Thursday, August 30, 2007

Our teammates, Iraqi Americans Haidar and Ahmed, had been asking me where they can buy fishing equipment, and I told them they might need to order it. When I was at the Blackhawk market the other day, I happened across a crappy Chinese fishing kit and bought it for them. In return, they caught a lovely fish and brought it to my office to show me yesterday. I just love this photo!
Ahmed, the angler.
Ahmed with another fishy on the line.

This one is a fighter! We had to pray the piece of crap Chinese rod/reel wouldn't break. The reel doesn't really reel very well...

Almost comes the fishy!

Poor baby had the hook in her pretty good. We practice catch and release. We feel sorry for the fish, plus we would be scared to eat anything that lives in that nasty Saddam water. Who knows how many chemicals and dead bodies are in there...

My heroes. Ahmed let Haidar be in this picture, because he baited the hook. That's what I call teamwork!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Melissa and me at the Aussie pool during a heat strike. Incidentally, Melissa is Australian, and the main reason we have her on our team is so we can get special treatment from the Aussies, like better pool privileges, etc.

This year, as opposed to last year, our offices are in the overflow trailers where our C-IED team was housed before. Remember how I used to work in the palace, where the A/C is really cold, and the bathroom is all marble, ceramic, and gold? Yeah, that palace. Well, we don’t work there anymore.

The trailers are really, really crappy, or at least the one Melissa, Shane, and I work in (that’s right, Shane from my old team is back to work with us) is really, really crappy. There is zero insulation between the outside and inside walls, probably because there is no “inside or outside” wall. They are one in the same…and they’re about 1/6th of an inch thick. There are also cracks in the wall at each seam through which daylight actually shines through to the office floor. I thought it was just the small size of the A/C that made the tiny little room swelter at midday, until I saw those cracks. A moment’s investigation alerted me to the lack of insulation and/or real walls. In fact, daylight can be seen all around the office: in the corners of the door, below the door, around the window, along the seam where the roof joins the walls. It’s pretty impressive that the dang trailer is still standing, when you think about it. And no wonder it is so flippin’ dusty in there that we can’t stop sneezing.

There really isn’t much we can do about the heat in the trailer unless they decide to insulate it, so we have tried to do what we can. We asked the Army for some foamy stuff in a can, but they haven’t given us any. They did ask the Mayor’s Cell, who are in charge of the buildings and housing on Camp Victory, to solve the problem, but the Mayor’s Cell said that it’s just going to be hot, because there isn’t any insulation. So the Army said, well, that’s why we are asking for insulation. And the Mayor’s Cell, probably distracted by the heat in the trailer they were meeting in, said, “The trailers are going to continue to be hot due to the lack of insulation.” Hmmmm… It might have done just as much good to go stand in the corner and hit their head against the wall repeatedly. We still don’t know whether they are going to insulate them, give us bigger A/C’s, or just draw out the problem long enough for the weather to cool down and then forget about it until next summer.

Soooo, what we did was tape up some of the holes and then build an air conditioning duct out of empty water bottles. Yep. You heard right. I went around to all of the garbage cans like a little hobo and gathered up all the empty water bottles I could find. I then proceeded to cut the ends off of all 55 of them and tape them together until I had several lengths of “pipe” that looked a lot like a hamster track. I then used 550 cord and tacks to suspend the lengths of piping from the ceiling and angled the bottles such that one length went from the A/C to my desk, and one length went from the A/C to Shane’s desk, curving out toward Melissa’s. A cardboard box with two holes in it taped over the A/C vents served as the connector. In the end, we wound up with quite a nice little, er, aqua duct. Heh, heh.

It needs a little work, still, because mine blows the strongest, with Shane’s and Melissa’s blowing cool but comparatively weak. It’s just that my desk is closest to the A/C unit, and it is a straight shot, whereas Melissa’s desk is in the opposite corner, and the duct has to bend significantly to hit Shane and Melissa.

The new ducting system works, but it is still no match for the heat outside. At about 3 pm, it is so hot inside that we sweat in our seats, and that normally results in ill tempers and swearing. We also have a huge fan (no kidding, the sticker on the fan says it is an Al Jazeera), but it just blows hot air onto me while blowing the cold air off of me. Melissa likes it better than no fan at all, though, so it points at her. At times, we have to go on little “heat strikes”, during which time we go to our crappy-but-cool tent to work, or to the pool for a quick dip. But normally, we just sit and swelter and curse.

Melissa and Shane benefit from the new A/C duct.

The duct, as seen from my desk.

That's my desk, on the right.

The ducts at the source, where they connect to the A/C.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A tent next to ours. Ours is the same, except this one has a pretty sunset behind it, and ours doesn't.

We are in a tent designated “military”, which should mean that only military women live there, but which apparently means that only military women and civilians who can’t fit in the civilian tents live in there. KBR, you are such a pain in the arse.

We are fine with the (paltry) accommodations, now that the A/C has been fixed (on Day 1, it was so hot Melissa and I almost pitched a public fit with KBR, but instead decided to put in a work order to get it fixed...novel concept...). I was actually expecting the tents to be fairly nice, like they were when I left the tents a year ago, but they are far, far worse. Before, we lived in crap accommodations that eventually got better and better until we each had real beds, as well as wall lockers, and the wall lockers provided some amount of privacy. Now, however, we are back to Square One, with no lockers and two rows of cots. The cots do have sagging, filthy, stained mattresses on them, but I removed mine and replaced it with my camping Thermarest mattress, upon which I sleep inside of my 55-degree REI sleeping bag. Good times. I love to camp, but this is ridiculous. I tell you all of this so you will understand why we get paid the big bucks. Heh, heh.

ANYWHO, the living arrangement had been fine, with me taking up an entire corner right beneath the A/C, up until about three nights ago. There were four or five of us in the tent until then, and we had just gotten rid of the snaggle-toothed troll who lived across from my cot and never seemed to work or do anything other than watch DVDs all night, sleep all day, and eat stinky chow-hall food in bed. Sadly, however, our easy-living bliss was rudely interrupted when an entire brigade or so of Army soldiers (I know that is redundant, but I am writing for a diverse audience, and some might not know that ONLY Army personnel are referred to as soldiers) moved into our tent city overnight. We went through CRC with a lot of them, but the girls in our tent are all knew faces. It seems the CRC crowd that we flew to Kuwait with had to stay there 10 days for training, and now they are all here, finally.

SO, our comfortable little tent went from four or five to 12--full capacity--as women trickled in all night long. Nobody got any sleep that night, and very few have been getting much sleep in subsequent nights. As I write this, a few nights after the influx, our numbers are back down to eight. But one of those eight is a snorer, and a mere foot of space separates her rack from mine. That means about two feet separate her head from mine. I wear earplugs and a blindfold, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hear her snoring, and one of my biggest peeves is audible breathing. I think the poor dear has sleep apnea, no doubt a result of her, ehem, few extra pounds.

Another problem here is that nobody gives a rat’s ass about other people’s sleep. Well, I suppose the actually do care a bit, if I must be honest, but it does SEEM like nobody gives a rat’s about people who need sleep. Lights are flipped on at random times throughout the night when most of the gals are asleep, lights are turned out during the day when most of us need to see, talking and giggling at all hours is a common occurrence, people love to let the door slam (a new vice I, too, have picked up as a way of getting back at my inconsiderate tent mates (I think I will call them tenties)), and, this is my biggest complaint, people love to open the door so wide that the bottle full of rocks on a string that weights the door and causes it to close gets caught on (this is hard to explain) the bar on the ceiling over which it is slung, thereby un-weighting the door and causing it to fling open when someone (like myself) applies the normally required amount of door-opening pressure to it, expecting a much, much heavier door. The lack of resistance can send the unsuspecting opener of the door flying forward, oftentimes directly into the slack of the string that holds the now-stuck bottle full of rocks, whereupon the extension of the door takes out the slack and causes the rope to catch the opener of the door in the nose or neck. I realize those sentences are long and difficult to read, but I am hoping my prolific use of the common comma will smooth things out for you. I love the comma; it’s like a little traffic cop, telling us when to slow, pause, and readjust. Did I tell you I am a grammar dork? My, but I do digress!

Where was I? Ah, yes. I was bitching about my tenties. I reckon this is getting pretty boring by now, so I will try to wrap this up. I just wanted you all to know that sleeping in an open, squad-bay like tent is very, very difficult. Sleep is a precious commodity, and we are all poor in that department. Melissa and I can hardly wait for the extra girlies to move into their trailers or out to other FOBs (forward operating bases) so that we can sleep a little better again. The waiting list for the Army girls to get trailers moves way faster than the one for civilians, so most of the girls should be out of here very soon. And the good news is, the audible breather just informed me that she is out of here next week. Since she is a civilian, she should be behind us on the 3-month civilian trailer waiting list, but I guess she has a friend who is moving out of a trailer and turning over the keys to her. That is very much against the rules, and it is the main reason the civilian waiting list never moves, but Melissa and I are so glad we won’t have to live with her anymore that we’re not complaining.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Peace out! I hope this blog will help you remember to remember us out here whenever you go to bed in your comfy beds, in your private rooms with indoor plumbing! Give the porcelain a flush for us, and pleasant dreams to you all!

A view of our hooch when it wasn't as crowded.

My corner, under the A/C, which allows for extra storage space.

Friday, August 24, 2007

12 August 2007: Touchdown in Baghdad. I'm baaaaaack...

Our office toilets. Not quite as plush as my old palace accommodations...
Here at Camp Victory, we are quite accustomed to living in and amongst, well, filth, really. What I mean is, everything here is coated in a very tangible layer of actual filth, and even the filth is eventually layered in filth. And even certain amenities--actually, all basic amenities, are, indeed, rather filthy.

[Sidebar: The word “amenity” derives from, I believe, the many prayers that people say before using said amenities. For example, “Please, God, don’t let me get a foot fungus from that nasty shower, Amen.” Then there is the ever-popular, “Please, Lord, don’t let any of that nasty blue port-a-potty water splash onto my bare buttocks, Amen.” Laugh if you want, but that actually happens, and (TMI warning), well, it only JUST happened moments ago.]

Take, for example, those common amenities such as toilets and showers. I mean, Camp Victory and its surrounding camps are actually very nice, heavily-populated, westernized camps, and I only complain about them because it makes me happy to complain. We do, after all, have Pizza Hut, The Green Bean (Starbucks-esque), Subway, Cinnabon, Burger King, Popeye’s, and, new since I was here last, Taco Bell, and it really doesn’t get more civilized than all that, now does it? But what is lacking is civility in the, um, hygiene realm.

This area is extremely highly populated, and the numbers of soldiers and civilians seems to be climbing at an infestation rate. (Just last night, our tent population went from 4 girls to 12!) Because of the large numbers of bodies and the relatively low reserves of fresh (loosely used term here) water, conservation steps include using a whole lot of port-a-potties in replace of actual flushing toilets.

Well, in my tent city, we have showers with barely dripping spigots and an obscene number of water conservation placards strewn across all the walls. The meaning of one such placard baffled some of my tent mates and me for almost an entire two weeks until my brilliant friend and co-worker, Melissa, figured out that the “POJ” acronym in, “Conserve water; do not leave the water running when you brush your teeth or shave; maximize use of POJs,” stands for Port O Johns. Silly me, I never would have guessed that, seeing as how the sign is posted in the SHOWER, and I always thought it was Port-A-John, which would make me believe that the acronym, if you really must have another flippin’ acronym in your life, would be PAJ, and I really have to wonder why they are insinuating that we shouldn’t go to the bathroom in the shower.

So, being the good little resident that I am, and seeing as how I have been drinking A LOT of water, I have been using the heck out of those, um, err, port…a…o…to hell with it; I’ll refer to them as porter johns, since that’s what I thought they were when I was a kid. Truthfully, if I had any alternative choice, such as a flushing toilet, I would never even begin to maximize use of the POJs. All we have at the trailers we work out of are porter johns, and the nearest toilets to the tent that we live in are porter johns. I could walk a greater distance, if I needed, to some flushing toilets, but that would cause me to lose even more sleep during the minimum of 3 nightly trips to the potty. So, porter johns it is. (Alright, I confess I don’t like calling them porter johns, so let’s go with…porta potties.)

The porta potties (that doesn’t seem right, either, since I am afraid people won’t realize that I realize that that is not the proper term, so let me start over.) The port-a-potties at our “office” are particularly disgusting, I’d like you all to know. All of the port-a-potties are cleaned daily by the shit-sucking trucks (SSTs), but they still somehow manage to drip with stink. I think it has something to do with the natural heat-capturing greenhouse effect of the plastic with which they are constructed. Entering a port-a-potty that has been sitting out in direct sunlight on a 118-degree day, even though it is a dry heat, is scarier than the dream I had last night about having to take a running leap off of a 34-story building and land in the ocean at the start of a triathlon/adventure race. Staying in the out-house greenhouse long enough to “get ‘er done” is hard enough. Staying in there long enough to zip, button, and buckle takes determination, fortitude, and immense lung capacity. It is hard to hold one’s breath the entire time, but failing to do so can actually allow the razor-sharp stench of concentrated urine/ammonia to cut into your nostrils and stay seated in your sinuses for hours. No kidding.

I don’t know who or what has the nonchalance to sit in a filthy, stinking port-a-potty long enough to actually write on the walls, but somebody in our tent city does. Two new bathroom graffiti gems, if you will, have appeared in two separate potties in the past two days. One is a hilarious, albeit blasphemous, “God said let there be light, and Chuck Norris said, ‘Say please.’” The other is an even more time-consuming defacing of an existing sign that changed it from, “Please do not leave empty water bottles; put them in the trash cans,” to “Please do not leave empty water bottles; put them in the __ass can_.” Hilarious, and I applaud the discipline it must have taken to remain in the stench and heat long enough to entertain us with those juicy tidbits.

Every port-a-potty, in an attempt to provide an appearance of civility, is equipped with a soap dispenser full of antibacterial gel. Never mind that the gel properties of antibacterial gel are such that they tend to gum-up soap dispensers (supposedly because antibacterial gel is not soap), so there are very few gel dispensers that actually, well, dispense. The dispenser at our office toilets has been broken since we got here, and it finally reached the point that no amount of banging on it with one’s fist would result in the dispensing of so much as a dribble of gel.

Melissa, apparently reading my mind, wrote on the dispenser in dry-erase marker, “Fix me, please.” The next day, the note was erased, and the dispenser dispensed antibacterial dribbles for almost half a day. I went back outside and wrote on the dispenser, “Please just replace me. I don’t work 99.99% of the time.” Well, today, lo and behold, we have a brand new soap dispenser full of glistening, green antibacterial gel! So I wrote “Thanks” on the new dispenser and gleefully disinfected my hands.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

CRC living quarters. Nice sunset, eh?
Well, so here we go, finally. I know, I know. You are all angry with me for not blogging. Well, I apologize. CRC didn’t allow access to blogs, and ditto for our systems here at work. Yep, I am now in Baghdad. And speaking of Ditto…

We, my new friend and coworker Melissa and I, spent a week together in Columbus, Georgia, the swamp ass capitol of the world and home to Fort Benning. Why is it the swamp ass capitol of the world? Well, I am not certain it has been officially bestowed with that title, but I doubt anyone who has been there during the summertime would disagree that it is a fitting moniker.

It is HOT in Georgia. I mean to tell you, it is STICKY HOT. Sweaty hot. Nasty, icky, disgusting, sweat-in-the-shower hot. It was so hot there that I just could not WAIT to get to Iraq so I could enjoy the hotness of Baghdad. You see, in Georgia, the humidity makes you sweat as soon as you step outdoors, and you stay soaking wet until you can get inside and cool down. In Baghdad, the temperature is hotter than in Georgia, but, as they say, it is a dry heat. You sweat, but the dry air dissipates moisture and keeps you feeling halfway human half of the time. Georgia offers no relief.

Anyway, now I have begun to bore myself. I think you get the point. Georgia is hot and miserable. Moving on.
The Gazebo, where most of the socializing at CRC takes place.
Back to, “and speaking of Ditto.” CRC is a total suckfest, but the one good thing I can say about it is that we at least got to meet some really great people. Every evening after each long day of “hurry up and wait”, large numbers of our “classmates” would congregate outside under the smoking gazebos to drink, tell lies, and, well, smoke ‘em if they got ‘em. I didn’t smoke, but I did drink beer, and I did engage in the telling of tall tales. We met all kinds of awesome folks, including an Army sergeant, female type, with the last name of Ditto (ah, finally, the correlation). I’ll accidentally leave somebody out and regret it if I try to list all the wonderful civilians and soldiers we met, so just believe me when I tell you we made a lot of wonderful friends, and I am glad at least a few of them will be hanging out here at Camp Victory.

CRC, by the way, is the CONUS Replacement Center, which is a sort of hub for individuals and units deploying to and redeploying from theaters such as Iraq and Afghanistan. That includes military individual replacements, active duty, guard, civilians…you name it. Everybody who goes to Iraq has to have a Common Access Card (CAC), and CRC is where you get them. CRC is actually mandatory even for those who already possess a CAC card. By the way, I do realize that CAC card is redundant (common access card card), but just calling it a CAC (pronounced “cack”) seems vulgar. “Let me check your CAC,” and, “I need to go back to my tent and grab my CAC,” are phrases that can be unsettling if you don’t tack “card” onto the end of them. The rule is, anybody who has been out of theater for more than 30 days has to go through CRC again.

At CRC, we learn interesting skills such as sleeping with our eyes open, how to complain openly and often, and how to fill out forms for official records that will never actually be filed. Seriously, though, I suppose parts of CRC are useful. I don’t know which parts, but some of them must be. Last time I did CRC, at Ft Bliss, Texas, I at least thought the first aid and hostage rescue classes were interesting. I didn’t find anything interesting this time, though. I was mildly interested in what people were buying off the roach coach during breaks, but only mildly. And I was vaguely interested in seeing what new flavors of MREs they had come up with since I last checked.

After a week of the famously boring Army harassment package that is CRC, we were all pleased to finally get out of Georgia and on our way to Kuwait.

We boarded our chartered flight at 2300 EST on Friday, 10 Aug, and we were rolling by 2315. At least they know how to board planes efficiently in the Army! The sergeant major and personnel in charge of the movement were really sharp and very good. (I must also say that the cadres in charge of us at CRC were good, too, for the most part.) At 2315 and 30 seconds, I heard a thunk sound, followed by, “Medic!” It was hot as crap on the plane, and someone had gone down. That meant a delay while they checked him out to ensure he was ok to fly. In the meantime, we sat and stewed in our own sweat, since the aircraft couldn’t really crank on the A/C until we were airborne.

Liquor at the airport in Leipzig, Germany. We won't be allowed to have booze until we arrive back in the U.S. so it was just there to taunt us...not that I wanted any, anyway...

We finally took off at 2320. It was hot and sweaty for two hours, and then it was absolutely freezing. I put on my blindfold and my earplugs and slept all the way to Leipzig, Germany, 8+ hours away from, and twenty degrees cooler than Georgia. We spent about an hour or so there refueling before taking off for the final six-hour leg to Kuwait. We arrived in Kuwait at 2203 local time Saturday night, then we did the requisite waiting around, bus ride, waiting, baggage unloading, waiting, and manifesting until early morning Sunday. We were very lucky to catch the next flight out of there, landing at Baghdad International Airport, military side, at 1105 local time on 12 Aug. I seriously thought we would be stuck in Kuwait for a number of days waiting for a flight, but we got lucky.

And there ends this blog session. Pictures follow. Stay tuned for news from Camp Victory.

Baggage we unloaded at Ali Al Saleem in Kuwait.

Dust in the air reflects my camera flash. I forgot about that. Only photos taken without a flash will turn out in this dusty crap hole.

The airfield in Kuwait. Those hangars in the background are bombed out and crumbling, but they are still in use as offices, or something.

Mustering before getting on the bus that would take us to the flight line. Look at the nasty civilians. I'm one of those, now. And I love it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Carole, Don, and me. My in-laws!

Well, I thought I would be in DC for a week or less, but, after 13 days, I AM STILL HERE! Phooey! Those who have been in the military themselves, and those who have been around the military, in any capacity, know all about "hurry up and wait." I'm not complaining, but I do feel there is relevance to at least explaining what I mean by this. You see, the way it seems to work is, the government will decide it needs something, like, yesterday, and they will light a fire under someone's (SYColeman's, in this case) a$$ to make what they need to happen, well, happen. So the group with the fire under their a$$es will jump through hoops and ready everything for action. AND THEN what happens is, the government will realize that they need to check a couple more boxes before they can "pull the trigger", as it were. So the one with the fire under his/her butt enters into a holding pattern. And then the government figures things out (writes orders, in this case), pulls the trigger, and expects action. But the thing is, by that time, the contractor (whose butt is still on fire) misses the last exit in the holding pattern and is forced to circle around again (because, for example, another gov't group runs out of school seats in the compulsory, weeklong course that all those whose butts are on fire must attend before deploying to Iraq). So, that is basically the story in a nutshell (help, help, I'm in a great big bloody nutshell!). Confused? Join the club. But, seriously, this sort of thing is totally expected, and we always just go with the flow, and it's no big deal, but we will complain about it anyway, albeit mildly, because we are former military, and soldiers and Marines are not happy if they are not complaining, and vice versa. Don't believe me? Ask any commander. The moment Marines stop complaining is the moment you know something is actually wrong.

Baby Meghan Alexis

SO, I have been hanging out in Alexandria and working in Crystal City, and it's kind of fun being back in my old "neighborhood." I am sad my buddy Meghan, who recently moved to LA, isn't still living here so I can hang out with her, but no worries. I did enjoy seeing my (recently engaged!) friend Ellen, and I even had an opportunity, because of the contract delay, to go up to Princeton to see my best girlfriend, her husband, and their BRAND NEW baby girl. I rented a car and drove up in order to save $100 on a train ticket, and after 7.5 hours into a 3.5 hour trip, I was severely regreting that poor decision. But seeing them was just awesome, and well worth the trip, and I have to state here publicly that their little monkey is the cutest newborn baby I've ever seen in my life. She was delivered by C-section, so I guess the reason she is so cute is she didn't get all squinched thanks to having avoided the bowling-ball-through-a-garden-hose ordeal of birth canal birthing. Yuck.

I also got to spend a weekend with my in-laws, and that was really cool, because I am lucky enough to have in-laws whom I actually really enjoy visiting. I flew out to Baltimore from LA, after visiting my best girlfriend in Burbank. Jennifer and Sean are also expecting, and it was wonderful being able to see them before flying east. I arrived in Baltimore and was greeted at the airport by my sister-in-law, Evanthe, and I was just blown away by the cuteness of my new little nephew, David James. I stayed with Evanthe and Steve, and, as luck would have it, I arrived on the exact weekend of Steve's 40th birthday party. I got to see the entire family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was awesome. To top it all off, we discovered that one of Dave's cousins is moving to San Diego and needs a place to stay for a few months, so now we have someone to house sit! Talk about perfect!

Me and my nephew, David James.

Today is Wednesday, and I leave here Friday for Georgia. I'll spend about a week in Georgia (the state, not the country), and then I'll fly out to Iraq. The week will be a painful one (more hurry up and wait...Army style...), but it will bring me closer to Iraq, and the sooner I get to Iraq, the sooner I can come home. !