Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Was it real?

It's hard to believe that it's been a year since I posted the question, in the form of lyrics of a song from "Rent"..."how do you measure a year?"

How do you measure a year of your life? Time you consider well spent but...difficult. We found out that there are many ways, indeed: in cups of coffee, in missions completed, in bitching sessions, in calendars marked with an 'x' at the end of the day. Time alternatively moved quickly and stood still.

It's been two weeks now since I said difficult and heartfelt farewells to the Soldiers of the 211th MPAD at the Philadelphia airport. It was time to move along...people were happy to get to their gates and wait for their flights and get back to their spouses, children, family, friends and their lives. Most of these Soldiers will not return to the 211th...they were "cross-levels", i.e. we borrowed them from other units throughout the Army Reserve. That's a sad thought but I also know that Army Public Affairs is a small world. I will cross paths with many of them, either on another deployment or just at a conference or even in an e-mail string.

What did we have during this deployment? We didn't have magic, or perfection. Nobody will make a "Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan" movie on the mission of the 211th. But what we had was good and strong...through the tough times, through the arguments, through the pizza/movie nights, through the heat, through the endless walks to the dining facility, PX, showers, and latrines, we had a family. The kind of family that frustrates you and sometimes makes you want to throw things, but in the long run, a family that sticks together and sticks up for one another. The kind of stable Army unit that stumbles through missions but works hard to emerge on the other side with experience and knowledge to use later. Honestly, if I had known then what I know now, I wouldn't change a thing. Okay, maybe a few things. :)

Deployments are tough, on Soldiers, on Families, on friends. We hung in and saw this long deployment to the end...through training, through many holidays, through redeployment. It's been a long road but we have reached the end. This is my last post...sadly...I will miss writing here! Farewell, 211th MPAD. Best wishes always. MAJ D.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

So Close We Can Taste It

So close we can taste it
I just finished reading the blog of one of our sister units, the 314th Public Affairs Operations Center. The writer was SGM Troy Falardeau, a fine senior NCO whom I’ve known and worked with for years. His blog was entitled “Iraq in the rear view mirror”. As of today, 15 November, they have departed Baghdad. The advance party left earlier in the week, the rest around Veteran’s Day. We’ve shadowed the 314th through their training (we did attend the 21 days of RTC at the same time, although on a 1-day difference in our schedules), deployment and eventually, redeployment. They weren’t that far away from us, either…they were in the IZ or International Zone. Close enough to visit a few times and certainly close enough to call.
They deployed one month before we did, arriving just after the New Year. And now they are gone. What does that mean for us? Simple…it means that we, too, leave soon. In fact, we leave so soon that we can taste the beer and the freedom that comes with not being in Iraq. We can already imagine being back in our homes, on our couches, wearing our civilian clothes, and enjoying life not in Iraq.
Why is it so important for us to be home? Some would say that we just want to be out of a war zone. Not true. The Soldiers of the 211th have served proudly, honorably, and bravely. Living and working in a war zone is hard and we definitely have taken our share of hits. But our time has come and gone and it’s time to hand over the baton to the new unit, the 366th MPAD, from Wichita, Kansas. It’s time for us to sit back on our laurels and look at our accomplishments and see what we did.
What did we do? SFC Burke produced 18 copies of the newspaper, Crossed Sabers. This 28- to 32-page newspaper took a lot of his time, blood, and frustration, but ever y two weeks there it was…an interesting, professional newspaper ready for Soldiers throughout MND-B to read. SGT Soles, SSG Ford, and SPC Johnson produced the daily e-zine, the Daily Charge. Where did the stories for both publications come from? From them and from SGT Risner and SSG Burrell and SFC Burke. (Also, many stories from the outlying BCT PAOs, but this isn’t their blog..!) Those guys were inside and outside the wire, taking photographs and getting interviews and writing stories.
Then there are SGTs Heise, Anderson, Logue, and Fardette…otherwise known as our broadcast section…who put together a radio piece, the Cav Roundup, EVERY WEEKDAY that we were here. And once a week they either wrote, produced, anchored or…sometimes…all three…the First Team Update. Where did those stories come from? From them (and again, the BCT PAOs). They, too, were inside and outside the wire, shooting video, getting interviews, and returning to the office to put it all together.
SPC Ward is our unit clerk…he did the unpopular jobs like paperwork and stocking water. But he always had a smile on his face and he always did a good job. A unit is like any other entity…there is the fun stuff that gets everyone’s attention and then there are the other jobs…jobs that must be done in order for a unit to function. That’s what Ward did…he made us function. Not dysfunctional.
And there are others in our unit who worked elsewhere or on a different shift: 1LT Almodovar, who was our night shift PA rep in the operations center; 1LT Douglas who lived and worked in the IZ and made a lasting impression on the Pan-Arab media; SFC Quebec who was the MND-B media embed coordinator and made a lasting impression on many US and international journalists. And 1LT Sarratt and 1SG Martinez who just did everything else…paperwork, training, meetings, and more paperwork.
Everyone worked their own shifts and schedules and produced their own stories. But together, we made up the 211th MPAD, we kicked some butt and now…we’re ready to be gone.
Each passing day is one day closer to home. Hang in there friends and family…just a few more weeks!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Under Pressure

Just a little OBE right now.
As anyone who has been in the Army more than one day knows, we have a variety of creative and memorable ways to let people know that we are busy. Not just busy, but overwhelmed, “have more tasks than can be humanly accomplished”, busy. Mine has always been that “I’m a bit OBE right now”. I’ve said that before in my previous civilian jobs and got the deer in the headlights expression from people who have no idea what I’m talking about. Of course, OBE stands for “Overcome By Events” and is a good way to let people know that either there is too much going on or the mission failed because, well, it was overcome by events.
Other colorful expressions are “up to my elbows in alligators”, “I’m in the weeds” and “my eyeballs are bleeding”. There are probably as many idioms as there are Soldiers who are busy.
Although I’m not there with them, I can probably guess what the 366th MPAD from Wichita, Kansas, is experiencing right now: they are up to their elbows in alligators. The 366th is the unit that is scheduled to replace us in early December. We’ve been tracking their progress through pre-mobilization for several months now and I am now proud to report that they have arrived safe and sound at their mobilization station, Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Anyone who has been tracking our progress through this deployment recognizes Dix as the mob station that we went through last January. It’s the final stop before the long plane ride to Kuwait and then into Baghdad. You might remember some of our trials and tribulations: medical examinations; more paperwork than there are trees in Jersey; more training; and of course, that glorious 4-day pass (I went to New York City, remember?).
But I also remember the first week and how much work it was for the command team, i.e. myself, my XO, and my 1SG. We had checklists and memorandums and multiple meetings (that always seemed to be scheduled at the same time). We were supposed to not only be in 3 places at one time but weren’t given the luxury of a vehicle to get us there. I remember walking to some of the required appointments…in 20 degree weather in the snow. I also remember the long days for the 3 Soldiers who had to make up the training that they missed at RTC the previous October (go read those blogs too).
But what I remember the most about that month spent at Dix in January was how the unit finally came together and worked as a whole, preparing for war. Although we’d been training together for almost 4 months, none of that brought us together as a unit like the time spent at Ft. Dix. Perhaps because we realized it was finally “real”. Ft. Dix was the end of the training…the next time we were out in a convoy it wouldn’t be through the fake village on the outskirts of Dix but instead the mean streets of Baghdad. The next time that we put on our “battle rattle” it would be to protect us from real bombs and bullets, not blanks and smoke grenades.
And that’s where the 366th is right now. Dealing with the realization that the end of training is near and that real life in a war zone is about to begin. But don’t worry, the 211th is a fine group of battle-weary veterans who have been shot at, blown up, run through the ringer, mistreated, misaligned and generally worn out. We’ve had our vehicle stolen, our laptops confiscated, our convoys/flights cancelled and our building almost hit by a mortar. We’re done. But we’ll be waiting for you guys at BIAP with a truck and a smile. We’ll ensure you are fully prepared to face anything that the mission can throw at you. So, get ready…here it comes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sunday in the Park with George

As our days here in Iraq start to dwindle I’ve been spending some time reflecting on our work schedule during our time running the Media Operations Center. It’s been a vicious cycle of steady work interspersed with bouts of sheer madness and sessions of inescapable boredom. This is definitely a theater of operations on its way out the door…but that’s a good thing.
My job here has been relatively steady…as the commander EVERYTHING this unit does is my responsibility, which is why I was careful a year ago to ensure that I had officers and senior NCOs who could do their job.
So, what’s a typical week like for me? Here goes…
Monday: This is the day where I tackle all of the things that I, uh, postponed over the weekend. Time to read through the emails sent over the weekend, tasking us to do this or that, catch up on other emails, and generally get caught up on paperwork. I have one meeting at 1700 (5 p.m. for you non-military types) at the DSTB. This is the first meeting of the week and all of the battalion’s commanders and first sergeants get together and discuss their last “24 hours” and their “next 24-48 hours”. We keep it simple and quick because that’s just too close to dinner time to be yapping about stuff that you can talk about “off line” or at a different time. I also make sure out that three reports that are due every day go out: the personnel status report, the “green” report, and the SITREP (situation report), which lists all of the products my journalists are either working on, have submitted, or have been released.
Tuesday: A day full of catch-up and the time we try to schedule appointments, etc. No meetings on this day, but it is the day the DFAC (dining facility) has quiche for breakfast. They do good quiche here. I do spend this and every other day reading the over 100 emails that I tend to get. Most of them are summaries of media articles regarding Iraq. I breeze through them, skimming the titles to see if it’s something that catches my eye. I also spend free time daily reading various on-line news sites (CNN, Fox, Drudge Report, Slate, BBC, and many others).
Wednesday: My first meeting is at 0900 but thankfully it’s a briefing FOR commanders, not by commanders. So, we sit and listen to information regarding incidents around MND-B, personnel updates, redeployment status, anything that the battalion commander deems necessary for us to know. I usually get back to the MOC in time to head out for lunch. Wednesday is fried rice day at the DFAC for lunch. My XO has a meeting at the DSTB at 1330 and then at 1700 we head over to the 1st Cav Public Affairs office for our PAO “Huddle” (which we now combine into just plain “puddle”) to discuss any issues we might have. Then it’s off to dinner.
Thursday: Thursday is another quiche day in the DFAC for breakfast. If Tuesday’s quiche is mushroom, then Thursday’s is broccoli. But never the same on both days! It’s an open day, like Tuesday, meaning no meetings. Lunchtime is the infamous “Taco Thursday” (see previous post regarding the calendar). Only lately we’ve given up on tacos and head to Burger King instead. Perhaps we should call it “Burger King Thursday”. But then I’d have to print a new calendar. The Division CUA slide is due today…won’t bore you with the details, but it lists all of the main events we’ve done the previous 7 days and the ones planned for the next 7 days.
Friday: Ahhh, Friday. The weekend is fast approaching! Just think…two more working days until Monday! J Training schedules are due, as is the Breeze Slide (explanation on Saturday).
Saturday: All of the PAOs in MND-B get “together” once a week via computer link-up to discuss issues, events, etc. in the weekly Breeze. No video, just audio and some PowerPoint slides that we can all look at. Usually this lasts a half hour and then after that…it’s more paperwork and finishing up the day. Oh, and Saturday night is the night I put my earrings in before I go to bed, so the holes in my earlobes don’t close up.
In between all of this fun, I answer personal emails, go to the gym or the track at least 4 times a week, turn in laundry, go to the PX to see if there is anything new or just sit quietly and read a book. But my favorite day is, of course:
Sunday: This, for the most part, is almost like a real Sunday back in the States. (Well, I tell myself that, anyway). It’s the one morning where I don’t set my alarm clock although I’m usually up by 0800. I start getting hungry after that! Breakfast is usually a big one…things I don’t normally eat: bacon, biscuits and Gravy, Pepsi. The morning at work drags on. It’s the day that I move up our large wall calendar one week. That has been my Sunday morning ritual since we began. On this calendar we mark our meetings, milestones, suspenses, products (green for print, red for broadcast). Anything that we need to remember and act upon. I head to lunch usually around 1300 and for me…that’s the end of the day. We try to take ½ day off around here and Sunday is my day. I get lunch to go and head to my CHU. I get to put on my physical training uniform (although I sometimes put on a pink shirt, but have to change into the Army Tshirt if I go outside) and enjoy not wearing combat boots. I usually clean my room…sweep and Swiffer the floor, and then relax with some DVDs. I can watch multiple episodes of a TV show to pass the day. Occasionally I go get some dinner (fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potatoes) but most of the time I have a pop-tart and Diet Coke and be done with going outside until Monday morning. It’s a great day to relax and recharge and pretend like I’m back in civilization, even if it’s only for a few hours. And, it helps to know I really only have about 4 more Sundays to do this, before we move into the transient tents and then it’s time to GO HOME. Yay.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Happy Anniversary,, 211th MPAD

Well, five days ago, anyways.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since the 211th gathered in Bryan, Texas on October 10, 2008, to begin this odyssey that has been our deployment to Baghdad.
For some of us, the work began over the summer, with conferences to attend, training to plan, equipment to be ordered, and contracts to be moved through the system. It took a lot of hard work on the part of a handful of people to ensure that when our Soldiers arrived on “hit day” everything was in place so that Soldiers could focus solely on the looming pre-mobilization training.
Slowly we worked through the summer and early fall, working towards the date of 10 October. When it arrived, we were ready. Our battle roster was full and we were ready to head to Ft. Dix a week later for 21 days of RTC. Since I supervised or did most of the paperwork prior to “hit day”, I knew a lot about our inbound Soldiers…and I hadn’t even met them yet! I had talked to all of them on the phone at least once and had passed multiple e-mails back and forth, giving them tips, ideas, and packing lists.
Then the day arrived. There were multiple trips out to the small airport that serves Bryan/College Station. We picked up inbound Soldiers and took them to their home for the next 2 ½ months…the EZ Rest Hotel (or the EZ SleazY as it was nicknamed). Many of them partook of their first Army-supplied meal at Golden Corral Steakhouse. For some, that was also their last!
We’ve been through a lot in the last year, the mighty fightin’ 211th MPAD. We’ve had Soldiers drop off of our battle roster for various reasons, but we managed to pick up a few as well. We survived Ft. Dix, New Jersey not once, but twice, battling cold, snow, and frozen toes. We arrived in Baghdad after a lengthy trip with many duffel bag drags already a little worse for the wear.
In the past year we have:
-Celebrated everyone’s birthday with cake (or at least Twinkies with candles stuck in them), silly string, and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”.
-Welcomed a new baby! Congratulations again to the Martinez family.
-Gone on R & R all over the world and then faced the grim reality of “I’m back here?” upon return.
-Squabbled, made up, fought some more, made up, scratched and kicked, made up. In the Army, no matter how hard you fight with someone you always make up because the guy you’re arguing with tonight could save your life tomorrow.
-Saw four of our own receive Combat Action Badges and one of those Soldiers receive a purple heart.
-Learned a lot of hard lessons about the world of A/C Public Affairs and learned to just “let it go”.
-Ate a lot of pizza and watched a lot of movies.
-Admired that beauty that is Army Dining Facility Food, especially chicken and Mexican food.
-Learned to find the humor in EVERYTHING. Even where none lurks.
-Grown up, matured, and realized that life outside of the US isn’t always nice.
But, alas, although we have marked off one year, it’s not over yet. We have just under 60 days before we depart Iraq and once again brave the wilds of Ft. Dix. We have mountains of paperwork to complete, not including the documents I’m not even aware of yet! And we can’t let our guard down. Complacency is what gets Soldiers hurt…we have to stay focused on the endgame but not so focused that we have tunnel vision and don’t see the dangers lurking all around us.
Hang in there, guys.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

More Random Photos

Baghdad from the air.

Me, finally flying in a blackhawk helicopter in Iraq!

1SG Martinez getting beat in arm wrestling by PFC Ward. It happens alot. :)

1LT Sarratt practicing his piloting skills with the remote control helicopter.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top

No, I haven't gone out and bought a surrey with fringe on the top and we're not reviving "Oklahoma!" on any stage in Baghdad. Going with the theme of most of my posts that fall under the name of a song, I wanted to write about what's happening here in Iraq that has something to do with...well...a surrey with the fringe on the top.
That surrey, from the play, also has "isinglass curtains you can roll right down, in case there's a change in the weather..."
That's it...we've had a change in the weather. It's only mid-August (is that the "midsummer" from a "midsummer's night dream?") and we've had...a change in the weather. Almost imperceptable, but a change nonetheless. The mornings and evenings are cooler than they have been. I walked into to the work last week at 5:30 a.m. and it was only 88 degrees! A few days later I walked to work at 8 a.m. and it was only 99 degrees! And today, the high was only 113! Now, you might be thinking...are you nuts? It was only 113? Yes...and that's a break in the weather when we have been dealing with highs of 122 - 125. It's nice to walk to work in the morning now and not be blinded by the sweat dripping into my eyes. And the evenings...I can walk back from the shower at 8 p.m. and not be covered with sweat by the time I reach my front porch.
It's all perspective, I guess. When I lived in Minnesota I would be bundled up to the eyeballs in November when it was 30 degrees. By February I was going to the mailbox in -10 degree blizzards in jeans and a sweatshirt!
A lot has been going on since I last posted. The biggest event was a visit from LTG Jack Stultz, the Chief of the Army Reserve, and his Command Sergeant Major, CSM Caffie. They were here in Iraq for 5 days, starting out here at Victory Base Complex, doing two town halls for the Reserve Soldiers here. It was a lot of fun and nice to get "a little love" from "one of our own". The sneaky person that I am, I put myself on the itinerary to go with the group over the next few days. What fun! I finally got to ride in a blackhawk helicopter in Iraq. First we flew to Camp Speicher to visit the troops there. The flight was long and hot and we flew over a whole lot of nothing. You don't realize how much NOTHING there is outside of Baghdad proper until you fly over it. After a nice lunch and questions-and-answers, we flew on to Al-Asad to repeat the meal and Qs and As. This is where the fun began, as our travel plans began to unravel. We had two helicopters arrive around 9 pm but apparently one couldn't handle passengers. After an hour or so of planning, it was decided that everyone but 5 of us (me, the print journalist, the broadcast journalist, COL P, and one of the security detail) would fly to Taji and then the helicopters would turn around, come back, and fly the rest of us to Taji. Our flight wasn't supposed to return until 2 a.m. so we camped out in the VIP lounge and ate pop-tarts and watched a surfer movie. (The one with Kate Bosworth, forget the name.) Thankfully our flight arrived at 12:30 so we actually got into bed at a decent hour: 2 a.m.
Back up at 6 a.m. the next morning for breakfast and another town hall. Then we flew to Balad. I heard later on it was a close call...a dust storm was on it's way in and they almost cancelled the flight. We had the last town hall in Balad and that's where we split off from the group of VIPS. The four of us (the same group, minus the security) were supposed to fly back to Baghdad that night but by then the sandstorm was in full swing and nothing was flying. Thankfully we got rooms at the BOQ but had to be back at the terminal at 4 a.m. We got on the plane at 9 a.m. but took off at noon (after being removed from the plane and sat in the bus until we could reboard...engine problems). We were going to flight 30 minutes to Kirkuk, then 30 minutes to Baghdad. We landed and took off from Kirkuk, and 45 minutes into our 30-minute flight the pilot informed his passengers that, because of yet another dust storm, we were being diverted to Kuwait.
Okay, so not only am I getting back to the office 24 hours late, but I left the country! :)
We spent the afternoon and night at Ali al-Salem airbase, on standby, waiting for a flight to Baghdad. Flights were getting diverted all over the plane made it halfway to Camp Speicher before turning around and returning to Ali al-Salem. I tell you, when the dust kicks up, it chokes everything. Our time in Kuwait was spent swallowing large amounts of dust! I am grateful that I was given the chance to wash my was on sweaty, dusty, Day 3 and needed to be washed.
I arrived back in Baghdad a day late, but safe and sound!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Random Photographs

One half of my CHU. Duck rug courtesy of B.

The other side of my CHU. Penguin courtesy of Michelle and her son. Fish rug courtesy of Judy. Thanks!

My desk. My own little corner of my own little world. Note my IBA hanging in the left's the new, improved floral version.

Our studio. Note the expensive soundproofing. Yes, those are authentic wool rugs hanging on the walls.

The other side of our studio with the green screen.

The view of Camp Liberty from the roof of our building. The long, white building in the background is the PX.

The friendly 1SG monster who shares my office. He's a little shy, but can be coaxed out with some lemon cookies.

My "Taco Thursday" calendar that 1SG talked about in his post. I've since marked off two more tacos.

My Top 10 List

Who doesn’t love a top 10 list? We’ve come up with a few here in Baghdad, but I decided to sit down and write one all my very own. Here are the Top 10 Things I Miss While I’m in Iraq. I am going to leave off the obvious…family and friends. Everyone misses them. Well, not MY family and friends, but…you know what I mean! :)
1. Museum hopping on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Or a sunny Saturday afternoon. Heck, just going to a museum any old time of day.
2. Picking my own food. Now, I’m not much of a cook…but at least even in restaurants I knew what my dinner was going to be before it was placed in front of me. Now, some nice guy in a shower cap plunks food down on my plate a mere 3 seconds after I’ve first seen what they are serving. Of course, it’s usually some form of chicken, so there’s not much guesswork involved.
3. Being in the same time zone as friends and family. It sucks to be 8 to 10 hours ahead of people. By the time I get in the office in the morning it’s the middle of the night for those in the US. I miss conversations on Facebook because I’m not in sync with people!
4. Going to restaurants, perusing a menu, having someone bring me my food. I also miss having a cold beer or glass of wine with dinner. I’m especially going to hate football season…not being able to go to the bar, ordering beer and nachos, and watching my favorite teams on the big screen.
5. I miss my TV. My large, HD, DLP television and my HD channels. I miss my red furniture…my big red chair and my red couch and my 4-poster bed and my knotty pine dresser. Well, at least it’s nice that I can remember my furniture, since it’s been 18 months since I’ve seen it. I miss all of my “stuff”…my DVDs, my books, my wine and champagne glasses, my dishes, my pictures, my shoes, my jeans, my scarves, mittens, and heavy coats, my computer. Everything I own, I miss. I can’t wait to get my stuff out of storage, open my boxes, and just roll around in my “stuff”.
6. I miss doing my own laundry. And my own chores. That might sound insane…who likes to do laundry? But when you can’t do your own, you miss it. I miss sorting my laundry and knowing it’s going to get clean. I hate the fact that they just dump my bag of clothes into a washer and then a dryer. That’s why my towels, sheets, etc. are all one color…so nothing fades. I do get to clean my own CHU…sweep the floor and then Swiffer the dust away.
7. Flowers. Greenery. I miss the colors that nature has given the rest of the world and seems to have left Iraq off the list. Everything is brown, mostly because it’s covered with dust. Even the birds are brown. I miss the cardinals and the freesia and the pansies. But mostly the cardinals.
8. Driving my car. I have a truck here, but I don’t drive it that much. I don’t really have anywhere important to go! I miss my car and my XM Satellite radio system, my sunroof, and my heated seats. Kitty and I are going on a lllllooooooonnnnnnggggggggg road trip when I get back.
9. My first name. That’s the weirdest, probably, but I’d be willing to bet that most of my Soldiers don’t even know my first name! They just call me “ma’am” or “Major”. Only a few officers call me by my first name…anyone else is inappropriate. Even the Ugandans and other workers call me “Major”. It’s like Annmarie doesn’t even exist anymore.
10. Wearing jewelry. I can wear a watch…I bought a nice one a few weeks after we arrived. I can wear two rings at the time although most of the time I don’t because I sweat too much and it irritates my skin. A few nights a week I’ll put my earrings in so the holes don’t close up. I just have to remember to remove them before I leave my CHU the next morning! I did forget one time…got some funny looks from the guy in the laundry. I miss picking out earrings, necklace, bracelets, etc. to go with my outfits. I am so buying jewelry when I get back!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Happy 4th of July!

Since we arrived here in Baghdad in February, our camp has been visited multiple times by entertainers that the (male) Soldiers consider to be the best group ever...NFL Cheerleaders. While the guys get to go ga-ga over the scantily clad beauties in their respective team jerseys (cut up like they're from the movie "Flashdance") the gals just stand in the back and wonder "when will the females get some eye candy?"
Okay, NFL coaches might not be eye candy, but they're men and they're more fun to talk to than cheerleaders. The 2009 NFL Coaches Tour was supposed to stop by here on Thursday but weather (read: dust) cancelled that trip. Thankfully it was rescheduled on the 4th of July and I used my PAO powers to get up close and personal with 5 of the NFL's finest: Tom Coughlin, head coach of the NY Giants; Bill Cowher, former head coach Pittsburgh Steelers; Jeff Fisher, head coach Tennessee Titans; Jon Gruden, former head coach Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and John Harbaugh, head coach Baltimore Ravens (who IS serious eye candy).
A good time was had by all! Bring on NFL Football! And leave the cheerleaders at home!

On another note, our interview with the Cincinnati Reds went well. Our Soldier-in-the-spotlight had a 15-minute interview with one of the game's announcers. In the press booth with the interviewer were the Soldier's parents, sister, and grandfather. While the Soldier only had audio, his family members had audio and video. The Soldier said it was the first time his parents had seen him since he left 5 months ago and it was very emotional for all. So, while Public Affairs Officers get the brunt of things gone bad, sometimes we get to use our powers for good. :)

Oh yeah, another dust storm today.

Me and former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, Bill Cowher.

Me and Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher.

Me and NY Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. Probably the closest I'll ever get to Eli Manning.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Be kind to your web-footed friends...

...for a duck may be somebody's mother..!
First and foremost, let me say today (Saturday) is hazed over by yet another blanket of dust. The dusty days are outnumbering the clear days. There are Soldiers who left for R & R three days ago who are either a) still sitting at BIAP; or b) have come back to Liberty after being told "come back tomorrow". There is little or no air movement at all. But for us today, that's a good thing. It's only 93 degrees outside and we're enjoying the "break" in the heat.
Second, the A/C in my quarters went out AGAIN last night. This makes the third time. First it was frozen in "High" and my room was freezing. I tried to go to sleep under two blankets and a quilt but I was shivering and miserable. So, I got up and turned it off for about 20 minutes. Big froze in "air" mode, meaning it was lightly blowing air, but not chilled air. It wasn't too bad through the night but when I was getting ready to go to work this morning I thought I was going to get heat exhaustion. Hopefully KBR maintenance will have fixed it by the time I get there tonight.
Third, Happy 4th of July! Unfortunately for us, it's just another day at the office. Or out on patrol, or pushing paperwork, whatever. The military can be notorious for having holidays and extra days off...if a federal holiday falls on a Monday then we usually help ourselves to the previous Friday off as well. However, if mission dictates that Soldiers work, then we happily go to work. I spent almost 3 years as staff Public Affairs Officer at the 88th RRC in Minneapolis. I got a few holidays off here and there and I loved those 4-day weekends. But for the most part, I was usually participating in a ceremony somewhere that often required me to travel. I went to 4th of July ceremonies in Illinois, unit welcome home ceremonies on Christmas Day in Wisconsin, and unit briefings on New Year's Day in Ohio.
But that's what I do and, for the most part, it's a small price to pay for the priviledge of serving in the US Army. While my job can be frustrating, draining, exhausting, and sometimes bordering on mutiny, I do enjoy Army Public Affairs. And working on holidays is just part of that job.
That's not to say that Camp Liberty isn't celebrating our nation's independence. The 1st Cavalry Division band is giving a big concert tonight at the Al-Faw Palace over on Camp Victory. There is also a naturalization ceremony at the Palace as well...Soldiers who are serving the country that they finally get the claim citizenship. The DFAC is all decked out in red, white, and blue tablecloths and other decorations. They'll probably have some form of BBQ for lunch or dinner. Maybe the camp's fire teams will fire off the Phalanx sometimes looks like fireworks if they shoot it off at night.
I am also facilitating a live interview with a Soldier from one of those fire teams and the Cincinnati Reds tonight. We will hook him up via satellite to the stadium and he'll be able to talk with his family and the spectators in the stadium. Unfortunately, he won't see any of that (we don't have the ability to receive satellite feed) but he will hear them.
So, enjoy your time off, your BBQ, your beer, and your fireworks! It's a great day and a time to remember that freedom isn't free.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Another Monday.

How many songs do I know that relate to Monday?
"Rainy Days and Mondays" by the Carpenters.
"Monday Monday" by the (I think) Mamas and Papas.
I'm sure there are more, but I have things to do so I'll leave it at that.
It's another Monday here at the Media Operations Center at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, Iraq. Mondays always start slow around here...the Soldiers do Physical Training on Monday so they don't get into the office until 0900. I'm here by 0800, after eating breakfast and walking the long walk from the DFAC to the MOC. It was hot again...after such a nice break yesterday.
I woke up Sunday morning and noticed the sunlight coming through my shades was a lovely color of orange. I've learned that orange means dust storm. When I went outside I was hit by the waves of dust in the air. Yuck! I had finally just gotten all the dust out of my CHU from the last dust storm. But I noticed that it was a few degrees cooler. When I walked by the thermometer it was only 98 degrees. Veritable wintertime in Iraq!
Anyway, the skies are clear this Monday morning and we have a busy morning preparing our Soldiers for the week ahead.
If you don't know, 30 June is the day that US Soldiers are to be out of the cities. So, we're "kicking out" all of our journalists for the occasion...sending them out to outlying BCTs to continue doing stories on Soldiers, units, and events. It should be quiet until next weekend for us.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This conex is our old one...we had "borrowed" it from another unit to store our equipment until we got our own conex.

Our own conex...inbound!

Put it down gently, guys.

Da boys in the new conex.

And so it begins.

If you've been following any of the blogs of the Soldiers of the 211th you know that we have come up with some ingenious (or crazy) ways to pass the days. We've counted bottles of shampoo, eaten burritos on Thursday, and marked days off our calendars with Sharpees.

Yesterday marked a new milestone of our time in Iraq: we received our conex. This is our 20-foot container that will, in time, be loaded with all of our gear and shipped back to Bryan, Texas. It might not seem like much, but it really was the beginning of the end of our time here in Baghdad. We've already started that "backwards planning", i.e. marking our planning calendar with redeployment due-outs, such as submitting awards and end-of-tour evaluations.

Oh yeah, today is also the summer solstice...the longest day of the year! That means tomorrow will be about 7 seconds shorter...which means it will be cooler. Right? That's my story anyway. It's 119 degrees outside right now. Tomorrow it will be 118.5. At midnight.

Friday, June 19, 2009

This is why we wear tan boots...

Worst. Duststorm. Ever.

I've written in previous blogs about duststorms here in Baghdad...about how they block the sun and make our lives miserable.
Well, we had the worst one yet over the past few days. This one was a whopper.
I was up early Wednesday the office by 0530 to do a live interview with a TV station in Texas. As I was walking to the office I was already choking on dust and couldn't even see the lights on Signal Hill...which is right next to us. I then had to drive a Soldier over to a pickup point so she could go out on a mission. It was like driving in thick fog. As the day progressed it just got worse.
I was in the office late that night and walked back to my CHU about 9:30. The dust was so thick that my eyes were burning 50 feet outside the door! I hate to admit it, but I got a little disoriented walking through one of the side parking lots. We unconciously use landmarks to guide us, especially in the dark at night...I use those lights on Signal Hill and the floodlights on Division HQ as a beacon when walking across that dark parking lot. As I was walking I thought I heard a noise behind me. I turned my head to look and then turned back. Just that small head motion made me lose my bearing and, since I had no lights to guide me, I was a bit...lost. I focused on the direction the cars were parked and that led me across the lot and past the barriers to where I could finally see the floodlights on the headquarters building. By then my eyes were stinging and my throat was dry.
Back at my CHU I pondered taking a shower. Walking through a dust storm with wet hair didn't seem fun to me, but I also needed to be clean, if even for a few minutes. I was extra careful in the shower to make sure I was completely dry and then dashed back to my CHU. I had to brush the dust out of my hair! The dust was so thick IN MY CHU that I fell asleep swallowing dust.
The next morning it was still bad. The dust had settled somewhat but there was still a lot in the air. There was dust EVERYWHERE. The gray rocks on the pathways are tan. The port-a-john's were covered inside and out, porches, lights, T-Walls...everything. But to make things worse, the dust affected our electronics and Internet. I couldn't log onto my government computer until after 1 p.m. The Internet was down for the most part, electricity was out all over the place. The PX was closed until the afternoon, power was out in a lot of the CHUs. It was like being in Minneapolis after a major snowstorm! The power went out in our building in the morning so we ran on generator power until late in the afternoon.
Last night I tried to do some cleaning in my CHU. Wiped off everything with a damp cloth, mopped the floor with a Swiffer. It will take a few cleanings to get the dust out of my room. I cleaned the filter in my A/C but it will be dusty again by Saturday. We are one with the dust. :)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What did you do in the war, mommy?

Well, it's doubtful I'll ever hear my own kid say that. Perhaps it would be better to write "what did you do in the war, Aunt Anrie?" :)

People have asked me what exactly I, and my unit, do here at the sprawling base of Camp Liberty, Baghdad, Iraq. So, now, over the next few days I am going to take you on a tour through my world. Sit down and hold on, it's going to be a wild ride!

Okay, well, maybe no. But at least it will be a little enlightening.

Overall, the mission of the mighty fightin' 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment is to produce print and broadcast products focused on the missions and Soldiers of Multi National Division-Baghdad (MND-B). Iraq is separated into different sections, each under the control of a separate entity. MND-B's territory is Baghdad. While the 211th is based at Liberty, we send our journalists all over the area to "embed" with units outside the camp to get stories. Everything we produce is on Our main products are a 2X a month newspaper, the Crossed Sabers, a daily e-zine called The Daily Charge, a daily radio spot called Cav County Update and a 1x a week newscast called First Team Update. Go check out the website for all of these products. Also, anything we produce is also marketed to hometown media as well as national and international media, depending on what the story is about.

As for me, my job in all of this is to ensure that things go smoothly. In all honesty, the toughest part of my time in command was pre-mobilization. That was a lot of work and planning. Once we arrived, however, my staff and NCOs took over and they make things work. During the week I attend meetings at the battalion staff level and with 1st Cav Div PAO. Once a month I prepare and submit the USR, or unit status report. We also have other administrative requirements to submit, including R & R requirements, equipment inventories, and whatever else is required at the time. Even though we're here for several more months, we've already started working on end-of-tour requirements, including evaluations and awards.

Me and the command staff, which is basically my executive officer, 1LT Sarratt, and my 1SG, 1SG Anthony Martinez, spend hours keeping the unit running. Everything from equipment issues to redeployment. There are schedules to be approved, missions outside of the wire to be looked at, and our least favorite topic, unit discipline. We hate that part but it's just as important as anything else.

Our days and weeks follow the same basic schedule regarding meetings and submissions. The three of us go to lunch every day at 1130 and head out to dinner at 1730 (that's 5:30 p.m. for you non-military types). In between we answer e-mails, turn in our paperwork, listen to music, and keep each other from going bananas. :)

Next post: office/work photos.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

I'm with the band.

So, last week I decided it was time, again, to get out of the office and see "outside the wire". As the commander of this fine detachment I don't get to venture out on missions like my journalists. It's their job to get out and get stories, photos, and videos of units around Baghdad doing their missions. It's my job to organize, attend meetings, and make sure everything runs smoothly.
But it was time to put on my "battle rattle" and climb into a large, armored vehicle and see Baghdad. I went up north to Camp Istaqaal with the 1st Cavalry Division rock band. I served no purpose, just a straphanger. I was, in essence, a groupie.
Not a roadie. Nope...they're the ones that set up and tear down. They do work. I was just along for the ride, enjoy the music, and take some photographs.
The 1st Cav has a large band and it goes with them where ever they go, even to Baghdad. Rarely does the band travel as one large group. Instead, they have different ensembles that go out to the outlying camps and play for the troops. There is a brass quintet, a salsa band, a Dixie band, and probably a few others that I'm not familiar with. And, of course, the rock band.
The started smoothly enough...we didn't depart until 1 p.m. so I had time to do my morning reports and eat lunch. It took me awhile to get ready...I had to make sure my body armor was ready, get my rifle out of the weapons locker (I carry a 9mm pistol around the camp but you have to have a long rifle on convoys), and pack my small backpack. I put some stuff in my pack in case we didn't get back...socks, T-shirt, travel soap and toothbrush. Just in case, you know?
We departed on time. Again, I was in one of those large up-armored vehicles that look like a school bus. It was hot. Really hot. Even though the vehicle has a/c there's a big hole in the top of the vehicle for the gunner. My face wasn't sweating...if you were to look at me you wouldn't think I was hot. But where my body armor fits I was dripping. :( Between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. I drank about 4 liters of water but didn't need to use the bathroom until later that evening.
The 7 band members that were on the mission are multi-purpose...they unload and set up their own gear and do everything necessary to put the show on. They set up their instruments, speakers, microphones, etc. and then took a quick break. We were outside but thankfully under a sunshade, so it was tolerable. After dinner we all went back and waited for showtime.
The show was amazing...I'd never heard this ensemble before. We had the brass quintet and Dixie ensemble in our studio a few weeks ago for the Zack and Jim show. They are very very good and I enjoyed listening to them play. They played Bon Jovi, Beastie Boys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others I didn't recognize. The crowd came and went as they played for about 90 minutes, with a quick 10-minute break in between.
We returned around 11 p.m. and I fell into bed, exhausted, just before 1 a.m. It was rough getting up the next morning.
Going outside the wire and to another camp once in awhile is a great thing for us "fobbits"...those that don't go out on missions. It really made me appreciate what we have here at Camp Liberty like our large dining facility with a good choice of food. The one at the camp was about the size of our salad bar and you got chicken, potato, and a vegetable. It also made me just sore enough to appreciate what those who do go outside the wire on a regular basis go through...the heat, the heavy equipment, and the long hours.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Happy Anniversary, baby...

My, how time flies when you're, ahem, having fun. Makes me think of a framed piece of craftwork that my friend Suz sent me when I was in...Bosnia? Kosovo? I don't remember. It's a drawing of a frog sitting on a lilypad with one of those grins on it's face. Around the top are the words "Time's Fun When You're Having Flies". The frame is green. And I think there are other flies around the frog.
I forget exactly what the thing looks like. Why? Because this week is my 1-year anniversary. If I'm going to spend my time in Baghdad marking off time, I'm starting a year ago. I started this overseas deployment odyssey this time last year. I had mentally started preparing myself for this as early as December 2007, when I looked around at my Christmas tree and other decorations and told myself that I wouldn't see them again until December...2010? Although I spent a better part of March and April planning things, it was the end of May that really set things off. On the 19th of May the nice guys with the moving company came to my house and packed up all my household goods. For a night I was surrounded by dozens of cardboard boxes, which I remember made my house smell like...cardboard boxes. The next day even nicer people came and loaded up my entire life, save what would fit into my car, and took it away.
I cried when the moving van pulled up because I knew it would be at least 2 years before I would see my stuff again. I had been sitting in my big red chair all morning, quietly contemplating what was happening in my life. When the knock on the door came I finally gave in to the tears. It took a minute and a yell of "I'm coming" before I greeted Those Who Would Take My Stuff Away. It was hard. All afternoon I watched another box of my clothes, shoes, china, DVDs, knick-knacks, go out the door and onto the truck.
When the truck finally pulled away at about 2 in the afternoon I saw on my front porch and watched it until I could no longer see it. My 4-poster bed was in that truck. So were the three ceramic animals (elephant, caterpillar, lamb) that I made when I was only 5 years old. Everything I owned, except for a few items, was gone.
That was a year ago. A year ago last Tuesday. Wow, time flies when you're having fun.
It was a year ago today that I finished cleaning up my townhouse, turned off the heat (I was in Minnesota, after all), laid my house/mailbox keys on the kitchen counter, got into my car, and drove away.
I drove all the way to Chicago (only 6 hours...short day) to visit some friends who lived there. I left the next morning and drove to Anniston, Alabama and spent the night in a Hampton Inn. (Strange the things we remember, huh?) Arrived the next day in Elba, Alabama and spent the next several days with my sister and mom and assorted friends. Then I drove to New Orleans (stopping once to replace my burnt-out headlight) and spent the night there, enjoying ice cold beer and some kick-ass jazz and blues.
On 1 June, 2008 I arrived in Bryan, Texas.
From there it's been an odyssey of training, meetings, planning, traveling, packing, unpacking, until I am now here, in my office, at my 1-year anniversary of leaving Minneapolis.
Time flies when you're having fun. :)
I do know what's in store for me once I leave Baghdad. I will be at Ft. Lee, Virginia, from May through August of next year, attending my next Officer Education Class. That is also an anniversary...I went to Ft. Lee in 1993-94 for my Officer's Basic Course. Seriously, now I know for sure that time really does fly when you're having fun.
But it also means that I probably won't see my treasured possessions until I finish the course and move onto my next assignment. September? October? I only hope that I can be somewhere in time to put up and decorate my Christmas tree. It will, after all, be December, 2010.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Poem


A podium is an innocuous thing in our lives.
A rectangular thing made out of wood, plastic or metal.
A podium can be a friend, something used when good things happen.
Chaplains give words of praise, joy, and love from a podium.
Educators cheer on graduates.
Podiums give us support (literally) when we need it the most:
Talking in public. We lean on them, put our notes and water on them.
It’s easier to speak when the audience can only see half of you.
But a podium can also be an enemy.
Often when a podium is the focal point of an event
It means something bad has happened.
Press conferences are given from a podium. A plane crash
A fire, a child kidnapped.
Chaplains also start funerals from a podium.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
I never met Specialist Barton. He was nameless and faceless to me.
Our paths only crossed because on May 11th, 2009,
He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But we shared a common bond.
Our units share the same stateside command so
We have the same patch on our left sleeves.
That makes him a brother.
His commander is at a podium.
He is a friend and someone else I share a common bond with.
We are both commanders.
We shared mobilization and paperwork.
We shared building units from a random group of people.
Our difference is that he is at a podium.
It is in the shape of a castle, the symbol
Of the US Army Engineers.
He is telling the people stories about a young Soldier.
I don’t want that experience. I don’t want a podium.
Every morning I will say a quick prayer
Not to have to stand behind a podium,
In particular,
The one in the Division Chapel.
But I am a leader and I have duties.
As a commander I am responsible for everything
Concerning my soldiers…their health and welfare,
Their safety, their lives.
And, if necessary,
A trip to a podium.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Of Fish and Men (and turtles, too)

Three times a day we make the long trek to the dining facility (DFAC) for our meals. It's not too bad right now, but I can imagine in a few weeks when the heat is unbearable that 3/4 mile walk one way won't be so pleasant. At least there's Gatorade in the DFAC.

Near the front door of the facility is a footbridge that crosses a canal. These canals run all through Camp Liberty and are the main source of green that we see: green reeds that grow on the edge and are almost as tall as we are; and water that is a shade of green that has yet to be assigned a color by Crayola. We even have one of these canals right in front of our building (seriously...I keep waiting for someone to drive our truck into it).

A favorite pasttime of Soldiers (and civilians) is to stand on the bridge and throw bread, Cheerios, even fruit, to the fish and turtles that live in the canal. I've done this a few times myself.

There are a lot of fish that live at this spot in the canal...well over 100, and some of them are at least 2 feet long. There were only a few turtles up until a few weeks ago and now there are about 10 or so, most of them babies just a few inches across. When people start throwing food into the water is becomes a race to get a piece...turtles swimming over little fish, big fish swimming over little fish, and birds on the edge of the canal trying to get the stray crumbs that fall their way. It is quite amusing.

It's just a nice, peaceful way to start or finish the day...seeing "wildlife", even if it's just some strange gray and black fish and some cute little turtles.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Too Much Fun!

We've been experiencing a horrible dust storm the past few days and it's not going anywhere until at least the weekend. The good thing is that the helicopters aren't flying so it's quiet above our building. The bad thing is that we stay dirty, we're sucking in dust by the lungful and our eyes hurt. I head out to the office in the morning all fresh and clean...but by the time I get to the office I am gritty and dirty. Yuck.

We've also been experiencing a different type of! For the past three days and for the next two days we have to radio hosts, Zack and Jim, from WACO 100 in, well, Waco, Texas, that have been broadcasting their morning show live right here in my studio. Well, the first day they didn't because we experienced technical difficulties and they had to move to another office. But Tuesday we had the problems sorted out (for the most part) and the fun has just snowballed from there. We've lined up Soldiers and had them sit down for interviews, both funny and serious (mostly funny). We had the "Stinky Feet Band" i.e. 1SG Martinez, 1LT Sarratt playing harmonicas and SGT Risner playing guitar and giving us the latest rendition of the Baghdad Blues. It was a great song. Would have been nicer if they'd all been playing the same song. :)

Today we had the lawyers, Soldiers from the Texas National Guard, and the Brass Quintet (plus drums) from the 1st Cavalry Division. It's been a lot of fun and a nice break from the daily monotony of the Media Operations Center.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Best $13 Ever Spent/My Friend Justin

Have you ever spent an amount of money, large or small, on something that you might not ever use/need/see again but served such a large purpose in your life at the moment that it was worth it? For example, when your head is pounding and you are at your office and you have to go to the drugstore next door and buy a $5 bottle of Advil, even though you've got a 200-count bottle at home? But you need it, so you spend the money and you're grateful that you did?
Such a thing happened during my return trip from San Diego to Baghdad. On the long flight (10 hours to Leipzin, 5 hours to Kuwait) back I was the Flight Commander. A big title for just ensuring that Soldiers stay in their seats, get the required briefings, and get all their gear off of the plane in Kuwait. However, it's a responsibility I took seriously so...that meant no sleeping pills for me. I had planned to pop some once we were airborne but I did not because of my friend Justin.
You know...Justin Case.
Just in case someone gets sick. Just in case someone has a problem. Just in case the plane has to land somewhere other than Leipzig for mechanical or weather reasons. I didn't want to be in a position where I couldn't function properly sleeping pills for me. Which means I didn't sleep all that well since the audio for the FOUR in-flight movies were on the plane's speaker system AND the flight crew just kept yapping right in front of me (I was in the front row). I think I slept all of about 45 minutes. By the time we landed in Germany for refueling and crew change, I was desperate for some sleep. After an hour we were told our flight was delayed for 4 hours! I tried to get some sleep...on the chairs, on the benches, on the floor. But I just couldn't get comfortable. My hands just don't make that good of a pillow. Finally, after an hour I went into the gift shop to buy a stuffed animal to use as a pillow. Of course, the gift shop there has the usual Hostage Prices...the ones we'll pay because we really want a $4 Coke or a $25 stuffed animal to take home as a present. I searched and found a stuffed elephant for a mere $13. Best $13 I ever spent because the second I put my head on that elephant's round belly I was out like a light and slept for over 2 hours until they called our flight.
I'll never have a use for that stuffed elephant...I'll probably give it to the group who hosts the weekly Scouting adventures, but for those 2 hours it was the best stuffed elephant in the world!
And it's nice to be back in Iraq. Seriously...I missed my unit and the people here whom I consider to be my friends.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How Time Flies

It's hard to believe that my time on R & R...military coming to and end.  Only two more full days in San Diego and then off to Dallas on the early (and I do mean early) morning flight.  I'll stay there until the next morning then I have to report to the Dallas Airport by noon to the military airline check in.  
People have asked me how long it will take me to get back to Baghdad and I answer the only way I know how:  I'll get there when I get there.  I'll leave Dallas when there's a plane (or actually a seat on a plane) available.  I'll leave Kuwait when there is a seat on a plane going to Baghdad.  Could take 48 hours, could take 4 days.  Rumor control from the unit that we replaced hinted that some of the Soldiers waited in Kuwait for up to 7 days waiting for a plane.  Oh my, I hope it doesn't take me that long.  Don't have that many pair of clean socks!
I've been busy since I arrived in San Diego on 8 April.  First thing I had to do was buy some clothes.  I had a pair of jeans and 2 shirts when I arrived so I bought some sandals, two pair of shorts, and some casual shirts.  Nothing much, but it also means laundry ever 3 days.  After that I did some shopping to pick up a few things that I can't get in the PX in Baghdad:  Tom's of Maine toothpaste and fluoride rinse, The Body Shop wild cherry body butter (for some reason they don't ship to APO addresses), and a bottle of Chanel No. 5.  Plenty of people have asked me what I miss the most being in Iraq.  That's easy...being a girl.  A real, live, girrrrrrrrl.  I miss putting in my earrings and choosing outfits and spraying on girly-girl perfume and just being a girl.  And wearing pink.  Well, I can wear pink, but it's unseen.  :)  
I spent 3 1/2 days in Vegas...that was fun, relaxing.  I went to the Hoover Dam, the Shark Reef Aquarium, Body Worlds (but I had to leave because...that's just gross).  I also wandered from casino to casino, taking in the catchy things they had to offer, like the lions at MGM Grand and the flamingoes at, well, The Flamingo.  
I spent 2 days with my friend B, who has the best friends in the world who are getting me (and my unit) LOTS of DVDs, including the first 2 seasons of CHiPS.  They'll get thanked by me later, but in the meantime...thanks!  Lots!  Went to my favorite store while in LA:  It's a Wrap.  It's a second-hand store but their clothing, shoes, etc. all come from studios and TV/Movie productions.  Most of the clothes in my closet come from It's A Wrap (and I still have great clothes).  It's hit-or-miss with them and, of course, most of the women's clothes are a XS or a size 4.  But I scored a fabulous Lucky Brand denim jacket for $7...what a deal!  One time I got a pair of Ralph Lauren khakis  They were $3 but they gave them to me for free because there was a small, almost unnoticeable ink stain on the back pocket.  Such a deal.  
Friday I was at Balboa Park museum hopping...the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art.  Saturday we went to the Women's Expo at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.  Talk about lots of girl stuff!  Whew!  Women, and women's stuff everywhere!  Today we went back to Balboa Park for the Earth Day Fair.  Lots of fun and I took pictures of Ed Begley, Jr., who led the parade through the organ pavilion.  Lots of organic cotton, hemp, and natural products.  Lots of chants of "eat green, don't eat meat", which I thought was funny since the only food booths that we could find were...cheeseburgers and  hot dogs.  There was probably a better food court somewhere, offering the usual fresh, organic fair, but we didn't venture that far.  Too funny!
After lunch and a nap I'm ready for whatever my friend has to throw at me.  After she wakes up from her nap.
Monday and Tuesday left.  Then Wednesday with another friend in Dallas.  
Shhhhhh, don't tell anyone, but I miss my unit.  I feel separated from them.  There is a sister unit, the 314th PAOC, in the IZ that also keeps a blog, blogsoverbaghdad, com.  Their Command Sergeant Major, CSM Falardeau, is on leave and said he felt like he was part of the Borg Collective, like on Star Trek, and now has been separated from that Collective.  I understand how he feels...does that make me the Borg Queen?  ;)  Anyway, I miss talking with my Soldiers, listening to the things that effect their lives, reading/watching their stories.  I miss lunchtime movies with 1SG and XO or just plain goofing around.  I'm looking forward to seeing them again and catching up on what's been happening in my absence (which, according to my XO, hasn't been much!).  
What I don't miss...walking 150 yards to the latrine at 3 a.m., multiple meetings, wearing combat boots all the time.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Freedom Flights

In the months preceding my unit's deployment I had to travel to different cities for conferences and classes.  Most of the time my flights were routed through Dallas, which was nice because it's a large airport and has a lot to offer someone waiting for a flight.  The USO is top-notch although I only went in there to grab a bottle of water a few times.
While wandering around the airport I noticed the "Freedom Flights"...the chartered airplanes that bring troops (and civilians) from Iraq back to the states.  There are two stateside gateways for troops on R & R or emergency leave:  Dallas and Atlanta.  I remember looking at those planes, often parked on the tarmac away from the terminal, and thinking "one day, I will be one of those Soldiers coming back for some rest and relaxation". 
Well, here I am, sitting at my friend's computer in San Diego, updating my blog.  I left Iraq Monday afternoon for a long (and somewhat painful) flight from Kuwait to Dallas with a brief stop in Germany.  I was finally one of those Soldiers on that Freedom Flight, away from Iraq, and ready for some down time. 
It's surreal, being here in San Diego.  It's almost as if my time in Iraq was merely a dream and now I'm awake and moving on through the day.  Perhaps that's because I was only in Iraq for 2 months before I went on R & R.  That sort of sucks, but this was the only time left for my R & R after everyone else picked their dates.  Regardless, I'm here and I'm enjoying myself.
Today I went shopping to get some civilian clothes to wear while I'm here...some shorts and T-shirts and a pair of sandals.  I also went to Target to get some things that I can't get overseas, including my favorite sunscreen and toothpaste and some Gold Bond lotion for my feet.  It has menthol in it so it makes my tired feet feel much better.  
I'm having a great time with my friend, Cindy.  It's nice to sit down to a nice dinner of steak and rice and watch some TV.
I was a bit miffed to find out that President Obama was in Iraq while I was on R & R~!  I've been waiting for that meet our new Commander in Chief while I was deployed.  But alas I'll have to wait for the next "surprise" visit.  

Saturday, March 28, 2009

1SG Martinez performing the traditional dance of appreciation to the T-Wall fairies. This ensures that the T-Walls stay strong for us and don't fail us when we need them the most.

A row of T-Walls around our CHUs.

Even action figures get a T-Wall!

Ode to a "T"

What a great letter, T. It adds so much to our language.

It has given us a great beverage to drink...cold to drive away the heat in summer and hot to warm our tummies in winter. It gives us comfortable shirts to wear...I have several packed away from various Army units and missions, vacation spots, and goofy restaurants. It holds up our golf balls and allows us to make great shots (into the water).

But for us here in Iraq, the letter T has given us one more thing: protection from bad guys. Surrounding us at all times are T-walls...concrete barriers that are placed strategically around buildings to protect other buildings from blasts. They surround the DFAC, the laundry, all of our CHU living trailers, the exchange...everything.

It's weird to walk around Camp Liberty and see nothing but T-walls. They block the line-of-site across camp and hide buildings. Unless someone actually puts a sign outside of the T-Wall it's difficult to tell what building is inside the line of T-walls.
They are also a blank canvas for units to leave their mark for others to see. Units take a blank T-wall outside of their buildingand paint their logo on it...I've seen some that were works of art. They were everywhere at Camp Buehring, Kuwait and some of the command posts around Liberty have their T-wall painted next to the T-walls of units who have since departed.
What a great letter, T!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Photos from a fun day

The Universal Language

Everyone has their own idea of a universal language. You know, that language that everyone understands, no matter what their native tongue. Some say music, others say math (although some will argue that music and math are one and the same).
I say that the universal language is...laughter.
Not just any laughter, though. Not the laughter of adults watching a funny movie or enjoying company at a cocktail party. Or the laughter of groups watching a comedian.
It's the laughter of children and, more specifically, children at play. No matter if a child speaks English, Arabic, German, Portuguese, Swahili, or Tagalog, they all know how to laugh. Unlike learning a language, there is no grammar, no syntax, no rolling the tongue or pursing the lips to learn to form sounds. Even at a young age, children know how to laugh at something fun or even something funny.
Yesterday I took a break from the office and went with two of my Soldier/journalists over to the other side of Victory Base Complex where US Soldiers host Iraqi Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. I'm not sure of the particulars, but the program is gaining strength and gets more and more popular with each passing week...with both the Iraqi children and US Soldiers.
There were about 35 or so kids present, ranging in age from 2 to older teens. I expected there to be more boys than girls but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were more girls than boys! And very stylish young girls, with earrings and rhinestone-studded headbands and jeans that looked like they came straight from The Gap.
We spent hours playing with these, volleyball, and good, old-fashioned water-balloon fights. We did crafts of painting and drawing, some classes on first aid and fire safety. Even the smallest little girl, about 2 years old, put on the full-blown fireman's outfit of heavy boots, suspenders, and silver fire suit. Well, she came up to the knees of the fire suit, but she did wear the helmet! Most of the kids got to put out an actual fire with a fire extinguisher. Sometimes they aimed at the people standing around the fire..! Medics showed the children how they put bandages and wraps on wounds. Half of the pictures that I took have children in them with wraps on their wrists or ankles. Not because they were wounded but because it was cool...and fun. The medics put a stethoscope into the ears of some of the children and then put the other end on their chests. The kids has looks of amazement and wonder when they realized they were listening to their own heartbeat.
But the best part was hearing the sounds of the children's laughter. Laughter from just having a good time, from running and jumping and kicking balls and hitting a US Soldier in the head with a water balloon.
As I watched these children play I realized that, like children in the US, they are the future of this country. They are the ones that in 20 years our government will be in diplomatic relations with.
I wish them, and their families, all the peace and blessings of a bright and happy future. And many more days filled with laughter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Breakfast and a movie

We have a system now for meals. Myself, 1SG Martinez, and 1LT Sarratt meet for breakfast at 0730 at the gazebo right outside of our CHU. At the dining facility (DFAC) we greet the guards who check our ID cards, wash our hands and then grab our tray and head to the serving line. We each have our own separate ideas of what constitutes a nutritious breakfast so we go our own ways to get our food. But we always sit in the same the annex. For breakfast we sit in the first row of tables, for lunch and dinner we sit in the last row of tables. That way each of us always knows where the other two are. The three of us have eaten our meals together since we first went to RTC at Ft. Dix in October/November 2008 and since our mob in January 2009. Occasionally we allow other Soldiers to join us. I'm sure that they are surprised to find out that we actually don't talk shop at these meals. We don't spend our time between bites of good Army food planning things for the unit. Instead, we have light-hearted conversations about anything that we can think of and there is usually a lot of laughter involved.
In the DFAC there are multiple TVs, all tuned in to the various channels offered by AFN. Soldiers munching on eggs, bacon, chicken wings, and hamburgers can watch sports, movies, or news, depending on where they are sitting and how close they pay attention the the TVs.
It seems that for breakfast the TV by our table is always set on the AFN movie channel. So, for the 20 minutes or so that we are sitting there we get to watch part of a movie. So far we've watched parts of about 30 different movies. Of course, the sad part is that we only get to watch 20 minutes or so of each movie. More if we dawdle and eat very slowly. We have often wondered aloud if there isn't some way to get AFN to rerun one movie all day so that we can watch a whole movie over a span of 3 or 4 meals.
Recently we've started changing our lunch plans. Instead of walking down to the DFAC for lunch we get a sandwich to go at breakfast and then settle in our own studio to watch a movie or a television show on DVD. Our first movie was Silver old movie starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.
Occasionally the morning TV isn't tuned into the movie channel. It's on the channel that has morning exercise shows. Scantily-clad women (including Denise Austen) do lunges and lift weights and sweat. The guys all watch very intently. I'm sure that they are just taking notes on the correct form for all of these exercise. It is sure nice of AFN to have these women in tight shorts and T-shirts teaching our Soldiers the proper way to maintain health and fitness while deployed to Iraq. :)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Photos from a sandstorm

The lake across the street and the Al Faw Palace behind it. Somewhere. By the way, it's about 3 p.m. when I shot these...

Oh Sand-y Baby...

I grew up in the deep South and I still vividly remember the violent thunderstorms that used to roll through our area on a regular basis during the summer. First, the air would grow heavy, the sky a dark gray that got darker with each passing minute. The thunder was loud even though the storm was still miles away. Then there would be a eerie moment or two of stillness that signaled that something ominous was coming. Finally the rain would fall...just a few drops at first...large splats that would lull you into a fall sense of "this storm is passing over". Then the torrential downpour would begin, soaking you to the bones in a matter of minutes if you were silly enough not to have looked for cover. I can still remember sitting on our enclosed porch or in the living room looking out the picture windows and watching the sheets of rain fall. The world outside the windows turned a light gray the rain was so hard.
After a few minutes it would all be over. The ground would be wet and there would be puddles to run around in. But the clouds would clear and the sun would come out, shining down on the puddles and making everything shiny. Off in the distance I could still hear the thunder, making its way noisily across the area and trapping others inside of their homes for a few minutes.
Years later when I moved Chicago and then Minneapolis I experienced the same sort of phenomenon except with snow. We always knew when it was coming. I could track the storm on The Weather Channel as it made its way closer and closer to my house. The sky would turn a light gray color and the world would become still, as if everyone (including the animals) were just sitting...and waiting for that first snowflake to appear. Just like the rain the flakes would fall softly, almost romantically. Unlike the rain, once it started it lasted for hours, sometimes days, until my back porch was a wall of snow.
In Iraq we experience something akin to these events...but with sand. Since our arrival here a month ago we have had several dust storms. There seems to be a's windy for several hours but clear. Then there is a lull in the wind and it's almost calm and peaceful. Then the sand slowly starts creeping into the atmosphere. You don't really notice it at first until you lick your lips and you taste the sand, or you blink your eyes several times to clear them. Then you notice the haze around the lights and that the world outside your window has turned a bright orange. Yesterday was one of the worst sandstorms since our arrival. The Al Faw Palace is visible on clear days but yesterday we couldn't see it. In fact, we couldn't see the lake just across the street from us! I went to bed last night with the dust so thick it was making my sinuses hurt. I turned on the fan in my room to move the heavy air around. (At this point I don't even bother to clean up the sand or keep it out of my's just impossible to do so.) I woke up at 3 a.m. and had to go to the bathroom. I opened my trailer door and it was pouring rain! Not the "summer in the South" rainfall, but a fairly decent rain. It was nice to get up the next morning and see that the air was clear from the rain but my happiness was shot down a while later when I tried to drive my pickup truck to the medical clinic. See, the sand here is fine, not beach sand, more like powdered sugar. With the rainfall that sand turns into a thick slurry that sticks to everything. I drove down one road sideways and I was certain I was going to get stuck! And forget keeping your boots clean. Once you step into the mud you're up to your ankles. And stepping out doesn't help because you bring lots of mud and rocks out as well.
It was a lot like being back in Bosnia! Except we didn't have boot washes at the entrance to every building.

Friday, February 27, 2009

SPC Erik Fardette getting Navy personnel ready for the Army-Navy game shoutout.

SSG Peter Ford getting some shots of one of the speakers at the detainee release ceremony.

The crossed swords. Notice the broken hand at the base of the sword on the right.

The Al-Rasheed Hotel, where I lived when I was here in 2003.