Sunday, February 27, 2011

Epicurean Delights at the DFAC

Gotta have an acronym for everything, right? Can’t just call it the “mess deck” like we did onboard ships. Noooooo, we have the Dining Facility, or DFAC.

So … imagine the wonderful things that a Neapolitan cook can do with a pound of pasta and a few simple, fresh ingredients. Imagine the glories of a meal in Paris, featuring a sublime cream sauce based on a wine reduction. Now throw all those silly-ass ideas out the window.

The DFAC is run by KBR UK, and it embodies everything bad you’ve ever heard about British cooking. Take yesterday’s lunch. Sicilian pizza, with the warning that “This item contains pork!” Sicily ought to declare war on KBR over this misuse of their island’s name. I opted for the beef pot pie-looking entrĂ©e … beef stew meat under a pastry crust. If I may borrow a term favored by my daughter … it tasted like ass. The vegetables were, amazingly enough, largely not overcooked. Mixed carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, and only the carrots had no texture left. That was the highlight of lunch.

There's a sign outside the DFAC that prohibits, among other things, cameras. I think they want to prevent people from taking photos of the food that might later be used in a war crimes indictment.

I will give them credit for one thing … breakfast pastries. Their fruit Danish are based on a delicious, flaky crust, like they have a real pastry chef making those. Gotta try the croissants next, they may be made by the same guy. The downside being that it will be hard to drop a few pounds here if I’m wolfing down baked treats every day.

Our office is having a catered Afghan dinner brought in next Thursday night, served buffet-style. Since we government folks are prohibited from going outside the wire for other than official business, there are no dinners out in town. So meals like this will probably be my only opportunity to eat local Afghan food during my tour. I hope they bring lots of Aushak!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Home Away from Home

I promised pictures, and here you go!

After Bill Eger left theater, I moved down to the bottom bunk for a bit more privacy. I left my battle rattle on the top bunk, so nobody gets any wise idea about encroaching on my personal space. As the photo shows, I have about two feet between me and the two lockers for gear stowage. The floor could desperately use a vacuuming, but with shift workers sleeping at all hours of the day, that ain’t gonna happen. Thank God for shower shoes. Note the ever-present water bottles. If nothing else, they keep us well-hydrated here. It's about all I drink, except for coffee in the morning.

Here I am, cigar in hand, outside my tent, B9. A most fashionable address in the trendy Tent City neighborhood.

Astute observers ... or those with really sharp eyes ... will note the Eastport Yacht Club burgee on my shirt. I'm carrying the colors to the far corners of the earth. You can also clearly see the mounds of sandbags surrounding all our tents.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


People of a certain age (like me) will no doubt recall when Simon & Garfunkel released Sounds of Silence back in the mid-60s. We have our own SoS here in Kabul, but not quite so soothing. We have the Scent of Sewage.
//And the people bowed and prayed ... to the porcelain gods they made.//
Never in my life, not even when conducting a mission over Shit River Bridge between Subic Bay Naval Base and Olongapo City, have I been subjected to such nauseating odors. While the toilets all fluch and seem to work, the odor remains pervasive. I went into one free-standing unit in a nearby courtyard, and barely made it out without gagging. back in the office, I mentioned that I'd never use that head again, and I got the "Yeah, right, you'll get over that soon enough" look from several of my colleagues.
I have two theories on this stench. First, all the bases in this area are well over their intended capacity. ISAF HQ in downtown Kabul, for instance, was built to accomodate 800 people, and there are 2,500 there now. Likewise, we've got some 3,500 people based here at N-KAIA. All services are being stressed, and plumbing is probably just one of many.
Theory two: There are signs posted over all the unirnals advising people not to throw object in them. The signs read, in part, "Use urinals only for urine." I shit you not. With all the nations represented in this coalition, I suspect that there are a number of troops here who do not get the concept of indoor plumbing. Hence the abuse/misuse of the facilities and the resultant odor.
I shudder to think what this place will smell like in the height of summer. Having driven past Blue Plains during the DC summer, I think this will be hideous. I just hope I rotate out before it gets that bad.
So, my fellow Americans, be thankful for what you've got.

Smokin’ Up a Storm

I was most pleased when I arrived here last Monday to find that the fellow I relieved, Bill Eger, was a cigar smoker, and that the base has a higher proportion of cigar smokers to general population than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve smoked more this past week than any other week in my life, often scooting out to talk shop and pick Bill’s brain over a coffee and a stogie. I’ve also been invited to the 7PM Thursday night smoke, a ritual here at North KAIA. Lots of Cubans to be had here, although the selection is a bit limited and they often need to spend time in a humidor before being smoked. Fortunately, I have my pelican case travel-dor equipped with a Boveda humidification pack, so I can oblige on that score.

But I must give a nod to John and Matt at Draper’s in DC. They hooked me up with a great selection a couple days before my departure. I’m especially enjoying the Tatuaje Cabiguans and Illusione Epernays. Only problem is that I need to further reduce cigar size. I thought I’d be okay with Robustos and Coronas, now it seems like Petite Corona might be the best solution for the time I have available to devote to a cigar.

Happy smoking, my friends!

Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Road

A nod to Jack Kerouac for providing that title. Next time, a nod to Willie Nelson.

There's a first time for everything, and yesterday was my first time outside the wire here in Kabul. LTC Bill Eger and I headed down the road for some meetings yesterday morning.

We rode in a three-vehicle convoy from North KAIA to ISAF HQ in downtown Kabul, then went to Camp Eggers for lunch and more meetings. We suited up for the drive in full battle rattle -- darmor and Kevlar helmets. Four passengers in each up-armored SUV, along with a driver and vehicle commander, for a 10-15 minute drive. After the meetings at ISAF, we walked ... yes, walked ... outside the wire to Camp Eggers. During the round-trip drive, it was abundantly clear that, a), we're in a combat zone; and b) we take force protection very seriously. I won't cross the line into OPSEC violations about our specific tactics and capabilities, but suffice to say that no one will be driving a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) onto any of our bases anytime soon. Security is tight, and it's taken seriously.

In fact, the biggest threat I observed was the swarm of Afghan kids on the streets between the bases trying to sell us stuff, anything from scarves to cheap jewelry to you-name-it. We got off scot-free this time, but I suspect that sometime in the future, I'll be unloading Euros into the local economy on future trips.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Settling In

17 February
Well, here it is, my fourth in-theater and in-country, and I've only now come up for air. Monday was a full-tilt travel and indoc day, flying from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to Bagram. Tuesday morning, after a very short night in transient quarters, I caught a flight on a Dehavilland Dash-8 turbo-prop to KAIA North, my new home. I was met upon arrival by the man I'll be relieving,. LTC Bill Eger. He's ready to go, after six months here, and he hasn't been able to wipe the smile from his face.
First off, we stowed my gear next to his bunk. In a tent. Yup, I'm living in a tent. Interesting thing, I've heard nothing but negatives about the more permanent quarters ... more cramped, less room, still a 50-foot walk to the head, but I found out my first night that little trip sucks at midnight in the middle of February in Afghanistan.
Enough about bodily functions. Looks like I'll be taking over as Chief of the Knowledge Management Cell within the Information Dominance Center at IJC, the ISAF Joint Command. A very intense, very fluid operation. And I'll have very demanding Army overseers wanting more and more. I've got two more days of turnover, then I'm flying solo. Wish me luck!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Time to Armor Up

Before I get into the good stuff, I must give a tip of the hat to the breakfast buffet at the Darmstadt Maritimhotel. Who needs eggs and bacon? They had an amazing selection of fish ... smoked salmon, several kinds of pickled herring, and some other smoked fish that reminded me of some smoked bluefish I once enjoyed. I also helped myself to their cold meat selection, including Germany's answer to proscuitto (sorry, Franz, it was good, but it still doesn't match the raw hams from italy, Spain, Portugal, or even Japan). I even tried something that might have been head cheese. I figured that was the time, since I could only grab one slice and push it away if it tasted like ass.

Anyhow ... we caught the flight Sunday afternoon from Ramstein to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, via Verona rather than Aviano. Touched down at Al Udeid at 1AM local time and, after local indoc and customs, found out there's a flight to Bagram Monday morning. I'll spend less than 12 hours on the ground here ... others have been stuck waiting at Al Udeid for days. Ironically enough, my 179-day deployment clock starts on Valentine's Day. Go figure.

So today, before boarding the flight to Bagram (hereinafter BAF), I get to strap on my body armor and Kevlar helmet for my first ventur into a war zone. Amazing 23 years in the navy (active and reserve), and the closeest I got to combat was the Friday night Happy Hour at the Naples O Club during Desert Shield. Now, as a civilian, I'm taking the big plunge. My next post will be from a combat zone ... with pictures, if they're not OPSEC violations.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

We have met the enemy and the enemy is us

Have you ever seen Heartbreak Ridge? The Clint Eastwood cinematic tour de force, in which he stars as a Marine Gunnery Sergeant, Medal of Honor winner, Korean War hero trying to survive in the Corps of the 1980s. After one abortive mobilization exercise, the crusty Marine general asks Gunny what he thought of the exercise. Eastwood replies that it was a clusterf@*k. For network TV broadcasts, that term becomes "clusterflop." The beginning of this deployment was a clusterflop par excellence.

So I get to BWI Wednesday night ... sorry, the flight is postponed 24 hours. Good in a sense, but bad for separation anxiety. I return Thursday night to find myself waiting in line for two hours just to check my bags. We finally get airborne around 1AM on Friday enroute Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. After being on the ground for two hours, time to go back to our newly cleaned aircraft. And we have to go through security again! Apparently, the USAF now kowtows to TSA security standards.

We leave Ramstein for what is supposed to be a 55-minute flight to Aviano. Wrong. We do a couple circles over a cloud-covered Aviano, only to find that their ILS -- Instrument Landing System -- ain't working, so we go back to Ramstein. Another wait, when we find we'll be boarding buses for a 90-minute to Bitburg for overnight lodging. We got to Bitburg around 11PM local time, then got some dinner, followed by a couple beers. And thence to bed. Our buses depart tomorrow morning at 9:30 for Ramstein, when we'll make another attempt at landing at Aviano. We shall see.

Saturday afternoon, 5PM local. We're back at Ramstein, still waiting for a decision. We hauled ass here from Bitberg, only to sit and wait, go through a security checkpoint that TSA would be proud of, then sit and wait again. At 3:30, we were cut loose to go to the PX across the street for a bite to eat, with instructions to be back in an hour. At 4:30, another hurry up and wait message. Aviano's ILS is still Tango Uniform, and the civilian pilots won't use alternate landing methods. I hope the Ramstein bubbas have the buses on tap for an earlier delivery to Bitburg. I'd rather not eat dinner at 11PM again.

Do I sound bitchy? Whiny? I guess so. I'm frustrated, I signed on to do a job in Afghanistan, and the Air Force can't unscrew itself long enough to get us into the theater. I, like 200 or so of my closest friends, am tired of sitting on my ass, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Sunday, 7AM. Reveille at the hotel in Darmstadt. Yup, another delay yesterday. They swear we'll be off the ground today. Our buses took us here to a convention hotel, which at least is bigger and much nicer, with better amenities, than the place we stayed at Friday night. Still an hour-plus ride to get here. And we have to muster fir a 9AM departure back to Ramstein. Hope to God the ILS is fixed ... or, better yet, not necessary.

On the plus side, we had a very nice buffet-style meal, followed by a couple local pints (oops, half-liters) quaffed in the smoking lounge next to the bar. I fired up and thoroughly enjoyed an Opus X Shark. Potent little booger.

I also got to talk to my bride on Skype, its first operational use since we downloaded and tested the service. Works quite well ... let's see if it's as good from Afghanistan.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Curses, Foiled Again!

So I dutifully showed up at BWI last night for the rotator flight to take me and maybe 200 of my closest friends to Qatar. We got there early, but a huge line had already formed to check in at the AMC terminal. Shortly after we began the airport shuffle, pushing out bags ahead of us a couple feet at a time, the rumor started. The flight was delayed. Sure enough, within a half hour, it was official. The flight was not even close to BWI, so the rotator cycle would be delayed for 24 hours. So we got our bags tagged and weighed, got boarding passes, then took our stuff and, for those of us in the local area, went home. Those for whom this was just a waypoint got hotel and meal vouchers, So Jeannie and I got one more night together at home ... and an opportunity for a second round at separation anxiety.

The delay does, however, give me an opportunity to knock out a few things which had slipped through the cracks at my departure time got ever closer. I can now give a report on the longest farewell weekend I've ever been a part of.

Friday night, friends from work, the boat crew and cigar shop days converged on the house. We had previously decided to violate one of the cardinal rules of entertaining ... never try out a new recipe on dinner guests. Starting with a totally new cuisine in our repertoire, Afghan, we violated the rule twice. Jeannie had previously cooked Qabili Pilau for us ... a wonderful rice dish made with chunks of lamb, carrots and raisins, and vibrantly spiced. We also did a repeat on a sauteed yellow squash dish. Then the psycho part ... I insisted on doubling the number of dishes served, and adding dishes we'd never cooked before. One, a Mushroom Stew with chicken and tomatoes, mildly seasoned, was a pretty straightforward, one-pan dish. But we needed an appetizer, so I opted for Aushak, delectable Afghan leek dumplings with a zesty sauce of ground lamb and topped with yogurt.

When all was said and done, we had four cooks working in the kitchen (two assembling and cooking the Aushak alone using prepared ingredients provided by the sous chef (me), and dinner was ultimately served an hour late. But it was, IMHO, a huge success. The food came out great, everyone helped themselves to seconds, and everyone also eagerly took leftovers home. Plus, we put a huge dent in my huge stash of beer. The last of the guests left shortly before midnight, we cleaned up the kitchen and turned in.

Saturday, I was up early prepping for Farewell #2, the kids were coming over for a late lunch and I was cooking Tyler Florence's Lasagna al Forno (, perhaps the best lasagna I've ever had. John showed up at 11AM ... I didn't think he ever even woke up that early on a weekend, while Stephie and Mike arrived an hour or so later, held up by bad weather in the Winchester area. Starting with beers and my world-famous Bruschetta, the talk naturally turned to hockey. Omce again, a good time was had by all, and the day also gave me pause to think about not seeing the kids often enough. Gotta do better at that after my return.

Sunday was the (relatively) lazy day, all we had on tap was dinner at someone else's house ... I got a reprieve from kitchen duty. Dave and Marsha Malkin, friends from EYC, invited us over for dinner, and a truly splendid repast it was ... braised short ribs. Utterly delicious, the meal reminded me why all those braised short rib recipes in the cooking magazines look so enticing. And it also reminded me of one of my character flaws. I'm really jealous ... jealous of the Malkins' ability to put on a dinner party and make it seem effortless. I invite two people over for dinner, and I'm flailing about intil dinner is on the table, but Dave and Marsha make it look so damned easy!

As dinner was windng down, we relaxed in the living room to watch the Superbowl. As it happens, the Steelers and the Packers are my favorite NFL teams, and I'd spent the previous couple weeks trying to convince myself that it didn't matter who won, I'd be happy. Alas, my efforts were in vain, I'm really a serious Steelers fan, and my hopes sank as the clock ran down, and Big Ben threw those interceptions leading to Pittsburgh's undoing. The saving grace of the day was that it was a consummately shitty sports day for Pittsburgh, as our Washington Capitals spanked the penguins in a 3-0 shutout at Verizon Center. Wasn't it the penguins' coach who recently called Michael Neuvirth "shaky" as a goalie? Eat your words, buttmunch! Rock the Red!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Shorn Like Samson

Holy crap ... I just caught sight of myself in the mirror. Late this afternoon, I went to my girl Shanel, my hair stylist, to get my hair cut before deploying. I watched as clumps of hair fell to the floor, all of it gray. She did a great job, my hair looks good, but it's a whole lot shorter than it had been. Oh well, I won't look too retarded after I take off the Kevlar helmet.

On the plus side, my wife likes it. Hard to complain about that. And I think the look can be maintained even when the chimps with electric shears (i.e., military barbers) get a crack at cutting my hair.

Oh, yeah, the "before" picture ...

I'll be at BWI within the next 24 hours, and fly out shortly after midnight Thursday morning.