Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Knight on the Town

Chad & Me
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
I really haven't been drinking that much since I got home, but I've hit up a few bars here and there. And along the way, I've run into lots of friends that I haven't seen in months. (Four months, at least.) Friday night, we went out for Ferny's birthday, and I ran into Chad.

Brett & Me
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
Tonight, we went to the Brass Rail where I ran into Brett. Seeing friends unexpectedly is, like, the coolest thing ever. Especially when you're drunk.

Monday, January 29, 2007

I Got My Mojo Back!

Boarding Crew
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
A large group of us went boarding today at Snowbasin. It was the first time I'd been on the slopes since Tuesday's wreck (or since I got my cool, new helmet!). The first couple of runs this morning were a little off. I couldn't find my balance, and I was shakey. I think I was just nervous. You know how they say if you fall off a horse, the best thing to do is get right back on? So true!
After I got back into the swing of things, the day seemed to fly by. You know it's been a good day of boarding when you say to yourself, "Man, I can't believe the lifts are getting ready to close," and then you say to your friends, "Man, I can't believe the lifts are getting ready to close," because you've had so much fun and you want to have more fun, but the lifts are getting ready to close, and you can't believe it.
Afterward, we all went to The Pie and had beer and pizza. What a great day!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Taxation Mutation

I've been getting a little more daring in my snowboarding lately, carving faster and attempting higher jumps. After my fall on Tuesday, my head was achy, I was nauseated, and extremely tired. I found out later that those are symptoms of a minor concussion. Now, I'm not all about head injuries, so I decided to invest in a helmet.
You'd think in a rich ski/snowboarding environment like Utah, there would be tons of places with helmets galore. But I searched everywhere before choosing one on Wednesday at the Sports Authority inside the Newgate Mall in Ogden. I hate giving money to such a big corporation, but it was the only one that I liked and that fit.
After I bought it, I was having coffee with Caleb, and happened to see a small, locally-owned snow/skate shop next to the coffee house. I went in and found a helmet I liked better, and for a cheaper price. So I bought it with the intention of returning the first helmet.
I was running errands yesterday and noticed there was a Sports Authority inside the Layton Hills Mall. I took the helmet back there, and the sales associate told me that I was losing money because the sales tax in Weber County (where Newgate Mall is) is 6.6%, but sales tax in Davis County (where Layton Hill Mall is) is 6.5%.
Fine, Weber County. You can have my eleven cents. But if a stop sign mysteriously disappears or a parking ticket goes unpaid, I will have had my revenge.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Because complaining makes the situation SO MUCH BETTER.

I had this conversation (or some version of it) on more than one occassion in the desert:

Other Guy: Man, I can't stand it here.
Me: It's not that bad.
OG: Whatever. This place totally sucks.
Me: Isn't this your first deployment?
OG: Yeah, but it still sucks.
Me: Be glad you're not in the Army. They're here for 18 months.
OG: Yeah, well, they signed up for it.
Me: In much the same way you signed up for the Air Force, right?
OG: You don't understand, man. You're not married.
Me: Oh, so because I'm single, my relationships don't mean as much?
OG: (blink...blink)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Pass In Time: The Great Escape

One thing that caused a lot of concern before my arrival was attacks from local insurgents. It wasn't rare to have several on a given day, especially around September 11th and right after the Saddam Hussein verdict. (Strangely, we didn't get hit at all the day of his execution.) And many of these "attacks," we never even knew about. Usually, they were referred to as "indirect fire attacks," meaning it was probably small-arms fire near the fence line, and we were merely instructed to use caution. Occasionally, we would go into Alarm Red and would have to take cover for about 20 minutes. Sometimes you could hear the mortars hit and feel the shockwave in the air and on the ground. The first few times were kinda scary, but after weeks of not really seeing any damage or injuries, it was easy to get complacent. I still always took cover, but rarely did I run or don my helmet and gear. One of the coolest things was seeing the C-RAMs go off. These were huge automatic anti-mortar guns that basically littered the sky with bullets in order to shoot down any mortars that came over the wire. At night, you could see the bullets leaving the barrel so fast, it almost looked like a laser. One of the most horrific things I saw was one day when I was refueling my sweeper. A big truck was towing a heavily armoured tractor trailer that had been hit by an IED only a few minutes before. I couldn't believe the damage that had been done. It was still smoking. There was no way anyone could have survived, and all I could think about was the poor soldiers inside. An even more sobering event happened about ten days before we left. An explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team from Hill was working on disarming a car-mounted IED outside the wire, and three were killed. I'd only met them in passing, but anytime someone from your own unit is killed, it brings things a little closer to home.
Like all deployments, it had it's good points and bad points; and if I had to list all my deployments in order of enjoyment, this one would probably be somewhere near the bottom. I may change my mind about that in a few weeks, though. I tend to look back on deployments with greater fondness than while I'm in the middle of them. Either way, it was a learning experience, and I hope I've become a better man because of it.
Now that I'm home, I've been indulging on things I normally take for granted and of which I was deprived in the desert. Things such as super-long showers. By myself. In water that doesn't turn cold or lose pressure without warning. I've also been driving my truck at speeds much faster than 25 mph while singing along to my iPod as loud as I can. I will refrain from shaving until I have to go back to work in two weeks. The snowboarding will be endless. And I will bring new meaning to the term "alcohol abuse."
As a warning, I have the tendency to go through a short depression after returning from deployments. About two weeks before we came back, I started having some minor anxiety about coming home. I even considered extending for another four months, just to put off the inevitable. It probably won't kick in for a few weeks, but it's totally normal, and even if I see it coming a mile away, there's not really anything I can do to stop it. I think it's just a product of trying to get re-situated into my life. Part of it is dealing with job stress, and the other part is trying to catch up socially. This time it's going to be even worse because there's a lot of changes going on at work, which will make the transition even harder. I ask everyone to have patience with me, especially those of you I see on a regular basis. If I seem difficult, don't hesitate to give me a kick in the butt and tell me to snap out of it. It might not help, but it will let me know you care.
This was my fourth deployment since September 11th, and my third since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. I've made it no secret that I haven't supported this war from day one, yet here I am, still serving in the military. Why? I wish I knew. I had the opportunity to separate a couple years ago, but decided to re-enlist. I enjoy meeting all kinds of new people from so many different walks of life. And you really can't beat all the travel. The pay isn't half bad, and the benefits are second to none. I've tried to rationalise everything by thinking that I'm not really doing any harm since I'm just a plumber. But every time I turn a wrench, it still supports a plane launch or a bomb drop. I don't think it's impossible to still be serving the Lord in the military, no matter what the mission is. I think my problem is my focus. Sure, I have a conflict of interest with the direction in which our national defence is heading. I've seriously thought about filing conscientious objector paperwork. I've thought moving to Mexico and living on the beach for the rest of my life. But I don't think any of those would solve the problem. I need to keep my focus on God no matter what the circumstances are around me. Unconditional love to everyone I encounter. Joy in my eyes and in my heart. Compassion and support for those who can't help themselves. And all the while, keeping my eye on the Lord.
By the way, I know many of you are wanting to see more pictures, so I've created a huge photostream of the entire deployment. You can check it out here. It's somewhat in chronological order, but closer to being grouped by subject. I think there's some pretty funny stuff on there, and even though it's not like actually being there, it should give you a good idea. I hope you enjoy it.
Before I close, I just want to say a huge "Thank you!" to everyone who wrote e-mails, sent letters and packages, and offered up prayers for me. You have no idea what a world of difference your support makes. Everything from Lawyer Ryan's e-mails (hysterical!) to Jessica's cards (beautiful) to packages from Mike and Jeni-Bomb (unexpected) to Kyle's phone calls (um...informative?) were so appreciated. It made me smile and made the time pass quicker and easier. I seriously can't thank you enough. The first round is on me.

White & Fluffy

Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
Nick and I went boarding today at a place called Powder Mountain. It hasn't been a great year for snow in Utah, but I was pleased to see this place lived up to its name.

Powder Mountain
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
At the top, we could look over the back side of the mountain and see the valley totally covered in fog. It was a wonderful sight.

Powder Mountain
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
This was only Nick's fourth time snowboarding, but he was pretty good. Things were going great until I bit it pretty hard after a particularly high jump. I thought I landed it fine, but then my face hit the snow. I started feeling kinda achy in the head, so we cut the day a little short. It left me with a few scrapes on my cheek and a swollen eye, but I'll live. We still had a great time, and I found a new fun place to board.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Pass In Time: Our Endless Numbered Days

One of the harder things about being in the desert is social interaction. There are two types of people when you deploy: those that accept their situation and just endure, and those that can't stop complaining about how bad they want to go home. I'm in the first group in that when I deploy, I basically turn my brain off. There aren't any major decisions to be made, and I don't really have to supervise anyone, so I just do what I'm told. I refer to it as my "robot mode." I didn't give up my personality for four months, but I just kept a lower profile. The social time I crave was filled mostly by Nick. The night before our day off, we'd usually get pizza and hang out. It was nice to relax and not think about work for a while. The hardest thing to do while deployed is forget that you're deployed.
Since you can't exactly tune in to your local television and radio stations while overseas, the military has a thing called Armed Forces Radio and Television Services (AFRTS) which broadcasts the Armed Forces Network (AFN). There are several AFN channels on television (i.e. AFN Pacific, Atlantic, News, Sports, Movies, etc.) with a pretty good variety of programming from all major stateside networks. They show sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, game shows, and even The Daily Show. I didn't get to watch much TV, but when I did, I could usually find something interesting or entertaining. The radio programming wasn't as fortunate. We could only get two stations. Freedom Radio, as it was called, was broadcast from an AFN studio in Iraq, and played a variety of music in four-hour blocks. The only time I tuned out was the "Country Convoy" from 10 AM to 2 PM. In the afternoon was usually a crazy mix of everything from The Beatles and The Doors to Ray Charles and Air Supply to Britney Spears and Def Leppard. Plus, they seemed to favour certain songs. I don't think a day went by that I didn't hear Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" or "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by Yes. They had several slogans like "The most heavily armed staff on the air!" and "Broadcasting from an undisclosed location." But my favourite was "Music worth fighting for!" Sorry, but if I'm fighting to listen to Rick Astley and Hillary Duff, send me home now.

Carrie Underwood
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
One of the drawbacks of this particular deployment was the large number of shows I missed in the four months I was gone. They included The Gossip, The Strokes, Rancid, Fiona Apple, The Commitments, We Are Scientists, Blue Man Group, GWAR, Ciara, The Pretenders, The Who, Bloc Party, Panic! At the Disco, Imogen Heap, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Killers, Del the Funky Homo Sapien, My Morning Jacket, and even Lily Tomlin. Thank God for the USO, who tried to make up for it by bringing shows to us. They know what it's like to be away from home, so there always seem to be more tours around the holidays. The first USO show was right after we arrived. It was Drowning Pool, and as cheerful as the "let-the-bodies-hit-the-floor" song makes me feel, I decided to skip it. I also skipped John Popper (the guy from Blues Traveler), but, the week before Christmas, we saw Carrie Underwood. I'm not much of a country music fan, but she was really good and super-hot. Plus, she did a balls-on accurate rendition of "Sweet Child O' Mine" that knocked our socks off. We thought about hanging out to get a picture with her, but the line was hella long.

Al Franken & LeeAnn Tweeden
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
A few days after that, another show came through with Mark Wills, Darryl Worley, LeeAnn Tweeden, and Al Franken. Nick wanted to go to see all the country music singers, but I wanted to see what Al Franken had to say. They were all entertaining, and Al Franken was really funny. He took extra care not to get too political, and spent most of his time hitting on LeeAnn. A really cool, unique thing about USO tours is that all the performers come at their own expense, and because they know how much it means to us. They're giving up their time and money and risking their lives to come over here, and that, to me, is so meaningful.

Thanksgiving Dinner
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
Holidays in the desert are strange. You can't really celebrate the way you would at home, but people try to over-emphasise them so much that you really can't avoid being pelted with decorations from every direction. For Halloween, there was a carnival at the rec centre, at which Nick and I stopped to check out, but left after ten minutes. By Thanksgiving, I was back in the shop, and we pretty much took it easy all weekend. As for Christmas, I've spent four in the desert, and haven't been home with my family for Christmas since 1999. But nothing really stops me from trying to spread a little holiday cheer in December. There were tons of decorations all over base, and our shop had a makeshift tree plus plenty of cards from friends and family hung all over. And then there was the candy. There were seventeen people assigned to our shop, and we probably received just as many tons of candy. I got boxes from friends, family, churches, and even random strangers who got my name and address from service organisations. We had so much candy in our shop that it became cluttered, so we decided to bag it up and deliver it to other people around the base. It was our little way of spreading some holiday cheer. The thing that made Christmas most bearable was knowing that we'd be heading home in a few short weeks. New Years was kind of a bust. Everyone at the shop pitched in and we got pizza and watched movies for a while. We had intentions of staying up until midnight, but around 11:30, everyone got really tired and headed home. Kinda strange since we were so close to midnight. I ended up ringing in the new year by taking a shower. Needless to say, I didn't kiss anyone.

Inside a C-17
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
The trip home was chaotic, but we didn't care. The Kadena crew arrived on January 11th, but we didn't leave Balad until the 15th, so we had four nights of having four people crammed into our tiny little pod. We received our travel itinerary from Baltimore to SLC on the 10th, but the travel in-between was unknown, so there were tons of rumours flying around about when we'd be leaving. From Balad, we flew into Al Udeid, and stayed there for two days until we caught the rotator, which flew to Kuwait. We picked up about twenty troops there, and then stopped in Germany for a couple hours. While there, I realised that one of the guys we picked up in Kuwait was Chaplain Rosenthal, who helped out a lot with the Hospitality House in Japan. We had a beer together and told some great stories. After Germany, we hit Ireland, then Baltimore. There was a little pub in the airport in Ireland, so we all tossed back some Guiness. I don't know if it tasted so good because I hadn't had any in so long, or because we were drinking it in Ireland. When I found out we were going through Baltimore, I called my friend Dan, who was one of my best friends from my days in Vegas, who came and hung out for a few hours. It was great to catch up. Also, my flight from Baltimore to SLC included an eleven-hour(!) layover in Minneapolis. Luckily for me, there were two things in Minneapolis I really wanted to see: Jeni-Bomb and the Mall of America. We had a fun time eating and shopping and chatting. I'm so fortunate to have friends in so many different areas of the world.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Pass In Time: The Living End

Even when the days seemed to pass by slowly, the weeks really flew. I don't know why. We would sometimes count the days we'd been there, and if we lost track, we'd count again and be surprised at how much time had passed. Our down time wasn't plentiful, but we made the best of it. After work, I'd go running five or six days a week. The altitude was 180 feet above sea level--much lower than Utah--and despite the fact I'd slacked off on my gym routine before I left, I found it surprisingly easy to run three or four miles. Nick usually went with me, and Ken came sometimes, too. About halfway through the rotation, we saw a sign for an abs class starting up, and decided to give it a try. It wasn't easy by any means, but it was fun and something else to do to help pass the time. I don't have a six-pack or anything, but it definitely helped build up my endurance.

Bingo Night
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
A new gym facility opened right after our arrival, and it was pretty nice. The only problem, and this seems to be a trend in Air Force fitness facilities, was too few treadmills (not to mention the total lack of consideration for the 30-minute rule). Next to the gym was the equally new (and equally nice) recreation centre featuring a mini-movie theatre, big screen televisions, foosball, air hockey, pool, ping-pong, and several gaming stations. This is where bingo was held every Saturday night. Bingo is one of those things on which one can rely whenever deployed. It's social and fun and, even if you don't win, it helps to let you know that the weeks are actually passing by. There were ten games each night; the first nine were for $50, and the last game was worth $100. I won bingo once nearly four years ago in Qatar, but not again until, in early-November, I won the $100 game. It's not cash, though. Instead, they give you a $100 gift card to the B/X, but I wasn't complaining. Then, in mid-December, the normally unlucky me won a second time on a $50 game. A couple weeks after that, Nick's card won three times in the same night. He didn't want to look like an ass, so he had Ken yell bingo for him the second time, and I yelled for him the third time. The Rec Centre also had DVDs to borrow, and even though there were hundreds from which to choose, I wouldn't exactly call it a good selection. Plus, many of them were scratched beyond repair. I tried to watch "JFK" one evening, but every time a key piece of evidence would come up, the screen would freeze and I'd have to skip to the next chapter. I still don't know who fired the shots from the grassy knoll. About a month before I left, I strolled into the library to find they also loaned out DVDs. The selection wasn't as big, but it was much higher quality. They had tons of independent films and documentaries. I began spending my days off watching lots of great movies.
There were four main dining facilities, or DFACs (Dee-Facks), on base. Also run by KBR, the food they served wasn't half bad. I would have liked to have seen more vegetarian options, but when you're catering to such a large, mostly meat-eating crowd, my dietary needs don't exactly fall in line. Luckily, I could always rely on the salad bar or the pasta bar or, in a pinch, get a grilled cheese sandwich. Breakfast was consistently good, and even if I didn't feel like waiting in line for a ready-made omelette, I could always get a bagel or cereal or waffles. Plus, it was free. The only thing was, after four months, it all started to taste the same.
There were two large B/Xs on base, plus a mini-B/X inside H-6. They were pretty well-stocked with anything one would ever really need during a tour in the desert, plus a hefty supply of out-dated, over-priced electronics. Besides various toiletries and the occasional CD, the only thing I ever really bought was PT gear, which isn't cheap. That's what I used my bingo gift card on. Next to both the large B/Xs were food courts that included Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Popeye's. And in January, they opened a Taco Bell (which was plumbed in by Yours Truly). The only one I ever had anything from was Pizza Hut, and it wasn't too bad. But still, paying $8 for a pizza is kinda silly when the chow hall is free.
There was also a very nice movie theatre on base that played newer movies for free, some of them on the same weekend they were released in the States. It was reportedly used by Saddam Hussein back in the day. All the movies were free, but I went only a few times. The first two, I'm a little ashamed to say, were Jackass Number Two and Employee of the Month--neither of which I'd pay to see, but, like anything else, it was a way to pass the time. On New Years Day, we went to see Casino Royale, which was probably the best Bond movie since anything with Sean Connery.
My intentions before I left were to devote equal amounts of time to studying for promotion and leisure reading. Well, the leisure reading kinda won out, mostly because whenever I tried to study, I always ended up falling asleep. (Have you ever read the PFE? It's amazingly boring!) I brought two books with me, and had made arrangements to get sent the rest of my mini-library, but due to some logistical issues, that didn't happen. Those first two were You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers and Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. BBM was only 54 pages, and I finished it in one night. At the Rec Centre, there were shelves of books available for anyone who wanted them. I picked up The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen one night after bingo. I was a little hesitant since it was an Oprah's Book Club selection, and who wants to get caught with one of THOSE? But then I read that Mr. Franzen lamented Oprah's selection of his book, and it made me feel a little better. It ended up being a great character study about a family whose matriarch desires one last family Christmas together, and whose children all have their flaws. After I finished that one, I happened upon another novel at the rec centre. This one was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. What drew me to this one was the fact that Ms. Kingsolver's brother was my biology professor in college. Small world, huh? This one was about a Baptist missionary, his wife, and four daughters who serve in the Belgian Congo in 1960, during their quest for independence. Coincidentally, this was also an Oprah selection. (Am I growing a vagina or what?) It was pretty good, but a little long. Next on the list was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I ordered this online, and chose it based on what I'd heard about it. It's about a father and his son trying to survive while trekking across a post-apocolyptic America. It was full of desolation and despair, and not normally the type of book that I read; but it was definitely a page-turner that I'll most likely read again. Just before I finished the McCarthy book, I received a Christmas package from my friend MIke. In it was a copy of Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. (If you haven't ever read anything by David Sedaris, you totally should. He's hysterical. I highly recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day.) I already owned a copy of Holidays on Ice, but it was at home, and I needed something quick to read. Plus, it was nice to have something so light-hearted after reading The Road. I also ordered Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Mark Bell, a book Don recommended, which was next on my reading list. I don't read much non-fiction, but I like to throw in a theology book every so often, and this one was really good. A nice thinking-outisde-the-box type of book about what Christianity needs to do to move into the 21st century. The last book I read was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It caught my eye while I was in the Base Exchange (B/X) one evening, and I like to throw in a classic from time to time. It was small and easily fit in my pocket for the plane ride. There were a few brief references to it in The Poisonwood Bible, so I took it as a sign from God. Plus, it was only three bucks.

Check Your Head

Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
The first time I drove down to SLC after I got home, I merged onto the freeway, and then drew a blank. I couldn't remember how to set the cruise control on my truck. I guess that's what four months of not exceeding 25 mph will do to you.
But you know what I didn't forget how to do?
I headed up to Snowbasin this morning by myself, just to get reacquainted with my favourite winter-time recreational activity. The snow isn't as good as it was last season, but I didn't care. It felt good to be on the slopes again. I was already sore by the time I finished my fifth run, but I kept on until around 2 PM. I'll be sore tomorrow, but should be ready to head up there again by Tuesday. I have the next two weeks off work, and my board is definitely going to get a workout.

By the way, you may have noticed there are some things different on here. I'm going to be making a few aesthetic changes over the next few days. After neglecting it for four months, I'm feeling a little guilty and trying to make this weblog the best it can possibly be. Your patience while it's under construction is appreciated.

A Pass In Time: Work It

The best thing to do on a deployment is start a routine and stick with it. That's what makes the time pass by the fastest. I got into my routine early on, and rarely departed from it. Our work schedule was 12-hour days, six days a week, which sounds like a lot, but it's actually a good thing for three reasons. First off, we have a mission to do, and the more we work, the quicker the mission gets done. Second, if people have too much time off, they start to think about home too much and get depressed easily. Third, it's not like there's a lot to do on days off anyway. I usually spent my days off at the shop doing laundry and writing e-mails. Most people say it's not really a day off--it's more like a day you can sleep in. Speaking of sleep, one of the "luxuries" of life in the desert is the consistent sleeping schedule. I rarely got less than eight hours of sleep each night (as opposed to the five or six I get while I'm home). After working a twelve-hour day, all I really wanted to do was sleep. Plus, there wasn't exactly a plethora of choices in the activity department. After hitting the gym and showering, I'd go back to my pod and read until I drifted off.

Me & My Sweeper
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
The deployment, for me, consisted of two phases. Phase I lasted the first two months, my time on the sweeper. This could also be classified as the Phase from Hell. As I mentioned before, most of the utility work was contracted out to KBR, which left my shop severely over-staffed. Therefore, nine of us were loaned out to the Heavy Equipment shop, commonly known as Dirt Boyz. They had us do their boring, idiot work, so they could do more interesting jobs like pour concrete pads and haul gravel. True, those things don't sound exactly desirable, but when compared with sweeper duty, they're phenomenal. Imagine driving a very loud truck, sometimes lacking air conditioning or a radio or both, up and down a half-mile stretch of road at 10 MPH for countless hours by yourself, trying not to be lulled to sleep by the droning of the motor. And, other than lunch, we couldn't really take a break because the policy was to keep at least two sweepers on the airfield at any given time. The only "breaks" we got were to hide out behind a hangar, turn off the engine for a little peace and quiet, and try not to fall asleep. And as if the trucks weren't loud enough, there were F-16s taking off constantly. We couldn't wear ear plugs since we had to be able to hear if the control tower called. Whenever I had a day off, I would just lay on my bed and enjoy the silence. Our job was to drive around the flight line and pick up FOD (foreign object debris). Made up mostly of small rocks, tumbleweed, and dirt, it was anything that could be sucked into the intake of an F-16 and cause damage to the engine. I developed a keen eye for spotting pebbles from several metres away. Besides driving around all day looking for FOD, we were also at the mercy of airfield management personnel, who also drove around looking for FOD. We were constantly being called all over the place to sweep certain areas they deemed "FODded out." Most of them were pretty cool, but sometimes we'd get called to sweep an area and arrive to find two little rocks on the ground that could just as quickly have been picked up by hand. What made things even worse was the rain, which created lots and lots of mud. So when trucks came on the flightline, they would track mud all over the place, which usually had rocks embedded in it. People rarely did thorough FOD checks on their tires, which just created more work for us.

Repairing Lines
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
Mid-way through November, the Dirt Boyz got some new management, and, albeit through clenched teeth, devoted some manpower to help sweep the flightline. Being the highest ranking of the sweepers, I was first on the list to go back to the shop. Needless to say, I was elated. Thus began Phase II, or the Happy Phase. Work in the shop was much more laid back. The best part was that I wasn't by myself any longer. There were about eight of us doing whichever jobs didn't fall under KBR's contract. There weren't many, but they were varied and kept us busy enough. Most of the crew was from Hill, but we were augmented by a smaller crew from Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. They were cool people, and I enjoyed working with them, especially TSgt Cabano, who kinda reminded me of my friend Garah. Our jobs were mostly small things like replacing a water heater element or investigating leaks. Occasionally, we would get a major water line break, but those, more often than not, were caused by contractors; therefore, the contractors fixed them, but we supplied parts and had to supervise. One of the big projects on which I worked was mapping out all the water and waste lines in H-6. Most were already on the existing map, but Marshall and I walked all the lines, making sure the map was accurate, plus updating things that weren't plotted. We worked with the engineering assistants and used the GPS system, which was pretty cool. Our Operations Chief, Captain Dusang, put us in charge of it, expecting it to keep us busy for a month, and we did our best to stretch it out, but we probably only did about three days of actual work on it. When we presented her with our results, her exact words were, "This is EXACTLY what I wanted! You guys worked SO HARD on this!" And we were all, "Um....yeah. We sure did!" It was hard to keep a straight face. Jobs in the desert are different than when we're at home station. Since most of the buildings are temporary, most repairs are total hack jobs. We do whatever needs to be done to correct the problem, and nothing more. The worst was when things in our shop were going really slow, and coincidentally, ridiculous jobs would appear out of nowhere. The stupidest had to be when we had to take the sewer truck into H-6 after it rained and suck up all the water puddles, knowing full well it would just rain more in a couple days.
I'm sure you can imagine how happy we were to see our replacements arrive. They came from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. The day they arrived, it was cold and foggy and rainy. They probably thought the plane went off course or something. One of the cool things about the Air Force is running into people you knew from bases where I was stationed earlier in my career. I saw Ashley Rasmussen (from Nellis), David Lyons (from Misawa), and Andy Moeller (who was at Hill before PCSing to Kadena about a year ago). I also saw Andrew Gonzales and Martin Caluag, both from my Misawa days. Martin was there with the Army, and Andrew was there as a Force Protection escort. It's a small Air Force, we sometimes say.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Pass In Time: Exile In Guyville

Landing in Iraq
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
We left Utah on September 4th--Labour Day, as luck would have it. We reported to our squadron early in the morning, waited around all day, and didn't board the plane until the late-afternoon. The plane was a commercial aircraft contracted by the military. They'd already picked up troops from three other bases, so we didn't get very good choices of seats on the flight. I was stuck in the middle, but at least I sat next to my friend Scott Hobbs. We had short refueling stops in Maine and Germany, and finally arrived in Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar early Wednesday morning. We were supposed to stay there for a couple days, but luckily, airflow got switched around to accommodate us. We flew into Balad on the morning of the 7th and immediately began our in-processing.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of visiting Iraq, it looks pretty much like it looks on the evening news. It's a desert--brown and dry and sunny, spotted with occasional bushes and trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It also has a very peculiar smell. Is it dust? Is it burning garbage? Is it diesel fumes? Is it raw sewage? Is it body odor? The answer is...All of the above!

Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
When we first arrived, it was crazy hot. Every day was over 110 degrees, and the nights offered little relief. But by mid-October, things had started to cool off slowly. Also in October, we had a couple of storms, which would seem like a welcome break from the dryness, but it wasn't. The soil was very hard and rocky, and the rain didn't soak in very well. It just sat there, forming huge puddles in very inconvenient spots (i.e. between my room and the shower, or right in front of the entrance to the gym). The thin layer of dust that coated everything became a thin layer of mud that was tracked everywhere.

Double Rainbow
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
November and December were completely dry, but in January, the official rainy season began. It only rained every two or three days, and, unlike the storms back in October, it was never a hard rain, just a consistent drizzle that lasted all day. The only really good thing about the rain was the rainbows. I've never seen so many in my life, often two or three at a time. And such vivid colours. The climate progressively got cooler as the weeks went by. By December, I was wearing thermals beneath my DCUs to keep warm in the morning, but the afternoons were usually pleasant and mild.

My Pod
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
The base is probably one of the largest in south-west Asia. It's run mainly by the Army, and supported by the Air Force and Kellog, Brown, & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton. To drive completely around the perimeter would take at least 30 minutes, partly due to bad roads and low speed limits. The main housing area for the Air Force, known as H-6, was pretty big and well-equipped. Besides the living quarters, H-6 had shower and latrine trailers, a gym, rec centre, laundry facilities, Chapel (complete with mortar casings hanging as bells in the steeple), mini-B/X, barber shop, and even a nine-hole miniature golf course inside a tent. The nearest dining facility was a quarter-mile walk out the main gate of H-6. The ground is covered in gravel, and every building has huge 14-foot tall concrete barriers around it. It's almost maze-like.
Our individual living areas were 12' x 15' rooms called "pods." Each housed two troops, except during transition periods where four people were crammed in. My pod-mate was another CE guy from Hill named Cody Rasband. For some reason, when I arrived in Utah two years ago, Cody decided he didn't like me. I don't know why, but I soon got the point, and, after trying to exchange pleasantries with him a few times, just let him be. Since I never really gave him any reason to dislike me, I thought it was a kind of poetic justice for him to get stuck with me. I managed to break down the barrier and actually had a few decent conversations with him. I doubt we'll be tossing back beers together anytime soon, but at least I gave him a reason to not despise me. We had our wall lockers situated in the middle of the room to create another wall, so it was more like having my own little room and sharing our doorway. Overall, the pods were actually pretty nice. I ordered a few posters online to give mine a nice ambience. And since I had my computer with me, I could turn on a little bootie-shakin' music anytime I was feeling down. About two weeks before we left, several people in my squadron were told we had to move, Cody and I among them. A new section of pods was built, and it's a force protection measure to spread out people from the same squadron as much as possible. That just means that if a mortar were to hit a certain area of housing, we wouldn't lose everyone in the same area of expertise. The new pods were pretty much the same as the older ones, but much farther away. We all thought it was ridiculous to have us move across H-6 when we had such a short time left. The upside was that, since we were so far away, hardly anyone used the shower and latrine trailers near us.
For a deployment, the facilities really weren't too bad. Of course, when you're used to your own bathroom attached to your bedroom, well, it's just not the same, especially since we had to be in uniform or PT gear every time we left our pod. There was a set of trailers (two for latrines, one for showers) a short walk from my pod. The latrine trailers had a few sinks with a row of toilet stalls. Plus, there were potra-potties speckled all over the place.

Bathroom Artwork
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
(And let me just say, nothing says "classy" like a very detailed personal ad written on the wall of a porta-potty, especially when it's right next to a really bad drawing of what appears to be a naked Neanderthal woman sketched by several different artists.) The shower trailers had twelve sinks and twelve shower stalls. I really dreaded showering. Back home, I shower two or three times daily; but in the desert, we're prohibited from taking more than one per day. And there's something about having to hike to the shower carrying your toiletries, towel, shower shoes, and a change of clothing that's just not cool. Plus, before I moved pods, I always seemed to shower the same time as fat, ugly, old guys who insisted on walking around naked. That's why God invented the bath towel, man.
The Air Force has recently implemented a new dress code for deployed airmen. While at work, we wear the desert camouflage uniform (DCU). Until recently, you could wear whatever you wanted (within reason) when not on duty. But now, we're required to wear the official Air Force PT gear. This consists of any combination of grey t-shirt, blue nylon shorts, nylon pants, and/or nylon jacket. At first, this seems like just another way to take away our individuality; but really, it made things much easier. There was less worry about what to pack, and the PT gear was comfortable, albeit noisy. And it was kinda fun to look like a navy blue power ranger.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Pass In Time: The Bitch Is Back

Balad Air Base
Originally uploaded by currtdawg.
A desert full of religious extremists who talk funny and have weird liquor laws? No, not Utah. It's Iraq! As everyone reading this probably knows, I just spent 131 days at Balad Air Base, which is officially known as LSA Anaconda. And you know it's gonna be a fun four months when the base shares a name with a Jennifer Lopez movie.
I'm not really sure where to begin. Over the next few days, the wax will feature a series called "A Pass In Time," chronicling my time in Iraq. There's so much to talk about, and I'll do my best to cover everything. Some parts may seem dull, but every time I come back from a deployment, everyone always seems to ask about such random details, so I'm including as many as I can. I kept a pretty good journal over there, so most of my posts over the next few days will be cut-and-paste. What's going to take some time is uploading all the pictures (and there are a LOT).
Furthermore, as a warning to those of you I see in person on a regular basis, you're going to get tired of me using the phrase, "When I was in the desert..." It will most likely be followed by some story that seemed applicable or funny at the time, but will just invoke a feeling of awkwardness or cluelessness to you, the listener. It's going to happen a lot over the next couple months, so just get used to it. A lot of things are hard to explain unless you've been there, but I'll do my best. I'll be spending the rest of the afternoon uploading pictures, so you'll have to tune in tomorrow for some actual narration of events over the past four months.
By the way, I just want to say "Thanks!" to Katie, Jessica, Ryan, Ryan, John, Kyle, Doug, and Drew for meeting me at the airport last night. You guys made me feel so special, and I was definitely the envy of everyone else in my squadron. You guys are the best!