Sunday, February 25, 2007

My New Office

While I was gone on pass our building, and several others, underwent major remodeling. Several sections got moved into new buildings and offices. Our conference room got moved so now we have plenty of “standing room” only space. The only drawback was that before I could sit on a desk (I’m not special enough to actually get to sit at the table) and now I have to stand. Aren’t I so unfortunate?

Well my building was also remodeled and I got a new office. Before I had been sharing an office with the Operations Officer but now I have my own, private office. Before, the walls did not extend to the ceiling so the other guys in the office could overhear my conversations with soldiers which proved to be a problem at times. Now, my walls reach to the ceiling so not only can I have private conversations but I can listen to the music I want to listen to and not bother anyone.

Guess how much I’m loved? Well I’m loved so much that the workers didn’t move my nice big desk before they enclosed the walls. My nice big desk won’t fit through the door from my old office to my new one, so I am in a tiny little desk. Before I left I was told, that because I was so loved, that I would be getting a nice, new, leather executive chair. When I got to my office, not only did I have a tiny, prefab pressed-wood desk (Oh, thanks Merrill for putting it together for me while I was gone!) but I had no nice, new leather executive chair. Oh well I thought, at least I have my old cloth, executive chair. But no, it is missing and still hasn’t been found. So what is my sorry a** sitting on? A hard, plastic chair with footprints on it. I’ve been told that an executive desk and chair have been “ordered” for me but we’ll see if they ever arrive. When I asked the supply officer where my new chair was, he got a sheepish look on his face and said they’d all been given away. Well at least I have my own office with a door. Guess how much I’m loved? Do I have a doorknob? No. But I have something even better. A bent nail!! Aren’t you jealous? Well the final act of love is in the placement of my door. When you walk in the front door of our building, my door is immediately to your right. You then walk a few more steps and are stopped from progressing any further by a wooden “security” door. OK, it’s not really secure but it does stop people from going any further. Did they think to put me behind the “security door?” No!! Instead, anyone and everyone has access to my office since the front door is no longer locked like it used to be. In the one day that I’ve been in my office, I’ve had 3-4 people already come through the door, step into my office and ask if “MAJ So-in-So” is in. I’ve turned into a freaking secretary!!! Oh well. At least I have my own office with my bent nail door knob. I’m so lucky…and loved!!!

You've just walked in the front door. There's my office on the right. There's the "security door" with the "stop" sign on it.

There's LT Earnhardt, the Intel Officer, not letting me pass.

There's my office door. Can you see the "door knob" at the end of the green arrow? Wow, I really am pretty tan.

Here's my front door as it looks now, still no door knob.

And there's my desk. Pretty tiny. Oh, and the crappy, black plastic chair.

The End of Pass

Well “pass” came and it went but it was a great seven days. “Seven days” you ask? “I thought pass was only for four days?” Well you’re right. On the books, pass is only four days. However, the day we arrived was not counted as Day One, it was day zero. Official Pass” then started the next day (day two). On Day Four (day five) we had to check to see when we were flying out. Some of the guys going back to Iraq actually left the evening of Day Four (day five). We, however, did not have a flight that day or the next (day six). No flights to Afghanistan. Dang it. And I was so looking forward to going back. So on Day Five (day six) we checked and we actually had a flight scheduled…for the next day at 6:45 p.m. That meant that our travel day (day seven) ended up being an additional day of pass.

OK, I’ll have to admit, I was ready to get back. Not that I necessarily wanted to go back to Afghanistan and a war zone. I wanted to get back to work so that I could feel like my “time in country” calendar would continue to count down. While on pass I realized that I was now under the 90-day window to go home on leave. Then when I got back from leave I’d have less than 60 days in country. For some reason that made my remaining five months seems so much less when compared to a straight five months.

My last few days of pass were spent at the pool. I swam, I slept, I read, I listened to my iPod, I ate. I did everything that I wanted to do on pass. It was great.

With seven days in the sun I realized that I was starting to turn pretty brown, but I’m sure no one would notice. I mean, I wasn’t that tan.

Well when we finally got to the passenger terminal we received the bad news…we were flying out on another C-130. You could hear the groans of despair around the room. Not only was it going to be another painful flight of knees crammed into someone’s elses, uh, thigh, we were going to stop in Kandahar, Afghanistan on the way back. And since we would be landing around 4:30 in the morning, we would not be let off the plane. That made the though of the trip even worse.

Well when it came time to load the plane, I realized I was the senior officer on board and I made the executive decision that I was NOT going to be crammed into the knee to thigh seats. I stepped aside and let everyone go past me and I remained at the end so that I could sit in a jump seat that did not have a seat across from it. The folks from Kandahar were supposed to be in those seats but I decided that rank had some privileges and some junior enlisted Kandahar passenger could look at someone elses knee approaching his, uh, thigh. So while the flight was chilly and the seats were uncomfortable, at least I got to stretch out my legs.

Now my uncharitable act did not go unpunished though. As I sat down and leaned back, I painfully realized that there was a metal beam running up the back of my webbing/backing of my seat. Of course I didn’t notice it when I so selfishly picked out my seat. So it meant I could not lean back and get comfortable. Instead I had to lean against this metal pole for the 3 hour flight to Kandahar, the 45 minutes we were on the ground and the two hours to BAF. But you know what, I’d do it again just to be able to stretch out my legs.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Inland Sea Picnic

Another first for me, off-roading across the sand dunes of Doha, Qatar. Ten of us were picked up this morning at 0930 in two SUV’s. Since I was the senior officer, actually the only officer (it was pretty sad, I was old enough to be the father of every other soldier that went with me) I was the TC – tactical commander. That meant I got to ride in the lead vehicle in the front passenger seat. Pretty cool.
Here I am with our driver.

When we reached the end of the paved road we had to pull over to let the air out of the tires. Coincidentally there were two guys with camels there waiting for us and for a mere $5 you could have your picture taken with one and go for a “short” ride, short being the operative term. All I wanted was a picture but I got to go for the ride anyway. We went about 20 feet up and 20 feet back and that was my ride. Pretty impressive.

If you’ve ever seen a camel get up and down before, it’s quite the process and you’d better hold on. I don’t remember the exact sequence of movements but the camel basically rocks back and forth as it gets to its feet. I wasn’t quite ready for the jerkiness of it all so had to hold on pretty tight. I guess that’s why the “guide” kept pointing to ropes for me to hold on to.

After the exhilarating camel ride, we took off for the dunes. It was a total blast. The driver was bound and determined to show us a good time. We got up to 110 kilometers in some parts. Oh one thing, in his vehicle if he got over 130 kilometers the car would start pinging telling him he was exceeding the speed limit. I’m glad we don’t have that feature on our cars. It would become quite annoying for some people, I’m sure.

He took us steep dunes and down steep dunes. He’d take us along the sides of steep dunes. He’d get up to 110 kph and start fish tailing the vehicle. We never really got any air but came close several times. Since I was the old man amidst a bunch of young bucks who were whooping it up, I couldn’t very well hold on for dear life but at times I felt like it. There were a couple of times that I literally thought he was going to roll the SUV. I’m sure there were a couple of times if the conditions were right we would have rolled. Just what I didn’t need to finish off my last day of pass in Qatar, getting into a roll-over. But it was a total blast.

Our adventure ended at the Gulf. The water was incredibly beautiful and blue and chilly. Six of us played volleyball and had a great time despite the stiff wind that kept carrying the ball all over the place. After our game lunch was served.

We were told that there would be a barbecue of shishkabobs, lamb, chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, bread, fruit and salads. Lunch turned out to be less than advertised. It consisted of a big plate of rice with lamb and a few pieces of chicken. We each had a very small plate of salad, one slice of tomato and three slices of cucumber. A few had a cup of plain yogurt. It was funny to watch these young guys try the yogurt and pull all sorts of faces. I think they thought it was going to be sweet, like Yoplait, or something. Lunch was good, don’t get me wrong, but just not what we expected.

After lunch I hit the beach with my Super Heroes. I remembered to take them this time. They had a great time in the sand and relaxing on the beach chair with their Pepsi-Lite.

I walked down the beach for at least a mile or so. It was so nice to just walk in the sand and listen to the sound of the “waves” (small ones since we were in the Gulf) lapping the sand. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to walk in the warm sunshine on the beach. I just wish I had had some better company with me. It’s a good thing that I get along with myself so well.

After a relaxing day on the beach, we took another exciting drive through the dunes to get back to camp. The dunes are incredible. With the wind blowing across them it’s so easy to understand how they can move and change shape. In some places the sand was pretty deep and impassable. It made me grateful that I wasn’t having to walk through the sand. I imagined nomads, soldiers and travelers of another day and age having to struggle through this type of environment. All I could say was “thank goodness for 4-wheel drive and air conditioning.”
Want a smoke of apple tobacco from a huucka (sp)?

Monday, February 19, 2007

A New Party Topper

Ever play that “get to know you” game at parties where you have to tell about something you’ve done that no one else has done? Well I’ve just added a new one to my arsenal – I’ve jet skied and water skied in the Persian Gulf!!! Top that one Burton Karns!! Actually I was thinking of Burton as I was jetting across the surface of the water at 81 kph since the last time I rode one was one of his at Jordanelle Reservoir at Scout Camp a couple of years ago. I’m sure he would have been green with envy. The ski I was riding was incredibly fast and was a total blast to ride.

We left Camp As Saylifah around 0900 this morning for a 30 minute bus ride to the waterfront. I’ll include pictures taken from the bus window as we drove to the water front. As I’ve mentioned, Qatar is a flat, brown desolate piece of real estate. That’s reflected in some of the pictures. However construction is going on all over the place. With their oil and natural gas reserves it’s a country overflowing with money.

I was talking with one of the guys who had been talking with a local. Only 25% of Qatar’s population are native. The rest are transplants from all over this part of the world. He said that the native Qatarians are given, given, the equivalent of $50,000 a year just for being a Qatarian. I heard that the same thing happens in Kuwait. Must be nice for a country to have so much money.

It can get up into the 130’s here in the summer. I figured that every home would have central air. I was amazed to see existing homes and new construction homes with holes in the wall for “window unit” air conditioners. I was surprised by this. But then I thought, maybe they do have central air as well as window units to battle the heat. I don’t know but like I said, I was surprised to see the window units.

Down on the waterfront, there were more sky scrapers under construction than were standing. Business must really be booming here.

When we got to the water front this is what we saw.

Since it’s winter here the temperatures are only in the 70’s – 80’s but with a constant breeze coming off the water it felt rather cool. The water was even “cooler”. It wasn’t “take your breath away” cold but it took several minutes to get used to it.

The guide told us we would be docking off an island so we all had something “else” in mind. What served as the island looked like one big manmade sandbar. But since we never got to go on the island I’m not sure just what kind of island it truly was.

Of course everyone wanted to ride the jet skis and they were great. The water was just choppy enough that I caught some air when I opened up the throttle. It was a total blast.

The water is incredibly salty, more so than the Pacific. And it doesn’t have that nasty, dirty taste it, not that I was planning on drinking any of it. It’s been several hours and I can still taste the salt in my mouth.

After my turn was done, I was helping a young couple get on the ski. They’d never ridden before. She got on first and as I was showing her how it worked her husband got on – the same side I was on. Well of course we tipped it over and back into the cold water I went. This couple, both of them are in the military and have been lucky enough during their careers to be stationed at the same location and to be able to take pass and leave at the same time. As they sat cuddling on the bus, on the boat, on the jet ski, I was quite jealous, as were several of us.

After a little over an hour of jet skiing, we were served lunch of salads, humus, pita bread, grilled chicken and beef and lamb shishkabob and a desert that was essentially flan with raisins in it. It was delicious, except for the flan – hate the stuff!!

After lunch I finally got to waterski. I was quite excited as I haven’t skied since Jordanelle and before that it was too many years to count. Apparently not a lot of people ski anymore as several asked me how to do it and as I was putting on the slalom ski, were quite impressed that I could ski on one ski. Of course I now had to put on a show.

As I got up on the ski, I attempted to cut back and forth across the wake only to be hampered by the speed of the boat. I tried to signal to the driver to speed up but apparently the “universal” sign of repeatedly pointing upward with your thumb doesn’t translate here as the speed never increased. I went to cut back across the wake and was leaning way over so as to get some speed to jump the wake when the lack of speed of the boat failed me and I fell. As the boat came back for me I asked the driver to go faster that’s when he told me that’s as fast as the boat would go. “Great” I thought but then I remembered that I was actually skiing in the Gulf so tried not to be too disappointed. Let me just get the other negative aspects out of the way, just so you know my “pain” - the spray from the ski was such that I was constantly getting sprayed in the face with this incredibly salty water so it made it very hard to see. I tried variations of my stance, leaning further back, leaning forward, but all to no avail. The spray was determined to get in my face. Then there was my nose. It was dripping like a leaky pipe; I’m sure it was just the salt water circulating though my eyes down to my nose but it was a weird feeling to have running “water” coming out of my nose while I was skiing. So there you have it, the few negative aspects of the skiing.

BUT, I got to ski in the clear blue waters of the Persian Gulf. It was a lot of fun. Since only one other person wanted to ski and he gave up after three tries, I got to ski a couple of times. It was great. Because I was skiing for so long I didn’t get to ride the wave runner again but that’s OK, I had a great time.

Oh and the water finally did get warmer or at least the ambient air temperature warmed up so that the water didn’t seem so cold.

So the next time I’m at a party, I’ll be able to top anything you’ve got to throw out there!!

Oh, I almost forgot. Aaron e-mailed me about something else and when I wrote back I told him that I’d been jet and water skiing that day. He cautioned me about not getting stung by a jelly fish and then offered a “home remedy” on how to take the sting away in case I did get stung. After I read his suggestion I was glad I didn’t get stung by a jelly fish!!

One last thing, the Super Hero’s are here with me but since I’m not allowed to take any pictures on post, they’re not in any pictures. It wasn’t until after I left that I realized that they could have come with me. Oh well. While I got to enjoy the sun, water and sports, they got to sit inside the plastic bag inside my backpack inside my wall locker inside my room. Aren’t they so lucky?

Here's the king or emir or sultan or whatever they call him, welcoming you to Qatar. See it even says so on the side of the bank building. Don't you feel so welcome?

Giant oyster, giant pearl.

Qatar's amusement park off in the distance.

The Little Things

As I sat at dinner tonight I got to thinking about how things are around here and how they contribute to a feeling of normalcy. The enlisted folks who are in charge of the Excursions and do the briefings are all in civilian clothes. They’ve got Polo’s with their name and rank embroidered on the shirt and that’s their uniform. They look like “cruise directors” and I’m sure that’s the image they’re supposed to project. It would certainly have a different feel had they been in their military uniforms. What a great job this must be.

At dinner as I was eating off real plates and using real silverware, it too helped create that feeling of normalcy. Now realize, the chow hall here is not normal. They have “real” milk, they have ice and fountain sodas. Something you do NOT see in Afghanistan. Also, there’s a Baskin Robbins stand with about 8-9 flavors and you can eat all you want. They also pass out candy bars – two per customer and other goodies. So in that respect, chow here is not normal, but it was the little things; the plates and silverware that made me think of the lengths the command goes to here to make us feel like we’re not in a war zone.

When we checked in they issued us linen for the beds; mattress cover (that blew me away that we’d actually get a mattress cover) sheets, blankets, pillows as well as a towel. Most places tell you to bring your sleeping bag but here they want you to get away from that feeling. However, the sheets are true military sheets. They’re both the same size and they’re both flat sheets. That means you have to try and make one of the flat sheets serve to cover the mattress. I wish I could say that that was a possible feat but alas it’s not. They barely wrap around the mattress across the width and there’s no way they wrap length wise. If you’re like me and thrash around at night, your bed looks like it’s been through a war zone in the morning. Oh well, at least they’re real sheets!

Then of course there’s the pool. It’s a beautiful pool surrounded by lounge chairs WITH cushions. They even have sunscreen available to use. I wish I would have known this before I spent a whopping ninety-seven cents on No-Ad #30 sunblock. Now those of you who know me know that I don’t like to wear sunscreen. I don’t like the sticky feel plus I’m in the “skin cancer/sun worshipper” club. I know, I know, skin cancer is a real and dangerous thing, but I just enjoy being out in the sun. And I know, I can still be in the sun, just wear the sunblock. Well this time I decided that I’d better wear it. I figure that if I got burned it would be quite uncomfortable going back to “work” wearing my heavy body armor on top of a sunburn. So I did it. I put on sunblock. Of course that patch on your back where your arms are physically incapable of reaching got a little pink but it was either that or ask the tattooed soldier next to me to put some on. I opted for the self-application.

Did I tell you that there’s a Chili’s right there on the pool? I had fajita nachos for lunch the other day as I lay by the pool. It was great and very relaxing.

I love not wearing my uniform and boots. I had just about forgotten how great it was to wear shorts and t-shirts every day. Excursions require long pants and while I enjoyed wearing my Levi’s, it wasn’t quite as good as wearing shorts all day, every day.

What else makes it great to be here? Not having to get up if I don’t want to. Being able to take a nap and not feel guilty about it. Not worrying (too much) about being attacked. Not worrying about where my pistol and rifle are every moment of every day. Not worrying about what my ANA counterparts are doing. (OK, I still think about them, wondering what’s happening and I imagine I’ll still do that even after I get home.) Wearing sandals and tennis shoes. Not wearing Army tan underwear every day. Just not worrying about the Taliban and being in a war zone.

I guess that’s why the Army has the “rest and relaxation” program. It’s definitely one program the Army got right.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Flight to Qatar and Day Zero

I finally flew out of BAF on Thursday, February 15, 2007. I showed up at the passenger terminal at 0800, sat through the required briefing and got my flight details. We didn’t have to report back until 1530 (3:30 p.m.) and the flight was scheduled to leave at 1815 (6:15 p.m.). What that meant was that I had the whole day to sit around with not a lot to do. Fortunately the room I was staying in was a short distance away and I was able to hang out there for the day. It was nice not having to sit in the crowded terminal.

At the appointed time, we boarded the C-17. Since there were only 30 of us or so on the flight, we had plenty of space. The C-17 has the airline style seats in the middle of the jet with jump seats along the sides for those who want to sit there. It was great as I got an "aisle" seat so I could drape my legs out and not be too cramped.

As the plane was taking off, I was in my usual mode of dozing off. All of a sudden, there was a loud "coughing" noise and the plane shook violently. Did it scare me? A little. Was I concerned, not too much. When the plane continued on I just figured that something relatively minor had happened and didn’t think anything more about it. A few minutes later, the flight SGT announced that there had been a problem in one of the compressors and that in effect, the engine had backfired. He then said that we would be pulling back into the terminal in a few minutes and would attempt repairs. "OK" I though, "when did we land?" That’s how oblivious to things around me I was. I didn’t even realize that we had landed and were taxing towards the terminal.

After several minutes of sitting on the ground it was announced that we would be changing planes. We would be leaving the comfort of the C-17 and transferring to a C-130 that was bound for Qatar. You could hear the collective groan of everyone.

As I said, the C-17 had lots of nice, comfortable seats. The C-130 had nothing but jump seats. The C-17 had a latrine. The C-130 had two "piss-tubes." But at least we would be heading towards Qatar.

I had never actually been in a C-130 so I didn’t realize just how uncomfortable the flight was going to be. Those who were sitting directly across from each other had to either offset their legs at an angle or stagger their legs between the set of legs across from them. In essence, you had someone else’s knee extending just past your own knees. Fortunately for me, I sat across from a seat that had a bunch of boxes in them so didn’t have the "pleasure" of having someone’s knee protruding dangerously close to certain parts that don’t like knees near them.

Five hours later, a full bladder later (you had to literally climb over people to get to the "piss-tubes" and I decided it wasn’t worth it) and aching knees from not being able to move them, we landed in Qatar. It was now 0130 in the morning, local time, 0300 Afghan time. (Yes, Afghanistan is off by a half hour. I have no idea why. It’s weird.) Anyway, we proceed through all our in-briefs and by the time we got to our barracks room, it was almost 0400 in the morning.

I’m sharing a room with 4 other guys. It’s not so bad, at least it wasn’t last night. I was so tired I didn’t hear anything, not even the alarm on my watch that I forgot to turn off. The barracks are actual rooms located within a huge warehouse. There are connexes for O-6’s and above as well as those that live and work here. Putting the housing units in the warehouses is a stroke of genius. Not only is the warehouse heated and cooled depending on the season, but the individual rooms are as well. I imagine in the summer time when it gets in the 120’s and even hotter here, the rooms are nice and cool. Actually everything is in warehouses here; offices, base facilities, everything. As far as the eye can see are nothing but warehouses.

It’s also extremely flat here. I’ve taken for granted the mountains around Blackhorse. It’s so much like home that to come here and not have mountain ranges all around me is a little disconcerting. I tend to navigate by the mountains and not to have them gets me all turned around. Good thing I have the sun to navigate by (not). OK, it’s a good thing I have the cheap little compass on my watchband.

I’d post pictures of the base, but you actually have to get a pass to take any pictures of base. I don’t know that I’ll go through the hassle so you’ll just have to imagine a base of nothing but warehouses.

I’m hoping to get off base on an excursion or two. We can take all the pictures we want then so I’ll post them later in my trip.

Since we got here so early in the morning, today counted as day zero "0" of our pass. Day one starts tomorrow and we get 4 days here. So, in essence, I’m actually getting 5 days of pass. Had we actually gotten here last night like we were supposed to, that would have counted as day 0 and today would have been day 1 so I think that despite the uncomfortable flight, I’m glad we got delayed.

After sleeping in, I took the shuttle to the PX – the base is so big it’s easier to get around with the shuttle. There must be something in the air here that triggers my "late in life" allergies. So my first purchase was some Claritan. My second purchase was sunscreen. Janae will be shocked by the news. I hate sunscreen but since my sole purpose in coming here was to lay by the pool and sleep or go to the beach and since my skin hasn’t seen the sun in almost a year, I figured I’d better buy some sunscreen.

Did I make it to the beach? Not yet. I have to sign up for excursions tomorrow. Wish me luck? Did I make it to the pool? You betcha. It was wonderful. It’s a beautiful pool with lounge chairs scattered all around with really nice full-body cushions. I put in my earphones, turned on my iPod and slept for an hour. It was great. I got there late enough in the afternoon that I didn’t need any sunscreen and am happy to say that I didn’t get burned. Tomorrow will be another matter as I plan on getting there before noon and spending the day.

Chili’s has a restaurant here on base and it’s there at the pool. I’m looking forward to having "lunch by the pool". Should be fun.

Everyone said the chow hall here was great, that the food was wonderful. It was OK. The variety was a little more varied but I didn’t think it was all that great. What was great though were the little things; soda fountain with ice for the soda, "real" milk, and all the Baskin Robbins ice cream you can eat. I was going to limit myself but no luck. I started off with a scoop of mint chocolate chip and a scoop of chocolate chip fudge. On my way out, I just had to have another scoop of mint chocolate chip and added as scoop of pistachio for good measure. Later, I went back and had another scoop of chocolate chip fudge and gold ribbon. Six scoops in one day is limiting myself don’t you think?

I did get to the gym and burned off a few calories but I don’t think I offset what I ate today with what I burned at the gym. Maybe I’ll limit myself tomorrow…nah!!

I was amazed to see a piece of grass near the pool and the gym I was at. Everything is bleak and barren, as you would expect in a desert country. It was lush and green so had to walk across it. It felt so good. I was tempted to take off my shoes but thought that would be a little much.
So that’s about it for my pass so far. Tomorrow is pool day and sign up day for an excursion. So long as I can get to the beach, ride the wave runners and swim in the Persian Gulf, I will have accomplished all my goals. That and sleeping. If I don’t do anything else, I will have considered my pass a success.

Anyway, until tomorrow.

Continuing Saga of My Trip to Qatar

I’ve been here at BAF for the last three days. No flights going out. However, I’m told that today is the day. We’ll see. OK, I’m pretty sure that we’re going out but still, it’s now a waiting game.
So what’s been happening the last three days? Not a lot. I’ve been to the gym. I’ve been to DQ. I’ve been to the bazaar and the PX. I’ve taken naps.

The MWR computer and phone labs are always busy. You only get 15 minutes on the phone and it’s amazing how fast that time goes by. I was only able to call home once and while it was great, it still went by way too fast. Thirty minutes on the computer also goes by awfully fast as well.
The weather yesterday was beautiful. It was easily in the mid-50’s. I sat outside yesterday afternoon writing letters in the sunshine. My face actually got a little pink. Today it should be just as beautiful so I’m not worried about flights getting delayed due to weather.
Anyway, not a lot to report on my "pass" to Qatar. I’m sure I’ll have more to write tomorrow once I get there.

On My Way To Qatar

I'm goin' on pass, I'm goin' on pass!!

In order to get to Qatar you obviously have to fly. That necessitates going through Bagram Air Field (BAF). I am so glad that I don’t live here. This place is huge. And it’s not necessarily for that reason that I’m glad I don’t live here. It’s the latrines, the showers, the lines.

If I lived here I’d have to shower in a connex converted into a latrine and a shower. I can’t believe how incredibly lucky I am to live where I do. Modern, spacious, clean showers and toilets do a lot for morale.

Anyway, I didn’t want to make this entry negative so let me get on with my narrative.
Those of us going on pass or leave report to a tent that has bunkbeds everywhere. All of the bottom ones are taken of course so that leaves only the ones of top. The tent also has a big screen TV and another TV to play video games on. It’s also the tent where you get your briefing on the particulars of leaving the country. My brief is tomorrow at 1400 hours.

I came a day early just because a convoy was coming up today. I was going to try to come tomorrow but it ended up being today. That’s OK. Now I have an extra day to relax and get ready for pass.

Being an O5 I was able to get alternate billeting. It’s about a 20 minute walk away from where everyone else is located. Someone erroneously told me that I’d get a private room in a connex. Turns out it’s a two story connex (I’m on the second floor) but one with seven sets of bunkbeds. So far I’m the only one in here so I guess I do get a private room. When I checked in I was told that there would be seven other guys showing up but it’s 2000 hours and no one has arrived. With my luck, they’ll show up in the middle of the night. At least it’s only for two nights.
Spent 90 minutes on the elliptical and burned about 1400 calories. I then went and had a calzone but didn’t eat the whole thing, and ate several chocolate chip cookies with a cup of hot chocolate. I think I about broke even on the calories.

Tomorrow all I have to do is get to my 1400 briefing. Other than that, the day is mine.
Thus ends my first day on my way to pass. Wasn’t this the most exciting entry you’ve ever read?

OK, then let me tell you a little about BAF. It’s the airfield where all the air assets stage out of. It’s where we fly in and out of the country. There is one main road that runs the length of the base. It’s called Disney Way. No, it’s not named for Walt but for a soldier with the last name of Disney who was killed here in county. I’ll find out a little more tomorrow and tell you the story. The problem with one main road is it gets very congested. One of the reasons I’m glad I don’t live here.

It’s got a large PX with lots of local craftsman shops outside. It’s also got a full service salon where you can get your hair cut, colored, permed, etc, get your nails done and get a massage. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow as well, get a massage that is.

With so many people on this base, there are multiple PX’s actually and multiple chow halls. I’ve never had to wait in line but judging by the lines that snake out of the nearest chow hall it’s going to be a fact of life.

To get to the nearest latrine, I walk the length of my building, down the stairs, across the street to the connex. The toilets are on the bottom level and the showers on the top. If I can get a camera in without looking like a pervert I’ll try to get some pictures.

Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell about BAF. Aren’t you even more thrilled that I continued to write and you continued to read. OK, I’m bored too. I’ll write tomorrow about the briefing and about how great my massage is going to be.
Until then…

Sunday, February 11, 2007

I'm goin' to the beach!! (I hope.)

I'm heading out on pass so no updates for a while unless I feel like writing while I'm gone. We'll see. In any event, wish me a good time. I'm hoping for good weather so I can go to the beach and ride the wave runners.

I was supposed to go last week but had to switch with Merrill since I was at MoD for meetings. It rained every day for him. So if I end up with nice weather, I'll feel guilty, OK, only a little guilty.

Anyway, I'm outta here!!

A New Perspective on the Akhtar Case

During a recent meeting with the down-range JAGs, (Paul and Dusty) they expressed the fact that the Akhtar case was not quite the success that I had thought. My feeling was that the ANA could tell their command and soldiers about the fact that a Brigadier General had been successfully prosecuted and convicted. They said that the exact opposite effect had taken place.

They said that the commands in both their Corps had heard of the conviction but the fact that he didn’t get any more jail time and was never fired only served to enforce the belief that the system did not work.

What was weird is that I was actually offended by this news. After all the hard work that was put into the case and this was the perception of my prosecutors success. But I could also see their point. That has been a bitter pill to swallow, the fact Akhtar was not fired or relieved of his position. It’s something that has received renewed attention but I’m not sure if he’ll actually get transferred. The support he’s receiving from MoD (Ministry of Defense) is strong enough that someone (BK) is keeping him in his position. I think it’s BK’s way of sticking it to the command at 201st Corps for prosecuting his golden boy.

Anyway, I am now looking at the Akhtar case in a new light. I’m still proud of my prosecutor and the guts he showed in getting this case to court. It will still go down in the history books as the first case of a Brigadier General of the ANA being successfully prosecuted.

Meetings at MoD (Ministry of Defense)

NOTE: I'll post photos later.

I’ve been at Camp Eggers for the past few days. The down-range ETT (embedded team trainer) JAGs (Paul, Dusty and Scott) and I have come up to Kabul and met with the lawyers who mentor the MoD lawyers. We talked about the issues and problems that are facing the different Corps. Listening to Dusty and Paul talk about the problems they have make me realize that I was truly blessed with being assigned where I was. My SJA and the prosecutors and defense attorneys are all law school graduates. There’s are simply Afghan officers appointed to act as legal officers. Paul’s prosecutor got fired in a storm of politics and intrigue so he’s been having to fight to actually get prosecutors in his corps. Dusty is faced with incredible amounts of corruption in his Corps leadership. I know my ANA have corruption problems they’re just not to the extent that he’s facing.

It was so hard not to gloat at the incredibly good situation I have. OK, I actually had to point out that my Corps is the best and of course I felt a little bit of guilt knowing just how good I have things. But at the same time, it was a real eye opener for me to realize the extent of the problems that are out there. It made me wonder if I haven’t been looking hard enough to see if we have the same problems and I’ve just been oblivious to them. I’ll have to start looking a little harder to see just what’s out there.

One day we met with COMA – the Court of Military Appeals. That was a very productive meeting and at the same time a very frustrating meeting. We had spent the morning talking about how in order for the prosecutors to learn how to better prepare and present a case, they need to be allowed to make mistakes. The judges agreed with this idea. In the past what has happened if COMA has not liked an outcome, they have sent the case back to be retried. Not only is this a violation of the principle of double jeopardy, it has no effect of establishing any form of case law, of which the Afghans have none. Anyway, as we talked about this issue in the morning session, the judges all seemed to realize that if the prosecutor made a mistake and the accused was found not guilty, they needed to uphold the finding of the basic court. Well in the afternoon session we were talking about appeals and the role of the appellate prosecutor. I was sort of not paying attention, (No, I was not sleeping, I was just thinking of something else that involved warm beaches, clear water and blue skies – I’ll be writing about that sometime in the future so stay tuned) when one of the judges made a comment that brought me back to reality.

I gave them a scenario where the prosecutor failed to prove his case and the defendant was found not guilty. The prosecutor, in my example, appealed the case. I then asked the judges what they would do. They were all in agreement that they would send the case back to the basic court with instructions to the prosecutor to fix the problem, retry the case so the defendant could be convicted. You can imagine the stir that caused among the mentors. We thought we had made such great progress in the morning, getting them to agree that they needed to NOT do that very thing and now we were back to where we had been. We tried to explain the problem with this but they said that their law allowed them to do that very thing. As Paul and I started looking for that particular provision – which we never found by the way – they explained that since a crime had been committed, some form of punishment needed to take place. Just as an aside, their law allows them to hear the evidence all over again but at their level. It does not say anything about sending it back to the basic court and prosecutor. When we brought up this point it seemed to fall upon deaf ears. Unfortunately we never did resolve this issue and I’m afraid that it won’t be resolved for some time to come.

Despite this setback it was still a great meeting and we accomplished quite a bit. Their military justice system has no mechanism for allowing a defendant to come in and plead guilty. They have always had a full blown trial when the case could have been resolved with a simple guilty plea. We spent a great deal of time discussing this issue and in the end they agreed that so long as there was no coercion and the defendant was represented by counsel, they could see the benefit of adopting this kind of procedure. They’re going to issue a directive to the courts along with a script and procedural guide drafted by us to all the judges. I’m hoping that before I leave, I’ll start to see guilty pleas take place in my court. That would certainly lighten the case load of all involved and be another big step forward for the ANA.

As for our living accommodations here at Camp Eggers, it left much to be desired. While I did not live in the dungeon again, I live in a room about 18 feet by 7 feet with two sets of bunkbeds. Scott, Dusty, Paul and I all shared a room. Paul got here first so he got one of the bottom bunks. I hate the top bunk so since I was the senior officer in the room, I declared that the other bottom bunk was mine. I made Scott sleep on the top bunk. There was only one small piece of furniture on which to place anything so we basically spread our stuff all over the floor. It looked like a rat’s nest after four days. We had a great time though and got along really well.

I’ve known Dusty for years. Dusty negotiated the public defense contract for his firm with Orem so I’ve worked with him professionally for quite some time. But I never knew of his many talents. The first night he had us rolling with his “gay Mexican” accent. He’s learning to speak Spanish and is actually doing pretty good. Anyway, we were all laughing at his very accurate interpretation of “un maricon”. He then regailed us with his “Japanese/Mexican” accent and his Japanese/Afghan accent. (Dusty is half Japanese.) It was hysterical. Needless to say, we’ve all been speaking Spanish in various accents. Paul and I both speak Spanish having served Spanish speaking missions, but Scott only studied it in school. We’ve all been impressed at how much he remembers and he’s joined in our conversations. It’s been a lot of fun. \

Anyway, it’s been a good few days here at Camp Eggers.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Karim and the Taliban

Last week COL Karim opened up to Merrill and me and talked about what it was like living under the Taliban. He shared several experiences with us that while I’ve heard similar stories before, to hear them from someone who experienced them, gave them a different feel.

When the Taliban was in power, they enforced the religious principle that if a family member was murdered and caught, the victim’s family could kill the murderer. Karim was in the Helman province when he heard there was going to be an execution in the central soccer stadium. He went because he was curious as he’d never seen one before. The murderer’s hands and feet were bound and I’m assuming he was lying in the middle of the full soccer stadium. Karim says that if the family had forgiven him, he would have been spared but the family was not in a forgiving mood. A family member had a knife in his hand, walked up to the murderer and decapitated him with a knife.

Karim says that it still raises the hair on the back his neck just thinking about it. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.

He said it was not uncommon for thieves to have their hands cut off if they were caught stealing. He said that the soccer stadium in Kabul saw many hands separated from their owners.

If any of you read The Kite Runner, you read about the adulteress that was stoned. He said that was not an uncommon occurrence either. If you were caught in the act, you were taken to the soccer stadium, buried up to your chest and then stoned to death.

What a bloody way to enforce the law.

He was awakened in the middle of the night by banging on the security gate to the apartment building he lived. He looked out his third floor bedroom window and saw 4-5 men in black turban’s at the gate. Since no one was going down to answer the gate he did. He was joined by the man who lived on the second floor a few minutes later. The Taliban guys said that they had heard music coming from the second floor of the apartment building. The Taliban had outlawed all music. I guess they were in a forgiving mood as they didn’t take the other man away. All they told him was to bring the cassette player and the tape to the police office the next day.

When the man showed up at the police station and presented the tape, they said that was not the music they heard and to go back home and get the tape they had heard. This time they were not so forgiving. Before they let him go they beat him. They didn’t imprison him however, because he was so old. At least that’s what Karim said.

One day the Taliban were going from house to house searching for VCR’s and tapes. Those were also outlawed. Well Karim and his wife hid theirs in a secret drawer they had in their china hutch. Fortunately for them, they weren’t discovered.

When the Taliban took over they captured one of the ex-presidents and hung him and his brother outside the US embassy. Karim was walking by, not knowing what he was going to see, and saw the bodies hanging there. He could tell that the bodies had been beaten from the condition they were in. The Taliban were going to leave them hanging for three days but people from the men’s village persuaded them to let them take the bodies and bury them.

He lived through many rocket and mortar attacks. He said that he saw many people killed though. He said he saw boys and men lying in street dead and dying on many occasions. He said that his brother-in-law was sitting with his back to the window of his apartment when a bomb exploded. He had shrapnel all over his body, still has shards of it in his head and had to have a rod put in his leg to help it heal.

On another day, he heard the sound of a rocket approaching his building. It went over the top of his building and hit the building next to his. He went out to check and see if he could help and saw bodies and body parts everywhere.

We ran out of time before he could tell us any more stories but I think you get an idea of what it must have been like to live there during the Taliban. I know conditions are not great here but they are so much better than what they were. It makes me grateful to know that in some small way I’m helping to bring a better way of life to these people. The suffering, carnage, death and destruction they have seen is unimaginable.

Friday, February 02, 2007

President Karzai's Visit

Yesterday President Karzai came to visit the new recruits that 2nd Brigade received. That’s the brigade that Ken commands that has my team from Utah on it. They’re my family here.

Anyway, the new obstacle course had been recently completed so the President came to see the new troops, the obstacle course and a few other things in the area.

Wais and I got there early so we could be sure and get in but got stopped by security. There were guards at every intersection, hiding behind buildings, up in towers, everywhere. It was actually pretty cool to see that they were able to provide a good showing of security.

Later Ken and Larry showed up with their terps and even they got stopped though they had to be there. It took a call to the general of 2nd Brigade to get us through security. Either it was a showing of the trust we hold or the “fear” the Afghans have for us but we didn’t get searched as we approached the reviewing stand. We didn’t even have to give up our weapons, although later we did. Anyway, we were feeling pretty smug.

After a wait in the warm sunshine, a helicopter flew in bringing one of our commanding generals. A little later another helicopter flew in bringing President Karzai. You know they were important people on the choppers due to all the Apaches that were buzzing around.

After a visit to the 201st Corps headquarters, the presidential motorcade came to the parade field. Ken and BG Ameniula were down at the bottom of the stairs waiting to greet the dignitaries. Of course Ken thinks he’s a big shot now because he got to shake the President’s hand. Big deal!

He’s a short man, just like most of the Afghans. And of course he was surrounded by body guards everywhere. About the closest I dared get was 5 feet or so. I know that’s pretty close but still that put 2 body guards with automatic rifles between he and I. After watching the soldiers run through the obstacle course, he went and visited another location in 2nd brigade then left the immediate area to see some other things. All in all, the visit was short and sweet.

Wais kept telling me to take his picture with Karzai in the background so that’s what I was busy doing. Needless to say, I never got one with me in the background. I think I’ll live.