Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Abroad and a Shameless Plug

So, I thought I would take a break from non-stop vacation planning to jot down a few words about Christmas here at Camp Marmal. I'll start with the part where I was sitting in my office on Christmas Eve feeling sorry for myself. Well, I guess I need to go back further than that. See, back in November (before Thanksgiving), I told Nick that, even though we were both really busy, it would be really nice if we could at least meet up for Christmas and, being that it was his turn to come here, naturally it would be at Camp Marmal. Well, weeks passed and Nick never asked his supervisor if he could visit. Initially, I bugged him a little bit about talking to his supervisor because it's not exactly like you can just go online and book a ticket to another part of Afghanistan (well, you can from some places, but not where he is located). About a week prior, I decided to turn up the heat, but Nick didn't seem like he was going to ask because he was busy and some of the other guys were on vacation and things like that, so I pretty much abandoned the idea altogether and resigned myself to spending Christmas alone (oh, and of course to being totally miserable).

Which brings us back to Christmas Eve and me sitting at my desk alone. I was spending the morning checking my email, facebook, - you know, the usual - when I got a call. Nick had not called me the night before because my phone died (only for an hour though), so in the back of the mind there was a glimmer of hope that maybe Nick had made it on a flight and decided to surprise me. That hope was squashed when I came across an email from Nick's work account early that same morning indicating that Nick was not in fact on his way to see me, but very much still in his office. Instantly, my resolve was restored to pretend as if Christmas was just another day and to "being miserable". About the time that I was giving everyone in the office my best sullen look, my phone rang. It was Nick asking me what I was doing. Uh, nothing, duh. He said something smart like "oh, I thought you might be on your way here..." To which I responded, "Uh, I think it is your turn to come here" (probably not that nice). I was not happy and it's probably a good thing that the cell phone cut out.

A few minutes later and another ring. This time I was not answering. I was sulking and that phone could just keep ringing all day for all I cared. A few minutes went by and another ring. This time I realized it was getting on every one's nerves, so I answered (after all, it could be work - not just me wanting to continue our little spat). So I did. It was Nick and he asked, again, what I was doing. Same answer as the first time (duh). This time I got a different response from the other end.

"Well, I'll be in MeS in an hour," he said.

Unfortunately, I have to admit, even my inner cool broke down when he said that. The widest, uncontainable smile spread across my face and I immediately tried to pull it back in (I was suppose to be "being miserable" but now I was elated). I checked with him again to confirm and it was true; he was on his way to Camp Marmal to see me and he was staying for 3 whole days!!! I would like to say that I expected this from the start, but I truly had pushed the thought of a Christmas visit out of my mind. Now, like the Killers said, all I could do was smile like I meant it. It was like a breath of fresh air after being stuffed in the Bear Village bathroom.

Everything had changed. What had seemed like a death march to R&R (it had been two and a half months since our last meeting and another month and half until R&R) now felt like I had been given a last minute reprieve. Perhaps, you can call it a renewal of faith, but that little bit of effort was the absolute best Christmas gift I could have ever, ever received. Above all else, it made me realize how infallible (within reason) Nick really is and how much he really cares about me. It's not easy or fun to get from one place to another when you are deployed. In fact, some people will do anything just so they don't have to transit through theater, including giving up their R&R entirely. You have to fly on an unheated, cramped aircraft in all your gear (which weighs a ton) and normally make an overnight stop where you have to sleep in transient housing (not nice). I guess it is hard to describe unless you live it, but it just makes me so thankful for what I have in my life and, more importantly, the person with which I get to share it.

Not only that, but I had been enlisted to pull guard duty for a 2-hour block on Christmas, so the Soldiers could have the day off. I didn't fight it because I figured, eh, what else do I have to do? By the time I found out that Nick was on his way, it was really too late for me to change it, so what did Nick do? He piled on his gear again and came and pulled guard with me, never complaining once. I would have been bitching the whole time if the shoe had been on the other foot. We talked for the entire two hours about all the things it's hard to talk about over the limited cell phone service over here. To top it off, by the time we got off guard shift, the DFAC was already cleaning up Christmas dinner, so we literally had to try to scrape off whatever we could as they took the food out to dump it.

All-in-all, the visit really did a lot towards my rejuvenation. I was starting to really get burnt out and taking it out on those around me. Now, with 30 days until we go on R&R, I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm also starting to see that light of how truly, dare I say, blessed? I truly am. I really lucked out in life and the marriage department. I normally never win anything, but I think I definitely won this one. Like they always say, you really don't know what you've got until it's gone, and while I had come to the conclusion that absence does not make the heart grow fonder (if anything it makes the heart grow weaker), I'm beginning to think that I had always been misinterpreting that saying. I don't think that absence, by nature, increases one's desire for another person. In fact, I think it's quite the opposite. I think what they meant to say is that once you are finally reunited, you realize that the other person meant more to you than you had ever really realized; hence, making it seem as though you are now "fonder" of the other person.

Whatever it means, this visit could not have come at a better time. Like I said, 30 days until R&R, then about 100 left. Then, the rest of our lives and happily ever after. Can't wait for what's next. =)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Head Down into the Wind

Well, I've had a couple of requests for an update on the current conditions in Afghanistan, and all I can really say is that not much has changed.

I still live in the same 5x8 tent corner. I still take showers in the same disgustingly filthy bathrooms (a pair of underwear sat on the shower floor for a full day). And I still go to work in a windowless tent with an air duct that blows directly into my face.

Having said that, what has changed? Well, actually quite a bit. We finally got a semi-legit dining facility that can seat a couple hundred comfortably and is climate controlled. They still serve a variety of all things fried, but they did finally get Baskin and Robbins Ice cream, which I indulge in once a week. I'm still opting to go to the German DFAC because ours is loud, serves unhealthy food and should generally be avoided with the exception of surf and turf night which is really completely overrated. You should see the ridiculous line for surf and turf night (Sundays). It's the one day that all the Germans come to our DFAC and the line is of Six Flags proportions. You either have to get there 30 minutes before it opens or be willing to wait about that long in line. I normally wait until it is almost closed because that's about the only time the line dies down. This is also my ice cream night, so my normal routine is to cut in through the back way, get the ice cream, and then come back for the main meal later.

There's really not a lot to do, so I have been able to get back into my gym routine. It feels good to be back. I had definitely let myself go in the last month prior to deploying, mainly because I was working ridiculous hours, but also out of laziness. I made a vow to myself that I was not going to sacrifice my health for work once we finally deployed and I've pretty much kept that promise.

There are not a lot of activities here, so with the rest of my free time, I normally just meet with friends (co-workers) and drink coffee and talk about whatever is going on at the time (the stock market, real estate, the annoying guy at work, dancing with the stars, etc.)...Ok, I'm pretty much the only one who talks about dancing with the stars.

I haven't seen Nick for about a month and a half. It seems like it has been forever. I went to see him in Shindand on our last rendezvous. He seems like he is getting along fine and takes enjoyment in being "useful". After much back and forth, we decided that it is best for him to just stay at Shindand and not to try to join me at Mazar e Sharif. This was a difficult conclusion for us and really hard for me to accept, but I'm glad to see Nick pursuing something that I know means a great deal to him. I'm really proud of all the work he's putting in to this deployment. I'm not sure when we will get to see each other again. I'm hoping that maybe we can see each other for a couple of days during Christmas, but only time will tell.

Other than coffee and working out, I spend most of the rest of my time studying for the GMAT or planning our impending vacation. I actually have managed to stay quite busy. Originally we weren't being terribly imaginative and had settled on going to Australia. Although Australia would definitely be a great place to visit, I had this feeling that I was squandering a prime opportunity for a free ticket. For some time, I've really wanted to go to the Maldive Islands (think sandbar in the middle of the Indian Ocean), but the hotel prices are astronomical. I really couldn't give up on this dream, so I started exploring some other locations that were close to the Maldives. Naturally, India is the closest country, but another place, Sri Lanka, was equally as close, so I started to look into what it had to offer. Upon further inspection, I've found that Sri Lanka actually has a wealth of activities as well as history, and while there are some luxury hotels, it is not so outrageously expensive. If we went this route, we could spend the first 10 days or so in the more reasonably priced Sri Lanka and the last few days in the Maldives. Really, how long are you going to want to spend on a sand bar, eating and drinking and lounging about? Ok, don't answer that. Anyhow, I think we are definitely leaning towards the Sri Lanka/Maldives combo now. I mean, I'm sorry, but once you look at the Maldive Islands, the Whitsundays just look 3rd rate. Anyway, more to follow on the vay-k thing.

On a down note, we did have our first suicide (disclaimer: it has not yet official been determined as such). Luckily, it was not in my unit because any death creates a load of work and headache for me. Apparently, local nationals bring drugs onto the FOBs and Camps and sell them to Soldiers. It looks like this guy either accidentally or purposely ODed on some sort of controlled substance. It's always sad when something like this happens and, quite frankly, I'm surprised it's taken so long. One of the downfalls of being on a FOB is that Soldiers do have so much contact with the outside world, but they also don't have a lot to do. This gives them a lot of time to focus on other things like problems back home. Don't get me wrong, the guy out on patrol has his own demons to fight, but there is a whole range of other issues with which guys working 9 to 5 have to deal. Right now, I'm going to be honest, we are not exactly busy, which means a lot of Soldiers work less deployed than they do in the rear. This all goes back to Soldiers not being actively engaged and getting themselves into trouble. Even if this is not determined to be a suicide, this Soldier still had time to track down drugs and the motivation to use them. What I'm getting at is that I think (sometimes) suicide is target of opportunity rather than a true mental issue - Soldiers resort to this extreme because there is nothing else better to do to distract them from problems. The interesting thing is that the Army dumps thousands of dollars into suicide prevention programs, but they are reluctant to build permanent housing for us. If they took even part of the money to improve living conditions while deployed (i.e. entertainment centers, education centers, activities, competitions, you name it), I think that would do more to improve the problem more than anything else. I'm speaking strictly of a downrange approach. Of course, I could be naive. There has to be a lot of other contributing factors before someone decides to kill themselves, but I do think that having a purpose goes a long way towards prevention. There are a lot of Soldiers out here that, I think, are really alone. They go to lunch by themselves, never get mail, and don't have anything to do besides go to work for 8 hours and then sit in a tent. The Army needs to start being proactive rather than reactive or at least that's my two cents.

Until next time....

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I am Alive

And blogging. I was temporarily locked out of my blog, but i will be back.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another Day, Another Dollar

So, what has been happening lately. A whole lot of nothing.

One of the lovely perks of my job is that I get to go out and meet every flight that comes into MeS. This includes flights that are not even for my unit, which keeps me on a pretty unroutine routine. Luckily, we are through the worst part, but when I'm not picking up a flight, I'm responding to a red cross message (message notifying a Soldier that something is not right at home) which is what I am currenlty occupied doing...or waiting to do... at 1123 PM.

It's really pretty frustrating. The world is suppose to stop spinning when you get one of these things in, but for some reason in my brigade, it is just a leisurely matter. Not to mention, I would like to sleep at some point!!

Anyway, so let's see what else has been going on. Well, I'm suppose to be trying to lose weight while I'm over here, but, of course, I'm the only person who hasn't lost a pound despite the fact that I'm eating way less and working out more. Figures. I did do my 1 month celebration today. There is a fairly decent restaurant located in the atrium and I indulged (against my better judgement) with a hamburger, which tasted pretty good. We also went to cafe next door to get a piece of cake. All I was thinking the whole time was that any progress I had made was going to be undone by this little celebration.

On a brighter note, I haven't lost my job - yet. We've had two people relieved since we've been out here. I don't know if it's the General McCrystal effect, but there's some serious drama around here. Anyway, let's just hope I can avoid the firing squad.

On a different note, I saw another friend from West Point who just got into Columbia business school. I'm about sick of hearing about all my old friends moving on with their lives. Anyway, I guess I need to just stop being so bitter.

It's just been a kind of bad day all around. I got my ice machine the other day and was very excited about finally getting to use. Of course, someone stole my transformer so now I will have to get another one which only delays my gratification.

Anyway, I guess you have to take the good with the bad. Everything here is two steps forward and one step back. It's good life lessons. Maybe if I don't lose any weight, I'll at least gain a little patience.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Waterless in Marmal

So, yesterday I spent all day running around, getting prepared for the new guys coming in from the states. My day started at around 7:30 AM and ended at around 10:30 PM. Naturally, after a long day of running around in 111 degree temperatures with wind and dust blowing all around, one tends to get a little sweaty. All I wanted to do was make it back to my tent before the new guys had a chance to figure out where the shower was and run out all the water.

Needless to say, I didn't waste any time when I got back to my tent. I just grabbed my stuff and went. When I got to the bathroom, it was late and there was no one else in there. Relief. I jumped into the shower and threw the water on and out comes a light trickle of water. Of course, I wasn't prepared. I had no soap out yet, no shampoo waiting in the wings, and as I hurried to try to procure the necessary items, the water slowly trickled to nothing.

So there I was, wet and naked in the shower, with no water and no hope. There were cases of bottled water not too far from the bathrooms, but that would mean getting out, putting my clothes back on and trudging to the water point to pick it up. Once I realized that this was my only viable option, I put my clothes back on my now wet, sweaty, dusty body and headed for the pallet. I thought about just running out there in my towel as a statement, but then I thought getting in trouble on top of not getting a shower were just make the night worse.

I retrieved a case of water and headed back to the shower trailer. The one good thing about 110+ temperatures is that the water is nice and warm. When I got back to the shower, both the entire case of water and I got into the shower. The first bottle went for wetting the body. I then soaped up entirely and was about to rinse with the second bottle (I was pretty impressed that it might only take me 3 or 4 bottles to get the job done), when the soap on my hands made it impossible to open. Instinctively, I reached for the faucet to try to rinse off the bottle, hoping that there would be enough drops left to allow me to open it. To my surprise, when I pulled up on the handle, the shower head came on with full vivacity. I've never been so happy to have a shower.

I probably will not be complaining as much about some other things anymore....well, I probably will.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Alright, I Get It, the Germans Hate Us

Well, if I didn't know, now I know. For the most part, Germans (or at least the German military) have a great deal of disregard for Americans. It's actually pretty ridiculous. There are so many rules here that are not at all tailored to the US military, but because this is a German post, we are forced to abide by them. Here's a short list:

First, we are not allowed to go anywhere in our work out clothes. I'm not sure why they have this rule, but we must remain in our full uniform all day long. We can only wear PTs from our rooms to the gym and back. On top of that, the laundry facility is about 100 ft. from the gym, but can we pick up our laundry in work out attire? Of course not. Even though it is on the way to the gym, we have to return back to our rooms and get back in the duty uniform before picking up laundry. Conveniently, the Germans are allowed to wear civilian clothes here, in which they CAN to pick up their laundry (civilian clothes include shorts and T-shirts).

Vehicles have the right away here, which the inbrief warns you about at length. I guess people must have been hit before because we have been warned half a dozen times to stay out of the road. A truck blared its horn at me the other day when I was walking on the side of the road because apparently I was not on the shoulder enough.

We are only allowed our contractual 4500 gallons of water a day, which we have run out of everyday. If you are the unlucky fellow or lady, to be in the shower or not taken a shower when the water runs out, then the jokes on you. Meanwhile, the Germans (and other European entities) spray water on their volleyball courts to keep the sand from getting too hot.

There are other inequities as well that the American military does little to correct. We are forced to play by German rules to a fault so as not to step on the Germans' toes. While the Germans are allowed to walk around without head gear (that is their rule), we aren't allowed to do that because that is not our standard. They roll their sleeves, ride bikes without helmets, and have individual, hard-stand rooms (think dorms), each with an individual A/C; we have to blouse our boots, leave our sleeves down, ride bikes with helmets, glasses and a running belt, and live in overcrowded tents, basically sleeping on top of one another, with limited A/C. It's nuts. Oh, and we were told that the Germans "don't like the way we talk in their DFAC", so we have to keep our noise to a minimum. I feel like a naughty kid at my great grandmother's house. Luckily, they are building an American area, which, get this, is outside the wire (don't worry they are building a new force protection wall).

See, the Germans did not want us to come to this base at all, but they reluctantly allowed it and granted us access for a small portion of our unit; however, we ended up greatly exceeding the capacity - a decision about which they are none to pleased. The Germans have to tolerate us, but I suppose their command didn't tell them they had to like it.

I guess the most frustrating part is that in Iraq, there were coalition forces just like there are in Afghanistan, and being that most bases in Iraq are American built, we would be the de facto country in charge. That being the case, we were always told to be understanding of the differences in military culture. For example, a lot of countries allow their female Soldiers to wear their hair down or partially down, but we would tolerate that. Or another example, I hate the way Germans keep both their hands on top of the table - it's barbaric and bad table manners - but you don't see us telling German forces, "hey, we think that's rude, so tell your Soldiers not to do it."

This is a war zone. We (NATO forces) are trying to get a job done. Our country has volunteered to send even more Soldiers over in harm's way to help these people out, and what do we get? To be treated like red-headed stepchildren? We understand the base is crowded (and it is a very nice base I have to admit). We understand that we don't want us messing up the afternoon coffee in the tranquility of the atrium (another hard-stand building with cafes, a bar, internet cafe and lounge or their beer at the end of their work day. But I have to ask, can't we all just get along?

And I have to agree with these guys on some points. For the most part, Americans have a bad habit of putting our personnel stamp, if you will, on a place. We throw our cigarette butts on the ground wherever we stand. We throw trash on the ground and spit on the sidewalks. We leave skid marks in the toilets (believe me, this is a hot button issue for them) and generally take things for granted. We are so used to others taking responsibility for our messes that we literally don't know how to take care of ourselves. For the first time, I have to admit, I'm a little embarrassed to be from America. I don't want to seem like neanderthals to the rest of the world who just come and destroy whatever they come in contact with. I'm honestly a little self conscious.

And there's really no reason we can't keep this place nice. It's like when you look at a Soldier who has thrown trash on the ground and ask them to pick it up, they have this look of incredulity that you would ask them to do such a thing. The bottom line is that we are ungrateful. We just got new bathrooms the other day - hard-stand trailers - and they're already a complete pig sty. We just take things for granted, and when we destroy them, we expect someone else to pick up the mess.

I'm hoping this is just laziness and not our modus operandi. I would hate to think that's the direction our culture has taken, but, as I look across the board at all aspects, it is starting to seem like it might be the case. Can't find a job - welfare. Bought a house you can't afford - where's the government intervention? I'm not saying European politics are much different, but it doesn't seem to have rubbed off on them as much. Everything seems like a "give me" without any sense of responsibility. No wonder the their is increasing disdain for the American collective. It's not too late to change that sort of mentality, and I am going to start with myself first.

Alright, that's as political as I will ever get on this blog (I promise).

Monday, June 28, 2010

Initial Assessment Part II: Sweating It

Well ladies and gentlemen, I made it. I am now enjoying my extended stay in sunny Afghanistan. The temperature in MeS is a steamy 110 degrees and daylight extends from about 3:45 AM to well after 9 PM.

So anywho, wow, that's really all I have to say. I forgot how hot it could really get. I'm dying here. I know in 7 to 10 days I will acclimate to the temperature, but, man, it sure is going to be a miserable week. I've only been here a day, but all I've been doing is sweating non-stop. Unlike Iraq, the air conditioning capabilities are seriously underdeveloped here, so there is really little respite from the heat. But let me tell you a little about the flight over here.

So, in typical military fashion, this is how our flight to MeS (Mazar e Sharif) went down. Originally, we were suppose to drop our bags the night before our flight at around 10 PM. Since that was the case and because the night before I stayed up to watch the soccer game, I figured I would catch up on my beauty sleep before I had to go drop my stuff. Well, at about 7:35 PM, I get a tap on my shoulder and the brigade S-1 tech is standing over me.

"You need to be at bag drop right now," she says. Of course, at this point, I had not looked at the clock, so my immediate assumption is that I had slept through my alarm. It was only after I glanced at my clock that the tech told me that our flight had been moved up.

"Well, when does it take off now," I ask.

To which she replied, "in an hour and a half."

An hour and a half? Are you kidding me? Not only was none of my stuff packed, but I was completely disoriented. I still needed to get my stuff together, take it down to the baggage site (a little less than half a mile), get my IOTV (our protective vest) and helmet, get to the bus, drive out to the airfield, load the plane (which involves both personnel and pallets). Needless to say, it was a complete cluster @#$%. My original intent was to do all this without sweating prior to having to load the plane, but that proved impossible after the flight was moved up.

In the end, we literally pulled up to the plane, boarded, got situated and took off. There were no breaks and no rest. Needless to say, I was a completely drenched, lugging all my equipment with me on to the flight, completely flustered and miserable. Now, anyone who knows what a C-130 looks like knows that these things are completely cramped. Inside, there are 4 rows of seats, two pairs facing each other (the middle seats are back to back, the other two rows line the inside of the aircraft). All passengers sit sideways facing each other for the entire flight. The rows that face each other are so close that your knees hit the front of the other person's seat, so you have to sit with your legs intermingled with those of the person across from you. Oh, and on top of that, you have to hold your carry on bag on your lap, while wearing your IOTV and helmet. As if this wouldn't be torturous enough, there is very limited airflow, so it is normally very warm and uncomfortable. Now, if you happen to be prone to motion sickness or claustrophobia, flights like these are your krytonite. I happen to fear the latter.

Luckily, I didn't have time for my panic attack due to the limited time prior to the flight. It was actually probably a good thing that we didn't have all the normal build-up to the flight, because then that would have just given me time to get all worked-up before boarding the plane. Fortunately, this isn't my first rodeo, so I made sure I boarded last (the end seats have a little more leg room), popped a Dramamine and prepared to stick it out. Of course, I got some flack from a 1SG in our group (I'll call him the Honorable because he was the FOB Mayer during a pre-deployment exercise) because, apparently since I am "small", I should have to be crammed in the middle. Meanwhile, his company commander who is about the same size as me, was sitting on the end of the seat. The hypocrisy is amazing.

Anyway, I digress. We rolled into MeS in record time, thank God, because I seriously had to go to the bathroom, and there are no toilets on the plane. Even if there were, there would be no way to access them. After arriving, we got a quick inbrief, retrieved our bags and headed for our temporary tents, about which we had been hearing horror stories for the last week. In all honestly, they really aren't that bad - not much worse than my last deployment. The air conditioning was weak and there are no wall lockers in which to put any of your belongings, but otherwise, ok (at least that is my assessment for the time being). The word on the street is that we are moving into a new tent tonight (I will give a rundown of the politics of MeS and Bear Village in my next blog), so we will see what that's like. For now, I will have to go, not only because the Internet is rationed, but because you probably don't want to read anymore.

Until next time....