Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Date with Destiny

Steadfast readers will no doubt recall my incessant whining a few weeks ago bout jaw problems that were diagnosed at Kabul as TMJ Disorder.  Not so fast, Ethel.  I left out big chunks of the story, in deference to my readership's delicate senses.

Two days after landing here at Bagram, I underwent a root canal procedure.  According to the dentist, there was a big-time infection under the tooth. So he cleaned it out in a procedure called a pulpectomy, and told me it ought to last until I got home, when I'd need a full-tilt root canal.

Last night, the jaw went from bad to worse very rapidly.  I went to dental today, and mere minutes after getting more X-Rays, the doc was numbing me up.  I'll be coming home from Afghanistan minus one tooth.  The abscess had returned with a vengeance, and extraction was the only option.

So now I get to eat soft foods for a couple days, nothing spicy, nothing very hot (so much for my big-ass morning bucket of coffee), and no smoking.  No cigars?!?  Tell me, doc, what can I do to ease my pain and discomfort?  Oh, Percocet.  Okay, your opiates trump my stogies.

After facing up to the Novocain needles, the worst part of the procedure was having a tooth yanked b an Army dentist around my daughter's age.  That was truly scary.

Well, friends, I'd love to sit and chat, but it's time for more pain pills.  See ya!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pumping Iron

The title of this post doesn’t refer to the 1977 body-building documentary featuring, among others, Arnold Schwarznegger and Lou Ferrigno.  Rather, I’m talking about my own feeble efforts at getting back into the weight room.

After my work schedule (otherwise known here as a Battle Rhythm) settled into something predictable, I headed to the gym (actually, two tents run end-on-end) and puttered without a real plan.  Not gonna work, I told myself, so I researched some circuit weight training routines and got at it today.  Holy crap!

I knew I was out of shape, but today was a real eye-opener.  Long gone are the glory days of lifting in college and on active duty.  I worked out with relatively low weights, aiming for high reps to tone my muscles rather than high weight/low reps for bulk.  I did about 75% of a single circuit, rather than two full circuits, and my arms are so tired, I’m not sure I’d have the strength to pull up my zipper.  Thank God for gym shorts with elastic waistbands.

After this reality check, my first goal is to complete a full circuit.  Hope this doesn’t take longer than a week.  The program recommends doing the circuit twice a week, so I’ll rest tomorrow and Thursday, then get back at it on Friday.  And if I can keep up this routine, I’ll be a jib-trimming monster on the Wahini.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BAF Herf

Saturday, April 23rd saw the first Area 82 Herf here at Bagram Air Field.  What is a Herf, you ask?  To preempt the smart-asses among you, it has nothing to do with Herf Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  A Herf is nothing more than a bunch of guys (non-gender-specific BOTLs or Brothers of the Leaf) gathering together to smoke cigars.  Herf etiquette is pretty broad, but a basic tenet is that everyone should bring at least one cigar to smoke, and another to share or trade.

So I talked to a few known cigar smokers, asked them to circulate the word, and we gathered last night outside our building.  I was very pleased with the turn-out, we ended up with about a dozen people gather to fire one up.  We started with 6-7 folks and, as others walked passed and saw what we were up to, they gleefully joined in.  The weather was most accommodating, the winds were even still enough at the outset to allow me to light up with a match.

I’m sure the question on everyone’s lips is, “What did you smoke?”  I fired up a Lor Flor Dominicana Cabinet Oscuro L400, 5 3/4" and a healthy 54 ring gauge.  Big enough for a rich, complex flavor, but not so big as to leave stretch marks on my lips.

We generated a lot of enthusiasm over the Herf, and plan to keep this up every Saturday for the foreseeable future.

Good News on the Horizon

You’ve probably seen it in press coverage – the Taliban has been executing some high-profile suicide attacks and assassinations in Kabul, Kandahar and elsewhere.  Sometimes it looks pretty grim.
There are some bright spots, however.  First off, the general consensus of learned folk across the spectrum seems to be that the Taliban are too depleted to execute large-scale attacks, so they are forced to resort to suicide attacks using single-man or small team attacks.  Tied into this, we hear increasingly more frequent reports of the local populace diming out the local Taliban, identifying fighters and commanders or providing intel on the location of IEDs or weapons caches. 
For what it’s worth, I’m also encouraged by US press reporting and op-ed pieces on the progress of the war effort.  Most recently, Ronald Neumann and Michael O Hanlon (the former was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07, and the latter of the somewhat left-of-center Brookings Institute) co-authored a piece entitled “Afghan Army is Finding its Footing,” which I located in USA Toady.  While objectively citing the challenges and hurdles which remain, they painted an increasingly positive picture of the indigenous Afghan security posture.  Here’s the link:

Going back two months, the venerable New York Times (a/k/a Pravda on the Hudson) published “The ‘Long War’ May Be Getting Shorter,” painted a similarly positive outlook:

None of these authors are looking at this war through rose-colored glasses, but they give equal attention to successes and challenges, and even some of our left-leaning media find themselves admitting that, despite serious mistakes in the early years of prosecuting this war, we are on the upswing and making progress.  So the goal of a total security handoff to Afghan security forces may not be as farfetched as it might have seemed in the past.

And on a totally different topic, our Washington Capitals came back on Wednesday from a 3-0 deficit to spank the Rangers in double overtime, putting Bruce Boudreau’s boys up 3-1 in the playoff series.  And yesterday afternoon, they came home to decisively throttle the Rangers, sending them home to watch the Stanley Cup from their living rooms.  Go Caps!  Rock the Red!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Aggie Muster 2011

Those who know me know that I’m not an emotional person … at least I’m not one to display emotion.  I was not in true form today.  I got choked up a couple times during the annual Texas Aggie Muster here at BAF.
Each year, on April 21st, Aggies gather together to commemorate those who passed away during the previous year.  About 25 of us gathered in a private dining room attached to one of the DFACs here on base for a little camaraderie and the ceremony.  After the invocation, I was asked to read aloud the Tradition of Muster.  Here it is:

The Muster Tradition
Century-old roots provide the basis for Muster as Aggies know it today. It has changed, yet the Spirit in which it was established remains the same.  Since the founding of Texas A&M, every Aggie has lived and become a part of the Aggie Spirit.  What we feel today is not just the camaraderie of fellow Aggies, it is the Spirit of hundreds of thousands of Aggies who have gone before us, and who will come after us.  Muster is how that Spirit is remembered and celebrated, and it will always continue to unite Texas A&M and the Aggie family.  A&M may change, but the Spirit never will.
In the Beginning...
Aggies gathered together on June 26, 1883, to live over again their college days, the victories and defeats won and lost upon the drill field and in the classroom.  By April 21, 1903, this annual gathering evolved into a celebration of Texas Independence on San Jacinto Day.  These early meetings included field games and banquets for Aggies to reflect and celebrate their memories of Aggieland.  “Let every alumni answer a roll call,” wrote the Former Students.  It was not until 1922, however, that April 21 became the official day of events for all Aggies; thus, the annual tradition of Muster was born.  The March 1923 Texas Aggie urged, “If there is an A&M man in one hundred miles of you, you are expected to get together, eat a little, and live over the days you spent at the A&M College of Texas.”
Bigger and Better...
Still remembering and honoring the time spent in Aggieland, the tradition of Muster has grown in strength, in meaning, and in spirit.  By 1929, the meetings had spread worldwide, and in 1942 Aggie Muster gained international recognition.  Twenty-five men, led by General George Moore ’08, Mustered during the Japanese siege of the Philippine island of Corregidor.  Knowing that Muster might soon be called for them, these Aggies embodied the commitment, dedication, and friendship that are the essence of the Aggie Spirit.  They risked their lives to honor their beliefs and values.  That small group of Aggies on an outpost during World War II inspired what has developed into one of our greatest traditions.
Muster is celebrated in more than 300 locations worldwide, with the largest ceremony taking place on the Texas A&M campus in College Station.  The ceremony brings together more Aggies worldwide on one occasion than any other event.

Looking across the room as I read, I struggled a bit to keep my emotions in check.  I’d fallen away from the A&M alumni events lately, haven’t been to a class reunion in 15 years, and I felt a surge of emotion at today’s gathering, a sense of having missed out.  And when we sang the Aggie War Hymn, the years since graduation vanished, and I felt I was back in the fold at College Station again.  Quite a rush.
Len Fairbanks, class of ’82, put the whole shebang together, and I want to thank him here for his efforts.  Doing a Muster in a dining facility in the Afghanistan war zone may not quite match the historical magnitude of the 1942 Corregidor Muster, but it was a hell of a fine event.  Thanks, Len!  Gig ‘em!

Friday, April 15, 2011


So, I’ve been here at Bagram for a week.  The consensus is that the food is VASTLY better than in Kabul.  There are at least six DFACs here on BAF, each with its own “personality.”  While still exhibiting the shortfalls of Army chow, cooked on a large scale for thousands of diners per meal, I get the sense these guys care more about what they serve up.  Maybe it’s because Army mess cooks are dishing it up for a largely Army “clientele.”  Maybe it’s because they don’t have KBR UK cutting corners and buying crap ingredients to start with.

But they even do theme nights.  Last night was Italian food night, with pasta, chicken parmesan, and the usual cast of characters (including fried mozzarella).  Not great, but not offensive, as would have been the case in KAIA.  Last Sunday (okay, every Sunday) was Soul Food Sunday.  Fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried catfish (do you see a common thread here?) and collard greens.  Bad for the cholesterol, but it’s only once a week, right?

Tonight was the piece de resistance … Friday is Surf and Turf night.  Not the best lobster tail I’ve ever had, but not too bad either.  I skipped the turf part and had some fried shrimps alongside the lobster.

Overall, I’m glad I did the initial part of my deployment in Kabul, it helped me jump-start the weight loss.  I’ve dropped something in the 15-20 pound range so far.  Over the next four months, I need to keep that off and drop another 10 or so, bringing my total loss to around 30 pounds.  That’s my goal. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thank God for Señoritas

Ashton Señoritas, that is.  Fourth day on the new job in Bagram, and I found myself outside, providing escort service for our local Afghan workers as they put a security fence around the new data center.  One can only stand around watching these guys for so long without going stir-crazy, so I fired up a couple of the short smokes to help the time go by faster.

The new job … I’m finally in a Senior C4ISR Planner position, what I originally deployed to do.  My first order of business is to bring the data center to IOC (Initial Operating Capability), then to FOC (Full Operating Capability).  One critical piece is the security aspect, and putting the fence in place is key.  We’ve got five guys working under conditions that, in the States, would have OSHA shutting the operation down.  Drilling, cutting and welding with minimal safety gear, or none at all.  Their approach to measuring relies heavily on the Mark 1, Mod 0 eyeball.  I’m amazed that things all seem to fit very cleanly, and they’re making good progress.  I managed to snap a few shots of the work in progress.

Friday, April 8, 2011

So where Are the Aliens?

Before I move on, it seems fitting to comment on where I'm working now.  Task Force 236 is located in a collection of rectangular metal containers, or cans, off the beaten path of NKAIA.

The Defense Department likes to number things.  Area this, Area that.  And TF-236's home is no exception.  Until Saturday, when I'm supposed to hop on a plane to Bagram, my work location is Area 51.

Area 51!!!  How cool is that?  And I have to leave after less than two weeks.  After all these years of teasing my bride about aliens and UFOs and such, and sitting through God-knows-how-many screenings of Independence Day, I can honestly say that I'm working at Area 51.

And I never even got to see the debris from the Roswell crash.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Last Shura

As I've mentioned before, Thursday night here at NKAIA is cigar night.  At 1900, cigar smokers assemble at the benches outside the French hospital (actually, it;s the only hospital, but French medical staff run it, so it's known locally as the French hospital) for a communal smoke.  I've taken to calling it the Cigar Shura.  Since I'm due to leave NKAIA for Bagram on Saturday, tonight was my Last Shura here.

I brought out the pack of Rocky Patel cigars that Bruce mailed to me from Davidus, and they got snatched up pretty quickly.  After much thought and careful consideration, I opted for an Avo 787 robusto for my last smoke here.

And, yes, I'm the only one not in Army digi-cam.

In a State of Flux

And where is this State of Flux, you ask?  Just north of the State of Transition.
I’m moving again.  There’s an impending leadership gap at Bagram, so I’m being transferred to take on those C4ISR Planner duties I originally deployed to do.  The upside?  Nicer digs, better chow.  The downside?  I found out on Wednesday afternoon, and I’m supposed to be on a flight on Saturday.  A whopping 72 hours notice.  Oh well, they said to be flexible.
Another aspect to the downside … I rather enjoyed the multi-national aspect here at NKAIA.  Just this morning, I saw a batch of troops from Bosnia & Herzegovina.  In addition to the usual NATO cast of characters, I’ve seen Albanians, Lithuanians, Finns, Mongolians (no, I didn’t ask them about their barbecue!), and Jordanians.  Yeah, finally we’re seeing some of the Muslim countries ponying up troops to help out a fellow Islamic state.
So much for moving on.  I took a trip downtown yesterday to meet with some folks at the US Embassy about an IT project they need help on.  Although the travel back and forth was uneventful, it was the most tension-filled drive I’ve had here.  There’s still a lot of concern over threats related to the Quran burning episode.  The Afghans, in their ultimate hypocrisy, have yet to let it go, and we remain in a high state of alert.  We had to take a number of detours getting into the Green Zone because of gate closures and route changes.
We ate lunch at the ISAF DFAC, then went back to the embassy, where our POC hadn’t eaten yet and invited us to join her.  So we ended up sitting outdoors, next to a pool, while she ate and we talked.  A pool!!!  With State Department (or maybe USAID) pukes swimming laps.  They’re living in the lap of luxury down there, while we do 12-14 hour days and live in tents.
On the drive back, we stopped at NKC (New Kabul Complex) for dinner.  Another eye-opener.  Their DFAC is run by the US side of KBR, and the food was good and plentiful.  Didn’t even need a knife to cut my pork loin roast, it was that tender.  The more I see, the more it seems to be true … our base has the worst food in the theater.  Guess I shouldn’t complain, though … I’ve already lost 15 pounds.
Tonight is the Thursday night Cigar Shura, will be my last one here at NKAIA.  I just got a pack of cigars from Bruce at the Annapolis Davidus shop, so I’ll have some to share tonight.  Hope I can find a new Cigar Shura at Bagram.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

The International Nature of It All

Every now and then, I cruise through the Dashboard for Google Blogger.  Maybe I tinker with the design, maybe I fantasize that I’ll garner a big-enough readership to sell ad space through Google’s AdSense.  But I’ve gotten into studying the statistics of the blog.  I’m not sure what use I can make of the stats, but I’ve always enjoyed delving into the data.  One interesting section notes the origins of those viewing the site.  As you might expect, the vast majority of viewers are American.  But here’s the full list, in rank order, of nations of origin of page views over the past month:

  • United States
  • Germany
  • Canada
  • Singapore
  • Cuba
  • United Kingdom
  • South Korea
  • Nepal
  • Portugal
  • Romania

Cuba, eh?  What would draw a Cuban to bask in the collected wisdom of Wirehead Jack?

More to the point, I’ve been to all but four of the countries listed.  Never been to Cuba, South Korea, Nepal or Romania, although all are on my bucket list.  Cuba will have to wait until the embargo gets lifted.  South Korea may have to wait until my bride is ready to get close to the mother lode of Kimchi.  Nepal is high on our list, as is Romania … yeah, I want to visit Transylvania and see Bran Castle, home of the historical Vlad Dracula.

So, gentle readers, spread the word about the Wirehead.  I want to amp up my readership stats, I want more followers … and I want more people, not just Americans, giving serious thought to the mission here, and the future of the Afghan people.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New Pillow

It’s amazing how much a good pillow can enhance your sleep experience.  Or how a cheap, crappy, lumpy pillow can throw you off your game.

A package arrived from my bride yesterday containing, among other things, a real pillow.  I rushed back to the B9 tent, ripped the issued pillow from the pillowcase, and gently stuffed the new one in place.  I had my best, most restful night since I got here, all thanks to a new pillow.

In fact, I felt so rested, I came out of my introvert shell on the way in this morning.  While waiting for my morning cappuccino, I struck up a conversation with another fellow in line.  Seems he’s from Romania, and was talking about how much he loves it here, as opposed to boring old Bucharest.  Excuse me?!?  Anyhow, we had a nice chat, as he told me about how government corruption, unemployment and drug abuse are taking their toll on Romania’s population.  Many young Romanians are moving to Western Europe, trying to establish a new and productive life elsewhere.  Government corruption and unemployment … where have I heard that litany of woes before?  Could it be … Afghanistan?

After we parted paths, I struck out for the office through tent city, steaming hot cappuccino in hand.  And I came across two guys smoking stogies at 8AM!  Naturally, I had to stop, talk, and find out what they were smoking.  One had a JR’s special, the other was working on an Arturo Fuente Double Chateau.  We chatted for a while, and it turns out they are both working on the aerostat program.  For my parting shot, before finishing my trek into the office, I told them about the Cigar Shura held every Thursday evening outside the French Hospital on base.

Since I skipped breakfast (at least the solid part), I was hungry for lunch.  Even DFAC lunch.  So I worked my way down the line, and the choices included poached chicken breast filets and “turkey burgers.”  Now the last time we had turkey burgers, they were breaded, deep-fried, and made of some unidentified ground meat-like substance.  This time, they looked like whole pieces of meat.  So I took that option.  And after eating two pieces, I still couldn’t tell if it was chicken or turkey.  Some ambiguous white-meat cutlet.  The fries were mediocre, and the sautéed red cabbage was underdone.  So I went for dessert … finally, the auto-dog machine had something other than strawberry (or, as I call it, pink flavor).  The vanilla, with a squirt of caramel topping, was the high point of the meal.

On the other hand, there’s a going-away dinner for one of the Brit officers I’ve worked with during my time here.  Major Craig Alexander will be sent packing with a dinner at the Thai restaurant.  It’s not up to the standards of a Thai Pilin (Vienna, VA) or Thai Kitchen (Annapolis), but for Kabul, it’s pretty darn good.  And the red curry is excellent.  So I can expect one good meal today.

And then, tonight, my alma mater takes on my good friend Stu’s alma mater for the women’s college basketball national championship.  The Aggies vs. the Fighting Irish.  I’m not a huge b-ball follower, but a win by the Maggies will be good for bragging rights … especially given how our men’s team got blown out of the water in the first round of March Madness.  Stu, since it’s dry here, have an extra beer for me!

Monday, April 4, 2011


Have I mentioned the air here?  You think you got it bad with smog in New York or Los Angeles?  Think again.  There are no pollution controls that I can see.  There is a fine coating of dust everywhere, it gets into everything.  Think of a powdery substance like talcum powder, but with a gritty element.
Take, for instance, an e-mail recently sent out by the IDC’s Senior NCO, an Army Master Sergeant.  He’s organizing a computer cleaning day with an air compressor because he’s noted that, when turned on, the CPU tend to “blow smoke” … dust getting inside the boxes.  I see it on my desk, in my tent, everywhere.  Even the keys of my computer keyboard have that fine coating which makes me want to constantly wash my hands.
I’ve been told that the dust is the airborne residue of local Afghans burning anything they can find to make a fire, be it for cooking or for heating.  “Anything they can find” is pretty all-encompassing, and at times I shudder to think what is coating my fingertips as I work my keyboard.  And then I go wash my hands (again) and put it behind me.
So the stuff in the air is in my lungs as well.  In fact, I’ve heard talk around the base that people who spend long periods of time here are more prone to develop asthma from all the particulates in the air getting into one’s lungs.  For that reason alone, I’ve decided that it’s not a good idea to use my CPAP machine.  The air is bad enough without having that dust force-fed into my lungs while I sleep.
All that rather makes cigar smoking pretty benign, doesn’t it?  I recently found myself on the receiving end of a few Habano Romeo & Julieta cigars, corona size in a metal tubo.  I think I’ll fire one up tonight, it’s gotta be better than the air itself.
Happy smoking, my friends!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ski Afghanistan?

The key to a successful blog is to not have to write all your own postings. So I borrowed this one from press reporting.

13 March 2011


Afghan Buddha Province Hopes To Attract Skiers

Best known for its historic Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban 10 years ago, the Afghan province of Bamiyan has a fresh attraction which it hopes will draw in tourists -- skiing.

Traveling to the slopes in Bamiyan is a risky business due to the security situation in the war-torn country, although the central Afghan province itself, around 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Kabul, is relatively safe.

While it is short on après-ski and lifts, organizers are hopeful that adventurous travelers could have their interest piqued by Bamiyan's dramatic beauty and the promise of wild, ungroomed runs.

Afghans are also taking an interest in the sport, including a handful of women from the more liberal Kabul, despite conservative social codes in the country under which many still wear the burqa in public.

"In Europe and the US, more and more people want to go back to country skiing, wilder, without tens of people on the same piste," said Henry Charles, a 31-year-old British security worker who regularly skis in Bamiyan.

"That is a trend, and Bamiyan is all about that... you get your own line in fresh powder snow, that's great. We're at 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) so the snow stays very well, like sugar, for several days."

The 1.2 million dollar project to encourage skiing in the area was launched in 2008 by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) with the help of NZAID, the New Zealand government's international aid agency.

It is backed by local officials who hope that skiing and tourism more generally can boost the economy of the poor agricultural region, where world culture body UNESCO said last week it wants to set up several museums to house the remains of Bamiyan's Buddha statues.

The three summits of Koh-e-Baba, Bamiyan's ski area, face the cliff where the massive Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban 10 years ago this month.

Before the Soviet invasion and subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Bamiyan welcomed around 65,000 tourists a year, of which some 10,000 were from Japan and came to see the Buddhas.

Last year, the figure stood at just over 3,300, of which just 805 were foreigners, mainly those already working in Afghanistan. The AKF says the figures are gradually increasing.

Taliban activity in Bamiyan is extremely rare because the area is largely populated by the Hazara ethnic group, their historic foes.

But there are other problems with attracting tourists to Bamiyan. One is that getting there is tough, and local officials say government promises of help to improve the situation have not been delivered on.

The two main roads from Kabul carry the risk of mines and hijackings by insurgents looking for cash, making flying the safest option.

However, at this stage no commercial airlines operate between Kabul and Bamiyan so most people traveling to the province rely on United Nations flights or those operated by Western embassies.

"The government promised us a couple of choppers but we haven't seen them yet," said Bamiyan's vice governor Haji Qasim Kazemi.

Accommodation in the town is also primitive -- none of its 18 hotels has round-the-clock electricity and hot water.

In addition, no one really knows what the security situation in Bamiyan will look like in a few years, after international combat troops are due to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

Western sources suggest Bamiyan could be among the first wave of provinces in Afghanistan where responsibility for security will pass from international to Afghan forces from July.

Said Shah, a local teenager who has taken up skiing in recent years, highlighted fears that security could deteriorate, destroying Bamiyan's hopes of becoming a tourist destination again.

"If the foreigners continue their cooperation, we could be a ski station here one day. But peace is the first thing to achieve," he said.

People ski on the mountains in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan

Looks pretty sweet, doesn't it? Even to a non-skier like me.