Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Radio Silence

I didn't realized how long it had been, but for a while there I know I went "radio silent," or as the Comms guys say, "RF Cold" here on the site. Only when three separate friends e-mailed me on three straight days last week to check up did I realize it had been almost a month since I'd posted. The very GOOD news I have to report is that things are steady-state over here.

All that really happened was that when I got back from the quick trip home in September, my boss was on R and R. Which meant I was the boss, which meant the endless days and other staff shenanigans. And then as soon as HE got back, our lead NCO went on R and R. Which meant I picked up a lof what he'd been doing, plus my lane in the proverbial road. If blogspot weren't blocked from the computers on our network, I could probably find the 15-20 minutes to write almost every day, but all the *fun* sites are a No-Go. So it goes.

Thankfully the wireless connection near our chow hall is actually working right now, which is enabling me to write.

I would say things definitely *suck* here, but just as quickly as I'd say that, I would qualify it for a mostly non-military audience by saying they don't suck in the way someone in Kunar or Khost Province is dealing with the *suck* of dodging frequent rocket fire from Pakistan, or the way someone in Helmand is doing daily foot patrols and worried about IEDs in the ground.

Perhaps ironically, you might be in more physical danger if you're taking 128 every day (esp. that godawful interchange onto Rte 3 that forces you to cut across multiple lanes while the people coming onto 128 are trying to get across you to do the opposite), but the special feature of the American military staff is the go-go-go all-the-time mentality (and the one really cool thing about being here is that I've gotten to see how lots of foreign militaries operate, and they aren't all like that!)

So anyway, with a nod somewhere in Tolstoy's direction, I would say that every less-than-ideal deployment scenario sucks in its own unique sort of way.

And on the bright side, we all noticed the snowcaps up in the Hindu Kush foothills around the base today. Seeing the snow up there, and feeling the first few cold snaps of the season, is a great reminder that February might not be all that far away.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Graffiti Worth Reading

When I was passing through Bagram Airfield, and I mentioned something particularly witty I had read scrawled on the wall of the Porta-John near the Green Beans and PX, a Sergeant there told me that he can always get a sense of a unit's mood by reading the graffiti in the latrines.

It may be a slight bit counterintuitive, but a good healthy back and forth of vulgarity and profanity (where the scrawls are interactive)is the best thing to spot. Complaints are okay, and actually even good sometimes because they show that soldiers are engaged.

The Sergeant (who is now on his second full-year deployment to Afghanistan and who has already deployed to Iraq) said he only begins to worry when things get really quiet, which shows disengagement.

Since coming back to the unit just over a week ago, I've noticed a sharp uptick in things like intra-staff arguments, clipped phrases, and f-bombs dropped in anger. While in some ways that's a *good* thing (as I always like to say, show me someone who's upset and I'll show you someone who cares), I think it also speaks to us being in the *doldrums* of the seventh month of a deployment, where we've been scorpions in a bottle long enough to get on each other's nerves, but it's still too soon to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

The tension makes things a bit crazy at times, but I'm applying what the guy at Bagram said about graffiti to the overall staff climate here -- I won't worry about the guy ranting in the TOC who substitutes "f***ing" for the first names and/or ranks of his NCOs and Officers, but instead I'll look out for the soldier who seems like he's becoming disengaged and shutting off the world around him.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Dissenting View from Kabul

Earlier this week, a group of well-armed insurgents forced their way into a vacant building which was under construction, and used it as a platform to shoot rocket-propelled grenades towards the Embassy, the NATO headquarters, and other Afghan and international military and government targets.

The attack was quashed mostly by ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) with some help from US advisors, several of whom wear our unit's "Yankee Division" patch.

A lot of the initial reaction in the western and local media was that the attack raises doubts about ANSF's ability to establish order and protect its people.

Here's why I disagree: If you could put together ANY group of a dozen or so folks with AK-47s and RPG launchers, how hard do you think it would be to get them into a public place where they could cause mayhem and havoc? Pick any American city, and it doesn't matter -- there's no security net that's going to stop a small group of well-armed people intent on causing harm from achieving that goal.

Eventually, that small group will be overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the local response force (police, SWAT, gendarmerie, etc.) And that's exactly what happened here.

Yes, it took awhile to finish the *clearing* process, but again, think back to hostage standoff situations and other such incidents in the States. Even with some of the best-trained and best-equipped constabulary forces, that stuff is never easy.

I wasn't downtown on Tuesday and I didn't hear any of the small arms rounds or the RPG impacts. But I was close enough to the nerve center of what was going on to say that the entire episode said more to me about the capabilities of ANSF than it did those of the insurgents.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Route That I Took

So, I'm all the way back at the same little Internet terminal place in Kuwait where I last updated the blog. I'm getting ready to head back to the 'Stan tomorrow (neat way to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, eh?)

Everything went well on the 7th at MEEI, and the best part was that at the end, the doc said, "Everything looks great, and I don't need to see you again for 3-4 months." Well, if we're taking a sort of loose definition of that timeframe (like if we checked September off, and then skipped four months ahead) I would be back in the States. To stay.

Which is awesome. No more special anything, no more byzantine travel routes through airports, changes of clothes, and no more awkward explanations (both there or here) about why I'm *not really* home and dealing with people who don't know what they're saying spout off about they wish they had "whatever it is" that got me the extra trip back home.

Once again, I vow to try and write more, and photograph more. Buying a camera might be a wise next step, and I think I can knock that out here in Kuwait.

Although coming home for what wound up as nearly a week was phenomenal in many respects, the strongest feeling I had on the way back to Logan Friday morning was just eagerness to "get this show on the road." Just as it is now, my overriding feeling was wanting to get back to Camp Phoenix and back into the routine for the homestretch of the deployment.

What's VERY different this time, as opposed to OIF in 2006 and 2007, is the conflicting feelings about what's left behind. Besides the obvious and most important (wife and daughter) there's also the issue of having other professional ideas and opportunities on the plate...on active duty, of course, that was never an issue.

Regardless, it's all mind over matter for the next few months -- the conflicting feelings about being gone can get tucked away and stored in some corner of the brain where they won't be needed for a while. The trick is just immersing myself as completely as possible in the moment of whatever it is I'm doing, and then cheering a bit as the calendar gets flipped over every couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Pretty Sad Excuse

I'm not sure if some witty neologist has already come up with a word for this phenomenon, but there oughta be at least a five-yard-and-repeat-of-down yellow flag that concerned citizens should be able to throw down somewhere when they see badly forced acronyms, i.e. where it's clear that the word was chosen first, or at least most of the way first, and then the terms thrown in to the point that they only *sort of* make sense.

I'm sitting at a computer terminal at Ali Al-Salem (it's either an Air Force or Army base in Kuwait) and the poster above the computer says, "SHARP: Sexual Harassment Assault Response Prevention." For the record, there's no ampersand thrown in between the words 'response' and 'prevention' that would actually tie the whole thing together and make it make sense.

Whether someone just really liked the word 'SHARP' or they saw it coming together when the S, H, A, unfolded in sequence, what they're literally promoting there is the "Response Prevention."

I don't mean to make light of something that is actually a serious matter within the military, but I'm trying to imagine some very "empowered" organization focusing on "response prevention" and I can't help it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It Will Be

You may not have known this, but there are three sitting US Senators in Afghanistan...on Annual Training.

Senators and Congresspeople visiting the 'Stan is nothing out of the ordinary...in fact, it's so ordinary that many units consider the Congressional Delegations (CODELs) a huge nuisance that drain their time and manpower away from their actual missions. But in the case of Senator Brown, Senator Graham, and Senator Kirk, they are actually spending their congressional recess here, in uniform, serving in actual billets.

Sort of.

Because they also *just so happen* to be sitting Senators, their visits come with a lot more pomp and circumstance than would those of any other pair of O-5s and an O-6.

Getting to meet with LTC Brown was still pretty interesting, and he talked to us about making sure we preserve the gains made in Afghanistan rather than pull the plug on this thing too precipitously and risk losing the momentum that the Afghan government has. That momentum is real, by the way, and I see it every day...in fact, the entire size and scope of the training mission is precisely what makes us NOT the Soviets, the British, Genghis Khan, or Alexander the Great, all of whom failed to build lasting institutions that survived much beyond their respective departures.

I can, and will, write more about that another time.

For now, I'm mostly just thinking about a trip I'm about to take. It's a scheduled follow-up thing with Mass Eye and Ear...and it was a requirement in the med waiver that allowed me to go on this deployment. Basically, I get to go home just long enough to get poked and prodded a bit and have a camera shoved up my nose and into the back of my throat (seriously). After this visit, the next periodic check-up will be once I'm *really* back home, so I can get back on a normal schedule with them then.

I was dreading it for a while, just because it's a LOT of pain-in-the-keeshter of moving through Bagram, Kuwait, Atlanta, and Logan in a nonstop blur that might also involve Leipzig and/or Shannon...and on top of that, I was not looking forward to putting my wife through roller-coaster trip number 5 (the icy parking lot in Reading, then pat leave, then the pass from Hood, then R and R, and now this), but the closer I get to home (the journey starts today), the more I realize I am looking forward to it.

I don't mean the medical part of it, but I do mean the time with Ratriey and Lily. Even if it's just a couple days, I know it will be special, and I know it matters to us.

Plus, it sort of breaks the time up. Once I get back from all the traveling, there will only be three flips of the calendar before the Georgia guys come for the RIP/TOA (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority).

I vow, just as I did last time, to try to write more, to photograph more, and to document more thoughts in the moment.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Getting My Transatlantic Alliance On

I have to give a hat tip (not in the blogger sense but in the old-fashioned one) to the retired O-6 in the room who warned me things might not be so easy post-R & R.

I thought I would sort of waltz back and since I was no longer the "primary" for my section, I would get to hide behind Dad most of the time, work a cushier schedule, and have more time for lengthy PT sessions, watching movies, learning Dari, etc. Not so fast.

As Cliff Krieger warned me more than once when I was home, if the O-5 boss has his druthers, he'll put the motivated O-3 to work. Sure enough, the new boss does, and he has.

Not that that's a bad thing -- the long, long days make the time go faster (on a clear day, I can see past the Hindu Kush foothills clear into September). As I wrote about a couple entries ago, the big picture is that no matter what I was doing here -- no matter how good, bad, exciting, boring, stimulating, or mind-numbing -- the most fundamental, central fact is that my unit will be off of our active orders come February.

Nothing really changes that, so I'm quite happy to be put to good use. It does of course mean that I put any e-mail in my Facebook or Yahoo inbox low enough on the daily to-do list that the box never gets checked (and if you've e-mailed me on either, I won't even say the 's' word because I know you understand), and that I'm not exactly taking time for some of the touchy-feely Morale, Welfare, and Recreation stuff that occupies some soldiers here.

But anyway, back to Camp Phoenix. Seeing some footage of the events this week in Libya naturally got me thinking about NATO. If you forget the whole issue of the-world-is-better-now-but-let's-brace-for-whatever-might-be-taking-shape-in-Tripoli-next and strictly look at things from a tactical perspective, score one for the Treaty Organization.

Things looked quite bleak for a while, and there's no question -- at ANY level of classification -- that NATO airpower and maybe even some, uhh...other power helped tip the scales on this.

NATO has been beaten up a lot lately in intellectual circles, but down at my level (senior Company grade and Field-Grade Officers) things honestly couldn't be much better. A huge portion of my day involves liaising with the French and Canadian militaries (I don't say 'Army' because they're not really divided the way we are), as well as the Bulgarians, Romanians, and once in a while the British.

Everyone shares. Everyone helps each other. Yes, we all have slightly different 'lanes in the road' (it wouldn't make sense otherwise, now would it?) but we have a common goal, which generally involves security operations in and around Kabul, and training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). No one comes to it with a 'zero-sum' mentality, and a lot of us go out of our way to push information out to the others when it really matters.

It's easy for me to start to fall into the mentality of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (not at the end, though, but towards the beginning when he sees only futility in the repetition), and let thoughts about little peeves or the big things I'm missing at home get in the way, but one thing I know I will look back on after the deployment is the way our guys have forged strong relationships with the Canadian and French "J2 guys" that have gone way beyond the initial small formalilities and the shared laughter of trying to literally translate each other's bad words.

We won't all be Generals some day aspiring to be SHAPE, but I think that on some level, that stuff really matters.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Saluting My Sister-in-Law

It's been said many, many times that the toughest job in the military is the one that falls on the spouses and children of deployed soldiers.

Maybe it's almost a cliche, but I don't think that makes it any less true. Yes, we've got the stress, the anxiety, and the Groundhog Day effect going on, but we're with our unit, the folks we know, and we're (theoretically, at least) doing the jobs we were trained to do.

Our families, meanwhile, are going about their business but with a void at home that they'd probably rather not think about or talk about, but can't help from keeping on their mind. Always. For 365 days, which I'm learning can be quite a lengthy period. Unlike this, they don't really know what's going on *over here* even though we have a generally good picture of what's going on *over there.* That can't be easy for them.

And when I think back on stressful professional and personal situations, the toughest times have always come when I was doing something alone, or at least perceived it to be that way. That's what a lot of military spouses go through on deployments, day after day after day after...you get the idea.

Even with a large extended family to offer some help, my wife definitely has the challenging, full-time/all-the-time job of raising an infant while I'm off on the mobilization. The large family is a great help, but the tricky thing there is that most of them have things going on that keep them busy...like lots of other little kids to watch after.

But the one key player for us this deployment has been my wife's younger sister, who has been living at our home and helping out a metric ton with babysitting, general support, and a presence which goes a long way.

This really sank in for me when she went away to California to visit some other family members, leaving my wife alone with our daughter. I noticed the tone of frustration that came through in some e-mails and over the phone, and when I tried to calm everything down as only someone 8000 miles away can, what I heard back was a feeling of "This sucks...I'm here dealing with the screaming and crying (which I could hear through the phone) and it just won't stop."

Then, when her sister came back, everything went back to the way it was -- she's not thrilled to be dealing with all of this right now, but the day-to-day aspect was manageable again.

I don't think it comes down to any secret formula or special skill, but it's the general presence of a loving, caring sister and aunt in the house that conveys an unspoken message of 'You're not alone in this' that calms everything down and allays fears.

And that, in turn, puts me back at ease, which I appreciate tremendously.

Less than five months now 'til the replacements come...hooah!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What Pete Said

So there's a guy in our unit who's a partner at a Boston law firm.

And not just ANY law firm, mind you, but a white-shoe firm where even senior associates are proabably getting into quarter-mil territory. I mention that because it's rare to meet Senior National Guard Officers and NCOs who don't either work full-time for the Guard (it's called AGR, or Active Guard/Reserve) or work in a public-sector field like local/state police, or federal/state government GS-type stuff.

That probably has a lot to do with correlating interests, but it also has to do with the fact that the time demands on senior people in the Guard aren't super-compatible with jobs that have strenuous time demands of their own, let alone time for families and other pursuits.

So the partner guy, who's a JAG O-3 (Captain) here, and only a few rings-on-the-tree past me, came into my office the other night, and I got a chance to pick his brain about what it's like over in this Corporate America place.

What he said confirmed everything I think about why I want to check that place out. While there are aspects of his job that basically suck, like the fact that he has to track his time at work down to 6-minute increments (yes, 6-minute increments!) in order to properly bill clients, the basic fact is that no one there has to justify his/her existence, even for a second.

Because it's a firm that optimizes profits, there are people who constantly review its budget for places to cut corners, trim fat, and improve the bottom line. As a result, there's no one in the building who's there just to breathe oxygen. Obviously, people are there to perform different functions, but everyone is needed, and if someone weren't measuring up, well, they'd soon be looking for something new.

Yes, the hours were long. I tried to corner him into telling me about a 'typical' day (there's never such a thing, right?) and it sounded like 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.-ish, with an emphasis on the 'ish').

Sure, that's a lot longer than the typical 40-hour government week, but at least during my active duty and Guard time, days like that have always been the norm. They may have started a bit sooner and ended a bit sooner, but they day length sounded about right.

Another major difference is that there's true zero-sum competition for certain spots. The firm uses one of those pyramid systems, where such-and-such a number of first-year associates will be hired, and then there will be a percentage asked to come back each year, and so on, all the way up to partner. I'll admit that that will be a culture shock coming from seven years in a non-zero-sum type environment.

Still, all told, I'm intrigued by this whole suit-and-tie thing.

At least until I write a follow-up entry a few years from now, lamenting everything about corporate culture and getting wistful about the days in the *actual* green-collar industry.

Just Saying No to This Bailout

I read an article in Stars and Stripes about a week-and-a-half ago about active duty military folks asking for government aid because houses they had purchased were no longer worth the purchase price.

The justification they used in asking for the bailout was that since Uncle Sam had made them move, they had gotten screwed over by the government...in other circumstances, they would just stay in the houses they'd bought and ride the storm out, but here they had no choice but to either take the whack on a sale or continue making payments.

And yes, of course, they made a bunch of sympathy-evoking pleas to their Congresspeople to try to get this legislation through.

I may sound like the evil grinch in August for saying this, but if I were in Congress, I would vote AGAINST a bailout in this case.

To explain, let's put all the 'support the troops' stuff to the side, because I think we can generally assume peoples' hearts are in the right place on that (and if it seems like I'm scoring an own-goal there, well, at least I'm doing it from Kabul).

The facts are, the active-duty military moves its people around every few years. That's part of the deal all along. No one should be surprised by that. Except for a VERY small number of people in a VERY select, small number of units, the military does not allow its people to *homestead.*

The next fact is, the military pays its servicepeople a generous BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), which is not taxable. With a couple Google searches you could look it up for your ZIP code, but as a married Captain living in "the Hanscom AFB area" I get somewhere north of 2500 but south of 3000 (I could look it up myself, but yes, the Wi-Fi here really is THAT slow). Anyway, that's a very generous sum...even with my massive mortgage, that covers the whole enchilada, plus my condo fee and a few other monthly bills. And that's totally separate from my 'base pay' or overseas incentives. But anyway, I'm digressing.

The military treats its people like adults by giving them the BAH, adjusted for rank, ZIP code of duty station, and whether the servicemember has dependents. Then it lets them do what they want.

If you wanted to rent a room in someone's house somewhere for $250 a month and pocket the difference, you could.

If you wanted to rent a 1BR apartment in the Back Bay and blow the whole stipend, you could do that, too.

And yes, if you chose to invest in a house, you could do that, too. But if you were doing that knowing you'd be moving within three years, a lot of people would say you were speculating. And if you were speculating based on the old logic that housing prices only go up, while interest rates only go down, then it's too bad things didn't work out. But the whole *I was forced to move* sympathy bit would only work on someone who didn't realize you knew you would have to move all along.

The fact that the market tanked, and your investment went in a direction you didn't expect is not Uncle Sam's fault. We have to draw the line somewhere, and here I'd say it's a pretty fair place to draw it nice and thick.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Thinking About the Crash

No stock market references in this post, though.

I've been keeping up on all the stories to have come out in the media since the Chinook carrying 38 souls was brought down in neighboring Wardak Province the other night. One of the things I feared -- that someone on that bird had been a guy I had deployed with (Habbaniyah, 07-08) has already come true and I'm bracing for the full release of names by the Pentagon.

One of my best friends is a Naval Officer who supports *those guys* in Virginia Beach. Though he's not a SEAL either, he's a part of the greater community and, considering he's just committed another three years to a constant in-and-out overseas deployment rotation cycle with them, he is fully vested in what they do. I haven't written to him yet, maybe because I don't really know what to say.

What I do know, though, is that op-ed writers, bloggers, and others who are looking for some kind of great symbolism or meaning from this on the strategic level are misguided. Coalition aircraft get shot at every day in Afghanistan. Trust me, I read the reports. A lot of times, it's small arms, which don't pose a huge threat (though if they hit the hydraulic lines in just the right way, look out), but when we're talking RPGs (Rocket-Propelled Grenades) there is a risk to the aircraft. And in Afghanistan, where there are mountains everywhere and most roads are impassable, we rely on those Chinooks quite a bit.

There was no secret that a special brand of Coalition Forces was in Sayed Abad a couple nights ago, as Direct Action missions followed by huge firefights in the middle of the night tend to fall right into their lane.

Everyone in the area knew they were there. An insurgent saw the target, and he fired at it. A terrible tragedy ensued for a lot of people -- not just in Virginia Beach, but in lots of other parts of the US, and in Afghanistan, too (remember, there were seven Afghan soldiers plus some of our regular, non-SEAL Joes).

Whether you agree, disagree, or are somewhere in the middle on the question of whether we should stay committed to Afghanistan, militarily, that SIGACT (Significant Activity) shouldn't change your calculus much.

As for me, I think we're generally on the right track as far as reducing troop numbers gradually (although we play a shell game with troop numbers by hiring 90,000 contractors here...yes, 90,000). We can still stay committed in a more subtle way, as we do in places like Colombia and the Philippines, where insurrections can be quietly thwarted without too many headlines or too much interest back home.

I would also point out that there are a lot of cultural factors in play here in Afghanistan that don't get covered in the "if it bleeds, it leads" 24/7 news media cycle. Driving around Kabul, the signs of western influence are everywhere. Things are way different I'm sure in the Nuristans and the Kunars, but the trend here, where 10%+ of the population actually lives, is a sharp turn away from the folks who would roll the whole thing back to the stone age.

That's not just about televisions, and energy drinks, and American pop music, but it's also a statement about the basic preventive health care introduced since 2001 that's estimated to have saved over a million lives (that's based on Afghan Ministry of Health stats, partly drawn from decreases in infant/child mortality, and partly by reductions in easily-preventable/treatable diseases).

Even though I'm not actually outside-the-wire every day, or even more than twice a week in most cases, a lot of my job involves following trends, writing reports, and developing an understanding of the society around me that can be pushed both up, down, and laterally across the battlespace.

After a few months deeply immersed in observation, reading, writing, and conversing, I don't have any grand conclusions to draw, other than to drown out the shrillest, least informed voices on both sides of the proverbial aisle and come back to this shade of gray: It's complicated.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Secret Out Here

In "Band of Brothers," there was one certifiably badass Officer who was either very brave, very crazy, or perhaps a mix of each. One day, as Easy Company was digging their "improved fighting positions" in the woods of Belgium, someone asked him his secret.



"That's simple," Lt Spears said. "The whole trick in battle is that once the shooting starts, just assume you're already dead. At that point, you stop caring, and then you just can't go wrong."


Of course, that advice doesn't really apply in this portion of this theater at this time. Because we're Fobbits one day, drinking tea with Afghan police chiefs the next day (see picture), then truck commanders the day after, and liaisions with our NATO buddies from France and Canada each morning around dawn, that advice doesn't really apply. On the one hand, our mission is far, far safer than what Easy Company did on its journey from Georgia to England to Germany. Then again, ours is way more complex and varied.

If there were an equivalent "mental trick" out here, it'd be this: Just bear in mind that nothing you do, or are asked to do, is going to get you home to your family any faster or slower.



I think that all the high-performers I see around me intuitively *get* this. As I've even heard our Commanding General say, "I'm not thrilled to be in Afghanistan, away from my wife and kids, but while I'm here I'm damn sure going to make the most of it." The people who don't quite take on this gung ho attitude (and why is it that the most disgruntled tend to be the worst performers?) are too busy complaining about what someone else is or isn't doing, and often spend more times trying to avoid duties or complaining about them than they would just knocking them out.



I'm not even halfway done with the mobilization, though I can't help but notice that "halfway day" is coming closer and closer on the calendar. But what I'm not going to get into is a countdown mode. Besides the fact that it's just too soon for that, the better mentality to have, I believe, is to take whatever comes each day, get *lost* in it (errr...maybe I mean 'immersed' there) and then just sort of let the calendar take care of itself.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

When the World Happens

A Lieutenant Colonel from another unit saw me in the chow hall the other day.

"Greg, what happened to you?" I know you did your R & R in June, and it's like you fell off the face of the planet since."

"Ma'am," I said, "I work nights now to get all our products done, so that's roughly 2000 to roughly 0800. I'm only up during the day now for the mandatory meetings and the trips off the FOB every couple days."

"That's not easy," she replied. "My mother worked third shift for years and years...and you never really adjust."

For a second, let's throw out the whole biological, circadian rhythm, Vitamin-D absorbing technical side of things. Some of that might be correctable if planned out right.

The world happens from around sunup to around dinnertime. Here's what I mean by that: that general timeframe is when meetings get planned, when appointments get made, when drop-ins drop in, and just about when pretty much everything goes on.

So, as the Lieutenant Colonel told me, her mother never got less annoyed when she had to explain to someone for the gazillionth time that no, she couldn't come to [insert name of kids' event] at 3 p.m. because she had to sleep. And no, she didn't have some disorder, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or anything of the sort -- that was her equivalent of 3 a.m.

Don't worry, this post isn't about a vent or a complaint -- I'm lucky to have a boss who generally *gets* this concept and doesn't watch the clock with regards to my work. He does expect me to make all the mandatory stuff (no surprise) but completely understands when that means coming in two, four, or even six hours "late" as a result afterwards.

But to others, not so much. I got so tired of trying to explain that your 2 p.m. is my 2 a.m. that I just stopped. I'm quick to duck out before the day's events start "spinning up" and suck me in. There's nothing that can't be turned over, and no legitimate situation in which I ought to be the Single Point of Failure.

But a lot of the interpersonal awkwardness of the whole thing is mitigated by the fact that we're all here. We all worry about our families, homes, etc. but not in the day-to-day way that someone would if he or she was living at home. None of us have a commute, none of us have social obligations, and none of us have relatives calling us to come over for tuna casserole.

Just imagine, though, having to deal with all of that but still having to work from, say, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day.

I don't even want to know. It just sounds like a huge pain that I hope I don't ever have to personally deal with back stateside. Each time I have to ask people not to have loud conversations outside my door at 10:45 a.m., and they look at me like I have a horn growing out of my head, however, I'm reminded that people who work third-shift back in the stateside world have a tough spot that I wouldn't want to trade for. Not that I didn't respect that before, but I'd say I feel it just a bit more acutely now.

Thanks for the Charity, Whitey

My friend Dan, who is a helicopter pilot here in the Guard and an East Providence cop back in our other lives, came in late last night to talk to me.

"You wouldn't believe what happened today with Operation Outreach...a guy at a school asked us for concertina wire."

"Huh? I don't get it."

"We went down to a school located right near a prison in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Kabul. After the team leaders handed out a bunch of stuff, to include towels that had "USA" stamped on them, and everyone mugged to take a bunch of pictures with the kids, we asked the principal if there was anything else he needed. He asked us for concertina wire (basically, barbed wire on a roll) to put around the school. At first, we couldn't understand why, so we had him explain.

"A lot of the people in this neighborhood moved here because of the prison," he said. They have relatives that are going to be here for a long time, and they hate [Coalition Forces] and [the Afghan government]." Now that they've seen all of you come to see me, and especially if they see some of this stuff, they might try to hurt us.

I couldn't believe it. Especially on the heels of the entries about gratitude, and about unintended consequences, it seemed like an amazing convergence of ideas.

The group that chose that school was never sought out, or even asked, to come.

To them, and for their incentive structure, though, none of that matters.

They'll take a few cute pictures, they'll document the trip in their After-Action Report, and they'll write it up in their End-of-Tour Award Citations. In addition, they'll get a "Thanks for Playing" Volunteer medal.

Meanwhile, some guy in Arzan Qimat is going to bed at night worried about whether his school might get attacked now because of the way someone else perceived the incident.

Second- and third-order effects are fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Rhyme and Reason Behind "No Candy"

The other day, I heard a Lieutenant from the new infantry battalion (1-182, Melrose) talk about a policy shift since they had relieved the old infantry battalion (1-181, Worcester).

"We're not giving anything out on the foot patrols. Period. No water, no candy, no snacks, no pens...nothing."

At first, I'll admit, I didn't *get* it. What could be so bad about soldiers smiling, waving, and giving some sweets out to the local kids in Ud Kheil (the neighborhood near Camp Phoenix), who are materially poor in a way that most Americans will never know?

As it turns out, lots.

Kids, I've learned through my experiences here, love to follow foot patrols around. That's generally all well and good, except when groups of slightly older kids (say, 12-15 years old) convince all the other kids to start throwing rocks at us. Given the restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE), and the fact that all that's getting tossed are rocks, there isn't much we can do. Sometimes the rock-throwing is just the younger kids falling in line with the older kids, sometimes it's them expressing hatred, but other times it's just them expressing frustration with the fact that they're not getting something from the guys with the big green suits and the shades.

What the guys who do this every day tell know is this: Once you start doing something like candy giveaways, you create an expectation. Then, once that expectation isn't met, the next thing you'll see is hostility.

The biggest offenders are the "combat safari" types -- the JAGs, the docs, admin, logistics, and yes, even the intel weenies who finagle their way onto a foot patrol...they want to save the world by filling their pockets with sweets to hand out to the kids.

Which is all well and good until the NEXT time the ground-pounders go out. Now, if they don't have anything to give out, they get the rocks. And the rocks make it very hard for them to do their jobs, because the ROE says there's pretty much nothing you can do in return.

So that's why the policy is very cut-and-dry: NO giveaways to the kids. Humanitarian drops and civil affairs missions can be coordinated through local authorities, but no one is going to try and play savior to a bunch of extremely poor kids by emptying a pocket full of Jolly Ranchers.

Which sounds fair if you ask me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Breaking the Rules

Now that I'm a Dad, I can't help but remember the lines I heard most often at home from my Dad, and I seem to catch myself using them more and more... "The deadline for all complaints was yesterday." "The effective range of an excuse is zero meters." "The best question you can ever ask is 'What can I do to help?'" "Make sure to say thanks to the [insert last name of family who took me somewhere]." and so on. Of course, I don't subject my own daughter to any of this, as she's a bit too young to understand, and a bit too 8000 miles away to hear me, anyway. In the meantime, the blog is my outlet to do this type of stuff, and it's just way more efficient than e-mail for keeping up with the dozen or so people I'd call close friends.

One of my main hobbyhorses is the "If life had a rulebook" theme, and the #1 rule I would include if I wrote such a rulebook (and in the world of self-publishing, that might not be such an 'if') is this: When someone does goes out of his/her way to do you a favor, don't criticize the WAY the person is doing it. There's a corollary, of course, which is not to expect gratitude for things that there was no 'demand signal' for in the first place...in other words, don't mow my lawn on your own initiative and tell me I now 'owe you one.'

But back to Rule 1. To use some rather extreme hypotheticals, if you were near-starving, and I cooked you a meal, you would basically lose the right to whine about how there wasn't enough salt in the food. Or if you were broken down on the side of the road at three a.m., and I came to get you, the speed and manner in which I drive are sort of off the table. Anyway, I think you get the idea.

And I write all this because I actually have a not-so-hypothetical to share. Someone who I don't know personally, but *know* through Facebook and LinkedIn because we share some common professional interests went out of her way to organize a niche sort of veterans' group. On top of that, she went out of her way to organize a Skype-from-anywhere conference call so that members could dial in and talk about professional goals, network, etc. Of course, there had to be some stake thrown in the ground as far as a time and date, so she chose next Sunday, obviously realizing some would be able to make it, and others wouldn't. Below, in italics, is a person's actual response:

I'd love to join the call. Sundays, especially Sunday evenings, are the worst possible times for me. It's hard to imagine a family person being able to join a call at that time of day on that particular day. Sounds like a young singles type of thing, as I recall that time in my life.
Huh? I'm neither single nor in my twenties. How is either relevant to the time that a conference call might work? If it were Monday or Wednesday, I might have a commitment (I'm imaging I were stateside). If it were Friday or Saturday night, I might have social plans. If it were during a weekday, I'd have a school or work commitment. The bottom line is that no time is perfect for anyone.

If you can't spare 20 minutes on a Sunday night, then great, just RSVP negative or don't respond at all. But don't make some grand extrapolation about the 'married people versus the single people' based on the way you perceive it would inconvenience you (As if, somehow, people's families stop mattering from Monday through Saturday?) But anyway, it seems to me that the organizer or a small group has gone out of their way to set all this up. The last thing they need is a ration of 'you-know-what' from someone simply because a particular time/date combination doesn't work.

To reiterate rule 1 -- you don't necessarily have to show gratitude for everything. Sometimes you'll forget, and sometimes it just won't occur to you...both are totally understandable. But if someone has gone way out of his/her way to try to do something NICE for you (i.e. include you on an invite for a professional conference call), don't start throwing daggers just because it isn't perfectly tailored to your life.

A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings in Tokyo...

...and a Category 5 hurricane hits the Caribbean.

Or something like that. Anyway, if you follow Afghanistan very closely, you might've read this week about the first major US Army unit to leave theater without a backfill. Put into plain English, that represents a big step in the math problem that means you have to turn 101,000 into 91,000 by the end of the year. The 34th ID, out of Iowa and Minnesota (with attached units such as the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade out of Nebraska) is now happily back in the US of A, while no unit now in Afghanistan arrived to take over what they used to do.

Any guesses as to what happened?

To flip an old saying around, fewer hands now make for heavier work. And the ripple effects, or the chaos theory in practice, has many fascinating implications. Because for every task or mission that you need to pull bodies out of hide to staff, you've now created another void.

Units like ours now suddenly have way more convoy duties, way more guard tower duties, and, yes, way more chow hall head-counting duties (hey, not everything is glamorous in a war zone).
I've had the chance to partake in said activities in the past week, so hence the "radio silence" here on the blog...and I snapped some cool pics, which I hope to post (There are some tight CENTCOM rules about what can and can't be posted, but I promise to start making this more visual...no, really, I mean it).

But anyway, what all THAT means is that whoever is now sitting on duty in the chow hall, or up in the tower, or ferrying people to Kabul International Airport (but remember, that's always KAIA, pronounced "kai-uh" and never abbreviated KIA) isn't doing whatever else they were doing. On the one hand, yes, that trims a bit of fat ('worked' does not equal 'overworked' in my book) but it also leaves some things shorthanded.

What it also does, though, is takes a unit like ours, that was generally not too jazzed about its mission, and it flips that on its head. We're just a lot busier than we were before last month, but because we've got a lot more purpose, our morale has gone up proportionally. It's the simplest, oldest rule in soldiering, but the most discipline and morale problems occur not when people are too busy, but when they're too idle. Idle or under-engaged times are also when people turn inwards and bicker with each other the most.

I would say the time is flying by now -- not being a primary staffer, I now have a lot more opportunity to see and do things I wouldn't have before.

Still, it's crazy to think that we're still not at the "just 200 more days" mark. We're not that far, but still, we're not there.

I'll go ahead and chalk that last one up under the "things not to bring up on the phone with the missus" header.

Friday, July 8, 2011

170.55 in 'The Kabul K'

Before we got on the plane at Fort Hood, our Commander (who was promoted yesterday...congratulations General Hammond!) announced a simple, straightforward "deal" to everyone in formation:

Anyone who runs 1000 miles during the deployment ('The Kabul K') will get an Army Commendation Medal for the feat.

As you might imagine, the honor system is in the works here. For those participating in the challenge, there's a Lieutenant to whom we have to send our running logs every 100 miles, which kinda-sorta keeps the whole thing honest (no one can 'suddenly' run 800 miles in the last month, for instance).

Anyway, with about 7 more months or so to go, I'm a bit behind the curve. I've got 170.55 miles as of today. The beauty, though, is that as anyone following this blog knows, I now actually have the time to get away and log some miles each day -- workdays have magically shrunk from 16- and 18-hours to that happy "12" spot where I can still find a wee bit of time to run, Skype with the missus, and yes, write on the blog (as soon as I can get my new phone/camera up and running, I promise to finally get some pics too...I mean it!)

Anyway, here's why the Colonel's...I mean, General's idea is a great one (and no, he doesn't read this...and he doesn't sign my OER anyway!):

(1) It keeps people's minds focused on a goal. As I'm seeing now, a year-long mobilization feels like a loooong time. Especially when you feel like it's been forever, and somehow you're still not even halfway done. Having a day-to-day goal to think about besides things like staff work, guard duty, convoys, chow duty, etc. helps soldiers' mental state. Plus, the hour or so people dedicate each day to it is an hour they're not idle...and then there's the endorphin benefit, the better sleep, extra energy, etc.

(2) It helps get people in shape. One of the neat things about a deployment is seeing people who are a bit round (hey, we're the Guard!) get a bit, well, less round. I'm no exception -- I know I ought to be closer to 185 (fighting weight) than to where I peaked last fall (220...yikes!) Running a daily five-miler is sure getting me a lot closer to the *right* side of that equation. Anyway, as with anything that needs work, it's somehow always easier to notice it on others...and I've seen several of our guys lose 30, 40, and even more pounds so far trying to reach this goal...and yes, the guys with knee, foot, joint, etc. problems can go Elliptical for this.

(3) It's a team-building thing. The guys (and gals) that are going for this goal have this as a common reference point...Hey, what's your plan?
How far are you gonna go today? Treadmill or track? (Yes, Camp Phoenix as a track, right around the Helicopter Landing Zone). It's easy to get de-motivated to run every day "just to run" but when you're pushing towards a concrete goal, somehow it's easier to get moving...and more fun.

Some Army purists would disagree with the handing-out of ARCOMs for running but let's be honest...ARCOMs have been handed out for a lot less. I'm only 170+ miles in so far -- definitely not on pace -- but have a plan to steadily increase my runs and get way ahead of the curve soon. Will post.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Producers

If you thought this was a lead-in to a Mel Brooks reference, it's not, but I've got to tell you, I like the direction in which you were headed.

I work with eight people.

Four are what I would call "Producers." I could try to find other, neater, spiffier ways to say it, but simply put, there are four people who I could leave with a specific-but-wide-enough-for-some-wiggle-room order, give it a deadline, and never have to think about it until the deadline, because I know it would get done. They'd either do it, find the right person to do it, or find where it had already been done, and appropriate it.

There are also four who, despite their many other great qualities, don't fit that billing. Without getting into too much detail (this is one of those entries that has to stay kinda vague for self-protection purposes), I can guarantee with equal certainty that *it* would not be done after that hypothetical twelve-hour "off" period. There might be reasons, excuses, taskers, ADD, and other such maladies that got in the way, but trust me, after countless hours, days, and weeks from Reading to Killeen to Kabul, I can pretty much predict this stuff without much effort.

But the point of this entry is NOT to vent. Nor is it to ask for help with management, or for reading recommendations involving Seven Ways to Move Cheese in One-Minute while Winning the Influencers Over on Tuesdays in Heaven.

The point is to say this: I would've totally screwed up the hiring.

Let's say it's a few years down the road. NOT so hypothetically, with an MBA and maybe a couple years' consulting in Boston under my rigger's belt, I'm looking to start a small firm closer to home, somewhere in the Merrimack Valley.

The budget is tight. The outlook is uncertain. One of the most difficult decisions is going to be "Who gets hired?"

Let's get back to my original setup. If I had started out with the eight people, but could ONLY hire four, and was given, let's say, their names, ranks, ages, military bios, resumes, and even the chance to interview them, I'll completely admit I wouldn't have chosen the right ones. If you think OERs and NCOERs (military equivalent of *report cards* would've helped, well, then, you need a lesson in how those things work.

Now, the List of Four seems really obvious, and I could do it in seconds.

But in the real world -- or at least in the real world as I understand it -- it never works that way. There aren't 90-day job interviews. Maybe there are internships, and there are probationary hiring periods, but on those things I hit the I-don't-know-what-I-don't-know problem about feasibility.

My resolution -- during the "down" period I'll have post-deployment (I'm purposely socking away a healthy rainy-day fund for the four-month period after my terminal leave, but before school starts), plus the time at school, to include the Entrepreneurship and Innovation track (E & I), one of the major questions I want to pose to entrepreneurs is this -- Given your limited time and your limited budget, how the heck do you hire?

I'm not as interested in the large corporate behemoths, who can afford to carry some extra weight around, nor am I interested in government contractors, whose purpose is to place 'butts in seats,' but only in small firms who can't afford to keep *nice guys* around who can't turn a tangible result out the back end. Especially as I steer this blog more towards regional business *stuff* and towards interviews, I will be sure to post whatever I find out right here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What They Call Themselves 'Round These Parts

Before heading overseas, I sat through a bunch of the standard Army Afghanistan 101-style cultural briefs.

Don't gesture with your left hand. Check.

Don't expose the soles of your feet. Roger.

Don't ask about female members of the family. Check-raj.

And remember, an 'Afghan' is a person from Afghanistan, where as an 'afghani' is a unit of currency. Don't confuse the two, or you'll come across as just another ignorant American.

The first three I knew from Iraq (though it might surprise you how little police and soldiers there care about those rules, or how often they violated those rules themselves), but the last one I hadn't heard before, so I stayed careful to remember it.

Then when I got here, I heard a few people point out in a thou-shalt-not sort of style after hearing someone call a person from here an 'Afghani' that it was culturally insensitive, and wrong.

Except here's the funny part -- I started to notice that when the people from here referred to other fellow countrymen, while speaking English, they used "Afghans" and "Afghanis" interchangeably when referring to other people from here.

In fact, I heard it enough times that I had to just start asking them, every chance I got. As it turns out, the distinction isn't really something they think about, or care about. Yes, the currency unit is the afghani. As for the people, every Kabuli (yes, that's the term!) that I speak with tells me the same thing -- it just doesn't matter.

So I have to laugh a little at the idea that people putting together some of the basic Army cultural training are far enough removed from the culture itself to be emphasizing stuff that just, well, isn't so.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What Mitt Missed

This story is already a wee bit dated, but my reaction to it isn't.

At some point last month, Mitt Romney, presidential aspirant, was speaking to a group of unemployed people when he tried to make a funny, stating words to the effect of, "I'm unemployed too, so I'm one of you...but as some of you may know, I'm looking for a job now."

The joke, of course, went over like a lead zeppelin, as it well should have.

His reaction didn't help any, either. He, or his campaign, made some lame comment about how Mr. Romney enjoys "self-deprecating" humor, and how others need to lighten up.

Lighten up?

Mitt Romney is worth hundreds of millions. For him to get in front of a group of people who truly know what it means to be involuntarily unemployed -- to lose sleep at night wondering about mortgage payments, to make tradeoffs about which bills to pay, which to let go, and what day-to-day niceties (I purposely didn't say 'luxuries') to shirk, shows, at best, a complete lack of self-awareness.

Frankly, I'd expect better from a would-be Commander-in-Chief. I had already had my waterskis-over-Jaws moment when he had to have his own son stage a prank call supposedly from "The Governator" but this helps prevent any chance that I will reverse course from 2002 and ever vote for Mitt Romney for anything.

The second charge I'd throw is that his response is a total bastardization of what self-deprecating (or, more technically accurate, self-effacing) humor is all-about: poking fun at your actual weaknesses.

Genuine self-effacing humor is refreshing, disarming, and often downright funny. But the key word there is genuine. Let's say, for example, your boss stutters, is clumsy, can't type memos, sweats profusely, etc. If he or she makes jokes about that, it tends to go over well.

But if someone who obviously takes his or her own intelligence seriously says, "Well, my wife says I'm not real smart, but she keeps me around because I can lift heavy objects," and expects the whole room to break into side-splitting guffaws, or thinks that's somehow endearing, that person is a huge tool. It's kind of like when someone who looks like a model thinks they're winning others over by saying things like, "I must have helped meet the quota for ugly people then" when looking at pictures of themselves among groups of friends. Far from endearing, it's just awkward and disingenuous.

I could do a lot more hypotheticals, but I think you already get the point.

On a slightly different note, a friend of mine sent me a great link to something that comedy writer/stand-up comedian Harris Wittels put together. It's based off a term he coined called "Humblebragging." You can go to his Twitter page right here, where he collects shameless celebrity name-dropping cloaked in so-called humility "I can't believe I was at John Travolta's house last night...who can believe it -- little old me?!!?" or "I totally tripped on my way up to the stage to receive my Oscar."

If you're as bad as I am about following links, you won't click, but I strongly recommend you do. I can promise you will laugh, and will think of some "Humblebraggers" in your own life.

One last point -- I always wonder what genuine really means. I've had trouble with knowing when to use that word when describing people, and just sort of settled on the idea that it's akin to the old Potter Stewart-ism about "knowing it when you see it."

I'm not sure who to attribute this quote to, but someone, somewhere, at some point in time once said, "I don't say all the things I think, but I do think all the things I say." Probably about 10 seconds after I heard that, it instantly skipped a long list to become one of my all-time favorite quotes ever. If someone really lives by that, I'd say they're about as close to genuine as anyone I could imagine. Obviously, no one is going to say all the things they think (besides, their jaw might quickly get tired), but if you truly "think all the things you say" to include everything from compliments to constructive criticisms to just all-around conversation, I would have to count you among company worth keeping.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Interesting Stat

I had the chance to talk to an Afghan guy a few years my senior today over some sweet chai. He made a really interesting point about the various ways people in Kabul feel about what they see (rightly) as a coming drawdown of American troops.

Most people are scared, he said. More than anything, they just don't want "those other guys" to come back into power. Interestingly, though, he pointed out how a lot of young people were either totally apathetic or generally happy to see the Big Guys in the Green Suits leave.

"Check the average age of an Afghan and compare it to your country," he told me.

Right away, I did. The median American is 35.3 years old, whereas the average Afghan is 18.2 years old.

"Think about what that means," he said. Most of the people in this country aren't old enough to REALLY remember what it was like during the time the Taliban were in charge."

It was an interesting point, and a good reminder not to just see the world through my own frame. The very fact alone that the average person here is only half as old as the average person in the country I came here from is enough to seriously impact the national mood.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ready in the Night...to Visit Violence

If you can read between the lines of the headlines when they say "NATO helicopters strike gunmen" on the roof of the Inter-Continental Hotel, you'll know what it actually means.

The helicopters themselves didn't do it.

If you think there was some kind of Apache or Cobra "gun run," near a crowded civilian structure with hundreds of people inside and nearby, you still don't get it.

To borrow Liam Neeson's phrase from Taken, that's a reference to people with "a very particular set of skills."

Before I lay down to sleep peaceably in my 8' x 10' air-conditioned CHU (yes, that's a Containerized Housing Unit), I want to go on record saying that I'm grateful for those folks...not just because of the Maersk Alabama, or even UBL, but also because of the number of lives they saved this morning by preventing a terrible situation from becoming something far, far worse -- not just for the people at the hotel and their families, but also for the 32 million people here who need anything BUT a propaganda coup for those who would bring this country back to their twisted ideal of the 7th Century.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Just a Bit Less Invested

So far, so good.

Things have REALLY turned around since I've gotten back to Kabul. The big change that I blogged about and told friends and family about came true -- there's a much more senior Officer here now doing the job that I was doing, and I was successfully able to angle my way onto the vampire shift (2000 to 0800, every day), where I'm not constantly being grabbed and pulled in a million directions.

*Now I just have to cross my fingers and hope things don't change too much.*

When I think about why my stress level has plummeted so much, two major factors come to mind:

(1) I've actually got an off-switch now. It might sound funny to say to someone that 84-hour weeks feel like a vacation, but it's the complete truth. Even when you factor out the 6-7 hours or so for sleep, that STILL leaves me with a few hours each day of - dare I say it - *me* time. I haven't quite figured out how to channel it...yesterday it meant watching a movie, today it meant working through an Atul Gawande book, and every day it's meant getting an hour or so on the beloved treadmill. If I don't come home in February in damn-near Olympic decathlete shape, I'll be disappointed.

Anyway, the reason the off-switch is such a big deal is that since the big shift back at Fort Hood, when our old boss got suddenly reassigned, my routine has pretty much been get up, clean up, work/train, go to meetings, prepare for more meetings, prepare reports, go on the occasional convoy or patrol, and then frantically catch up on all the stuff missed thanks to said movement.

That takes its toll. Again, no comparisons here to the guys out in Khost and Paktika (though I certainly didn't choose NOT to go that route...but that's a story for another day, and I'll have to readdress that with Uncle Sam in February) but probably more in common with a junior investment banker in midtown Manhattan. Either way, the adrenal glands can only take so much.

And if the time off at home with Ratriey and Lily was heaven, then this is purgatory -- not that great, but honestly, not that bad either.

(2) I've got less of a sense of *investment* in the section. This factor is actually way more important than the first. For a few months there, I was actually in charge of a dozen or so people. In the civilian world, that would mean a manager, but there's an important distinction here -- because the military *owns* its people in a 24/7 sense, commanding even a small group of people is a pretty big deal. Their successes are yours, their screw-ups are yours, and, yes, the paperwork that goes with all that is yours. Even stepping down and being the "#2 guy" is a quantum leap downward...the analogy isn't perfect, but it's kind of like being a backup quarterback in the NFL -- the other guy is running the huddle and under-center for all the snaps, and you're rocking a baseball cap and telling jokes behind the thick white lines.

So this factor probably has even more to do with why I'm smiling more and spinning-up less. It's not that I don't care (in fact, now I get to *actually* do the job I'm trained for in a much purer sense, and I take a lot of pride in the results), but I'm less invested. When one of our guys misses a duty shift in the guard tower, when one of our Officers pisses off our Canadian counterparts (900+ are now in Kabul!), or when someone drops the ball on a meeting, it's honestly just NOT my fire to put out. And even if I tried to make it so, that'd be inappropriate -- sort of like trying to discipline someone else's kid.

To summarize everything I've learned in a back-of-a-postage stamp sort of way:

Being in charge is really hard.
NOT being in charge is not so hard.

With a nod towards Ben-Hur, I will continue to row well. I will also try to get a bit fitter, a bit smarter, and keep in better touch with folks at home.

Being away is still a challenge, but this is way more sustainable.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Footloosin' in Kabul

Yup, that base looks mighty familiar. Not our unit, but no surprise to viewers that these are Mass Guard guys:


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Words I Won't Be Eating

"Words that fall like rain/Lie on the ground like snow." -- The Toasters, "Don't Say Forever"

The reality is starting to sort of loom over me that yes, come Monday, I will have to return to work. Err, rather, come Monday I will begin the process of returning to work. Sandstorms, flight delays, scheduling bottlenecks, and who-knows-what-else may throw that off in who-knows-what-direction. And it's not lost on me that by the time I make it to Atlanta on Monday afternoon, it'll already be Tuesday morning *over there.*

Anyway, one of the cool things that I'm looking forward to -- something I've written about here on the site and shared with friends and family here in Lowell -- is that I'll be stepping back into a less-prominent position. To fully explain it would require a good chunk of time, but let's just say my old boss left in a sudden fashion, and for a few months there I was doing my old job plus his. With his relief now there, I go back down to *just* my position...this ought to leave a wee bit more time for personal pursuits like running, weightlifting, keeping up on foreign news, and, yes, the Lowell blogosphere.

For the couple months or so before the new boss came into the picture, he and I stayed in fairly frequent contact over e-mail. I peppered him with schedules, briefings, photos, operational vignettes, etc. not so much in a coherent format, but just in a way that would enable him to build some semblance of the *big picture* from all the little ones I was sending his way. Considering he commanded a Company of soldiers during the Big Northward Trek from Kuwait to Balad, Iraq in March 2003, he had plenty of personal memory and material to draw from when piecing everything together.

One of the very few things, perhaps the only thing, however, that I did NOT provide him with was the candid assessment he asked me to send with regards to all our soldiers, to include strengths and weaknesses, and some delineation of the "A" Squad from the rest.
Uncharacteristically, I stalled, hemmed, and hawed on this one. Even though he asked more than once, I never went all-out on this request, despite having done so for every other piece of data that he had me put together. Simply put, here's why: I've seen that type of stuff go bad too many times before.

Even if we can assume the best intentions all-around, there are still WAY too many chances for a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip...what if he printed that e-mail and left it atop his desk? What if he quoted from it over the phone and a curious set of ears was nearby? What if it biased his incoming attitudes towards people in an all-too-obvious way? Any of those moments, in which the wrong things could've come out devoid of all context or intended tone, would've spoiled 8 months of coming intense working relationships in close quarters.

I stayed pretty vague on the subject of personnel, and he hardly even brought it up during the couple days of overlap we had after he arrived, and before I went on R & R. As a result, when I head back to Atlanta, and then Kuwait, and then Kabul, I'll be dreading the fact that I'll be away from my wife and daughter, and missing home, but I won't be dreading the prospect that some frank, candid statement of mine got twisted and bent into some unintended shape...because it was never made to begin with.

I like to muse a lot about how "If Life Had a Rulebook..." and sometimes imagine putting one together where I could explain lines like, "When someone is going out of their way to do you a favor, you forfeit all rights to criticize how they're doing it."

If I ever did put one together, though, right near the top would be something like, "Be careful in the extreme say with what you say about others. Whereas your opinions are subject to change, the words you write or speak for attribution are not!"

The real problem isn't whether I'd have the cojones to stand by something I had said. I know that I would (as the expression goes, I don't say everything I think, but I do think everything that I say). The bigger problem is that some gripe I might've had on, say, April 18th might've been totally overcome by events by, say, June 18th. If I called someone an underachiever then, well, maybe they were just slow to adjust to a new environment. Maybe they weren't clear enough on the guidance they had gotten. Maybe that would've been my own leadership issue that needed addressing.

The military evaluation system is extremely flawed (just Google the name 'Nidal Malik Hasan' on that) but one thing it really gets right is that it's considered a below-the-belt cheap shot to put anything less-than-stellar in an Officer Evaluation Report (OER) unless it has already been addressed via formal, written counseling. In other words, you can't suddenly whack me with a report card that says I'm spelling at below-grade-level and my breath stinks to boot unless you've already sent a few progress reports home saying as much. That may not seem totally 'fair' to the reviewer, and may strike some as a bit too touchy-feely, but it's the same standard I would want used on me if the shoe were on the other foot.

It may also not seem fair that you can make nine great statements about someone and his work, but just one 'constructive' one, and the nine somehow get out-remembered and out-emphasized. But that's an issue and a question for another day. For today, at least, I just know how glad I am to have stayed tight-lipped and to have passed on the chance to vent in the wrong direction, via the wrong channels, and in the wrong forum, on the less-than 5 per cent worth of material I would've had ready from a group and an experience that was more than 95 per cent outstanding, and memorable for all the right reasons.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ice Cream, Social

I had a great time last night at the blogger meet up at Gary's Ice Cream. Rather than try to summarize (besides, richardhowe.com has already vlogged this), I'll just pick one point to slap together into a paragraph:

Differing views towards 'Wings Over Lowell': It was interesting to hear people's thoughts about the new wings joint that's going to come into the property recently vacated by the dearly departed Dharma Buns. There seemed to be a pretty stark split among long-time residents, who were almost uniformly pessimistic about Wings' eventual fate, and newer residents (like yours truly) who were a bit more hopeful/optimistic. I'll admit that I don't know the first thing about how difficult it is to run a small business, esp. in the food service industry, and I also haven't lived through enough openings and closings of downtown businesses to be jaded (though since 2008, it seems a bit too easy to rattle off all that's been shuttered around here).

Of course, I wish them the best and look forward to the convenience of being able to order from a place just down the street that can deliver to my home using the oldest known form of transportation. I'd also like to think they can make big inroads with the college kids up at the UML ICC, and can generally improve on DB's business model with higher volume and better pricing.

But as much as I like the idea of wings and all else they'll offer (Lynne was saying the same today over at LiL) the split last night reminded me of the discussions I used to have about the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) with a former neighbor of mine who grew up in Israel, served in '67, and emigrated to the U.S. well into his adult life. Just when I was getting old enough to start reading the New York Times for more than the box scores, I would read stories about peace proposals and excitedly tell him, "Itzhak, did you hear about this new idea?!?! It seems like this is what's finally going to work...Arafat is coming to the table now, too."

He would just sort of grin a little without showing too much emotion, and say something to the effect of, "No, actually I haven't seen the latest developments in the MEPP. It's not worth following too closely, in fact. I'm too familiar with that part of the world to expect any changes, so I'm not holding my breath."

I sort of felt my bubble deflate a bit whenever he said this, but I finally learned to understand what he meant. There is a forest, there are trees, and someone familiar enough with the forest doesn't get too swayed one way or the other about the changes.

Self-aware enough to know how green I can be, I'm still pulling for Wings and really believe it could work if they get the marketing piece down and can tap into all that's available in the city.

Oh, and one of the very cool but totally unexpected results of attending the Ice Cream Summit last night was learning that a new Iraqi-themed restaurant recently opened on Merrimack St. Its name is Babylon, and it's where Mama Lia's used to be. I checked it out today and was able to get a phenomenal chicken/beef shawarma and a fatoosh salad for a reasonable price.

Besides the great food, Babylon has another important but often-overlooked thing going for it:
niche. As much as I love Irish-themed pubs and beauty salons, it's nice to see something downtown that's a complete break from the norm of what's tried-and-true. Sure, there's risk associated with that, but count me in as someone who hopes to become a regular customer...though not 'til February.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Air Over There

I just did a Google news search for "Kabul" (yup, I'm one of those type of -holics) because I just couldn't resist.

The first story that popped was about the air quality, or lack thereof, in Afghanistan's capital. That story, linked here, makes the claim that more Afghans die per year in Kabul alone from pollution-related ailments than die from all the violence associated with the war nationwide.

As crazy as that may sound, this is one of those things that needs to be filed in the 'you'd have to experience this to realize how serious it is' drawer. It's a combination of dust, lack of sewage treatment, old cars, and the locals' penchant for, well, burning things, that make the air so bad. The fact that the city is sitting in a geologic *bowl* compounds everything. With mountains all around, there's no outlet for all the contaminants in the air. You can literally taste the air on some days....and as someone who respects the literal use of the word 'literally,' I would swear on a stack of Bibles about that claim.

Thankfully, ground is being broken now on the Deh Sabz District, which by way of comparison to here is sort of like a Hamilton Canal District times a 1 with lots of zeros after it. It's a massive planned residential/business/all-purpose district in an area adjacent to Kabul District but now sitting largely vacant. The idea is sort of modeled on the Shoeless Joe Jackson-in-a-cornfield idea that once the development starts, people will flock to it, which will draw more people, and so on. Right now, so many Afghans flock to Kabul for the simple reason of economics. That puts Afghanistan in league with most of the developing world, which is urbanizing at a breakneck pace.

On one of my first mornings back here, I got up around 8-ish (emphasis on the ish!) and ambled down to Brew'd Awakening. The first thing I noticed was the difference in the air. Kabul's bad air was sort of like the proverbial annoying buzzing sound in a room that you stop noticing until it goes away, and then realize how much it bothered you subconsciously.

Everywhere along Market Street, there were trees and other flora in full bloom. The bright greens which contrasted with the red bricks were a nice break from the drab gray at Camp Phoenix. More importantly, though, I could take a deep lungful of the air anywhere along the route and feel great about it.

The other big change was the quiet. There was a bit of standard vehicle and pedestrian traffic, but it was nothing compared to the constant noise of...constant noise. Here, I'm not being entirely literal. Since taking over my old boss's job unexpectedly back in March, I've kind of felt like one of those silver spheres inside a pinball machine...bouncing around from spot to spot, dealing with whatever it required, and then just frequency hopping over to the next thing while trying to steer clear of the flippers and the gutter. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not referring here to physical danger. I don't, and won't, try to compare my deployment experience to an Infantry Company Commander out by the Pakistani border making life-and-death decisions on a more-than-daily basis.

That said, I could fairly compare it to that of any high-stress white-collar professional putting in north of 90 hours a week without a day off. It's sort of like taking a wind-up toy, spinning it all the way up, but never letting the dial spin back down. I half-jokingly called it the "Night of the Living Dead" phenomenon, because of all the hands reaching out from the ground and all four corners at any moment with an asking (peers and subordinates), or a tasking (from seniors).

The past few days have been absolutely surreal. I don't know if it's because of the joys of seeing my newborn baby thrive in her new home environment, if it's because of the wonderful time that my wife and I have had together without having to adhere to a schedule, or if it's just because things got so much quieter in the sort-of-literal/sort-of-figurative sense of that word. Probably, it's a mix of all three.

I flew home with a buddy of mine who is a Company Commander out in Khost Province, at FOB Salerno. He was mentioning to me that the General who just left command of Regional Command East (Major General Campbell, 101st Commander and, yes, garrison commander of the famous eponymous fort) had been talking out loud about shortening Army tours to just 9 months but scrapping the R & R program entirely. That might have tremendous cost-saving power, but now that I'm seeing all this from the other side of the fence, I'm not so sure how great of an idea that is.

This time right now is nothing short of magical, and it's giving me the effect of a full battery recharge before I head back through the rest of the time deployed.

And the best part of all? By the time I get back, the new boss will have been *in the seat* for nearly a month, and I will be requesting a spot on the overnight shift to help prepare the reports and other analytical work he'll use during the day. It'll be so quiet then that I actually might be able to hear myself think!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blogger Meet-Up

The italicized text below is a direct copy-and-paste job from www.richardhowe.com:

Next Thursday (June 9) is our third annual Greater Lowell blogger meet-up. This year we will gather at Gary’s Ice Cream, 131 Gorham Street, East Chelmsford from 6 pm until 8 pm (and we’ll likely stay later). This event is completely informal. There is no agenda, no sign-in table or advance registration. Unless you buy an ice cream (which you absolutely should), attendance costs you nothing. Everyone who is interested in or curious about blogs, blogging and bloggers should attend.

I definitely lucked out on the timing here. I had a great time at the Hot Dog Summit/Hot Dog Diplomacy, missed out completely on Top Donut because I was in Bourne, and now have just a short window of time at home...I'm looking forward to this not only for the chance to talk about the blog world, or to trade Congressman Weiner puns, or to catch up on the past few months, but also because it puts many of the people I'll want to see while I'm home in one place at one time - from an efficiency point of view, that's hard to beat!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When the Baddies Get the Goodies

So an opportunity for a course recently presented itself. It's a training course that certain soldiers would eventually need for their promotions. There are tons of those courses out there, but what makes this unique is that the major Army training command (TRADOC) realized that there was enough of a critical mass of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan who needed the course to warrant an iteration being run...for three weeks, all the way over here.

Sounds good enough, right?

A lot of the soldiers from one of the busiest, most-tasked sections here (the Engineers) actually need this for their MOS. Several of them tried to sign up, but eventually their OIC (Officer-in-Charge) realized that if they all took it, his section of guys would be as useful as a hockey cleat for a three-week period in the middle of the deployment.

So what did he do? Without many better alternatives, he just told his guys that they could either take that class, or have R & R leave...but not both. Predictably, every single guy took his name off the list.

And who'd that leave? The folks who are already skating by without half the responsibility of the first group (who, ironically, need that course and will eventually have to take it back in the States), and who just want something "cool" to add to their military resume and look even better on paper.

For what it's worth, I'm not involved in any of this directly (I neither needed that course nor signed up for an in-theater junket), but that gives me some credit for objectivity. Objectively speaking, then, situations like this tend to suck.

The busiest, most-engaged people get indirectly *punished,* while the skaters get a chance to break away and then look even better on paper in the end for having done it. This happens on active duty all the time...too often, the folks that find their way into all the non-operational tours wind up with the best professional and civilian educational opportunities, while the deployers just sort of miss out.

As with a lot of things associated with large bureaucracies, I'm not saying I have a better answer. I don't. But when I hear grumbling about this sort of stuff in the chow hall, I can empathize.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thinking Locally, Drinking Locally

One of the crown jewels of Kabul's "New Economy" is the Bagrami Industrial Complex, which is located about 7 km east of downtown. Inside the Bagrami Industrial Complex, a huge Coca-Cola bottling plant was opened in 2006. Some residents complained that the $25 million investment, made by an Afghan family mainly based out of Dubai, could've been better directed towards hospitals or schools.

The plant, however, directly employs 300+ people, and indirectly employs a couple thousand more ('indirectly' here refers to the drivers, store owners, streetside vendors, etc.) Those jobs help put Kabul on the road to stability, and that stability will enable the existence of needed institutions to help the city get on its feet and stay there.

I'm glad to know that all the Cokes, Diet Cokes, Sprites, and Fantas in our chow hall are bottled in Bagrami. Not only does the local purchase help stoke the local economy (and because we pay market rate, we're not creating an inflationary burden on Kabulis), but it means we don't have to rely on a long logistical tail to get the products. No ships to load up in the Persian Gulf, no port call in Karachi, and no hazardous trek through the Khyber Pass to get American soldiers and contractors their sweet, nutrition-free drinks.

That's a better way to do business. I know sodas aren't much good to begin with, but I'll also admit I enjoy them from time to time...and it's nice to know they're coming from right down the road.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Up Time

There's no shortage of comparisons out there between the experiences of deployed soldiers these days and those of past wars and conflicts.

In the past, soldiers had way fewer creature comforts. No unlimited Baskin Robbins, not to mention unlimited food and water, in a chow hall inside a landlocked country with a semi-functional road system, for instance. No wireless Internet to keep up on news from home. No DSN switches at Hanscom for free phone calls home 24/7.

There were also a few, uhh...creature comforts that soldiers enjoyed that are now prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It might surprise you, but technically no soldier out here can have a sip of beer or look at prurient images.

But this has all been said before. And we've all heard the narratives...the old guys were tougher, the new guys are better-trained. The old guys could get by with less, but the news guys have a broader mission set.

Here's one key difference that's often overlooked: In a break from ALL past conflicts, to include everything from well before the Vikings right through Desert Storm, the experience of a deployed Officer or Sergeant on certain bases, in certain positions, is marked by virtually no 'downtime.'

This has everything to do with connectivity.

Ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine from the pre-Global War on Terror (GWOT) era about his or her deployed experience, and you will inevitably be regaled with stories about waiting and boredom. Now, if that person was in a combat zone, that boredom may have been punctuated with brief spasms of violence, but that violence was likely followed by more...boredom. Those periods were necessary times for bonding with fellow teammates, and for the physical healing that comes with sleep, and for giving the ol' adrenal glands a break (the old term 'battle fatigue' actually has to do with what happens when the adrenals are taxed dry).

Years ago, whenever you were moving somewhere, that's basically all you could've been doing. Anytime you were waiting to move somewhere, that's probably all you could've been doing. Once your mission had been wrapped up, your weapons were cleaned, and your patrol debrief was done, there's not a whole lot more you could've done.

These days, not so much. We're wired for sound and effect in our workspaces, our living quarters, and even in our MRAPs. Our leaders understand we're human, and need time to sleep and to workout, but there's a pretty clear expectation of responsiveness to all the various forms of communication that we have. I sit at a desk with three machines (one unclassified, one on an Army network, and one on a NATO network), and inboxes that are hundreds-deep with messages. If all I ever did was try to read and respond to them all, I never would...so I prioritize the most important ones in order to keep my boss and the rest of our staff as informed as possible.

When I do get to leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base), it's just to go to another FOB. Still, that's such a welcome relief from the monotony of Camp Phoenix's gray hues that I welcome the chance. Leaving also means reporting on the early side of early (even a 0900 departure means lined up and ready at 0815), which I always enjoy because it's the only real downtime I might get for days -- I literally have to be there, but there's nothing else I could be doing than just standing or sitting around. (I have purposely avoided carrying a cell phone out here, although most of our Officers do).

I won't ever, ever, ever, ever (did I mention ever?) play the who-has-it-worse game when I realize there are soldiers out in places like Kunar and Helmand Provinces who get into near-daily firefights and have to fear booby traps and underground bombs at every turn. What I will say, however, is that endless 12, 14, 16, and 18-hour days while constantly in an "up" state of readiness takes its own sort of toll in its own sort of special way.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Telecommuting to War?

I'll take the Captain Obvious Award for pointing this out, but the Obama Administration is under serious pressure to: (1) save money; and (2) bring down troop numbers in Afghanistan to show 'progress.'

One innovative way this is happening involves the movement of certain headquarters-y, administrative-ish units out of the theater. That simultaneously accomplishes the goals of reducing the BOG number (Boots on Ground) while saving on the tremendous costs associated with the logistical tail involved in supplying a landlocked country with 19th-century infrastructure.

If you can believe it, the "dumb math" shows the cost per soldier here is more than $1.1 million per year (I call that dumb math because it's a crude calculation of costs divided by soldiers, which involves a lot of fixed costs associated with equipment and infrastructure)...it depends who you ask but the marginal cost per soldier is closer to half a mil when you count base pay and bennies (with higher margins for Reservists and Guard, who wouldn't normally draw federal base pay from the Pentagon), incentive pays, food/fuel/water costs, other contracted administrative support, etc.

But anyway, if you put some of those headquarters folks in friendly Gulf countries, you still get the long deployment days out of 'em (they're pulled away from the distractions and creature comforts of home), but you save huge amounts of money by reducing that logistical tail. Because so much data can move so quickly and easily over e-mail, voice comms, and even video teleconferences, its effect on operational capabilities may be minimal or even nil.

Once you factor out the reduced force protection costs (somehow averaged out per soldier...let's just pretend there'd be a way to do this), the decreased logistical convoys, the ease of moving goods across water instead of land, etc. let's just be real fast and loose and say you'd chop the per-soldier per-year cost in half.

For a 200-person staff headquarters, you're now talking about $50 million. Multiply that once or twice over, and soon you're talking about real money!

It wouldn't work for our unit (we run the bases in Kabul, so a lot of it necessitates base-to-base movement and physical involvement in projects), but for certain other units it really makes sense. It could even work in the U.S., but the trick would be that you'd have to move people far enough away from their homes for the deployment rotation period to where they wouldn't constantly be distracted.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Tough Conversation

Senator John Kerry swung through here today and stopped to eat at our chow hall. It was a pretty neat experience.

I got to shake his hand, and then our Commander said, "Captain Page used to be a Navy Officer."

Senator Kerry then had to ask, "So why'd you leave?"

"I wanted to be closer to the action."

His comeback: "But c'mon, you could've stayed on to catch bin Laden."

I'll admit that was pretty quick. I knew he had to make his way through the room so I just said, "Uhh...I guess I should've gone to BUD/S, sir."

The whole visit was standard stuff. The 181 Infantry Commander handed him a plaque, and then our Commander gave him a decorative thingy, and he said a few words and left. The most interesting part for me was having dinner with James Traub (NYT, Foreign Policy).

But the most interesting part of what JFK said to us was about how he was about to head back to Pakistan. He was off on his way to some heated negotiations. Besides our need for Pakistan to work to "drain its own swamp" of extremist elements, we also rely on them for transshipment of nearly 70% of our materiel for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF).

But here's the thing -- since 2008, NATO has steadily brough that number down (it used to be 85%). It's more expensive this way, but we can bring cargo through the Med, and up into the Black Sea to be offloaded in Georgia and then ferried across the Caspian (before then going from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan because Turkmenistan still won't play with us). Alternatively, we can offload at Riga in the Baltic and then move it through Russia via rail. Yes, I said Russia. NATO goods through Russia.

It's great that we've developed this Northern Distribution Network to wean ourselves off total reliance on Karachi -- that strengthens us tremendously at the negotiating table, and helps people like Senator Kerry when they go to Islamabad to try to extract concessions.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reading the Tea Leaves

"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country," Gates told reporters.

No one really knows what this means.

It definitely has a lot of people excited, though, and it's got the rumor mill flying.

I'm not reading too far into any of this -- the troop reductions have been talked about for over a year now, so I'm not expecting anything too sudden or precipitous. There's quite a bit of speculation going on in Kabul now, though.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rolling in the Rhino

So yesterday I got to head to the Embassy via the Rhino. The Rhino, by the way, is an uparmored bus that's operated by a FLE (Forward Logistics Element) and flanked by MRAP trucks (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected).

Taking the Rhino meant being subject to the whims of the FLE's schedule, so even though the meeting was only an hour, the entire journey lasted 12 hours from door to door. I wound up getting an impromptu bus tour of Kabul and saw everything from the crowded bazaars to the King's and Queen's Palaces near Camp Julien and Camp Dubs.

One of the things that stood out was that once it started getting dark, there were no women to be found...anywhere. During the day, it's common to see women walking around Kabul -- sometimes in groups, sometimes alone...and ranging in dress from anywhere from a full burqa to the chador with face exposed to just a hijab. Sometimes within the confines of the 'Green Zone' you might see an Afghan woman walking around without even a hijab. Either way, I thought it was remarkable that after dark, even while the bazaars and streetcorners bustled with cars, bicycles, pedicabs, and endless pedestrians, there was literally not a single female in sight.

One other funny anecdote from the day...a huge portion of our daytime trip actually just involved Specialist Brown and me waiting for the Rhino to come pick us up to take us back to Camp Phoenix. We weren't sure exactly when it would come back to get us, so we played it safe and waited in front of the Embassy for what turned out to be hours.

That might sound frustrating to a lot of people, but remember, everything is relative. More than one State Dept. person came out to ask if we were okay/what were we doing, and we explained. When asked why our spirits were so high, we basically told them that neither of us had really just sat and relaxed like this in months. Yes, we were doing nothing, but there really was nothing we could do...moving meant taking the risk of missing the bus.

I've caught myself feeling less wound-up today, and I honestly think it has something to do with the fact that I got to decompress a bit and *just sit there* yesterday.