Sunday, July 24, 2011

Plus ça change...

The Public Affairs shop is now staffed by two Lieutenants who look nothing alike but whom everyone, including their subordinates, confuses. Aside from the shared traits of Caucasianness and a thin, athletic build, they don't have much in common, but since they're (apparently) identical and inseparable, I've taken to thinking of them as the Public Affairs Wondertwins.

The Public Affairs Officer is Lieutenant Backcountry, a blond Air Force officer ("Air Power!") who subscribes to Bow Hunter magazine and pines for the woods of southern Illinois; his Information Ops (the military equivalent of a propaganda officer) counterpart is Lieutenant Slick, a rakish and brash Navy officer from Texas, with tattooed biceps ("INTEGRITY" and "LOYALTY"), bizarrely excellent posture and a penchant for undersized t-shirts. Backcountry is married; Slick has taken up the mantle of PRT Ladies' Man.

(We had a high-ranking USAID officer visit last week, and I prepped the PRT in advance that she controls a huge budget, and that if we wooed her appropriately, it could net additional funds for the Province. "Well," said XO. "If there's any wooing to be done, we'll need to get Lieutenant Slick on board").

The final member of the Office is Senior Airman BONZAI!!!, who fills the role of Combat Camera and who is desperate -- desperate -- to be catapulted into active combat so she can take pictures. In advance of recent combat operations in an unstable district northeast of the city -- an event that basically made me want to hide under my bed -- she begged to be loaned to the maneuver unit so she could tag along to war. She's a champion.

Anyhow, Slick gets called BackCountry and BackCountry gets called Slick, and it infuriates the both of them. I don't find it hard to keep them apart -- their names are written on their clothing -- but everyone else screws it up all the time. Noting the fury it inspires, I (engaged in a conversation with Backcountry during which I declared him dead to me), conscientiously called him Slick, just to watch the fireworks. Slick, having none of it, reached down to gravel at his feet, picked up the crumpled carcass of a long-discarded water bottle and hurled it at me, likely expecting me to catch it or duck. But I, out of either a misguided sense of bravado or an utter lack of reflexes, held my position unblinkingly and was subsequently clubbed just above the right eye. BONZAI!!! documented the blood gushing out of my face ("Do I look rugged?" I asked) while Slick sheepishly searched for band-aids and a baby wipe to clean me up a bit.

Which is to say: the new team is awesome.

Apparently Friendly Fire disqualifies you for the Purple Heart.

I had been dreading the departure of Killjoy and Company, but nine months on the ground in Afghanistan had long since driven out any sense of optimism they'd had upon arrival, and the base -- somewhat unbeknownst to me -- was redolent with their long-accrued lethargy. They continued to drive away on programs but everyone was tired, worn out from the grind of it all. The new team, by contrast, hit the ground brimming with an unbridled enthusiasm, and it's good to have them here.

USAID was horrified when I told her that the new team seemed to have reenergized things; "you're a traitor," she hissed.

(USAID later sent me a flurry of text messages expressing discontent that she remained nicknameless and demanding that I refer to her as "Princess," which is what I call her -- preceded by a long and sarcastic "awwwwww" -- when I feel she's being whiny. The first time she brought it up, I immediately responded, "Awwwwww, Princess, are you upset that you don't have a nickname?" I don't know why it never occurred to me previously to use it).

The new team is awesome, but the adjustment period has nonetheless been somewhat protracted; the corporate culture of the new team puts a heavy emphasis on internal paperwork, and things that used to be effortless have now become onerous. Operations, previously led by the laid-back and unflappable Captain Tomcat, has been taken over by Major ByTheBook, a straight-laced and severe Army officer who runs Ops with an iron fist, brooks no foolishness in official settings, and studs his speech with a constant stream of unexpected hooahs.

("He hooah'ed me in the bathroom," Lieutenant BackCountry said. "Wait, that sounds horrible -- that's not what I meant").

Team Civilian gave the new PRT a "capabilities brief" to try to get them up to speed what we do and what value we can add to the PRT, and Major ByTheBook has asked if we needed the military to set up the room in any way beforehand. "Actually, yeah," I said. "If we could get some streamers or like a balloon arch or something, that would be great. Oh, and maybe some Christmas lights -- and actually, if there's any way everything could get hooked up to The Clapper, that would be…" ByTheBook stared at me icily, unblinking. "I, uh, I'm kidding," I said. "No, uh, thanks though, we don't, uh, need anything for the room."

"Wow," said Dr. Death, the new PRT's physician, catching my eye from across the table, "That went poorly!"

(Dr. Death replaced Commander Quixote as the PRT's Doc. He named himself, having ordered camouflage "Dr. Death" name tapes to supplement the bland, navy-issued name tapes that use his actual name).

The mission schedule, previously referred to by the plain English term "calendar," has now become an "operations matrix," and the upkeep and maintenance thereof is the cause of considerable consternation. Getting a mission off base, which previously required swinging by Ops and asking if it was possible, now requires filling out a Movement Request Form and waiting for official approval, a process that takes between twenty four and forty eight hours. "I haven't done this much paperwork since the last time I had to fill out an insurance claim," I whispered during the first Operations Sync meeting to Senior Chief Yarnspin, the new team's gregarious, story-telling Senior Enlisted Advisor; "I feel like I'm at the DMV."

Changes to scheduled missions are not taken lightly. Princess ducked into my office in advance of going to ops, whom she had to inform of a change in destinations for a complex mission that had already seen several changes. "Do you think I need to wear my helmet?" she asked.

But the initial culture shock notwithstanding, I have overall found the new team pleasant and easy to work with. Killjoy has been replaced with Commander Bangbang, who adores guns and speaks in loving and reverent tones of the crew-served weapons mounted on top of our vehicles. "The Mark-19?" he said of the belt-fed grenade launcher on top of our truck one day. "It makes it rain metal. It's awesome." I make fun of him for having the eating habits of a fourth grader: he hoards candy, abhors vegetables and thoroughly enjoys a good chicken nugget.

I am genuinely sad to be leaving.

Monday, July 11, 2011

It's like Budget Circular #1, only for Stories.

An Open Letter to Killjoy and Company's Team:

All right, there are a thousand things that I never blogged about while you guys were here. I'd like to say I'll go back and back-blog them, but that's unlikely. What's more likely that they'll get folded into a book if a book about Farah ever does in fact get written. That said, if I failed to blog about it AND it's not written down in one of my notepads (that is, if it's not work related), it's like it didn't happen. There is literally a zero percent chance of my remembering anything beyond this blog.

So then, my question to you is: what from this tour did I miss on this blog?

Obvious examples include:

-- The FOB Farah Marathon and Petty Officer Moonshine's triumphant finish.
-- The FOB Farah petting zoo, including that cow (and that weird cow guy), the arrival of turkeys (and those bizarre photos of Lt. Drac wrestling with one while holding a pistol), and ultimately the arrival and departure of Blanco Farah.
-- The Lieutenant _____/Sgt. Schoolmarm academic showdown (that I was fully complicit in as well), over academics in America as told through cotton gins and polio vaccines.
-- Captain Adventure's impromptu head surgery, which I've got well photo-documented but never wrote about.

What else is there? This is your only chance to jog my memory -- now, while the iron is hot. The comments section is at your disposal, or you can hit me up on facebook or email -- mhthornburg//gmail. Come on now: carpe diem.

And in the mean time, even though I remain (for now!) not in the Navy, allow me to say one last time -- fair winds and following seas.

And so it ends.

The pizza oven was completed as Killjoy and Company were winding down their tour at FOB Farah. The Chief's Mess, which hosted the pizza oven as well as a barbeque grill (lovingly crafted by Chief Hammersmith from a discarded fifty-gallon drum), became the focal point of a series of going-away events -- evening barbeques and pizza nights -- in advance of departure.

I told Killjoy that the Civilians would be happy to cook for one of the barbeques ("Team Civilian is all over this"), and then got called away to Herat and ended up leaving the whole thing in the hands of our USAID and Agriculture team, with nothing to guide them but a crumpled up meat-request receipt from the chow hall.

USAID still hasn't forgiven me for this.

In the end, the vast majority of the prep work and cooking was done by Petty Officer Cinnabon, the enthusiast culinary specialist who replaced Petty Officer Frying Pan from way back when. (Cinnabon had a tendency to sweeten everything he cooked -- his pizzas, made lovingly on MRE days before the pizza oven was completed, were more like a pepperoni-strewn dessert than lunch. "The key to a good chicken marinade," he told me once, "is brown sugar; it counters the acid in the grapefruit juice so the meat doesn't get bitter." He paused in thought for a second and then added, "Actually, I put brown sugar in just about everything." This much I know is true: his cinnamon rolls were legendary).

I basically refused to acknowledge that the team was leaving -- or abandoning me, as I put it -- and continued to pretend that they'd be with me until the end of my tour, sometime around early August. But then the new team started showing up, and it was hard to ignore the fact that every evening it seemed like there was another "one last" event for the PRT -- one last poker game with the officers, one last game with the enlisted, one last dinner at the Italian chow hall, one last trip to the Governor's. The end was drawing near.

And then, almost without warning, I was driving people to the airport for their final flight out of Farah. The team was divided into three groups -- three chocks, they say -- and the first one left early, more or less as soon as the new team arrived.

The military flight system makes saying goodbye an awkward and repetitive process. "I might be leaving tomorrow" is a near-constant refrain amongst people close to departure, caused by the seemingly random cancellation and reallocation of flights. But chock one made it out eventually, and my hopes that chocks two and three would be delayed were dashed when they stepped up their departure times, pushing up from a July fifth or sixth departure to leaving closer to July first or second.

I took pictures at the airport as each chock was departing, documenting the elation at heading home and the boredom of sitting and waiting for the first of a thousand flights to get back to the States. Mostly I used the departure hall as a chance to photodocument the entire team, one by one, lest I missed any of them over the course of the tour. I shook a lot of hands, and wished everyone well on their way back to the States. It was sad, but the awkward uncertainty of whether they'd actually be leaving made it less emotional than it might've been otherwise.

And so it was that I said goodbye to Commander Killjoy, whom I've been almost attached at the hip with since his arrival in Farah. As I told him the night before his scheduled departure, when I cornered him in his office to shake his hand and give him a pair of State Department cufflinks -- I couldn't have asked for more in either a partner or a friend for this deployment. He and I shook hands one last time on the airstrip, before the air force announced the arrival of their flight and pushed me and USAID out of the terminal.

The abiding memory of his departure, though, will be from the Awards Ceremony held a few days before his departure.

I had made it clear early in this deployment that I was willing to read and edit anything the military wrote -- intel reports or analysis pieces, emails to headquarters, employee evaluations, awards and commendations, whatever. "God made the military for many reasons," I said more than once, "but the proper use of semi-colons wasn't one of them." I read things piecemeal throughout the tour but the brunt of the work came in February, when they dropped off a stack of nominations for bronze stars, Navy Achievement Medals and other awards -- one for every member of the command, it seemed -- on my desk. "If you do all of these," Petty Officer Hindsight told me, "I'll put you in for Warrior of the Month."

(Petty Officer Hindsight was the PRT's constantly cheerful Admin officer with a habit of Monday-morning quarterbacking everything I did. He reveled in the idea of being nicknamed Hindsight: "what you SHOULDA done…" said in his light Oklahoma drawl, was his standard opening line).

I find editing to be soothing in a zen sort of way, and having a hundred or so commendations to work through was actually kind of fun; I cranked through them in half a day, passed them back to Hindsight and then went on R&R. I forgot about the Warrior of the Month thing entirely.

And so, five months later, I was caught off guard when they called my name at the PRT-wide awards ceremony, held just before the final departure of Killjoy and Company. Petty Officer Moonshine, whose baritone speaking voice had left him type-cast as the awards ceremony EmCee, called me up with a command of "State Department, front and center, doubletime!" The award, read in its entirety, was apparently a labor of love that took three people -- Petty Officer Hindsight, Petty Officer Moonshine, and Commander Killjoy himself -- days if not weeks to write. It is easily the greatest award that I have ever received.






Professional achievement as Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah's resident Master of the English Language and all things superfluous from February 1 through February 28, 2011. If wars could be won with ink, foes slain with the precise application of commas, comrades shielded by the eradication of dangling participles, and the disenchanted masses enthused by the transformation of dysfunctional phrases into self-sustaining sentences, then [Dakota] would be granted a place in the pantheon of American military heroes. However, since this is not the case, he is instead recognized as PRT Farah's Warrior of the Month for February 2011. His expeditious and near perfect editing of 94 command awards ensured their smooth and timely progression through the military approval channels. If not for [Dakota]'s selfless dedication to the team, three times the number of man-hours would have been expended while producing inferior results. [Dakota]'s accomplishments reflect great credit upon him, and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Navy.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Yeah, yeah

Keen observers and/or Facebook friends of mine will note that Killjoy and Company have left the FOB. The new team is on the ground and some of them (you know who you are) have already started clamoring for nicknames. But I'm not done blogging about the old team yet, so hold your collective horses: we'll be there soon enough.

When in FaRome...

So, they built a pizza oven.

The project was the brainchild of Captain Adventure, who was determined to recreate the real-deal Sicilian pizza oven built lovingly by the Italian Special Forces guys on their chink of the compound. Adventure was the visionary behind the oven, but architect of the project was Chief Hammersmith, the PRT's Seabee and all-purpose handyman, who provided the vast majority of design input.

My primary role was moral support, which I provided by heckling the team as construction was underway. I consistently described the project as "Wiley Coyote-esque," a description I'll stand by: the oven in the initial phases was a heap of jersey cement and lopsided Afghan bricks, balanced on a sheet of plywood that was likewise balanced on four wobbly two-by-twos. The lip of the plywood bowed under the weight of the oven and had to be reinforced by an equally bowed stick, and the whole thing looked likely to collapse at any moment.

I'm not sure this photo captures the chaos.

Other stakeholders in the project included mostly Engineer Lovesalot (who seemed to be in charge of wedging in sturdy chunks of wood to brace less sturdy chunks of wood), Warrant Exasperated (constantly stirring concrete), Lieutenant Dracula (shovel operations), Captain Tomcat from over in Operations (Hammersmith's Assistant), Lieutenant ______ from Intel (role unclear), and Senior Chief Intimidating, the Senior Enlisted Leader whom I resisted nicknaming in part because I could find nothing fitting and in part because I feared he'd take offense and use me to practice his sniper skills.

("You can run," he said at one point, "but you'll only die tired.")

Hammersmith up top; Lt. Drac stirring concrete.
Note the haphazard plywood and random wires: Wiley Coyote-esque.

I did little for the actual construction of the oven -- I am the opposite of handy and generally cannot be trusted with tools -- though there is a single picture of me hoisting a bag of concrete. "I love that picture," Captain Adventure said. "It's the only time you've ever been photographed actually doing some work."

I left for my last R&R with the oven still in pieces and Killjoy questioning if the Pizza Collective had conspired not so much to build something as to just leave a huge mess for the incoming team. ("That is honestly the ugliest construction project I have ever seen," he said).

But I returned to a completely finished oven, complete with smooth walls (made, it seems, by bracing oiled boards against still-wet concrete) and brick and concrete pillars to brace the bottom. I declared it the single greatest construction project I had ever seen. "Honestly guys," I gushed somewhat embarrassingly, "it's kind of beautiful."

Chief Hammersmith; completed pizza oven.

They had worked out an assembly line process, assigning one person to roll the dough, another to top it, a third to toss it in the oven, manage the baking process and remove it when done, and a fourth to remove the pizza from the metal trays they bake on. (Senior Chief Intimidating, who primarily spearheaded the process of boiling canned tomatoes down to paste to use for sauce, also declared himself "quality control," slicing the pizzas and helping himself to a piece to ensure it was suitable for serving).

The oven is wood-fired and the PRT has a preference for cracker-thin crusts, rolled out with an old-school rolling pin on a glass cutting board that was obtained from god knows where. The ingredients were gifted by the Italians, who have an overabundance of cheese and cured meats and were willing to set up a little trade in exchange for the cheap, military-issue energy drinks (brand name: "Rip it!") that, under certain circumstances, can be smuggled out of the back of the chow hall by the case.