Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Photos from the past

Just enjoyed spending a bit of time looking through a digital collection of photos my parents sent me during my absence.  

Good stuff.

I used to be skinny.

And my dad used to be in the Army.

He apparently cared as little as I did about keeping his boots clean.  Sooo much attitude.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Redeployment process

After a week of vagabonding around Iraq and Kuwait, we left late on a Saturday nite, and arrived on a Sunday morning to Ft. Riley Kansas via Forbes Army Air Field in Topeka KS. We had one layover in Shannon, Ireland at about 6am that local time. As usual with such travel exercises in the military, we’d get up at insane hours to get ready and wait around, so I was fairly short on sleep for the 3 days or so until we arrived in KS.

I actually slept pretty well on the flights from Kuwait and Shannon, so wasn’t completely out of sorts when we got to Fort Riley.

We had a very brief welcome home ceremony- maybe 10 minutes, including prayer, national anthem, and 2 minute talk. It was kinda funny, really. They only did the ceremony because of some legislative or Army requirement. There were maybe 15 people in the “crowd” that watched our ceremony. But I wouldn’t mind if all military ceremonies were that brief.

We took most of Sunday off, Monday was spent getting our paperwork in order (called the reverse SRP, soldier readiness processing- as opposed to the SRP on our way to Iraq). Tuesday we did a few briefs in the morning, finished SRP, and then did equipment turn in in the afternoon.

The SRP was a bit troubling, because it was not set up to handle the volume of soldiers going through, and also wasn’t equipped to address any special needs- it only really worked for the “ideal” soldier with no problems or additional requirements. For example, my various health problems (shoulder, back, finger, sleep apnea) were noted, but no treatment or diagnosis work was done. ‘Do it on your own time’ was the mantra. We’ll see how that goes. Same for the dentist, etc. We have 180 days to try and get it all in order. Equipment turn-in was also oriented around doing it as quickly as possible, with accuracy taking a back seat to expedience. That piece was nice, because it meant we could hold on to pieces of equipment that we were particularly interested in. And of course, it means I am bringing home a bunch of stuff. I’ve done far too much accumulating during this tour. Much of it has so much sentimental value to it, though, which makes it hard for me to throw things away, no matter how silly the retained objects may seem to others.

And the outprocessing period has been a bit odd also because none of the folks I was close with were going through it with me, so it was another period of being pretty alone in a crowd. No complaints, though, it is just great to be in the United States. Just this morning as we have been doing our final outprocessing, there were some units doing their train-ups for their deployments and they were doing test-fires of their 50 caliber machine guns. That gave a number of us some decent startle responses- not PTSD by any means, but our bodies clearly went into alert status as they would and did when hearing unexpected gunfire back in Iraq.

And now on the bus out to Kansas City International Airport. Get to be with the family tonight. Looking forward to it.

Basra revisited

About a month after Maliki’s assault on “criminal elements” in Basra, things look much different than they did in that first week and the talking heads’ analyses. The Iraqi Army and police seem to have truly taken control of the city and its critical ports, and both the security forces and the people of the city seem to have taken great confidence in the process as it unrolled. Yes, it was messy, and yes there were desertions. But in the end, it appears the desired outcome has been achieved, and it was largely an Iraqi operation. Such an outcome would have been unthinkable back in the days of the Fallujah offensive when the Iraqi contingents simply refused to engage at all.

But the media doesn’t report the progress with nearly the same intensity as they do the failures. The old “if it bleeds it leads” maxim seems to hold true, but I believe more and more as I observe things in Iraq that many of the large popular media outlets really do fail to provide balanced coverage. They seem to revel in the failures, both on the Iraqi and U.S. side- as if they would be happier to say “I told you so!” than to say, “We were wrong, and the U.S. and Iraq are better off because of what we’ve done there.

Not spectacular, what is happening now- but much more important.

Farewells and awards (12 April 2008).

When does this thing start? (end of tour, 'what me, worry?' slouch)

Good to see you again, boss! 3rd time's a charm!

Just got “recognized” by folks who don’t recognize me. Spent my whole year at An Numaniyah, but came up to HQ to get my award, which was presented in front of all of the DoIA. It was nice, they said lots of nice things, and I got some pretty ribbons. It was good to be recognized along with two captains that I got to know at Ft. Riley- sharp guys with some brutal cynicism and humor, who I believe probably served with “extreme valor and fidelity” as the awards state. But I knew very few of the people in attendance, and none of them really had any clue as to whether I deserved the awards or not- nobody up here really knows my job down there, or what I did well or poorly. I did plenty of both good and bad during my tour. And before anyone protests “your bosses had to know what you were doing!”, I’ll tell you simply that I somehow either earned their trust, or they were occupied with the veritable plethora of other issues (referred to by others as “helmet fires”, and between those two reasons, I was left almost entirely to my own devices down there.

Some time with the big man- as with my more immediate leader, the third meeting- on the way out- it doesn't get any better than that.

More meaningful than the IZ awards presentation were the truly heartfelt discussions I had with my friends down at An Numaniyah. It was hard to say goodbye to the National Police that were there. And most of them weren’t even there because of the extended hiatus the Training Center is in. Just as we were leaving the Training Center for my last time, General Sabar arrived. He hurriedly had some of his staff wrap up a couple of gifts, and they are all gifts that are quite meaningful to me. I had requested a set of the National Police patches as a souvenir, and they came through. They also gave me a leather bound poster-like “map” of Iraq, with well-known sites engraved in the leather. Lastly, there was also a smaller box, with inlaid stones, a nice map on the top, with a little genie-style lamp within. It was beautiful, and something that I might have bought myself, which is not a common thought of mine when I receive gifts from my brown brothers. I had to go quickly- almost missed the helicopter because it came early- so I didn’t get to ask them about the meaning behind the lamp. I like to think it represented knowledge and education, a symbol that I’m familiar with. They had always rendered honor to me, at least in our discussions, for my educational background.

That is one thing that I noticed more and more throughout my tour. The people of Iraq I worked with were always generous, gracious, hospitable, and concerned with showing respect and honor. They would always offer “chai”, tea, which I would respectfully decline for my personal religious reasons. They would always escort me to my vehicle or otherwise walk with me to an appropriate parting point, rather than the more cursory American style of “you can find the door.” I’ve commented in previous posts about their customs of gift giving. I have found them very generous with what is by our standards meager means. It is hard to reconcile that with other experiences of hostility and danger, mafia-style business dealings, cheating, and the rampant mistrust in this country. But here, like anywhere, it appears we all retain an ability to live lives of incongruence and contradictions apparent to everyone looking on from the outside. A silly parallel from the states would be the person driving an SUV with a “save the environment” bumper sticker. I also hold out the hope that these experiences are with different people- that the ones that are so nice to me are not also the ones participating in all of those other less friendly activities.

I wish the National Police well, and hope the Training Center can someday once again be a major contributor to increasing the personnel strength and skill sets of the National Police. It really has great potential if it can get the proper level of support and can enjoy effective management. Those are contingencies at this point, however.

And Steve and Tim, I pray it goes well for you as you try to clean up the mess I’ve created down there!

The flight from Numaniyah, double entendre intended

A last photo at the Police Training Center barracks.

The flight came a bit early, which meant we parked, I threw my gear on and gave quick hugs, and got on the bird. It was the first and only helicopter flight I’ve gotten that was resourced through my higher command. Better late than never. The quick hugs were in a way a good thing- no awkward waiting at the landing zone, just go, quickly. Like ripping the band-aid off, I was gone. I really had a good year down there, and I’ll miss the work challenges, the fraternity, etc. I won’t miss the smells, I won’t miss the bugs. I won’t miss the distance from family, the intermittent power and poor communications. I won’t miss convoys just to get food and mail. I won’t miss the knowledge that I was one of the 20 Americans on a base with up to 7,000 Iraqis at a time. I was and am proud to have served there, but never liked the idea of how vulnerable we were- and how my colleagues who remain there are now. But it does make it hard to paint us as occupiers there- it truly is an Iraqi base, Iraqi run, with the U.S. providing some mentoring and advising, but we don’t run the clown show anymore.

General Sabar honors me with a couple of great gifts-

almost missed him as he rolled in just before my departure.

The flight was a time of reflection as I looked out at Iraq below me. This was it. Last helicopter ride. I’ll take an armored bus from the IZ to the airport when the moment arrives for the movement out of country. For the most part we flew over green and irrigated areas around the land of the two rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates keep these parts of Iraq alive. At times, though, we’d be over drier, sandier spots. I was noticing what I first thought were large craters, and guessed they were impacts from bombing. Upon further inspection, these areas revealed themselves to be a bit more orderly, and I would be able to spot HESCO barriers and sand-colored tactical vehicles. The holes were made to yield sand to fill the HESCO barriers, providing protection for the isolated outposts the barriers surrounded.

I thought during the flight about what I was leaving behind- the National Police, my replacement, etc. And consistent with my experiences throughout the tour, I was pleased with the fruits of my labors, knowing regardless that there were other things I could have done better. On the whole I know I made a good effort to do the right thing and try to make improvements throughout. As my Iraqi brothers would say, through interpretation- “you were very serious in your work, and we have learned much from you.” I can hold my head up high as I return home and know that when I was called, I stood up and answered the call. I worked through fear, through health problems, disappointments, danger, and sometimes even a strong sense of loneliness. But I’ve almost made it home now.

Last photo of Numy friends, from the chopper

The goodbye from my friends' perspective- I'm in that bird. Photo credit to Steve.

I live in a tent (12 April 08).

Since I came up to Baghdad unnecessarily to out-process even though I never really in-processed, I also have been unnecessarily exposed to indirect fire. Thankfully, things have been considerably more peaceful than it has been for the past few weeks, which is good, because I live in a tent. After five years here, we haven’t solved the problem of housing for all the folks we have working here. Most everyone is in trailers- only a select few have hardened shelter. And folks like me, here only temporarily, get put in tents. I am mere feet away from the old palace that serves as the U.S. Embassy (until the late and over-budget Embassy).

If I were smarter, I’d probably do a bit of extra work to find some housing inside the Embassy. My NCO found some when he was here and encouraged me to link up with the same set of helpful Marines. But it has been very quiet, and for right now, I’m fine in my 100 person tent with three people in it. And it has a nice historical feel to it, reminiscent of some great verse in the Book of Mormon, which my children can now repeat with a personal feel to it: 1 Nephi, Chapter 2 verse 15: And my father dwelt in a tent.

Meeting old friends, and fitness interrupted (11,12 April)

While I always complain about trips to Baghdad (all two of them I made during my whole deployment!), one of the nice parts about it is that I get to reunite with old friends. This past time around, however, a good number of old friends were already gone. Half of the team I deployed with has already gone. But I did get to link up with a few, regardless.

Riley battle buddy John, at the Rhino lot late on a Sunday evening

One of them was my Ft. Riley battle buddy, John. He’s a good guy, police officer on the civilian side, former West Point football player, very calm disposition. He’d battled some health problems but came back to finish his deployment regardless. He also helped me a good bit getting my stuff to the transportation point for my 2am ride out to BIAP on the other type of Rhino- an armored bus kind of thing. John invited me out to yoga class my first night in town. He goes 6 days a week, and I wasn’t quite ready for it, but went anyway. I was sweating profusely through the whole thing, and there were some things that my reconstructed ACLs just wouldn’t allow me to do- I can’t bend my knees that much. But I survived with little more than perhaps a slightly strained right hip. It was fun, and a great workout. And I have no flexibility, but I could see that if I did that 6 days a week I’d get there eventually. Of course, I’m out the door, so that won’t happen in Baghdad.

The good captain, not a close friend, but had the best job title (apologies to dogbert)

Another friend was a Marine, Derek, who I’d just met and worked with during my last trip up to Baghdad. He was kind enough to invite me on my second day in Baghdad to get a bit of a workout at a punching bag at the same fitness center where I did the yoga thing the night before. I was flattered to be invited, and we had a good time with the workout. We chatted a bit as we went through a routine that he’d developed in working with others with some expertise. I hadn’t done much like that since some judo type training way back in 1992 during my job skill training for my enlisted army position back at Ft. Sam Houston, TX.

I almost had to laugh, though, as we got the alert for incoming “indirect fire” (IDF- rockets and/or mortars), and had to take cover. We were out pretty much in the open (the punching bag was hanging outside) away from any building. So we ducked behind a wall while we got our stuff together, then half walked/half ran to the building which wasn’t much better cover, given how much of its walls were nothing more than glass.

First, indirect fire isn’t really a laughing matter- in a recent post I note 2 MNSTC-I folks that were killed just over a week ago. So it is deadly serious in that respect.

Maybe it was just mirth at the sheer folly of my existence- how did I ever end up hanging out hitting a punching bag with a Marine at a fitness center in the International Zone in Baghdad, and then get it interrupted with IDF exploding somewhere around us? (I think it was to the north, but I don’t have a great sense of direction in the IZ) All my psychology and business training was paying off yet again!

The laugh was a bit the amusement of watching a Marine running for cover (tough guy!), but mostly for the odd situation we have where taking indirect fire is just a part of the experience there. We as the U.S. have a tremendous amount of firepower, but given that the folks firing these rockets and mortars are doing it from neighborhoods, often on mobile platforms, we’d often have to destroy far too much innocent civilian property and risk the lives of innocent civilians to make it worth firing back indiscriminately. So for folks like us, with no combat power under our command, we just take it, and scatter like mice as we run to get our helmets, body armor, and try to find hardened shelter.

The IZ I think should have the subtitle “IDF Magnet”. I can still remember the footage from the press back when I was at Ft. Riley last year, sometime between Feb and April- I believe it was the newish secretary general for the UN (Ban Ki-Moon?), at a press conference with Maliki, when some indirect fire hit either the building they were in, or close enough nearby to really rock their building. The secretary ducked down and started looking around for some cues as to what he should be doing. Maliki didn’t even exhibit a startle reflex- just kept on going with the brief, muttering something to the secretary about not worrying about it. What a life.

I am heartened however, when I do get to see reports of times when drones or other air assets can pinpoint tubes or other IDF activity and destroy the weapons and/or their operators. My unit wasn’t a warfighting unit, but thankfully someone else is responding to these hostile acts on our behalf.

Last convoy

This is a bit dated, but now I've got the internet access I've needed...

I’ve written about the few other convoys I’ve run on my private blog for family to know about just how scared I was. For the rest of you, I was never scared.

The last convoy run I made just last Thursday (10 April 08?)- not a bad way to spend my last full day at An Numaniyah- actually only part of it- half of it was spent at Scania. In a nod to The Office, I was named ‘the Assistant “to the” Assistant Convoy Commander’- 3rd in charge- (kind of like when Pam secretly helped out Dwight!). We made the typical run for mail, stop by finance, and the maintenance shop to get some of the vehicles worked on. We got to see the typical sheep and camels on the side of the road, and thankfully, another uneventful run in terms of enemy activity.

The only two remarkable pieces to this convoy were that 1) we had one of the new team in the lead, rather someone from the old crew, and 2) we had a couple of “Iraqi Army (IA) gun trucks” (nothing more than pickups with gun stands in the back) in the convoy as well. They had come along to get “Rhinos” mounted on the fronts of their trucks (the Rhino is a deceptively simple device to defeat IEDS- what normal people call “bombs”).

Why were Iraqi Army trucks getting Rhinos? Well, because the 3rd ITB team wanted to keep their guys alive. Primarily for their food runs, especially bread. The Iraqi Army guys have to make convoys just like we do for stuff, and given that much exposure on the road, it was one more way to keep them alive and keep the samoon coming. Got to keep the soldiers fed. The IA vehicles are much more vulnerable to IEDs than our vehicles are.

Towards intelligent debate about our involvement in Iraq....

This one was particularly sharp, I thought.  I prefer these to the hard right or left howling editorials.

Weekly Standard
05/05/2008, Volume 013, Issue 32 

This week as I reintegrate into the wonderful world of America, I had one person ask me (at least she apologized as she asked it)..."what is the difference between Shi'ia and Sunni?".

I just don't know who to be frustrated about with questions like that.  Our notoriously Americentric public in general? Our government's leadership that has been discussing and debating our involvement in Iraq in a way that has failed to educate our public in any meaningful way about what's going on in that country?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What's up?

I've had limited internet access for quite a bit of time now, so I have a number of entries stacking up on my laptop, waiting to be exposed to the world.

I got to Kansas on Sunday, have been going through outprocessing since then. Should be reunited with family in just over 24 hours.

It is good to be back in the United States.

While I still suffer the indignities of "open bay" billeting accomodations, it is a small inconvenience at this point. I continue to pray for the well-being of others facing much more challenging conditions.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Another good decision point for Iraqi leadership

Here's a chance for the country's government to send a message that they are not ruled by the religious leaders.

That Sadr calls for reinstatement of folks who refused to fight, or worse, went to the other side, sounds completely ridiculous from our western perspective- but I can understand it a bit more after a year here.

Regardless, to reinstate these guys would not strengthen the movement towards a national identity, and as I implied in an earlier post, weakens any sense of accountability.

Let us watch (I am now at this point a non-participant) as the country of Iraq tries to figure this one out. I wish the best to my brothers and sisters in arms still making the effort to lead Iraq towards peace and prosperity.

Go, JJ!

Yes, I know this isn't a Phoenix photo....

I saw in the sports news recently that Jimmie got his first win of the year, and is up to 4th in the points standing for NASCAR.

Go, Jimmie!

Iraqi Government Dismisses 1,300 Soldiers

Iraqi Government Dismisses 1,300 Soldiers,Policemen After Basra Fiasco

13 APR 08, 1600,

EXSUM: Operations in Basra have cause challenges forIraq's military and police force. Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said 421 Iraqi police and 500 Iraqi soldiers were fired from their positions in Basra. The members failed to return to duty in Basra and will be tried in military courts. General Khalaf said those that can prove they were prevented from returning will be reinstated. In addition 400 local police were fired in Kut for refusing orders to combat. Unidentified Iraqi government officials reportedly have said that about 1,000 members of the security forces - including an entire infantry battalion -mutinied and in some cases handed over vehicles and weapons to the militias.Iraqi government dismisses 1,300 soldiers and policemen after BasraFiasco,

By Bushra Juhi, AP Writer

My two cents- yes, folks deserting is a bad thing, but the numbers beat the pants (not to be mistaken with the "Status of Pants" posting) off the Fallujah experience a few years ago when you look at the overall numbers of folks the Iraqis put into the fight- so progress there. And now the AWOLs and mutiny types are being held accountable (kind of)- extraordinary- I'm very impressed by this accountability process given what I've seen over this past year.

The flight from Baghdad

Caught a C-130- Japanese military- remarkable.

I didn't understand a word they said.

But they seemed very nice.

A Tribute to "My Chaplain"

From: Terpstra, Gordon LTC MNSTC-I CHAPLAIN
Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2008 8:06:43 PM
To: DL MNSTC-I All Hands
Subject: Chaplain's Word of the Day


An ancient Arab proverb says, "All sun makes a desert."

God knows that, too. He doesn't let us have all sunshine, for it could easily produce overwhelming barrenness in our lives.

When grapes were harvested in Scriptural times, they were crushed on a platform and the juice was collected in large vats. However, it had to be poured from one vat to another as the heavier particles of waste settled on the bottom. If it was not poured out regularly, it would become bitter and ruined.

People are like that, too. God speaks in the Scriptures of pouring out people to purify them. From time to time I've been poured out, too. I don't like those times because it's painful to be poured out. But it's very productive, and it's purifying.

I have been poured out in this deployment to Iraq. So have many of you. But the pouring out has changed us. Something deep and permanent has been formed within us...a growth in our soul, in our inner spirit, in the kind of person we are. And it's also very comforting to know that when the events of life cause us to be poured out, the cause is not some force or fate, but the loving hand of a Heavenly Father Who is seeking our growth and purification.

Being poured out does not mean God has abandoned you. It means that God is seeking your growth.

Thank you, Chaplain Terpstra for your service to our command over this past year. This post was yet another of his fine efforts- on the same day that he led a service for two more of our fallen soldiers.

Iraqi haircuts and international haircuts

(12 April 2008)

Before the collapse and fall of the BLP empire at An Numaniyah, we would get our haircuts done from time to time by the Iraqi barber. Pretty nice- he worked in the classroom building helping the students most of the time, but he’d occasionally be brought up to the headquarters building to work for the expatriates to make our lives that much easier.

I was usually leery of having an Iraqi with a straight razor anywhere near my jugular, but one of the visits, I decided to use him rather than my NCO or one of the other expats- I had used “Needles” and “Sunny” before. Given I went with the Iraqi, I went ahead and got the full treatment. He did the traditional short military haircut, and worked on my unruly eyebrows and ear hair (men never go bald, the hair just starts growing out of different places as we get older, and yes, I’m an old 38). Then he pulled out some string, and made my life painful. He takes the string across a few fingers so he can double it up, and in a twisting fashion the two strands would grab and then pull out hairs on my face- the little peach fuzz hair on upper cheeks and forehead- not the regular beard and mustache hair. Brutal. But an interesting experience, anyway. One I’ve not repeated since then.

I took inventory as I reflected on this. Being on active duty since last January, I’ve had to keep my hair fairly short, which has meant lots of haircuts. And so I’ve had lots of folks running their hands through my hair with scissors, clippers and razors: Iraqis, U.S. military and civilians, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. My hair has lots of international experience. Which will help it land a great job in a company that has an international focus. The rest of me however is planning on going to Lowe’s- at least until my next deployment.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

News Links

A couple of articles sent by our public affairs officer-

First, a blog entry taking a cynical (but not entirely unrealistic in my opinion) perspective on the state of the loyalties and allegiances of various Iraqi factions and forces. This is informed by last week's events in Baghdad and Basra, as well as information about hiring practices for security forces.

Motivation, Mutiny and Militias
by Fester
2 April 08

Pretty brutal.

Second, a glowing review of Odierno's work (and to a degree Petraeus'), which I think is perhaps a bit too optimistic about the results achieved. It does acknowledge there is still much work to do and that we continue to face many challenges.

The Patton of Counterinsurgency
With a sequence of brilliant offensives, Raymond Odierno adapted the Petraeus doctrine into a successful operational art.
by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan
Weekly Standard Volume 013, Issue 25

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Things to think about

It is painful to read about the performances of some of the National Police over this past week. I didn't work directly with either of the brigades specifically mentioned, but it hurts regardless. And I'm sure it is troubling to the leaders who aren't corrupt- as they try to clean house, they see their work torn asunder by folks with questionable (or clearly JAM) loyalties.

Iraqi, Al-Sadr Showdown A Test Of Loyalties
Hundreds of sympathetic security forces defied orders to fight Shiite militiamen
By Charles Levinson, USA Today
USA Today
April 2, 2008
Pg. 6

An interesting perspective from an NPR reporter about last week's events and their implications.

LTC Nagl with another good letter in the NY Times. Discussing this with a special forces LTC, he has a beef with the assertion that we don't have the doctrine for these advisory teams- he believes it has existed for years within the special forces community and within other parts of the military- it is just not in the mainstream "big army." The title of the article reminded me of Bob on the Fob's "Good idea fairy."

And a good commentary from yesterday about the financial piece of the whole military effort.


Things have quieted down considerably since last week's excitement, which is good. Not that it ever gets really crazy or even do we face much violence where we are- mostly just threats and intrigue, with the occasional killing.

Which means that as we provide overwatch for our dormant training center, we can do plenty of our own dorming. Dormir- french verb- to sleep.

And we can catch up on blogs, and in some of my surfing yesterday I found the ultimate blog for my awful infatuation for the man jewelry known as the watch.

Steinhausen- one of my self-purchased Christmas toys last year

Watchismo. This blog rocks. If you have a thing for watches, anyway.

Sea-pathfinder. Another of my man jewelry items. Complicated enough I can't figure out half of the functions.

If you think looking at odd and unique watches is cool, this is the site for you. If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of truly disposable income, you can get the actual watches, too.

My old stand-by- the Seiko Monster Diver- I've missed this one during my tour. Didn't want to mess it up.

And another recent acquisition- I'm a silly, materially-oriented person. But it is so cool how it works in the dark with the tritium dials!