Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Back in CONUS

And the operative acronym is still BOHICA. I've been on emergency leave since last Sunday, but will return to the cornucopia of cluelessness tomorrow. Can't say any more...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Another Great Story I Can't Tell You About

I attended our battalion awards ceremony last evening. I'll recount it in detail once I've signed my release from active duty paperwork...never saw anything like it in my military career. It reminded me of the old joke: "What's the difference between the US Army and the Boy Scouts? The Boy Scouts have adult leadership!"

(Updated entry: 22 Sep 10) Okay, I promised to do a Paul Harvey and provide you with The rest of the here it is. During our deployment, there had been rumblings about the process of selecting end of tour awards (as in medals) for the folks in the battalion headquarters, and the agents out doing the actual work of investigations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. Rumors flew around from almost Day One, as the battalion commander had decreed all award recommendations must be submitted around the second month of our deployment. (I wrote a blog post at the time, though I disguised the fact it was our unit which was ordering this rather absurd timing. Since nobody had actually done anything in-country at that point, how could anyone write a credible recommendation?) Aside from this silliness, the other rumor was that there were quotas assigned to each detachment...Only X number of soldiers could be awarded a Bronze Star, or Meritorious Service Medal. It didn't matter if the detachment had five super performers, only one or two could receive these more prestigious medals, and everyone else would receive an Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM). Out in the field offices, our leaders ignored this edict, and based their award recommendations on performance. Well, as you can predict, these recommendations were "re-done" by the battalion staff folks to conform to the quota numbers. So, when we arrived in Kuwait and assembled in a big multi-purpose room, it became clear that the rumors were indeed true. Folks who had done a superb job, many under dangerous and/or spartan conditions received ARCOMs, and so did all of the under-performing, lackadaisical, no talent fuck-ups. Morale, which was pretty much at sea level for the entire deployment, plummeted to Death Valley depths. Some folks demonstrated their utter disgust by flinging their ARCOMs across the room into a metal garbage can, which was soon ringing like one of Quasimodo's bells. Others left their medal and the accompanying certificate on the folding tables, and walked away without a backward glance. Of course the new battalion commander, who had taken over a couple of months ago and seemed like a decent sort, was utterly embarrassed by this overt display of disgruntlement. It had the same feeling to it as the scene in the WWII movie Mr. Roberts, when the ship's executive officer, finally fed up with the skipper's heavy-handed treatment of the crew, heaved the captain's potted palm over the rail into the sea.
While my own performance didn't rate a Bronze Star, and I didn't really care about what I got, I was (and still am) indeed steamed that those agents who deserved higher awards were treated so shabbily. On a personal note, a couple of us also received an Army Achievement Medal (one level below an ARCOM), thanks to a recommendation from our Team Chief, in recognition of our investigative work. That particular medal means ten times more to me than the "Everybody gets a trophy" ARCOM ever will.

Still in Kuwait. Here at Camp Arifjan, the food is pretty good...Had a Hardee's burger yesterday, and it was easily the best burger I've had on this deployment. The downtime is okay, though it is just giving some unnamed staff REMFs more time to mess with us. Our flight arrangements are made, and naturally it entails starting at 0200 (that's 2:00 a.m. for you civilians) for a departure time of 2230 (10:30 p.m.). Remember that the next time you are tempted to complain about having to get to the airport 2 hours before your flight time. We will be returning to Camp Virginia, Kuwait, where we will be held in the prison compound (not really, but it sure resembles one, and we can't leave.) until our flight departs. The photo shows what there is to do there...nap, and eat Pizza Hut pizza. Yep, pretty special last memory of CENTCOM.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kuwaiting for Godot?

Got the heck out of Baghdad yesterday morning on a very long and hot C-130 flight. We were jammed in the aircraft like armored sardines. Had to make a detour to Tikrit, where the sky was opaque with sand. Fortunately the flight conditions were just above minimums, so we bounced our way south to Ali Asalem Air Base. Four hours of intense heat, blowing sand coating everything, and a break at the the way, the "Big n' Tasty" burger is only half-accurately named. It was indeed "Big", but far from "Tasty". A big bus arrived, and we sat in air conditioned comfort until it was time for the two hour trek south to Camp Arifjan. This was the first time I had been out on the highway in Kuwait, and I was struck by the contrast with Iraq. Kuwait is thriving, the buildings are beautiful and well-maintained, and commerce appears to be thriving. Even in the best parts of Baghdad, it still resembles a desert version of 1945 Berlin. I kept looking in vain for camels out the bus window, but did see small clusters of black burka-clad women sitting out in vacant lots in the terrific heat. I doubt that these were local meetings of Oprah's Book Club, but don't have any clue what they were doing.
Camp Arifjan is as close to a resort as I've seen over here. Though we are quartered in 10-person tents, the bunks have actual mattresses, the air conditioners are more than up to the task of cooling us down, and they are right by the showers and latrines. The shower trailers are deluxe. We are about 5 minutes from a huge Starbuck's, which could be in suburban Seattle instead of Kuwait...and there's WI-FI!!!!!!!

We've been commenting on the fact that our colleagues who have been stationed here the entire deployment drew the same combat pay as those of us in Iraq and Afghanistan...without experiencing any of the hostile artillery/rocket/small arms fire we did. Guess that policy is due to change soon, though...
We could definitely tell this is a rear area garrison environment this morning, as we were awakened at 0600 by loudspeakers blaring the bugle call "Reveille", followed by the theme from the movie, "Patton". Jeez...

Anyway, we've had a couple of battalion formations, and spend the rest of the day in our PT uniform, reading, catching up on email, and taking naps. Our flight homeward departs at the end of the week, though we learned this morning there will be a stop in Qatar to pick up a bunch of USAF types, a stop in the states to drop them off, and finally we'll be arriving home...well, the work release facility, anyway. Ten more days in uniform, then it'll be "Fighting Leprechaun on Leave". I can't wait.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Law Enforcement Memorial Candlelight Vigil in Baghdad

Today was 15 May, which is Peace Officers Memorial Day stateside. My former Honor Guard colleagues, along with survivors from Lakewood PD, Pierce County Sheriff's Office, and Seattle PD, were standing tall at the main ceremony in Washington DC. I have attended three of those ceremonies in years past, and they are especially moving when a friend /partner is being honored.
My unit received a short-notice invitation to a local memorial tonight here at Camp Victory. It was held at sunset at a general's residence on one of the lakes, and was well-attended. Although only the 22 names of Military Police Regiment soldiers who had died over here were read out loud, I was honoring in my heart those from Washington State. At the same moment our ceremony began, the Muslim prayers began echoing from the many mosques surrounding the base, and seemed to me like a sympathetic chorus. Our somber faces lit by candles, we listened to very short comments from the commanding general, prayers from a chaplain, followed by "Amazing Grace" played not expertly, but with feeling by an amateur piper. The ceremony concluded with sounding "Taps" as we all saluted until the last note rolled across the lake. I was grateful to have an opportunity to pay my respects to my fellow soldiers who laid down their lives this past year, and even more so to be able to belatedly honor Ronnie, Tina, Greg, Mark, and Kent...and of course, Johnny B.
Though I have helped coordinate and/or been to many Law Enforcement memorials over the past 20 years, this evening's ceremony was special and unique; the memory will stay with me always.

Friday, May 14, 2010

All We Are is Dust in the Wind...

Sandstorms have hit the Baghdad area, and the timing couldn't be worse. Most helicopter flights have been grounded, as have military and commercial aircraft. One of my colleagues took this photo as we drove back to base yesterday around noon...Couldn't even see the sun because of the dust and sand in the air. We've been expecting unit members from outlying FOBs to arrive over the last couple of days, so that we can all fly out from Sather Air Base to Kuwait next week...but so far, that just ain't happening.

By the way, the Humvees in this photo are Iraqi Army vehicles. Note their gunner's tendency to stand up in the turret, ala General Patton, which is not very tactically-sound...but it looks cool.

Boredom, Ice Cream, and Farewell Grafitti

While we all looked forward to the day when the new folks were in place, and we no longer had to work investigations, it has turned out to be terrifically BORING! We still go in to the office to check email, but when our replacements show up to work at around 0900, they barely disguise their impatience with us occupying THEIR desks. They've made it pretty clear that we are all superfluous at this point, so there's not much for us to do but hang out, watch videos, and eat. We all resisted the temptation to eat a lot of desserts during the past year, but now that the daily temperature averages 105 degrees, we seem to be casting aside our previous caution, and have a bowl of ice cream after lunch.  This morning, some of us returned to the "Victory Over America Palace" for some final photos, and to add the traditional farewell grafitti to the already-covered walls. I made a few additions to the Peace Sign I had drawn in honor of my cousin's birthday, and couldn't resist leaving this bit of shameless self-promotion as well. Once we turn all of this real estate back over to the Iraqi Government in a few months, no doubt they will paint over all of our "Kilroy Was Here" sentiments posthaste, but for the time being my mark remains. (Thanks to the miracle of digital photography, my tagging efforts will live on for much longer than the real grafitti!)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Leprechaun's Final Week in Iraq

I admit lacking the motivation to do anything except prepare to get the heck out of here and return home. (Well, I did make one exception, when a couple of friends from a transportation unit invited me to drive golf balls into one of the lakes surrounding Saddam Hussein's palaces. That was the most fun I'd had for a while!)This lackadaisical attitude applies to keeping up this blog. I’m also a bit cautious about commenting about some of the stuff going on, as I don’t want to offend the Army while they still have their hooks in me. Anyway, here’s a brief recap of the last month:

We had a case which required us to set up a surveillance of one of the camps. We expected to see some prostitution activity, based on a tip from a GI, but instead of Happy Hookers, we just observed people doing stupid stuff. It’s amazing how some folks assume that because it is kind of dark outside, no one can see them. One rocket scientist was apparently trying to convince a female soldier to become his “deployment diva”, but completely lost any headway he might have made with her by picking his nose for 92 seconds…yep, we timed it. She quickly walked off in a different direction without Nostril Man.

A few minutes later, a couple of the Ugandan security guards strolled over to the row of porta-johns. One went inside, and when he emerged a few minutes later, he was without his AK-47 rifle. Both guards wandered off into the darkness. Five minutes later, the unarmed guard raced back to the outhouses, and yanked open the doors of each until he found the errant rifle. (In our surveillance vehicle, we briefly debated grabbing the AK so some potential evildoer didn’t make off with it, but we settled for keeping our eyes on it.) In the meantime, three TCNs (Third Country Nationals) zipped by, riding bicycles without any kind of lights, and all three of the Lance Armstrong wannabes collided with a cable strung across the parking lot perimeter…they did a nice flying roll, retrieved their bikes, and pedaled furiously off into the night. By their lack of loud cursing, this kind of thing must happen to them on a regular basis.

Finally, we saw what looked to be evidence of a number of “Third-Rate Romance, Low-Rent Rendezvous” hook-ups. We’d see couples emerge from the dark recesses of the T-Walls, smooch, and then head off in different directions. Good to know love conquers sand fleas, camel spiders, and pit vipers. All in all, the surveillance was a voyeuristic waste of time.

We had to complete a long form called the “Post Deployment Health Assessment” (PDHA) on the computer, which is intended to document any illnesses or injuries resulting from our time spent in this hospitable country. One of the questions asked if I had seen any dead bodies while deployed…I thought at the time it would be a mistake to answer honestly, but I went ahead and marked “Yes”. A few days later, we all assembled at the Troop Medical Clinic to be interviewed by a doctor to complete the last part of the assessment. After waiting an hour outside the clinic in the rising heat, and then another 30 minutes standing in the hallway outside the doctor’s door, I was finally called inside. The Doc was a wizened gnome who might well have done General Eisenhower’s PDHA in 1945. He was also hard of hearing, having to ask me my social security number four times before getting it entered correctly. When we got to the “dead body” question, the Doc asked me whether I preferred to be treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the VA or a private therapist. I told him that I didn’t think I suffered from PTSD, and wasn’t planning to seek treatment unless I developed symptoms later. “So, it’s the VA then for your therapy,” the Gnome replied. “I don’t need it,” I responded. “They’ll schedule your appointment at the demobilization site,” said the Doc. “Uh, Doctor, what part of “NO THANKS” don’t you understand?” I retorted, becoming visibly frustrated. “I can see that your combat experience has affected you,” the Gnome said… Sheesh, this was just like a scene from Catch 22!

Now that our replacements have arrived, and made it very clear to us they are ready to take over operations, it is obvious that some of my colleagues are having a hard time letting go. One of my fellow agents has a very hard time not doing everything himself, or at least looking over our shoulders and offering detailed guidance. Now faced with handing over his case files, his computer, assigned vehicle, and his desk, he is just about going nuts. (Good thing he’s also been involuntarily scheduled for PTSD treatment like the rest of us!) As for me, I don’t care because my cases are either closed or just awaiting lab results. If the new folks change my stuff, or don’t think I’m the best investigator that ever lived, I won’t worry about it, because I’LL BE HOME, SUCKERS!!!!!

With “four days and a wake-up” remaining in country before beginning the long journey homeward, the only thing I have on my mind right now is keeping my head down and getting on that aircraft in one piece. I promise to post an Epilogue after I have been handed my DD-214 (Release from Active Duty), which will close out this adventure.