Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How To Pass The Time When The Time Passes Slowly

Let's face it - not every day spent in Iraq is a day filled with action and adventure, courage and patriotism. There are days like today, when you are literally bored out of your ever loving mind.

And just so nobody out there thinks we are constantly bored either, I can assure you there are great many more days of action and adventure.

With those bases covered, I want to focus on the days of boredom. Any deployed soldier knows that slow days are our enemy - days when the time passes so slowly that you feel like you have been and will be in Iraq forever. The way to fight this enemy is with busywork, whether it is directed from higher authority or at your own initiative, busywork helps the slow days to move along a little faster.

However, if you have a choice between busywork at the hand of the commander and first sergeant or to take the initiative to find your own - the latter is always, hands-down, without argument the best way to go.

Of course living on a forward operating base (FOB) in the middle of Iraq doesn't offer much in the way of entertainment and variety when you are looking for a way to keep busy. So, for most of us we make a new project for ourselves or find some out-of-office (like out-of-body) diversion to keep our minds occupied and the second hand spinning.

Here are  a few examples.

A few weeks ago, SSG Burrell came to me with a proposal to enhance the visual appeal of our office. Note to all future leaders who may lead SSG Burrell someday - keep him so busy he doesn't have time to think up "projects".

"I have it all planned out first sergeant," says Burrell. "I've taken measurements, we can get some wood and I've made a drawing for the KBR contractors to follow. I even talked to 1Lt Sarratt and he thinks it's a good idea."

For the record, another interesting note about Burrell; when he wants to do something, he goes to everybody else to get a consensus about his scheme before he approaches those who make the final decision.  I believe he does this to show how he isn't the only one who believes in a project or idea -  it's his way of "closing the deal". 

"Alright, tell me what you want to do," I say.

"I want to have some framed boards placed on the walls in the hallway of the building where we can hang examples of the photos we have taken on assignments out in the field," he says. "Then I want to have a special board strategically placed 
across from those boards where we can hang framed portraits of ourselves so when people come to visit us in the MOC (media operations center) they will know who each of us are. I've talked to everybody about it and they all think it would be a great idea," He adds.

"How are you gonna pay for it?" I say.

"Well, what do you mean?" he says, "you just tell KBR to make it and they just do it!"

After some discussion about how to get the project off the ground, I agreed and away he went. It wasn't a full time job to make it happen, but when he had time to follow up on the project the busy work he had created for himself helped the slow times pass, and in the end we have a shrine of photos in our hallway - most of which are SSG Burrell's or at least 25 - 30% of them. It looks good and it really does add to the aesthetics of the place.

There are other ways to pass time too, though not quite as involved as Burrell's Board.

There's a bridge that crosses over a canal on the way to the DFAC (dining facility) here on Camp Liberty. On any given day, around the meal hours you can see a collection of soldiers standing on the bridge gazing into the water. Some are pensive, some are laughing, some are being mischievous. You see, it's not just feeding time for the restless soldiers, it's also feeding time for a school of canal carp and box turtles gathered in the murky green canal water below the bridge.

Some soldiers stay for just a few seconds and others stay for a while to feed the fish and turtles the leftover bread, cookies, cereal, chicken or whatever morsels they have left from the breakfast, lunch or dinner meal. I've done it myself, even in the hottest temperatures of the day. I don't know why it fascinates us so much, but it does, and those few moments we spend on the bridge just seem to help the moments pass by a little quicker.

I think part of why we are drawn to the bridge is that when we arrived here over 5 months ago the little swimmers were just tiny fishys and turtlettes. Now, after eating Coco Puffs, special K, herbed chicken and leftover dinner rolls, the once tiny animals are getting huge and it's fun to watch their progress. The bigger they get, the closer we are to heading home. Maybe that's not what's on our minds all the time, but it is a marker for the passage of time.

Blogging, reading, coffee, religion, golf and bootleg movies. These are a few more things we've found to help pass the time on slow days and for the down time between missions. As I mentioned before, we actually don't have too many boring, do nothing days around here. Most of the down time we have is between missions. Sometimes a couple hours here, twenty minutes there and late nights in our CHUs.

For folks like SFC Burke, PFC Ward or SGT Fardette this is the time for coffee. Discussions about coffee, what's the best way to make it, what's the best blend, who can we get to send us free coffee. I know it doesn't seem to be a way to pass time but it is. It's not so much about the content of what you do to pass time, it's the mental break you get from being here that makes the time pass.

For the commander, blogging has become a way to pass those in between moments. She is one of our most consistent bloggers and she like to read too. It's her way of getting away. 1Lt Sarratt has taken it upon himself to help me pass the time by teaching me to drive a golf ball - how to stand, how to hold the club, how to keep your eye on the ball, how not to throw my back out in the process.

Some lift weights, others sit and watch bootleg copies of recently released movies. Heck, we had a copy of the new Star Trek movie here on Liberty before the week of its release was out. I personally spend my after hours time with other soldiers of my religious faith.

That's the way it is out here. Every hour is counted, every moment away from home is apparent. Time does not get away from you here, whether on mission, eating chow, cleaning your weapon, writing a story, preparing a brief or taking a dump in the latrine, the time does not pass without notice. So, we fill it up with something that makes the time well spent. Minor things maybe, but certainly not mindless.

Most of my blogs take several days to complete since I try to write them in between the normal events of the day. Today, I have a block of time to focus. And well, what do you know, almost 2 hours have passed and I have a completed blog. I guess that's two hours closer to home.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Several Things

The Heat

You may have heard the saying, “the dog days of Summer”, in reference to those hottest days in summer when the sun’s heat sinks into the very soul of your body causing an almost uncontrollable desire to simply sit and do nothing - like a bloodhound on the porch of a dilapidated wood-slat house in a holler of the West Virginia hills. Do you know that feeling?

Well, that’s what it feels like 24 hours-a-day, 7 days a week here in Iraq. We all just feel like doing that bloodhound thing. However, wish as we might, to sit on the porch and drool our way into oblivion, the mission goes on and our porch sleepin’ days will just have to be a mirage on the desert sands for now.

It’s simply amazing just how hot it can get here and we have yet to reach the hottest part of the summer. A few days ago temps climbed to an incredible 120 degrees! Now maybe in central California and some parts of the great state of Texas that’s no big deal, but for us it’s only the beginning – there’s promise on the horizon for that temperature to go up and up and up.

Now imagine yourself in this weather. Perhaps you have on your favorite OP shorts (a throwback to the 80’s there) and maybe your favorite pink Izod LaCoste pullover (second throw back, okay so I’m an old guy), multi-colored Vans sneakers and a pair of Vuarnet’s (alright I was born in the 60s and found fashion in the 80s – so sue me). The bottom line is – we don’t have those things here.

The fashion my soldiers are sporting these days is a set of full-length flame-retardant cargo pants and long sleeve shirt, 35-pound protective vest, leather boots, 3-pound helmet, gloves, knee-high boot socks, Camelback type personal hydration system, M-4 Rifle (6 lbs), 7lbs of ammo, and up to 10 lbs of video or photographic equipment. Do the math and you’ll find that when our soldiers step outside the wire they have added anywhere from 60-70 pounds to their body weight (not including their snacks and goodies to chomp on during the day, their notebooks, tapes, extra batteries and so on).

The temperatures are still climbing and my soldiers are still working, no dog days here. I’ve had my days in the sun too, but this is their time and they are doing a great job. I just thought you should know what your sons, daughters and friends are doing out here and the conditions 
they do it in. 

I dont' tell you this so you can develop a greater appreciation for them, those feelings are probably pretty strong already. I tell you this so you can know just how dedicated these great soldiers are. They go out every day in hopes to tell the story of the American soldier here in Iraq - no matter the weather, no matter the danger. I just thought maybe someone should tell their story too.

The Dust

Two days ago we had an incredible dust storm. Now, I know I have mentioned this in a previous post about how crazy the dust storms are here in Iraq. But, this one was simply amazing. Think of a blizzard in the dead of winter somewhere in Wisconsin (or some other icy cold place of your choice). This was a dust blizzard. Hot winds gusting, dust blowing so thick you can’t see 4 feet in front you. At the same time the dust was so fine that it blew in through every nook and cranny of our CHU’s, filling our rooms with a billowing mini storm inside.

In the morning, although the dust was still settling, there was literally a blanket of dust all around. It reminded me of the pictures and video I saw back in 1980 when Mt. St. Helens erupted and ash had settled everywhere. The dust left behind had stolen any color around us, everything was the color of a potato skin just digged up. With so much dust still hanging in the air, there was a lingering smell that reminded me of those first days of summer when you sweep all the dust out of the garage for the first time – musty and dusty.

I’m including a picture here to give you a glimpse of what a storm like this looks like as it rolls in (I'm trying to find out the name of the photographer). This is the edge of the storm that hit us as it comes in over the Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory. We’ve been coughing it up ever since (okay, that might be a bit gross).


About 50% of the unit has now or presently is on R&R (rest and recuperation leave). Even as we speak one of our soldiers is headed to meet family and friends in Thailand. That’s a pretty exotic place and of course most of us haven’t and won’t go to such places, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that no matter how or where we choose to spend our 15 days of time away, the fact that it is away from here and with those we love most, is what makes the difference.

We are about half way through the deployment now and even though we are busy and doing a great job, the tempo of all work and very little play can wear you down. I’ll be honest, there are times here that feel like a prison sentence. Accommodations, although nice compared to other places here in Iraq, are still pretty crappy. From shower points and latrines to round the clock sweating and long walks to get a meal. No matter how much we love our work here, this lifestyle eventually gets to you and you need a break.

I went in May. It took me 49 hours to get home, from the moment I left my CHU to the minute I stepped off the plane to see my family in Idaho. The two weeks that followed were worth every second it took to get back home. You forget how colorful life is outside of Iraq. Back in the states, trees are green, cars have colors (other than tan, white or dust); clothes have patterns and variety. There are other food groups besides chicken, chicken and chicken. The latrine is just a few steps away from the bedroom and you don’t have to put on all your clothes to get there. Nobody is yelling at you to get your work done; instead they say things like, “just sit down and relax for a while”, “watch TV”, “take a nap,” and “I love you.”

I love the Army, I really do, and I love my job, but nothing compares to being home. For those that have had their soldier come home for R&R, I hope you enjoyed your time together. For those still looking forward to that R&R, I encourage you to spend it wisely. Make every moment count, don’t quibble over the small stuff, focus on the quiet moments, don’t over plan, don’t try to live a lifetime in two weeks, you simply can’t do it. Just spend time talking, laughing and looking forward. Before you know it, we’ll all be home again.

That's all I have to say about that. Good day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What Good Is A Single Sock?

I have learned for myself the value of a single sock. No doubt, many of you have experienced that washing machine oddity in which two socks go in and only one sock comes out. I can't explain how this phenomena occurs, but it does.

What most of us do, when this strange phenomena does happen, is simply wait a couple wash cycles to see if it shows up then we toss it in the trash. After all, what difference can one sock make without its companion snugly nestled up next to it?

I am here to tell you not to dump that sock too quickly. You never know when an orphaned sock can become your best friend. A few nights ago, after a long day of work and climbing temperatures coaxing my pores to open up and sweat like a dog, I determined to take a shower to get that shower fresh feeling back before heading to bed.

I prepared myself for the trek to the shower point, slipping on my PT uniform, grabbing my shower kit and shower shoes (you don't want to step in a shower without shower shoes since nobody knows what diseases from the feet of other boot wearers lingers on the shower floor). Then I reached for my towel. That's when the value of an orphaned sock became apparent to me.

Due to poor planning, I had put both of my towels (primary and alternate as I refer to them in Army speak), into the laundry at the same time. I had no towel. Looking around my CHU I considered my Courses of Action using the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). COA 1: I could use one of my T-shirts. This was a no go, the 2nd and 3rd order effects could cause a shortage in my underclothes later in the week. COA 2: Don't dry off at all. Also a no go, for me at least. I hate that feeling of clothes sticking to me, I might as well be sweating cause I would not achieve that shower fresh feeling I was longing to have. COA 3: Use that orphaned sock I had not yet thrown in the trash.

Thank the heavens for the MDMP, I was able to determine the best COA for my situation . . . I chose COA 3.

Without hesitation (the sign of a confident leader) I reached down to this single white athletic sock, clutched it in my sweat-salt covered hand and moved out to the shower point. As can be expected, the shower was everything one living in 120 degree weather and covered from head to toe in flame resistant clothing might expect - it was refreshing.

Sweeping the shower curtain aside with my now squeaky clean hand, I reached down to my orphaned athletic sock and began to dry off. I treated it just like any towel, stretching it across my back, moving it in a back and forth motion from the tops of my shoulders to my lower back (don't get excited now, I ain't that kind of man). At some point, my orphaned sock, now full blown towel, lost its absorbency and I had to wring out the excess water, but I was not dismayed. I continued on, proudly drying from head to toe in spite of the sideways glances from others in the shower area whom I am sure wondered about my mental state.

In the end, the little fellow was up to the task. Sure it was a tight stretch across the back. Maybe the absorbency of an old athletic sock doesn't compare to a teri cloth towel. And let's face it, drying off with a sock makes for an odd scene in a public shower, but the job was a success.

So, here's my AAR (After Action Review), my lessons learned (First Sergeants are always looking for lessons learned). At some point everything has value. There will be times when the seemingly useless will make all the difference. I plan to keep at least one orphaned sock around at all times. You never know what other capabilities a single sock might have. Who knows, maybe it will save my life some day.