Saturday, April 30, 2011

What They're Reading in Reading

Arrrghhh...okay I admit I couldn't help myself with that title. I tried not to, really.

Here's a neat piece about the Yankee Brigade Commander thanking the town of Reading for the sweatshirts and the send-off ceremony back in February. The picture was taken in Patriot's Square, and yes, that's the French flag at half-mast in the background (see yesterday's entry).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Freedom-Fried Humor

The photo you see here was taken at Kabul International Airport (that's KAIA, because we'd never call it KIA) on the day we touched ground. Everyone is smiling just because after all the work-up, and then the long layover in Krygyzstan, we were finally there.

Yesterday, all of our unit got our right-shoulder patches (colloquially referred to as the "Combat Patch," even though it doesn't require actual combat, just serving in a combat zone.

The ceremony was a combined one, as our unit also used the opportunity to present some of the French soldiers with whom we serve here with some tokens of friendship to commemorate the storied linkages between the Massachusetts militia and the French military. As you might imagine, they go way back since before the United States was, well, just a bunch of rebellious colonies. Our slogan "First to Fight" has to do with the 26th Yankee Division commander deciding to bypass Army bureaucracy in 1918 and charter a ship with his own money to bring his soldiers to France. Our old slogan, "Ready to Move," dates back to the Yankee Division's service under Patton's Third Army in World War II's European Theater.

Since arriving here just a couple weeks ago, I've already noticed the French flag at half-mast in "Patriot's Square" (main courtyard area at Camp Phoenix). It was because one of their guys died in the Surobi District of Kabul Province, one of the worst places in the theater.

Fighting under a NATO mission.

Because the U.S. was attacked by extremists nearly ten years ago.

When I stop and think about how many French soldiers make up Task Force Lafayette, and the contributions they make to this effort, it reminds me of how stupid some of the reflexive anti-French humor that makes it rounds in the States sometimes can be.

I already did this to the best degree possible, but especially now that I've been here long enough to work epaule-a-epaule with a group of French soldiers, I am going to try to nip that knee-jerk France-bashing stuff in the bud whenever possible.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Eikenberry's Guy

The other day at the US Embassy in Kabul I bumped into a guy who works as the Strategic Intel Analyst for Ambassador Eikenberry.

"That's got to be a tough job," I said. "Between his command time here, and his post-Army career as a diplomat, he probably knows more about Afghanistan than just about anyone else."

His response was interesting, and it's stuck with me since he said it: "Actually, Eikenberry is one of the easiest principals I've ever worked for. Yes, the guy is a near-genius, former General, fluent Chinese speaker, area subject matter expert, etc. but all that adds up to mean he's got nothing to prove."

It's like, the guy is so accomplished that insecurity isn't even an afterthought for him. He asks questions each afternoon to his Strategic Intel guy, and that guy (an Army Major) stays up all night researching and answering them so he can turn something back around to his boss. At which point the Major then rests -- lather, rinse, repeat for a year.

That sounds like an awesome set-up. One of the quirkier aspects of being on a staff is that Field-Grade Officers sometimes like to see if they can "trump" or "punk" someone by having, or claiming to have, some piece of knowledge first.

It's enough to make this Company-Grade say, "Good for you, but who cares?"

As much as I complain about Staff Life, though (and yes, I'm giving myself a free pass on that one...all year long) I promise never to lose perspective of what it might mean to be operating at a platoon or squad level somewhere in Kunar, Helmand, or Kandahar. That's a whole different type of stress and worry, and no, I wouldn't rush to make the trade.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tapdancing on the Battlefield

I'm finally back online.

Since we got here, I've been living in temporary housing, but now that our predecessor unit left, I'm in a single room...and have Internet access.

The General of the unit we replaced made an excellent point the other day. In a meeting, one of our guys mentioned a VIP visit (either a visiting Four-Star or a Congressman from the States) and said how we'd have "someone there to cover down."

"Not so fast," was his reply. "No one cares about you and your staff. They're visiting to see the ANA trainers...not you."

He went on to say a little bit more, and I hope our key staffers were listening. He went on to explain the importance of knowing your role and scope on a large, mature battlespace that's been functioning for nearly ten years now.

Kabul is a complicated place. There are more foreign militaries running around than I can name (we've got the Turks, the French, and the Bulgarians, just for starters), and they've all got their "lanes in the road." Then you've got the alphabet soup of the myriad three-letter government agencies alongside all the NGOs. Throw the Afghan organizations and their security forces into that mix, and you've got quite an eclectic stew.

What does this all mean? Now is a great time not to be "all stick, no rudder." Before taking any initiative, two important questions to ask concern footprint and demand signal.

As to the footprint question, it means checking first to see whether someone is already doing what you're trying to do, and what level of effort (and personnel) is optimal. More is not always better.

As to the demand signal question, it's important to stop and ask whether something is really needed or wanted. Maybe the local neighborhood you're trying to *engage* would just rather prefer NOT to be visited by the big guys with the green suits and the shades, thank you very much.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Settling In

The past week has been kind of a whirlwind of travel. From North Fort Hood to Manas AB outside of Bishkek, way of Bangor, ME and Leipzig, Germany. And then onto Kabul, where I'm 5800 feet up, jetlagged, and disoriented by the 8.5-hour time difference from home.

Along the way, my iPhone just flat-out died on me, so out went my plans to take a single photo each day and write about it. For OPSEC reasons, that might not've been a brilliant idea, anyway. Still, there's plenty that can be said, so once I have a camera going again I would rather show you than try to tell you about the breathtaking views I have of the *foothills* of the Hindu Kush each morning when I wake up and walk to work.

It's still not really our show yet, as we're still undergoing what's known as the RIP/TOA period (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority). As with any other RIP/TOA, there's a begrudging respect the two units have for each other, mixed with the excitement that the outgoing unit has to be headed back for home and loved ones, while the incoming unit bides its time until the "takeover," just waiting to show how much better they will be able to execute the mission.

True to form, we're probably living up to all those cliches. And I *really do* think we're going to do it better than they did - though somewhere in the back of my mind I know those words will be coming from someone else next year, and we'll be the subjects.

So it goes. Either way, I'm just happy to have Annual Training, the Mobilization Station, and the multi-day travel event squarely in the rearview mirror. Tomorrow will be my third full day "in country," and there's so much to do and learn (today started at 0400 and it's just wrapping up now at 2234) that I sort of lose focus on the fact that there are things in the world going on beyond this base, city, and nation.

With a Patrol Cap tipped somewhere towards Ben-Hur, this is the time to "row well, and live."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The 1st and the 15th

There are tons of unknowns in the military. You might think you're joining the Guard to do Civil Affairs, but get shunted off to Staff Work. The Staff Work might be really interesting at times, but your role may chafe at you. It might even think about making you transfer to the Reserves to an actual Civil Affairs Unit. The mission might change, and then change back again, all before you even left your home state.

You might think you're bound for the safest place in the country, but then read about coordinated suicide attacks on the post. The bottom line to all this is that you just don't know.

One of the few certainties, however, is that on the 1st and 15th of every month, you're going to get a direct deposit sent your way by Uncle Sam. That's important, because with automatic bill payments these days, a big chunk of that might be needed for the real humdingers like the mortgage, the insurance, and the utilities. And one of the few upsides to a deployment -- for the soldier and for his/her dependents -- is that the incentive pays make that twice-monthly check just a bit sweeter. It's really one of the few saving graces, and it's even the reason that many unemployed or semi-employed Guardsmen and Reservists jump on deployment after deployment.

So when we heard today that the whole "1st and 15th" thing might get interrupted, people were pretty much shocked. I have no idea whether it'll really happen, or whether this is all some kind of media/political stunt. My days are too jam-packed to follow politics, so I won't even attempt to go there. On a way more practical, personal level, I'm glad for one thing -- even though I have a good chunk of consumer debt to pay off, I didn't liquidate my *rainy day* fund to do it. Some financial advisors and writers start all their screeds with, "Pay the cards off first."

I think that's bad advice.

The FIRST thing anyone should do, if possible, is build a six-month cushion that could soften the blow posed by a sudden layoff, illness, or "black swan" scenario like a natural disaster or government shutdown. THEN worry about the cards. If the government shutdown really happens, I really may miss some paychecks. But the good news is that all the money will come back to me down the road. I'm not really sweating that part. More important, I'm not sweating the impact this could have on the two souls back home who depend on me to provide for them. The piggy bank is there, and the hammer is at the ready.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is Rote Always a Four-Letter Word?

So we're in a bit of a holding pattern right now, somewhere between here and there. One of the things I'm making my guys do before we head into country is to be able to identify all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and all of Kabul's 15 districts on an otherwise blank map with only the political boundaries drawn in.

It's one of those *homework assignments* that's sort of fallen out of fashion these days in the Education world (yes, that was a big 'E'), and, by extension, the rest of society. Somehow, someone got it in his or her head that "old-school" teaching methods involving memorization were bad, and then out went the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

What did we get as a result?

A more ignorant society, for one. Of course, education should force people to think critically and to develop higher-level thinking skills. It shouldn't be all about mindless recitation or memorization. But guess what? Those two things aren't mutually exclusive. Think about how much we laugh when Jay Leno does "Jaywalking" and shows how few people can identify Canada on a map, or name the Prime Minister of the UK. Yet at the same time, many in Education resist any teaching method that would require students to identify those things in a straightforward way. They say that Education should be all about deep thinking instead.

Here's a major problem with that: People are always thinking. They don't necessarily require a school, or even a teacher, to help them with this. Sometimes, "just knowing stuff" provides a pretty good foundation for that thinking. That's why I was pretty thrilled when I was home on pass and saw my 1st-grade cousins starting to be able to pick out some states, including Massachusetts, on a U.S. map. It may not be worthy of Rousseau and Descartes, but having a clue where they are in relation to everything else is a great first step.

When we stray too far from valuing knowledge, I think we're in trouble.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

King Star Coffee on Market: Your New Third Place?

Walking around downtown Lowell on this beautiful early spring Sunday morning, just before I get ready to head back to Texas tomorrow and then "over there" later this week, I was reminded of the Rip Van Winkle effect that one experiences every time he goes away for an extended period and then tries to readjust to the old surroundings, not sure what exactly to expect. (As a kid, even a week away at basketball camp in Syracuse was enough to make me fascinated with 'what had changed' during my seeming eternity away).
Even though I was only gone for six weeks (minus the paternity leave, but that was almost all in Boston), my sense of time was very warped and it felt like much longer. I hadn't noticed much new at first but as I looped back from Goodyear and the Diner I noticed a storefront sign for "King Star Coffee" nestled in between Athenian and the Dubliner.

My initial review here is positive - I am sitting at my kitchen table enjoying the Red Tea that Kin Wing Wong tells me is all the rage in Hong Kong, and I noticed that the cheap eats (the snacks and other food items were like a couple bucks a pop) and the free Wi-Fi make for an appealing potential "Third Place" for downtowners and others who like to hang out on Market St. Especially since the UML ICC set up shop downtown, Brew'd has become hard to find a place to stand in, let alone a place to sit on, on busy weekend mornings...I could definitely see King Star finding a foothold as an alternative for a slightly older crowd who prefers a quieter milieu for their morning caffeine and news fixes. At the same time, the unpretentious, low-cost/no-frills atmosphere may attract a lot of the bubble-tea drinking crowd looking for authenticity downtown.

Hours are 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, April 1, 2011


I feel like I'm coming up for air.

I went "radio silent" here on the blog for the last week-and-a-half, give or take, as we were finishing our Culminating Training Exercise (CTE), which validated the unit for deployment to Afghanistan.

To put it succinctly, it sucked. Imagine trying to do your job, but with people standing around you with clipboards constantly asking you what you're doing, and why. And then demanding more reports from you. And then asking you why you haven't accomplished task x and task y. But you would have accomplished each had they not been there in the first place to pester you!

I've heard it said a few times that the purpose of the MOBSTA (that's 'mobilization station' in longhand) is to make you want to deploy to the war zone). If that's true, then it definitely did its job -- I know that once I get 'over there' I'll be able to get into my routine, do my job, and organize my guys in the way that I see fit.

Right now, we've got a four-day pass. We're one of the very last units to get version of the story says that's because of the need to condense training requirements, but another, more informed version says that the Army doesn't want to give the 4 "free" days to Reservists and Guardsmen just before deployment because of all the trouble that results from cooping people up for 2-3 months, and then letting them run free for three days before the big plane ride.

Either way, as I sit here typing this from Gray Army Airfield (GRK) in Killeen, I'm grateful to have the time off.

I'll spend as much time as possible with Ratriey and Lily.

I may try to blog a time or two, and might even try to make a dent in the growing "unread items" side of my inbox. Catching up on some sleep would have to score higher on the priority list, though.

For right now, though, I'm not really thinking about much -- just glad to be able to un-fog the brain for a little while and try to relax a bit.