Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Interesting Stat

I had the chance to talk to an Afghan guy a few years my senior today over some sweet chai. He made a really interesting point about the various ways people in Kabul feel about what they see (rightly) as a coming drawdown of American troops.

Most people are scared, he said. More than anything, they just don't want "those other guys" to come back into power. Interestingly, though, he pointed out how a lot of young people were either totally apathetic or generally happy to see the Big Guys in the Green Suits leave.

"Check the average age of an Afghan and compare it to your country," he told me.

Right away, I did. The median American is 35.3 years old, whereas the average Afghan is 18.2 years old.

"Think about what that means," he said. Most of the people in this country aren't old enough to REALLY remember what it was like during the time the Taliban were in charge."

It was an interesting point, and a good reminder not to just see the world through my own frame. The very fact alone that the average person here is only half as old as the average person in the country I came here from is enough to seriously impact the national mood.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ready in the Visit Violence

If you can read between the lines of the headlines when they say "NATO helicopters strike gunmen" on the roof of the Inter-Continental Hotel, you'll know what it actually means.

The helicopters themselves didn't do it.

If you think there was some kind of Apache or Cobra "gun run," near a crowded civilian structure with hundreds of people inside and nearby, you still don't get it.

To borrow Liam Neeson's phrase from Taken, that's a reference to people with "a very particular set of skills."

Before I lay down to sleep peaceably in my 8' x 10' air-conditioned CHU (yes, that's a Containerized Housing Unit), I want to go on record saying that I'm grateful for those folks...not just because of the Maersk Alabama, or even UBL, but also because of the number of lives they saved this morning by preventing a terrible situation from becoming something far, far worse -- not just for the people at the hotel and their families, but also for the 32 million people here who need anything BUT a propaganda coup for those who would bring this country back to their twisted ideal of the 7th Century.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Just a Bit Less Invested

So far, so good.

Things have REALLY turned around since I've gotten back to Kabul. The big change that I blogged about and told friends and family about came true -- there's a much more senior Officer here now doing the job that I was doing, and I was successfully able to angle my way onto the vampire shift (2000 to 0800, every day), where I'm not constantly being grabbed and pulled in a million directions.

*Now I just have to cross my fingers and hope things don't change too much.*

When I think about why my stress level has plummeted so much, two major factors come to mind:

(1) I've actually got an off-switch now. It might sound funny to say to someone that 84-hour weeks feel like a vacation, but it's the complete truth. Even when you factor out the 6-7 hours or so for sleep, that STILL leaves me with a few hours each day of - dare I say it - *me* time. I haven't quite figured out how to channel it...yesterday it meant watching a movie, today it meant working through an Atul Gawande book, and every day it's meant getting an hour or so on the beloved treadmill. If I don't come home in February in damn-near Olympic decathlete shape, I'll be disappointed.

Anyway, the reason the off-switch is such a big deal is that since the big shift back at Fort Hood, when our old boss got suddenly reassigned, my routine has pretty much been get up, clean up, work/train, go to meetings, prepare for more meetings, prepare reports, go on the occasional convoy or patrol, and then frantically catch up on all the stuff missed thanks to said movement.

That takes its toll. Again, no comparisons here to the guys out in Khost and Paktika (though I certainly didn't choose NOT to go that route...but that's a story for another day, and I'll have to readdress that with Uncle Sam in February) but probably more in common with a junior investment banker in midtown Manhattan. Either way, the adrenal glands can only take so much.

And if the time off at home with Ratriey and Lily was heaven, then this is purgatory -- not that great, but honestly, not that bad either.

(2) I've got less of a sense of *investment* in the section. This factor is actually way more important than the first. For a few months there, I was actually in charge of a dozen or so people. In the civilian world, that would mean a manager, but there's an important distinction here -- because the military *owns* its people in a 24/7 sense, commanding even a small group of people is a pretty big deal. Their successes are yours, their screw-ups are yours, and, yes, the paperwork that goes with all that is yours. Even stepping down and being the "#2 guy" is a quantum leap downward...the analogy isn't perfect, but it's kind of like being a backup quarterback in the NFL -- the other guy is running the huddle and under-center for all the snaps, and you're rocking a baseball cap and telling jokes behind the thick white lines.

So this factor probably has even more to do with why I'm smiling more and spinning-up less. It's not that I don't care (in fact, now I get to *actually* do the job I'm trained for in a much purer sense, and I take a lot of pride in the results), but I'm less invested. When one of our guys misses a duty shift in the guard tower, when one of our Officers pisses off our Canadian counterparts (900+ are now in Kabul!), or when someone drops the ball on a meeting, it's honestly just NOT my fire to put out. And even if I tried to make it so, that'd be inappropriate -- sort of like trying to discipline someone else's kid.

To summarize everything I've learned in a back-of-a-postage stamp sort of way:

Being in charge is really hard.
NOT being in charge is not so hard.

With a nod towards Ben-Hur, I will continue to row well. I will also try to get a bit fitter, a bit smarter, and keep in better touch with folks at home.

Being away is still a challenge, but this is way more sustainable.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Footloosin' in Kabul

Yup, that base looks mighty familiar. Not our unit, but no surprise to viewers that these are Mass Guard guys:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Words I Won't Be Eating

"Words that fall like rain/Lie on the ground like snow." -- The Toasters, "Don't Say Forever"

The reality is starting to sort of loom over me that yes, come Monday, I will have to return to work. Err, rather, come Monday I will begin the process of returning to work. Sandstorms, flight delays, scheduling bottlenecks, and who-knows-what-else may throw that off in who-knows-what-direction. And it's not lost on me that by the time I make it to Atlanta on Monday afternoon, it'll already be Tuesday morning *over there.*

Anyway, one of the cool things that I'm looking forward to -- something I've written about here on the site and shared with friends and family here in Lowell -- is that I'll be stepping back into a less-prominent position. To fully explain it would require a good chunk of time, but let's just say my old boss left in a sudden fashion, and for a few months there I was doing my old job plus his. With his relief now there, I go back down to *just* my position...this ought to leave a wee bit more time for personal pursuits like running, weightlifting, keeping up on foreign news, and, yes, the Lowell blogosphere.

For the couple months or so before the new boss came into the picture, he and I stayed in fairly frequent contact over e-mail. I peppered him with schedules, briefings, photos, operational vignettes, etc. not so much in a coherent format, but just in a way that would enable him to build some semblance of the *big picture* from all the little ones I was sending his way. Considering he commanded a Company of soldiers during the Big Northward Trek from Kuwait to Balad, Iraq in March 2003, he had plenty of personal memory and material to draw from when piecing everything together.

One of the very few things, perhaps the only thing, however, that I did NOT provide him with was the candid assessment he asked me to send with regards to all our soldiers, to include strengths and weaknesses, and some delineation of the "A" Squad from the rest.
Uncharacteristically, I stalled, hemmed, and hawed on this one. Even though he asked more than once, I never went all-out on this request, despite having done so for every other piece of data that he had me put together. Simply put, here's why: I've seen that type of stuff go bad too many times before.

Even if we can assume the best intentions all-around, there are still WAY too many chances for a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip...what if he printed that e-mail and left it atop his desk? What if he quoted from it over the phone and a curious set of ears was nearby? What if it biased his incoming attitudes towards people in an all-too-obvious way? Any of those moments, in which the wrong things could've come out devoid of all context or intended tone, would've spoiled 8 months of coming intense working relationships in close quarters.

I stayed pretty vague on the subject of personnel, and he hardly even brought it up during the couple days of overlap we had after he arrived, and before I went on R & R. As a result, when I head back to Atlanta, and then Kuwait, and then Kabul, I'll be dreading the fact that I'll be away from my wife and daughter, and missing home, but I won't be dreading the prospect that some frank, candid statement of mine got twisted and bent into some unintended shape...because it was never made to begin with.

I like to muse a lot about how "If Life Had a Rulebook..." and sometimes imagine putting one together where I could explain lines like, "When someone is going out of their way to do you a favor, you forfeit all rights to criticize how they're doing it."

If I ever did put one together, though, right near the top would be something like, "Be careful in the extreme say with what you say about others. Whereas your opinions are subject to change, the words you write or speak for attribution are not!"

The real problem isn't whether I'd have the cojones to stand by something I had said. I know that I would (as the expression goes, I don't say everything I think, but I do think everything that I say). The bigger problem is that some gripe I might've had on, say, April 18th might've been totally overcome by events by, say, June 18th. If I called someone an underachiever then, well, maybe they were just slow to adjust to a new environment. Maybe they weren't clear enough on the guidance they had gotten. Maybe that would've been my own leadership issue that needed addressing.

The military evaluation system is extremely flawed (just Google the name 'Nidal Malik Hasan' on that) but one thing it really gets right is that it's considered a below-the-belt cheap shot to put anything less-than-stellar in an Officer Evaluation Report (OER) unless it has already been addressed via formal, written counseling. In other words, you can't suddenly whack me with a report card that says I'm spelling at below-grade-level and my breath stinks to boot unless you've already sent a few progress reports home saying as much. That may not seem totally 'fair' to the reviewer, and may strike some as a bit too touchy-feely, but it's the same standard I would want used on me if the shoe were on the other foot.

It may also not seem fair that you can make nine great statements about someone and his work, but just one 'constructive' one, and the nine somehow get out-remembered and out-emphasized. But that's an issue and a question for another day. For today, at least, I just know how glad I am to have stayed tight-lipped and to have passed on the chance to vent in the wrong direction, via the wrong channels, and in the wrong forum, on the less-than 5 per cent worth of material I would've had ready from a group and an experience that was more than 95 per cent outstanding, and memorable for all the right reasons.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ice Cream, Social

I had a great time last night at the blogger meet up at Gary's Ice Cream. Rather than try to summarize (besides, has already vlogged this), I'll just pick one point to slap together into a paragraph:

Differing views towards 'Wings Over Lowell': It was interesting to hear people's thoughts about the new wings joint that's going to come into the property recently vacated by the dearly departed Dharma Buns. There seemed to be a pretty stark split among long-time residents, who were almost uniformly pessimistic about Wings' eventual fate, and newer residents (like yours truly) who were a bit more hopeful/optimistic. I'll admit that I don't know the first thing about how difficult it is to run a small business, esp. in the food service industry, and I also haven't lived through enough openings and closings of downtown businesses to be jaded (though since 2008, it seems a bit too easy to rattle off all that's been shuttered around here).

Of course, I wish them the best and look forward to the convenience of being able to order from a place just down the street that can deliver to my home using the oldest known form of transportation. I'd also like to think they can make big inroads with the college kids up at the UML ICC, and can generally improve on DB's business model with higher volume and better pricing.

But as much as I like the idea of wings and all else they'll offer (Lynne was saying the same today over at LiL) the split last night reminded me of the discussions I used to have about the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) with a former neighbor of mine who grew up in Israel, served in '67, and emigrated to the U.S. well into his adult life. Just when I was getting old enough to start reading the New York Times for more than the box scores, I would read stories about peace proposals and excitedly tell him, "Itzhak, did you hear about this new idea?!?! It seems like this is what's finally going to work...Arafat is coming to the table now, too."

He would just sort of grin a little without showing too much emotion, and say something to the effect of, "No, actually I haven't seen the latest developments in the MEPP. It's not worth following too closely, in fact. I'm too familiar with that part of the world to expect any changes, so I'm not holding my breath."

I sort of felt my bubble deflate a bit whenever he said this, but I finally learned to understand what he meant. There is a forest, there are trees, and someone familiar enough with the forest doesn't get too swayed one way or the other about the changes.

Self-aware enough to know how green I can be, I'm still pulling for Wings and really believe it could work if they get the marketing piece down and can tap into all that's available in the city.

Oh, and one of the very cool but totally unexpected results of attending the Ice Cream Summit last night was learning that a new Iraqi-themed restaurant recently opened on Merrimack St. Its name is Babylon, and it's where Mama Lia's used to be. I checked it out today and was able to get a phenomenal chicken/beef shawarma and a fatoosh salad for a reasonable price.

Besides the great food, Babylon has another important but often-overlooked thing going for it:
niche. As much as I love Irish-themed pubs and beauty salons, it's nice to see something downtown that's a complete break from the norm of what's tried-and-true. Sure, there's risk associated with that, but count me in as someone who hopes to become a regular customer...though not 'til February.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Air Over There

I just did a Google news search for "Kabul" (yup, I'm one of those type of -holics) because I just couldn't resist.

The first story that popped was about the air quality, or lack thereof, in Afghanistan's capital. That story, linked here, makes the claim that more Afghans die per year in Kabul alone from pollution-related ailments than die from all the violence associated with the war nationwide.

As crazy as that may sound, this is one of those things that needs to be filed in the 'you'd have to experience this to realize how serious it is' drawer. It's a combination of dust, lack of sewage treatment, old cars, and the locals' penchant for, well, burning things, that make the air so bad. The fact that the city is sitting in a geologic *bowl* compounds everything. With mountains all around, there's no outlet for all the contaminants in the air. You can literally taste the air on some days....and as someone who respects the literal use of the word 'literally,' I would swear on a stack of Bibles about that claim.

Thankfully, ground is being broken now on the Deh Sabz District, which by way of comparison to here is sort of like a Hamilton Canal District times a 1 with lots of zeros after it. It's a massive planned residential/business/all-purpose district in an area adjacent to Kabul District but now sitting largely vacant. The idea is sort of modeled on the Shoeless Joe Jackson-in-a-cornfield idea that once the development starts, people will flock to it, which will draw more people, and so on. Right now, so many Afghans flock to Kabul for the simple reason of economics. That puts Afghanistan in league with most of the developing world, which is urbanizing at a breakneck pace.

On one of my first mornings back here, I got up around 8-ish (emphasis on the ish!) and ambled down to Brew'd Awakening. The first thing I noticed was the difference in the air. Kabul's bad air was sort of like the proverbial annoying buzzing sound in a room that you stop noticing until it goes away, and then realize how much it bothered you subconsciously.

Everywhere along Market Street, there were trees and other flora in full bloom. The bright greens which contrasted with the red bricks were a nice break from the drab gray at Camp Phoenix. More importantly, though, I could take a deep lungful of the air anywhere along the route and feel great about it.

The other big change was the quiet. There was a bit of standard vehicle and pedestrian traffic, but it was nothing compared to the constant noise of...constant noise. Here, I'm not being entirely literal. Since taking over my old boss's job unexpectedly back in March, I've kind of felt like one of those silver spheres inside a pinball machine...bouncing around from spot to spot, dealing with whatever it required, and then just frequency hopping over to the next thing while trying to steer clear of the flippers and the gutter. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not referring here to physical danger. I don't, and won't, try to compare my deployment experience to an Infantry Company Commander out by the Pakistani border making life-and-death decisions on a more-than-daily basis.

That said, I could fairly compare it to that of any high-stress white-collar professional putting in north of 90 hours a week without a day off. It's sort of like taking a wind-up toy, spinning it all the way up, but never letting the dial spin back down. I half-jokingly called it the "Night of the Living Dead" phenomenon, because of all the hands reaching out from the ground and all four corners at any moment with an asking (peers and subordinates), or a tasking (from seniors).

The past few days have been absolutely surreal. I don't know if it's because of the joys of seeing my newborn baby thrive in her new home environment, if it's because of the wonderful time that my wife and I have had together without having to adhere to a schedule, or if it's just because things got so much quieter in the sort-of-literal/sort-of-figurative sense of that word. Probably, it's a mix of all three.

I flew home with a buddy of mine who is a Company Commander out in Khost Province, at FOB Salerno. He was mentioning to me that the General who just left command of Regional Command East (Major General Campbell, 101st Commander and, yes, garrison commander of the famous eponymous fort) had been talking out loud about shortening Army tours to just 9 months but scrapping the R & R program entirely. That might have tremendous cost-saving power, but now that I'm seeing all this from the other side of the fence, I'm not so sure how great of an idea that is.

This time right now is nothing short of magical, and it's giving me the effect of a full battery recharge before I head back through the rest of the time deployed.

And the best part of all? By the time I get back, the new boss will have been *in the seat* for nearly a month, and I will be requesting a spot on the overnight shift to help prepare the reports and other analytical work he'll use during the day. It'll be so quiet then that I actually might be able to hear myself think!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blogger Meet-Up

The italicized text below is a direct copy-and-paste job from

Next Thursday (June 9) is our third annual Greater Lowell blogger meet-up. This year we will gather at Gary’s Ice Cream, 131 Gorham Street, East Chelmsford from 6 pm until 8 pm (and we’ll likely stay later). This event is completely informal. There is no agenda, no sign-in table or advance registration. Unless you buy an ice cream (which you absolutely should), attendance costs you nothing. Everyone who is interested in or curious about blogs, blogging and bloggers should attend.

I definitely lucked out on the timing here. I had a great time at the Hot Dog Summit/Hot Dog Diplomacy, missed out completely on Top Donut because I was in Bourne, and now have just a short window of time at home...I'm looking forward to this not only for the chance to talk about the blog world, or to trade Congressman Weiner puns, or to catch up on the past few months, but also because it puts many of the people I'll want to see while I'm home in one place at one time - from an efficiency point of view, that's hard to beat!