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I make toys for kids who don't want to grow up. I'm on the lookout for new projects. If you're interested in commissioning me to build something ridiculous, shoot me an email.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Fashion Update for Style-Conscious Sailors

For about 26 years, the US military wore the ubiquitous “woodland camo” Battle Dress Uniforms (a.k.a. BDUs)* whenever they needed to blend into environments with lush greenery. This pattern was developed in 1948 and, because the Army is all about cutting-edge technology, was issued for the first time to Special Forces soldiers in early 1967. Everyone else wore olive drab fatigues.

The woodland camo pattern went in and out of vogue for the next fourteen years. In the mid-1970s the US Marine Corps finally adopted it as standard issue before, in 1981, the US Army finally saw the light and it became standard issue for all US Army soldiers. The Air Force and Navy also adopted essentially the same uniform for use in wooded environments. When they were operating in desert or urban environments, there were other color variants, but the pattern was essentially the same.

While the woodland camouflage pattern did its job well, it had also been around for almost sixty years with only minor revisions between the late 1940s and the early 21st Century. It was readily available, proven, and inexpensive, but it was also not the state-of-the-art. None of this would be an issue for the Army or Navy. Indeed, US Navy officers are still wearing khaki uniforms that British Army officers were wearing in the 1880s.** True to form, the service that led the innovation in no-nonsense, practical development of combat gear was the US Marine Corps.

Here’s what they came up with:

The Marines’ digital camouflage pattern (called “MARPAT” because the full name has too many syllables for Marine vernacular) works great. It comes in two colors so far. One predominantly green and brown pattern for wooded areas, and one in shades of tan for desert areas. The uniform includes brown, rough-side-out leather boots that can’t be polished, making them even harder to see. I’ve even seen pictures of Marine cold-weather gear in a predominately white variant of MARPAT camo. Cool.

When they made the upgrade from the venerable woodland camo BDUs to the MARPAT uniforms, I was stationed at Naval Education and Training Center, Newport, RI as an instructor. The new pattern worked so well that within the first month after the switch, no less than three Marines on base were hit by cars whose drivers didn’t see them while they were crossing the street. When you’re trying not to be seen, those are pretty impressive results.

So with the wild, almost deadly, success of the MARPAT camouflage it only makes sense that the other branches would be clamoring to adopt it for use by their personnel who need to go unseen. Unfortunately, the US military does some strange things when it comes to making sense. The Marines came up with their own, different camouflage first. Not to be outdone, the Army had to develop their own proprietary pattern of camouflage as well.

Buying new costumes for everyone in the Army is an expensive proposition though. Especially if you have to worry about buying every soldier a new ensemble to color coordinate with every kind of environment they might be operating in while also accessorizing in ways that won't clash. So, placing budget concerns above practical concerns, the Army developed a universal digital camouflage pattern called “Universal Camouflage Pattern.” The idea was to come up with a digital pattern using colors that would be equally suited to every imaginable location. The result: a pale replication of the MARPAT camo consisting of in-between colors that don’t quite blend in with anything.*** Here’s what it looks like:

For a while this struck me as the stupidest thing I’d seen in the military of late. Then the Air Force realized that their stupid department was falling behind. Rather than adopt either of the well-though-out and expensively, extensively researched patterns of camouflage that these other branches came up with, the Air Force decided they needed to have their own brand of stupid-looking. As a result they came up with their own camo pattern, which they call “digital tiger stripe” while everyone else just calls it “goofy.”

Behold, the "Airman Battle Uniform" pattern camouflage:

Coming up with their own pattern seems to be all the stupid they had to in their budget. When it came time to choose a color pallette, they had to borrow some extra stupid from the Army.  The Air Force’s digital tiger stripe camouflage is printed in the exact same hues as the Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern, colors which still don’t blend in with anything even after being arranged slightly differently.

The pattern itself harkens back to the tiger stripe BDUs that some Special Forces units wore for a brief time in Vietnam. When you’re crawling along on your belly through old-growth bamboo to sneak up on Charlie and slit his throat with your bayonet this pattern makes sense. It makes a bit less sense when you’re strolling along an airstrip armed with a briefcase and/or a cup of coffee. Once again, making sense didn’t figure large in the decision to switch to these uniforms.

The one thing that the Army and Air Force got kinda right though was the boots. They did away with the old, shiny black leather boots in favor of tan (or for the Air Force, minty green) boots with the rough side of the leather on the outside. Apart from that one redeeming quality, these uniforms don’t make much sense to me. They were still among the stupidest things the military had done for a while and ever since I first spotted the Army’s new not-quite-camouflage, I’d been pretty smug about them.

Then it was the Navy’s turn.

A couple of weeks ago there was an article in Navy Times about the new NWUs (Navy Working Uniform). It’s basically the same exact pattern as the Marine’s MARPAT camo and the Army’s Universal Camoflage Pattern, but in shades of blue and grey.

Here’s a file photo of the new NWU from back when they were still trying to decide on some of the finer points:

Here it is in a couple of typical operating environments where camouflage might be useful:

The Navy’s camouflage isn’t really intended to blend in with anything. Instead, the color palette was supposedly selected as a way to recognize the nautical heritage of the service. As an afterthought, it also makes it a bit tougher for a sniper ashore to pick you off if you’re out working on deck in port. As an added benefit, one of the colors is “deck gray,” a standardized shade of grey paint used on all Navy ships, so it’s less likely someone will notice if you lean on wet paint. That, and day-to-day grease and food stains will be less noticeable.

The main problem though, is what it will blend in with:

If you happen to fall overboard on a gloomy day, this outfit will make you impossible to spot. So the Navy, in its infinite wisdom, has selected a pattern of camouflage that will only help conceal you in the one rare occasion where you will desperately want to be seen.

Now I realized it’s possible that there are some scenarios where you might be floating along and want to stay hidden. A ship might be torpedoed and sunk by a submarine and, to keep their whereabouts a secret, the sub might surface and kill off the survivors. Or perhaps bloodthirsty enemy fighter pilots might make a sport of strafing shipwrecked sailors. Still, I can’t help but think it’d be better to make the uniforms in some sort of lighter, brighter color that might facilitate rescue.

In the past, the Navy has either clung desperately to centuries-old sailor costumes or worn practical clothing integrated into the safety gear required for the task at hand (i.e. the rainbow wardrobe you find on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier). The NWU is a disappointment in that it’s not in any way nautical, nor is it particularly practical given the environment it’s intended for.

The worst part of all is that it comes with nice, shiny black boots. After all the effort to come up with a supposedly low-maintenance new uniform, sailors will still have to waste time polishing their boots. As a result I now have no room whatsoever to call the Army and Air Force uniforms stupid. This new stupid uniform comes close on the heels of a variety of other new stupid uniforms the Navy has adopted as well as some old stupid uniforms they have resurrected. Now I’m going to have to rush out and buy a whole new set of gear when I get back to the States.


*BDU was the Army’s term for the old woodland camouflage uniform. The Marines referred to them as “Boots and Utes,” while the Navy called them “cammies” and the Air Force called them “our only manly uniform.”

**True story. The word “khaki” comes from the Hindi-Urdu word for “dusty” and the all-tan uniform became standard for British soldiers stationed in India in the latter half of the 19th Century. The US Navy still hasn't given them up.

***I’ve been wearing this particular pattern for about two months now and the only thing that it seems to look like is certain types of gravel. So apart from laying in someone’s driveway, I can’t think of anyplace where this color scheme would help me hide.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Part VII: Driving in Downtown Kabul

Over the past few weeks I've made a few trips outside the perimeter wire. Leaving the wire is always an interesting experience. You are not allowed to go out on foot unless you're part of a security patrol. Otherwise, when you do leave the compound, you have to travel in armored vehicles with body armor and loaded weapons. Prior to departure you have to memorize the route, alternative routes, recent threat assessments, and countless other bits of seeming trivia that your survival may depend on.

Once outside the gate, you have to travel at speed. If you slow down or stop, you may be giving an attacker enough time to take aim with an RPG or to trigger an IED. So it's a bit tough to snap pictures of the local people and landscape while you're zipping by as fast as you can go, but it doesn't stop me from trying. Here's a few of my favorites so far. I apologize for the motion blur.

I captured this picture of a typical roadside merchant at one of the busiest intersections in the city.

I'm not sure what's going on with this guy:

On the other hand, I know exactly what's going on with this guy:

This is the side of the road on the way to the airport:

And another shot of the same road on the way to the airport:

And a few moments later, a shot of the boy riding his donkey:

More to come. Stay tuned.

Part VI: a Quick Trip to the Panjshir Wind Farm

A little while back I got to attend the opening ceremony for the first wind-driven power plant in Afghanistan. It's located on a ridge in the Panjshir province, arguably one of the safest, most stable regions in all of Afghanistan. The wind farm itself is very small, only 100kW, but it's a huge step forward toward a future with renewable energy for the Afghan people. You can read more by clicking here or by clicking here.

It also turns out that this was the hometown of Afghanistan's First Vice President. So the whole even got even more attention the moment he decided that he wanted to attend the opening ceremonies. Since there would be more Afghan VIPs, it's only appropriate that we should send more VIPs as well.

For my part, I was just going to get a bit more familiar with the area and the people involved. I got to ride up there with a combat camera crew and a handful of other folks in a pair of Blackhawk helicopters. We made the trip with the doors open so the camera crew could get stills and video along the way. It was a little chilly, but I was glad to have the view.

Here's me on the ground before we lifted off:

Our departure from Kabul ended up being delayed for a couple of hours due to the weather. Once we were finally airborne, this was my typical view for the trip up:
Still, I managed to catch a few decent shots of the countryside papparazzi-style by just reaching out with the camera and clicking away.

The bulk of the buildings outside of the city are made of clay bricks that are covered with more clay once they're stacked. So essentially, the houses are actually made of mud. At least that's what I'm told.

The terrain surrounding the capitol city of Kabul is rugged and mountainous. The climate is harsh and dry. This time of year it's starting to cool off rapidly and we should see snow falling in the city itself any day now. Still, the countryside has a certain rugged beauty about it.


The Panjshir Valley itself is fairly picturesque:

When traveling in the mountains of Afghanistan, at least it's easy to remember where you parked:

We landed just as the last of the speeches was nearing it's end. Hopefully we didn't disturb anyone, but I'd imagine it's tough to be subtle when your group gets out of a couple of armed helicopters with their body armor and weapons. Oops.

After the speeches, we walked over to what I would've guessed was a barn. Once we walked inside, I turned a corner and was met with a door bearing a sign which read, "Governor's Office." Oops. You can understand why I thought it was a barn though. I snapped this picture while standing next to the front door:
Since we were about to have lunch and I didn't want to have to excuse myself in mid-meal, I asked one of the bodyguards in the lobby where I could find a restroom.

ME: Excuse me, where is the restroom?
BODYGUARD: The what?
ME: I'm looking for a toilet.
ME: Outside where?
BODYGUARD: Outside anywhere.

I guess I should've seen that coming.

After a brief hike off into a seemingly concealed corner, I wandered back into the building just in time to sit down to lunch. They managed to put on a pretty decent spread with fruit, vegetables, kebabs, rice, local flatbread (called "naan") and some sort of yoghurt for desert. All of this was washed down with Pepsi:
My company at lunch were an Air Force guy who'd made the trip with me, an Afghan National Police officer, and three elderly Afghan gentlemen. Since none of them spoke English and I don't speak any of the five or six most popular local languages, we ate mostly in silence. I'm still not sure who the three Afghan guys were. For all I know they could've been district governors or they could've been janitors. Either way, the meal was pleasant enough.

Once the VIPs were done shaking hands and getting their pictures taken, it was time to go. This was delayed slightly because the Navy Lieutenant in charge of the camera crew was an all-American-looking girl with blonde hair and blue eyes and all of the Afghan bodyguards had to take a few minutes to pose for pictures with her. It was pretty funny, but I guess she's what passes for exotic around here.

The trip back to Kabul was equally uneventful. This time the doors were closed, but at least I got a window seat so I could snap a few more pictures of rural Afghanistan.



The trek from the Airport back to the headquarters compound was a bit of a fiasco, but that's another story for another time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The World is Filled with Wicked Vending Machines

(this is another post resurrected from my old blog. I've decided I like it too much to let it fester there.)

Today I fell in love with a plush chicken puppet. Alas, it was not to be…

I was sitting at lunch when I noticed that the family style, neighborhood pub-type place I was eating in had one of those machines. You know the type, the ones with the claw and a bunch of stuffed animals which will allow you to experience frustration and futility for a bargain price ranging anywhere from one to four quarters.

I have eaten in this particular restaurant before. I'm willing to believe that this machine has been there all along, but I never really paid attention to it until today.

Today, my attention was called to it because it was being reloaded. Given how rare it is to actually get any of these perfectly pliable plush puppets and whatnot out of the machine with its super-slippery, Teflon-coated, limp-wristed, stainless steel claw, I can't imagine how rare it was to have the opportunity to witness the restocking of the claw game. I probably should've been paying attention to the menu or something, but instead I was stuck staring in awe at the stocking of the claw game.

I have seen vending machines restocked in the past. With soda and candy machines this process takes one person a few short minutes. It will take a few more yet if they are properly rotating their stock to the forward positions. Since nobody ever manages to capture any of the stuffed animals with the claw, I have never seen one of these machines get reloaded. If today's experience is normal the claw game requires the trained effort of two people when its long-standing array of tantalizingly unattainable toys runs low or (more likely) expires from dry-rot.

The reason for all of this work is readily understandable. Making customers struggle to capture the world's softest substances with the world's slipperiest grasping tool is not nearly challenging enough to satisfy the sadism of the machine's merciless masters. Clearly. Instead, customers (read: hapless child victims) have to try and pull them out of a tightly-packed, interlocked mass of carefully engineered stuffed animal that requires two very large, burly, pro-wrestler-looking guys to properly build it.

These two rather large men were actually under visible physical strain trying to load this machine. They seemed to be using a combination of brute strength and what I can only guess were toy-stacking methodologies passed down through a secret society of plush toy masons. The largest of the stuffed animals were stacked up first to build the pile to an agreeable size. They would then wedge the lesser-sized, intermediate toys into the gaps in between. Then, grunting and groaning to pry them apart, they would squeeze in a variety of the smallest "mortar" toys to ensure that the wall of fuzz was completely impenetrable.

No slippery claw ever conceived or constructed by the hand of man could ever hope to put a dent in the pile of toys in this machine. These two plush toy bricklayers had built a stack so completely claw-proof that thousands of children could spend the next two decades throwing good quarters after bad only to be met with failure at every turn. These mercenary toy stackers had built for themselves a fortune in tears.

When the dust had settled and the claw machine's vault door was secured, I went over to admire their handiwork. It was there in the middle of the toy pile that I saw the plush chicken puppet that spoke directly to my soul. Although I hadn't realized it before, there was a plush chicken puppet-sized hole in my heart that was begging to be filled.

Suddenly I was filled with contempt for the evil machine and its vile operators. Any respectable merchant would be happy to trade my hard-earned money for the plush chicken puppet. But these vicious bastards would instead demand that I spend hours beating my head against the machine and countless coins down the slot only to be denied my plush chicken puppet at every turn.

While I was tempted to try my luck, I refrained. I know that no matter what I do, the plush chicken puppet and I will never be able to be together as I had dreamed. I know that any attempt to hold my plush chicken puppet would only further their despotic scheme. Perhaps one day the tyranny of the claw game machines will come to an end, but until then I know exactly where to find my beloved plush chicken puppet.

Part V: At Last I Have Some Idea What my Job Will be in Afghanistan.

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

From The 27 Articles of T.E. Lawrence
By T.E. Lawrence (aka "Lawrence of Arabia”)
The Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917

If you ask many of the folks on the street back home in the states they’ll tell you that the war in Afghanistan is over. This is far from true. While We the People did manage to remove the Taliban* regime from power quickly and efficiently, that was not the object of the invasion. While we have not yet located Osama bin Laden, that was only a side-note to the object of the invasion. And before you ask, we’re not in any big rush to build an oil pipeline across the country. That also was not the object of the invasion.

What then, was the object of the invasion? Stability. While the events of September 11, 2001 were horrific and the planners and perpetrators need to be brought to justice, what’s more important is making sure that it can never happen again. As one of the poorest, most unmanageable countries in the world, Afghanistan is the perfect breeding ground for international terror and crime groups to hatch, fester, and grow.

During the initial stages of the invasion, you would hear the occasional comment back home about how we need to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age. What these folks didn’t understand was that Afghanistan was already in the Stone Age. Under the Taliban regime there was one (count them, ONE) computer with internet capability.** Even the capitol city of Kabul was without electricity most of the time. The scope of their power and influence in the nation was limited at best. In fact, much of the territory marked “Afghanistan” on most maps was never under any type of control while the Taliban was in power. The government, if you could call it that, was barely able to keep itself together not to mention the rest of the country.

So in the days following 9-11 it was made clear that this was a broken state at best and an oppressive, despotic regime at worst. Either way, the country called Afghanistan was not and never has been a threat to us. The invasion was not an act of revenge. It was a measure of preventative maintenance. The object of the invasion wasn't to destroy a nation, but to clear the way for the building of a nation. The problem is, you cannot bomb a country into building an effective government.*** This kind of conflict requires a slightly different approach.

That's where my job comes in. I’m working in a very rear-echelon, headquarters job helping to coordinate the efforts of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. There’s a bunch of them and only about half of them are American-led. The people that comprise the teams are military and civilian, governments and charities, engineers and agricultural advisors, and everything else you can imagine. The work that they’re doing ranks from simply amazing to seemingly impossible. In my short time in-country so far, they’ve coordinated billions of dollars worth of effort. They’re building roads and irrigation systems, developing renewable energy sources, enabling voter registration, and countless other projects.

The plan is not to just build a bunch of things and then hope for the best when we pull out. The plan instead is to provide materials and technical support while they build things. Wherever possible, we aren’t giving anyone any fish, we’re teaching people how to fish. We’re helping them build schools and train teachers, we’re providing security and training their policemen, we’re teaching carpenters and electricians and engineers and then helping them find jobs with local contractors to give the whole country a chance to build it into something it can be proud of for once.

There are, of course, challenges. To understand the breadth and depth of the problems that come with building a fully-functioning nation here, you first have to understand that it’s never really been a nation as such. Depending on your definition, a “nation” is a large body of people, associated with a particular territory that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own. Or, in looser terms, a nation is an aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family, often speaking the same language or cognate languages. Afghanistan is neither of these.

For the longest time this portion of the world was just a collection of local tribes which had settled in their particular valleys and to some extent it still is. In fact, the borders of Afghanistan were more or less arbitrarily determined when it was set up as a buffer state between the British Empire and the Czarist Russian Empire. Its people include dozens of ethnic varieties, four main languages and countless others, and a wide variety of religious faiths. Slightly more than half of the population is Pashtun. The rest are Hazara, Uzbek, Arab, Tajik, Turkmen, and so many others that decades could be spent studying them and only scratching the surface.

So our goal here is to take this long-neglected little corner of the world and build it up into a functioning nation. This is where it gets tricky. So far, Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, the British Empire, the Czars of Russia, and the Soviet Union have all failed to establish any real influence in this area. In each case, the locals have managed to mount an effective opposition and drive the foreign invaders out. Then, with no foreigners left to fight, they would go on pursuing their own local civil wars and tribal conflicts.

How then, can we possibly hope it’ll be different for us? First off, we’re not here to make an American colony. We don’t want it and we don’t need it. There is very little in the way of natural resources to be had in this country and extracting those resources will prove to be even more difficult. Second, we’ve got a very distinct plan to depart when our work here is done and the Afghan people know this.

While there are plenty of criminals out here who are trying their best to grab as much stuff as they can before we go, there are an overwhelming majority of the locals who are making a serious bid to improve their lot. Between the Soviet invasion and the latest civil war, this country has been at war for 30 straight years now. For the first time in three decades, there’s a chance to make life better.

This begs the question: since we’re doing all of these wonderful things here, why is there still a war then? The answer: any change that’s this big takes time. We’re trying to teach them to settle their differences in courtrooms instead of battlefields. We’re trying to teach them to grow wheat instead of opium. We’re trying to teach them that women are more than just livestock. While many of the people of Afghanistan are open to these ideas, some are not. Some of them continue to take up arms and disrupt progress in any way they can.

During the initial invasion, most of the extremists just faded into the hills and mountains where they could simply blend in with the population. As US and NATO forces manage to establish security in larger and larger areas, these insurgent elements are driven farther and farther into the hills.

It’s no secret that the bulk of the insurgent forces have found their way across the border to safe havens in Pakistan. This isn’t really the fault of Pakistan. The border is a mountainous region with a myriad number of roads, trails, and goat paths and the insurgents move in small groups and look just like any of the other folks who might be wandering in that part of the countryside. They hide there to rest, recuperate, resupply, and re-arm, and then it’s back to the fight against the international forces stationed in Afghanistan. That's the bad part.

The good part is that we get to be the good guys. For instance, say we set up shop somewhere and help the locals build a bridge so they can cross a river to bring their goods to market and some hope of prosperity. Then the insurgents come along, drag everyone out of their homes, beat up the local elders, and then burn the bridge to the ground while decrying it as the work of the evil foreigners. It doesn’t take much reasoning to understand that we are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the people, but there’s still a long ways to go.

How will it end? There are two ways. First, we continue to do whatever we can to establish a strong, legitimate government with the support of the people and the ability to maintain security in the country. Second, we lose sight of why we invaded in the first place. Then we pull out only to watch these honest, industrious people fall under the yoke of drug lords and warlords and wait until someone else decides to use Afghanistan as a base of operations for another attack against the Great Satan of the West.****

*The term "Taliban" translates literally to mean "student." As originally conceived, the Taliban in Afghanistan were a group of student cleric revolutionaries determined to build a pure Islamic government in Afghanistan.

**The one internet-capable computer was kept deep inside the government compound and access was only given to one "trusted man" lest Western ideology be allowed to penetrate the country.

***While the United States has always been challenged by limited engagements, it’s worth pointing out that these sorts of police actions and counter-insurgencies have constituted the bulk of our nation’s military history. Even before the United States was the United States, back as far as the French and Indian War, our military was conducting counter-insurgency operations. We’ve been working to stabilize conflicts and/or build governments everywhere from Haiti to the Philippines and, believe it or not, we have the necessary skills. The only challenge is keeping the American people from losing heart and backing out before the job is done.

****In case you hadn’t heard, that’s us.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Part IV: Hello War Zone

We left Camp Virginia in the afternoon and took another bus convoy out to an air terminal in another middle of nowhere in Kuwait.  Once we got there we had a couple of hours to kill before we were herded onto more busses that took us out to the flight line.  The terminal was pretty surreal and there were piles of sleeping Army guys all over the floor, but I didn't bother taking any pictures.  There was also no bar there.*

Our ride to Afghanistan was an Air Force C-17 cargo plane configured to carry passengers.  When they set up for passengers, basically it just means bolting down a bunch of seats where the cargo would normally be lashed down.  All of our seabags were strapped down to pallets and loaded in just aft of us.  Its' a weird feeling being in a plane without all of the normal perks provided in an actual passenger aircraft.  In particular, since there was none of the usual sound-dampening that commercial airliners tend to have, we all had to wear earplugs.  Here's a shot of our luxury travel setup:


We landed at Bagram Air Base just before midnight.  This is where we met the six-man Navy personnel management team that is responsible for us wherever we would be in-country.  After a few briefs and introductions, we got to go outside and pick our luggage out of another pile of seabags and stack them onto another pallet to be transferred onto our next ride, an Air Force C-130.  Here's a shot of my deluxe seating arrangements in the First-class section of the aircraft.  I've never had so much legroom on a plane:


It was also nice that we didn't have to lose sight of our luggage during the trip:


My next stop (along with 20+ other Navy folks) was Kabul.  From Bagram to Kabul is a scant 30 miles and we were going to fly there.  Easy, right?

Wrong!  Once we were loaded onto the plane (with some Army, Air Force, and a couple of Marines) we found out we were going to go to Kandahar first.  Kandahar is about an hour in the wrong direction.  Once we got there we dropped off three guys and got to spend an hour in the saddest little passenger terminal I've ever seen.  It looked like an old bus terminal from a small town in Mexico might look if you decided to remodel it with hand grenades.

After an hour we got back onto the same plane with eight more passengers and headed off to Kabul.  It wasn't until we were airborne that we finally found out that before we went to Kabul, we were going to drop some folks off in some place called Bastian (sp?) first, about half an hour in the wrong direction.

As we started our decent into Bastian, the plane began to lurch and bank erratically.  Then flares started shooting out from launchers beneath the wings.  Everyone else back in the cargo bay was blissfully asleep, and I thought it was weird, but maybe this is just how they land in a combat zone.

When we'd landed, I asked the crew chief, a particularly attractive blonde Air Force gal, about it.

"Is that landing normal, with all of the yanking and banking and flares?"

"Not really," she said, "someone on the ground fired and RPG** at us on approach."

"So I've been shot at?"

"Technically, I guess, yeah."

"Neat.  I wonder if that means I'm eligible for a Combat Action Ribbon now."

It turns out, I'm not.***  You'd have to be pretty lucky to hit a flying plane with an RPG, but all the same there's nothing like being shot at to let you know that you're not in Kansas anymore.

On the ground in Bastian we found out that none of the passengers were actually supposed to be going there.  Essentially, we flew all that way for nothing.  Oops.

From Bastian we flew directly (finally!) to Kabul.  We arrived there in mid-morning only to find out that there was no transportation waiting to take us to the base.  The air base there had free wi-fi though, so it wasn't all that bad.  And for all my bitching about all the extra crap I had to carry around, at least I didn't have it as bad as these Army guys:


The ride from the air base to the headquarters compound was interesting.  The city itself only barely deserves to be called a city.  The traffic on the streets includes armored fighting vehicles, taxis, about a million white Toyota Corollas, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, and pedestrians.  Mixed in there was the occasional herd of sheep.  The buildings ranged from mud huts to shipping containers to shattered old brick buildings and everything in between.  I snapped a few pictures, but it's hard to get any decent shots through the inches-thick armored windows:

I always thought it was funny to hear folks back home in late 2001 talking about "bombing the Taliban back to the Stone Age."  What they didn't seem to realize is that the whole country was basically already in the Stone Age:

Here's a busy roadside fruitstand:


And a local farm.  As near as I can figure, they're growing mud:


Everything about this place is fascinating on some level and, goofy as it may sound, I really hope my job will afford me the opportunity to see some of the countryside and perhaps meet a few of the locals.  The important thing is; at this point I still had no real idea what my job would be when I finally got into Afghanistan.  Since I had now arrived, I figured it would be nice to know sooner than later.


*Throughout the period where I have a firearm signed out in my name, I fall under General Order 1B which stipulates, among other things, that I am not allowed to consume alcohol.  So I've got over 230 days of sobriety to look forward to.****  How awesome is that?

**Rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) is the blanket term for any of a variety of weapons that use a small rocket to hurl an explosive charge across the battlefield.  These are essentially the same thing as the Bazookas used by US troops in World War II.  There is no guidance system involved and the range is somewhat limited, so it's kind of a waste to expend one on an aircraft. 

***In order to qualify for a Combat Action Ribbon, I'd have had to be an a position that allows me to shoot back at the shooters.  Maybe next time.

****This 230 days of sobriety comes on the heels of over 100 days I decided to spend sober while I was out at sea aboard the M/V Moku Pahu.  If you own shares in any sort of liquor companies, I apologize for their poor performance and promise to continue doing my part to pad their profits as soon as possible.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Part III: Travel, Training, and More Travel

The flight overseas was a military charter flight. We met the plane at a cargo terminal on the fringes of the Columbia airport, but first we got to spend a couple of hours camped out inside an empty hangar. We were met there by every sort of military support group you could ever imagine. They ranged everywhere from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to the Blue Star Mothers. They brought out coffee and doughnuts and snacks and gift bags and for the most part, it was really great to see them there. The only ones that bothered me a bit were the members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. There was something ever so slightly disconcerting about being greeted by a man in shorts with a prosthetic leg or shaking hands with a couple of Korean War veterans who were missing a few fingers. But I digress.

Now it's a rare thing when you'll see someone on a plane with a firearm. I'd imagine it's even more rare to see everyone on the plane with a firearm. Many of us even had two. It made for an interesting trip:

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. We're about to take off, so I have to remind everyone to place your seatbacks and tray tables in their full-upright and locked positions. Make sure your carry-ons are securely stowed in the overhead bins on under the seat in front of you. Place your rifles under your feet with the butts toward the aisle and feel free to remove your sidearms and place them in the magazine pocket in front of you. Thank you and have a pleasant flight."

The plane stopped in Bangor, Maine for a couple of hours to refuel. This was the first time I'd ever been to Maine, but I'm not sure I should count two hours of wandering through a terminal being thanked for serving by dozens of local veterans and military moms. To be honest, that part was starting to wear on me a bit.

After Bangor, Maine, the plane continued on to Shannon, Ireland. There we got off of the plane for a little under an hour. This is where I learned that I cannot plug my laptop's power cord into Irish sockets. Instead I spent the entire time wandering around looking at a bunch of overpriced souvenirs I didn't need and liquor I couldn't have.*

From Shannon, Ireland to Kuwait I slept. Upon arrival we were loaded onto a bus with covered windows. We were joined by three other busses and a couple of gun trucks and convoyed out to Camp Virginia, a quaint little patch of nothing in the middle of a quaint big patch of nothing.

Once there it was time to sort out our luggage. This is what they mean at the airport when they tell you to check your baggage claim tag, because many bags look alike:


While I was in Kuwait, this tent was my home away from home:


Believe it or not, the tent actually had a central air conditioning system and electricity. And inside, this is what my own personal accommodations looked like before and after the luggage bomb went off.


We got about a week in Camp Virginia. This time was set aside to serve two purposes. First, the final bit of combat training at a shooting range and convoy exercise area in a different quaint big patch of nothing. Second, to help us get acclimated to the type of environment we'd be living in for the next few months.

The combat training was a good time and had some definite value. We were bussed from our tents out in the middle of nowhere out to a different group of tents a little to the right of the middle of nowhere and spent two nights out in the desert. My tent had a mixed bag of 68 people which included male, female, enlisted, and commissioned officers. The tents themselves had been there for quite some time and had been layered over with some sort of sprayed-on insulation foam that made them look like bits of archtecture from Tattooine.

During daylight hours the tent was used as our classroom space. At night, all of the chairs and tables were folded and stacked so we could sleep on the floor. There was no running water and only limited electricity, so every meal was an MRE and bathing was a quick PTA scrub** using unscented baby wipes. It's the sort of thing I would've called an adventure when I was in junior high school. Of course, I was younger and dumber then.

The shooting portion of the course was fun, but it was also very short. In all we only got to shoot sixty rounds. I could've spent all day out there running back and forth and plinking away at all of the targets, but I guess that's why there's budget constraints. It's all about the Man keeping me down.

At about the same time we were finished, we also got the first ever period of instruction that detailed exactly how to best adjust and fit our gear. Prior to this I'd only had anybody take a moment to show me how to put my body armor together. There was no mention about how the armor was supposed to fit. All I knew was it's big, it's heavy, sucks. Now I've learned that it's supposed to be tight enough that you have a bit of trouble breathing and that most of the weight is supposed to sit on your hips. Instead, I'd been hanging 45+ pounds of armor, a full Camelbak, ammunition, and whatever's in my utility pouches on my shoulders. So unless I can get a chance to swap my armor out for a smaller size, I'm probably going to come back from the deployment about three inches shorter.

Come on spine… Work with me.

Anyway, the rest of our time in the middle of nowhere was spent on a convoy exercise. The idea was to drive a pre-planned route through a series of mocked-up villages scattered throughout the countryside. The villages were staffed by local Kuwaitis who were hired to play the part of innocent bystanders as well as the occasional insurgent or suicide bomber.

There were a lot of unpleasant things that happened along the way. These included roadside bombs, mines, suicide bombers, snipers, and a whole host of other nasty stuff. Supposedly we did pretty well. The one thing that really stuck out in my mind was that this was the first time I've ever seen camels in their natural habitat. Sadly, I didn't get any pictures of them.

I did get this picture of me posting security during one of our convoy halts. I'm the guy in the foreground wearing my super-cool ninja mask so I don't have to eat all of the dust (only most of it):


And me enjoying a nice hot latte with breakfast at some ungodly early morning hour:


Here's a nice shot of the open desert. Usually it was a lot brighter, but otherwise it all looked like this:


The other reason for our week in Camp Virginia was to get acclimated to the time zone and weather. This pissed me off a bit. Camp Virginia is in a desert, a few hundred feet above sea level, and the highs while I was there were all above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Where I would be working in Kabul, Afghanistan is a city in the mountains, 6,800 feet above sea level and the highs were to be in the low 70s and dropping significantly over the next few months. I would've been better served by being sent to a camp in, say, the mountains of New Mexico for a week. Oh well.

The other stuff we did while we were there included a lot of wandering around and trying to stay busy. I got a familiarization tour of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Proof) vehicle. It was a bit small on the inside:


But on the outside it's huge:


I've decided I want one. I'd want it in a different color though. I'm thinking a nice satin black. And some nice custom chrome 42" rims. Oh, and spinners. Ooh, and a thumpin' 4,000-Watt subwoofer where the gun turret goes. That's the ticket. Of course, considering the vehicle's $1,200,000.00 price tag, I may have to hold off until I get signed to produce my first rap album.

I had a good time there and couldn't have asked for a better crowd to be stranded with in the middle of nowhere. Among there number was Steve Lewis, a fellow Petaluman who is now serving as a Navy Supply Corps officer, Leon Scoratow, one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and Darren Lee:


Darren, like me, is a Surface Warfare Officer in the Naval Reserve on involuntary mobilization orders. We've had a lot of fun comparing notes on how much we both don't belong here, but his plight is actually much worse than mine so far. More on that some other time perhaps.

Otherwise all I did in Kuwait was play video games and foosball and watch a lot of movies. After a week of wandering around Camp Virginia bored out of my gourd I was ready to move on. It would've been nice to have a drink or two, but there was no liquor available. Not that it mattered.* At this point I still had no idea what my job would be when I finally got into Afghanistan.

*Throughout the period where I have a firearm signed out in my name, I fall under General Order 1B*** which stipulates, among other things, that I am not allowed to consume alcohol. So I've got over 230 days of sobriety to look forward to. How awesome is that?

**PTA Scrub- a field expedient version of bathing where you only clean the pits, tits, and asshole. You had to go looking at the footnote, didn't you?

***General Order 1B also prohibits me from possessing or making any pornography. I'm still looking forward to the addendum that precludes me from using foul language.

Part II: Training

On one edge of Columbia, South Carolina is an Army base called Fort Jackson, the largest training facility in the entire US Army. On the edge of Fort Jackson is a South Carolina Army National Guard facility called Camp McCrady. Since the Navy has gotten into the business of sending people all over the place to support the Global War of Terror, Camp McCrady has been the site of Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training (aka NAArmy Training, sir!). This was my next home away from home.

We got two and a half weeks of training at Camp McCrady. On the first day they showed us some statistics. In the current class were almost 300 Navy sailors on their way to various odd jobs all over the globe. This was the 18th class to go through the training so far this year. Since the beginning of the Global War on Terror, there had been thousands of sailors loaned to the Army to fill missions that would traditionally fall to people who wear some shade of green for a living. Out of all of them, a sum total of 289 have been naval reservists on their way to Afghanistan. A number that small makes me a rare, lucky guy.

The 300 or so students were broken down into two companies of four platoons each. Each platoon was assigned a drill sergeant. These guys were interesting. I doubt I understood half of what they were saying for the first week. There were a lot of words coming out of their mouths and I recognized many of them. The problem is that they were all jumbled up and nonsensical. It was like taking direction from a stroke victim.

The class itself was comprised of officers and enlisted personnel, male and female, from every sort of background you could imagine. The one that stood out the most though was Master-at-Arms First Class Benzi:


MA1 Benzi is the only MWD (Military Working Dog) in our class. From what I understand it is pretty rare for the MWDs to go through this course. The key thing for him to get from the training was a greater level of comfort around gunfire and explosions. It's interesting to note that while MA1 Benzi is a first-class petty officer in the US Navy, his handler is only a second-class petty officer. If his handler, MA2 Oliva, gets promoted to MA1 then Benzi automatically gets promoted to Chief Master-at-Arms. So no matter what she does, she will always be outranked by her dog.*

We learned a lot of things at Camp McCrady. We practiced shooting and learned the basic principles of rifle marksmanship, we drilled room-clearing procedures and learned how to move a team into a building, and we spent some time in the classroom studying subject ranging from combat first aid to land navigation. We even did a convoy exercise where some of us got to learn how to use a HMMWV (aka "Humvee") to block traffic and screw up people's daily commutes.

While I was there I managed to get a few interesting photos.

This is me with all of my gear on:On a normal day, fresh from the shower and wearing only a towel, I weigh around 160 pounds. With all of this crap on, I weigh in just under 300 pounds. Needless to say, I take every available opportunity to rest:
Here's a shot of me during heavy weapons training. Pictured here is the M2 .50cal machine gun. The instructors were trying to tell us that the M2 was originally developed for use by the Navy in the early years of the 20th century. I know it's been around for a long time, but I've got my doubts about the Navy part. I think they were just trying to make us feel included. Either way, I've added one to my Christmas list:


Here's a shot of one of the Army drill sergeants (right) and one of my Navy classmates (left) during chemical protective suit training:


That particular drill sergeant also runs his own physical fitness consultation business. If you'd like an Army drill sergeant to help you build your own fitness regimen, you can read all about it at http://www.msplinks.com/MDFodHRwOi8vd3d3LnVjYW5ub3RiNTAuY29tLw==.

Here I am driving a Humvee not long before we splashed through a deceptively deep puddle, covering the windows and the topside gunner with bright orange mud:


Random shot on the way back to the barracks from the woods:


Here's a winning shot of me during our 9mm pistol stress shooting. It was basically a lot of running around and diving behind things, then popping up and firing rounds into the targets:


The shooting was a lot of fun, but the targets were kinda comical. At least I'm confident I'll do really well if I ever find myself in a firefight with chubby green midgets:


Here's a pic I took of another one of my Navy classmates during a lunch break at Fort Jackson:


Speaking of lunch, since we were usually far away from the base dining facilities (known as "DFACs" in Army retard vernacular), lunch was usually an MRE (short for Meal, Ready to Eat). Here's a picture of one particular meal:


And here are the contents removed from the package:


This particular meal included Mexican-style corn, chicken pesto pasta, peanut butter, crackers, an oatmeal cookie, some Chicklets, and a packet of Beverage Powder Base (orange) to mix with half a canteen of water. It was all surprisingly good food and, if they work as advertised, the same packets will last for decades.

Here's a shot of me in the barracks:


This was home for the duration of my time at Camp McCrady. Each of the barracks has space for 60 people, but we only had 38 or so in ours. That meant most of the top bunks were empty and we had a place to pile up the FOUR seabags worth of gear that we were all issued.

I'm not sure why they gave us so much crap, but now I've got everything I'll ever need for anyplace they could suddenly decide to leave me in the world. Yes this is excessive. Even as they were handing it to us, they actually told us we wouldn't be needing most of it.

Case in point: my "entrenching tool." For those of you too smart to speak Army, "entrenching tool" means "shovel." I have been issued one because everyone is issued one. It folds up to the size of a cereal bowl and comes in a handy travelling case. Mine will spend the duration of the deployment at the bottom of a seabag at the bottom of a locker in whatever room I'm staying in. So even if I somehow end up in a position to be digging holes, it will be so far outside the realm of things I'm expected to be doing that I won't have it with me. Why issue it then? You'd have to ask the Army. Apparently it makes sense to them.

Enough about that though. Back to the training.

Most of those lessons were good, but the bulk of the course seemed designed to teach us how to be in the Army. This part of the course was in no way formalized. In fact, I don't think it could be learned from any sort of formalized training. Instead, you have to live it. This is how I became intimately familiar with what the Army refers to as "white space." White space is the blocks of time that are left in a schedule in between events that require any action. Another name for white space is "wasted time." The Army apparently has a lot of white space. They are also ill-equipped to do anything at all with it. They are also ill-equipped to look ahead and prepare for whatever will be happening at the end of each block of white space. This is where the "hurry-up-and-wait" concept comes up.

The training itself would've been fun if it weren't for the attitude of the instructors. It was an interesting dynamic in that over half of the students outranked the instructors. Some of them by quite a bit. This is where something called "positional authority" comes into play. This concept allows a private in the Military Police to issue speeding tickets to colonels. It also allows a petty officer who is a recognized subject matter expert to school a classroom full of commanders studying his subject.

It does not allow the junior person to ever treat the senior person with any degree of contempt or disrespect. This particular problem came up a lot. The worst example was when one of the instructors, a staff sergeant, called a navy captain (equivalent in rank to an army colonel) "sweetheart" while pointing out one of her errors in front of the class.

I later came to find out that the entire staff was comprised of reservists and national guardsmen who had been mobilized to run this training program. Once I knew that, I started noticing more and more glaring examples of this lack of professionalism.

The worst example was my own platoon's drill sergeant. We never really saw him for more than a few minutes and those times were few and far between. I didn't think much of it until I started hearing about all of the things that the other platoons had been learning from their drill sergeant in between the scheduled periods of instruction (the white space). This sort of opportunity training included everything from how to clean and maintain your firearms to how to keep your feet from rotting and falling apart while wearing combat boots all day. I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet that some of that information might have been important.

One good(?) thing did come of it though. On the second day of training we were issued weapons.** Some folks were loaned weapons to be returned at the end of the course. Others were issued one based on what they'd be doing in-theater. I was the only officer I met who was issued two (both an M16 and a 9mm pistol) that I will carry with me until my return from the combat zone. I'm really not sure what this means, but after 18 days of laughable combat training in South Carolina, it was time to move on to the Middle East. At this point I still had no idea what my job would be when I finally got into Afghanistan. According to the Army I'm prepared for it though...

*There are no officers assigned as MWD handlers, so there is no chance of the Navy ever having a canine admiral. Poor pooches.

**Throughout the period where I have a firearm signed out in my name, I fall under General Order 1B which stipulates, among other things, that I am not allowed to consume alcohol. So I've got over 230 days of sobriety to look forward to. How awesome is that?