Saturday, February 16, 2008

Groundhog Day sets in.

So it’s been awhile since my last entry, but truthfully that’s because it’s basically been Groundhog Day since then. I haven't gone to the hospital since the Purple Heart day, I felt a little drained after that night at the hospital, had trouble sleeping a few nights, just a little emotionally drained. So I didn't go this past week...I felt guilty about it kind of...I spent the evening playing volleyball instead. I counted 8 medevac flights landing and taking off at the hospital, but I didn't go to lend a hand. One important thing I've learned about myself in these situations is to pay attention to little signs, indications that you need something. This week I just needed to not be absorbed in the misery of others, and to try to pretend like life is normal for a little while. Some interesting things have been happening at work, but either they’re too sensitive to write about on the Interweb or they’re only interesting to me and would be lost on most other people.

Anyway, here's some fun facts I have compiled about LSA Anaconda/Balad Air Base:

Ugandan military personnel check our IDs going into the DFACs and BX/PXs. They don’t really wear much of a uniform, but they carry loaded weapons and inspect our IDs and ensure our weapons are placed on safe. They are always accompanied in each place by an unarmed US Army person, usually a small unassuming low ranking female. This boggles my mind. I don’t understand why on earth we would have approximately 12 Ugandan military members (they have girls! Really pretty military girls!) assigned to this base to check our IDs. I should do some research on this but really I don’t have time. I want to ask questions but they don’t have more than 2 seconds to check our IDs, much less carry on a conversation about this intricate military relationship we apparently have. Like seriously, we can’t spare the manning to have our own Army check our IDs, like we did last time I was here in 2006, that we have to ship an insanely small number of Ugandans here to do it for us? What gives??

Speaking of bizarre military contracts, there have been some interesting Kellogg Brown & Root developments since I was last here (KBR for short, used to be a subsidiary of Haliburton, now an independent military contractor). KBR is taking over the world. Or at least American bases in the US. The base I stopped at on my way into Iraq is a base I have been to several times in my way in and out of country in the past. Almost everything was always handled by our military: the rec center, the gym, housing…everything except laundry and the chow hall, basically. This time when we passed through that base on our way into Iraq, all of that stuff was run by TCNs (Third Country Nationals, usually Filipinos, Nepalese, Pakistanis, SE Asians). This time the housing was run by Americans, but not American military members. They were big dudes wearing a lot of bling and Timberland boots. The movies at the rec center? Popped in by contractors with rat tails and scruffy faces. The questionable “egg” omelets? Scrambled by TCNs. Your sheets? Washed by TCNs. Your alcohol ration card (3 drinks a day)? Doled out by the guys wearing bling and Timberlands.

The difference this time, "in country" here in Iraq, is negligible compared to 2006. TCNs still do all of the dirty work, just as they did last time. They suck the crap out of the port-a-johns, they scrub our showers, they burn the insanely toxic trash, they collect our trays in the chow hall. There is one key difference though: in general, our troops seem to have come to the conclusion that KBR is the devil. Most troops seem to realize that these TCNs are making peanuts, doing the shitty (literally) work on base, and get treated like crap. It seems to me that troops are much more polite this time than last time, they say please and thank you and excuse me, and don’t take the TCNs for granted as much as last time. Troops are curious about the wages of TCNs (we heard $450 for 4 months, according to a TCN that pumped diesel for military vehicles) and how many days they get off (none, most work 7 days a week, at least 12 hours shifts). People seem to be on to KBR, people seem to be coming to the conclusion that this is essentially modern day slavery.

The bittersweet thing is the attitude of almost every single TCN I have come across: smiling, polite, friendly. I suspect there is so much smiling because I am a female and there aren’t many of us here. They’ll slap chicken on a guy’s plate dutifully, but if a girl passes through, they excitedly ask her if she wants chikin? Beans? RICE?? ROLL???? Cookie?? Why not! Why you not want cookie from me?? It’s funny, and more often than not I ask for a little bit of one thing and I end up with a whole plate full of something completely the opposite of what I ask for..but I never have the heart to tell these guys that they gave me the wrong thing. On my one day off a week I generally eat closer to DFAC closing time, and they let us stick around in there after they stop serving if we are still finishing up our meal. I like to watch them interact with each other when they get to relax…they goof around a little and seem more like normal people, instead of like the serving wenches our military makes them out to be. Seriously you should see the outfits these guys have to wear. They’re ridiculous. Little tuxedo costumes with bow ties. I’m not even kidding. It’s disgusting.

That’s all the dirt I have on KBR for now. In other news, there has been an usual amount of animosity from the active duty toward us National Guard folks on this trip. I can’t say as I entirely blame them, it has to be frustrating to be the same rank as a person—getting paid the same amount, and having the same authority—yet having the Guard person know considerably less about the job than the active duty people. We put up with a lot of slams on the National Guard. A lot of the animosity comes in the form of poking fun and name calling, but you can tell sometimes that they are legitimately frustrated with us. I try to make up for my lack of knowledge with a good attitude and work ethic, but that doesn’t get me into the clear all the time. I screwed up some stuff the other day and my supervisor was like “Liz. How long have you been in the Guard?” and I’m like…”Six and a half years,” knowing full well the earful I was about to receive. “AND YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO______!!!!!!”

Ok. It’s not my freaking fault. I drill TWO days a month. Two! Factor in that over 75% of our time is spent doing computer based training, such as Explosive Safety, CounterTerrorism, and Sexual Harassment. We have to do the same computer based training as the active duty—they have 365 days to complete it, we have about 24. So we spend all of our time doing insignificant computer training instead of training for our actual job. Kind of asinine when you consider that our real job deals with EXPLOSIVES, something you kind of want to be proficient at when dealing with, no? Oh, and the other 25% of the time is spent standing in line at the medics, waiting for vaccines like anthrax that will probably eventually kill us. So after I put all of this out there, my supervisors’ faces softened a bit, and they were like “so all of your experience comes during deployments?”

Yeah. That’s right buddy. Everything I know about building bombs I learned while I was deployed to a war zone, not in practice at home, 365 days a year like you guys. And keep in mind I volunteered for this. AND keep in mind that if I didn’t volunteer for this deployment, an active duty guy would have been yanked away from his/her spouse (since all of them are married by age 20, divorced, by 22, and remarried by 23) and gotten sent here for five months, because active duty guys rarely get deployed here for less than that. So I know that when you said “you suck at this”, you really meant to say “thank you for volunteering to come here, it’s ok that you don’t know how to do this task, and hey isn’t the National Guard training system like totally FUBAR’d and it’s not actually your fault you don’t know how to do this??”.

Time to go play some volleyball and pretend like life is normal, as medevac copters whip overhead and we try not to contemplate our next 12 hour shift of building bombs.

On a lighter note, here is the evidence of organic soy milk in the DFACs that my good friend Danny requested, along with a picture of my half of a box and also one of us jobbing:

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