Preview: Live from Baghdad
Live from Baghdad
My adventures in Iraq.
We returned from a short R&R in Dahab, Egypt last week. Now it is the site of the most recent tragic terrorist attack
. Our thoughts and prayers go out to our many friends in Dahab and to all the people of Egypt. Dahab is truly magical and we cherished the hospitality of the Bedouin locals. They do not deserve this.
The NY Times reports today that former USAID officials believe that reconstruction of major infrastructure in Iraq was destined
In Iraq, "We set it up to fail," said Andrew S. Natsios, who was director of the United States Agency for International Development until January. He and some White House and State Department officials say they argued early on that a large-scale reconstruction program could never succeed in a hostile environment.
NY Times, Joel Brinkley, April 8, 2006
Too busy to get in trouble
My boss and my fellow technical expert are both on short R&Rs so I am currently running the Infrastructure office single-handedly. And for those of you who know my troubles with home electrical projects, yes I'm in charge of our power sector again.
Turn out the lights, the party's over!
PS to Sarge: I'll post a comment when I have time to breathe again.
Looks like my two former rugby teams, the Santa Monica Dolphins
and the New Haven All-Blacks
, are making a run for the USA Rugby National Playoffs
. Santa Monica is the defending Division I national champion, while New Haven is a former Div II champion and an up-and-coming Div I contender.
Perhaps one of the hardest things about being over here is being painfully aware of the march of time. While this has been a once in a lifetime experience (okay, I guess twice in a lifetime), I realize that I have missed so much. From a national championship, to watching my nephews grow up, to helping my wife through graduate school - these experiences and others are the real sacrifices of being over here.
As usual, my apologies for the lack of posts but you can always check out http://khuluma.blogspot.com
for Susan's regular reports and great pictures.
Apologies to my small but loyal readership for the lack of posts. As I'm sure some of you were wondering, I got my wrist slapped (yes Tommy, just my wrist) for posting on the reconstruction efforts. It was probably justified given my current role over here.
So, for now at least, I'll give in to the Man and focus my posts on the mundane absurdities of life in Iraq. For instance, in the midst of a unprecedented civil unrest and violence due to the bombing of the Shi'a holy site last week, we had not one but two parties this weekend. The first one was an "Arabian Nights" theme held outside under tents with Iraqi food, shisha (water pipe), belly-dancing and libations (okay, not everything was in theme!). The following night, we hosted the "Bag-Daddies" - the International Zone's very own cover band. They put on a great 2-hour set in the courtyard in front of Susan & my house. We even had a bonfire, built inside an old Humvee tire rim.
Susan and I watched the movie "Jarhead" last night about a Marine in the first Gulf War. At the end of the movie, the main character narrates "we turn the inside of our hootch into a circus, and inside of this circus we cannot be injured, inside of our circus we cannot be touched."
"But we are insane to believe this."
The contents of this blog represent the opinions and views of the author and do not in any way reflect the policies of the US Government or USAID.
We Made It
As you've probably read on Susan's blog (http://khuluma.blogspot.com
), we made it safely into Baghdad on Wednesday, January 31. It took us about 72 hours to shake off the travel-induced cobwebs, but we are now slowly getting up to speed.
A lot has changed in Iraq in the past 8 months, yet much has stayed the same. A new Army division, the 4th Infantry Division, has occupied the IZ and the Baghdad area and brought with them their own quirks. When I first arrived in Baghdad in November 2004, the 1st Cavalry Division was in charge and then it was the 3rd Infantry Division. The 4th ID will transfer out sometime during our 1-year tenure which will mean I've been here for four different commands.
Despite the change-over in the military, I've run into or expect to see several familiar faces. Apparently, a special unit of Civil Affairs troops is spinning up led by General Chiarelli who was in charge of the 1st Cav. I worked with several of his staff members on my first tour. Likewise, I've also run into some old friends from the Corps of Engineers, who like me, couldn't stay away. And, of course, coming back to USAID was like a homecoming. I was surprised by how happy I was to see some of our Iraqi staff who are still braving the IZ gates to help our mission.
Other changes are more tangible. My office is no longer in a trailer, but is now a cubicle in an ultra-secure office building. I remember watching the new office building (or "NOB" in three-letter acronymese) be constructed. There is enough steel rebar in this building to reinforce Fort Knox. If they had used any more rebar, they wouldn't have needed to add bricks to keep the wind out.
They also finished the Liberty Pool complex next door, which is owned by the Army and operated by KBR as a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) facility. The huge pool was actually constructed by Saddam but needed patching and work on the chlorination system prior to opening. There's also a good gym next door, a common room/library, and a multi-purpose room where Susan and I went to a spinning class last night. When the weather warms up, we'll be using the lap pool as well.
In terms of what stayed the same, Baghdad is still brown, the air still smells like smoke, most people still carry a gun, and there's still armored vehicles racing around. And, in case you're thinking it's all fun around here, we spent all day Friday listening to a running gun battle just across the Tigris.
On our way
We're enroute and I'll start posting here regularly after we arrive in Iraq later this week. In the meantime, you can check out Susan's blog at http://khuluma.blogspot.com.
Susan & I are currently in DC for our pre-deployment training. I got my Diplomatic Passport and my State Department badge today, which for some reason, makes me feel really cool. I realize it's not a big deal to my Foreign Service pals, but they are sort of symbols of my current direction in life. Too bad the passport is only good for one year!
We're scheduled to depart for Iraq around the end of the month so keep checking back for updates.
We were delayed for a month by bureaucracy, but we'll be on our way to DC soon. We should be in Iraq sometime in February.
By the way, Susan has started her own blog at Khuluma
. Go check it out!
USAID/Iraq has asked me to return to Baghdad to head the Water & Sanitation sector. This time, my lovely wife Susan will also be coming along as the new Information Officer for USAID/Iraq. She's a much better photographer and a much more prolific writer than me, so you can expect good things from this blog. If all goes right, we should be in country by the end of December 2005.
More to follow.
Home Sweet Home
I've been home for almost 3 weeks now and Baghdad is slowly fading into a hazy memory. Sucking down margaritas for a week on a beach in Mexico probably speeded that process along, but now it's back to my old office in downtown Los Angeles. Not much has changed, this is the federal government after all. Most of my projects are exactly where I left them almost 7 months ago.
My wife and I have been cautiously getting to know each other again. Our six-month separation challenged our relationship like nothing else in the last 6 years of marriage. We both grew personally and professionally, and now we have to figure out where we fit in each other's new life. We're taking each day as it comes, but we're two smart kids, we'll figure it out.
Now we're looking forward to our next challenge. I'm going back to school in the Fall. I could have picked from half a dozen great schools in southern California, but no, we're picking up and heading to the northeast. Of course, before that happens, we have to finish flooring the living room, recarpet the upstairs, rent out our townhouse and pack up all of our belongings. Oh, and in the middle of all that, we're travelling to Egypt for 3 weeks of "vacation" with family. My loving father-in-law decided that I had not spent enough time in the Middle East this year so he organized a tour of Cairo, Luxor, and Sharm el Sheik for our extended families. Should be fun, but it means I have a month to set everything up for the move. Oh well, it beats getting shot at.
Speaking of, I received an email from a friend of mine at USAID. They had a rocket hit about 50 meters from the housing units that I was living in. Thankfully, it was on the other side of two sets of blast walls and no one was hurt, but it sure makes me happy to be home.
That's right, six months in Iraq I'm finally back in the good ol' USA. Two days of redeployment processing at Fort Bliss, TX and I'll be home sweet home.
After almost 6 months in country, I fly out for Kuwait late this afternoon. My head is swirling with mixed emotions - the anticipation of seeing my wife again after half a year apart, the longing for a return to normalcy, and the relief of peaceful safety are tempered with regret at leaving work unfinished, fear of the unknown as I leave the regimented regularity of my days in Iraq, and heartache at leaving some great friends behind.
That said, I can't wait to be home.
I'm currently at our District Headquarters at Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport. Unlike the surreal civility of the Green Zone, Victory reminds you that there is still a war going on. It's hot and dusty, helicopters flit constantly overhead, and occassionally you'll hear a Bradley or Abrams rumble by. You see the convoys of Humvees filled with heavily armed soldiers returning from security patrols. And we're close enough to the action to have our own artillery batteries. In fact, I was awakened this morning by the staccato bursts of outgoing 155mm rounds, probably lobbing extended range rounds towards the remaining pockets of insurgents near Fallujah.
It's ironic that artillery would be my alarm clock on my last day in country. Six months ago, I had crashed out in my cot shortly after arriving from a punishing 3-days of traveling. At about 2am, there was a series of percussive booms. With the briefings I had endured at Fort Bliss still fresh in my head, and the adrenaline still coursing through my body from just putting my feet on Iraqi soil, I dove from my bunk pressing myself as low to the floor as possible while pulling my flak jacket over me. I cowered on the floor as another series of rounds boomed. I did not know yet that this had to be outgoing as the insurgents would only fire off one set of rounds before running from the inevitable helicopters. After this second round, I lay on the floor for several more minutes. Eventually, I crawled back into my bunk and drifted into an uneasy slumber while thoughts of "what the hell am I doing here?" ran through my head.
This morning, as a grizzled veteran of a dozen mortar and rocket attacks, I quickly recognized the disciplined rhythm of outgoing artillery. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
It's time to go home.
I'm a "single-digit midget!" That's the name they use over here for someone with less than 10 days to go. 165 days down, 9 to go. I'll be in Kuwait a week from this Saturday, in Germany early Monday morning, and back in the good ol' You, Ess, of Aye by Monday evening, May 16.
You know you've been in Baghdad too long if:
(This dates back to August 2004, but a lot of it is still relevant.)GENERAL You start to think "it's not so bad here" You say "this place sort of grows on you" You say "it's not the humidity, it's the heat" (for Houston residents only) You say, "it feels cooler today" and find out that the temperature is 105 The term "trailer trash" is a term of endearment You think "DVD Mista" is a friendly greeting You call your tent (trailer if you're lucky) 'home' A "weekend" lasts from 0730 to 1200 on Friday You get excited at the idea of ICE ARMAMENTS You don't jump when a door slams or someone drops something You aren't alarmed when every second person you see has a gun...or two...or three You kick the M-16 on the floor aside without a second thought when you sit down to eat in the Dining Facility. A Gloc or 9 mm on a lady's hip is considered sexy Mortars and rockets sounds are "okay" compared to Vehicle bombs (IED's) You can measure distances based on explosion sounds "Scoring" means you acquired a new weapon TRAVEL You go to Fallujah and Mosul for R&R You are soothed by the sounds of helicopters flying six feet over your trailer You automatically get down on your hands and knees in the dirt to inspect the underside of your car, even when you are wearing a suit or skirt Bullet holes in cars are no longer alarming Car selections consist of "hard" or "soft", not Cadillac or Mercedes Road trips consist of 6 vehicles and large caliber weapons Driving on the sidewalk is normal Driving on the wrong side of a divided four lane street is normal Driving 60 mph through a bustling street market is considered prudent Hit-and-run fender benders are treated as mere warnings Riding in a hot Humvee is preferred to an air-conditioned soft car You get upset that you don't get C-130 Frequent Flyer Miles Your carry-on luggage includes a flack jacket and helmet HYGIENE You enjoy waiting 45 minutes for the toilets to refill You start believing that Deodorant should be a personal choice KBR buzz cuts begin to look stylish SURROUNDINGS "Texas Barriers" are something other than a device to keep Texans out "Jersey Barriers" are something other than fences to keep Holsteins away from Jerseys You begin to believe that project construction being blown up only twice a week is progress You get excited with the presence of clouds You know ten times as many South Africans as you've ever known before The security guards are Ghurka or South African and you know them Afrikaans at the pool is normal DINING You look forward to Mohammad's Mango ice cream as the treat for the day Powdered eggs taste ok You consider plastic ware the Palace China You can distinguish inherent qualities of various plastic utensils The quality of the plastics utensils becomes a hot dinner topic Having to separate plastic plates causes you undue stress Lettuce for your salad becomes a luxury Scamming a 3rd can of soda makes you feel like you got even with someone You are putting on weight because the Saddam's Revenge Diet no longer works Going to another mess hall is an adventure FASHION You think desert combat boots look great with a dark blue suit or shorts Sand between your thong sandals actually feels good The color white is no longer an option Speedos for security guards seem right You can recognize 12 different camouflage patterns You've given up on shoe polish LIVING CONDITIONS You think the bullet holes in the roof of your tra[...]
SUPRISE! Happy Birthday to me! At my surpise 30th birthday party, March 22. (image)
At my conference in Ebril with Iraqi ministry officers. (image)
Is it a Waste?
Great article in yesterday's LA Times: Millions Going to Waste
Of the individuals quoted in the article, Mark Oviatt is my counterpart at USAID and Jack Hume is my counterpart at Bechtel. Obviously, the article is very critical of the mistakes made in the reconstruction effort. However, I think it tells a good story about where we are today. USAID recognized these mistakes almost 6 months ago and started to analyze the lessons learned. They will soon be kicking off a $25 million program to address the lack of operational capacity within the Iraqi government. I had the opportunity to play a small part in developing that program and this will be my biggest accomplishment from my time in Iraq.
Eight in a Row
Wow, I just realized how long it had been since my last post. I think I might still be recovering from my surprise birthday party. That’s right, my wife managed to throw me a surprise party from the other side of the world. What makes this an even better story is that I think this is the eighth year in a row that she’s pulled off a surprise party. That’s right, 8 straight birthdays. You would think that sometime before March 22nd every year, I’d start to get suspicious. However, this year I would have been excused for not expecting it. Not only was I in Iraq, but she was in South Africa doing research for her thesis.
The night of my birthday started off innocently enough. A group of friends took me to dinner at one of the few restaurants in the Green Zone. We had a good time but I was surprised and a little annoyed when my friends wanted to leave right after dinner instead of hanging out like we usually did. (Hint No. 1)
Someone suggested we go back and watch a DVD. It didn’t seem like much of a birthday celebration, but I shrugged it off as another sacrifice I made when I decided to deploy. After we arrived at our compound, I told my friends that I had to return my mom’s phone call from earlier that day. I walked home, called my mom and we talked for a long time. I must have been feeling a little homesick as I kept stretching out the conversation. Looking back on it, I realize she was trying to end the call but was too nice to be blunt about it. (Hint No. 2)
Suddenly, my radio crackles to life and I hear my call sign over the net, “Rugby…Rugby, this is Viking, over.” It’s my friends and I assume they want me to hurry up so they can start the movie. (Hint No. 3 – we rarely use the radios for something like that.) I finally say goodbye to my mom and start walking over.
As I walk up to my friend’s house, someone cracks the door. I notice more people, loud music, and decorations. My brain struggles to reconcile this input with the plan to watch a movie. “Huh…what are they doing here?...is this the right house?....what’s all that food and drink on the counter?...wait a sec...no, can’t be...hold on, maybe…” SURPRISE!
And instantly, I knew. Susan had done it again.
Belated thanks to Aaron, Kirk, Tim, Tamara, Pam and all of my USAID and Corps friends. Thanks to Mom and Dad for embarrassing me by sending over old school pictures which were posted at the party. And, as always, thanks to my lovely, but sneaky, wife.
My wife called me out for not sharing the news of my award. The Commanding General of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. General Carl Strock (that’s 3-stars), was in Iraq this week and held a “Town Hall” meeting at our Gulf Region Central District headquarters at Camp Victory.
The Army has a tradition where the Commander of any organization has coins made up with the name and insignia of the organization, which can then be handed out for recognition of merit. For instance, the colonel that commands the Los Angeles District office (my normal job) has a coin. My new coin has three stars on it.