Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

Before I started studying for my GMAT and dropped all extracurricular activities like reading, I had started Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The book had been recommended to me by a few different people, but I guess I just didn't know enough about it to read it sooner. I really wish I had heeded friend's recommendation sooner as this book was truly one of the best, most inspiring true stories I have ever read. Not only that, I found that as I read the book that the story takes place in a world that I have a particular interest in given the nature of my current work in the armed forces.

Below is an excerpt from the publisher on what the book is all about:
In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time — Greg Mortenson's one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban.

Award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin has collaborated on this spellbinding account of Mortenson's incredible accomplishments in a region where Americans are often feared and hated. In pursuit of his goal, Mortenson has survived kidnapping, fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, repeated death threats, and wrenching separations from his wife and children. But his success speaks for itself. At last count, his Central Asia Institute had built fifty-five schools. Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world — one school at a time.

When I searched for reviews on the book they were overwhelmingly positive. I thought of how I would review this book beyond the standard "it's good, read it," and I came up with a simple review that I think speaks volume about the power of this book. When I began the book I thought it would be great for other military members to get some insight into what else the region is all about outside of our current conflict in the area. However, by the time I finished I felt much more strongly than that. I think this book should be a mandatory read for every politician in our nation. I think it should be a predeployment requirement for each sailor, soldier, and airman that heads to the theater. And more importantly, I think it should be read in schools to children. I learned more about Islam and the countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan than I did in all my time in the military. The book taught me more about the real issues in that area of the world than any news article I have ever read. I am kind of ashamed to admit that, but it is what it is. Surely that is partially my fault. Part it is likely just the nature of what actually makes it into our short attention spans as Americans. I imagine that many others would feel the same way I did as I read the book, and a little understanding could take us a long way in resolving or at least understanding the conflict we find ourselves in. My enjoyment of the book had me taking a plethora of notes and quotes that I have shared below. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book.

Here are some notes and quotes I took from this fine piece of literature:

- General Bhangoo cites Mortenson as the most remarkable person he has ever met. He served as Musharraf's pilot and has met many world leaders

- When it is dark enough you can see the stars
- Stuck and stranded in the mountains freezing, "Sleep in this cold seemed out of the question, so Mortenson lay beneath the stars salting the sky and decided to examine the nature of his failure.
- He made piece with his failure to honor his deceased sister Christa. It was his body that had failed, not his spirit and every body has its limits. He for the first time in his life had found the absolute limit of his.

The Wrong Side of the River:
- "All summer I'd looked at these mountains as goals, totally focused on the biggest one, K2. I'd thought about their elevation and the technical challenges they presented to me as a climber. But that morning for the first time, I simply saw them. It was overwhelming." - Greg Mortenson. A great symbolism for life itself. Sometimes we must sit back and take it in.

Progress and Perfection:
- "Can you imagine a fourth grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons? I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa. I knew I had to do something." - Greg Mortenson
-Standing next to Haji Ali, on the ledge overlooking the valley, with such a crystalline view of the mountains he'd come halfway around the world to measure himself against, climbing K2 to place a necklace on its summit suddenly felt beside the point. There was a much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister's memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali's shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they'd shared their first cup of tea. "I'm going to build you a school," he said, not yet realizing that with those words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he'd taken since retreating from K2. "I will build a school," Mortenson said. "I promise."

Self Storage:
-"Greatness is always built on this foundation: the ability to appear, speak and act, as the most common man."
- The older I get the more I appreciate my childhood. It was paradise.
- His father built a hospital in Tanzania focused on giving Tanzanians opportunity. The other expats were not happy when he said in 10 years I see all the department heads as Tanzanians.
- Watching him up there I felt so proud that this big barrel chested man was my father. He taught me, he taught all of us, that if you believe in yourself you can accomplish anything.
- After that the family moved to America in St. Paul.
- Greg signed up for the army his senior year since they didn't have much money.
- His father passed, then later his sister.

500 Letters One Check:
- He went right to the top writing letters to Oprah and the networks asking for money. Great lesson in going for it.
- He lived in his car and showered at the gym to save money for the school.
- Spoke to kids
- "But the kids got it right away. When they saw the pictures they couldn't believe that there was a place where children sat outside in the cold weather and tried to hold classes without teachers. They decided to do something about it.

Rawalpindi's Rooftops at Dusk:
- The quest for good can begin with a stubborn persistence to do what you say you are going to do.
- Take the first step and just keep walking

Hard Way Home:
- Not for the first time Mortenson wondered if Pakistan wasn't more of an idea than a country.
- Completed his treacherous journey and felt he had already won. I think when you set out to do something meaningful it often doesn't matter how far you get, because you got somewhere.

Beaten by the Braldu:
- Mortenson is an embodiment of the importance of human relationships. I don't think he could have succeeded had he not earned the respect of others he needed to help him.
- Mortenson felt a note of regret toward Akhmadu. He only wanted the children of his village to have the school that the government of Pakistan had failed to provide. But Mortenson's anger at Janjungpa and Changazi, at their scheming and dishonesty, spilled over the gratitude he felt for Akhmalu's months of uncomplaining service at K2 base camp until it became the same disheartening dun color as the surface of this ugliest of rivers.
- Perhaps he had been too harsh with these people: The economic disparity between them was just too great. Could it be that even a partially employed American who lived out of a storage locker could seem like little more than a flashing neon dollar sign to people in the poorest region of one of the world's poorest countries?
- When you reach out it can be overwhelming because you can't help everyone.

The People Have Spoken:
- He loses his girlfriend and his job
- "Pull yourself together Greg. Of course you have hit a few speed bumps.But what you are trying to do is much more difficult than climbing K2."
- Lou Reichardt knew something about suffering for and reaching difficult goals. His acknowledgement of how tough a path Mortenson was trying to walk made Mortenson feel that he hadn't failed. He just hadn't completed the climb. Yet.

Building Bridges:
- Rich societies can learn from the ancient societies about sustainment page 112
- "He operated as one of them, and I wondered how in the hell an American had managed that"
- Greg was humble and dodged credit. He did all the symbolic things to empower the Balti

Six Days:
-"I don't know if I particularly want to be remembered for anything,I have enjoyed great satisfaction from my climb of Mt. Everest. But my most worthwhile things have been the building of schools and medical clinics. That has given me more satisfaction that a footprint on a mountain" - Sir Edmund Hillary

Haji Ali's Lesson:
- "It may seem absurd to believe that a "primitive" culture in the Himalaya has anything to teach our industrialized society. But our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth, an interconnectedness that ancient cultures have never abandoned." Helena Norberg-Hodge
- Watching this scene straight out of the Bible stories I'd learned in Sunday school I thought how much the different faiths had in common, how you could trace so many of their traditions back to the same root." - Greg Mortenson
- He stumbled his way into his life's work
- "That day Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life. We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty minute power lunches and two minute football drills. Our leaders thought their 'shock and awe' campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them." - Mortenson
-"It was one of the most humbling things I have ever seen. Haji Ali had just handed over half the wealth of the village to that crook, but he was smiling like he'd just won a lottery," Mortenson said. "Don't be sad. Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. Haji Mehdi has food today. Now our children have education forever." - Hali Aji

A Smile Should Be More Than A Memory:
- The Wazir are not loyal to Afghanistan or Pakistan and have fiercely resisted worlds great powers throughout history
- Even the Taliban realized the importance of schools and spared Mortenson after eight days of captivity

- Hoerni's dying wish was to see the Korphe school
- Greg won people over by adapting and immersing himself in their way of life
- Greg removed a sick woman's placenta "For a Balti to let a foreign man, an infidel, have that kind of intimate contact with your wife took an incredible leap of faith. I felt humbled by how much they'd come to trust me,"
- Greg kept his word and delivered the picture to Hoerni
- "C'est moi, Jean. I built a school in the Karakoram Himalaya," he boasted. "What have you done for the last fifty years."
- "Jean Hoerni had the foresight to lead us to the twenty first century with cutting edge technology, but he also had the rare vision to look behind and reach out to people living as they have for centuries."

Mortenson in Motion:
- "We all sat there laughing and sipping tea peacefully. An infidel and representatives from three warring sects of Islam. And I thought if we can get along this well, we can accomplish anything. The British policy was 'divide and conquer' but I say 'unite and conquer.'"
- A boy is sent by his father to go to school and he is scared and confused but his father knows it is the right thing to do. People were inspired and gave him money to contribute to his education. Similar to military service in US.
- Greg gets it. He is likely doing as much to combat extremism as anyone...through education and opportunities
- "Once you educate the boys they tend to leave and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they've learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."

Cherry Trees in the Sand:
- Good political tidbits. The Mujahadeen liked Bill Clinton for saving Muslims in Bosnia. Swedes are a peaceful country but they sell many arms.
- "I wish Westerners who misunderstand Muslims could have seen Syed Abbas in action that day. They would see that most people who practice the true teachings of Islam, even conservative mullahs like Syed, believe in peace and justice, not in terror. Just as the Torah and Bible teach concern for those in distress, the Koran instructs all Muslims to make caring for widows, orphans, and refugees a priority."
- "I have heard some people say Americans are bad. But we love Americans. They are the most kind people for us. They are the only ones who cared to help us." Fatima Batool
- "What we are trying to do may be just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop." Greg Mortenson
- The Oregonian was the first to tell his tale
- Terrorist impact. "A politically volatile area, rural Pakistan is a breeding ground for terrorists who share anti-American sentiment. Illiterate young boys often wind up in terrorist camps. When we increase literacy we substantially reduce tensions."
- The wealthy lured him out to various events with promises of donations but he often returned empty handed
- "They were following the same philosophy as I was. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen's idea that you can change a culture by giving its girls the tools to grow up educated so they can help themselves. It was amazing to see the idea in action, working so well after only a generation, and it fired me up to fight for girls' education in Pakistan."
- "I don't care where the money comes from. It's all washed clean in the service of God." - Mother Teresa
- The burden of success came in the form of a long line of people wanting something from him
- "In times of war, you often hear leaders--Christian, Jewish, and Muslim--saying 'God is on our side.' But that isn't true. In war, God is on the side of the refugees, widows, and orphans."

A Village Called New York:
- Wahhabism is the Saudi conservative fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam
- Oil money is smuggled into Pakistan's poorest regions and used to build mosques and schools for "Islamic Education" in other words to promote extremism.
- For Pakistanis it is simple economics. Free room and board and an education at Madrassa centers
- "Neither the teachers nor the students had any formal background in maths, science, history, or geography." The madrassa students were "the rootless and restless, the jobless and the economically deprived with little self knowledge. They admired war because it was the only occupation they could possibly adapt to. Their simple belief in messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their beliefs some meaning."
- "The work Mortenson is doing building schools is giving thousands of students what they need most--a balanced education and the tools to pull themselves out of poverty. But we need many more like them. His schools are just a drop in the bucket when you look at the scale of the problem in Pakistan. Essentially, the state is failing its students on a massive scale and making them far too easy for extremists who run many of the madrassas to recruit."
- Al Qaeda assassinated the Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Massoud before Sept 11 to destroy one man capable of uniting Northern Afghanistan around the American military
- Greg was right down the road from Osama on 9-11
- "It is by fate that Allah the Almighty has brought us together in this hour. Today is a day that you children will remember forever and tell your children and grandchildren. Today from the darkness of illiteracy, the light of education shines bright. We share in the sorrow as people weep and suffer in America today as we inaugurate this school. Those who have committed this evil act against the innocent, women and children, to create thousands of widows and orphans do not do so in the name of Islam. By the grace of Allah the Almighty may justice be served upon them. For this tragedy I humbly ask Mr. George and Dr. Greg Sahib for their forgiveness. All of you my brethren: Protect and embrace these two American brothers in our midst. Let no harm come to them. Share all you have to make their mission successful. These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to show our Muslim children the light of education. Why have we not been able to bring education to our children on our own? Fathers and parents, I implore you to dedicate your full effort and commitment to see that all your children are educated. Otherwise, they will merely graze like sheep in the field, at the mercy of nature and the world changing so terrifyingly around us. I request America to look into our hearts and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good and simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in." - Syed Abbas

Tea With the Taliban:
- After 9-11 the US media was just pumping stories out without checking facts etc. Offered Greg bribes to get into Afghanistan
- "I tried to talk about root causes of the conflict--the lack of education in Pakistan, and the rise of the Wahhabi madrassas and how that led to problems like terrorism. But that stuff hardly ever made it to print. They only wanted sound bites about top Taliban leaders so they could turn them into villains in the run up to war,"
- "Perhaps we should turn in Bin Laden to save Afghanistan. Mullah Omar thinks there is still time to talk our way out of war. Make no mistake, we will fight to the finish if we are attacked." - Mullah Zaeef
- Claims Mullah Omar called Bush for talks but he never called
- Mortenson recognized that the majority of Afghanistan were victims of 9-11 as well. We lumped all Muslims as terrorist.
- "When Greg wins the Nobel Peace Prize I hope the judges in Oslo point to that day. This guy Greg quietly doggedly heading back into a war zone to do battle with the real causes of terror is every bit as heroic as those firemen running up the stairs of the burning towers while everyone else was frantically trying to get out."
- The Taliban used commercial flights and satellite phones to call in US positions
- Greg got death threats and hatemail for preaching not to lump all of Islam with terrorists

Rumsfeld's Shoes:
- No one tracked Afghanistan's civilian casualties
- "I am old enough to remember this nonsense from World War II, when we turned on all the Japanese and interned them without good cause. These horrible hate letters are a mandate for you to get out and tell Americans what you know about Muslims. You represent the goodness and courage that America is all about. Get out, don't be afraid, and spread your message for peace. Make this your finest hour." - Patsy Collins in a letter to Greg
- Nov 13 2001 Kabul filled with music which the Taliban had banned as the Taliban fled the city. Girls came out of hiding to go to school.
- No border security from Afghanistan to Pakistan
- He told me that less than a quarter of the aid money president Bush had promised his country had actually arrived in Afghanistan. And of those insufficient funds, he said $680 million had been redirected to build runways and bulk up supply depots in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar for the invasion of Iraq everyone had expected would soon begin.
- "I meet so many people day in and day out who say theyre trying to do good and help people. But Greg is the real thing. He's walking the walk. And I'm his biggest fan. The sacrifices that he and his family have made are staggering. He represents the best of America. I just wanted to do what I could to see that his humanity had a chance to rub off on as many people as possible." - Rep. Mary Bono
- "I don't do what I am doing to fight terror. I do it because I care about kids. Fighting terror is maybe seventh or eighth on my list of priorities. But working over there I have learned a few things. Ive learned that terror doesnt happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simple decide to hate us. It happens because cchildren arent being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death."
- "They walked quickly most of them clutching laptops under their arms speeding towards their next task like missiles, like there wasnt time to look at me. And I remember thinking I was in the Army once, but this didnt have anything to do with the military I knew. This was a laptop Army." - Greg on the Pentagon
- "The worst thing we can do is what we're doing--ignoring the victims. To call them 'collateral damage' and not even try to count the numbers of the dead. Because to ignore them is to deny they ever existed, and there is no greater insult in the islamic world. For that we will never be forgiven."
- "Im no military expert and these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we've launched 114 tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands over with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation. Which one do you think will make us more secure."
- Greg was offered money to build schools from the US military
- "I realized my credibility i that part of the world depended on me not being associated with the American government, especially its military."
- Greg's integrity is pretty incredible turning down millions from the US government
- I cant believe how many people in DC he got to meet and how involved he was in the history of our country yet we have never heard of him until his book. I dont know if that says more about the power of books or the state of our media.

The Enemy is Ignorance:
- A girl plops down in front of Greg in a tribal council and asks for money now for medical tuition. She was educated in CAI schools and embodies all that Greg had hoped the girls would learn.
- "If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else then we will be no safer than we were before 9-11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs."
- Story finally published in Parade magazine. Overwhelmed with letters Greg said he only got one negative one. Very diverse support and lots of vets
- "People like me are America's best friends in the region. Im a moderate muslim and educated man. But watching this even I could become a jihadi. How can Americans say they are making themselves safer? Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion muslims against America for the next 200 years." General Bashir Baz
- "Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America Osama is in every home. As a military man I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy's strength. In America's case thats not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever." - General Baz
- Jahan the girl graduates and now wants to be a hospital exec
- "And now that I am already in Skardu I feel that anything is possible. I dont want to be just a health worker. I want to be such a woman that I can start a hospital and be an executive and look over all the health problems of all the women in Braldu. I want to become a very famous woman of this area. I want to be a superlady." She said daring anyone, any man, to tell her she couldn't.
Mortenson didnt laugh at all. Instead he beamed at the bold granddaughter of Hali Aji and imagined the contented look that would have been on the old nurmadhar's face if he had lived long enough to see this day, to see the seed they planted together bear such splendid fruit. 580 letters, twelve rams, and tens years of work was a small price to pay, Mortenson thought, for such a moment.

Stones Into Schools:
- Opium harvest spiked in 2003 from nonexistant to almost 4000 tons which was 2/3 of the worlds raw material for heroin. The funds were funneled back into the land to equip and recruit militias which made Karzais governement increasingly irrelevant.
- "We fought with Americans, here in these mountains, against the Russians. An though we heard many promises, they never returned to help us when the dying was done." Keep your promises!
- New fork in the road for Greg.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Taste Of Home

So I have been toying around with a Flip Video ever since I left on my deployment. The thing is great for shooting simple short videos which is exactly what I have been using it for. I think it will be a great way to let all my family and friends know what I am doing while I am away. I have been having a hard time describing what it is like to my wife, family and friends because it is so difficult to describe something so different from what any of them have experienced. It is like trying to describe a color. How do you tell someone what red looks like? Maybe I am just not as descriptive in speaking as I am while writing but regardless I need to get better at ensuring that my important human connections feel connected to my daily life while I am away, if for nothing other than for my wife's sanity.

I must say it is a pretty awkward feeling when you are by yourself talking to a camera so my hat goes off to all the video bloggers out there. I plan on setting up a YouTube page and getting it organized so that people who care can get a little taste of what my experiences are like over here in Iraq. The one thing that I have noticed in the few videos I have shot is how different things can come across in video versus just writing about them. You only get one shot to say how you feel on camera so it is a bit different than editing a blog post and it definitely feels a bit more invasive and personal. I guess it is something I will just have to get comfortable with. Well here is a short clip and my inaugural video blog post. Stay tuned for more and for an organized YouTube page with more clips.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Conscious Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition is not a new and groundbreaking topic by any means. I myself can recall numerous recent experiences where I have recognized the importance of piecing together life's recurring patterns in different contexts. The successful economist, writer, and muser extraordinaire Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book on our mind's unique ability to process unfathomable amounts of data through subconscious pattern recognition. He describes this subconscious ability in the book Blink as the human equivalent of instincts. These instincts are the subconscious mind's recognition, collection, and organization of patterns. The mind then sends the conscious mind a message so to speak at very rapid speeds. This ability is definitely important, but what about conscious pattern recognition? The kind of pattern recognition that can be honed through conscious recognition and effort.

It wasn't until today about 90% through a grueling workout provided by my lovely personal trainer wife that I had the epiphany of the extreme importance of conscious pattern recognition. As I said earlier, I have always had little moments of clarity where I recognize parallels that arise in different life contexts. However it wasn't until today that it fell into place for me as I realized how much better my wife's workouts are than mine. I started to think of how far ahead she is with her ability to create dynamic workouts that truly push me through an entire full body workout.

What do workouts have to do with pattern recognition? Well nothing really. But the disparity between what I can create and what she can create has a lot to do with pattern recognition. Certainly her talent isn't purely superior knowledge. I enjoy working out, am fairly knowledgeable on the topic, and have the benefit of osmosis as I live with her. So as I was walking back from my work out I began wondering whether her talent is a gift or whether it was honed from pure passion and a superior ability to recognize patterns within that facet of life.

I heard a phrase on The Biggest Loser a while back. Jillian Michaels, who is a beauty by the way, told the contestants one day that she and Bob are the best in the world at what they do. She went on to say that no one can make contestants lose weight like they do. I believe her. I wonder what her conscious pattern recognition ability is like when it comes to creating workouts. Does her mind visually piece together a map of the body and the areas of focus for each workout. Does her mind flawlessly fashion together workout algorithms to fine tune the body in master fashion? Does she use pattern recognition of similar problems amongst contestants past and present to devise her transformation strategy?

I think that conscious pattern recognition ability is one of the key components to success in almost all things. To this day I can step on the ice and recognize patterns in the game that many other people who didn't play at as high a level cannot. Are these people way less talented than me? Most aren't and many have more natural talent than I do. However, when it came to hockey I had an ability to recognize recurring themes in the game that was built through hard work and years of experience. Wayne Gretzky often talked of his ability to see two or three plays ahead of the game, an almost ESP like ability to anticipate. I would venture to say that his pattern recognition within the game of hockey is greater than perhaps anyone who has ever lived.

Many people who are successful in one area tend to be successful in other areas. This isn't due to the fact that they are superior human beings. They achieve consistent success because they possess a superior ability to recognize patterns which allows them to posture themselves for success in a wide variety of areas. Can you apply this concept to other facets of your life? I am sure you can. Think of your office environment. Do you see the same mistakes being made day in and day out? Do you see the same communication problems manifest in different organizations and sectors? Do you see similar attributes in the successful people? The unsuccessful ones? How can you consciously attempt to recognize patterns to continually adapt to each and every situation thereby setting yourself to achieve your goals? Kind of a new agey concept but a very transcendent and helpful one nonetheless.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Combat Landing - Welcome To Your New World

I reached up weakly, my arm shaking from stress, starvation, and a lack of sleep to wipe my sweat soaked brow. I gazed down at my drenched palm and eventually looked past it through the netting of my jump seat down to my dusty backpack. Suddenly the weathered C-130 I was crammed into with forty other people from various services and agencies simultaneously took a hard banking turn and started an intense dive. As we spiraled downward I knew we were making a combat landing into Baghdad and that this was fairly routine. But I couldn't help but feel a bit uneasy as the iron lung that held my life within began to groan and creak like a dying steel mammoth taking its last agonizing steps on a journey too far. I looked around the steamy innards of the beast and was struck by the intense silence of everyone on board. The faces of my comrades reassured me that my emotional duress was shared. Then suddenly I heard a loud crash. I felt my chinstrap clinging intently to the Kevlar helmet resting on my head, and I choked mildly as my flack vest rose with the impact. We had landed safely......I was in Iraq.

Not only did my over dramatic description above actually happen in the last week, but it also serves as a metaphor to my entire deployment experience since landing in Baghdad, Iraq. A combat landing is a short, intense and overwhelmingly new experience. As has been my five days or so in Iraq. There are a few things that have really hit me in my first week over here.

This isn't your Grandpa's war story - One of the most striking contradictions to my deployment expectations was what a modern base looks and functions like. I was expecting more of a tent city feel like in the movies. GI's walking around in greasy t-shirts playing cards and hanging out. Not here. There are government and contractor vehicles everywhere. There are contractors from around the world living and functioning alongside the various countries various service members. There are a lot of the things we have in the States, but everything in this "world" functions in a little different manner. It is really hard to describe, but the best I can do is say that nothing is really intuitive when you are plopped down into your new world. Which leads nicely into my next observation.

We take a lot for granted - As I said, nothing is intuitive over here if you have never deployed. I felt like and still feel a bit like a little kid. I went from being fairly self reliant to totally dependent almost overnight. It is a very fragile and frustrating feeling. I literally can never recall ever being so dependent because I was probably too young to remember. My coworkers and friends literally had to teach me how to eat, sleep, shower and more. It was during my initial transitory phase that I started to realize how much I take for granted in American society. Reliable, clean running water is a start. Housing that has most of my health and hygiene needs at my disposal is another. Mostly I took for granted the incredible amount of choice I had back home. Especially the choice of what to do with my time. Here most time is spent on basic health and work, and everything is laid out for the military guys. I can't imagine actually being an Iraqi national and having to do whatever it takes to make a better life for myself and my family. Obviously what choices you have with your time are much more limited. It almost makes me feel a bit guilty for the way I have viewed other countries in the past. As if their actions and interests should always be taken through an American filter. But that is not the case. Each nation has a unique past and a unique set of values that shape and define their existence. To think that others think the way we do is not only false but dangerously naive.

Good people can always get you though - Like most other tough times in my life I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by good people. When you surround yourself with good people life never really gets too shitty. And when it does at least you have some solid people to help get you through it. My deployment so far has been no exception and I have a good group of people that I can laugh with, complain with, talk with, work out with, and pass the time with until that lovely day that I get to go back home to my wife and the life we have built together.

I would love to hear any other observations or lessons from other deployers and how your experience has been different than mine thus far.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Socialites and Solitude

It has been a few weeks since my last entry and when I look back to the last time I posted it seems like months have passed. During those few weeks I have done a million things to get ready to deploy and experienced a million different emotions as well. Now I am sitting in Baltimore, Maryland for a few days before I ship out to Baghdad.

I must admit that it feels a little weird to actually relax and I am not sure I am really relaxing yet. However, it is the first time in probably three weeks that I have not had too much to do in too little time. I had a week of insanity to get out the door and once I got to my pre-deployment training in San Antonio I was so immersed in that environment that it feels like forever since I just sat down with nothing to do. It also struck me that this is the first time in a very long time that I have actually had an extended period of time to myself. I spend every second I can with my wife and we love spending time with family and friends. I am a social person and love being around other people so that is generally what I spend my time doing.

I knew that I felt a little strange being out here in Baltimore and I knew that it was something beyond the mixed feelings of heading out on a deployment. I finally placed it that I am just not used to having this much time in solitude. I usually settle for my car rides to and from work, an hour or so playing guitar, reading or writing, and workouts to get my fix of alone time but being alone for days on end has definitely changed my perspective and allowed me to do a bit of thinking. Here are a few random musings I have come up with in my last couple days.

Why do we drink - I heard a theory that part of man's affinity with drinking alcohol is that we get sick of people and that we spend more time with ourselves than anyone else so throwing a few back is our escape from ourselves. I don't know how valid that theory is or even how much I agree with it, but I do take part with the assumption that we truly spend a lot of time with ourselves. Sure we are engulfed in our day to day consciousness, but how often do we sit back and really try and get to know ourselves? I know that is a big part of the reason I started BadskiBlog was to do some introspection on a more regular basis. However, there is definitely something to be said for the forcing function that is solitude on looking within. Given my nature, I can't really see myself seeking out days on end for introspection. However, I think that I will acknowledge their importance to a healthy understanding of one's self and I certainly will make the most of situations like the one I am in now that arise in the future.

External observations - I have noticed the last day or so how much more aware I am of the situations around me. I am the kind of person that really gets engulfed by those I spend time with. Most times when I meet people I instantly forget their name because most times I am not even listening to it. I am too busy taking in their expressions, the sound of their voice, their energy, etc. trying to rapidly form my interpretation of who they are and what they are about. I have always been that way. It is no surprise that this not only causes me to be terrible with names, but also to be in a "bubble" where I am consumed only with those I am in close contact with. I think it often leads me to be oblivious to things outside that bubble. Being alone the last couple days I am shocked at how much I have been picking up around me. It is amazing how much you can learn about people and the way they interact by just being observant. Not weirdo spy style or anything, but just being present with the actions going on around you. So much of life revolves around successful human interactions and having a better understanding of them can only help you to create more successful interactions of your own . I would like to make it a point from this point forward to break outside my bubble so to speak and consciously take in the lessons around me.

Trust and interdependency - Not only has being away from my wife made me realize how much I depend on her, but it has also made me take note how much trust we place on people we do not know. It is truly amazing how interconnected humans truly are. Just taking my arrival in Baltimore as an example, I trust that the pilot will land me safely. I trust that the airport will transport a firearm and deliver it to me successfully. I trust that the cab driver will take me where I asked to go. I am sure some of the readers are not finding this topic too earth shattering but I think it is really crazy when you take a step back and realize how much we lean on people we do not have any personal connection with. I think that is part of the reason that Americans fear places like Iraq or Afghanistan so much. In those countries the trust amongst nameless contacts is no where near that of our nation's. Subconsciously we are aware of the absence of the inherent trust amongst strangers. Anyone who has travelled abroad can relate to the feeling they had when they were put in situation where that trust was questioned. I think that is part of the greatness and quality of life that we take for granted; the ability to rely on those we do not know to better the lives of everyone.