Sunday, July 24, 2011

When the World Happens

A Lieutenant Colonel from another unit saw me in the chow hall the other day.

"Greg, what happened to you?" I know you did your R & R in June, and it's like you fell off the face of the planet since."

"Ma'am," I said, "I work nights now to get all our products done, so that's roughly 2000 to roughly 0800. I'm only up during the day now for the mandatory meetings and the trips off the FOB every couple days."

"That's not easy," she replied. "My mother worked third shift for years and years...and you never really adjust."

For a second, let's throw out the whole biological, circadian rhythm, Vitamin-D absorbing technical side of things. Some of that might be correctable if planned out right.

The world happens from around sunup to around dinnertime. Here's what I mean by that: that general timeframe is when meetings get planned, when appointments get made, when drop-ins drop in, and just about when pretty much everything goes on.

So, as the Lieutenant Colonel told me, her mother never got less annoyed when she had to explain to someone for the gazillionth time that no, she couldn't come to [insert name of kids' event] at 3 p.m. because she had to sleep. And no, she didn't have some disorder, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or anything of the sort -- that was her equivalent of 3 a.m.

Don't worry, this post isn't about a vent or a complaint -- I'm lucky to have a boss who generally *gets* this concept and doesn't watch the clock with regards to my work. He does expect me to make all the mandatory stuff (no surprise) but completely understands when that means coming in two, four, or even six hours "late" as a result afterwards.

But to others, not so much. I got so tired of trying to explain that your 2 p.m. is my 2 a.m. that I just stopped. I'm quick to duck out before the day's events start "spinning up" and suck me in. There's nothing that can't be turned over, and no legitimate situation in which I ought to be the Single Point of Failure.

But a lot of the interpersonal awkwardness of the whole thing is mitigated by the fact that we're all here. We all worry about our families, homes, etc. but not in the day-to-day way that someone would if he or she was living at home. None of us have a commute, none of us have social obligations, and none of us have relatives calling us to come over for tuna casserole.

Just imagine, though, having to deal with all of that but still having to work from, say, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day.

I don't even want to know. It just sounds like a huge pain that I hope I don't ever have to personally deal with back stateside. Each time I have to ask people not to have loud conversations outside my door at 10:45 a.m., and they look at me like I have a horn growing out of my head, however, I'm reminded that people who work third-shift back in the stateside world have a tough spot that I wouldn't want to trade for. Not that I didn't respect that before, but I'd say I feel it just a bit more acutely now.

Thanks for the Charity, Whitey

My friend Dan, who is a helicopter pilot here in the Guard and an East Providence cop back in our other lives, came in late last night to talk to me.

"You wouldn't believe what happened today with Operation Outreach...a guy at a school asked us for concertina wire."

"Huh? I don't get it."

"We went down to a school located right near a prison in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Kabul. After the team leaders handed out a bunch of stuff, to include towels that had "USA" stamped on them, and everyone mugged to take a bunch of pictures with the kids, we asked the principal if there was anything else he needed. He asked us for concertina wire (basically, barbed wire on a roll) to put around the school. At first, we couldn't understand why, so we had him explain.

"A lot of the people in this neighborhood moved here because of the prison," he said. They have relatives that are going to be here for a long time, and they hate [Coalition Forces] and [the Afghan government]." Now that they've seen all of you come to see me, and especially if they see some of this stuff, they might try to hurt us.

I couldn't believe it. Especially on the heels of the entries about gratitude, and about unintended consequences, it seemed like an amazing convergence of ideas.

The group that chose that school was never sought out, or even asked, to come.

To them, and for their incentive structure, though, none of that matters.

They'll take a few cute pictures, they'll document the trip in their After-Action Report, and they'll write it up in their End-of-Tour Award Citations. In addition, they'll get a "Thanks for Playing" Volunteer medal.

Meanwhile, some guy in Arzan Qimat is going to bed at night worried about whether his school might get attacked now because of the way someone else perceived the incident.

Second- and third-order effects are fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Rhyme and Reason Behind "No Candy"

The other day, I heard a Lieutenant from the new infantry battalion (1-182, Melrose) talk about a policy shift since they had relieved the old infantry battalion (1-181, Worcester).

"We're not giving anything out on the foot patrols. Period. No water, no candy, no snacks, no pens...nothing."

At first, I'll admit, I didn't *get* it. What could be so bad about soldiers smiling, waving, and giving some sweets out to the local kids in Ud Kheil (the neighborhood near Camp Phoenix), who are materially poor in a way that most Americans will never know?

As it turns out, lots.

Kids, I've learned through my experiences here, love to follow foot patrols around. That's generally all well and good, except when groups of slightly older kids (say, 12-15 years old) convince all the other kids to start throwing rocks at us. Given the restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE), and the fact that all that's getting tossed are rocks, there isn't much we can do. Sometimes the rock-throwing is just the younger kids falling in line with the older kids, sometimes it's them expressing hatred, but other times it's just them expressing frustration with the fact that they're not getting something from the guys with the big green suits and the shades.

What the guys who do this every day tell know is this: Once you start doing something like candy giveaways, you create an expectation. Then, once that expectation isn't met, the next thing you'll see is hostility.

The biggest offenders are the "combat safari" types -- the JAGs, the docs, admin, logistics, and yes, even the intel weenies who finagle their way onto a foot patrol...they want to save the world by filling their pockets with sweets to hand out to the kids.

Which is all well and good until the NEXT time the ground-pounders go out. Now, if they don't have anything to give out, they get the rocks. And the rocks make it very hard for them to do their jobs, because the ROE says there's pretty much nothing you can do in return.

So that's why the policy is very cut-and-dry: NO giveaways to the kids. Humanitarian drops and civil affairs missions can be coordinated through local authorities, but no one is going to try and play savior to a bunch of extremely poor kids by emptying a pocket full of Jolly Ranchers.

Which sounds fair if you ask me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Breaking the Rules

Now that I'm a Dad, I can't help but remember the lines I heard most often at home from my Dad, and I seem to catch myself using them more and more... "The deadline for all complaints was yesterday." "The effective range of an excuse is zero meters." "The best question you can ever ask is 'What can I do to help?'" "Make sure to say thanks to the [insert last name of family who took me somewhere]." and so on. Of course, I don't subject my own daughter to any of this, as she's a bit too young to understand, and a bit too 8000 miles away to hear me, anyway. In the meantime, the blog is my outlet to do this type of stuff, and it's just way more efficient than e-mail for keeping up with the dozen or so people I'd call close friends.

One of my main hobbyhorses is the "If life had a rulebook" theme, and the #1 rule I would include if I wrote such a rulebook (and in the world of self-publishing, that might not be such an 'if') is this: When someone does goes out of his/her way to do you a favor, don't criticize the WAY the person is doing it. There's a corollary, of course, which is not to expect gratitude for things that there was no 'demand signal' for in the first other words, don't mow my lawn on your own initiative and tell me I now 'owe you one.'

But back to Rule 1. To use some rather extreme hypotheticals, if you were near-starving, and I cooked you a meal, you would basically lose the right to whine about how there wasn't enough salt in the food. Or if you were broken down on the side of the road at three a.m., and I came to get you, the speed and manner in which I drive are sort of off the table. Anyway, I think you get the idea.

And I write all this because I actually have a not-so-hypothetical to share. Someone who I don't know personally, but *know* through Facebook and LinkedIn because we share some common professional interests went out of her way to organize a niche sort of veterans' group. On top of that, she went out of her way to organize a Skype-from-anywhere conference call so that members could dial in and talk about professional goals, network, etc. Of course, there had to be some stake thrown in the ground as far as a time and date, so she chose next Sunday, obviously realizing some would be able to make it, and others wouldn't. Below, in italics, is a person's actual response:

I'd love to join the call. Sundays, especially Sunday evenings, are the worst possible times for me. It's hard to imagine a family person being able to join a call at that time of day on that particular day. Sounds like a young singles type of thing, as I recall that time in my life.
Huh? I'm neither single nor in my twenties. How is either relevant to the time that a conference call might work? If it were Monday or Wednesday, I might have a commitment (I'm imaging I were stateside). If it were Friday or Saturday night, I might have social plans. If it were during a weekday, I'd have a school or work commitment. The bottom line is that no time is perfect for anyone.

If you can't spare 20 minutes on a Sunday night, then great, just RSVP negative or don't respond at all. But don't make some grand extrapolation about the 'married people versus the single people' based on the way you perceive it would inconvenience you (As if, somehow, people's families stop mattering from Monday through Saturday?) But anyway, it seems to me that the organizer or a small group has gone out of their way to set all this up. The last thing they need is a ration of 'you-know-what' from someone simply because a particular time/date combination doesn't work.

To reiterate rule 1 -- you don't necessarily have to show gratitude for everything. Sometimes you'll forget, and sometimes it just won't occur to you...both are totally understandable. But if someone has gone way out of his/her way to try to do something NICE for you (i.e. include you on an invite for a professional conference call), don't start throwing daggers just because it isn't perfectly tailored to your life.

A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings in Tokyo...

...and a Category 5 hurricane hits the Caribbean.

Or something like that. Anyway, if you follow Afghanistan very closely, you might've read this week about the first major US Army unit to leave theater without a backfill. Put into plain English, that represents a big step in the math problem that means you have to turn 101,000 into 91,000 by the end of the year. The 34th ID, out of Iowa and Minnesota (with attached units such as the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade out of Nebraska) is now happily back in the US of A, while no unit now in Afghanistan arrived to take over what they used to do.

Any guesses as to what happened?

To flip an old saying around, fewer hands now make for heavier work. And the ripple effects, or the chaos theory in practice, has many fascinating implications. Because for every task or mission that you need to pull bodies out of hide to staff, you've now created another void.

Units like ours now suddenly have way more convoy duties, way more guard tower duties, and, yes, way more chow hall head-counting duties (hey, not everything is glamorous in a war zone).
I've had the chance to partake in said activities in the past week, so hence the "radio silence" here on the blog...and I snapped some cool pics, which I hope to post (There are some tight CENTCOM rules about what can and can't be posted, but I promise to start making this more, really, I mean it).

But anyway, what all THAT means is that whoever is now sitting on duty in the chow hall, or up in the tower, or ferrying people to Kabul International Airport (but remember, that's always KAIA, pronounced "kai-uh" and never abbreviated KIA) isn't doing whatever else they were doing. On the one hand, yes, that trims a bit of fat ('worked' does not equal 'overworked' in my book) but it also leaves some things shorthanded.

What it also does, though, is takes a unit like ours, that was generally not too jazzed about its mission, and it flips that on its head. We're just a lot busier than we were before last month, but because we've got a lot more purpose, our morale has gone up proportionally. It's the simplest, oldest rule in soldiering, but the most discipline and morale problems occur not when people are too busy, but when they're too idle. Idle or under-engaged times are also when people turn inwards and bicker with each other the most.

I would say the time is flying by now -- not being a primary staffer, I now have a lot more opportunity to see and do things I wouldn't have before.

Still, it's crazy to think that we're still not at the "just 200 more days" mark. We're not that far, but still, we're not there.

I'll go ahead and chalk that last one up under the "things not to bring up on the phone with the missus" header.

Friday, July 8, 2011

170.55 in 'The Kabul K'

Before we got on the plane at Fort Hood, our Commander (who was promoted yesterday...congratulations General Hammond!) announced a simple, straightforward "deal" to everyone in formation:

Anyone who runs 1000 miles during the deployment ('The Kabul K') will get an Army Commendation Medal for the feat.

As you might imagine, the honor system is in the works here. For those participating in the challenge, there's a Lieutenant to whom we have to send our running logs every 100 miles, which kinda-sorta keeps the whole thing honest (no one can 'suddenly' run 800 miles in the last month, for instance).

Anyway, with about 7 more months or so to go, I'm a bit behind the curve. I've got 170.55 miles as of today. The beauty, though, is that as anyone following this blog knows, I now actually have the time to get away and log some miles each day -- workdays have magically shrunk from 16- and 18-hours to that happy "12" spot where I can still find a wee bit of time to run, Skype with the missus, and yes, write on the blog (as soon as I can get my new phone/camera up and running, I promise to finally get some pics too...I mean it!)

Anyway, here's why the Colonel's...I mean, General's idea is a great one (and no, he doesn't read this...and he doesn't sign my OER anyway!):

(1) It keeps people's minds focused on a goal. As I'm seeing now, a year-long mobilization feels like a loooong time. Especially when you feel like it's been forever, and somehow you're still not even halfway done. Having a day-to-day goal to think about besides things like staff work, guard duty, convoys, chow duty, etc. helps soldiers' mental state. Plus, the hour or so people dedicate each day to it is an hour they're not idle...and then there's the endorphin benefit, the better sleep, extra energy, etc.

(2) It helps get people in shape. One of the neat things about a deployment is seeing people who are a bit round (hey, we're the Guard!) get a bit, well, less round. I'm no exception -- I know I ought to be closer to 185 (fighting weight) than to where I peaked last fall (220...yikes!) Running a daily five-miler is sure getting me a lot closer to the *right* side of that equation. Anyway, as with anything that needs work, it's somehow always easier to notice it on others...and I've seen several of our guys lose 30, 40, and even more pounds so far trying to reach this goal...and yes, the guys with knee, foot, joint, etc. problems can go Elliptical for this.

(3) It's a team-building thing. The guys (and gals) that are going for this goal have this as a common reference point...Hey, what's your plan?
How far are you gonna go today? Treadmill or track? (Yes, Camp Phoenix as a track, right around the Helicopter Landing Zone). It's easy to get de-motivated to run every day "just to run" but when you're pushing towards a concrete goal, somehow it's easier to get moving...and more fun.

Some Army purists would disagree with the handing-out of ARCOMs for running but let's be honest...ARCOMs have been handed out for a lot less. I'm only 170+ miles in so far -- definitely not on pace -- but have a plan to steadily increase my runs and get way ahead of the curve soon. Will post.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Producers

If you thought this was a lead-in to a Mel Brooks reference, it's not, but I've got to tell you, I like the direction in which you were headed.

I work with eight people.

Four are what I would call "Producers." I could try to find other, neater, spiffier ways to say it, but simply put, there are four people who I could leave with a specific-but-wide-enough-for-some-wiggle-room order, give it a deadline, and never have to think about it until the deadline, because I know it would get done. They'd either do it, find the right person to do it, or find where it had already been done, and appropriate it.

There are also four who, despite their many other great qualities, don't fit that billing. Without getting into too much detail (this is one of those entries that has to stay kinda vague for self-protection purposes), I can guarantee with equal certainty that *it* would not be done after that hypothetical twelve-hour "off" period. There might be reasons, excuses, taskers, ADD, and other such maladies that got in the way, but trust me, after countless hours, days, and weeks from Reading to Killeen to Kabul, I can pretty much predict this stuff without much effort.

But the point of this entry is NOT to vent. Nor is it to ask for help with management, or for reading recommendations involving Seven Ways to Move Cheese in One-Minute while Winning the Influencers Over on Tuesdays in Heaven.

The point is to say this: I would've totally screwed up the hiring.

Let's say it's a few years down the road. NOT so hypothetically, with an MBA and maybe a couple years' consulting in Boston under my rigger's belt, I'm looking to start a small firm closer to home, somewhere in the Merrimack Valley.

The budget is tight. The outlook is uncertain. One of the most difficult decisions is going to be "Who gets hired?"

Let's get back to my original setup. If I had started out with the eight people, but could ONLY hire four, and was given, let's say, their names, ranks, ages, military bios, resumes, and even the chance to interview them, I'll completely admit I wouldn't have chosen the right ones. If you think OERs and NCOERs (military equivalent of *report cards* would've helped, well, then, you need a lesson in how those things work.

Now, the List of Four seems really obvious, and I could do it in seconds.

But in the real world -- or at least in the real world as I understand it -- it never works that way. There aren't 90-day job interviews. Maybe there are internships, and there are probationary hiring periods, but on those things I hit the I-don't-know-what-I-don't-know problem about feasibility.

My resolution -- during the "down" period I'll have post-deployment (I'm purposely socking away a healthy rainy-day fund for the four-month period after my terminal leave, but before school starts), plus the time at school, to include the Entrepreneurship and Innovation track (E & I), one of the major questions I want to pose to entrepreneurs is this -- Given your limited time and your limited budget, how the heck do you hire?

I'm not as interested in the large corporate behemoths, who can afford to carry some extra weight around, nor am I interested in government contractors, whose purpose is to place 'butts in seats,' but only in small firms who can't afford to keep *nice guys* around who can't turn a tangible result out the back end. Especially as I steer this blog more towards regional business *stuff* and towards interviews, I will be sure to post whatever I find out right here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What They Call Themselves 'Round These Parts

Before heading overseas, I sat through a bunch of the standard Army Afghanistan 101-style cultural briefs.

Don't gesture with your left hand. Check.

Don't expose the soles of your feet. Roger.

Don't ask about female members of the family. Check-raj.

And remember, an 'Afghan' is a person from Afghanistan, where as an 'afghani' is a unit of currency. Don't confuse the two, or you'll come across as just another ignorant American.

The first three I knew from Iraq (though it might surprise you how little police and soldiers there care about those rules, or how often they violated those rules themselves), but the last one I hadn't heard before, so I stayed careful to remember it.

Then when I got here, I heard a few people point out in a thou-shalt-not sort of style after hearing someone call a person from here an 'Afghani' that it was culturally insensitive, and wrong.

Except here's the funny part -- I started to notice that when the people from here referred to other fellow countrymen, while speaking English, they used "Afghans" and "Afghanis" interchangeably when referring to other people from here.

In fact, I heard it enough times that I had to just start asking them, every chance I got. As it turns out, the distinction isn't really something they think about, or care about. Yes, the currency unit is the afghani. As for the people, every Kabuli (yes, that's the term!) that I speak with tells me the same thing -- it just doesn't matter.

So I have to laugh a little at the idea that people putting together some of the basic Army cultural training are far enough removed from the culture itself to be emphasizing stuff that just, well, isn't so.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What Mitt Missed

This story is already a wee bit dated, but my reaction to it isn't.

At some point last month, Mitt Romney, presidential aspirant, was speaking to a group of unemployed people when he tried to make a funny, stating words to the effect of, "I'm unemployed too, so I'm one of you...but as some of you may know, I'm looking for a job now."

The joke, of course, went over like a lead zeppelin, as it well should have.

His reaction didn't help any, either. He, or his campaign, made some lame comment about how Mr. Romney enjoys "self-deprecating" humor, and how others need to lighten up.

Lighten up?

Mitt Romney is worth hundreds of millions. For him to get in front of a group of people who truly know what it means to be involuntarily unemployed -- to lose sleep at night wondering about mortgage payments, to make tradeoffs about which bills to pay, which to let go, and what day-to-day niceties (I purposely didn't say 'luxuries') to shirk, shows, at best, a complete lack of self-awareness.

Frankly, I'd expect better from a would-be Commander-in-Chief. I had already had my waterskis-over-Jaws moment when he had to have his own son stage a prank call supposedly from "The Governator" but this helps prevent any chance that I will reverse course from 2002 and ever vote for Mitt Romney for anything.

The second charge I'd throw is that his response is a total bastardization of what self-deprecating (or, more technically accurate, self-effacing) humor is all-about: poking fun at your actual weaknesses.

Genuine self-effacing humor is refreshing, disarming, and often downright funny. But the key word there is genuine. Let's say, for example, your boss stutters, is clumsy, can't type memos, sweats profusely, etc. If he or she makes jokes about that, it tends to go over well.

But if someone who obviously takes his or her own intelligence seriously says, "Well, my wife says I'm not real smart, but she keeps me around because I can lift heavy objects," and expects the whole room to break into side-splitting guffaws, or thinks that's somehow endearing, that person is a huge tool. It's kind of like when someone who looks like a model thinks they're winning others over by saying things like, "I must have helped meet the quota for ugly people then" when looking at pictures of themselves among groups of friends. Far from endearing, it's just awkward and disingenuous.

I could do a lot more hypotheticals, but I think you already get the point.

On a slightly different note, a friend of mine sent me a great link to something that comedy writer/stand-up comedian Harris Wittels put together. It's based off a term he coined called "Humblebragging." You can go to his Twitter page right here, where he collects shameless celebrity name-dropping cloaked in so-called humility "I can't believe I was at John Travolta's house last night...who can believe it -- little old me?!!?" or "I totally tripped on my way up to the stage to receive my Oscar."

If you're as bad as I am about following links, you won't click, but I strongly recommend you do. I can promise you will laugh, and will think of some "Humblebraggers" in your own life.

One last point -- I always wonder what genuine really means. I've had trouble with knowing when to use that word when describing people, and just sort of settled on the idea that it's akin to the old Potter Stewart-ism about "knowing it when you see it."

I'm not sure who to attribute this quote to, but someone, somewhere, at some point in time once said, "I don't say all the things I think, but I do think all the things I say." Probably about 10 seconds after I heard that, it instantly skipped a long list to become one of my all-time favorite quotes ever. If someone really lives by that, I'd say they're about as close to genuine as anyone I could imagine. Obviously, no one is going to say all the things they think (besides, their jaw might quickly get tired), but if you truly "think all the things you say" to include everything from compliments to constructive criticisms to just all-around conversation, I would have to count you among company worth keeping.