Faw palace (pictured to the right), formerly one of Saddam Hussein's many palaces, but now the headquarters of several coalition staffs. It's a marvelous work of art. There is a massive chandelier in the main ballroom portion, which covers three stories. There are great views of the city from various covered patios... all in all a nice place to live. One of the items in the ballroom was a "throne" that I'm told Saddam used to sit in. It's the classic photo-op spot so I joined in the line of people posing as a mean dictator.

On to the messing and lodging arrangements. The food just keeps getting better and better. I thought it was good in Kuwait. It's awesome here. Imagine every buffet line you've ever eaten at at a restaurant. Now put them all in one building. There are numerous choices for main courses, including a carving station, a stir-fry where you can pick your ingredients and hand them to the chef, pasta, pizza, tacos, burgers, and any manner of food you want. I can't imagine chow getting much better than this.

In contrast, the lodging arrangements are continuing their downhill trend compared to the beginning of the training. While not quite as bad as our desert training (we have a bit more room, and cots) I'm still sharing a tent with 30 people. Fortunately it's a temporary thing, and I hope when I get to my final destination I'll be in more comfortable surroundings.

I expect the next several days to be busy as I actually get to work on the stuff I came here for. And busy is good. I don't think I want to be bored here. Other than the great food, there's not much to do.