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Monday, November 26, 2007

As I look out the small portal window I realize…

that coming home is as big a pain as leaving. To summarize… I left Baghdad a couple of weeks ago and began what will be an extended redeployment and demobilization. This includes a week’s stop on the surface on the moon in the small country of Kuwait. There is so much nothing here, the US military set up what must be 400 jillion self-powered Magnum generator lights to brighten up said “nothingness.” At night Camp Arifjan is an awesome sight of tents, portable buildings and most importantly a Starbucks trailer lit up in the literal middle of nowhere. This is where I began my “decompression” known as Warrior Transition. In retrospect it is a good thing. Initially I was unexpectedly depressed at leaving “home” and having to travel yet again. That said nothing is more rejuvenating than a couple of days of sitting in Starbucks (i.e. good coffee as opposed to the less than fulfilling Green Bean coffee) and catching up on a few movies at the MWR tent. It gave me a moment to remember what I’ve been missing. And even more enjoyable was finally returning the 150lbs of battle rattle and the additional 4000lbs of unnecessary issued gear. Don’t get me wrong I am grateful for the entrenching tool and the extreme cold weather gear; I just think it may be a little better suited elsewhere, like the North Pole perhaps.

This was all a good start but my angst really set in when we were informed of the follow-on travel arrangements. Including customs quarantine and various other “delays,” my transit back to the states was going to take no less than 60+ hours to include - 6 terminals, 4 flights, 3 countries, 2 bus transfers, and a partridge in pear tree. This is military travel at its best. I suppose the one thing that will stick with me the most is a service members ability to sleep anywhere at anytime. I no longer see seats in a Passenger Terminal – they are luxurious sleeping accommodations.

Once back in the States I was and continue to be overwhelmed by the generosity of many and the impoliteness of others. In our first steps out of customs, we were all greeted by a long patriotic procession of well wishers giving out hugs, hand-shakes, and snacks. That and the 40 degree cold temperatures were my first episodes of extreme shock. But this was soon followed up with some sneers and comments from less than accepting folks who I suppose were a bit tired of uniformed personnel coming and going through “their” terminals. I continued my travels alone now separated from the larger herd. While waiting to board my next flight my name was called over the loud speaker to see the agent. “Sir – Thank you for your service and this lady would like to upgrade your ticket.” “Uh…” I stood there stunned and at a loss for words. “Thank you ma’am but that’s not necessary.” “I know its not… but you gave something for us… Let me give you something in return. I wont take no for an answer. Besides- You look like you can use a roomier seat to get some rest” Wow – Do I look that bedraggled? “Uh…Thank you for your kindness ma’am.” She went on to explain to me that most folks don’t have a way to express their gratitude and that having someone to personalize this experience helps humanize it…make it real. I slept for the next four hours in an almost fully reclined position. (Thanks Ms SB. - I will pass on your kindness to another trooper.)

I finally arrived at my destination where I was greeted by my girlfriend and several other close friends carrying a Texas Longhorn banner. I was still very tired and tried my best not to seem overwhelmed but I truly was happy to see familiar faces. After an impromptu breakfast I checked in to my next duty station and finally got some sleep – about 10 hours worth which is a lot seeing that my new pattern is 4 to 6.

And now? Well now I sit here going through the process of demobilization. I’m a lab rat getting pinched, poked, bled and briefed. It’s a slow process slowed even more by the Thanksgiving holidays. That said I have an infectious smile on my face and for probably the first time in my life I seem to be the most patient person in the room; a quality that I think has endured me to an obviously overworked staff. As others (who I may add were only on 4 and 6 month deployments) jump up and down screaming “hurry up hurry up…” I just wait in lines and say “Take your time - get it right… You see everyday is a gift: No ones shooting at me, I have a certain amount of freedom to travel, I don’t see any sand, and it’s relatively nice outside… I am just happy to be here.” Hmm… So it took all this to finally discover Zen.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Eager to leave – reluctant to go…

Before I begin I will admit this is probably one of the toughest entries I've written. My mind is very conflicted with contradictions. On this my fifth and final attempt at not rambling I will follow the golden rule of Keep It Simple Stupid. Pardon if it still comes off as a stream of consciousness - Enjoy…

I am standing on the Helo pad preparing to board a Blackhawk that will take me to Baghdad International. This is the beginning of a redeployment and reorientation process. I am shaking the hand of my vision of Davy Crocket personified or maybe it's Stephen F. Austin (If you don't know him look him up.) Though I've only known Charlie three months, we have become very close friends. This giant of a statesman with a big welcoming smile and firm grip challenges my opinions of politicians. He also confirms for me that I never want to run for public office… I value my "freedom of opinion" (read: freedom to say whatever is on my mind) far too much. He is genuinely a good guy with good intentions…

An hour and a half earlier I am standing outside the Embassy bidding my roommate farewell… It is our third such goodbye in as many hours. And yesterday he took the day off just to spend time with me. Hence why I haven't slept in 30 + hours and why I am now running behind. While I will miss him I can really ill afford this additional goodbye – "Dude, I'm gonna be late - I still have stuff to ship." "I know Wood, I just don't want to see you leave." It wasn't supposed to end like this… We came in together we are supposed to be rolling out together. Such is the life of an Individual Augmentee. This is my true Battle Buddy in every sense of the word. I met Dave a year ago at the airport in S. Carolina in route to combat training. We've pretty much been together ever since. He is one of the most gracious people I have ever had the pleasure to know…to a fault. He shared everything with me from care packages (I think most of the stuff I am shipping home is actually gifted from him.) to the drama and turmoil of his personal
life. He is even responsible for my call sign "Hollywood." And through it all I have seen incredible growth and transformation – from an unsure sailor with a broken family to career officer figuring out who he really is. I can not have asked for a better friend, confidant or battle buddy…

Six hours later I am getting a quick cat nap on a cot at BIAP. (I did mention my roommate and Charlie had me up all last night.) I open my eyes and there sitting quietly looking at me is Michael. "What the hell… how long you been here brutha? Why didn't you wake me up?" "Just a few minutes, I couldn't bring maself ta wake up a man lookin so peaceful and such." A fellow Texan, self-proclaimed red-neck, and great friend he was transferred out to Victory from the IZ some weeks ago. I was a bit concerned that I wouldn't get the chance to see him before I left town. He appropriated a vehicle and risked driving into the red zone a couple of times just to see me off. We are the epitome of the fellowship of Texans. When I get around him my draw comes out with vigor and his "tall-tales" git jist a bit taller if ya know what I mean. We don't necessarily see eye to eye on everything such as my passion for the Longhorns or his enthusiasm for the Aggies (which shore nuff can lead to some lively and spirited conversations) but regardless of our differences we are brothers and Texans living in an odd situation with a bond of home that cannot be broken. (see note above on the value of "freedom of opinion") We grab chow, share a last Green Bean coffee and talk about future reunions before we bid a temporary farewell. Michael embodies a surrogate for the brother I lost …

On my last hours in Iraq I choose to share these three people with you… You see I joined the services for "high-minded" reasons: defend the constitution, protect our citizenry, guard against oppression… hell more importantly - preserve my right to "freedom of opinion". However all that pails… In the end it's not about politics of the Middle East or economics of a barrel of oil, or even the history of who is right and who is wrong. It's about people; serving for whatever reason. These three and the many others - Free, Mr. BUA, Capt KJ, SwordMan, The Boss, Letlow, The Yoz, "President Carter", ColeMiner, KC and Justine, to name a few, represent more than mere friendship. They are family - brothers and sisters in war - living an
experience that many will question and few will comprehend; an experience that will be difficult to relate without first hand knowledge. They represent my military service. And while I want nothing more than to get back home as soon as possible – these folks are now part of my home. Parting truly is bittersweet.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Time for a little reflection…

As I make preparations for my early departure, I feel both an eagerness to move out and reluctance to leave battle buddies behind. For all intents and purpose this place became my home and this life abnormally familiar. I also have the beginning twinges of anxiety of returning to a life I left well over a year ago. I am well versed at "You can never go "home" again – because the "home" you left was a snapshot in time of both place and person. I know I've changed and I know the circumstances of those I knew has changed – how much will be determined by the comparison and contrast of those people and the places I used to know. The "home" I return to will require redefinition. I digress…

So where does that leave me now? Well as any good "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Years" show will prove… I am obliged to provide a brief reflection of beginning and end. With that… Something is very clear - The Baghdad I leave behind is not the Baghdad I arrived at a year ago. Regardless of your take on this conflict there is an undeniable sea change taking place here at the moment. On my arrival there was a palpable sense of resignation and uncertainty. Today there is a growing but cautious sense of optimism and new possibilities. There is still much to do and the challenges for this country are enormous but at least now there is a kernel of will and semblance of spirit. It grows by the day and I truly hope it is as infectious as the passion these folks here have for their country, history and religion.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Scientist…

Transition defines the essence of my experience in Baghdad…and as my time here ebbs my position continues to evolve from that of charging the hill to passing the torch. The other day I woke up and realized (by design) I had trained myself right out of my latest primary duty. There was literally nothing left for me but a daunting amount of neglected administrative work and After Action Reports. Or so I thought… It seems Sr. Leadership had something else in mind for me. As the Admiral repeatedly said throughout my tour, "Hollywood - your reward for hard work done well is more hard work;" thus my newest and I suspect (based on historical evidence) my final title – "Special Projects Officer." And for my money, I think this is the most fulfilling job I've had yet. My task? Combine my lessons learned with some creative marketing to 1) streamline a couple wasteful practices, 2) develop a branded imaging campaign and 3) simplify our tools and products to better suit our customers needs. In other words, at long last, I am finally bringing my Customer Relationship Management skills to the fray. The result? A slick new set of, simple to use, simple to produce products dubbed the "Science Projects" by my Army Cadre. "Damn Hollywood – you're a friggen Rocket Scientist… everyone loves these things Hooah!" "Hooah Boss! See… let me work on something I'm good at and I will produce." "Hollywood - I hope you realize working on what you know isn't what makes you an impressive officer. Anyone of us can work within the margins of expertise. For the past year now I've watched you pulled this way and pushed that way… constantly run through the ringer and challenged to work outside of your comfort zone day in and day out - week after week… You've held more jobs here in the past year than most people have in their entire career. And regardless of the task assigned, you saluted and moved out smartly accepting all risks and inevitably contributing some sort of positive, often unexpected, product. In my eyes that's what makes you truly remarkable." "Whoa… uhhhh…Thank you sir." I was more than a bit stunned and it took a little longer than usual to stutter the following…" Sir the way I see it, the execution is too easy… ya'll stepping out of your typically conservative dogmatic safety zone and giving me all the rope I needed to hang myself… that was the real science project."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Whether it's taking an inebriated stagger down 6th street, dancing (drinking) at the Goth clubs in the Montrose, scrutinizing "fashions" of the West Hollywood parade, strolling leisurely down Kalakaua Ave or just hosting a costume party with friends – Halloween is something I thoroughly celebrate. In fact, as most of my close friends and family can attest, it is my absolute favorite Holiday. So as I spend this Halloween lurking the Embassy Ballroom in a eerie Baghdad Palace, I want to take a moment to wish you all the scariest and spookiest of Halloweens! And in the spirit of this Holiday I wish to haunt you with this extremely frightening thought – As you may have figured I'm dressed in my usual "Sand Pirate" costume. More significantly…this year I'm armed and dangerous!


Thursday, October 18, 2007

It may be about the journey and not the destination but I REALLY want to go there.

I walked by the periodical shelf today and noticed a well worn Wine Spectator magazine. I don't typically take notice of these things as I haven't had the time to enjoy "extracurricular" reading. If it doesn't involve a clip about developing political and economic civilization or concerted attempts to blow it up then it's just not in my preview. This time however I was intrigued by one of the cover segments which included "good-eats" in LA and exploring the south of France. I picked up the magazine for a quick browse and couldn't put it down. Besides reviews of traveling for the palate, chocolate and wine pairings, and all around gourmand interests, the articles on the LA restaurants really caught my attention. The picture of a sushi plate included with a review of a Japanese restaurant named Hokusai nearly floored me…The assessment on the Omakase menu left my mouth watering. I was instantly taken back to an amazing dining experience in Kyoto Japan. I could visualize it… taste it… For five minutes I was back in the small traditional eatery in a far off place. I want to go to Hokusai when I get home if for no other reason than providing me with a 5 minute respite from Baghdad. I considered writing down the name of the restaurant and or emailing it to myself so I wouldn't forget it but then I did something a bit out of character… I desecrated the magazine. I ripped out the page, folded it up (careful to not to put creases in the picture of the beautifully displayed sashimi plate) and put it in my wallet. As selfish as it may be the name was just not enough. I want this article and associated picture to serve as a personal memento of where I've been and where I'm going.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Well now… This is a day to remember.

I woke up to a rumble… then another… and another. It's been relatively quiet around here lately so this break in the norm seemed a bit extraordinary. I had to take a look outside to see for myself. I was pleased and amazed to see cloudy skies and big rain drops. Not much but enough to realize that yes there is such thing as weather beyond a cloudless sunny 95+ degree day.

The words were as unbelievable as they were shocking… "LT you may want to get used to the idea of leaving Iraq a little earlier than we anticipated." The comment was so unexpected it fell flat like a dull thud. Our admin officer shuffled there in front of me looking for a reaction. "Front office isn't too happy about it either…" she trailed off still searching for something. My experience with the orders process thus far has been "unpredictable" to put it mildly. It only stands to reason that my leaving would become just as disorderly as my arriving. I gave her my now typical wry smile, "Hmmm… let me think about that for a moment. OK I'm used to the idea. Now let's make it happen." And there I was… standing in disbelief in a now empty hallway, wearing a goofy smile, and confirmation that this extreme summer camp actually has an end date…a date I can mark on the calendar. Barring any "unforeseens" I am assured I will be back in the states in time for the holidays.

And tomorrow I go on Pass for a few days… Yeah – this has the makings of a good day.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Just so you know…

Pardon the delays but recent changes to the systems have made posting hit and miss. As it is these postings are published via email. I will do my best to get a new update mailed shortly. Until then my best wishes to everyone.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hmmm it was interesting while it lasted…

My how time flies… it's been nearly 3 months since I left for leave. After covering positions for several folks taking their own leave, I was asked what I want to do next. "Hmmm.... that's a new one… what do I want to do? Really?" It didn't take long to determine. Having worked every position here I requested a job that would provide some new challenges, stimulus and some professional/personal growth; all very reasonable. More importantly, the area I want to support just had a 95% turn-over and needed the guidance of an "old-timer." Well - what was old is new again and I'm back in my old job... by name requested; long on hours, short on sleep, engaging the media at every turn. Sure its "front-line" stuff but honestly I can't say as I missed it that much. It's become so second nature it sort of bores me. Well… not sort of… I just don't find it that challenging. Additionally while most folks here vie for face time with General Officers, I'm way over it. For me it just means more sleepless nights. I saw this coming… there's been so much turn-over in the office I knew sending me away was a pipe-dream that the Sr. Leaders could ill afford but I suppose they had to ask. It wouldn't be long before they figured out the shortcomings for themselves. "You have earned the right to go where you want to go and we don't think for one minute that you wouldn't make a substantial addition to the other division…Unfortunately LT you're too critical to our mission." And there it was…with my typical wry smile and a chuckle I sort of blurted out my first thought "Boy are you guys in trouble… No worries Sir, keep in mind ya'll asked me what I wanted to do so I told ya… Needs of the service dictate you need me here… how high do you need me to jump."

So what do you do when life tosses you lemons? Well for me I do the following: One – I find new ways to challenge myself and two - I always start making myself less "critical." A bit of the ole "what happens if I get hit by a bus?" sort of thinking (Or tank/HMMWV/Rocket is probably more appropriate out here). Following in the old mantra of See - Do – Teach, I have taken it upon myself to teach the new folks (or anyone who will listen) to assume these responsibilities too…much to everyone's surprise. Curiously, it seems most of my associates are threatened by the idea of passing on their learning's to others. For my part… boy do I like to share.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

And don't call me CHOPS…

As the title infers, the Boss returned and resumed his high profile "in the line of fire" position. I think the most challenging aspect was dealing with frustrations brought about by new folks who are unaccustomed with our environment. They are forced to learn the difference (on the job) from what they believe they are supposed to do with the reality of what we are actually doing. Theories break down in the world of operations. What is practiced in the peace-time world doesn't quite work in the combat arena. That coupled with a lot of accountability and little executional fire power to affect a free-media space makes for a very difficult work situation. I am happy for the opportunity to walk in the boss's shoes but trust me when I say he has mighty big boots to fill. The bad news – unfortunately it's not quite the same job he left; too many new "Good Idea Fairies" muddying the water. The good news – fortunately it's not the same job he left behind and the days off and PT time stuck. I think I even managed a way for the Boss to get some of that free time; Necessity is the mother of invention. I only hope I didn't let him down.

After my first day off in over 8 weeks I woke up this morning and realized my time here really is growing shorter by the day. And for the first time in Baghdad I feel relaxed and ready for the day. Wow - that only took 10 months.