Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part IV

Chapter I - Monday:

I wipe the sweat from my brow as the crew and I walk into the entryway of the guard shack leading into the dining facility (DFAC). I hand my ID to a Ugandan guard in a SOC uniform. He adjusts the loaded AK-47 on his shoulder, glances up at my face to ensure I am who I say I am and returns the card to me. I walk around the corner and into the DFAC to wash my hands. The paper towel saturates and rips leaving remnants of wet paper stuck to my fingers as I open the door into the dining facility. For some reason all the paper towels over here are the consistency of toilet paper. One of the small annoyances that whispers in your ear not so reassuringly reminding you that you are not in the comforts of home.

I scan my ID as I enter and am hit with the smell of DFAC. It is not an entirely bad smell but the multiple visits a day cause the smell to become an all too constant presence in the groundhog day that has become my life. I grab a tray, a plastic plate and silverware, and make my way briskly over to scan the line.

"Chicken sandwich day dude!" Heichs yells from behind me. Like a bird returning to the flock I swiftly alter course and head to the chicken sandwich bar that has become a regular on Monday's. We spread out and grab our various drinks, salads, and other items and reconvene in the back hall that somehow has a bit better air conditioning than the main area. We find and open table and plop down for a much welcomed break from the monotony of the contracting workload.

We sit down and start catching up on the few hours we have been dispersed carrying out our separate niches within the organization. The hustle and bustle of the various troops and contractors in the DFAC provides a backdrop of noise and movement that at first was overwhelming but is now the norm. The conversion inevitably turns to stories about contracting, another glaring reminder that I am deployed. Our job serves as our lowest common denominator of shared experiences and thus is often the topic of conversation. This is out of necessity and definitely not out of enjoyment. I have recognized a pattern in our conversations though. We often start with a contracting story. The story then leads to complaining. Not the type of complaining that comes from tainted and bitter people, but the kind that arises from those that are hungry and impatient with bureaucracy, injustice, and plain idiocy. The topic of conversation inevitably leads to higher ideals and principles that transcend our common deployed experiences and align more with our common human experiences and values.

I am amazed at how no matter where we start we end up talking about very high level, simple shared topics. We start bitching about contracting, navigate our way into strategic discussion on the way the war is being fought and how we fit into it. We then talk about what we would do if we were king for a day, and inevitably end up talking about our life goals and values like happiness, the importance of family, fulfillment, cultivating human relationships, and experiencing this gift of life that we are given.

I am no Socrates or Aristotle, but some of my best memories from this chapter of my life will definitely be centered on those shared discussions with my peers. People will want to hear about my travels to the desert. They will want to know how hot it was, how the palaces looked, and if I met any 'real' Iraqis. I will patiently answer their queries as these experiences will undoubtedly be cherished. But my foresight tells me that my best feel good moments will be the connections I established with my buddies and those moments in time where we got a glimpse into each other's souls and recognized the ideals we all shared; the things that are truly important to living an amazing and fulfilling life.

"You guys ready?" I ask the group. We stand up in concert and take our trays over to the industrial garbage cans lining the exits. I push open the swinging door and am once again blasted with a combination of dust, intense sunlight, and heat that pulls me back to the reality of where I am at. We head back to the vehicle and make the drive back to the office.

To Be Continued....

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part III

Chapter I - Monday:

My Friends and I stride into the relatively newly constructed building we more or less have called home since our arrival. It is hardened for protection against mortar and rocket attacks and has powerful although relatively unstable air conditioning. The cool air engulfs me and I can feel the heat radiating from my uniform. My body reacts by emitting thin glaze of sweat that soaks my boxers and undershirt. We trek upstairs and through the door into our office.

My office in Iraq looks relatively similar to that of my office at Hanscom Air Force Base just outside of Boston. However, the workload is definitely a change from the comfortable pace stateside. The way I describe my workload to family and friends is that there is more work to be done that could ever be accomplished. So you put your head down sift through what is most important and give it your best. Strangely my mental pendulum swings between being overwhelmed and relaxed by the reality that there is more work than can be realistically accomplished.

I log into my computer and shove aside the two contract files that have accumulated sometime in between my nine o'clock departure last night and my eight o'clock arrival this morning. Many of the CACI contractors who work in my office opt for a to go breakfast in order to start their clock early. Two of my team members have already placed a file on my desk for review and release. I open my email and see that I have 22 new messages. I quickly delete a few base wide messages detailing upcoming 5k runs, magic shows, and road closures. I continue and delete 5 or 6 messages from Iraqi contractors who somehow know that I am a contracting officer and email me daily for new work.

My career, although extremely frustrating at times, does serve a very important function especially in these new times of war. Nothing works on base without Contracting. From generators to internet service to security guards. There is some pride and definitely some heavy responsibility that comes with that reality. Seeing as though we are spending government money there is also an immense amount of bureaucracy to deal with that has grown like a virus over the last hundred years or so of government contracting. It has become more of an art than a science to learn to navigate the complicated and often conflicting guidance of the Federal Acquisition Regulation. One begins to get a taste of how Washington works while being involved in government contracting. Most laws and legislation are enacted out of reaction to scandals, protests, and other issues that have forced our nations leaders to do something to prevent such a thing from happening again. But the fallacy is that you can reactively legislate to proactively prevent. There will always be new challenges and new scandals. As the rules change so do the problems associated with those rules. And thus it becomes more and more difficult to execute what needs to be done. Being in the desert brings you even closer to the way Washington works as you can trace the numerous taskers and requests for information right back to DC. It is frustrating to say the least.

I put my headphones and crank some metal tunes to start my day off on the right foot. A few interruptions and a few hours later and I get up to take a break. I look over at Bob who strolled in around nine all sweaty from the walk over and ask him if he is ready. It is his last week in Baghdad before he heads home. We talk for a bit and his departure begins to give me hope of my own successful return home. He has helped me from the day I arrived and I think back just a few short months ago and I can't believe how settled I am in this strange world. The human spirit is an amazing thing. We naturally adapt to the situations and challenges around us. We are on a constant quest for normalcy, for a peace of mind. Yet we are also constantly striving to become better and to grow through new and unique experiences. It is an interesting dynamic that I have become not only aware of but dependent on throughout my short but eventful time on this earth. Just knowing that in the most stressful and clouded times of your life that you can and will overcome is a good feeling. It doesn't always ensure those times will be easy but it keeps you moving forward.

"You ready for lunch," I lean over and ask Bob. "Yeah, give me a second," he replies. I walk off and around the office gathering the rest of the Captain crew. We exit the office loudly, joking around as we make our way out to the car to drive to lunch. The midday heat is almost unbearable this time of year and the buildup of government vehicles on base which was source of shock when I first arrived has now become a saving grace. Another half day down and one step closing to coming home.....

To Be Continued....

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part II

Chapter 1 - Monday:

I step outside my room and am once again slapped with the thick Iraq air. "Bob's not coming?" I ask Heichs and Sheeman. "What do you think?" Heichs replies. Bob has said he is coming to breakfast for the last week only to come franticly rushing into the office at about 9:10, sweating while explaining that he meant to sleep in.

The three of us begin the half mile walk to the DFAC (dining facility) sans Bob. We walk along the dusty road outside our CHU's on the way to the paved road and are blasted with a dust cloud from speeding F-250. "Fucking Joe Contractor," I say jokingly. We bring up the comfortable and common topic that we have been in this war so long that even our contractors have developed a noticeable obnoxious sense of entitlement. My worldly, witty peers and I seem to never to tire discussing our loathing of the stereotypical and aptly named "Joe Contractor."

Joe Contractor is a middle aged overweight male who has spent years working in Iraq and making a fortune. While his role is important and no doubt necessary to our efforts he acts as if the base is a contractor Disneyland. He drives an F-250 or a new SUV all over the base and never has anyone else in the vehicle. His gas is paid for by the US Government and is placed in a vehicle that the US Government leased but will eventually end up buying for more than we would have paid if we bought it off the lot from the beginning. Joe Contractor eats in the DFAC and always grabs two to go boxes full of food. My friends and I joke that we are not only paying these guys to get fat but that in 15 years they will hit us again as their healthcare costs make their way down to our level. The face of America's wars have changed since my Grandparents era, that much is certain. Our politicians make decisions based on votes and not on reality, and thus must fill capability gaps with Joe Contractors. These same politicians then slam our finest Generals during televised review boards over the amount of contractor personnel in theatre. This is not my Grandfathers' war.

We arrive at the DFAC, sweating from the heat that is substantial even before 7:30 AM. We hand our ID cards to the Ugandan guards with AK47's that man all the entrances to the public facilities. They too are contracted help. In fact the majority of the security over here is. Another strange departure from my dreams of what deployment would be like. They ensure that we are carrying our weapons and return our cards. We make our way through the breakfast line and plop down together to carry on our morning conversation.

My buddies in Iraq have been a saving grace. I was so paranoid that I would not find the friendship and camaraderie I so desperately needed in my first deployment. However, my fears were for naught. My peer group has not only been there as a friendly boost getting me through these tough times away from home, but they have made me proud of my generation that has chosen to serve. My fellow Captains are well educated, intrinsically motivated, have handled a large amount of responsibility at a very young age, and have done it well. We feed off each other's drive to succeed and we are competitive in a friendly and healthy way. Our group has developed a personality. An identity that arises amongst solid individuals with similar goals and values. We walk with a bit of a swagger. A little bit of attitude that we are destined to great things now and in the future. It feels good. We are cynical in a sense, disenfranchised with the things we see around us. However, I see us as more idealistic than anything as our most cynical moments stem from a frustration that things can be done better. We often find ourselves starting on observations that are close to our sphere of influence only to find ourselves miles above thinking of the big picture, how what we are doing fits into this crazy world, and how we want to make it better. My buddies here are guys that will undoubtedly go down different life paths and different journeys than me, however they are the kind of buddies that I will forever be honored to work with in any future endeavor, no matter the time lapsed between our last exchange.

It is a great feeling to be surrounded by great people. I live my life by constantly surrounding myself with good people. Being deployed is interesting because it amplifies normal life. You need about 10% of the time you normally need to read somebody through and through. With that enhanced people reading capability comes the good the bad and the ugly. I have used my time to see what I do and do not want to become as a person.

I finish my eggs, bacon, and mound of fresh fruit and we head for the exit. We begin the walk back to our office building and I can't help but notice how good the eucalyptus trees smell in the morning. I gaze to my left and see the man made lake that Saddam built. Victory Base Complex is showered with palaces, lakes, and a few leftover trees, all of which are out of place but are aesthetically pleasing nonetheless. I had heard that at one point Saddam stole 80% of Baghdad's water supply to create the clean water lakes that line what is now Victory. For an asshole he really knew how to decorate the place. I think how amazing the grounds must have looked before we got here. I wonder what they will look like after we leave. I am feeling grateful and thankful for the amenities that I have had on my first deployment. It is amazing how a little sunlight, a full belly, and a little walk in the morning can cheer you up....even with a 12-14 hour day ahead of you. We get to our building door and the day begins.

To Be Continued...