Friday, May 30, 2008

D-252: The FOB

It's been a while since my last post, but I have received some encouraging e-mails from strangers saying they're enjoying the blog, which has reinvigorated my will to post by appealing to my vanity.

Today is my ninth day at FOB Falcon, and I am officially knee deep in the Army. Judging the whole Army solely on the group that I have met here, I would say the Army is the most uptight organization I have ever witnessed. They salute incessantly, in uniform, in PT gear, no cover, carrying weapons, and most bizarrely, after a meeting they all stand up and salute simultaneously. I think some of the TCNs are convinced that saluting is just how Americans say hello to one another, so many of them have started saluting everyone they pass as well. The result is that you basically have to walk everywhere you go with your hand attached to your cover.

Rank is everything here, the O-2s salute the O-3s and call them sir all day, and O-4s are large and in charge. Anyone who is familiar with Naval Aviation could tell you that being an O-4 is just about the worse thing you can be - you don't fit in with JO's or Senior Officers, you get no respect, and everyone pretty much hates your guts. Not so in the Army, the XO of the battalion is a Major and he rides these dudes like a rented mule. In the Army, it only takes 3 years to put on O-3, with 18 months a piece for O-1 and O-2. So the difference between a junior O-3 and a "senior" O-1 can be as little as 18 months, but you would think it was Private Pile reporting to General Patton the way they treat each other.

Adding to the misery, these guys are pretty much trained to punish themselves; they run to the DFAC and grab a to-go plate and hurry back to their desk hoping the Major wasn't looking for them when they were gone. The staffers in the office where I work are really busy, as the Army's manning problem is reaching critical levels. There are no card games, no movie nights, no distillery, and pretty much nothing that I expected from watching M.A.S.H.

My off-going EWO left things in great shape, so my job is just to maintain excellence, which is a thousand times easier than creating excellence out of something that is fucked up. For that, I am very grateful. More importantly, he has fostered an environment where the battalion thinks he is just working his magic all the time, and he operates pretty much autonomously - that makes for a very nice situation, and I don't get swept away by the Army hate train. Bottom line, as long as I keep this program in order, which shouldn't be too hard, I will maintain a low profile and be very appreciated.

I must say, I have never seen a ship or squadron in the Navy with less esprit d' corps and lower morale than this one. They have only been here a month, and you would have a very hard time finding someone who liked his job and was proud of this unit. That sucks, I imagine that is not representative of the whole Army, and honestly I don't know why they are so miserable. They have only been here a month and hadn't deployed before that since 2005. So they really don't have it too bad. Maybe I just don't understand enough - I'll touch on this later.

Changing gears, I found a scorpion in my room yesterday. I thought it was a weird bug, and I stomped it. Later on, I was telling some guys how I found this strange little bug in my room that looked like a tiny green scorpion, and they said that's what baby scorpions look like. As if I didn't have enough problems, now I have poisonous critters in my room.

There is no doubt in my mind that I joined the right service, a six month deployment on an aircraft carrier seems like club med right now. Correction, since the Navy essentially "traded" me (and by traded, I mean gave me away) to the Army, I'd say that it's pretty much a tie.

I made a T-Shirt out of my logo because it's so funny and clever. Go buy one and I'll donate a dollar to charity - I haven't picked one yet, but I'm going to choose a charity that helps vets, as soon as I find one with low admin fees.

Monday, May 19, 2008


I've been in Iraq for 8 days, and I have very little to write about. So I'll just touch on some of the basics, and hopefully once I get integrated with my unit I'll have some more interesting things to share. I am a little handcuffed here for a number of reasons; first, I am very OPSEC cautious, so I can't write about a lot of what I do or where I go, not because it's super secret, but because I'm a nervous nelly. Second, I don't want to write about anything that will give my wife or my mother a heart attack. Again, not because things are super dangerous, but because they both worry, so simple things that I find funny or interesting would sound like the toll of doom to them.


As I've touched on briefly, I always thought the heat would be causing me the most heartache here, but surprisingly it is not. It is the sand, the sand that I hate so so much. It is not like being on the beach, it is the finest sand you have ever seen, almost like dust. It swirl around in the air, it clings to every surface, and it invades your nose and mouth. I went running outside yesterday because it was relatively cool outside, and one of the Army's monster trucks drove by me and kicked up so much sand, it was as if a tidal wave of sand slammed directly in to me. Pictures a truck driving through a puddle and soaking you on the side of the, then turn the water to sand. I hate the sand. The heat, really not so bad. As they say, "It's a dry heat." The sand is in your eys, nose, throat, all over your clothes, and everything you touch, sit on, or lay something down on, inevitably covers you with a thin layer of fine sand. Sandstorms are frequent, making travel difficult by grounding helos and reducing road level visibility to several feet.


To the Army's credit, they have rapidly responded to the IED threat over the years, by developing a whole line of beastly new armored vehicles. If you have not seen some of these monsters, take a second to google image MRAP, Buffalo, and Stryker. Along with an infinate number of armored Humvees, these things are everywhere. I feel like I am on the set of Road Warrior. These trucks look like something a 10 year old boy drew in his notebook, and then was built by the Army. It's actually pretty cool; except for the sand they kick up.


By combining the trucks and the sand, I have concluded that the single biggest threat to me in Iraq is getting run over by a giant trucks during a sandstorm. Sandstorms are frequent, giant trucks are everywhere, and I have to walk everywhere I go on the side of the road. I sure hope I don't get hit by a truck.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

D-270: Iraq

I flew in to Baghdad International Airport yesterday on an overcrowded C-130. The seats are nets, and I had another person on my left, my right, directly across, and back to back with me; making it the most uncomfortable flight imaginable. After we arrived, we were driven to "Tent City," where all transient personnel live in 40 man tents surrounded by cement barricades. All the tents are identical, as are the barricades, and the honeycomb layout makes it nearly impossible to find your way around. Adding to the confusion, my tent is toward the center, so the area looks about the same regardless of the direction you come from. It got dark shortly after our arrival, so I spent a few hours last night just getting lost in the dark, so I quit and called it a night.

Living conditions are gradually improving, hopefully I'll have pretty sweet digs by the time I get to my final location. The tent here is dirty, and the mattresses are paper thin, but I have a bunk with no one above me, and two lockers to myself. The head is clean and hasn't been overcrowded or over-smelly yet and it is a short walk over gravel, which is a vast improvement over the soft sand of Kuwait. In Kuwait, you'd walk back to your tent from the shower and you'd be covered in sand up to your ankle.

The Dining Facility here is tremendous. Every variety of food is available from the usual short-orders burgers and standard galley fare to a carving station and Mongolian BBQ. I had the Mongolian BBQ last night, which was delicious, but way to spicy. It may have had something to with a little communication breakdown; the cook asked if I'd like red pepper, and I gave him the thumbs up, which is apparently comparable to the middle finger in America. He didn't seem offended, but maybe he loaded me up on the spice to teach me some manners. I'll never be sure.

A similar situation occurred this morning in the head. One of the cleaning men was in there wiping down counters while I was brushing my teeth. I said hello to him, and he sort of nodded and looked away, but then he stood behind me and off to the right, and just stared at me. I could see him staring at me in the mirror and got a little creeped out, so I turned around and with a mouthful of toothpaste asked;

"Am I in your way man? Do you want me to get out of here?"

He must have thought I said "Get out of here!" because he shot out the door so fast I didn't have time to say anything else. So I look forward to our next very awkward meeting.

Most of the cleaning men, galley staff, and general service industry around here are hired by KBR and referred to as "Third Country Nationals" or TCNs." Third country meaning not the USA, and not Iraq, hence some "Third" country. It could mean neighboring Arab countries, Pakistan, India or Indonesia; I can never really tell. So all the "culture" briefs I was given about Iraqia, i.e. no thumbs up, no "A-OK" hand signal, don't hand people things with your left hand, may or may not apply to TCNs. So who the hell knows, but I do know I scared the hell out of that squirly little creepy bathroom guy.

Today I explored a bit in the day light. I had two goals; get on the internet, and get a new shoulder holster. I went to the MWR to browse the web, and school my friend in Ping Pong, but on the way saw a little shack with "Ali Store" scribbled on the wall. We stopped in and found wall to wall bootleg videos. I bought Ironman and Gone Baby Gone on DVD for $2.50 each. The Ironman looks OK, it is clearly just a dude sitting in the back of the theater with a camera, so you get all the associated laughter, chatter, echo, and people getting up and down, but it is certainly worth $2.50. The Gone Baby Gone doesn't work at all, but I plan on going back and swapping it. I don't see why they would give me an issue considering they make these things on their computers.

From MWR we checked out the gym, which is pretty nice, and went to the PX area to find the trailer with internet access. We walked through the Bazaar, which had some pretty nice things, but the prices were nothing like the prices in Global Village in Dubai last year, but the items were pretty much the same. I kicked myself in the ass once more for not buying more stuff in Dubai. There we found the shoulder holsters we wanted, which are made of camel leather and are infinitely more comfortable than the quick draw hip holsters we were issued.

We finally found the internet trailer and purchased one weeks service for $26.50! I want to reiterate how appalling I find it that the government lets these companies come in and charge these kinds of prices for the web. The internet is an essential part of modern life, and it is how most of us stay connected with our families when we're are deployed. It is not that difficult to set up, a point made obvious by these little companies that come on base to take advantage of us. The internet should be the very first MWR-type of thing that is installed on a base after the gym! I should not be forced to spend $26.50 for a single week of access, so I can stay in touch with my wife.

That rant aside, the wireless here works like a dream, and I am farely confident that I will be able to successfully skype with my wife tonight.

In conclusion, happy Mother's Day. Verizon has set up a trailer with free phone calls to call Moms today. So this is an official endorsement of Verizon, who has once again proven superior to Sprint.

Monday, May 5, 2008

D-276: Kuwait

We’ve been in Kuwait since Friday with absolutely nothing to do. We are waiting for our range time at Udairi, we have a 3 day 2 night exercise there before we can get the hell on. The flight here from Fort Jackson was on a chartered DC-10 which was only about two thirds full, allowing for an empty seat on each side. They served food non-stop, there were a million boxes of Girl Scout cookies from the USO, and they played decent movies; so all things considered the flight was delightful but very long. We had short stops in Maine and Germany; we left at 2330L in South Carolina, and finally got to our tents at 0600L in Kuwait. I have no idea how much total travel time that is, the changing time zones give me a migraine, but we are 7 hours ahead for those of you scoring at home.

With the exception of short meetings and twice daily musters, we have nothing to do. Popular activities include; movies, sleeping, and bullshitting in the smoke pit. One night we played Trivial Pursuit. Several people have decided to just sleep the entire day, every day. I don’t know how they do it, but I envy them.

Internet access is fleeting. There are several computers at the USO and at a small computer center. There are always long lines, and the connection is painfully slow making it nearly intolerable to do anything other than e-mail. I have resolved to blog in my tent and bring it there on thumb drive; if you are reading this, it worked. Four DSN phones are available at the USO, allowing you to call base and get transferred. That is my preferred method, but for the impatient and frivolous, there are calling card phones readily available as well with rates running around 19c/min.

I lost a pair of sunglasses on the plane, which is a bummer. They were a sweet pair of brand new Oakley Flak Jackets. I still have my ballistic Oakley’s, but they just didn’t provide enough cover to keep all the swirling sand out of my eyes, so I bought a pair of Wiley-X. They take a little getting used to because they block a little of your peripherals, but they keep out the sand.

Speaking of the sand, it sucks. It is soft and fine and fucking everywhere. When the wind blows, it is like Sparky Anderson just kicked dirt in your face. Some guys don’t seem to mind it as much, but I can’t take it. The heat is actually not that bad yet. They say temperatures of 130+F are not unusual, but it has only hit the low hundreds and there has been decent cloud cover.

The living conditions are a little rugged. We are in 12 man tents; but they are air conditioned. The biggest complaint about the tents is that there are no foot lockers, so you have to live out of your luggage. If you’re packing all sea bags, you’ll be hating life. It will take you an hour to get dressed because you can’t find anything. If you’re looking for advice; pack at least one very large duffel bag, and organize your gear before leaving for Kuwait. The showers are in a trailer, and are actually pretty good. They get cleaned every day and you have shower curtains. The toilets however, are horrifying. There are two kinds; first, you have your basic blue water porta-john, those are disgusting whether you are at the Meadowlands or in Kuwait. Second is the “Cadillac,” which is a trailer containing a flushable toilet, urinal and a sink. These vary from tolerable all the way to the most terrible thing in the world depending on how recently they’ve been cleaned. In either case, the smell is matched in intensity only by the heat, so train your body to only crap when it is dark out.

If the purpose of the stop in Kuwait is to make you so miserable that you are actually looking forward to going to Iraq, mission accomplished. In Iraq I know I will have a can, reliable internet, and a job to fill my time, so I am looking forward to it. I will likely not write again from here, so I’ll see you all in Iraq.