Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gearing Up for R&R

Since I'm at the halfway point, I'm apparently entitled to a four-day vacation (a 96-hour pass in Armyspeak) to the charming, exotic, far-away place called Qatar. For those of you who don't know, Qatar is pronounced "gutter," so my expectations aren't especially high.

In order to get to Qatar, I first have to find my way to Bagram Air Field. In order to make it as easy as possible, I was going to hitch a ride with the base chaplain tomorrow. We used to be roommates back when we were still in transient billeting before we were moved to our permanent rooms. Now we're neighbors. Since is also going on R&R at the same time as me and he has a hookup with the folks that run back and forth to Bagram to re-stock our little post exchange with junkfood and deodorant, he was able to get us a couple of seats in the empty truck on it's way out.

Bummer of it is, the truck was rescheduled and he ended up leaving today. I found out when I called him to find out what time we were heading out tomorrow and he said there was a change of plans and he'd actually arrived in Bagram just an hour before I called. Apparently he'd forgotten all about me. Now instead I'll be hitchhiking to the airport where I'll hopefully be able to find myself a seat on any one of the several flights from Kabul to Bagram scheduled every day.

I'm not exactly thrilled about the idea of going to Gutter. From what I'm told, the first and last days of my four day vacation will be spent on briefs and paperwork while they teach us all about what's off-limits (everything) and what's permitted (not much) while we're there. From what I'm told I'll be allowed to leave the base if I'm lucky enough to get on any of the few guided tours (which I'll get to pay for) and I'll even be allowed to have as many as two alcoholic beverages per day.

The getting there and back will be pretty interesting too. Once I get to Bagram I'll be briefed on how to get a flight and so on. Then I'll be placed in the lowest bracket of standby for travel. Then I'll get to wait for one to as many as eight days for space on a flight to Gutter. The same sort of thing will happen on the way back. So my four-day vacation could be bracketed by as much as a week of waiting in passenger terminals before and afterwards.

Yay.

The whole thing sounds like such a pain in the ass that I'm not even sure why I'm bothering. I figure doing nothing in Qatar has to be at least as much fun as doing nothing in Kabul. At least I'll be able to see a bit of ocean if I'm lucky.

I guess we'll see how it goes. For now I'm trying to decide what I'll need to pack for the trip. So far I've set aside a couple of books, a couple of weeks worth of underwear, my laptop, and a few vomit bags.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Today I Reached the Halfway Point

Despite being halfway done with this whole endeavor, I honestly don't feel like I've accomplished anything. I also don't see that changing in the next half of this particular adventure. Today for example, my contribution to the war effort was checking my email. I did not receive any work-related messages that required my attention.

The only other thing that passes for news is word from home that my dog, Bain, had to go in for surgery to get some sort of mystery lump removed. Then he started gnawing at the staples holding the incision closed, so now he gets to wear a ridiculous T-shirt to cover the hole:
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His new look is doing wonders for Kira's sense of superiority.
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But at least it isn't bothering him:
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Brief Dose of Awesomness

It turns out I married an absolutely gorgeous woman. Not that I didn't notice before, and I certainly haven't forgotten in the interim, but the other day she sent me a reminder in the form of photographs. Here's one from the first batch in a series from a recent photoshoot she sat for:


I win.

There are a lot more pics, but there's also nothing that says I have to share.

Mine.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Kabul Kitties

For no good reason I can think of, I've been making a habit of taking pictures of the camp cats whenever one of them will sit still long enough for me to snap them. They're all pretty rough looking animals, but mostly friendly.



Here's some of my favorites so far:



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Mixed in with all of these other filthy, frightful creatures is a cat called "Steve." Steve is the cat that the Canadians have adopted. As a result, he is the only cat in the camp with a flea collar and a healthy-looking coat. He's also one of the only ones that doesn't inspire you to bleach your hands after petting him:
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3rd Batch of Plastic Sailors

As a follow-on, I've finished sculpting, molding, and casting the third and final set of Navy Individual Augmentee Action Figures:
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The bullet the loader is hefting is actually a spent round from an AK-47 that I found out on the shooting range. The casing was sculpted by hand though. Bonus points if you can tell me what letter the signalman on the right is sending.

And finally, I've cast my first Coast Guardsman:
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He's international orange and he floats.

Time now to continue on to other goofy projects.

Catching-Up on Bloggage

I've had a bunch of things I've been meaning to post lately, but I haven't gotten around to it for some reason. I think it has something to do with all the stupid here. When I started this particular little adventure I was convinced that Army stupid was the stupidest stupid I'd ever seen. I didn't allow for the kind of stupid that ensues when you get more than one kind of army together in one place. Then you have allied stupidity. This may well be the greatest density of densities in the universe. A stupid black hole.

Anyway, before I start ranting about how none of us are anywhere near as stupid as all of us, I'll just get to catching up on the latest goings on.

First, I have to mention that I stumbled across an interesting article about Afghan Air Quality here in Kabul. By "interesting" I mostly mean mortifying. Among other key facts, it points out that the director of Afghan government's version of an Environmental Protection Agency lives outside of the capitol. The reason? "He would rather risk attacks by militants during his commute to Kabul than let his kids breathe the air here." Click here to read more.

Awesome.

In other news, I also stumbled across this article about Swiss Soldiers Deploying to Defend Ships Against Somali Pirates. With the US Navy deploying people to a landlocked, mountainous country to join the fight against militant terrorists and insurgents, it only makes sense for the Swiss Army to send people to the open sea to join the fight against pirates.

Enough for now. Stay tuned.

Inauguration Day

To celebrate the inauguration of President Obama, one of the guys in the office* had a cake made. Apparently he wasn't clear enough about which flag he wanted on top of it, so the Afghan bakery put the Afghan flag on it:
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The cake was tasty and all, but what really fascinated me was the box it was delivered in:
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I'm not sure how I feel about a catering company that also does construction, but what I really like was the reassurance that they deliver. Regardless.

It turns out I was the only guy in the office with a knife big enough to cut the cake without making a huge mess of things, so I got to do the honors:
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Which means I also got to lick the knife clean:
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So that was a good time.


*This particular guy is one of our Norwegian allies. I'm not sure why, but when the election results were posted all of the Europeans started congratulating the US folks. This continued on Inauguration Day. Odd.

A Few More Pics from Kabul

I've been doing a lot of running around outside the compound. I won't go into all the random reasons I've been travelling (some of which have been, frankly, pointess) but I will say that I travel much more discreetly than this:
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I like travelling incognito because it prevents me from random asplosions, unlike the victim vehicle the ANP (Afghan National Police) are pushing out of the road here:
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This sort of thing happens all the time here. In fact just the other day there was a car bomb (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device in military vernacular) that detonated at a US base just around the corner. If you want to read more about it, click here.

Speaking of changing the subject, here's a random shot of the Kabul River. In case you can't tell, it's the sort of wet trench in the foreground:
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And here's a Kabul Kebab shop:
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Sometime lately I picked up a new patch to stick on the side of my helmet. If you don't recognize this character, you're missing out.
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Here's a random shot of the shopping bazaar that gets set up outside our compound once a week so we can buy rugs and stones and "authentic Soviet items" supposedly left behind when the Mujahedin drove them out of Afghanistan in the 80s.

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And a quick shot of Major Cheff, one of my Canadian co-workers:

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More to follow.

Farewell

A little while ago one of my favorite guys, LCOL McCartney, left the office to return to his job in DC.
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His replacement, another Air Force officer is a pretty nice guy too. All the same, he'll be missed.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kabul Kitties

I'm not sure why, but I've been making a habit of taking pictures of the camp cats whenever one of them will sit still long enough for me to snap them. They're all pretty rough looking animals, but mostly friendly.



Here's some of my favorites so far:



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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Goofy Projects in a Combat Zone Part II

So a while back I made my little blue plastic Navy men to go with some little green plastic Army men:

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They were fun and all, but I decided that there needed to be more than just three unique poses (there were 12 unique poses among the Army men in the package) . So I went ahead and sculpted, molded, and cast three more:
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The sculpts are pretty easy, so I'm sure I'll end up making a few more while I'm out here. I've already started on the next two and I've been making up sketches for a third. My mother-in-law suggested I should make little plastic Coast Guardsmen too. I'm thinking they'll be orange. More on that whenever I get to it.

In the meantime, I've started sculpting this little critter at Ana's suggestion/request/reccuring implied demand:

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The sculpt still needs a few evenings worth of work, but if you don't recognize it, this will be the face of Katie from the film Horton Hears a Who as shown below:
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Here's another angle:
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She still needs a nose and eyelids and I'll probably end up pulling the ears off and casting them as separate pieces. I'll be sculpting out the little feet as well. They'll all come from the same mold, so when I cast a set all I'll have to do is come up with a little hamster-shaped pouch of yellow faux fur, stuff it, and attach it to the cast parts. So far nobody manufactures toy versions of this little critter (which boggles the mind, since she made that movie) so I'll be able to offer up some pretty unique gifts.


On the subject of ridiculous, I printed out the paper model for another helmet variant for the HALO armor project. After a long evening of cutting, folding, and gluing I came up with a helmet that was entirely too large. I still went ahead and layered the inside with casting resin (from the plastic sailor project) to make it stiffer and tried it on:
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Then I re-scaled the 3D computer model, unfolded it again using Pepakura, and cranked out a smaller one:
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The smaller one fits better:
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If that wasn't goofy enough, I coated the inside with casting resin and ordered a faceshield from Amazon.com and now it looks about like so:
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I'm thinking I'll stop here before I get a wild idea and decide I need to send away for Bondo and a body rasp and and electric sander and some primer and paint and more silicone mold rubber and casting resin and microballoons and milled glassfiber and...

I really can't wait to have useful workshop space again.

Sleepover Party in Wardak Province

By now I've been assigned to Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force for over three months. My job is to go out and visit the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan to help the command staff maintain situational awareness. Until a few days ago I had been able to visit exactly zero of them in that capacity.

So the other day a group of us decided to drive town to the Wardak PRT. Wardak is one of the provinces adjacent to the capital city of Kabul. The PRT there is a part of the Turkish assistance mission in Afghanistan. Their operation is unique in that it is led by a civilian. In the entire time they've been working here it turns out that nobody from my office has ever made a trip out there. Clearly it was time.

Since we needed to bring enough people to hold our own in the event of an attack, we ended up inviting anybody we could think of who might have business there. We ended up with a small crowd that included our Canadian driver and one civilian contractor. The rest of us were all US Navy including my newly arrived boss, Commander Hanley:
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The snow started just as we were leaving Kabul, so the going was pretty slow. Driving toward Wardak things got a bit slippery. At one point while we were headed downhill we started sliding and couldn't stop. We weren't going much faster than walking speed when we hit the other car. Fortunately, we caught it on video:


In the event of a crash we have two options. If the other vehicle was at fault, it's quite possibly the prelude to some sort of attack and we have to get away as fast as we can. If we're at fault (which I suppose we were) we have to hand the other driver a claim voucher so he can get ISAF to pay for the damages. From what I understand it works out to be a generous deal and he'll probably end up being able to buy a whole new car by the time it's over. But at least it's better than giving the locals another reason to dislike us.

After a couple of slightly tense hours on the road we made it to the PRT in Wardak. Once we arrived we settled in with a few cups of coffee:
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Then we spent the next few hours meeting and greeting the military members in the staff of the facility. They were pretty nice guys:
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The compound itself is a pretty interesting concept. Usually when a PRT is stood up they assemble a bunch of temporary buildings and barriers and get to work finding ways to build infrastructure and enable independent economic growth in the area. The buildings tend to be pretty flimsy, with no thought to what will happen with the real estate once the PRT is packed up and sent home.

The Turks decided instead to start by building a facility that will serve a long and useful life after they've gone. In this case, the facility will be a very nice primary school complete with classrooms, offices, and living space for the staff. It's a brilliant concept and it looks like some of the future PRT compounds will be built with the same idea in mind.

While walking around, I noticed that they have a couple of dogs they keep in a pen just outside the gate to the compound. They were locked in at the time, but they looked very playful and friendly:
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I'm not ashamed to say they made me miss my own two pups back home. I suppose if I really wanted to I could probably snag myself a surrogate dog while I'm here. There's no shortage of feral dogs wandering around out here. This guy looked nice enough:
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But I digress...

During lunch we got to chatting about challenges and successes in the region. When the conversation turned to US activity in the area, the Turkish officers decided we should all go over to the nearby US base. We got a chance to talk with the commander of the American maneuver forces in the region. THAT was an interesting conversation, but I really can't talk about it here.

When we returned to the PRT compound we were given mission briefs by the commander of the Turkish Army detachment as well as the civilian director of the entire PRT. The briefs proved pretty informative. It turns out that the Wardak province is about the size of West Virginia. Depending on who you ask, the population is somewhere between 400,000 and one million people. The average person living in Wardak makes a little less than one US dollar per day. The only reason that average is so high is because much of the workforce commutes to Kabul or migrates to Iran or Pakistan for jobs and sends their pay home to their families.

What little money there is to be made in Wardak itself is made in agriculture. Most of what is grown there is eaten there. The only thing that they export at all is apples. The problem they have though is a lack of cold storage. So when the apples are ready for harvest they all get picked at once. Since there's no place to keep them fresh they all get sold at once. This floods the market and drives prices down. Saavy investors buy up all the cheap, fresh apples they can get a hold of, pack them off to nearby cold storage facilities, and then sell them back to the locals in Wardak at great profit over the course of the rest of the year. So in the end their only local source of income also turns out to be a greatly expensive product for the locals to buy just a few weeks later.

After the briefings we had dinner in their formal dining room. After the past three months of eating bland food off of broken trays, I can't tell you how nice it was to sit down to a carefully prepared meal made of ingredients that can be safely eaten without boiling the flavor out of them. There were even waiters.

Once dinner was over we took a few minutes to compare notes. We had a lot to talk about, but I still had plenty of time to get outside and enjoy the amazingly fresh, chilly air.
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That night I slept like a stone.

The following morning I managed to sleep in until almost 0730. Breakfast ran until 0900, so the day started with a pretty relaxed pace. Luxury.

Once breakfast was over we had a bit of time to kill, so I snapped a few random shots around the compound:
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Somewhere along the way I lost track of Greg.
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While nobody was looking he managed to build "G.I. Snow," a real Canadian hero:
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We also got to check out the weekly shopping bazaar in the parking lot outside the compound. With the weather being what it was, there was only one car worth of vendors who showed up:
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Then it was time to head over to the Provincial Governor's compound for their periodic security meeting:
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It was interesting to get the Afghan government's view of the insurgency in the area. In short: there are plenty of bad things that happen in the area, but not all of it is due to the Taliban. The problem is, any time anything disruptive happens the Taliban takes credit and makes it impossible to be sure.

After the meeting adjourned I managed to corner the governor long enough to ask him a few questions about some of the programs we're working on in the area. He was a nice enough guy, but he is definitely a career politician. After ten minutes of talking I couldn't help but feel like he'd said nothing at all:
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Once we were done there we went back over to the PRT compound for lunch. Then we went out to take a quick look at some of the nearby projects the Turks have been running in the area. On the way we drove down Main Street in Maidan Shahr, the nearest town to the PRT and the largest town in the entire province. Even with all that going for it, the town's a pit:

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You'll notice that the town actually has streetlights. This style of lighting is a sort of hallmark of PRTs here in Afghanistan. They're low-maintenance, solar-powered, and completely self-contained. Since reliable electricity is a rare thing in this country and well-lit streets deter criminals, this is an ideal example of improvements that we can make for the locals.
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I also got to spot a few of the increasingly ubiquitous voter registration billboards. Elections are supposed to be held early this year, so there's a big push to get as many people involved as possible:
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Noble as this idea is, I can't help but wonder how much the locals here could possibly care about the central government. It seems to me that most of them probably have more immediate problems to worry about:
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Our first stop was at the Maidan Shahr Sports Center and Children's Playground. It doesn't look like much in the snow:
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But it's probably a pretty good setup when the weather's better:
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This particular playground may not be the most fun the world has to offer, but it's a big step in the right direction when you consider that music was against the law in this country just under eight years ago.

While we were looking around and talking with the folks that were responsible for getting the facility built, a small group of local kids showed up and looked pretty interested in us. It wasn't long before someone started a playful snowball fight:
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Oddly, we did not fare well in that confrontation:
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They were nice kids and it was a good time, but I still can't help but feel bad for them. They've all got a pretty tough life to look forward to.
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Still, I was glad to be there:
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We left the sports complex and headed over to the Police Training Compound the Turks built on the other side of town. The facility was impressive. It's built with the capacity to train up to 140 students at a time. Their training program runs for ten weeks and has all the identifying features of a professional police academy.

While we were touring the facility, Greg stood security watch over our two vehicles and caught up with the some of the Turkish civilians:
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The facility was pretty neat, but I found myself a bit distracted when I finally noticed the group of vehicles I was travelling in. The convoy was led by a couple of these things:
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Then there were our two SUVs in the middle followed by a handful of these:
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We didn't plan it that way, but we'd accidently set ourselves up to look like some significant foreign VIPs (that's Taliban for "targets"). In hindsight it was not a good idea. Fortunately the hour was getting late and it was time for us to be on our way.

The few things we got a chance to see are only a very small part of the work the PRT is doing in the province. They've also been building bridges, schools, and police stations. They've been developing ways to grow more profitable crops in the area and then teaching those methods to the local farmers. They've built above-ground cold storage facilities to help the locals preserve their harvests for more profitable seasons. But that's not all.

On the horizon they've got programs lined up to build in-home greenhouses so local widows will be able to grow their own low-cost food. They're designing underground cold storage facilities so the local farmers will be able to store their crops without needing electricity. They'll be teaching lower-income families to breed and raise livestock and then giving them animals to start their own herds. They're even instituting a beekeeping programming that will involve giving a family 20 beehive boxes and the training to make a living off of their honey. It's all very inspiring and it'll work great if we can ever convince the insurgents to stop blowing things up or burning things down after we build them.

So it goes.

The drive back to Kabul was quick and painless. Still, I was sad to leave the open country behind:
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The drive along the main highway meant a chance to see more of the wierd crap that passes for normal here:
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As we got further into the city itself, the air got thicker and everything got dirtier in general. Along the way I snapped this shot of the view from the street alongside the Kabul River:
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And of course things got worse the further we got into town:
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Once we were on the main thoroughfare in the city, Greg spotted this particular taxi that was obviously a long way from home:
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And I spotted another dog to abduct:
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But in the end we had a safe and productive trip and I was stuck back in my office:
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Now I have to get back to writing my TPS reports.

Stay tuned...