Friday, April 30, 2010

More Whirleybirds

Ubiquitous as Hueys were and Blackhawks are in the military, sometimes the mission requires a helicopter that can carry more weight or just fly higher.  That's where the CH-47 Chinook comes into play.

Most helicopters have a tail rotor to counteract the torque of the main rotor system.  Chinooks don't because they have two counter-rotating main rotors so that the torque is balanced out.  With the high mountains throughout much of Afghanistan, their capabilities to fly higher are often needed.

I've only ridden on a Chinook once, from Fort Lewis to the Yakima Training Center, both in Washington state, but on different sides of a mountain range.  I took off on a beautiful day in the late summer  from Ft. Lewis, with lush green grass and beautiful trees to be seen in every direction.  A little over an hour later I walked off the tail ramp of a Chinook onto what may as well have been the lunar surface.

Nothing but dirt and tiny scrub brush for as far as the eye could see.  The rotor blades whistled overhead as I felt the heat and smelled the pungent jet fuel aroma of the dual engine exhausts washing over me.  I thought to myself, "What the hell am I doing here?"

Of course we have other types of helicopters, but I haven't seen them as often.  The Afghan government and some private companies fly old Soviet made "Hip" helicopters to transport people and equipment.

During an avalanche several weeks ago, the Afghan government was able to use their helicopters to assist in the rescue of over 1,500 travelers that were stranded when several avalanches swept cars, trucks and buses off the road as if they were toys.

Of course, we're in a NATO environment, so different governments are helping with a variety of missions.  One day, I was able to capture this French bird flying by.

In any case, I'm glad that we have the technology that we have for it's ability to help people.  The Wright brothers thought that the invention of the airplane would make warfare obsolete, since there would be no need to maneuver your armies to fight if the other side could easily see where the armies were arrayed.

Sadly, they were wrong, and aircraft are used for destruction as well as for helping people.

It's a pity that such a beautiful thing as the ability to fly has developed into the preferred method to fight wars...

Blackhawks at Sunset

I wrote about the venerable Huey helicopter yesterday.  It served the United States military for decades and they or their follow-on aircraft are still in service in many places around the world.

Times change for all of us as we age.  We're not as fast as the new kids on the block. Such was the case with the UH-60 Blackhawk.  I had the opportunity to ride on one as they were conducting a low level training flight while I was still in the Huey unit.  It was apparent how different the Blackhawks are even before I got on.
The Blackhawks have four fully articulated and narrower rotor blades compared to the Huey's two wide blades.  When they fly, they produce more of a whirring sound than the Huey's percussive beat.

As we lifted off, it was obvious that the pilots had a little showing off in mind.  We blasted into the air as if in a rocket chair and accelerated across the field faster than I'd ever thought possible.  Soon we were skimming the treetops, turning left and right as we skirted the hills and followed the valleys.  Everytime we turned it felt like we were looking straight down into the trees.

I enjoyed the ride thoroughly, but only had one other Blackhawk ride a few years later.  Until this week.  My trip took me so much less time than driving that it was amazing.  The pilots were flying smoothly on this trip, so no steep turns or rocket takeoffs.

Years ago, as a new airplane pilot I wanted to impress a female friend of mine with my flying skills.  I took her up and showed her stalls and steep turns and dips and climbs.  She was so impressed that she started turning  a bit green...  Must have been with envy, because she never wanted to fly with me again, even though I could hold a 45 degree bank for several turns in a row without losing or gaining any altitude.

It took a while for the lesson to seep through my thick skull, but it eventually did.  Years later, I took my wife for her first flight in a small plane.  Everything I did, I did as slowly and smoothly as possible.  When we landed, she said I was a great pilot.  I got the desired feedback, no one got sick, and she ended up flying on several trips with me over the next few years.

A few weeks ago I climbed up onto the roof of a building here and took a few pictures as some helicopters were taking off.  Up watching the sunset behind the mountains, it was a very serene feeling, despite the constant whirring of the rotors.

Since I've been around aviation for much of my life, I actually enjoy the sound of aircraft coming and going!  Even when they fly 300 feet over my "home" and wake me up, I smile as I identify the aircraft by the sound, and then roll back over for a little while. To dream...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What Goes Around...

Years and years ago, I bought a T-shirt that said "Helicopters don't fly, they beat the air into submission." Others say that "Helicopters don't fly, they're so ugly the earth repels them."

I don't believe there's much truth to that... I'm sure that there are thousands of people who are alive because of a helicopter coming to rescue them. Most major cities have helicopters to rush severely injured people to the emergency room.

I started out in the military as a helicopter mechanic many years ago. I went to the school and learned to maintain the UH-1H "Huey" helicopters. They were loud, relatively slow, and looked like giant dragonflies in the distance.
With their semi-rigid rotor system, those two big blades would make a "Whop Whop Whop" sound that you could hear from miles away. I had several flights in my youth with my feet pointing out into the breeze as we cruised along with the doors wide open.

Typical startup procedures called for the helicopter to run at idle for a few minutes to allow all of the systems to reach operating temperature and to allow the pilots to check everything thoroughly. One time I did see an actual "Medevac" launch. The pilots literally ran to the chopper, fired it up, lifted off, nosed over and took off in less than a minute. They put their mission to save an injured soldier above their own personal safety.

Our pilots have to be a bit aggressive in order to complete their training and to take calculated risks each day. I had great respect for their ability to handle the aircraft. Many of them had started flying almost twenty years earlier in Vietnam, so they'd had plenty of practice.

I left the unit for another assignment after about two years. I heard later that one of our birds had crashed, killing a pilot and severely injuring the other three crew members. I met one of the survivors again a few years later.

March 1st of 1997, their helicopter had suffered a catastrophic mechanical problem while they were flying fairly low and fast over a forested area. The pilot had only a few seconds to slow their descent into the trees, and when the rotors hit they flipped the chopper down into the forest below.

There were three other helicopters in the air. The crash site was far away from any roads, and they believed it would be at least an hour until help could arrive on the ground, so another pilot decided to land his bird in the forest. He literally chopped his way down through smaller branches between the larger trees.

The crew extracted the 3 surviving members from the crashed chopper and flew them directly to the nearest hospital, most likely saving their lives. (They took the second chopper back to home base on a truck because of the damage the chopper had sustained during the extraction.)

Our pilots still use incredible skill and bravery to do their duty and to fly these marvelous machines to rescue soldiers and other people in serious need of medical care. I appreciate them!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More Afghan Life

I thought that for today's post I'd include several of the pictures that I took on my recent travels. There are many interesting differences between cultures, and this is the zipping past in a vehicle version. I did sit down for several minutes with one of the Afghan vendors who works on base to get his comments on the pictures.

I encourage you to look at each picture for a moment to see what you notice and what you can learn about the people. I'll have a comment under each shot.
This boy looked intent on repairing his very colorful bicycle. In the US, we tend to associate colors with a variety of things... For example, most US boys wouldn't be caught with a pink or purple backpack, but here they don't care. Afghan culture doesn't have any feminine or masculine colors... They just have colors, and the more the merrier.

We saw this gentleman off the side of the road, and were wondering if he'd just parked in the wrong place. Turns out that this is one of the many places where afghans pull into a puddle or stream to wash their cars. Dust is pervasive here and a car in the lot will be filthy in just a couple of days.
I like Pepsi. I don't mind waterfowl. Somehow, hanging your dead waterfowl next to the Pepsi cooler makes me desire to purchase neither.
We were calling this the "pole depot." All over town, we didn't see a single american style lumber yard with cut lumber. However, we saw many of these pole shacks. I'm told that they use the poles as beams for houses and to provide bracing for floors in industrial construction while the concrete is being poured. They also use bamboo to make ladders.
These houses climb the side of the mountain steeply. Not much wasted space in the city. I'm sure that they get great exercise walking home each night.
Convenience stores are everywhere... Stop in for a drink and a snack.
If you're looking for some construction help, there are places where workers gather... Another interesting Afghan thing is that they crouch or squat often when most of us would just sit on the ground. That's a bit of challenge for some of us whose knees aren't as strong as they used to be.
Another market, slightly bigger with pots and pans for sale.

It's hard to see in this picture, but there are two little girls there amongst the mud and debris. There is a lot of garbage in the city, and it often gets spread out by goats and other animals who will dig through it for the food. Certainly not a healthy situation, but there isn't much of a streets or sanitation department. In the US, a street sweeper is a big truck with a vacuum and brush system. In Kabul, a street sweeper is a man with a broom.
I always enjoy seeing the children. Even flying over in the helicopter, you can see them run and play and explore. These are all on their way to school.
If you're having a big wedding, there are a few large wedding halls to rent out... Not sure what an afghan wedding would be like, but they do have a few nicer buildings to celebrate in.
Finally, just remember to take a moment to rest now and then. No sense busting your ass!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

An Uplifting Experience

I had an uplifting experience today... Literally!

Took my first two helicopter rides in years!

It was just a short trip to another base, but since I've just recently taken over two hours on the roads to get there, flying over hill and dale and bumpy congested roads was a great experience.

Saw many homes from the air, with their mud walls that follow the contours of the trails and streams. Not like in the US where many houses are all built in straight lines on rectangular lots.
Here, the homes appear to be laid out in a helter skelter fashion. Many of them appear to have been abandoned and brought down to ruins sometime in the past. It's impossible for me to tell from the air whether it was two, twenty, or two hundred years ago...

Flying along, we saw nomadic people, living in tents, and tending to their herds. We saw people working in their fields, and children playing in the dirt yards.

While we travel in a "magic machine" that flies through the air, some of these people live lives no different than their Great Great Great Grandparents.

It's a strange feeling to know that there still are people who live in tents and herd sheep for a living. It makes me wonder what is necessary to live a fulfilling life... Is it a house, family, friends, money?

I watched the movie Australia this evening... I was told that it was good, and I agree. Early in the movie, one of the main characters, Drover, says something that caught my attention.

He talks about how some people own houses, land and things to feel secure, but that all of those things can be taken away. He says the only thing that's really your own is your story, so he wants his to be a good one!

Ben Franklin said something similar: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing."

I hope that my words are worth reading for you.

I went where I needed to go, saw who I needed to see, and picked up the stuff I needed to get. All in all, a productive trip and a fine day.

And tempting as it may sound on a busy day in cubicle land, I'm not planning to live in a tent and become a shepherd anytime soon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Do or Diet

I've been fortunate to have been overwhelmed by love, well wishes, and goodies.

Lots and lots of goodies. And I felt it my personal duty to try every homemade cookie, girl scout cookie, brownie, cake, chocolate, toffee, caramel and sugary snack that arrived.

I stuck mostly to the sugar products, though plenty of salty chips, pretzels, chex mixes, jerky and other salty snacks arrived also. And Combos... Who ever thought to make little round pretzel tubes and to fill them with a substance vaguely reminiscent of cheese? Genius!

In any case, I wanted to thank you. So thank you. Now don't send me any more sweets!

Although I haven't gained any weight since I've been here, I certainly haven't released any. Since that's one of my goals, the sugar snacks have met their end.

I have a new "healthy diet" and workout buddy. We've set our goals to avoid snacking on the junk food and to make healthier choices in the dining facility, though I swear avoiding the place altogether may be the healthiest choice.

So for the next several weeks, it'll mean a little more gym time and a lot less snacks...
I'll eat some apples and maybe even some of those lousy pears...
And just so you know, I'm not saying they're lousy because of their mottled appearance. Rather, it's the texture and taste that leave me less than impressed. They're not as crisp or as sweet as most good apples or pears. These have a very subtle taste and texture that leaves me sadly unfulfilled.

Maybe my ability to fully appreciate the flavor will only come after a few days without overloading my taste buds with the artificially fat and sweet taste of cookies and chocolate.

I can only hope...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Breakfast Gratitude

One of the reasons that I volunteered for this journey to the far side of the world was to expand my horizons... To see some new things and to share some new experiences.

So far, some of them have been good...
Some not as good.

Just like the food... The breakfast at my normal base isn't very good. It's not what I'm accustomed to. The eggs are cold, the sausage is some strange European conglomeration of goo. If the overcooked bacon is available, it's Turkey bacon... Why in the world would someone eat turkey bacon? Yuck!

Cereal is the safest choice... No "Lucky Charms" here, just a variety of bran and flakes. The milk is ultra pasteurized and just doesn't taste like home...

Then I went to a base that served American style food. Biscuits and gravy, eggs, sausage, bacon, grits, a little fruit and even a cinnamon roll. Took more than I could eat, but I was certainly willing to give it a try. Enjoyed it thouroughly

It was interesting to go to another base for a change of pace.

There are things that must be done everyday and a variety of things that "pop up" each day.

Most days I stay in and around the office. But on occasion, I get out and about to visit our people at other bases. We have a good crowd of people who've volunteered to come out here and work.

They all wanted to try something new and to make a difference.

Today, I tried something new as well. It's another little thing, but I tried and ate a type of pear which I'd never seen until I came here. I'm not typically a big fruit fan, but I was told these tasted like a cross between a pear and an apple...

On this trip, I've learned several things, but mostly to be grateful for the things that I have at home. I'm grateful for friends and family.

I'm glad I tried the fruit. I have a few more that I'll eat over the next few days...

But really, it was just a lousy pear...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Little Things

I came to my building this evening, and noticed that there is a new pull handle on the door.

For four months, I've been having to grasp the edge of the heavy steel door or stick my finger in the hole where the door handle used to be in order to open it.

For four months, the door had never been fully closed, so that people could easily open it. It was probably opened and closed several hundred times a day for four months...

People have moved in, people have moved out.

Contractors have been in to check the lights, to clean the building, to repair the plumbing, but nothing has been done about the broken door handle... Until today.

It's not the right type of handle. It's not a repair on the door to restore it to new condition...

It's a "band-aid" fix. But at least I can open the door, and I appreciate it so much more than I thought I would.

No more worries about pinching fingers or getting smacked in the face by someone coming out while you're trying to get a grip on the edge of the door.

A simple handle. A little thing.

"What is easy to do, is easy not to do" - Jim Rohn

What in your life needs repair? What little thing could you do today to make it better everyday? What little thing annoys you just a little each day? A squeaky hinge? A burnt out bulb?

Find that little thing, and fix it.

Appreciate the little things.

You'll feel better.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Highs and Lows

Ever notice how people speak of their emotions in aviation terms? It could just be my flying interests that help me to notice when someone says they're "soaring high", or "feeling low."

Emotions can change in a moment here. Since we're "trapped" inside these walls most of the time, it's easy to become focused on just what's in front of you. More work. More of the same.

Many people here really relate to the movie "Groundhog Day" with Bill Murray. If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it for you. I'll just say that I really enjoy how the main character develops throughout the film. It's a story with a moral.

A few days ago, I wrote about how I'd felt frustrated when a box of Girl Scout cookies arrived.

(See Redheaded Temptation)

Yesterday, a new box was on my chair, filled with, you guessed it, more Girl Scout Cookies sent by some dear friends in Chicago. I laughed out loud! I had expressed my frustrated feelings earlier, but this time it brought joy to know that my friends had sent me over 30 boxes of love and goodness.

I wanted to share the joy right away, so I picked up the box and took it back downstairs to share with my coworkers...

I sent word into one of the main rooms here and just moments later a sailor came charging through...

He was a man on a mission, and a box of Samoas changed his day for the better instantly! Thin Mints were the ticket for another young sailor and a young army officer.

Even one of our Canadian partners scored a box of Do-Si-Dos for himself. In less than twenty minutes, all of the boxes had disappeared.

Though we can soar to "heights of joy," it's also easy to have a less joyful experience. People have problems at home, with friends and family. There are relatives in the hospital, kids struggling in school and friends out of work.

I gave a talk in church several years ago using an airplane analogy.

It takes a lot of power and noise to get flying when you're starting on the ground. But once you're up and moving, suddenly you're able to literally change your view of the world with just the slightest amount of pressure on the controls. Just as controlling your aircraft attitude is the key to safe flying, controlling our personal attitude is key in maintaining a productive life.

Though I had a good morning, I had an upsetting afternoon. I have applied for a few civilian positions that I was interested in, yet found out today that I wasn't selected for them. This was a major upset for me as I felt qualified for each and felt like they would be enjoyable and provide well for myself and my family.

I went and took my supper alone, and then prepared to go to the gym. As I worked out on the machines, I felt some frustration and even anger about this event. Yet as each of these doors has closed, it's opened the way for me to pursue other options that may ultimately prove to be more fulfilling and appropriate...

Through exerting my personal power, I got myself back off the ground and flying again. My intention with this blog and my website is to be able to help others to break free of their struggles, to take flight and turn to a new course.

Who wants to ascend with me?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

May I Take a Picture of Your Chest?

I don't believe I've ever asked a woman that before, but today it felt strangely appropriate.

Considering the fact that she was carrying an assault rifle, a pistol, and enough ammunition to shoot me and several dozen of my closest friends, I did pause before I asked.

I call her "G.B."

It stands for Gun Bunny...

Her job is to ride around in vehicles transporting people around town. She helps to navigate, work the radios and watch for threats while enroute. If there is an attack on the convoy, she's prepared to fight.

She's part of a team, of course, as we all are. It just so happens that she's the only female on this particular team, although there are a few ladies performing similar duties in the area.

She grew up with brothers and learned to banter, fight, and hold her own. She'll soon be going home after several months of working out here. Driving in Kabul can be exciting at moments, but luckily no attacks have taken place against any of our vehicles.

I saw her as I was on my way to lunch and asked her if she'd like to join me. She agreed, so we gathered our spaghetti noodles with WAY TOO MUCH GARLIC, a pork chop and some vegetables and sat down...

As we talked about children, jobs, and future plans, the tough facade she's been wearing opened up just a little.

She said something about her plans that inspired me to make a small sketch on a napkin, illustrating how it seemed she was lining things up so that she would achieve success in her goal. Basically, she was aligning everything so that her wish could be fulfilled.

As I finished my drawing, I noticed she was fighting back tears...
"Oh no? What did I do?" I thought...

She then shared with me that she's been "walking with God," praying as she walks around each day. Recently, her nephew's been having some medical problems and she's anxiously awaiting her return home to see him before a surgical procedure. She'd asked God for a sign that she was doing the right things, and she interpreted my drawing as her answer from God.

So I smiled and gave her my napkin, and she stuffed it into a pocket.

I'm grateful that I was able to participate in a simple miracle today.

It wasn't even a very skillfull drawing, but it got the point across and touched a heart.

I'm also grateful to glimpse the soul of another human being here today. Someone who cares about family and friends, enjoys helping others, and at her core is a very kind-hearted woman. There's a real live person in there!

Of course, no one else here would believe it. She's played the "tough guy" role for months, and that's all some people will ever see.

When her plans all fall into place, she'll have room in her life for adventure on her terms.

It makes me wonder about each one of these people around me. Each one has a story and personality. Even the ones who "talk trash" and act tough have a softer side. They read, play music, coach their children's teams... They love to boat or ski or ride horses.

All unique, and all special. I'm grateful to serve with such interesting people. Everyday is an opportunity to interact and touch people's lives.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Street Racing in Kabul?

Took a little road trip through town today, and spent several hours riding to and from my destination in traffic... We fortunately were able to avoid running into or over any of the vehicles, animals or people along the way.

Cars, motorcycles, trucks, bikes, and donkey carts all constantly jockey for position on the road.
In the USA, if there is a slowdown or blockage in the roadway, we typically stop and wait for a few moments if we can't safely bypass them. It's not that way here...

Too much traffic on your side of the road? Try the other side!

These people drive as if they're in a race to the finish... Motorcycles and bikes weave in and out of the cars, off and on the roadway to work their way through traffic. Cars weave in and out of the trucks and buses!
Might often seems to make right as the biggest vehicles and most aggressive drivers tend to break through the crowd... Though I personally don't like to drive this aggressively, the truck doesn't belong to me, so I'm willing to push it a little. ;-)

The people behave in almost the same manner. They walk out into traffic all the time... I haven't seen a stop light or a pedestrian crosswalk anywhere so far, although the police do provide a little bit of direction at traffic circles or checkpoints.

Actually, for today's trip, I was just a passenger, so I had time to take numerous photos along the way. I'll share a little about the people and things that are constantly moving on and along the roads in addition to the vehicles..

Many children do attend school, so in the morning or afternoon you may see them walking to or from school. In some parts of the country, they do their best to keep their girls uneducated, but we saw both boys and girls along the road today.
Boys often wear similar clothes to the adults, but the girls often wear shiny or colorful outfits, Usually with a scarf or some type of head wrap...
The adult men wear a variety of clothes, mostly with a different and more traditional style, but it's not unusual to see men and young men in jeans or more contemporary clothes. Even saw one Afghan Man in an United States Air Force Physical Fitness Training Uniform this morning.
Women are almost always wearing some type of scarf or head covering, and many wear a black or blue burka. It's kind of amusing to see a woman in a burka, trying to see out of the little mesh portion. I'm always careful driving past them, since I wonder if they can see me!

Often, we'll see goats, sheep, donkeys or cows walking along or on the road, sometimes a small 5 or 6 year old may be driving a herd of sheep with a little stick or brush.
Various types of carts are also out and on the road each day, with people selling vegetables, fruits, sodas and cigarettes.
I'll write a little more soon about the lives that many of the people lead and their homes. And the shopping, don't forget the shopping...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance

You've all seen the scene in the movies where the new recruits get off the bus at basic training...

The drill sergeants circle impatiently like sharks waiting for their chance to dash in and start chewing up the recruits...

When I lined up at Fort Knox, Kentucky so many years ago, I knew what to expect. I'd already been in Air Force ROTC for a year, so I had practice standing in formation, shining shoes, and marching. I expected the yelling and mind games to begin, and I didn't have long to wait.

Soon, a Drill Sergeant stood right in front of me, wearing his telltale campaign hat. He leaned close and proceeded to deliver a fiery sermon on the virtues of doing exactly what you're told when you're told. At this point, I don't recall what he was preaching, but I knew was that I was at my new home for the next 8 weeks and I may as well get used to it.

Basic Training follows a pattern that I learned years later when I joined a unit of Drill Sergeants...

You take away everything that is personal, and attempt to turn 120+ individuals into a cohesive unit. You shave their hair, you dress them all the same, you make them stand in line.

They march and shower and eat together. They exercise together and clean together.

You play games... "Get on the bus!" "TOO SLOW! GET OFF THE BUS!"

Everything that they do, they do together. You teach them to help each other... That if one person fails, they all fail. They only succeed as a unit. You teach them "cadences" and have them all learn a platoon motto...

They hear the powerful sound of 30 voices screaming at once, in Unison... Eventually, you lighten up a little, but take away their privileges when they fail to meet that standards that have been set...

They learn, they overcome their differences, they bond, and they grow.

As I went through the process, I knew I was changing, but it was hard to appreciate how much. The drill sergeant who at first was screaming in my face suddenly developed a personality, and though he was still demanding, he also became a bit of a comedian and philosopher. "It ain't nothing but a thing" was his catchphrase.

Our Senior Drill Sergeant was a good Christian Man, and though it wasn't yet official Army policy not to swear at the recruits, it was his policy. If you made a foolish mistake, he'd shake his head and say "Private, get your head out of your duffle bag."

His other favorite phrase was "Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance." Whatever we did, we had a plan to do it... A soldier "smartbook" that went step by step through how to submit a report, disassemble a rifle, employ a hand grenade, use the radio, read a map, put on a protective mask and so much more.

We'd check our equipment and our "battle buddy's" equipment before every event or training exercise.

11 years later, I was in charge of a bunch of drill sergeants, at Fort Knox. I watched the drill sergeants train the soldiers, and over the course of 9 weeks, I saw over 120 teenagers transform from out of shape teenagers into a cohesive unit of young men who worked hard together and accomplished their training objectives.

For every event we had a plan, supplies, transportation, and safety concerns. These plans kept us on track and helped us accomplish everything required to train these young men.

We had a chain of command to get things done. I never had to yell. I had people for that.

"Drill Sergeant, we need to get these weapons loaded on the truck."


"Thanks, Drill Sergeant!"

Now, everything that I do, I have a plan... I'll get up at this time so I must go to bed by this time, I'll shower in the morning or I'll shower at night. I'll drop off my laundry on the way to lunch, I'll go to the gym after I send that report. Everything has a plan, yet I need to allow for changes...

"FRAGO," we'll say. It stands for Fragmentary Order. It means the plan has changed, as my plans changed at Fort Knox...

I left the week before their graduation to join a new unit.

As I walked to my car to leave for the last time, I heard a voice in the distance:


Monday, April 19, 2010

That Ditch Wasn't There This Morning!

Walking "home" from work at night, I always have to be careful. You never know what obstacles that you might find on your way to the room. I noticed that they were digging holes along the way to my room when I left this morning!

It seems like this place is constantly under construction. They hire locals to do construction work on the roads and buildings. They dig ditches for pipes. They weld and grind and cut the metal that's everywhere.

Each day is something new. The noise can be horrendously loud, with jackhammers "Pop Pop Popping" all day long. They do most of their digging the old fashioned way, with picks and shovels. It's impressive how deep and far they can dig in a day.

Yet for all their industry and hard work, there is a different standard for completion here. Some folks call it "Afghan good enough." They know that the project won't be done to our high standards, but something will be done, the locals will stay busy and be paid, and we'll continue to maintain the base. If something breaks in a few weeks, they'll be digging it back up again.

If nothing else, it means a little bit of job security for the workers... Just watch your step!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Redheaded Temptation

If it hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't have believed it.

I felt the feeling one other time in my life, when on a break from college...

I was watching a movie at my home with a girl that I was quite attached to, when I heard a knock on the door. I excused myself to go answer it, and was amazed to see a different girl at my door. I was even more amazed when I realized that she was there to see me!

I had always had an interest in the girl at the door, but had never been able to convince her to go on a date with me. Yet suddenly, there she was, asking me if I'd like to go out... Now.

There she stood, eyes glistening and smile shining from the porch light, shortly after nine o'clock on a Friday night. A hint of her perfume hung in the crisp evening air...

I'd always had an interest in redheads in general and her in particular. Clairol calls her hair color "Paint the Town" Red, and the lights from passing cars made her practically glow. Red to many people means stop, but to me it said "GO GO GO!"

I felt a similar feeling a few days ago.

I came to my office and found a big box sitting in my chair.

I knew what it was the moment I saw it. I had received these packages before.

You've got to understand the internal conflicts here on deployment. You miss family and friends, but you're surrounded with people most of the time. You have food to eat at the DFAC, but it's not what you're used to at home. You enjoy a taste of home, but you still need to stay fit.

People send care packages with goodies. Some with books, dvds, magazines, hygiene supplies...

Most packages have some sort of food or goodies. Here's a clue... Fruits, vegetables and healthy foods generally don't ship well.

I arrived here late on Christmas Eve, and Christmas goodies kept arriving well into January.

Then Valentine's Day Goodies showed up, and kept showing up. Finally, a week or two after Valentine's day, I thought all was well.

That's when the first box arrived. It was huge and heavy. I was surprised to see it, until I opened it... Then I remembered, I had given my address to a friend involved with a charity that ships boxes of goodies to Military Members all over the world: (Good folks there!)

I didn't make an exact count, but there were more than 50 boxes of girl scout cookies in the box. Each vibrantly colored box, with bright smiling scouts and full of the classic goodies... Thin Mints and Trefoils and Dosidos and Samoas and Lemon Chalets and even some new flavors.

For a day or two I was the hero, giving out the boxes left and right to all around me...

Then I got the second box... and the process repeated, but not as quickly, as everyone was feeling the same internal conflict. The temptation to eat the cookies, and to keep on eating them is strong.

The healthy choice is to eat none or only a few. I was feeling good that I'd been able to sample the cookies without overindulging. I gave away almost all of them, and was feeling good that I had managed to spread the joy without eating myself into a Girl Scout sugar induced stupor.

Then the third box arrived.

I was suddenly shocked to realize that deep down, I was frustrated over Girl Scout Cookies!

I was! I felt the frustration because I had to continue resisting them, no matter how delicious they are... Because really, it's easy to eat a tube of Thin Mints in 10 minutes, but you'll need to spend about 5 hours in the gym to burn off the calories!

We make choices every day. We strive to balance the healthy and unhealthy in our lives. I've now given away well over 100 boxes of cookies, but I have about 50 to go...

Back on my front porch, so many years ago, I had to choose quickly...

The girl downstairs watching a movie, or the girl on the front porch, ready to go dancing...

(For a moment I thought about inviting her in to watch the movie also, but realized that I'd have TWO upset girls then! Didn't think I was manly enough to pull that off!)

In the end, I stuck with the girl who'd responded to MY invitation, and sadly sent the redhead away.

"I'm sorry, but I really can't right now."

It was hard to say, as I instinctively knew that I wouldn't get another chance. I was frustrated to miss dating my "dream girl" but at least my honor was intact.

The girl downstairs didn't ask who'd been at the door, and I didn't tell her...

Who wants a cookie? How about an easter bunny?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Few Moments...

When in a deployed environment, privacy is one of the main things that you have to live without.

You share a room or tent with others, you share the latrines, heads, or restrooms with others. The gym, the office, the computers... All must be shared. We often have 3 to 6 people shoehorned into a office that would normally hold one or two.

The small shops and the dining facility are often full of folks as well. It's hard to have any alone time for more than a few minutes.

Luckily, for me, my roommate went home for leave, so I've had a few days with a room all to myself. That allows me to wake up when I want, to sleep when I want, and to write blog posts until the late hours of the night if I want.

Suddenly, having this opportunity to experience privacy again reminded me of how much I missed it!

I've always been a social guy... I'd rather do almost anything with the crowd than by myself, but that's started to change over the last few years. I've had to live apart from the family to work or attend school. I've actually learned to enjoy my own company!

I'm still going to be sociable. When I return, I'm planning to visit family and friends all around the country for as long as I have time and money... Or until my next position needs me to start...

With today's technology, it's as if all of my friends are with me. I can call them, text them, tweet to them or Facebook them! So later this summer, you're all invited along, at least virtually.

Who else really wants to be in a van with a bunch of children driving across country in June or July? Yeah, I didn't think so...

This evening, it rained for a little while, and then was just moderately cool and overcast with a slight breeze. I sat down on the patio of this little coffee shop that we have on base and just "soaked in" the experience. (Literally, soaked up the leftover rain when I sat down...)

The moist air and the slight breeze felt just like an evening on the lanai in Hawaii last May. The scenery is different, but the feeling was the same.

At the moment at least, the town was peaceful. No traffic noise, sirens, or anything like you'd expect in an typical city. Here, it gets quiet quickly after dark.

I appreciated the moment out of a busy day. I was tired, but felt good, and I hope that we can leave this country such that the people may have peace in their homes every night.

Now I'm back to my room to share these thoughts with you.
Enjoy your privacy when you have it, and enjoy being sociable when you don't!
I'll enjoy my few more days of privacy here while I can.

Where do you go to have some alone time?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bazaar Behavior

Day after day, people here are doing the same things. Working in the same offices, eating in the same dining facility, talking to the same people and exercising in the same gym. Almost every Friday though, we
have a bazaar similar to a flea market where people can go shopping. Many of them are looking for a little bit of retail therapy to get them through the next week or two.

There are many things to see if you're in the mood, but the novelty wore off rather quickly for me. Carpets and jewelry are the most popular items, but scarves, knives, sunglasses, pottery, carvings and all sorts of knick knacks and souvenirs are available.

It can be intimidating the first few times that you go. The salemen are very aggressive, and behave differently than we're used to in the United States. There is security around the bazaar and walking around, so there's no real threat, but it is different.

They'll reach out, as if to shake your hand, but then they'll hold onto it and guide you over to their table. They'll say things like "My friend, You are my first business today. I will give you a very good deal."

It's a challenge to just enjoy looking for things because so many of them are aggressive.

If you do see something you like, you can bet that you can probably get it for half of whatever they say. If this trinket is $100, a bit of negotiating will often have you walking away with it for $50. (And odds are that they really only paid $20 for it...)

Some are not above lying to you to make a buck... I saw an old fashioned sextant a few weeks ago. I'd been reading some sailing magazines, so I thought that was interesting. The man told me it was an original from the 1800s... yet 10 stalls down I saw another one just like it. "Is it real?" I asked... "No, just a very good copy!"

A few treasures are found on occasion. A viewing periscope from a soviet tank. Antique muzzleloading firearms. Jewelry, lapiz, and handmade carpets. All interesting to look at, but not quite interesting enough for me to buy them.

I've found it best to stride through with a sense of purpose. looking at what I wish, and being direct with them. "I'm just looking. I don't have any money with me" seems to do the trick usually.

A female friend of mine just came to Afghanistan a few weeks ago and attended the bazaar by herself today. It was a mind-blowing experience for her. I asked her what she got at the bazaar, and she told me "A scarf, a necklace, a bracelet, and three marriage proposals."

Everywhere she went, they gave her gifts, stroked her arm and shoulder, and asked her if she was married... or wanted to be married. She came out of there feeling like a cow that they were looking to purchase!

Bizarre as the bazaar can be, no one's ever offered to marry me...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Confession is Good for the Soul

I'm Guilty.

I didn't mean to do it.

I know it's against the rules. They warned me about her and her friends when I first arrived.

But she kept after me. Calling out to me when I walked by.

Rubbing against my leg when I was just standing there minding my own business.

Then one day, as I was sitting on a bench, she cuddled up next to me, and my resolve cracked.

I touched her, and she purred.

Though I felt bad about breaking the rules, I continued to stroke her for a few minutes before coming to my senses. I abruptly got up and walked away...

We have at least a dozen cats on the base. One of the base physicians said that we shouldn't touch them, and that they might carry fleas or have other diseases.

Most of them have been "fixed" and are allowed to stay on the compound to keep the rodent population at bay.They often "dock" the ear of the animals that have been spayed or neutered so they know which ones have been done.

Some folks pretend to ignore them, but pet them when they think no one's looking... Others make no pretense at all about it, they allow the cats to lounge around in their work areas...

One day, a friend of mine looked a little upset. I asked him what was the problem... He said the post office had a package for him, but the mailman wouldn't give to him yet. Turns out that a cat was sleeping on the box and the mailman didn't want to wake it!

This one was following people around, looking for a little attention or food.

This guy was just sitting around surveying the area. They all tend to keep to their own little territories. They'll climb over, under and around buildings and fences as they make their rounds.

For a little food and attention, we've got a small army of pets to give people a feeling of home and love...

Our unofficial pets bring peace to our hearts, and dead mice to the door.

Just like at home.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let's Give Them Something to Talk About...

What to say, what to say...

The wonders of modern technology allow many of us the opportunity to communicate with family, friends, and business associates all across the globe. Though we still can send letters, notes and cards by mail, waiting weeks for a reply, we're usually using electrons to transmit our messages through radio waves, computers, fiber optic cables and maybe even a few satellites.

Instant Gratification: I want it all, I want it now.

In the middle of a city where donkey carts intermingle with traffic, goats eat trash at the side of the road and children beg for money in the streets, I can still make a cell phone call all the way back to the United States.

From our base, and most bases in the area, I can get on the internet and use e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and other programs to interact and build relationships with people.

Most of the time, I enjoy the ability to be connected to my family and friends. At the end of a long and tiring day though, it's not always easy to enjoy listening to your son whine about how Mommy won't let him run through a sprinkler... It's also not easy to understand another son who has decided that being able to talk without opening his mouth would be a useful skill to develop.

I appreciate being able to talk to my sweet wife, if only for a few minutes before the next crisis of the day erupts. For those few minutes, after school, before soccer or piano lessons, we are able to actually talk about what's going on, how we're feeling, and what we're planning to do.

She's not worried about what to fix me for dinner, I've already eaten. I'm not worried about taking out the trash, fueling the cars, or mowing the lawn, she's got it all under control.

We just have time to talk. Dreams, summer plans and ideas are all fair game. Friends and family visits will fill much of our "free time" this summer after I return.

I notice that absence does make the heart grow fonder. When I'm at home, in the middle of the daily ruckus, it's sometimes difficult to appreciate all of the moments and events.

When I miss all of that... Well, I miss all of that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Surprisingly, It Wasn't Good!

"An Army moves on it's stomach" is often heard when discussing logistics in the military. Napolean learned that lesson the hard way, when his invasion of Russia failed miserably, in large part due to his inability to feed his troops.

These days, soldiers don't usually live "off of the land." We bring in airplanes, trucks and ships full of food, water and all other sorts of supplies to sustain us during our mission.

We might have MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) if we're traveling, but at established bases, we have a Dining Facility, or DFAC. The quality of the food varies from place to place, but military members are very adaptable. We can complain no matter how good or bad the food is...

A contractor prepares the meals at our base. In this case, many of the supplies are ordered through Europe, so just like in the classic song "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need!"

Some meals actually taste pretty good, even if they don't look it. The Beef, Fried Potatoes and Creamed Spinach that I had one night is a good example of this. I couldn't believe how bad it looked, so I had to record it for posterity.

Other entrees are just... Different.

Like the Fish Spaghetti they served one night... My buddy tried it, and when asked how it was, he simply replied, "Surprisingly, it wasn't good!"

This experience has given a whole new meaning to the phrase "It's to die for..." One day I had a great meal at another base a few miles down the road. BBQ ribs were on the menu, and they were cooked just right... We made our drive back through local traffic that day without incident, but the following day some misguided moron detonated himself in a vehicle bomb just outside that base... So I have to think to myself, is it worth the risk to go get that rib dinner? (For the record, no!)

I've had the opportunity to try and even enjoy many things that I wouldn't even think about eating at home... Even though I know it's just Chicken and Leeks (Like Scallions), I refuse to eat this soup. Though it may be common in England, the name of this soup sounds as if you have a personal problem that may require some medical attention...

Enjoy your meal!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Walls That We Build

Every military base or fortification, since practically the beginning of time, has had walls.

Strong walls, tall walls. Walls to keep the bad guys out, or even walls to keep the bad guys in...

Everywhere you go, you'll see walls made of concrete and steel. Many buildings are fortified by surrounding them with special containers that hold tons of sand, gravel, rock or concrete.

"HESCO Bastion Concertainer® is a prefabricated, multi-cellular defense system, made of galvanised steel Weldmesh and lined with non-woven polypropylene..."

They're not attractive, but they are effective at defending against explosives, rockets, bullets, etc.

Recently I've noticed the walls a little more. I've noticed how they are there to protect us, but they also isolate us. We're here to help this country, but we must put ourselves at risk everytime we go out to meet with anyone.

It's a similar situation when people are hurting. They often want to stay inside their own "walls" for protection, yet will only find healing when they step outside, or let someone else step inside.

By the same token, we need to step out of our safety zone in order to help others. Everyone has stress and issues to deal with, and the deployed environment can add to those challenges. Many people keep "a stiff upper lip" and drive on with their mission, but it's almost always good to relieve stress before it builds up too high.

If you know that someone is hurting, ask them about it. Often, just talking about the situation can vent the frustrations and enable the person to feel better and move on... We're all brothers and sisters anyway, so help those around you when you can.

When you help someone else feel good, odds are that you'll feel good too!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Harmonic Experience

We sometimes walk down the street about half a mile to another base. It's a pretty secure area overall, but locals can walk in, shop at the little stores, etc.

If you go for a walk down the street near our base, you'll be approached by boys. One or two might take your hand or hang on your arm and walk with you down the street while asking for money or candy. If you start to give something to one, the others will swarm around you, like sharks in a feeding frenzy.

Some of them try to sell bracelets or other trinkets. Most speak at least a little English.
"My friend, my friend, buy a bracelet!"

If you want to buy something from one, they'll appeal to your sense of fairness:
"Buy one from him, one from me!"

One day a group of us were walking, and we saw a group of half a dozen boys approaching. When they approach, they stride with a purpose, fan out to approach each person, and start their sales pitch.

I said "I'll draw them off..." and reached into my pocket for my secret weapon....

I pulled out my trusty harmonica and started playing "Oh Susanna!" The boys were surprised and immediately gathered around me to see what I was doing... They smiled and laughed as I showed them how I could play it... One boy wanted to try it...

A harmonica is a very personal instrument... You literally breathe through it to create the music, so I was honestly a little reluctant to let some 9 year old street kid put his lips on MY harp... But I got over myself, wiped it off on my pants leg, and let him try it. He tentatively gave it a little blow and when he heard the sound he smiled one of the biggest and brightest smiles I'd ever seen.

They boys all asked if I could get them each one, and I promised that I would, but that it would take a few weeks. Then I had to hurry down the street to catch up to my group. I'd drawn off the boys, so my "friends" kept on cruising unencumbered!

I ordered over a dozen harmonicas and waited patiently for their arrival. Eventually they came and I was able to distribute them over the course of a few days to all of the original boys plus a few of their brothers and friends.

A little gift goes a long way here... Weeks later, a few nights ago, I went walking to visit a friend at another compound. I saw the original boy who had smiled so broadly, and he wanted to give my friend and I each a bracelet as a gift...

I asked if he still had his harmonica, and he told me that a security guard had taken it... He looked like he was recovering from a black eye as well. It's a rough world these kids are living in, but I'm hoping at least this one kid will remember a gift of music.

I've got his replacement harp right here...