Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meandering thoughts of past and future

When I was in high school...many moons ago...when we were planning on what to do after graduation, the options were: college, community college, military, or into the workforce. I think it was kind of an unwritten rule, that if you were even a little smart you with to college...even if you didn't know what you wanted to study...go to college. Bottom line.

Community college was for those that wanted to do something technical like be a mechanic or a carpenter. Join the workforce if you didn't know what you wanted to do. Don't join the military. I can't think of a single person from my graduating class that joined the military.

I don't know where we got the idea that military was a bad choice... I'm wondering if this is regional in part...if parts of the country promote the military as a good choice for the ultra-successful students and not just for the directionless...there were no military bases near where I grew up...maybe this played a part.

There was an article on msnbc the other day about a group of soldiers here in Afghanistan who were killing civilians for fun and sport. A group of reckless cowboys...
Being over here, around soldiers from all branches of the service...except I haven't seen many Navy folks...I can say that the "reckless cowboys" are the exception...not the norm. The soldiers that I have the priveledge to interact with here are respectful, respectable, intelligent, kind people. Many could've easily made other choices out of high school/college besides joining the service. They could've easily been successful in other areas, but the chose the service.

They carry themselves with a sense of pride...they believe in our country and in freedom. They know more about what the flag means than most people...and they are proud to serve under that flag...they know the history of our country.

Way back when, I never considered the military for myself. To me it represented a lack of choice, freedom, and individuality. I don't feel that way anymore.
When I think of my boys and what kind of men I want them to grow into...respectful, proud, kind, caring, moral, and hard-working are all traits that I want them to embody. Kristi and I are doing our part to instill these values. If we can and they choose college and work...we'd be so pround. If we can and the boys decide that the service is the place for them, I'd be very pround to be the parent of a soldier.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lap of Luxury

Awhile ago I posted a picture of the main building at Qalaa House. Evidently some people think that is where I live. This is incorrect. That is the main building...where the big shots work...there is a lounging area on the main floor with a TV and games and such...but I don't spend much time in that building.

Here is where I spend all my time:

This is the engineering building...called Loma Linda. I work on the 2nd Floor with architects, mechanical, electrical, and structural engineers. Other disciplines are also found in this building on the other floors. It is a pretty nice set up. Truthfully, the individual work spaces are actually a little nicer than my office in Portland...very open. My team gets together and cooks a meal together every week...about once a week. The other day a guy named Tom from Mississippi made gumbo for us. We were able to have the local nationals, LNs, that work in our building pick up some of the necessary item that we couldn't get from our DFAC. They were even able to find okra. The gumbo had shrimp, chicken, bacon, and some sausage that was HOT! It was pretty great. Families have shipped ingredients that can withstand the 3 week shipping time to us and we store them and then use them during our weekly meal time. I need to start thinking what I want to make to share...

We slave away here all morning long and then typically go across the street to Camp Eggers for lunch. There are a number of dining facilities, DFACs, at Eggers...but we typically go to the Goat. I have no idea why it is called the just is. For some reason, they seem to have the best food. It is weird, though, as I think most of the DFACs serve the same is just better at The Goat for some reason.

I've been getting a couple of questions about living conditions. As I mentioned before, the residence buildings are made from conex boxes stacked up. Conex boxes are metal shipping containers. Here is a picture of the back of the building in which I live. You can kind of tell where the edges of the containers are...that is our bedroom wall. I think I can add a picture of our room as taken from the door.

As you can see, the width of our room is exactly matches the length of a twin bed. I said "our" because almost everyone here has a roommate, conditions are pretty crowded. So in every room we have 2 beds, 2 wardrobes, 2 shelving units, 2 night stands, 1 desk with a computer with chair, and a fridge. I don't think that our fridge is even plugged in or not...but you can imagine that conditions are a bit cramped. Here is another picture of the backside of my building. You can see that each room has its own heat and a/c unit...that is what the little mechanical units are.
There are a bunch of these all over the is the lap of luxury in which everyone lives. I think we started working over here about 5 years ago and people have been coming and going from this base ever since. As this is not like a hotel, when people leave they don't send in a housekeeping crew to clean up their room. I don't think our room has been cleaned since Day 1. It was pretty gross. I wondered why Kristi stuck some Clorox wipes in my suitcase...but I'm glad she did...nice job wifer! It took 4 wipes just to clean the window area...totally gross.

Not surprising, though, as I was never promised 4 star accommodations...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jason's Post

So my neighbor, Jason, requested a post about toilet paper. I aim to please, so here goes...

The Government has really saved some money in the quality of the TP that they purchase for us. Evidently they don't understand that we aren't the military, but instead are a bunch of civilians.

In Dubai, however, things got a bit weird in this area.

Look at the picture below. This is a picture of the bathroom in my hotel room. Looks normal, right?

Except, take a look at the toilet area...

See the hose thing to the left?
Here is a better view.

Looks just like the kitchen sprayer at your kitchen sink, right? That what I said. But why put it by the toilet?

When I get to a hotel room and have questions about things, I consult the big book that comes in the desk. How do I get on the internet? Do they have HBO here? What do they serve at the restaurant? What the heck is the hosey thing next to the toilet for?

Sadly, the book answered many of my questions, guessed "hosey thing" information, instructions, diagrams, etc.

As I was not going to call the front desk and ask, I was left to my own imagination and deduction.
I'm guessing that thing is the Middle Eastern version of the bidet. To put it delicately for younger readers...for cleaning the hither and yon areas...undercarriage if you prefer...or call it Australia (get it? land offense to Australians)...

Again, I didn't ask, so I'm just speculating.

Let me interrupt for a second and say that I did not touch this thing...didn't go near it. I'm just guessing based on its proximity to the toilet that it is not for watering the pun intended.

I've used the kitchen sprayer at my sink, for spraying various kitchen things, of course. Even when I can see what I'm doing, I still have the occassional errant spray that meks it onto the counter or floor. I can't imagine what would happen if I tried to use the sprayer in a capacity where i could not see at what I was spraying...see where I'm going?

I'm picturing errant spray on the walls, ceiling...and me coming out of the bathroom with thoroughly wet clothes down to my socks and shoes.

As I've said, I did not touch this thing...I'm only speculating.

If anyone knows exactly what this thing is for, DON'T TELL ME...I'm enjoying just speculationg...besides, now I'm constantly on the lookout for people with wet clothing that could have been caused by some errant spray...

Evidently I'm just another uncultured, American yokel abroad...

Jason, hope this answered all your questions...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


So I've figured out what is not good about my base...

The coffee.

It is beyond is unreal.

I'm guessing that they either:

a. burned a couple of pots about 6 years ago and never cleaned out the pots and instead just keep brewing right on top.
b. filter the coffee through the entry mat that everyone wipes their feet on.
c. roast the beans with a little bit of roadkill in the roaster to spice it up.

No matter what, it is terrible. As I've been taken around to meet people, I've kept my eyes peeled for areas where people have coffee makers in their work areas. I want to be friends with those people.

I found an area in my building where the group has both a Keurig and a thing that is a couple of steps up from a will make any kind of coffee drink you can imagine and tell you that you look very nice while it is doing it. Those people are my new best friends. Kristi is going to have to send me a few pounds of beans so that I can bribe my way into their coffee circle.

In Dubai, I did not have coffee problems. I had a layover in Dubai for about 15 hours. Because of the time changes involved with flying over here, I woke up at 2:30 in the morning...wide awake. After a little channel surfing and not finding anything worth watching, I decided to go to the business center to send some emails. Then I decided to just sit and read in the lobby, they had super comfy chairs. The hotel asked if I needed anything and I ordered a cup of coffee. Here is what they brought:

It was so good, probably one of the best coffees I've ever had. After a bit the hotel server came back out to give me the bill and take my cup. I asked for a second cup. He looked at me like I had 2 heads and said, "you want another cup?""yeah, sure...that'd be great."

He brought it. I drank it...then the twitch near my eye told me why nobody orders 2 was wicked strong!

A couple hours later, when I went in for breakfast...the guy that served me the cups of coffee was my server. He asked me if I wanted more coffee...I politely declined. He said, "coffee is very strong, yes"...I agreed...with a big smile on his face he said, "you had 2 cups!"...I nodded.

He then left me alone to jitter and eat my breakfast in was amazing coffee though. I'll be ordering 2 cups again on my way back throug Dubai in a couple of months.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hard at work.

The other day I caught myself getting lost in this picture:

My little workers.

When my parents came out to visit before my deployment, my dad and I built the boys their very own workbench. They had been asking for one for quite some time. Then for their birthday, they got lots of tools. I'm now a little jealous as some of their tools are better than mine.
They also got worker aprons, hard hats with headlamps on them, hearing protection, and safety glasses...they were pretty excited. They were also given safety vests...they'll have to grow into them as they don't really make safety vests for toddlers so it looks more like a safety toga when the boys wear them.
Once we got the vise installed, Sam clamped a block of wood in there and then went to work with his hammer...just hitting the block of wood. He was a pretty happy guy. I also showed him how to use the powerdrill and then pre-drilled some holes so that he could hammer in nails. Happy, happy, worker man!
They also got a number of kits for kids and have built a bird feeder...the orange thing in the background of the photo...and a pencil holder with picture holders on the sides.
As I type I'm finding myself getting lost in the picture again.
I really like those kids...sniff...

Monday, March 21, 2011

After a couple of long flights and an overnight stopover in Dubai, I'm finally here...Kabul, Afghanistan. It is very brown. The city is surrounded by mountains and is at an elevation of about 5800 feet...I could feel the elevation just walking around and climbing stairs. it reminds me of Denver or Bend, OR, with the mountains nearby and some of the big desert pine trees that we have on our compound.
We landed and met our escorts who took us through the airport to meet our transport. We had armored vehicles and were required to wear flame retardant jumpsuits and gloves, bulletproof vests, helmets and safety glasses for the short 10 minute ride from the airport to our hotel. We had a convoy of 3 vehicles driving down this 4 lane road. But when they drove, they staggered themselves so that we took up the entire road, so nobody could pass us or get along side us. We had to pass through some roundabouts and did it with horns and sirens blaring so people knew to get out our way. We had to pas through a number of checkpoints before reaching our base.

The base for the Corps of Engineers is called Qalaa House. From my understanding it is the former Iraqi Embassy that is now ours...I'm sure that we paid them fair market value for the property. The propery originally was...I think...about the size of a football field with just a handful of buildings on it and surrounded by walls. Here is a picture of the main building. Most of the time you don't get this nice of a view of this building as our armored vehicles are typically parked in front when people aren't leaving the compound to go look at construction sites. Just so you know, when you leave the compound to visit other places, it is called going "down-range"...and you travel with a "force-pro" team...that's "force protection" for you non-military personnel.
The living facilities are a bit interesting. To make dorms, they stacked up metal shipping containers...ConEx Boxes....wired them with power, tossed in a couple of beds and a desk, threw on some doors and "Viola"...dorm like rooms.
I'll be able to upload some pictures in the near future but I have to do a little work to get them off my ipod and onto a computer hooked to the network...the Government doesn't make this process very easy.
It is truly amazing how many offices and living spaces they have crammed into this base...I think we have a couple hundred employees working at this base. We have one dining 24 hours per day...buffet style...all you can eat. My kids would love being here as they could have ice cream with every meal and nobody would care. They have lots of health choices, but there are plenty of opportunities to really pack on the pounds if you aren't careful of what you eat...endless cookies, bottomless soda, all the bacon your heart can handle. If we are tired of the food choices here in the DFAC, we can walk across the street to Army Camp Eggers and eat over there. They have a number of DFACs that have specials throughout the and turf...grilled steaks...good livin'!
Good thing the gym is also open 24 hours per day...and there are plenty of classes that the employees take turns leading. They have Zumba, Insanity (I think), spinning, and I think there is a crew here doing the P90X workout. I hit the elliptical this morning before work and then went to spinning where I may have over-done it...I was spinning in a puddle of sweat by the time it was all over.
For work, I work in a team of 6 where we review all designs and calculations for a variety of buildings and bridges going up all over Afghanistan. Additionally, we support the construction offic when things in the field aren't going up as they were shown on the drawings. It will be nice to get back into building engineering...I've been away from it for a couple of years.
Except for missing my family...this is a pretty great place to work. It must be pretty weird to read...all things considered...but the people are very nice, the work is bottomless but rewarding, the food is pretty decent...things could really be worse...I guess there is that constant threat of incoming fire to remind me that I'm not really working in paradise. There hasn't been an incident of direct or indirect fire at this base for a long time, but they like to remind us not to get too comfortable.
As I said...all things consider, it won't be too bad spending the next few months here...I'll send pictures when I can.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Weirdly Calm...

I'm sitting here in the airport, waiting to fly out...and I'm amazingly calm.

When I was younger, big and little events like this had a tendency to make my stomach do somersaults...not so least not for this trip. This entire process, from initial interest to now has all been relatively easy. Everyone at my home office has been extremely supportive with this process and the same goes for everyone at the deployment center.

It is weird knowing that I'm deploying to Afghanistan but I'm calm about it.

Makes me feel like this is the right decision. I know that it is going to be difficult...on me, my family, my boys...but I still feel good about it. We'll see if my feelings change as time goes on.

The work could be pretty taxing...I'll be working between 64 and 70 hours per week; 7 days a week. But, I'm not going for the I may as well work as much as possible.

People have asked about safety. Are we concerned? I am I going into a war zone?
We are concerned, it would be unwise to not be a little concerned. Before agreeing to go, I met with a number of people at my office who have deployed, some more than once, and they all said that they felt really safe during their deployment. I'm going as a civilian, not as a soldier. I'll be stationed at a base in the green zone that is all inhabited by other civilian employees with the Corps of Engineers. Of course, this doesn't mean that things are totally safe...I/we still have to be vigilant....but from what I understand, it is a relatively nice place...not in a war zone.

I'll see when I get there.

For my birthday, in preparation for this deployment, Kristi bought me a kindle. I'm so excited that I'll finally have time to read for pleasure again. I've been so busy with work, school and family that personal reading hasn't happened in a long time. I love my kindle!

So far I've ready the first 2 books in the Lee Child, Jack Reacher series. There are 13 books...I may try to know them all out while I'm over there. Last night I started reading Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, as it was supposed to be one of the best books that has come out in the last few years...I've decided to hold off on it since it is a book about the Vietnam War...I'll come back to it later. Instead, I started Ravens by George Dawes Green. It is starting out pretty well...and I'm so happy that I get to read again.

I'm accepting recommendations if anyone has any book recommendations. So far, on my Kindle, I have:
Shatter by Michael Robotham
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow
Drood by Dan Simmons
I'd know you anywhere by Laura Lippman
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Passage by Justin Cronin

Let me know if you have any required reading beyond what is listed here...I'll have the time. Keep in touch by email or through this blog, I'll have regular access to both while I'm over theory.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Big Day...

So tonight is my last night in the States for awhile...
I took myself out for a nice dinner...steak and ribs...and had some time to myself to think.
About family. About work. About places I've been and people I've known that I haven't thought about in years.

Big events tend to do that to me. While others go out for their last hurrah...I go in for some thinking. It hasn't always been that way, I used to be the one that would go out...the first one hard, don't even need a reason. I'm not that guy anymore. No longer do I want to be the center of attention or the life of the party...I think I got old.

But a new adventure starts.

I'm deploying to Afghanistan for 6 months to work as a structural engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Most people that know me don't understand why I would volunteer for this. There are a number of reasons...and I want to try to explain the biggies.

My job, I love it. I really enjoy working for the Corps. I like the size and scale of our project. I like the idea that we have a Mission and a commitment to the public, instead of a mission statement and a commitment to shareholders. I want to continue working for the Corps for a very long time. So when they sent out an email saying that they needed help with other parts of the mission; supporting military efforts and the war in Afghanistan...and they specifically needed structural engineers. I was interested, but it was a little more than that.

I'm grateful to the Corps. Prior to getting my job with the Corps, I was working for a structural design firm and not really enjoying it. I was scared because I saw architects and developers all around us...our clients...laying people off, stopping projects, and slowing down all work. As they slowed, work at my office slowed. I was grouped with a bunch of very smart engineers with great experience, if we downsized I was going to be out the door. I saw the job posting for the Corps, right up my alley, and I applied. A tense 3 months later, I got an interview...3 hours before my company downsized and I was laid off. Within 2 weeks I was offered the job I still have. Many people got laid off, at my firm and at many others, I feel so fortunate that I was able to get this job. So fortunate. All around the country, people are still out of work, cashing out nest eggs, losing homes...that could've been us if I hadn't gotten this job. I can't imagine what things would've been like for me and my family if I was without work for a year or more. I'm so grateful for this job. So when they needed people to volunteer to help, and they requested structural engineers, I knew they meant me. And I talked to Kristi.

There are other reasons, too. Maybe I'll go into them at a later time...I've rambled on for long enough.

I miss my family. Everything I see reminds me of them. Sam, Matt, Kristi...I love you very much. Kristi, thank you for your understanding and support as I do this...I couldn't go if I thought you couldn't handle it. I'll let you wear the pants for the next 6 months but don't get used to it, I'll be putting them back on when I get back.

I miss my family, but feel very fortunate that I get to go serve in this manner.