Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Have I Been Home 10 Days Already?

25 April 2005

Ooops! I can't believe that I've already been home ten days. Once you arrive back home, the time just slips through your fingers...along with buku amounts of cash! I had a fantastic trip from Baghdad to Kuwait. We were fortunate enough to get manifested on a C17. After being on how many C130's so far, this was the first C17. This thing was a monster. You could have easily set up a volley ball court in this thing, it was that tall and wide. And the ride was beyond great. Still has seats along the outer walls, but with only ten of us manifested, the flight was way, way underbooked! Instead of the normal 1.5 hours back to KWI, it was only a one hour trip, too. The difference jet engines make versus props.

Once back in Kuwait, I had more luck. Randall, my former supervisor is on his way back up-field to Iraq. He and I had some time to catch up with one another and catch a bite, etc. It really was good to see him again. You get to be like a small family when you are at whatever base you end up at, so seeing one of your buds again is always a treat.

About 10 that night we went our separate ways. I'll probably catch up with him again once I'm back at Victory in June. I had to be up the next morning at 4am for my flight to London. Ed let me know the next morning that Randall left about 1am on a surprise flight that popped up going to Baghdad.

Caught my flight to London at 08:30 without any hitches. Had a three hour layover at Heathrow, which is always a treat. They have plenty of shopping and good food there. Harrod's, even if it isn't the big one in downtown London, is always a great shop. So I picked up a few more gifts there and also managed to pick me up a good scotch to bring back. This Glenlivet Nadurra that I picked up is not yet available in the U.S. and is as smooth as silk. Add just a touch of water or over a rock and you're good to go. Scotch is not "Aftershock". It is something to be sipped and appreciated (with or without the fireplace roaring and with or without a wingbacked chair in the study to enjoy it from.)

Connecting flight from Heathrow to Chicago also went without a hitch. I guess that this means that my flight back to Iraq will be fraught with delays, missed flights and lost luggage or some dumb luck like that! The biggest surprise after landing in Chicago was that my sister, brother-in-law and the kids all met me at the terminal! I was shocked. It was great to see them all and I was certainly surprised. Since I had a limo all lined up, I certainly didn't expect to have anyone meet me there. I didn't let them drive me home though. By the time they took me home, probably about 1 hour 15 minutes, then they'd have to turn around and go back to Joliet which would be another 1 hour 30 minutes, it would be too long a ride for one night with four kids in the van. Still it was so good to see them after 15 months.

Walking into the house after so long was strange. It was like walking into a magazine. I just couldn't believe that it was my house. Our Siberian Husky, Cayenne was shocked. It took a minute for it to register, but in no time, she was jumping on her hind legs and licking at my face. She seems to have made the adjustment well since we lost Razor to cancer back in November. I gotta say, sleeping on a bed with a box spring and pillow top certainly beats what I've been sleeping on in Iraq. I slept like a baby.

My first full day back home was filled with chores. First on the list is a new stove. Delivery estimated: Two weeks. (Get used to this response. Once you get back, it is like you are stuck in the movie,"The Money Pit". Everything is a perpetual "two weeks".)

Next stop was the nursery for trees and bushes. The open lot next to our house is finally going to be filled. When we bought, the slime-bag builder told us it was zoned for a single-family residence. Not so! Townhomes are going to back up to our west side of our house and yard. So we need to create a green fence to block out the new neighbors. They will be so close that I will be able to have them pass me a roll of toilet paper through my bathroom window on the west side, off of their patio or balcony. Okay, maybe I exagerate some, but you get the picture...or the new neighbors will that one time I forget to close the blind in the bathroom and take a shower!

Sunday, we went and looked at new homes in DeKalb and Sycamore. Just to get an idea of the cost. Honestly, it is almost impossible to find a home with all the amenities we currently have for the money we could get for ours. We finally found one that we both agreed on in the Bridges of River Mist subdivision. A beautiful three bedroom with two master bedrooms. These master bedrooms both had a separate sitting room or in-room offices and shower and bathtubs and fireplaces. This 2500 square foot home with three-car garage can be yours today for the low, low price of just $339,000. Really, it is a bargain and phenomenally beautiful in a great neighborhood too. But a wee bit out of the budget this week for us.

The rest of last week has been chock full of chores like verifying that the zoning was accurate for the townhomes going in, having a corner of our fence moved around the electrical and telephone boxes, being home for the trees to be planted, etc. I have met with a number of friends for lunch too. After all, that is what vacation is all about...lunch. "We simply MUST do lunch before you head back."

One thing that I must comment on is about getting back into the cooking habit. It is one thing to come back to a stove that is a piece of garbage, but getting back in the habit of cooking can be very challenging. Before I left, I used to have no problem throwing things together and getting it all to finish and be just right in a matter of minutes. I knew cook-times, prep times, the intricacies of the tempermental stove and such. But not having cooked in 15 months, has kind of left me very out-of-practice. I substituted Turbot for Tilapia (big mistake; it may be flakey, but it is way too fishy.) , I burned the buns, had added too much meat to the Ragu I was doctoring and it ended up flat, the green beans were under-steamed; you name it, it went wrong.

Speaking as someone who not only loves food, but considers it an experience, I've come to a conclusion. Cooking is a lot like an orchestra, but more like sex. When it hasn't been practiced in awhile, it takes some time and patience to remember how you did it so well and got things to where you enjoyed it. That and relearning how to get back into the rhythm you once had. Bon appitit!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Next Stop, Doha, Kuwait

13 April 2005

Got all my chores done today. I had quite a list of things to do and I think that I managed to get everything done in preparation for departure tomorrow. John and I drove over to BIAP to get me manifested for tomorrow and they’ve moved everything around there. After some discussion, we deducted that it must have been the torrential rains that caused them to move the location of the military airport facilities at BIAP. Now, everything is located on the concrete pads. Well, I’m manifested.

Packed up last night most of what I was planning on taking. Here I thought I would be traveling light. I don’t think I could travel light if my life depended on it.

At the end of the evening at 7:30pm, I was presented with a flag that has been “flown over Camp Victory on this day, the 13th day of April 2005.” The funny thing about it is that we are not allowed to fly the Stars and Stripes here. The concerns of us being an occupying force do not allow our flag to be flown here. So how a flag is flown for presentation (in this case), John and Steve climbed up on the roof this afternoon and Steve held the flag out over the roof’s edge and John timed it and witnessed it!

Then you get this nifty Certificate of Authenticity, “To certify that this American flag flew on 13 April 2005 over Victory Base, Iraq, an American base used for the Global War on Terrorism. As this flag flew, it symbolized the sovereign power of the United States of America and our unshakeable resolve to keep our country safe.”

They normally present a unit coin as well, but they are on order. They will present that to me when I get back. It is a very thoughtful thing for the 54th Signal Battalion to acknowledge our participation and recognize our efforts here along with the Army.

I finished the little bit of packing still needed to be done, but overall, there isn’t much else for me to do but go. John is off tomorrow, but he said he’d come in and drive me to the airport. Next stop, Camp Doha, Kuwait.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Message for Monette

12 April 2005

I just saw a message from Monette on my blog a few days ago. Sorry that I missed it until now! Monette, don't worry too much. So many things happen along the way here. You never know when you're going to leave and just when you think you're gone, they pull you back. If Ted doesn't have a phone card, making calls out can be a bit of a pain in the neck. The other thing that is difficult is internet access in Doha. They have an internet cafe, but good luck in getting access. The lines are always around the corner and a very long wait.

If he has already deployed to site, that brings with it a whole different set of problems. Once you arrive on site, you are still jet-lagged and you have no idea about how to access email, outgoing phones, etc.

As far as flight manifest, movement of people, etc., I don't have access to that. But take heart that it can take days of waiting for availability to catch a flight. One our biggest gripes about people movement is the unpredictability of our movement into and out of the field. My trip back to Baghdad in April of 2004 pretty much describes what a mess it can be to get back and forth from here. Things do not exactly operate like the "real world" over here. Lots of "hurry up and wait".

So try not to worry too much. I know he will contact you once he is more settled in and has the chance to. When we are over here, we feel pretty secure and we are just kind of floating along in whatever direction they pull us in. My sister explained it to me that what is so hard for you all back home is the not knowing part. I never thought about it that way and I'm sure Ted hasn't either.

I will be in Doha in a couple of days, so I'll check if he is still there when I pass through. Take care and keep in touch.


Sunday, April 10, 2005

!Yo Quiero Taco Bell!

10 April 2005

Breaking news directly from page 4 of the Sunday edition of Stars and Stripes!!

“…the first Taco Bell in the Middle East will open in Kuwait by the end of the month, and the first in Iraq will come by the end of May.”

Whoo-hoo! I’ll be gettin back just in time, now won’t I? It is hard to believe how much of America has been brought over here in just a short period of time. Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway Sandwiches, Popeye’s Chicken, Green Beans Coffee Shops and now Taco Bell. All we need now is a Wendy’s and we’re all fixed up. Of course, Wendy’s has to first finish giving Ms. Ayala the finger…for real, but this time in court!

Then tonight we had a visit by the Charlie Daniels Band. I stopped by for part of the concert, but they started at 7pm and I didn’t get off work till 8pm. No big deal. It is the thought that counts. All the comedians and bands that come over here and give of themselves is really quite a charge for the troops and civilians here. That continued support means so much. Now if you want something that would really boost moral, where’s that bee-otch, Jane Fonda at? We want her to come and pay us a visit in the Middle East! She can do her “Iraq – Look at me - Self-Serving, “I’m So Concerned and Caring”, Blundering-Idiot, Book Promotion Tour. I heard that she will provide the tar and feathers.

One other thing from the Stars and Stripes that really got my undies in a bundle today. Leo Shane III on page 6 writes, “The U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to help servicemembers avoid costly short-term loans by limiting what companies can charge.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., introduced a bill earlier this year to cut down on those companies’ business by capping all loans to servicemembers at no more than a 36 percent annual percentage rate.”

Okay, now most of you who know me know that I’m pretty much a “less government is better” and an avid “States rights” apostle. I don’t know whether to cheer that someone on the “R” side of the House is working to protect knucklehead airmen, soldiers and seamen from getting themselves neck-deep in debt on their meager military salaries (since an earlier article discussed that most of the high-interest, quick-loan places are located near military bases), or whether to take a “less government” approach in favor of business. Although in these days of very low interest rates, I honestly think that “Uncle Guido” is probably providing better and lower interest rates than 36%!

What is the difference between a broken knee-cap or two and the new anti-bankruptcy legislation preventing these same young, inexperienced airmen, soldiers and seamen from being able to ever pull themselves up and get out of the debt these same slimey lenders have snared them into? They are propagating a life for these young people of being forever behind the 8-ball (especially if they choose to make the military their career. Not to mention the bills and meager life they will have once the kids have started coming!)

Anyway, this wonderful legislation is being brought to you by the greedy, thieving, blood-sucking, baby-stealing, booger-slurping, butt-picking...oh, almost forgot scab-picking, banking industry lobbyists. Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend anyone that must work for the banking industry for a living, but I have an avid hatred of any lobbyists. Damned carpetbaggers and snake-oil salesmen.

One side of our society says, “Buy, buy, buy. Gotta keep the economy going. Consumerism is good. Television and advertising have become our elixir which convinces us that we have to spend to be young, be beautiful, be rock-hard and muscled, be loved, be accepted. The Garden of Eden is ours if we only will go ahead and bite the apple – that apple being easy credit at that low, low rate of 36%...but only if you act NOW!

And all that’s left of the other side of society is our retired Grandmothers who keep telling us that we better start saving for our retirement. “You’ll never be able to retire comfortably like me if you don’t put something away today. Those rainy days are-a comin.” But, first off, who wants to imagine themselves as ever being your old Gram in the rocker? When does one finally start to realize their own mortality? I couldn’t tell you as I’m still denying it to myself at almost 39 years old…okay, nearly 45 y/o. Secondly, who needs to worry about rainy days if you’ve got that sleek black “Sclade” (short for Escalade – as in Cadallac) sittin in the driveway with easy payments of $750 per month at 36% for the next…well, forever?

To loosely quote Meatloaf, “What’s it gonna be, boy? Yes, or, or, or…Let me sleep on it…”

Don’t see anything less than instant gratification winning this one. Oddly enough, I think the instant gratification over long-term issue was somewhat touched on in the song too.

So does this make me a bleeding-heart liberal? Maybe for today it does. But you have to take each issue on its’ own merits. I still believe in “States Rights” over any federal intervention…especially on certain other cases that were put to the Supreme Court recently. But we won’t go into that one. The way things are developing, when my time comes, I’ll have to go to Netherlands or Belgium just to arrange my “dirt-nap” on my own grounds.

Big Brother Really IS Watching!

07 April 2005

How do I even begin this one? I’m not going to name names, but let’s just say that we found out today (as if we never suspected it) that Big Brother really is watching. When you first get on base, you have the option to have your computer “baselined” if you are going to connect to the network in any way. This means basically, that it is scrubbed and wiped clean of any programs, porn, viruses you might have and uploaded with the lean, clean, green Army software, screens, etc.

In that process, I’m sure that everything is registered for accountability and such and then you are good to go. Since I’ve never wanted to put my computer up on the network, I never bothered to have it baselined. However, over the 15 months that I’ve been here, others have been so inclined and some have been so bold as to not have their computer baselined and still put it up on the network, so far without incident. Well, it looks like that last ace just got played.

Tuesday morning, three CID people (secret squirrel computer geeky types) stop over at the shop looking for Mr. A. “Uhhhh, Mr. A. isn’t in today, is there anything we can do for you?”

I’m going to take some liberties now at trying to create (and maybe even embellish a tad bit) the scene here. So you have to imagine all three of these guys in suits and sunglasses like in The Matrix responding in unison, very straight-faced and serious in monotone voices, “Where can we find him?”

“He is probably in his trailer right now in Freedom K9. (oh-oh. Better enjoy that “Freedom” while you have it. Sounds like someone is in some deep doo-doo!)

Next thing you know, the Matrix guys are at Mr. A’s door. “You Mr. A?”

(Answers door in his white muscle shirt and boxers with big wad of chew in his front lip) “Yeah, I am. Why you askin?” (spits, non-challantly to the side of the door outside)

“We want your computer…NOW. We found you logged in as “69 is Fine” on the network. Seems you’ve been plugging in an unauthorized computer into the network and your computer is downloading and or uploading info to a certain Middle Eastern site that only five other computers in the world have been exchanging info with. And we won’t even mention all those attempts to access porn sites that were “websensed out”.”

To which Mr. A replies, “Okay, maybe you should have a look at my computer! I was only playing solitaire anyway.”

Hmmmm, sounds very strange, intriguing, clandestine, and such, doesn’t it?

Over the next day or so, Mr. A is sweating bullets wondering if they have internet access and access to porn sites at the cells in Gitmo. No, actually, he is wondering how the heck they broke into his computer and were able to use it for their wicked purposes…and whether he would ever get the computer back…and whether he was going to lose all his downloaded music collection...and whether he was going to see his wife, son, new house and his dark green and rust colored 1963 GMC truck again.

So this morning, he gets summoned over to the office where his computer was being debriefed and the nice CID Army guys in pressed uniforms with perfectly straight sparkling white teeth give him his computer back. It was like a scene from the “Stepford Wives” but we’ll call them the Stepford Seargents or something.

“Have a nice day! We even cleaned up the keys for you. You shouldn’t be having any problem with those babies too soon.”

So Mr. A gets his computer back (with it’s unprecedented downloaded music collection), gets to stay at Freedom K9, gets to see his wife, son, new house and drive his dark green and rust colored 1963 GMC truck again and doesn’t have to ever again wonder if they have internet and access to porn sites at Gitmo.

The End.

Okay, so the story has been altered or warped a bit to include my having left out the details that are restricted (like the interesting debriefing with the hot spotlights on you and all the forms you have to sign) but it just goes to show you that Big Brother really IS watching. BTW, Mr. A is fictional and isn’t at all similar to the person that this beefed up story happened to…seriously! He doesn’t even live in Freedom Village. But he did say that they cleaned up his computer cleaner than it was when they took it.


04 April 2005

Well, I did it. I’m still reeling from this whole negotiation process, but I signed a new contract to come back to Camp Victory. In all actuality, that was the easy part. The hard part is still yet to come. You know, how to break it to the “Homefront.”

It all started about three weeks ago. The manager of the one group approached me and asked if I had considered recontracting. I should mention that in considering another year in this “paradise”, paying off my student loans is playing a big part in my decision process here. So I had said yes, but that I would need at least 45 days back home. Gotta be home over the Memorial Day time for personal reasons. You know, your 15 year marker doesn’t pop-up everyday, right?

So after much wrangling, hand-wringing and whatnot, we struck a deal, but…I still needed approval for the Leave Without Pay days since they wanted me to contract starting on my last day of my previous contract. Well, they tried to break me, but my will (for once, I’m such a push-over normally) was stronger! Both sides got what they wanted and we will be better for it.

Now as far as the Homefront goes, that’s another story. I think that personally, I would rather go through a whole week of mortar attacks than have to break the news that I’m coming back here. Just typing this made me have to stop and chew a Tums! Seriously.

As it stands now, I am hopefully leaving to go home on Thursday next and will be home and in my bed on Friday night. I will stay home until the end of May to be back at the crack of June (alright, get your mind out of the gutter!) and start up in a new work area with a new job after that. I have worked with and know all the people at the new job, and it’s with the same company, so really the stress won’t be what one might expect. It is a great opportunity and we are all looking forward to it.

Abu and Aleks

03 April 2005

Rolled out of bed this morning to hear a large boom. Sounded like it came from past BIAP, but still it was loud, all the same. Came to find out later after I got into work that there was an attack on Abu Gharib again. This one sounds like it was a bigger deal. I’m sure that we will read about it in the paper if it was anything of concern.

By the end of the day, I’d almost forgotten that I had a scheduled meeting for after work with Aleks, the Ukrainian major that I know here on Victory. He and I speak often whenever we meet and he wanted to invite me over to celebrate my going away next week. I was looking forward to our meeting tonight, but since I’ve come down with this nasty cold, I have been really congested and feeling like garbage. Plus, I really didn’t want to pass this along to anyone else. Although it seems to be short in duration, it starts out in the throat and moves down to a bunch of chest congestion that you never seem to cough up.

Well, eight o’clock rolled around and he met me on my way back to the trailer, so how could I say no? He had everything set up and it would be just us enjoying some refreshments, sausage, cheese and good discussion. I don’t honestly know what we had since I was unable to read the label on the bottle (since it was in Cyrillic and only had a picture of crossed and stacked wheat on the label and a cayenne pepper at the bottom)…but it sure was tasty! Also, it was to be consumed all at once, not sipped/slurped or adulterated with water, soda (pop for all you’s guys from Colorado) or ice. Aleks had specifically requested this from the pilots he knew coming from home. It was really a very heartfelt gesture on his part and I was honored to be invited over. Hospitality is something you never should take for granted in any culture.

Let me tell you, Aleks speaks very good English; very clear, very pronounced and with very little accent. I soon found out why. Russian, Serbian and English were his main languages in school and of course, his native tongue, Ukrainian. He went to military college which was the equivalent to our West Point and is without a doubt a professional soldier. He has been fortunate enough to have had five peacekeeping deployments in his career. He has been to Cuba (not Gitmo!), Cote de Ivory (Ivory Coast, West Africa), Bosnia and Serbia and now Iraq.

We also spoke about family history. He is from Liv which is not so far from Zhitomir. This is why he was interested when I had said that my Grandfather was born in Zhitomir. After WWII, his Grandfather and family were moved to Siberia when he was labeled by the Soviet government as a “subversive.” It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that his family was allowed to move back to their native Ukraine.

He has been so nice as to offer me his time and his assistance to search for family history if I would like. I am really touched by the offer and hope that I can take advantage of his offer. When I asked him if the history may have been lost during all the damage of the war, he only laughed and responded that that was why it is important to know someone that knows the right people! I guess he’s connected. When I asked if Zhitomir was a small town, he said that at one time it was, but now it is a small city of about 450,000. Even if I only find minimal info, it would still be a kick to go and experience the people, land, culture, food and hospitality of the Ukraine.

Aleks also mentioned that some of the German peoples retreated off into the mountains of the south into their own enclaves and have remained small groups even today. He asked that I plan for at least 7 days. He would like me to see and experience some of his people and land too.

I had also extended an invitation to him as well. Chicago as you know also has a sizable Ukrainian community. In fact, if you were paying attention to the visit of the Ukrainian president and his (Chicago-born American) wife, they did stop for a visit in Chicago. I told Aleks that if he were to come out to where I live in DeKalb County, he would probably find it very much like Ukraine; flat with lightly rolling hills.

By 23:30, we both were showing wear from the long day. I thanked him for his hospitality and his offer. We will make sure to stay in touch when I leave next week. His group will also begin to filter out of here too. Their government has agreed to have them out of here in May or June from what I remember reading. Again, always the disappointment of making friends to leave them behind. The great thing is having had the opportunity to speak, live and learn from these friendships however fleeting they may be.

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