Saturday, January 26, 2008

On my own

I went into work a bit early – as I was up around 4:30, and didn’t really sleep too much – and had some coffee getting ready for chow to open. Roger (Davis, MSgt) was my roommate, so we decided to head over to chow and eat. After eating we headed into the Comm Shack to ‘work’ – not knowing entirely what would commence.

Tom wouldn’t show up until about 10:00am that day. He was busy working – and as I didn’t have many questions yet – didn’t stick around much. He was off – and ready to get home.

Settling into work wasn’t too hard at first – being a comm. shack – since the comm. was working, there really wasn’t much for us to do. We found the 42” wide screen TV a nice way to pass the time – with the plethora of movies present – left behind by the 111th (ASOC – the guys we were replacing) as well as the AFN, or Armed Forces Network, our very own military cable company – that ran a movie channel, FoxNews, CNN, the Family Channel, and a few other various channels with sports, news, movies and TV shows. We had some paperwork to fill out – to get our access to the various computer networks that we needed for email and what not, and this also took time. Since we were the system administrators we were able to set up the accounts with the guys in the shop ourselves, but we had to be added to the correct groups before we were actually able to do that. So the first few days consisted of waiting for those accounts to be established so we could work. While they didn’t take that long, waiting to get back ‘on net’ was a wait. Being a computer guy, with no computer access – that was a bit difficult – but we had things to do. MG Kennedy had some issues that we were able to work on for him, and then we set about organizing the Comm Shack into *our* work environment – not the 111th’s.

Monday, January 21, 2008


The bathrooms here – not called cadillacs, like they had been at “the Deid” – they were just restrooms. Each one was the same size ‘trailer’ size that our rooms were – only there was a door halfway back. The front had two sit downs, two urinals, and a sink. The back had 4 sinks, 4 mirrors, 2 showers, and a 250 gallon water heater. It was huge – absolutely the largest water heater I had seen, ever. The showers are tiny, though. It seemed as if there was barely enough room inside to stand. Again, make due – it’s not for long, I reminded myself.

I decided to set myself up showering at night and shaving in the morning. Since I had cut my hair pretty close before I left – there was nothing to brush in the morning. Also, having a heavy beard as I do, shaving at night wouldn’t work – or I would be shaving twice a day, which I had no desire to do. So my first night I went and showered around 8 or 9. This seemed fine as the bathroom wasn’t too busy. So I had myself a schedule. I went back to the room, relaxed a bit with my iPod and was off to sleep.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

No training wheels

The day with Tom went smooth – since there wasn’t really anything going on on a Saturday. So we went about seeing the camp, seeing and meeting the various people I was going to be working with at the camp, and getting an idea of the layout of the place. The camp itself was basically a square, with building practically on top of each other, and roads between that a car could drive down. In somewhat the middle of the camp was another square that contained the classified areas, with a wall around the outside, armed guards, and razor wire. There were 4 PX’s on base, from the Italians, the Dutch, the British and a fourth just dubbed, “The Blue”. There were 2 restaurants, an Italian (with a coffee bar, and the best pizza for . . . continents!) and a Thai, a coffee shop, and 3 chow halls – the “Big”, the “Little”, and the VIP. The Big was the original and larger chow hall. The Little was about 20’ to the left, and actually part of the same building, as the Big, and the VIP was directly in the center between the 2. We saw the ATM machine, that operated in Euro’s and dollars, and even worked occasionally, and the two market areas – Carnaby Street, and the Park Ave shops. Along the Carnaby St. market were about 10 shops, including several jewelry shops, 2 carpet shops, an electronics shop, 2 leather shops, and a DHL retailer. The Park Ave shops had a carpet shop, a T-shirt shop, a tiny cell phone shop the size of a closet, and electronics/software shop, and a box/marble shop – wooden boxes and items made from marble, like dishes and chess sets. For a small base, there was a lot here, really. We also got to see the soccer field, which is actually next to the front gate, where the weekly bazaar was held.

One thing I noticed walking around base, no matter how much we tried to walk in the street – or on the sidewalks, we were always walking in the dirt that was everywhere. It was wet from the rain the night before, and the water just made mud, everywhere. As I looked at the boots of the guys that had been here for a while, I could see that they were just ‘dirty’. Not that they weren’t clean people, or that they didn’t take care of themselves – they had just been walking in this mud for months. And it showed. Something to get used to, I gathered.

The first day turned into a 12 hour day. Not too bad, so I headed to my room to unpack a bit – as much as I could anyway – and relax before sleep. There was a surprise when we returned to the room – a gentleman from The Netherlands. Reminding myself that this was temporary housing, I introduced myself as best I could, and settled a bit.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The General

It was, at least, a beautiful sunny day when I woke. It was not warm, unfortunately, but at least sunny. You gotta take what you can get. My first day at work, after a night of ‘some’ sleep, started at 6am. I showered in the Cadillac (bathroom/shower), shaved, donned my uniform, ate breakfast, and showed up at the comm. shack. The guy I was replacing, Capt. Tom Pries, was there, and ready to leave. He had been preparing for 2 months. I did not blame him. He was already short – and getting shorter. He gave me the tour, filling my head with things I would no doubt forget before I needed them, but he continued to do so for the day I had him. He let me know he would be with me as long as I needed that day, and he would be leaving the next day. I guess that week long turnover we had been promised would not be happening. So I attempted to glean as much from him as I could. One of the most important things he did was leave me a list of phone numbers and email addresses for whom to contact for various issues, problems and concerns. This list would be very valuable over the next few weeks. He also wanted to introduce me to Major General Kennedy.

I had never met a general before, let alone a two star general. The Adjugent General of Illinois is only a Brigidere (one star) General. So to say I was a bit intimated would be stretching the truth a bit – I was completely freaked. However, within seconds of meeting the man, I was at ease. He exuded confidence – in the way a commander should, I suppose – but even in the midst of a war, which is exactly where we were, the man appeared calm, even tempered and sure of himself, and his mission. He attempted – and succeeded – to let me know what we were doing here, how important it is, and how important my job, and those that work for me, are, in completing the mission of the entire camp. We are essential. I believed every word he said, and gained not only a greater understanding of the man – but my role in this war – and my importance. I think you can meet people and get an idea of their character, or lack of. I believe MG Kennedy to be a man of character. This deployment was getting more interesting – and less dreaded, as the day went on.

Welcome to HQ

We pulled into the base, high walls, narrow streets – and were stopped by the IMP – International Military Police. We got out of the truck, they searched the truck, and we unloaded our weapons. We didn’t drive far – or fast – and we were unloading our gear, and being greeted by the other folks from our unit – folks happy to see us – as we were them. We stopped in billeting and got keys, signed some papers, and got our temporary ID’s.

We got our bags and began moving into our rooms. The NATO buildings were indeed temporary – but hardened. Each building was surrounded by walls of concrete – they were obviously doubling as bunkers. That was somewhat ominous and daunting. The buildings were basically single units – each about the size of ½ a semi truck trailer – connected together with a hallway down the center – like a college dorm. As I entered the – very cold – room, I noticed 4 beds, some lockers and a couple wooden’ish units. Wow. Tiny was the first thought. It’ll work – we are not in tents, so I wanted to make the best of it. I began to stack my – multiple at this point – bags, under the bed, unpacking what I could into one of the wall units. There was barely enough room to walk between the bed & the wall unit. I got out my sleeping bag, some uniforms, essentials, and left the rest in bags under my bed. We left and got ready to go to chow – as we hadn’t had a mean since the day before. It was dinner, so we headed off to the chow hall with our guys, and signed in and ate a hearty meal.

Since NATO has lots of European countries, the food was mostly European in nature. The meats were typically a bit more fatty – the vegetables were good, and the fruits plenty. There was also a curry dish, with rice, and a selection of 2 cold meats, and 2 cheeses, right next to the smallish salad bar. The best find of the night – the coffee/cappuccino/espresso machines down the center of the chow hall – 4 of them. Plenty. This was indeed good news.

That first night was probably the worst night. It was wet – we were in cold small buildings – and we had just left what seemed like a very comfortable place in Qatar. My feelings would change, but I was not initially looking forward to this long deployment.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Driving to HQ ISAF

The men driving these trucks were young – probably early 20’s – but our lives were in their hands. As we drove out of the airport – they gave us a briefing about what would be happening, where we were going, and what to expect. They drive fast – not because they were racing – but to stay safe. They would be talking and looking for anything suspicious – and they encouraged us to do the same. Keep our eyes open, look around, and don’t be afraid to speak up if we see something out of the ordinary. This is not safe, this route has been hit – not recently – but it has. We needed to keep our heads about us, and make sure that we are aware of everything around us. I think back to the Academy of Military Science, where I got my commission – and all the talks on situational awareness - being aware of what is going on, at all times, around you. We were taught this skill as a reminder to not let things go unnoticed – as leaders, we should always be aware. This may be my test of this skill.

As I tried to look out the armored windows – which was not easy in full armor and helmet – looking up was difficult – I could see despair. It was almost in the air, and it was thick. The land was pocked with holes, the ‘homes’ were no more than hovels, except for what looked like industrial buildings that had been sectioned off where people were living, they were about the size of a single bedroom back home. The people were just like what I’d seen on TV – walking around with the clothing that was loose and sparse – but covering. Except for the kids – I saw a 4 year old with no shoes. Shopping carts were there as well – but no shopping centers. I did see a few ‘stores’ – although they were either in small – 10’ x 10’ – in the side of the road in a cart – or in one of the holes in a building. The roads were dirt – the walls surrounding the various military buildings were tall, and covered in razor wire. We stopped twice on the drive, pulling in and stopping for a few minutes, and then driving on. As we drove near the US embassy – you could see the increased US presence, the walls, and the nice buildings on the other side.

I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I thought I would be. Our drivers were professionals; talking – almost chattering – as we drove about everything I could see on the road, every vehicle, every pedestrian that was anywhere near the road. The roads were not easily accessible or wide – there were cars on the sides of the road, and people just walked out in front of us. I knew if it came to it – we would hit them – but the drivers did not.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


If you have never flown in a full on military aircraft – flying on a C-130 could be quite a shock. The middle of the plane has some metal cylinders with a red thin material – probably polyester – like what you would find on a folding chair – what we refer to as sling seats. There were seat belts – but I’m not really sure what good they did. So we settled in. The heat felt great – at first, but after a couple hours, I think my skin actually started to cook and I became very uncomfortable. This had to be one of the longest rides of my life. The flight took just under 5 hours, with heat on me full blast the whole flight.

As we unloaded from the plane onto the tarmac at KIAK (Kabul international airport), I took a moment to take in the scenes. It looked like we had landed in a 3rd world country, as we had. Small buildings – looking like they had been built in the last century, sparse settings, snow, cold, etc. Not much to see.

We walked over to the airport and found an empty room we could hole up in – so we did. We hit the latrine, and unloaded our luggage from the pallet, and took in the sites. There were soldiers from every country I could think of – Italy, Germany, Finland, Poland, Sweden, we even talked to a doctor from Norway that had been in the civilian areas doing surgery on Afghanistani folks. He stated that he had saved more lives in the months that he had been there, than he would the rest of his career. He was beaming, and very proud of the work he had done. Very cool.

We waited, and made some phone calls to see if we had a ride coming, and were told we did. We waited for about an hour or so, and our ride showed up – 2 Land Cruisers with 4 Brits driving. We loaded up our gear on top, and told we had an hour to kill. We decided to check out the multiple PX’s that were around the airport. We hit the German and Italian – as well as the US stores. Very interesting stuff – all different types of camo’s, the German px had the german military full leather over coats – nice. The prices were all in Euro’s – of course, and the selection was limited – but there were iPods, stereos and nice watches all about. I picked up some Swedish chocolate – very good. We body armored up, loaded our weapons, and climbed in the trucks for the 2 mile journey.

Temporary Lodging

All of us had gotten showers and slept on and off for at least a bit – as the accommodations in the airplanes were not that comfortable. The hours we were traveling were odd as well, so most of us were not what I’d call ‘rested’.

Al Udeid was an interesting place. The bathrooms were called “Cadillac’s”. I have no idea why. ‘chow hall’s’ were very large – with a huge variety of foods, drinks, deserts and assorted things to make you fat. There were seve There were cases of water everywhere – mostly by the Cadillac’s but also other areas around base. The water on base was considered non-potable – in other words not safe to drink. Theral types of ice cream – Baskin Robbins no less, there was Gelato – which is an Italian ice cream, but less ‘airy’ than American ice cream. There was a ‘grill’ line where foods were made to order, like burgers & such – and then there was the main line, with at least a couple main courses to choose from. Then there were the ‘buffet’ lines in front – which I gathered would have different or special types of food. The day we were there it was shrimp etouffe and chicken gumbo. The gumbo was mighty fine.

Walking around base was interesting – in that everything looked the same. There were mostly tents – albeit very large tents – and not many permanent structures. The BX (Base Exchange) was a tent, and the venders outside were in trailers. As a quite funny side note – there was indeed a large selection of what the Qatar folks would consider porn – sports magazines, Maxim, FHM, etc. – all for sale at the BX. I guess the ban was only on bringing those magazines into the country – not buying them once you were inside. Interesting.

Included around the BX was Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway and a couple local jeweler & rug shops. There was a very nice flag line next to the common area – under the ‘bra’ – which was a large tent shaped like a bra but that was just a cover, no sides. There was a base theater that ran all day – and showed recent and first run movies. It seemed to be going 24/7 – I did not get a chance to take in a movie, but wanted to. There were a couple gyms on base, with a gymnasium for basketball and another workout building with different machines & treadmills. There was a ‘media’ building – with computers for checking email and even some with webcams for chatting with friends & family – and a bank of phones for morale calls. These are the phones folks can use to call home during a deployment. Folks were supposed to be limited to two 15 minute calls a week. Although the only accounting they did was for the 20 minutes you were in there – you get 5 minutes for connecting the call – which was sometimes enough.

After checking out everything, I decided to get a bit of shut eye. I asked Major Bill Thomas to wake me before heading to his meeting at 12 to confirm our flight and figured I’d get some midnight chow with them before we headed out on our flight. We did that – got some breakfast and headed back to the tent to get ready with the guys. I did sleep a little bit more before being waked at 2 to head out.

I didn’t end up sleeping much – but did listen to my iPod a bit, and charged it getting ready for the 5 hour flight to Kabul. We started the out processing by starting out with turning in our linen and keys, turning in our alcohol ration cards, and ‘signing out’ of billeting. That didn’t take long, so we got on the bus to head over to ‘ops town’ for our flight. We started off getting our ____ gear – which consisted of our body armor, helmets, chem. Gear and what nots. That was one more heavy bag we had to carry. We then went and gathered our ‘checked baggage’, which still remained on the other side of the customs wall, which was going to be palletized for our trip. After doing that, and out-processing through the Qatarian government’s customs – which was a simple check off on their form – we were in the herding area waiting for our flight. We grabbed some food from the ‘grab and go’ facility – which turned out to be pretty decent travel food, and hit the waiting room. It was now about 5 am – this had taken about 3 hours, and our flight left around 8. So we got to ‘sit and chill’ for 3 hours. Fun indeed.

When the time arrived, we were rushed into another waiting room, to wait we thought – so we took off the body armor, and prepared to wait. Not 2 minutes later we were hurried outside to get on a bus to be taken to the plane. We waited about 10 minutes, and drove to the plane – which wasn’t prepped yet. So again – we waited about 15 minutes on a bus with no heat (it was about 20 degrees outside), but at least we were out of the wind. After waiting, and watching the maintenance crew perform some odd ritual of all standing atop the wing furthest away from the fuselage, and waving back & forth. . . we entered the plane. The wait was much shorter – we were given a briefing and on our way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Arriving in Qatar, early morning, we were ushered off by groups, and taken to a in processing area. This was reminiscent of basic training. We were taken into one of the tents for a briefing. At the beginning of the brief – we were taken out by a lieutenant and told we didn’t need the briefing. So we proceeded to get our bags, line them up and get ready to in process into Qatar for what could be a week or two.

Then we had to wait for the planes to be unloaded – and our bags brought to our area. This was no airport baggage claim. The bags were loaded onto 2 flatbed semi trucks and unloaded by all the passengers. We formed a couple lines and lined the bags up into several rows so that we could all walk between them and locate our things. Having 3 bags, 1 guitar case with my bass, and a gun case with my 9mm and my M4, I was on the lookout. Our guys – I believe it was Major Bill Thomas and SSgt Alejandro (Alex) Saldivar – were on the lookout for our weapons and putting them into one area so we could get them to the weapons area. We were briefed by the Lieutenant that had pulled us earlier – we need to be first in line to drop off weapons or we would be there for a long time. We pulled all the weapons early and headed over as soon as the trucks were all unloaded. We were first. ;) We got our guns checked in, and headed over to get our ‘checked bags’ into a single pile, so we could get them when we checked out of Qatar, whenever that was – be it days or weeks later. The Lt said that it probably wouldn’t rain – but we may want to throw some plastic over them just in case. We did.

Part of being in other countries as invited guests, as we are considered while military members, means that we are required to follow that countries rules and customs. One of the most stringent customs of Qatar involves the fact that there are a majority of its citizens who are Muslim. As Muslims, there are certain practices that are forbidden, which we as military members, must also refrain from. The first – and most important – at least in the way it was presented to us – is the ban on pornography. We were repeatedly warned to not bring pornography into the country, under fear of certain arrest, holding in a military cell and deportation back to our military unit. Now, what most folks think of porn is not the same as what Qatarians think of porn. We were told that magazines such as Maxim, Sports Illustrated, or even Men’s Fitness (where there are partially clothed models – albeit body building models – that would be considered ‘porn’. We all have what we refer to as ’72 hour bags’ – which contain enough cosmetics, personal items, and uniforms to get us through 72 hours. We were told that we were currently assigned to no mission, and that there is nothing currently scheduled for us to get to Kabul. So we may be at Al Udeid for up to a couple of weeks. We got all magazines out of our 72 hour bags, and proceeded to go through customs.

Talk about a let down – I walked through customs, after setting off the alarm, grabbed my bag and walked out the door without the Qatar officials even blinking an eye. According to some folks – I was told that they must have not found any porn that day – and were very nonchalant about us coming through. That was fine with me – I was okay with not drawing any attention to us.

We then proceeded to billeting, and assigned a temporary cot in a transient tent. We got our linens, and then got our alcohol ration cards. On Al Udeid, alcohol was allowed to be consumed, but all personnel were limited to 3 drinks per day, from 9:00am to 2:00am. We got settled, showered and changed, ate and then slept on and off. We visited the BX (base exchange) to shop for anything we needed, hit the base bar for a beer (at 10am no less). Of course, with our jet lag and traveling, most of us felt like it was late at night. After we all went for dinner we were told our flight was scheduled for the next morning, early – so we needed to be up by 2:00 am to start out-processing everything we needed to leave the base and get on to Kabul. So time for a bit more rest before taking off.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Air Travel

The day came, I was packed and ready, and headed off to the airport at the brisk & chilly time of 4:30 am. Being January – it was cold walking from the parking lot to the airport – the last time I’d see Peoria for a while.

The guys arrived in good order, and their families, and as we were lining up to get our boarding passes, we had to open our gun cases to show the agents so they could be loaded up on the airplane. Our locks wouldn’t open. We just got them, in our BAMS gear – but they would not open. So we had to send back to base to get a lock cutter and remove them. There were 2 of us this happened to – which meant it wasn’t just me. Anyway – after that, got through security, got on the plane, and flew towards Atlanta.

Atlanta was unremarkable. We were only at the airport for about an hour or so, and then on to what is commonly referred to BWI – Baltimore Washington International Airport. It is ‘The’ airport for the folks going ‘over there’.

The airport has many amenities – among them the USO office. Since we were going to be there for an extended amount of time – which was extended even beyond that – we checked out the USO; Food, a wide screen TV, comfortable chairs, free wifi (my personal favorite) and a storage location for all our gear and our guns, so we could try the local cuisine while we waited. We were originally scheduled to leave the airport at 9:30pm. This is after arriving at about noon. The flight was pushed back, first to 10:30, then midnight, then – when we were finally told that there were some maintenance issues with the plane, 20 minutes after our flight was supposed to leave – we ended up leaving at 2:30am.

This was a very long flight. We were originally scheduled to go to Ireland – which I was personally excited about – but we ended up going to Germany. I thought Germany was going to be great. But, alas, we ended up staying in the airport – sampling the USO free wifi again (my favorite) and leaving after about an hour. The line for security here was very long. All the folks on the DC-10 I was on had to go back through security. There were about 250 folks. From Germany, we were on to Italy! Another great country! When we landed – it was pouring rain, they ushered us into a hanger – where some very nice folks fed us snacks & coffee – and after about an hour and a half – we loaded up on another plane, on our way to Al Udeid, Qatar.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Leaving Soon

You know, at first – it just didn’t seem real. I’d always known that being deployed was possible – it’s just that after being in the Air National Guard for 17 years, and being deployed the sum total of once, and that for the Mississippi flood back in 93 – that going to the Middle East was just not going to happen. When the Colonel walked past my office and told me – “You better make sure you are ready to deploy in the next couple of months” – it was just like, oh, ok. Whatever.

But then it started getting more real. I was getting gear issued to me – this was new – uniforms ordered, my DCU’s (desert combat uniform), my weapons – the 9mm M-9, and the M-16 replacement, the M-4. I was finishing up all my classes online and at drill. I was being given a list of things to remember to pack. We were talking about line numbers, and flights to Afghanistan, and Rotators (the plane that takes us to the Theater of Operations). It was just getting real.

I discussed with my boss at State Farm – and she was very helpful. Asking what she could do to help, scheduling meetings with my team mates to ensure my job functions would be covered while I was gone, and just generally being helpful & supportive. Karen is a great boss. My team mates were also very supportive – even though they would be doing my work for me for 6 months. No complaints at all. Good stuff.

Early December, I stopped work at State Farm – with a ‘parade’ – cake, flyers – the whole shebang set up by my boss and the MAG – Military Affinity Group – at State Farm. Talk about a humbling experience. I had been in those parades for guys leaving before, seen the flags & well wishers, been a hand shaker – but for whatever reason, just didn’t really feel like it was something that I deserved to have done for me. I mean, I’m just going on a trip to do my job. Be the Communications Officer. I’ve been training for it for years…’s just my job. No big deal. I was treated like a real VIP. The parade was simply awesome – about 300 yards of folks lining the hallway and cheering as I walked by. Shaking my hands – thanking me – it was surreal. It was humbling. It was difficult to not cry the entire time I walked the line. Then – since this was on my floor – the 3rd – at the end we walked downstairs to the 2nd floor and did it all again! It was, simply incredible.

I started at the base early December, just mostly pulling my drills that I would miss during my deployment (drill is the ‘weekend’ of duty that we do once a month. They are also called UTA – Unit Training Assemblies). As I was doing this, wearing the uniform day in day out, and getting ready to go, it was getting more ‘real’ – but still a long way off.

The last weekend with the kids was amazing. We had just a normal weekend – doing dinner – a movie and that kind of thing – but at church, as people were saying “see ya later” to me, and after the pastor and some elders laid hands on me to pray for me & my family – the kids started to understand that it was happening – as did I. On the way home from church, Gena started asking questions – how long would I be gone, if I would buy her a doll, or a teddy bear, and if I was going to die in Afghanistan. Wow. Isaiah then asked if I would be ‘out of harms way’? I did my best to assure them I would be completely safe, out of the way of danger – on a base, no less, and that I would return to them safe & sound. I’m not sure if I was convincing them or me.