Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cornhole on the FOB

I am standing outside in my pt uniform. It’s probably 75 degrees out with a light breeze. We’re finishing off a back-and-forth cornhole match. I polish off the near beer (the non-alcoholic variety) in my left hand (my second of the night) and let fly a high-arching bean bag toss. It thunks down on the target 30 feet away scoring our team a point. What am I doing here? I'm on a forward operating base somewhere not too far from Iran, drinking near beer, and playing cornhole. I have to give it to the Army. They know how to make the most of their living arrangements. The office we are working out of while we are here is made up of an eclectic mix of cavalry soldiers, civil affairs soldiers, a provincial reconstruction team State Department civilian, and now us. When they got here, they took over a corner of this building and built their own desks, partitioned off their own sleeping quarters and bunk beds, and built a cornhole set all in just a few months time.

We're here to help write up project packages for various cities in the local province. Most deal with repairs, infrastructure improvements, and new construction. Others, however, are titled “flexible maintenance worker” programs. These are the projects designed to keep people from blowing us up. Hopefully by paying people to clean up the streets and canals they will not seek employment elsewhere. It’s a strategy that has seen remarkable success here but one which is also entirely temporary and not sustainable. Already, similar programs in and around Baghdad are being dropped due to cost by the Iraqi government. I'm thinking that those young men cannot continue to support their families without jobs forever. So if we can't help find them jobs, who’s going to pay to keep food on the table?

We arrived here at a busy time in the midst of some intense discussion about the way forward in this province. Leadership is pushing hard to have over fifty new projects drawn up and bid out as soon as possible. This came down after high-ups started questioning why no new projects were being done in their battle space. The unfortunate reaction to this pressure may have been an overreaction. Liaisons were pressured to seek out projects from the local mayors and government officials. Promises of new roads, schools, wells, etc. were quickly passed out. Now, a month and a half later, people are wondering why there are delays. It's hard to find just one answer. One officer here, recently back from his two weeks of mid-term leave is livid. He thinks the Iraqi government should drive the effort for infrastructure improvements from here on out now that we've set timetables for withdrawal. If they want new wells, they need to tell us where they should be situated, give us information about the depth of the water table, geological soil strata information, population data, and an assurance that any water pumped out of the ground will have the means to make it to homes, schools, and hospitals where it can be used appropriately. This office has only been able to gather scraps of this information from the local authorities.

The response they most often hear from government officials is "Enshallah…" This word, meaning roughly “if God wills it”, or “as God wills it” when used in a sentence like, “We will have that data to you by the end of the week enshallah,” is starting to sound increasingly like, “There is a distinct possibility that you will never get the data that you need,” to the people who work here. Of course, this frantic pace is simply not how things have always been done here. The slower, more easy going pace of life in the Middle East, clashes hard against the go-go-go American work ethic. As a result, we have built wells without waiting for the groundwater surveys first to confirm the presence of clean water beneath the surface. We have also built schools and clinics without first ensuring teachers or medical technicians are hired and proper supplies are provided. One such school has since become home to transient goat herders who are thankful, I’m sure, to now have a nice, dry, multi-million dollar place to rest their heads, and their goats.

You can bet that in the states if you threw all your money and best engineers at an infrastructure problem it would get done faster. Here? Things just don’t work like that. My friend and I are here because someone thought that the civil affairs office needed some engineers to help speed up the process of getting these projects executed. Turns out this office has done everything in their power and the ball’s not in their court for the majority of the projects. It hasn’t been for some time.

We got to go on a site visit with the CA team to a meeting they were having with the mayor of a nearby city where they were discussing project requirements. For my friend and I, this mostly entailed sitting in a truck for several hours. I am proud to announce that I have now had my first (and second) successful "pee in a bottle in an MRAP" experiences.

We were scheduled to go on another site visit to see a culvert project the next day but our ride back to Balad ended up being early in the day and we had to skip out. I'm not sure we would have added much to that effort seeing as how the project is already half completed. However, it would have been another good eyes-on learning experience which is how we walked away measuring the value of this trip as a whole. I learned a lot about some of the road blocks we continue to face here in the rebuilding efforts. I learned about how progress is often slowed by internal bickering between competing units and perhaps overzealous leaders, but that just as often progress is happening, only it’s at a slower, Iraqi pace.

Still, it's hard for me not to worry that all of these ongoing, rebuilding efforts are coming too late. I can make no recommendations or grand assumptions about the current strategies in place based on this one trip alone, but I leave this FOB with the words of the State Department representative still ringing in my ears: “You didn’t hear it from me… But this place would be better off tomorrow if we left today. I guarantee it.” Are we trying too hard?

My buddy and I win the last cornhole match of the night. Tuesday we fly home in a Blackhawk helicopter.

The countryside is surprisingly green where canals crisscross patchwork villages and fields. Palm trees with brick and stucco one and two-story homes line the streets.

I watch one of our gunners track a pickup as it rumbles down a dirt road toward a farm. This place has seen its share of turmoil, war, and strife. The people who remain have survived Saddam’s ruthlessness and a lifetime of war. I am certain for better, or for worse, they will survive us.


  1. Tim,
    Excellent reading from your arrival to games at the Forward Operating Base. Keep that hard work ethic up and that well educated head down.
    By the way, is that you wielding the handsaw?

  2. Tim - so good to see pics and hear about what's going on over there! Take good care of yourself! Kelly & Tiane, small group