Friday, September 30, 2005

The LTF 191 staff who have made a difficult job even more difficult for me to leave. Posted by Picasa

Off to the Crystal Palace

Well, I've been back on the ground now a little better than a week and it's been, well, like I never left except a little cooler.  That's not exactly true.  While the air is still filled with dust, there is an atmosphere of change. The parliamentary elections were held nearly 2 weeks ago now and the level of violence has dropped markedly While it's too early to say if this is the beginning of a long term trend, reorganization by the cave-dwellers, the beginning of their winter hiatus, or an enemy resigned to the fact that democracy has taken hold in this country and their war is lost, I can't say.


What I can say though is that things are changing for me. While I knew this was coming, I was still holding out a little hope that something would change. I have lost my battle to keep dancing with the girl that brought me to the ball, and starting next week I will leave my position as the Executive Officer of LTF 191 and will ascend that Crystal Palace at the other end of Metropolis known as the Joint Logistics Command. I know all the reasons behind the move and while they make sense in a way that things can only in the Army bureaucracy, and while I know the move will benefit me professionally down the road, it's a difficult blow not being able to finish this thing with the people that I brought here.


People have different concepts on how to build a successful military career, one of the more popular being the “Hitch Your Wagon to a Rising Star” method. This might work for some, but I've always had more success with surrounding myself with good people and giving them the support they need to do their job, then staying the hell out of their way.


If I have achieved any success in this job it is due to the staff that was assigned to me.  If I had planned my whole career for this job, I couldn’t have done any better than this talented group of people who took this task force from the planning sequence in Germany to the dusty wooden huts here in Metropolis.  Through the mind-numbing minutia of the deployment planning, the personnel certification, the shipping of equipment, the training exercises conducted in a deluge at Lampertheim, Convoy Live-Fire in the frozen waste-land of Grafenwoher, deploying, establishing operations, enduring rocket attacks, and relocating the entire operation here, they succeeded in carrying the workloads where larger staffs of far senior people have failed.


The staff truly made this job easy and any good things that may come my way are certainly due to them.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Notes on the Ride Back to the Sandbox

Sometimes I think half of my time on this earth has been spent pondering life while staring out an airplane window.  My two weeks of R&R leave have evaporated and I'm now on the first leg of the long journey back to Bagram.  The sun is setting out the opposite windows and I feel the tinge of the presence of an old companion. The shadowy figures of homesickness and depression, demons from my past who I thought I had long since banished are wafting up and down the aisle, slipping between the seats amongst the hundreds of soldiers on board, now and then finding time to touch me briefly with a heaviness of heart.


Like a certain smell that evokes memories of childhood, the touches of sadness bring to mind with crystalline clarity the waves of depression and homesickness that used to sweep over me like clockwork in the late afternoons twenty years ago as I struggled through the catharsis that is Basic Training.


I know that the sadness will not overwhelm me tonight as those onslaughts did years ago, leaving me to repress sobs while a shower before bed hid my tears; today I gratefully fear that I am much too callous for such emotions.  It serves to remind me though of the youth that surrounds me, and the obligations that I hold.  It reminds me of the pain that Pam must feel without benefit of the years of emotional conditioning.  I know it is incumbent of me to ease the suffering around me and push forward to those better days that are now just around the corner.


Just as clearly as I remember those cruel afternoons of depression, I recall the giddiness of impending success and freedom that followed as I approached graduation from Basic Training, and I know that this happiness will follow just as surely as the sand continues to fall through the hourglass.


A beautifully clear full moon has now appeared through the pink stratus clouds out my window and as I look at it, I can hear the amazement in Max's voice as we peered at it 2 nights ago through the telescope in the back yard.  Scientists have been wrong all this time.  There is a man in the moon after all.  Well, at least a boy.


It's 0430Z and we are continuing our trek across the Atlantic after a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland.  As I gaze at the fluffy white carpet of clouds spread out thousands of feet beneath us, I realize it is 9 A.M. on Sunday the 18th of September in Afghanistan.  I know that beneath those clouds, the ocean, as Melville closed Moby Dick, rolls on as it did 10,000 years before, but the polls are open in Kabul and today the world beneath me is changing.


After a 3 hour layover in Shannon, Ireland, we are called to board.  200 soldiers begin making their way out of the small terminal towards the gate.  Several of the American tourists in the terminal position themselves near the door and shake hands with soldiers or clap them on the back wishing them good luck as the exit.  I remember visiting Dublin last year and having our host go out of her way to show me some anti-Bush posters on lamp posts and billing them as a general indictment by Ireland against the war.  Today though, as I near the terminal exit, I hear the clapping start sporadically then rapidly spread throughout the terminal.  Looking over my shoulder I saw every person in the terminal on their feet applauding.  My eyes misted over as our contingent made our way out of the terminal and back towards harms way, thankful for the hospitality of the Emerald Isle.


An hour layover in Budapest followed by another 4 hour flight brings us to Kuwait City.  The plane hits the runway at midnight local time, 27 hours after I left Pam at the gate in Colorado Springs.  Another hour bus ride to Ali Al Saleem, another briefing and billeting assignments.  I get to a tent at 4:00 A.M.  Not much sense in sleep now.  Roll call at 9:00 A.M. and we are told to be prepared to leave at 1330.  Another roll call followed by another manifest and another bus ride back to Kuwait City.  Flight canceled tonight, get something to eat and get back on the bus.  Another hour back to Saleem with the air conditioner set somewhere between “Meat Locker” and “Cryogenic”.  Another billeting assignment, another 9:00 A.M. roll call. 1230 departure time and we’re back on the bus to KCIA.  This time, the air conditioner is pitifully low on Freon and struggles in vain to counteract the 120 degree outside temperature.  We are all bathed in sweat as we reach the airport.


At 6:00 P.M. we leave the terminal and the dust in the air obscures the setting sun, serving instead to cause the entire western sky to blaze a deep orange as though by some distant inferno as we walk across the ramp to the C-17.  3 ½ hours later as the engines slow, we are directed by the load master to secure our seatbelts.  The cabin is illuminated only by pale green lights.  The plane takes a decidedly nose down attitude, then banks sharply to the left, straightens, banks sharply to the right and straightens again.  Air brakes are applied and we are pulled sideways in our seats towards the front to the cabin.  I hear the hydraulics whine as flaps extend fully then the nose levels.  Only now do landing lights appear through the cabin window and we bang heavily onto the runway.  The engines reverse, we are pulled sideways in our seats again and the two 5-ton trucks in the center of the cabin strain at their tie-down chains as this mammoth airplane tries desperately to rid itself of the momentum it carried onto the ground.


R&R is over.


Monday, September 12, 2005

Nessie Lives

It's a little known fact that the Loch Ness Monster makes an annual migration from her home in Scotland to a mountain lake in Colorado.

I suppose it's a bit of a coincidence that the lake happens to be in Estes Park and the appearances always coincide with the annual Scottish-Irish Highlands Festival where increasingly inebriated clansmen spend the weekend lobbing bowling balls at her from an old trench mortar and trebuchets. Fortunately, the consumption of scotch and stout ale remains constant and the aim continues to get worse so by Sunday afternoon, Nessie has usually survived to migrate another year.

This past Thursday, Pam and I, along with Max and Mollie made the drive from Colorado Springs to Estes Park for the start of the annual gala. This 4 day festival at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park is a ritual that Pam and I always try to attend and it has never disappointed us. If you make reservations early enough you can get accommodations at the Stanley Hotel where Stephen King penned "The Shining" and the TV miniseries was filmed.

Then it's 4 days of pipe and drum bands, highland games, single malt scotch, Guinness beer, scotch eggs, haggis, deep fried mars bars, single malt scotch, Guinness beer, shooting at Nesssie, jousting, Irish dancing, single malt scotch, Guinness beer, tattoos (the military review kind), Celtic bands, shopping, rugby, single malt scotch, and Guinness beer.

Sunday morning found me in a kilt with sunburned legs and a wee bit of a hangover, but thoroughly satisfied and looking forward to the drive home since a slight detour would take us by the original Bucksnort Saloon.

So not only does Nessie live, but I can report that the Bucksnort Saloon is still standing and still serving some of the best green chili smothered burritos west of the Cherry Cricket (but that's a story for another day.

Friday, September 09, 2005

God Bless the State of Texas

Ok, this is a little difficult for me. You have to remember that I am a Colorado native, raised in the heart of the Rocky Mountains that hunters from Texas invaded like clockwork every fall with bottles of Jack Daniels and high powered rifles; a place where the elementary schools used to teach "Reading, Riting, 'Rithmetic, and Texas Sucks". Now I have to retract every evil and mean-spirited thing I've said or though about the Lone Star state.

The trip home for my 2 week R&R leave started with an early morning flight out of Bagram to Kuwait. Stepping off the C-17 in Ali Al-Saleem (sp?), the sun hadn't yet risen and it was a comfortable 75 or 80 degrees. I should have relished it while I had the chance. By the time the buses got us to the Personnel Holding Area, the sun had cleared the horizon and the temperature was rising exponentially. We were herded from building to building where the customs and safety briefers strained to make themselves heard over the air conditioners which were fighting an increasingly futile battle to keep the indoor environments habitable. By 2 P.M., I fully expected to see signs above the doors leading outside saying "Abandon hope all Ye who enter here...". The temperature was pushing 125 and if there was a breeze, it only served to make things hotter, like putting a fan in front of an open oven.

By 5:30 P.M., the 265 troops from Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan who would be making their homeward bound connections through Dallas had finished the briefings, cleared customs, and were in the "Sterile Area" waiting for the buses to Kuwait City. By 10:00 P.M., the temperature had finally started to drop, but it didn't matter as we were herded aboard a fleet of air conditioned buses and whisked across the Kuwaiti desert behind our MP escorts. A little after 1:00 A.M., the DC-10's landing gears tucked up into the belly and we rolled onto a heading which would take us to Ireland.

I drifted off for a couple of hours, and when I opened my eyes and looked out the window to the east, a pale band of white light stretched from north to south across the horizonand perfect spectrums of color rose above it into the black sky where stars still shone above us. As if on cue, the plane rolled further to the west and while not quite fast enough to outrace the light, we held the cusp of the new day on the horizon. Only when the engines slowed, and we began to descend, did the sun finally begin its ascent, illuminating the lush green fields of Ireland.

As we stretched our legs and prepared to disembark for an hour layover, I felt genuine pity for the Captain who had been given the assignment of troop commander who had to announce over the intercom that there would be no consumption of alcohol. What kind of twisted mindset takes 265 troops out of the desert where they have been sober for 6-8 months, drops them into the land of whiskey and Guiness and tells them not to drink?

6 hours later, after the third in-flight movie, I opened my window shade and saw fields of crops stretched across the American Heartland, crossed with the perpendicular farm raods and dotted with small towns. Wispy white clouds stretched across the horizon and my eyes moistened as I felt like I was 8 years old on Christmas morning.

After a descent and approach into Dallas that seemed to last for hours, the plane thumped onto American soil, and as we turned onto the taxi way, the captain came over the intercom telling us that if we looked out our windows we would see that we were being welcomed by the city of Dallas. The airport firetrucks had positioned themselves on both sides of the taxiway and streams of water arced over our plane as we passed between them.

Finally the doors opened, and we collected our belongings and made our way thourough customs. Aiport attendants asked each of us our final destinations and directed us towards our respective terminals and as I rounded the corner, to leave the terminal, I was greeted by a throng of cheering supporters. There was easily more than 100 people cheering and waving flags, reaching out to shake our hands and welcome us home. By the time I reached the terminal doors, I had bags of brownies, posters from the Dallas Mavericks Cheerleaders, bottles of cold water, and tears in my eyes.

American Airlines opened their Ambassador Lounge to us as we waited for connecting flights, allowing us to take showers, sit in the lounge, and feel like normal people again. I will neither confirm or deny that I imbibed in alcohol before I reached my final destination, but I will say that for all the well-wishers in that lounge I couldn't have bought a drink if I wanted to.

I was graciously upgraded to first-class for the short flight to Colorado Springs and the next thing I truly remember is sitting on the floor in the middle of the Colorado Springs airport holding my wife for the first time in 8 months with tears rolling down both of our faces.

Now there have been days of roller hockey with Max, celebrating his 6th birthday with a new bicycle, Brats on the backyard grill, a Sunday afternoon Rockies game at Coors field followed with a night at the Brown Palace in downtown Denver. And now, we are sitting at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park waiting for the opening of the 29th annual Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival.

As good as the last week has been, as the next 3 days promise to be, or as I hope the next week will be, I will never forget the reception that 265 weary warriors received from the wonderful state of Texas.