Saturday, June 27, 2009

Everyone's an Engineer

June 27

About a month ago I visited a school in Eastern Iraq. We were doing a walk-through to determine if a statement of work we’d received from an Iraqi contractor covered all of the necessary repairs to make the school into a comfortable and safe learning environment for the kids. Throughout our visit, the students were having their lessons tucked away in one of the six or seven total classrooms. The others were vacant due to some combination of electrical, cooling, or safety deficiency, or due to the fact that there simply weren’t enough students (or teachers) there to merit use of another room. As we walked from room to room, around the perimeter, and even climbed up onto the roof of the school, we saw pretty much what we expected to see: broken or leaking pipes, worn out water and hot-water tanks, and finishes that were cracked, rusted and dirty. The main workings of the place, however, were in good order. They had duct work, to supply air conditioning to all of the rooms. It just wasn’t being used because they didn’t have working air conditioning units. They had power running to each of the rooms but it wasn’t working in all of them for one reason or another.

It was my first time in and around Iraqi children and I was once again surprised by their reaction to our presence. There were some young mothers in one of the front rooms and they noticeably held their babies closer as they nervously smiled at the soldiers poking around the building with guns in hand. The kids, however, acted as if there were clowns or circus performers walking around. They called out to us and smiled as we walked by the windows conducting our survey. When the teacher finally realized she was going to get no further attention out of them while we were there, they were released for recess, and they quickly ran laughing up to the soldiers “standing guard” around the perimeter. Most of the soldiers obliged their requests and dished out high fives and handshakes. It really was an incredible sight to see children running up to heavily armed foreign men crowding around them hands outstretched for high fives, or hoping to be fortunate and receive a free pencil or pen. My buddy made the mistake of giving his only pencil and pen to a kid on a separate trip very early into his walk-around (that time he was out inspecting a water tower) forcing him to not only have to remember a whole lot more from the trip (having nothing to write down his notes with), but also sending a wave of additional kids towards him for more free stuff. I avoided that awkwardness by smiling at them and taking a lot of pictures. The kids were very photogenic.

After about an hour, we thanked the headmaster for his time and as we headed back to the Strykers the kids started up an impromptu soccer match in the front yard of the school. There were no visible goals, or teams for that matter that I could see. The out of bounds on one side was the school although I think it was anything goes for playing it off the walls. I’m guessing that the barbed wire on the ground was out on the other side.

As we headed for our rides, the interpreter with us asked me a few questions about the project and what specifically we were going to be working on. I explained to him the extent of repairs we were looking at doing to which he quickly replied that his brother was a contractor, that could do the work, and he could do it for cheap. In Iraq, everyone is an engineer...

...We develop good working relationships with our contractors back home. In my office back in the states we have a multi-year contract established with a company to accomplish small construction projects around base, everything from repairs to some new minor construction jobs. We see the same project managers on a weekly or biweekly basis at our progress meetings and converse repeatedly with them during the time in between, around the job sites, over the phone, and through email. In that sort of partnership it would be natural for friendships to develop over time. However, the American system is very suspicious of these sorts of relationships, especially between government and civilian contractors, and there are strict laws in place to prohibit even the slightest “unprofessional” business relationships from developing that may lead to favoritism in future contract decisions. When our contractor decided to host a barbeque to raise money for a coworker who had fallen ill and was in the hospital, my boss made it absolutely clear to all of us that we were not to exceed the suggested donation amount and reminded us of the consequences of accepting gifts/meals/etc. for free in the future if ever the situation was to arise. I don’t like having to be cold in my interactions with people I deal with every day but as someone who could one day be involved in the selection of the next company who will hold our construction contract, I get it. I can't play favorites.

The past performance of a company in a contract (ours or another elsewhere) is an important component of the selection process and is a way that we can take into account how well (or poorly) a company’s employees got along with the members of our office. This is also how, after taking all other applicants into account, the same company can win back the contract. We know them. We’ve seen their work, their professionalism, their punctuality at meeting deadlines, and we feel comfortable with them and their price. However, I could not hire my brother’s company (due to our relationship only), even if I was the one with the final say. If his was in the running for the job, or he wanted to apply, I would likely have to step aside from the final decision for conflict of interest reasons and await the final decision by the other members of the committee.

This is a very far cry from the way business is done in the Middle East. Here in Iraq, it seems to be an expected practice to hire relatives or family friends for government contracts. To not do so would be insulting regardless of their professional experience or ability. It is almost as if when you elect an official for a government position, you are handing his whole family the key to the city. On a separate occasion we stopped by a village to ask a question about a project and asked a few locals who saw us if they could bring us to the mayor of the town so we could speak to him. Instead, his brother showed up and started talking to us as if he spoke for the town. I don’t know if he had been appointed official proxy for his brother or not, but I doubt it. One brother is elected and all others are immediately shareholders of his authority. Everyone can be mayor.

Where a pyramid is often the shape used to depict the authority structure in the United States, with the President on the top, citizens on the bottom, the general on top, the soldiers on the bottom, I wonder if an inverted pyramid might be a better way to look at the Iraqi structure. There are so many government representatives that at the end of the day it’s hard to tell who holds what authority and who they actually lead to accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish. Not surprisingly the flow of money doesn’t work very well in this sort of arrangement. The money changes hands so many times that at the end of the day it’s hard to say exactly how much has reached the intended people/project. Along the way everyone gets their cut. Everyone gets their share...

...It has been daunting to take on some of the project designs we have seen during my first few months here. Yes, I’ve done renovations and repairs back home. Those I have some experience with. What, on the other hand, did I know about lining a canal to reduce losses due to seepage before coming here? When did I ever design a fence to keep sand from blowing onto train tracks or did I investigate the best methods for preventing gravel roads from washing out during heavy rains? There is no all-inclusive text book with detailed instructions for accomplishing these tasks. Even if there was, it would include instructions for only generic cases, not for every possibility.

And so, we start every new project here by doing two things. We check our database of existing and completed projects to see if we’ve done something similar in the past that we can adapt to the new circumstances. If that doesn’t pan out, we turn to google. I have become a highly proficient google-er, able to find what I’m looking for after a few tries. Sometimes you have to be creative. My officemate got us started on the sand fence by looking first at snow fences, something he was vaguely familiar with from living up north where they’re widely used. I found a website that sold a dust-screen product primarily intended for keeping dust from blowing off of construction sites by doing a google-search for “dust-mitigation products.” From these separate sites we were able to create, to extrapolate, a solid recommendation and cost estimate for the project to go forward. Was anything we did to gather all of the necessary information above or beyond what any other person given the same desired end-state could have done? Anyone with a computer certainly would have stumbled across the same information we did given the right amount of time. So, anyone can be engineer, right?

I appreciate engineering school much more after the fact. In school I was often frustrated by the lack of practical examples given in lectures but I am now beginning to understand that what we were intended to learn was not necessarily how to solve a series of specific design questions, but rather how to approach problems, break them down, gather all the necessary and available data, and then arrive at a solution, often not the only solution, but hopefully the best solution to the problem. It is here where I realize that there is hope for us engineers after all (we are not yet obsolete). It is impossible to list every problem imaginable online. By the time you do, new ones have risen. You cannot “How-to” the world. Even in the military engineers' world, one that does not always have time for thinking outside of the box (or the standard sized, standard design, wood personnel structure), there are situations that arise that are outside the norm. And that’s why we are here, in Iraq, right now. Because everyone can’t do what we do. Google and Wikipedia may give people access to the same information, but that's as far as they go.

Everyone is not an engineer... Not even in Iraq.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

From the Ground Up

June 18

For a city planner, it would be a dream come true.
For Iraq, it is a chance to start over.
For me, it’s time to get to work.

Over the past several weeks my team has taken on the enormous task of rebuilding one of Iraq’s most volatile provinces from the ground up. No. They haven’t given us shovels and pushed us out the door. Rather we are in the process of constructing a series of Provincial Master Plans which will serve as much-needed guidelines for infrastructure improvements and sustainment projects. A couple of years back I ran into a book entitled “The Works” by Kate Ascher, that does a great job of examining the intricate details that go into keeping a large city like, in the case of the book, New York City, up and running on a daily basis. The not so simple truth is that a city is made up of hundreds of moving parts that enable us to go about our days as we please that we barely even notice, let alone appreciate. When you turn on your faucet you know that clean water will fill your cup. It won’t make you sick. It won’t be brown or have a foul odor. The intricate processes behind flushing toilets, hot showers any time of day (unless you are unfortunate enough to have to shower after all of your sisters), uninterrupted power, telephones, the internet, even things like fresh bread and milk on the shelf at the store and the latest and greatest cds, dvds, and sneakers available for sale at the mall are easy to overlook when they’re all you’ve ever known. You simply expect those things to work and to be there but where does the clean water come from? How about the electricity? How and where is sewage collected and treated and what keeps the delivery trucks on time? There are countless other maintenance and improvement projects that go on behind the scenes round the clock to provide us with a way of life that we rarely take the time to appreciate, that is, until those services are disrupted. Then we notice. And then we get upset.

Here at Balad, we enjoy some of the same luxuries as back home but with subtle, yet, what can be annoying at times inconveniences. Yesterday’s two-hour power outage in the middle of the work day in our building is a good example of one we didn’t mind too much because it meant we got to go home early. Having to walk to a central location to shower and shave or walk 10 minutes to use the internet and eat are reminders that we are not at home although the fact that we even have these things at all makes it very difficult to feel justified in complaining. I don’t. We have it good here. Contrast life on base with that of the people just outside our barbed wire fences. They can expect to have anywhere from 2-6 hours of uninterrupted electricity in their homes on a good day, if they’re lucky. Some Iraqis maintain their own generators to pick up the slack when the local power plants fall short using fuel they ration from their personal vehicles to keep the lights on at home. The water treatment plants skip the treatment part and pump water straight from the wells, rivers, and canals to homes and schools for drinking and washing. Sewage treatment plants are non-existent. Trash is burned in shallow pits, the smoke of which is inevitably inhaled by all downwind residents including us. No matter how many medical studies are published that tell me I can expect no adverse reactions from breathing in traces of the smoke that drifts on base from local towns and from our own burn pits here on base, it’s hard to feel comfortable walking from my room to work every day with the fumes of yesterday’s trash wafting over me the effects of which are no doubt compounded by the dust blowing in particles of God knows what from God knows where else in Iraq.

Still, from afar, I say the opportunity we’ve been given is every academic city planner’s dream come true: the chance to build a city from the ground up. As part of our Civil Engineer officer course we were given a series of lessons that taught us how to do just that. Our skill set focuses on establishing new bases in the middle of nowhere, no matter the conditions. When the need arises, we can design and build new camps compounds, design runways, set up water treatment and electrical plants as well as their associated distribution networks and every other task to get boots on the ground in a fully operational base within a very short period of time. This is why we are so vital to military operations around the world and continue to be among the most deployed members of the Air Force.

From afar, this is what the situation appears to be around Iraq where there is very little, and in some places, no existing infrastructure in place. If anything, there certainly is a lot less than you’ll find on any of the now-well-established coalition military bases.

The miracle of New York City has been its ability to take on increasing volumes of full and part time occupants for over 350 years while continuing to provide resources and vital services to New Yorkers and visitors. All of this expansion and growth has not been without its costs, however. It has taken incredible investments in capital and manpower to keep the city running 24 hours a day while it continues to expand and reinvent itself on a daily basis. Few would argue that a constant construction zone represents the ideal living environment. Yet, things like crowded streets, traffic, pollution, and, at times, rolling power outages, have become a part of life there, and they are part of what makes New York, New York. An academic city planner’s dream come true is to be given a set of requirements for a city, a population, a list of needs and growth rates, and to start from square one with today’s design tools and monitoring equipment and get to work; to build something from nothing. Bigger picture societal questions concerning the “best places” to live and raise families aside, there is no question that the most efficient way to design a city and build its infrastructure is not piecemeal over the course of several centuries, but instead rapidly over several years before the population moves in, leaving room for future expansion and growth opportunities.

This, essentially, is the situation here in Iraq. In cities where thousands of citizens have left, run away, or been killed, we have been given the chance to help them start over, give them somewhere to come home to, a place they can be proud of, and a series of city networks and infrastructure that they can count on.

This is our task!

Unfortunately, as we learned from our travels into some of the cities and around the countryside, we are not exactly starting from square one. We are not dealing with a series of several large cities connected by well-defined networks of highways and so this is not the city planner’s ideal situation. We don’t have an empty stretch of pristine land (overflowing with milk and honey) from which we can erect the next city of the future. We have stretches of desert spotted with tattered fields fed by rapidly crumbling canals. We have cities that are not vertically-oriented like New York. They sprawl. One-and-two-story brick and mortar homes and offices built sporadically and with no zoning or planning standards are the norm. Other than those in the biggest cities and the primary highways, streets here are “paved” with gravel and dirt (no, not cheese), and are the culprits of much of the dust clouds that hang over everything. I have spent the better part of this past week developing a Provincial Pavement Management System document (I am told it will delivered to local authorities tomorrow for their approval), the intent of which is to provide guidance for road maintenance, for prioritizing and budgeting for road improvement construction projects, and offering suggestions for construction and safety standards to be adopted throughout the province. I don’t recall driving on very many paved roads on any of my travels. I don’t recall seeing a single traffic signal (although they seem to be big believers here in the traffic circle, something that serves a similar purpose and is slowly beginning to catch on back in the states). There are no lanes painted on the roads or speed limit signs posted. Ironically, though, with all of the crazy driving I saw out of the window of my MRAPs on my drives, I didn’t witness any accidents or see any evidence of past accidents.

Although, I would love to see the beginning of the implementation of the road improvement plans while I am still here in country, it is actually the lack of paved roads and sidewalks that will make any eventual infrastructure projects infinitely simpler and cheaper than they would be otherwise. Maybe they should focus on first things first. And here is where the city planner’s dream, at least in part, can come true. We have the chance to help the Iraqis do it right the first time before they’ve paved every square meter (we’re training ourselves to speak in metric here, English units aren’t used in construction in Iraq) of their towns. Generally speaking, we have a good grasp on the demand requirements. In other words, we know how many people are already here, and we can guess how many will return in the near future. Using best practices, we can lay out the piping and conduit sensibly and with accuracy and foresight now, enabling the delivery of working networks of electricity, water, and waste disposal in a much shorter timeframe and for a smaller price tag. Our goal is to deliver master planning guidelines, many of which are based on proven successful practices in the US, for all of the essential infrastructure components, documents that will become maps from which Iraqi companies can begin the long road to recovery…

…It snowed last night. On our walk home from work in the evening we got caught in the worst dust storm I’ve seen here to date. Visibility was severely limited (maybe 30 meters) and breathing was a chore. When we finally made it back to our CHU my roommate and I looked like albinos; our hair, eyebrows, and skin were powdered white by a layer of dust that covered every inch (centimeter) of us from head to toe. I ran my hand through my hair and a cloud of dust that would have made Pigpen proud leapt into the air. My glasses were dusted over, my shirt and shorts were a mess. Outside the wind starting picking up, throwing dust into the buildings and, I’m sure, doing no good to the air conditioner filters or any poor sole still stuck outside’s lungs. There was little refuge in the bathrooms. Enough dust had blown in to cloud them up and set off the smoke detectors in all of the shower facilities. Maintenance workers, faces covered with bandanas like bandits darted in and out of the buildings to try to turn off the alarms and close all the windows. I stopped by the porta potty this morning on my way to the gym and the same layer of dust that had settled on everything else outside had somehow found its way inside and onto the toilet seat. Everything from the door handle of our room to the bike parked outside of our neighbor’s room was coated like a fresh layer of snow. Our shoes left footprints on the sidewalk as we made our way to work.

Dust storms and high temperatures are a part of life in Iraq. The people who live here know this and I’m sure they keep a broom by the door to sweep away the soot on days like today. Yet, I worry that in a country where people have survived for so long without sophisticated power distribution networks and sewage systems, they will be less inclined to invest the funds and the time needed to back a complete overhaul of their way of life. It’d be very easy for them to focus on the short-term inconveniences and ignore the potential future benefits, especially in what is still such a volatile part of the country. The Iraqi people have a chance to start over, to build their cities and towns from the ground up. They may not have asked for it, but now what are they going to do with it? Tomorrow, Enshallah, if God wills it, the work will begin.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Memorial

June 8
I do not know Charles Parrish. He may have ridden with me on one of the convoys I took out to a Forward Operating Base. His unit is in charge of route clearance on several of the main thoroughfares that service Diyala, Iraq, a mission that basically entails riding down the streets looking for bombs so that they don't go off on one of the other vehicles that travel the same routes. I am reminded of my dad who will walk barefoot through the kitchen after someone drops a glass on the floor sweeping up the mess all the while saying, "I'd rather I find it with my foot than someone else later with theirs." It is a thankless mission and mostly boring these days. Oftentimes the soldiers battle against the desire to sleep more than against any sort of external enemy.

I assume that their mission on June 4 was no different. Being the combat medic for a platoon is an enormous responsibility. My team has been trained in combat lifesaving, but the skills we have "mastered" pale in comparison to the months of intense training combat medics go through, not to mention the constant practice and studying necessary to keep prepared. An additional responsibility for the medic is to ensure first aid can still be provided for others in the event that they are injured. I am told that Specialist Parrish did an outstanding job passing on his skills to his team, taking a small amount of time whenever he could to gather the group and lead them in life-saving exercises and scenarios. Still, the medic is too valuable an asset to leave in a vulnerable position in the convoy and they are generally stowed away in the back of an MRAP with a head set strapped to their head so they will be ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.

It is difficult for me to picture what went on in those few moments of insanity, and maybe its best I don't speculate or try to picture it. I assume there was little or no warning, that there was no way for them to be ready for what took place. One minute there was the drone of the vehicle's motor, probably drowned out by talk of girls, booze, and fast food between the gunner and the driver coming in over the headset, and then suddenly, there was an explosion, a flash, a bang, shouts for help, gunfire, and finally silence. Later on it was determined that a local resident randomly tossed a grenade at the passing vehicles... he had no specific target in mind... he was just hoping to make contact. This time he got lucky.

It is to his credit as a teacher, that Specialist Parrish made it back to the clinic here at Balad still holding on, having received first aid from his teammates during the critical moments immediately following the attack on his vehicle. I am told that when word circulated that he was in need of blood more than one hundred members of his unit lined up at the clinic, a testimony not only to the value the military places on the individual (perhaps in spite of what the general public might assume about the Army treating people like numbers) but also to its ability to rally to a cause and take action at a moment's notice (once again, perhaps in spite of a sometimes not so glowing reputation for the opposite).

The concert room at the recreation center initially seemed like a strange place to hold a memorial service, but when I got there it was clear that no where else would have had enough space for the event. On stage, the American flag, and the unit flag crossed just above a large framed picture of the fallen soldier highlighted by spotlights. The 500 chairs on the floor facing the stage were filled and over 100 more soldiers, airmen, and contractors stood shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter of the room. Speeches were made by peers and commanders, testimonies to a life cut short, but a life well-lived. He was a prankster, and an educator, motivator, mentor, leader, follower, and friend. He was a big guy, benched over 300 pounds and was to celebrate his 25th birthday in August. I am sad that his four siblings and parents couldn't be there to see what I saw, an audience of men and women captivated by his stories and devastated by the loss of a brother of their own. I am sad that his son, now four, will probably never know much about his father, except that which his mother passes on, having last seen him over a year ago when he left the states for this deployment. One soldier mentioned the father and son's shared excitement at the prospect of playing tee ball together upon his return to the states. Another told a story about a soldier who, several months into their deployment, had not received any mail from home. Specialist Parrish gathered stuff with the other members of the platoon and "mailed" it to him. Apparently that soldier still has the Garfield "I hate Mondays" poster from the package hanging on the wall in his room. Another soldier still gets quarterly updates on the happenings of the sponsored donkey Specialist Parrish signed him up for.

We were asked to take a moment of silence towards the end of the service. About fifteen seconds in, the silence was cut short: Specialist Williams? Here sir! Private Jacobs? Here sir! Specialist Parrish? … Specialist Parrish? … … Specialist Parrish? … … … The sound of a bugle playing taps broke the silence left by the fallen soldier, followed by bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. (I later saw the piper in the back of the room. He looked like a 55-60 year old Irish-man, civilian contractor. Whether he had brought the pipes to Iraq for this specific occasion, or with the thought of playing at similar occasions, I do not know). After the last note was played, for close to ten minutes no one moved. When slowly, those towards the back started to trickle out, his company remained in place, many still at attention in the center of the room, facing the photo of their friend. In ones and twos some finally began to file forward to pay their respects and issue a final salute. When my group decided to leave I stopped by the back table where several pictures were lined up showcasing moments from his deployment to help me better remember his face. The organ started back up as I headed for the exit. The tune carried with us as we walked back out into the midday heat and continued to play in my mind long after we returned to the office:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

In the military, the memorial service is an extension of the axiom: never leave a comrade behind, a way for those closest to the deceased and those like me who never had the privilege of meeting him, to hear his story, and in that way carry his memory home when we leave. I walked into the service not knowing who it was for. I left, reluctantly, not wanting to ever forget.

Spc. Charles D. Parrish, 23, of Jasper, Alabama, died June 4 in Balad, Iraq, of wounds suffered earlier that day in Jalula, Iraq, when his vehicle was struck by an anti-tank grenade. He was assigned to the 5th Engineer Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

His unit will be returning home in mid-July.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gym Class Heroes

June 4
Today we walked to breakfast as we always do around 0745, having woken up at 0600 and worked out. On our way past the gym we turned the corner and nearly walked into a group of about a dozen airmen playing floor hockey on the outdoor basketball court. Somehow they had managed to get their hands on the shin pads and sticks and there they were going at it. Considering the fact that by 8 o’clock in the morning it’s already pushing 90-95 degrees outside, the whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous to me, but having seen other groups run circles around the courts and then do pushups together, I’d say at least this group was getting some laughs out of their sunburns. One of my many goals for this deployment is to avoid running (or exercising at all) outside. So far so good, unless you count the lugging of bags and gear from place to place, activities I’m far too familiar with. With the burn pit smoke wafting over the base in the mornings and evenings, and the dust pretty much filling in the rest of the time, I just don’t see the point. Treadmills, ellipticals, and weights will continue to dominate my time in the gym. My buddy and I have committed to a pretty strict workout regiment and since we spend one to two hours a day in the gym, it’s no surprise that we have developed a small list of random gym moments, and weight-slinging heroes we enjoy sharing a laugh at throughout the rest of the day. It wouldn’t be fair to keep them all to ourselves…

…From our trips around to different FOBs, I’ve developed an appreciation for the way soldiers work out. At least from what I’ve seen, it’s hard to argue with the fact that in general soldiers are in better shape than airmen. This makes sense if you think about the majority of jobs that each side has. It makes sense that airmen who, in general, hold jobs that require them to sit for long periods of time in air conditioned offices (this includes pilots, who also spend the bulk of their time sitting in offices, albeit very small, conditioned, cockpit offices, but still…) would not be in as good shape as soldiers who constantly are out on patrols in the ridiculous heat with their gear and weapons. It comes down to the nature of what each branch brings to the fight, another reason why I’m convinced I made the right career choice, one where I spend most of my time drawing up designs in an office and then periodically go out on construction site visits and inspections, although I’ve definitely enjoyed the chances I’ve had thus far to go out and play Army.

Here at Balad, we have soldiers, airmen, and seamen, with the majority being airmen, although you wouldn’t know that by going to the gym, at least not in the early morning. No… The early mornings are dominated by an even mix of the diehards, the heavy lifters and the big guns from all three services. At least I think that’s what they want me to think. They, more specifically, are the weight slingers, the max-outters, the “can you spot me bro” guys, and most definitely, the screamers. There is never any question that they’re working hard. They know it, and they want everyone in the room to know it. How do they announce the immense effort that they’ve just exerted pushing an absurd amount of weight up into the air? You can hear it a room away. It’s an enormous yell followed by a giant thud as the weights are dropped (usually in close proximity to the “Please do not drop weights” signs posted on the walls), followed up by a “Thanks bro”, and a jubilant lap around the room “shaking it out” and stopping to talk with all of the other weight slingers scattered about the room. As far as we can tell, this pattern is repeated for the greater part of an hour or so until they head home. How these guys see any gains to their strength by following this pattern every time they go to the gym I have no idea. One soldier in particular fits this mold. He’s a big guy. Clearly been lifting for a while. That alone would be enough for him to get noticed but he is one of our most notorious loud-lifters. For a few days in a row we were treated to a double dose of fun during our morning session, a combination of our loud friend, and someone’s bright idea to play Creed through the gym’s stereo system. I don’t have anything against Creed. I actually have (somewhere) most of their CDs back home. Still, there’s something just not right about being asked “Can you take me higher?” while working out, especially when over the music you can hear the grunts-screams-yells of exertion of our friend the weight slinger. I wear headphones but there’s no escaping the two of them, Scott Stapp (Creed’s lead singer) and our red-headed, weight-slinging hero…

…Yesterday walking home from dinner we caught up to our Iraqi Engineer coworkers who were also heading back to their rooms. It’s never the easiest thing to do, to strike up a casual conversation with them, but we try anyhow. One time I managed to talk for a while with one about “football,” him being a big Euro-Cup fan, but usually our Q and A sessions tail off into silence. Anyhow, I hadn’t seen them for most of the afternoon at work, so I asked where they had been and they told me they were at the gym. Curious, I followed that up by asking them what they liked to do at the gym. One of them answered: “We go on the treadmill, light weights, and we do abs!” He knows what I know, that is, the ladies love the abs. Good to know that this fact of life is universal knowledge.

I wonder if it’s as difficult for them to decide which weights to lift here at Balad (since they’re differentiated by increments of pounds) as it was for me the first time I was out at a Forward Operating Base and all of the weights were in kilograms. I spent the majority of my workout trying to figure out how much weight I was lifting. It was a guessing game. I tried to figure out the amounts by eye-balling the weights. Then, towards the end I realized there were signs posted indicating that a kilogram is roughly equal to 2.2 pounds, good to know. The most challenging weight-lifting experience I’ve had was at another FOB where they actually had a combination of weights in kilograms and pounds. It took me more time to figure out how many pound and kilogram plates to put on the bar to add up to the 5-pound increments I was trying to get to then it did to actually do my exercises. Why whoever ordered the weights didn’t buy all of them in pounds, or all in kilograms, I’ll never know, but all of the calculating definitely gave it the full-mind-body workout experience-feel...

...I just checked my schedule. Tomorrow's workout is supposed to focus on legs. Maybe I'll pull on some shin pads and pick up my hockey stick instead. At the very least, I'm sure I can find some weights to throw around. Can you spot me?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Saddam's Pool

May 31
We spent today at the pool; steaks and hot dogs on the grill; mounds of potato and macaroni salad swiped from the chow hall in Styrofoam containers; near beers and sodas amassed over the course of a week in ones and twos after every meal (including breakfast) until we had enough for a full cooler. On the way we picked up ice out of the back of a semi truck parked on the side of the road next to the perimeter fence. The fence is just chain link with barbed wire there and you can see palm groves beyond. The man who worked at the ice pick-up spot directed us to back our truck up to the loading platform and asked our sergeant how many bags we wanted. He disagreed with our request for just one insisting that we needed to take four instead. He disappeared into the truck and returned looking like a ninja appearing from the shadows, face wrapped with a cloth to keep dust out of his nose and mouth, shades covering his eyes, he unloaded three bags into the cooler which now looked full to our eyes but he was determined to squeeze in the fourth, so we let him. There would be no arguing with the ice ninja.

Balad, like most coalition bases in Iraq, is not designed to withstand a full air or ground assault. It doesn’t have to. That threat no longer exists and even if it did, our surveillance and intelligence agencies are so advanced that warning could be given in time for defensive measures to be put in place, at least that is what helps us sleep at night. What we do have are “T” walls. These barriers are massive. Standing 7 to 15 feet tall and 3 feet wide, they are placed side-by-side around nearly every soft facility (non-concrete) on base. Their purpose is not so much to take direct hits from projectiles, but to shield residents from shrapnel in the event of explosions outside. I worry that the walls are susceptible to falling over but they are bottom heavy (think upside down T) , similar to basketball hoops that use sand or water at their base to keep them upright, but they are everywhere, so they must be okay, I guess. The most interesting thing to me about these walls is not their intended purpose, but rather what they have become. Any person with a speck of talent, an ounce of patience, some paint and some time granted off from work can try their hand at being an artist. I think of my sister, an artist, who can and has created wonderful works of art on chests of drawers, picture frames, and seashells. The splashes of color are a welcome sight next to the dusty ground and shrubs. They are a way for units to identify themselves to passing traffic and memorialize fallen heroes. If you drive anywhere on base you will see dozens of these works of art, badges of honor, and, in some cases, symbols of the fact that some of us have way too much time on our hands here.

Diversions are a necessity, however, and we have recently found ours. When my friend and I returned from a trip several weeks back, one that ended with a night of cornhole, we inspired our team to come together and build our own set. Four of us dedicated a couple of hours for a few nights in a row last week and got it done. The internet provided the building instructions and our neighbors provided the tools, warehouse, and some spray paint that looked like it had been passed down--team to team--from the 1970s to get it done. One board is red, and one board is white, and each board has its own story.

The red board is red because we ran out of white paint. Not much of a story there although we are sometimes called “Red FET” for reasons I have yet to learn. Aside from the color, we decided to paint on it an emblem that we got a kick out of when we first saw it in an embroidery shop back in Kuwait. When one of our Iraqi engineers saw it he was a bit confused. Here is my best attempt at recreating our conversation:
Engineer: What is the meaning of this?
Me: Do you get it?
Engineer: Yes of course. It says no bull s***.
Me: Yep. That’s it.
Engineer: But what does this mean? No bull s***? In Iraq this is great offense!
Me: How so?
Engineer: It means your bull cannot s*** here! You must take your s*** somewhere else!
Clearly, he was taking the sign literally, not as a turn of phrase. I didn’t ask him, but now I’m wondering if our cornhole board is now a replica of signs common in Iraq, perhaps the American equivalent of the “Warning, Guard Dog” or “No Parking” signs. Here people post the no doo doo signs to keep their neighbor’s bulls out. In any regard, it makes a fantastic target to aim the bean bags at when we’re playing the game.

On our white board we painted the Air Force civil engineer badge. Below it, rather than just writing FET 2 again (2.0 to be precise… we thought it was cool, but the boss called us dorks), we wanted to write it in Arabic so that it was different than the other board. We asked one of the Iraqi engineers to come help and after several minutes of trying to find out how to insert Arabic characters in Word (we traced the designs onto the boards by projecting the images up onto them and then tracing them) we arrived at what he said was the closest thing to “Facility Engineer Team... FET” in Arabic. But, he wanted a second opinion. Our second engineer was called in to read the board without first telling him what it said, and he didn’t understand it. When we explained it to him, he started to get animated, saying what we had come up with was too much like custodial engineer team to do us justice. Not wanting to call ourselves janitors, we asked him to change it. Over the course of the next 10 or so minutes, he and his partner proceeded to have a back and forth conversation/argument in our office with the light off and the projector on, trying to figure out what to put on the board. When they finally agreed, we made the mistake of calling in the third engineer for a final say. He too objected to the verbiage so the three of them began another debate in Arabic. By the time they agreed on something and we started tracing (we ended up going with what they assured us was the Arabic translation for Project Engineer Team… we hope) it was a good half hour after we had started the process. The fact that it took these three well educated, easy going men (who are friends) thirty minutes to come to agreement on three words makes me wonder how anything gets done by the Iraqi government.

When we finally arrived I was excited, this being my first time to the pool other than when I peaked in one night to see where it was, and it didn’t disappoint. The pool is enormous. There are two volleyball nets in the water and another off to the side of the pool in a sand pit. A basketball hoop and a high dive anchor the two short lengths of the pool. I called it “Saddam’s pool” because of the curious depth of the water in the shallow half of the pool, just the right height for the average male to find it rather uncomfortable (torturous even), so you have to either drop down, swim, or just constantly lean one way or the other to not feel exposed. It was strikingly cold in the pool compared to the scorching mid-day air so we mostly spent our time taking short dips and then returning to the shaded picnic benches and taking turns playing cornhole. It was strange to be sitting at a pool in the middle of a combat zone. Passing through the gate was like entering into a different world. Unlike most places on base, weapons aren’t allowed at the pool, and backpacks are. Shirts don’t need to be tucked in, hats are allowed, and girls, gasp, are there wearing bathing suits (strictly one piece suits of course). Having lived out of a garage and a Salvation-Army style warehouse with beds elsewhere in Iraq, I never thought Balad was austere, but going to the pool here is seriously like going to spring break except for the fact that the guy to girl ratio is absurd. What few girls are here are generally surrounded by guys so it ends up feeling like what I imagine all-male resorts are like, pleasant for a day trip, but not exactly the kind of place I’d want to frequent on a regular basis.

We decided to head home when the dust rolled in. Over the course of an hour, the sky became a brownish haze and you could stare directly at the sun without even squinting. Back in the states we know it’s time to go home because we need to prep for dinner, or get ready for bed, or we have some chores to attend to. Here, we know because you can stare at the sun without hurting your eyes and breathing has become a chore. The filters in that pool must be top of the line.