Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tanks for the Memories


Shortly after joining Echo Company I realized that part of my suffering in 2009 would simply be showing up in the motor pool. The glacial pace of motor pools, the problems that can only be diagnosed by experienced mechanics, the whole fellowship-of-the-falling-apart-truck is something that excites me just as much as death-metal music, sitcoms, comedy movies, and zombie movies.

So I spoke to my squad leader already about the form 4100 evaluations we will be receiving in the fall, that's when Sergeants are evaluated for promotion to staff sergeant. I am already at the top grade of 63J so I will have to be retrained to be promoted, as an air conditioning mechanic, a wheel mechanic, or a generator mechanic.

Right.

So I had the bright idea of submitting my paperwork in my job specialty from before 19E--actually 19E30, tank commander/section leader. That way when we got back to the states I could revert to the job I had when I left in 1984, get familiar with the new tanks and finish out the final year of my enlistment working on a vehicle I get to shoot at least a couple of times per year.

Wrong.

An armor unit just moved in. I had a latte with one of their soldiers last night and ate dinner with two soldiers today. They both told me about a "chat" they had with their sergeant major saying tanks are being phased out in the Middle East and probably someday from the Army in general.

It makes sense. Tanks were invented in World War 1 as land battleships. They dominated land combat in World War 2, were massed to fight World War 3 in Europe, then in Viet Nam, Afghanistan (Soviet) and our wars, they are not exactly central.

So I'll have to think of something else. As tanks disappear from armor units, the soldiers who want to stay in armor will compete for fewer and fewer slots. So at least for me, by the time I get home, tanks will be on the way to being just memories.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sensing the Sun as I Ride



Every time I ride I am aware of the sun. Whether the solar orb is low on a bright cold horizon in a Pennsylvania winter or the searing sphere straight up in the in the southern Iraq sky, the sun dominates my riding.

I have been thinking a lot about the sun with the passing of my mother-in-law. Her area of professional study—solar astronomy—helps me to focus my wandering thoughts as I ride alone around Tallil Ali Air Base. As soon as I get away from traffic, I review consciously what my unconscious already knows: it’s 6pm, the sun is in front of me, south is to the left, my shadow points back to the east, the shadow is long so sunset is an hour away, and so forth.

Because the earth orbits the sun on a tilted plane, the sun looks different on every part of the earth in every season. In Pennsylvania, the sun is never straight up in the sky. Even at noon on June 21 (the longest day) the sun is 15 degrees below vertical passing through due east and due west almost two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. Also in Pennsylvania and across the northern latitudes, the length of days vary dramatically over the course of a year, from more than 16 hours in mid June to just over eight hours in mid-December. In the north the sun creates long shadows, hundreds of feet long on bright days near dusk and dawn.

In Iraq, just ten degrees of longitude south, the sun looks very different. Here the sun is almost (but not quite) straight up on the sky at noon. But there is an odd respite from the blazing sun at dawn and dusk. In most of the US, the sky is bright (in a clear sky) shortly after it clears the horizon. Here the sun is obscured until it has been up almost an hour and for the last hour of the day. The heat of the day starts an hour after dawn and begins to subside before sundown because the air is so full of dust that the sun almost disappears and becomes just an orange glow an hour before it sets and is hidden for the first hour of the day.

The effect is enhanced further because we are on the eastern end of a wide time zone. The sun rises before 5 am and officially sets by 7 pm. So the sky gets suddenly dimmer at 6pm before dark just after 7pm. Because we trained at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, before coming here, the body clock effect was even greater. Fort Sill is at the western end of a time zone at roughly the same longitude. The day is the same length, but in mid-April as we left Fort Sill, sunrise was after 7 am and sunset was well after 8 pm. When we landed in Kuwait, the day was the same length but started before 5am and ended before 7 pm.

When I traveled more the sudden change is the sun was even more dramatic. I once traveled Edmonton, Alberta, in July. On a Saturday evening at 7pm I started a 5000-foot climb up to a lake in the Rockies west of Edmonton. At 50 degrees of longitude in July, the sun did not set until after 11, long after I climbed to the lake and rolled back down to the rental van. I visited Singapore several times. Just two degrees north of the equator, the sun is the same year round. The sky is dark until just before dawn then in just 15 minutes the sun is bright and fully visible, going straight up till noon then dropping stright back down—and disappearing just as quickly at night—no long Pennsylvania sunsets in Singapore.

South of equator is the weirdest riding of all. When I rode in Australia and South American I could not get used to the sun crossing the northern sky. If it is Noon in Australia and the sun is on my right shoulder, I am riding WEST. That is just wrong. I could get lost in an empty parking lot in the southern hemisphere just because the sun is on the wrong side of the sky.

The other association I have with the sun is as a source of light and light’s place as the ultimate reference of all physical reality. When the Apostle John wrote about light he could not have known that 20th century physics would show that the speed of light is one of the fundamental constants of the universe--the one that determines the ultimate reality of space, time and energy. Several years ago a read a book by a Cornell physicist (and agnostic) David Mermin called "It's About Time" which explains relativity physics very well and showed me why light is so central to to faith--it really is the symbol and the substance of physical reality and the closest thing in our daily experience to physical reality.

I love the sun in all its complicated glory and in the spiritual glory it symbolizes. Now it's time ot get my uniform on and go to the motor pool.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More on Staying in Touch


In an earlier post I talked about how much easier it is to be in touch with home than it was in the days before email when phone calls were expensive. The mechanics of keeping in touch depend on the base, but here are my preferred methods.
1. SKYPE. Skype is an internet phone service that allows video to video communication with other Skype users as well as direct dial to land line and cell phones. It costs about $100 per year for unlimited Skype to Skype calls whether video or not. I don't use the video very often here because we have limited internet bandwidth and the video eats up all the bandwidth I have--and then some. But the voice to voice is pretty reliable and effectively free. I have called all over America and Europe (from Germany to San Diego) in the three week we have been here for about $10 in phone service charges. Most of the calls are free. The average is a penny or two per minute. I call from my room, so it's convenient and fairly reliable.
2. Every base here has trailers (CHUs) with a dozen phones on each wall. These AT&T calling centers allow phonecard and credit card calls to America. The phone card can be as low as 20 cents per minute. The great thing about the AT&T phones is they are clear and reliable. When I really want to talk without interruption or repeating words, I walk over to the AT&T call center. Also, AT&T cards make great gifts for soldiers--they work everywhere and are cheap and fast to mail--just in case you were looking to buy a soldier a gift.
3. There are call centers with free phones on post, computer centers that have a 4-cent-per minute internet phone service called SPAWAR, that you can use from call centers. The free phones are time limited and go away without warning. I haven't tried SPAWAR because I am happy with Skype.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Neighbors Might Be Moving



Right across the street from the Coalition DFAC (Dining Facility) is the Romanian Army barracks and motor pool. This group of our allies has named their facility Camp Dracula more for us and the Brits than themselves. I ride past the sign a couple of times a day (at least) and smile. Camp Dracula is one of many decorated blast walls around Tallil. And the rumors say the Romanians will be going home soon. Too bad. I will miss Camp Dracula.

If there are a few dozen decorated blast walls here, there are hundreds and hundreds in Kuwait. Every unit that goes through Kuwait in 2 or 3 weeks tries to paint a blast wall in a "We were here" gesture. I was saving many shots of the best blast walls in Kuwait because I thought I would be writing about the blast wall our unit decorated. The sad story of that is the change in plans and a late start meant our soldiers did not have time to finish the blast wall. Among the whole battalion it was five Echo Company soldiers who attempted to finish the blast wall art. They may be sent back to finish it or they may finish it as we leave Iraq. But in the meantime, here are several examples of the highest expression of this folklore/art.




Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Then and Now: Sergeant Sensitive


Echo Company is a maintenance support unit based in Central Pennsylvania and composed to a large extent of soldiers who are also mechanics. For the deployment the Army filled our ranks with other National Guard soldiers literally from across the nation. I could not have written this post before West Coast soldiers joined our unit.

First a disclaimer: Sergeant Sensitive is more than one person, but none of those persons are female. The female NCOs in our unit, as you already know, are some of the best soldiers at PT and on the ranges and the ones who stay in know they must be in charge--and they are. As far as I have ever heard, they have no mixed feelings about the job of a soldier.

THEN: During my first enlistment, Sergeant Sensitive was inevitable given the times and the draft. Because of the draft there were men in the Army who clearly did not belong there. Because of the times, those men were likely to be devotees of New Age spirituality, peace and brotherhood. In the 70s, especially the early 70s before the draftees had all left the system, I would run into a smart young sergeant who was trying to do his job in a cooperative way. “We should all be able to get along. We are all on the same team.” Since I was an agnostic at the time, I noticed by their manner of speaking that almost all of these men were believers, but had rejected some traditional faith from their childhood. The “Give Peace a Chance” mentality does not mesh with the creeds and doctrine of orthodox religion. They communed with God in Nature, the old-fashioned God who had rules and standards and was the head of an absolute monarchy was way too Old School.

2007: That was then. We are now eight years into the War on Terror and more than three decades away from the end of the draft. For a few years after September 11, 2001, there could have been soldiers who enlisted thinking there had not been a war for a while. But when I re-enlisted in 2007 I assumed that by now no one could be in the military and be unclear that being a soldier meant being a soldier in combat. Back in the 1970s people might have thought an Age of Aquarius could be dawning, but no one could think that way now—or so I thought. And while I was in central Pennsylvania, my assumption was correct. No soldier I met gave any indication that “Give Peace a Chance” was his anthem. (Just a reminder for the neutral pronoun crowd: I am using “his” correctly. Sgt. Sensitive is never a woman.)

NOW: When we went to Fort Sill and soldiers from the West Coast joined our ranks. Soon I met Sergeant Sensitive. The first place I met him was on the rifle range. We were getting ready to go to the firing line and qualify with rifles. Sgt. Sensitive had 40 rounds of ammo in two magazines. He was getting ready to knock down 23 or more targets with those 40 rounds to show he was qualified as a rifleman. He came from a laid-back unit which he liked very much and landed in the company that does the most combat training in battalion. He was getting pushed hard to be a combat leader. But to be Sgt. Sensitive is to be convinced there is a "better way" than the Army way. He said, "They think there is no other way than yelling. They could, like, cooperate. I mean we can all work together. . ."

In another incarnation, I met sergeant sensitive riding a rented bike at Fort Sill. He was happily out communing with nature. We had a five-minute conversation during which "like Dude" occurred more times than I can count.

You could think, "So what?" These guys are National Guard, they are not making military careers, and it's not like we are front line troops anyway. But the random gods of the Army reach down and move soldiers like so many chess pieces. After a year of hearing we were going to Balad, here we are in Tallil. Some of us are rebuilding battered buildings, some of us are fixing vehicles. But others of us are on security detail. The soldiers on the detail are picked for various reasons, but they are not consulted about their feelings and what if sergeant sensitive is a team leader on alert status for guarding the fence?

Any sergeant at any time could be the commander of a vehicle with a gun on top. If that gunner is hurt, the vehicle commander has to put another gunner up in the place that is going to be the first aiming point for an enemy. That decision, who goes next when things go bad can't be made cooperatively. In seconds, somebody has to get up in that turret. It will be an order, not a consultation.

We practice telling soldiers what to do in the motor pool and on work crews and during PT to get them used to obeying and keep us in the business of keeping the soldiers moving when and where they need to.

Of course, sergeant sensitive can be East Coast also. Two weeks ago, I wanted to put one of our best guys on a security detail in place of a guy who was not enthusiastic about it. I told the first sergeant I was thinking like a civilian. I wanted the best soldier from our unit to be on duty at a higher headquarters. Ten minutes later I had a loud argument with the indifferent soldier's squad leader and I changed my mind. Security is a rotten detail and the kid who screwed up should be sent back to do it right. That's the Army way. I was sergeant sensitive and decided to go with the Army way.

Now I just have to be sure to turn the switch back to civilian in February.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Graduation Update


As noted in the Saturday post, the picture I had of Lisa without a broken nose was not current. You saw the current picture of Lisa with a broken nose from her final soccer game of the year. Here is her senior picture without the broken nose. She looks much better without white tape holding her nose in place.

I should have video from the graduation in a week or two. Lisa's whole class did a "shout out" to me since I missed graduation. Lisa and a few of her classmates are "Lifers" at Lancaster Country Day School--they attended LCDS since kindergarten. So I have known some of the kids in the video since they were fingerpainting.

Weather at Tallil Ali Air Base

If you want to know what the temperature is here at Tallil, the only weather service I know of that actually lists Tallil is the Weather Underground. He is a link to the Tallil forecast. Now if you want to see the temp here or the chance of rain (zero for quite a while), you can get it here.

Biggest Tourist Site in Region--Closed for a Decade


The Ziggurat of Ur, the biggest tourist attraction in the region is closed until further notice--meaning possibly for a decade. We just missed seeing it. The last tour was on April 23. The next day the site was turned over to the Iraqi Army for renovation. The chaplain's office said it really might be five to ten years before it's open again.

So we won't get to see the inside of it. But many of us see it almost every day. The Ziggurat of Ur is literally just outside the wire near the northeast corner of Tallil Ali Air Base. Our motor pool is just a kilometer from the Ziggurat and the buses that take soldiers to the motor pool pass by that section of fence on their normal route. Personally, I seldom see it because the road near that section of fence is among the worst--pitted, lumpy, bumpy--paved roads on the entire base, so I ride a longer way around to avoid those bumps.

The Ziggurat is a monument to the hometown of Abraham--the Biblical patriarch of Israel, and one of the greatest prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Start Your Day with an Enormous Breakfast

The saying here goes that soldiers return from deployment fit or fat. At the major bases like Tallil Ali Air Base, our new home, the proverb is likely to be true because of the facilities. Within a quarter mile of my CHU is a 24-hour gym. Another gym is less than a mile away. Across the street from the gym is the “Grab and Go” Dining Facility--sandwiches and cereal from 0630 to 0900, sandwiches, fruit and snacks from 1100 to 1400.

Less than a mile from my CHU and just a few hundred yards from the Living Area where most Echo soldiers live is the largest DFAC (dining facility) on base. Inside are seats for hundreds of soldiers and airmen and four lines with grills serving both main meal and snack food. After the main lines, there are two salad bars with dozens of choices. In addition there is a cold sandwich bar, a hot sandwich bar, a healthy line with Caesar salads and fresh cut fruit. There is also a dessert bar and two hot tables serving ethnic food or potatoes with several toppings. The other two dining facilities have most of the same food, just fewer lines and a smaller space. I will go into some detail about what is served for lunch, dinner, snack line and midnight meal in later posts.

So what’s breakfast? At the four lines you can get omelets or eggs to order at each of the four grills at the end of each line. Each line serves bacon, sausage, turkey bacon or turkey sausage, Texas Hash (I have not had it, looks like potatoes, sausage and peppers.) scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs and vegetables, grits, oatmeal, oatmeal with raisins, fried potatoes, biscuits and gravy.

Not enough to eat on the main line? The salad bar has fresh fruit, sometimes peeled kiwi and oranges, apples, bananas and other fruit. Then there are raisins, applesauce, nuts, and canned fruit. In place of the hot sandwich and potato bars are waffle and pancake bars with hot strawberries, blueberries and cherries. You can also get made-to-order waffles, toast, doughnuts and coffee cake.

In the back are refrigerators with milk, five or six kinds of juices in juice boxes, brand name sodas, then there is coffee, more juice and tea.

This morning I went to the South side of the base at a smaller DFAC where they don't have omelets or eggs to order--just scrambled eggs. I survived. I had French toast with strawberries, raisin bran cereal, two fruit juices, and a biscuit. I never eat that much at home. Some days I have all that I just named plus and omelet and bacon.

I have lost five or six pounds since I got here. I don't know how. I'll write about the other four meals later.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Proud Dad: My Youngest Daughter Graduates, Plays Hurt

You've been warned by the title. If you don't want to here me brag about my kids, stop reading now.

Both of my kids play hurt. (Where do they get that?? I try to teach them safety first!!) For Lisa, her latest injury almost meant graduating with an bandage X holding her broken nose in place. Earlier this year, Lauren, Lisa's older sister almost missed a soccer tournament because she got a nasty concussion playing indoor soccer while she was home on Christmas break. Lauren is one of the two starting goalkeepers for Juniata College Women's Soccer Team.



My youngest daughter Lisa graduated from Lancaster Country Day School today. I spoke with her just after graduation and heard about the aftermath of her last soccer game of the senior season. Lisa plays striker and gets many goals on headballs. In the last game of her senior season she went for a headball right in front of the goal and slammed her nose into an opposing players head. Lisa bled all over her uniform and had to go to the sidelines to get cleaned up--the rules say you can't play with blood on the uniform.

She went back in, scored the only goal for her team (with her foot) and finished the game. More than a week later she learned she had a broken nose that needed to be reset. She got her nose set and taped and finished the last two weeks of classes. She for the bandages off the day before graduation, so her grad pictures won't have a bandage X on her face.

While I was getting ready to leave for deployment, Lauren dove for a ball and put her head into the metal post of the smaller-sized indoor soccer goal. She finished the game but had to rest to the point she was barely allowed to walk to class and could not work out at all. She recovered in time for the tournament and her team was the overall tournament winner.

This fall Lauren will be back in the goal for Juniata for her junior year. Lisa will be running D-1 Cross Country for the University of Richmond. She is the first female athlete in LCDS history to play Division One sports and one of just a who have ever gone on to NCAA Division 1 sports.

The deployment will be 1/3 over in a week and I have already missed a lot major events in the lives of my daughters and the rest of my family. If all goes well I will be home in mid-June for my mother-in-law's Memorial service and spend time with my family and friends. In some ways the time is passing quickly, but in others, it's already a long year.


Lisa uninjured


Lauren uninjured

Friday, May 22, 2009

Presbyterian Promoted


My best friend here in Iraq is a fellow Presbyterian who rejoined the Army at an advanced age as a Specialist. Yesterday, at just 49 years old, he was promoted to sergeant. Assuming he is not shipped off to another base, we may get a chance to be roommates.

We can't be roomies right away because my roommate is off on a temporary assignment. It would be impolite to change rooms on him while he was gone, and more importantly, while he is a good roommate normally, he is a great roommate now! I have the room to myself for 23 more days.

When we do end up roommates, I am sure some will hang a sign on saying "Library--BE QUIET!!" Two old guys who actually read books and don't play loud music should be quarantined so they don't disturb the other inmates.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This Little Piggie. . .


In this Army culture dominated by rules, any casual conversation can turn suddenly to who is right, who is wrong and what does this or that rule really mean. Recently I was eating with several other sergeants at dinner. For a while the conversation was about promotions and the arcane rules that govern how National Guard soldiers get promoted.

With that topic exhausted, one of the sergeants said she was going to get some food for a soldier who was in bed because he just had an ingrown toenail removed. The soldier in question is a genial guy in his early 40s who shops at the XXL rack. So a dispute began about what to get him to eat. "Get a salad and that kind of stuff," said one. Another said, "He needs more than that." After more speculation about his dietary needs, someone said the operation was on the soldier's Ring Toe. "You know, like the ring finger, fourth one, you count from the thumb." Another sergeant said there were no rules with toes. Someone called him an idiot. Then they started figuring out which "Piggie" had the hangnail removed. Which led the same group of sergeants to begin arguing about which Piggie was which. I was laughing so hard I thought I would lose my dinner.

Then one of the femail sergeants noted that the third piggie, corresponding to the middle finger and toe got the roast beef and could say F-you to all the rest of the piggies. Then she smacked the table and said, "Who comes up with this shit anyway. Who makes up a rhyme about Piggies."

I don't remember what we talked about after that, nor do I remember what the soldier with the sore Piggie got for dinner. But they weren't serving roast beef that night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Riding with the Oven Door Open

I try to ride at dawn when it is below 90 degrees or near dusk when the temperature drops below 100, but the last two days, I had to ride a few miles in the middle of the day. Today at 1pm it was 115, yesterday it was 117 degrees.

On a hot day in Pennsylvania (at least what I thought was hot last year--between 95 and 100 degrees) I could ride 17 to 20 mph on a flat road and cool down a little. Uphill I was going to drip sweat and downhill would be very cool. Here there are no hills at all, so the high speed breeze is the best I can hope for. It works in the morning or in the evening when the sun is low in the sky, but the last two days, riding at midday, the air felt like I was riding past an open oven.

A light headwind kicked up, no more than 10 mph, but that felt like I was riding behind a heater blower. The good thing was this evening's ride, when the temp dropped to 100, I was sweating on my 10-mile loop of the base, but the air felt like air, not oven blast.

There is no humidity to speak of here and I suppose the temp would feel worse if it was humid, but 115 degrees is hot--dry heat or not.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Marriage and Romance in the Army

For most soldiers "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is the best we can do for romance in the Army. A large group of us are in some kind of committed relationship, another large group has no relationship and is not likely to discover true love among the other soldiers and civilians assigned to our base. And since we are not allowed off base, the potential candidates for Love seekers are all here on Tallil Ali Air Base. If my deployment to Germany in the 70s is any indication, the romances that flare to life among the soldiers here will burn out just as quickly.

So who does have romance on a deployment to Iraq? As it turns out the small minority of married couples (6 that I know of) among the 600 soldiers in our unit have relationships that at least allow for the possibility of real romance. They get to live together in one of the CHUs I described a few days ago. In fact, three of the couples live in the same CHU in three adjoining rooms. This is a great mercy to everyone involved. As I mentioned in several other ways, in this Socialist empire we inhabit, envy is the fastest way to corrode relationships. These couples are the dozen people among 600 of us who can have sex on a regular basis. For the rest of us, sex and alcohol can only be enjoyed during the 15 days we are on Rest and Recreation leave during this year.

The married couples here include a pair of pilots and a pair of aircraft maintenance sergeants (she outranks him in both cases) a pilot married to a crew chief and two clerks (he outranks her in these couples), plus two sergeants who I believe are mechanics and are the same rank. I asked three of the five couples (both members of the couple were present when I asked) how they felt about the other soldiers looking at them and wishing they had the same arrangement. The three women--an officer, a sergeant first class and a specialist--all answered as if from a script. They made sacrifices to be in the Army. It's not easy to be married to another soldier. If someone else wants the privilege, let them make the sacrifice. No wavering from the women.

The men were more varied. The warrant officer shrugged and smirked. He could deal with it. The young sergeant could see the problem, but was willing to take the hassle. The staff sergeant who had deployed before said he wished they ended up in tents (meaning no living together). He saw envy as a big problem--one he could deal with, but he could also give up the privilege without a big fight.

At Fort Sill and in Kuwait, the married couples were not allowed to live together. So except for the 4-day pass, the married couples were just like the rest of us for the first three months. Except that they could talk face to face. So they still got the kind of time together that most married couples say they never get enough of--time to just talk.

This whole situation is new to me. In the 1970s Army, there were no arrangements for couples to live together in combat barracks and very few soldiers married to each other. Couples in camouflage still look somewhat strange to me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Linguistics Update

While I was thinking and talking about our CHUs, I noticed another Army pronoun I do not remember from the 70s: Bitch. I do not mean the act of complaining or a derogatory reference to a woman, those uses are no different than the civilian usage. But when I cataloqued the use of Shit as a pronoun, I did not notice there is an upper size limit on the use of that word.

When a soldier refers to a truck, or a building, or other very large object, he will often say "This bitch is ready to paint" referring to a recently repaired truck or "This bitch has a busted air conditioner" referring to a CHU without the most important creature comfort. So there is a line somewhere between a duffel bag and a Deuce-and-a-half truck where the item referred to is no longer "that shit" but "this bitch."

Home Sweet (Trailer) Home

My youngest daughter Lisa is graduating from Lancaster Country Day School in two weeks. Her older sister Lauren graduated two years ago. A few years ago, the school underwent renovations so my daughters and all their fellow students had some classes in temporary classrooms next to the buildings (trailers). But the students were not allowed to say trailers. These metal-sided buildings were "learning cottages."

Since moving to Iraq, we have had a huge upgrade from 70 roommates in a tent in Kuwait to 2-man rooms for sergeants and junior officers, three-man rooms for enlisted men, and one-man rooms for the senior officers. Here's the basic building:



The Army needs an acronym for everything, so these 30-foot long, eight-foot wide housing units that can be transported on a truck are not trailers, they are Containerized Housing Units (CHU), pronounced "Choo." Most everyone calls them CHUs. When dozens of CHUs are surrounded by 12-foot-high blast walls with latrine CHUs and Shower CHUs in the middle, the result is called a Living Area (LA). There are ten LAs on Tallil. Members of our unit live in most of these living areas numbered from LA1 to LA10. A few of us make jokes about living in trailer parks and putting cars up on cement blocks in the yard, but most people use the acronyms.

Here is an LA on another base. Ours is similar.

I'll try to get some photos from here soon.

Inside a CHU we each get a bed, an end table, and a wall locker. Some soldiers are already finding refrigerators and TVs. As of Saturday night, I have temporarily have the not-available-at-any-price luxury of my own room for one month. My roommate got temporarily reassigned to another base. He will not be gone long enough to take all his gear or reassign his bed, so I am alone for 30 days or so. When he left he said, "Enjoy the library while I'm gone." You can just sit in here and listen to nothing. Which is not exactly true. Since he is so careful to put on headphones to listen to Gangsta Rap or watch movies, I seldom listened to anything in the room. But with the room to myself, I can listen to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" the BBC World Service, several New Yorker podcasts and Distillations from my work. But mostly, it's quiet in my trailer, I mean CHU.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flat Out of Luck

My bulletproof Gatorskin tires turned out to have a weak spot: the sidewall. I rolled between two blast barriers to stop at the Base Exchange in the Air Force area and hear the tell-tale hissing that meant I would be walking home. I have two tires and three tubes, so I could change the flat--except my tire tools are somewhere in Oklahoma as it turns out.

But my luck got better almost immediately. I brought the bike to my room and walked to chow before it closed. At chow was another soldier who just got a bike from home but no pump. I have a floor pump. He used my pump and loaned me a spoon so we will both be on the road tomorrow.

My oldest daughter Lauren is home from college so I called her and asked her to send me spoons and another tire and tube, so I should be able to stay on the road even if the gravel here claims another tire.

Today, I installed printer drivers on four maintenance computers, but our commander and one of our platoon sergeants flew in last night. We may have a lot more to do next week.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Doing Nothing, 7 Days a Week

Those of you who read detective novels may have noticed a dog that isn't barking in my recent posts. It has been almost a month since I wrote about us doing anything. That is not because we are on a Top Secret mission. It is the opposite. As you know our assignment was changed just before we left and long after our bags and baggage had been sent on to Camp Cupcake. So instead of moving in where another unit was moving out and taking over their assignment, we are starting from scratch in a place that was not quite set up for us. So we are building a motor pool in a few unused buildings that are not exactly suited for what we do.

So we are painting, building shelves and tables, wiring buildings for telecom and computers, and generally cleaning out dust-filled unused spaces. Since we are in a war zone, we can't actually do nothing. We have to be ready for emergencies, so we are on duty seven days a week, rotating days off in shifts.

When a big unit like ours changes course, the support people like us have to wait for equipment to arrive and start needing maintenance before we have work. So we clean, paint, pull security duty, and try to get ready for when the rest of the unit needs us. Until then, we will be busy doing nothing, seven days a week.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What the PT Test Doesn't Measure

I will be starting remedial PT (Physical Training) again next week for the soldiers who failed the last PT Test and need to get ready for the next one. In Iraq, more than in Oklahoma, the gym is one of the few things to do so I am able to divide the group into two groups:
1. The self-motivated ones who know what they need to work on, have a workout partner and have committed to a plan to pass the test.
2. Those who need some level of push or they will stay as motionless as possible, usually in front of some sort of video entertainment.

For group one I already have five individual plans of action and will check in regularly. For group two, I will be taking over a SPIN class on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of each week at 0530. The less motivated will join me in the SPIN class pedaling for an hour bright and early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Our entire company does a 5k race each Wednesday morning and individual squads do PT Monday and Friday morning early.

THE PT TEST ISN'T EVERYTHING. . .
It is my job to help get these soldiers ready to pass the PT test, which I think is very important. But over the last three months I have noticed that the PT test does not necessarily predict who will be the best soldier, especially for tough, dirty jobs. There are certain jobs for which I ask for Group 1 soldiers who have failed or barely passed the PT test. When we load and unload and hundreds of duffel bags; when we have to carry dozens of machine guns, barrels and tripods; whenever there is a job that requires lots of muscle and little speed, I am looking for some of the big guys who struggle to reach their required time on the two-mile run or the required number of sit-ups, but can lift lots of weight easily and will work for hours.

The PT test is a good measure of fitness, but not such a good measure of brute strength or willingness to work long hours. And there are many times in this manual labor job where the race is neither to the swift nor to the agile but to the big guy who can barely run two miles in 17 minutes but can bench press 350 pounds.

. . .BUT IT IS IMPORTANT
One more note on the Group 2 soldiers who bitch about PT, many of whom need to eat less in addition to working out more: These same guys watch a lot of war movies and really don't seem to see the connection between fitness and being a soldier. In fact, when 70 of us lived in one tent and there were no secrets anywhere, I started to notice that the guys who hated PT were the ones who tried to look "bad" in the group photos. Young soldiers are perpetually taking photos of each other, like all of their generation. I noticed the same guys who shirk every dirty job and grumble about PT were the ones who had their weapons prominent in the photos they were in. They like the look and idea of being a soldier. Maybe they somehow believe that if the worst happens they will have a Hollywood transformation into movie-hero fighting machines.

My guess is they will just be out of breath.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Achmed the Dead Terrorist

Every place soldiers gather, whether official or unofficial meetings, if there is a video screen and few minutes, Achmed the Dead Terrorist is likely to be on that screen. If you have not seen this character by puppeteer/comedian Jeff Dunham, enjoy. If the link does not work, just go to You Tube and search for Achmed the Dead Terrorist.

Bike Line to the Rescue from 6000 Miles Away


Some avid bicyclists really love bicycles. The love them as machines, love their design and engineering, love them as objects.
Not me.
In fact when I started racing Joan Jett's song "I Hate Myself for Loving You" was still a hit. I started listening to that song to get psyched for those first races. I like going fast, I like competing, but I see the bike as the necessary and occasionally as an instrument of torture. The song seemed perfect for my relationship with my bike.
So while I can do some work on a bike, I don't work on my bikes if Bike Line of Lancaster is open. They know what they are doing and the bike gets fixed properly.
But there is no Bike Line of Tallil, Iraq, so three days ago when I bent a spoke and knocked my wheel out of true, I called up Bike Line to tell me how best to fix the bike taking no chances on breaking the spoke--which would take ten days to get here in the mail.
Jeremiah from Bike Line told me which spokes to adjust and by how much and what to look for to keep from breaking the wheel or the spokes. It worked. The wheel is nearly straight and I rode on the bumpy roads and gravel here without incident.
It is clear that the road bike I brought for Camp Cupcake is not the right bike for the rock-strewn sand pile I am in now.
Since the only bikes I can buy here are $150 beaters, Bill and Jeremiah found me a single-speed mountain bike at a reasonable price which I should have in a couple of weeks. It has 29-inch wheels and wide knobby tires which should be much better for riding on sand and gravel.
The bike is a GT PEACE 9R. I'm sure it will be pretty strange riding around a combat air base with a weapon on my back and a bike that says Peace on the seat tube.

By the way--I bent the spoke because I jumped on the bike to run a quick errand just slung the rifle on my back with wrapping another strap around it. A pedestrin jumped in front of me. I stopped short and the barrel swung into the front wheel.
Barrel 1
Spoke 0

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Updates and a Clarification

LEAVE: I won't be coming home on leave for my mother-in-law's memorial service. I asked several members of my unit if I could go on emergency leave and still go on my scheduled Rest & Recreation leave in mid-June. I got various answers from emphatic Yes to maybe.

Then I talked to the sergeant who actually handles leaves. She said if I take the leave now, I cannot take an R&R leave until every other soldier in my entire unit has taken a leave or turned it down. My wife said she would rather have me home at the time we agreed on than now, so I won't be coming home until June.

One of the sergeants in my unit who was deployed previously in 2005 said, "Guss, you did it backwards. I went home on R&R then my Dad died a month later. They have to give you both leaves that way." Army jokes are seldom delicate.

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RIGHT FOOT: The good effects of the cortisone shot in my heel lasted exactly one day. I have a bone spur. My foot hurts every time I step down. I am currently on a 2-week ban from running, but since the DFAC is 3/4 mile from my living quarters and the bathroom is 200 meters away, I have to walk on rocks several times a day even if I have the day off. What I should do is get the bone spur removed. But the Army is nothing if not the home of socialized medicine, so I will be getting new shoe inserts, new anti-inflammatory medicine and more cortisone shots before the Army doctors will be able to justify operating on my foot. The only variable in the process is how much I complain--which I will be doing often.

Because I could not do the weekly 5k race this morning, the first sergeant put me on what he was told was a furniture moving detail. He said I would just have to supervise the soldiers who would be moving the furniture. As it turned out, I was on a security detail with a 30-round magazine in my weapon. I spent most of the day standing on or walking on rocks--almost everything here is paved with gravel. My foot would have been better off if I ran the 5k.

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CLARIFICATION: A reader of my blog from NYC asked where I carry 30 POUNDS of ammo on my bike. It's actually 30 ROUNDS of ammo which weighs just over one pound.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Riding In Iraq

Here's some photos of me riding with a rifle. We keep 30 rounds of ammo in a magazine with us. Mine is in the green pouch on the butt stock. Slinging it over my back is easier than the pack, but strapping the rifle on the pack keeps it in place better.







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Monday, May 11, 2009

Sad Mother's Day in Iraq

In a sad coincidence of time zones, I was in Church in late morning yesterday listening to a Mothers Day sermon at about the same hour in which my mother-in-law Carol Jo Crannell passed away in her sleep in a hospice in Maryland. She had been ill for a long time, suffering from rapidly advancing Alzheimer's and some related complications. My wife had written me the day before about her care, but no one knew she was so close to the end of her life.

And that life was very impressive. My wife Annalisa is the oldest of three daughters of Carol Jo who, like their mom, have advanced degrees in science and math. Carol was a solar physicist at NASA Goddard, so I could truthfully say my mother-in-law is a rocket scientist. Her devoted husband Hall Crannell is an emeritus professor of physics at Catholic University. His field was particle physics, so between their two parents, the Crannell girls grew up meeting people who studied the largest and smallest spheres in the universe.

My son Nigel was just three when my mother passed away so Nana was the only grandmother he knew well. Carol doted on Nigel when they were together. In one of the happy side effects of the disease Carol suffered with, her loss of short-term memory meant she could happily watch Nigel play with his trains or repeat a story again and again. Carol was never bored with the repetitions of little children.

I may or may not be able to go home for emergency leave because in-laws are not quite immediate family, but my unit is doing their best to make it possible. Annalisa in her always practical way said if coming home for Carol's memorial service would cause me to miss my scheduled leave, I should stay here. That is the best plan.

I will let you know how things go.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Riding in Tallil

Today I rode the perimeter of Tallil Air Base, a total distance 13 miles. Not very far and I stopped for an hour at the aid station to get a Cortisone shot in my right heel.
Aaaahhhh!!!

Felt better five minutes after the shot. Tomorrow we are running at 0600 so I will take my ankle for a test drive. It turns out I have a "rather large" bone spur according to the doc. Fifteen years ago, I got three cortisone shots then an operation on my heel. The operation would be my preference, but it may have to wait until I am a civilian again.

Back to ride. My single-speed bike arrived Friday afternoon. I have ridden several places already, but I must take my weapon everywhere--an M16A4 rifle. For short trips I sling it on my back. For longer trips, like today, I strap it to a backpack. I was thinking while I rode along the backside of the base how different the Bike Line Sunday rides would be if everyone on the ride had an M16 or M4 carbine or M249 SAW machine gun strapped over their backs. We carry a 30-round magazine for rifles and a 200-round drum for SAWs as a minimum. My guess is that pickup truck drivers who occasionally hassle us would be less inclined to do swear or swerve at a dozen riders with automatic weapons.

I will try to get a picture of me on the bike for a later post.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

2nd Anniversary of Breaking My Neck

I keep many anniversaries, both silly and serious. Beyond the obvious ones, like my wedding anniversary and family birthdays, I always celebrate the anniversary of my driver's license. It was easily one of the best days of my life. I wanted to drive ever since I could remember and knew by heart the driveline and engine specifications of every Detroit Muscle Car available in the 60s. In fact, this coming December 19th I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my driver's license in Iraq. Maybe I'll get two pieces of cake in the DFAC here on that day.

Today is the 2nd Anniversary of the day I broke my neck, and a lot of other stuff: I cracked the first two vertebra in my neck, smashed the 7th, broke four ribs and my collarbone and shoulder blade on the right side and my nose. It all happened in about a second when I flipped and crashed in a downhill race at 50mph on Turkey Hill in Lancaster County PA.

I don't remember the accident or more than two minutes of the following two days, but that accident almost kept me from being here in Tallil, Iraq, writing this post. Of course, you might wonder in the other direction "How did they let him in the Army?" since I re-enlisted (after being a civilian for 23 years) three months later on August 16, 2007. The short answer is: I hang around with academics enough to know that I should always answer the question I am being asked--and nothing more.

The Thursday before Easter 2007, in late March, I called a recruiter and started the enlistment process. By late April I had passed the physical and other tests and was just waiting for an age waiver--I was one year too old to enlist even with 11 years of prior service. As it turned out, I did not get that waiver until July 13. So on April 28, I was set to enlist and just waiting for paperwork. On May 9th I was being MedEvaced from the crash site to Lancaster General Hospital where Dr. William T. Monacci happened to be the neurosurgeon on duty in the trauma center.

Dr. Monacci had just come to Lancaster. He is also a colonel in the Army Reserve. His last practice was in Baghdad, so he had a lot of recent, relevant experience. The next day he and his team replaced my smashed 7th vertebra with a bone from a cadaver then bolted it to the vertebra on either side with a titanium plate. I could have been a paraplegic or worse. As it was, I was up and walking in a neck and chest brace five days later and out of the hospital in eight days.

Of course, I was worried this was the end of joining the Army. But I passed the physical and I did not yet have the waiver. The recruiter said there was nothing to do but wait, so I did. I walked at least three miles per day (to the Starbucks at Stonemill Plaza in Lancaster among other places) and started doing zero-weight exercises at the gym to keep loose.

In July the waiver came through. I was supposed to get the neck brace off during the first two weeks in August, so I told him I would enlist on August 16. I did. I felt fine. No one asked me if I had broken my neck recently, so I had no question to answer.

The following spring, May 2008, we were getting prepared to go to Iraq. I listened to the medical briefing as carefully as I would listen to a prize drawing. At one point the earnest young private giving the briefing said, "If you have enlisted in the last year and there have been no changes in your health SINCE YOUR ENLISTMENT write NONE on the block at the bottom of the form." So I did. Nothing had changed since I enlisted in August 2007.

Then a doctor interviewed us. My health records looked great, tests all good. At the end of the exam the doctor asked, "Is there anything else you would like to tell me?" There was not a thing I wanted to tell him. So I said "No."

So here I am. In an ironic medical twist, I had surgery on my right shoulder on October 30, 2008, to repair a torn rotator cuff and three other ligaments. The likely cause of the ligament damage was hitting the road with my helmet and shoulder the year before, but that was not part of the diagnosis. Because that surgery caused me to miss Army training November, I was classified non-deployable until 2 days before we went to Oklahoma. But I passed the medical test and got on the plane with several hundred of my closest friends.

So that is how I got here despite breaking my neck.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bitching at Breakfast

After Wednesday's 5k race, a few of us who ran in the event met for breakfast. There happened to be an empty seat opposite me. Before I had two bites of my French Toast, an angry sergeant from our unit sat down in that empty seat and asked, "Why the f$#k do I have run a 5k race every Wednesday?" The question was rhetorical. He did stop talking so I kept eating. "I hate running. . .We only have to run 2 miles for the PT test so why should run 3 miles. . ."

In Kuwait our base had a 5k race every Wednesday and our base in Iraq decided to do the same. The officer in charge of our physical training program decided it would be a good thing to get the whole company together once a week for this event, so I talked to the organizer after the race. He was delighted to have more people running. The organizer and I talked at 0645. I showered and got to chow by 0730. Word had spread through most of the company by then even though some of us live as far as a mile from each other.

I should point out that the sergeant who was so upset scores well on the PT test, volunteers for tough duty and is a natural leader. But he has decided that running 5k once per week is an unfair imposition on him.

When he calmed down enough to start eating I asked, "So what about the rocket attack. Did that bother you?"

"F#$k no. We're in a combat zone. I expect that. It was a few rockets. They didn't hit shit anyway.' He paused for breath.

"But why do we have to get up at 5 in the morning just to go run, I mean what the f. . ." and he was off again.

For most of my friends back home, a 5k morning run would be a pleasant or at least neutral experience, especially since it could even be a 5k walk. On the other hand, a few ill-aimed rockets that fell anywhere in the immediate area would still be the occasion of very strenuous complaints to every level of government not to mention "must sell" real estate prices.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gossip!

My roommate goes off in the evenings to spend time with two guys from his home town. The three of them deployed together before almost five years ago, but can happily spend an evening talking about things that have nothing to do with the Army or the current deployment.

He says the alternative to talking with each other is talking about each other. The main topics of conversation on deployment are home, complaints and gossip. And gossip quickly takes center stage. When people see each other as much as we do, we know each others foibles and weaknesses to a degree that is only possible in families in civilian life.

At this point, it's clear that simply mentioning some soldier's name will lead a group at dinner to groan, laugh or shake their heads depending on the person. And because it is such a close group, the comments circulate quickly. One one field exercise, I told my vehicle crew that I would not allow anyone to talk on cell phones inside the vehicle when we were waiting for instructions. It was raining off and on that day. The rest of the crew knew I made up the rule for only one soldier in the vehicle who would complain to his mother/girlfriend/(dog) at every halt if allowed. I heard comments with sly smile for a week after from soldiers who heard the rule I had made and were delighted that particular soldier was not allowed to drone on and make the rest of the crew suffer.

For those who would think gossip is optional, being part of the gossip also identifies one as part of an informal group. A group that when gossip when you are present considers you an outsider. If you hear "She's a f#$king idiot" when you are eating with five other soldiers, they are letting you in on their group opinion. To be outside the gossip is to be outside every informal network.

For those who would like to read the definitive essay on this subject cliques and who is on and out, the essay "The Inner Ring" in CS Lewis' book "The Weight of Glory" is wonderful on this subject.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My First Medal in Iraq. . .is for a 5K Race

Each Wednesday, beginning just last Wednesday, The House of Pain gym (no kidding) on our base sponsors a 5K with medals and prizes. This morning a half-dozen soldiers from Echo Company signed up for the race. The prizes were given out by random drawing before the race, the medals were awarded by age group--but only finishers are allowed to collect prizes so the pizza and t-shirt winners did not get their prizes until the race was over. I got medal for being first place in what the announcer called the "51 to Infinity group." Full disclosure rules (that I just made up) require me to say at this point that I was the only entrant in the 51 to Infinity group, but they awarded me the medal anyway.

Even with a time of 26:13, I was ahead of some younger people. Although I was so far behind the race winner, I had almost a mile to go when he finished. First place was a lieutenant who finished in 17 minutes and 40 seconds. There was also a 45-year-old sergeant who came in at 19:33 to win his age group.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Speaking of Snail Mail

I have an address at my new home:

Sgt. Neil Gussman
Co. E 2/104 GSAB
COB Adder T-1
APO.AE.09331

Just so you understand all the Acronyms and numbers, here is the address without abbreviations:

Line 1: Sergeant Neil Gussman

Line 2: Echo Company, 2nd Battalion / 104th General Services Aviation Brigade

Line 3: Combat Operating Base Adder T-1

Line 4: Army Post Office.Armed[Forces]Europe.[Zip Code]

If you would like to send something I would be happy to get snail mail. If you can't think of anything to write, one of the Chaplains wants me to start a CS Lewis reading group on post so if you have extra copies of Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, God in the Dock, Till We Have Faces and The Weight of Glory, please send them. Or you can send them direct through Amazon.com.

Thanks.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Staying in Touch--with Co-Workers

When I am back in the US I work at a museum and library of chemistry and early science that has books in its collections dating back to the invention of printing in the 1400s. In some ways, we are the most low-tech place you could imagine. The staff reads books. People visit to read books. We all talk about books. But if Chemical Heritage Foundation is low-tech at heart, it has a high-tech side. We have an extensive Web site, a Facebook page and many other connections to the high-tech world. And since I miss the people I work with the best of these high-tech connections is "Distillations" the CHF podcast (Free subscription on iTunes.)

when I go to the gym or in have a few minutes I can listen to the weekly podcast on various subjects in chemistry and the world around us. I liked the podcast when I was in America, but now listening Jen, Jim, Sarah, Bob, Jody (not THAT Jody), Audra, or the always mysterious Anke talk about chemistry in the kitchen, or medieval love potions, or how to be green and clean, I hear voices that I miss. Of course, they are all being professional and informative as they speak, but I have heard everyone who is on the podcast laugh and make jokes in person, so I can usually remember some funny thing Anke said about Medieval cures that were worse than the disease, or Jim showing me a Ship of Fools, or Sarah making jokes about almost anything.

CHF is a great place to work. If you don't believe me, listen to the podcast. Almost everyone who is "on the air" is on the staff.

So if high-tech might have kept me from becoming a writer, it certainly is nice to have it for things like listening to people I know and like on line.

Then and Now: Staying in Touch

When I was stationed in (West) Germany, my peak income as a sergeant was $5,000 per year in 1979, the third year of my deployment. At that time the only options for staying in touch with America were phone calls and snail mail. I phoned my family once in a while, but mail was the only real option. Compared to now, calling home cost a fortune: a ten-minute phone call cost at least $5 when most of us made less than $100 per week.

Now I call landlines on Skype from here in the Middle East and half the time I am charged nothing. Phone cards have rates around 20 cents per minute for a call that is as reliable as calling in the states. Email only costs the access fee for internet, same with Facebook and every other electronic means of calling/writing home.

I am very happy to be able to talk to every member of my family every week. I also call friends and co-workers just on a whim because it is cheap and easy. This blog allows me to stay in touch with a lot of people without clogging their email InBoxes.

But no Blessing in this life is unmixed. I learned how to write on my deployment to Germany. I joined the Army a High School graduate who had no aspirations of going to college. Seeing the beauty of the German countryside, talking with Germans, training with British troops, flying to France in a helicopter for a War Memorial ceremony all were experiences beyond pictures. I wanted to tell my family and friends about them.

I don't know how it started, but a few months into the deployment, I started writing several drafts of the same experience as letters. First I wrote to my Mom. She mostly cared that I wrote, not what I wrote, so she got the first draft. Then I would write to Frank Capuano, my best friend from high school, or someone else who I wanted to tell about simply being in a foreign country. Sometimes I would write another more letter, same story. But the last letter in the series would be either to my sister, Jean, or my uncle Jack. They were the best writers I knew personally so I by the time I wrote their copy, I was 4 or 5 drafts from my first thoughts.

A year later when I got a job on the base newspaper it was because of all that practice writing. Even though I write every day now, the process is not the same. I write, I hit the PUBLISH POST button and never revise.

Of course, if I were writing five drafts of each post, I would be posting a lot less. But I have no doubt that I learned the craft of being a writer by those laborious rewrites. I will be writing other posts on this subject--in one draft.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

We Arrived--Weather Forecast is HOT until November

We got to Iraq today. It was a 30-minute flight that took 11 hours if you include getting up at 0030 (just after midnight), loading baggage at 0200 after waiting for the bus for almost an hour, two hours for the 20-mile ride to the airport squeezed into a bus with seats not made for soldiers wearing body armor, another hour to load the baggage on pallets for the plane (300 duffel bags weigh 50 pounds or more each) then waiting on rocks for four hours for the plane to take off. Finally, the same 20 guys from who loaded most of the baggage unloaded all of the baggage.

Now that we are finally here, Iraq is flat, dusty and hot. It should stay that way for most ofthe time we are here. Tomorrow we will begin work. Today most of us took naps and called home after the short flight that took so long.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

My Birthday in 1979


I got an email yesterday from Bruder Timotheus of the Land of Kanaan, Darmstadt, Germany, asking if I remembered what I did on my 26th birthday in 1979. I had no idea.

So Bruder Timotheus, then Sgt. Cliff Almes, reminded me that May 2, 1979, was his discharge date (He used the military acronym ETS (expiration of Term of Service) showing just how deep they burn those acronyms in us.) On that day I drove Cliff from Wiesbaden to Darmstadt in my 1969 Renault TS with a 4-speed shifter on the column.

On that day, Cliff began 10 months in the novitiate of the Franciscan Brotherhood at Kanaan and later became Bruder Timotheus. He is still there. He is also an American so he fixes things at the monastery and for the last ten years has been the network administrator for Kanaan Ministries.

I talked to Cliff today on Skype. Birds were singing in the background as we spoke. It is spring all over the northern hemisphere, but spring has a very different sound and feel in central Germany than in Kuwait.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tour of Our Camp

Here are a few views of our current home taken by my Battle Buddy.

The Showers at the edge of tent city


Our Tents


Blast walls surround every building or group of buildings. Units decorate the blast walls as they pass through the camp.


Starbucks seen from the dirt road out front


The Post Chapel. That is a Baptist full-immersion baptismal out front!!

Starbucks Update--56th Birthday in Kuwait


STARBUCKS IN KUWAIT. THE SAND-FILLED BARRIER IS TO THE LEFT.

Today I traded my $99 bike for a Venti Carmel Macchiatto at Starbucks. One of the baristas here asked me about buying it. I felt strange selling the bike, but I could trade it for a latte. So I got a 2-week bike rental for $99 and a free latte!!

Tomorrow I will celebrate my 56th birthday in Kuwait. I was thinking I would celebrate my natal day in Iraq, but Kuwait is close.