Home on the Range

You can see we do not get to shoot very far.  We shot a bit farther back with the rifles, but not much.  We only get to shoot if someone is really close.

I have never been a good shot & I have at least a partial explanation.  I am a right handed but left eye dominant.  When I shot the M-4 rifle with my left hand, I actually could hit the target because I could actually see it through the scope.

The Marines took our ePRT to the gun range today to learn how to use their standard pistols and rifles.  Of course, we were not issued weapons and never will be.  Our ePRT members are not warriors.  However, in this kind of environment it is not a bad idea to be familiar with the sorts of weapons that are common around here.

We learned how to lock, load and shoot at the very basic level.  Of course, some of our ePRT members are very familiar with guns and for them it was review.  As I said, when I shot left handed, I could do all right.  The M-4 rifle has a good scope with a little arrow.  If you know the rough distance, you can aim along the arrow and it is easy to get the shots into the general area you are trying to hit.  Just keeping the rifle even is harder than it seems in the movies, however.  

We shot single shots and in burst of two or three.  For the bursts of three it is hard to keep the weapon stable, again, not as easy as it seems in the movies.  We were standing in what the Marines told us was the hardest stance.  You are more stable when you are sitting or laying on the ground and/or you have something to brace.  I had a lot of fun with this.  I shot more times today than I have in my entire life up to today.  Of course, that is not saying much, since I have never been much of a gun guy.

The pistol was easier to handle but it was harder for me to hit the targets. At one point, we had to shoot down metal targets (below).  I couldn’t hit any of them.  The Marines can more or less just knock them down.  Our “training” was not meant to prepare us for the Wyatt Earp type gunfights.  Only in very desperate situations would we even touch a weapon and contemplate the odd angry shot. At close range, we shot fifteen rounds into the target quick as we could.  I managed to hold the pistol steady enough to create a pattern that would have stopped even the most committed terrorist or crack head.  

I am confident that I will never have occasion to use the skills I learned today.  I am sure the Marines will work hard to keep it that way.  They were very polite and nice to me, but they saw my performance.  I shutter to think of how bad it would have to be if I was the last line of defense.  Anyway, I have absolute confidence in the Marines.

I have never seen them in actual combat, but I have seen how they react to potential danger.  They face it down w/o hesitation.  I think of those horror movies where the bad guy attacks the hapless people who scurry around in confusion.  The Marines would just dispatch the miscreant.  This is a good contrast between courage and fear.  It is not true that the Marines can always prevail, but they always go with courage and that just feels better. 

Tree Farming & the Virginia Countryside

Below is my tree farm draft article for the next issue of “Virginia Forests”.   It has nothing to do with Iraq, but is part of my other life, as communications director for Virginia Tree Farm Project at the Virginia Forestry Association.  I needed to write a short article for them and I just finished it.  The picture is from my forest.  It is one of the spots I like to sit and watch the water run.  We don’t cut trees in the stream management zones, which account for around 30 acres on the farm.  The picture was taken in January 2005, but it is not that different now except at this season the buds are popping and the wildflower are out.  BTW – the pictures are just mine and I just like to look at them.  They will not be part of the “Virginia Forests” publication.

The American countryside is threatened by development and urban sprawl as never before.  The very concept of “rural” is increasingly strained as urban style communities and urban lifestyles reach to even the most remote parts of Virginia.  This can be positive as new people bring fresh perspectives and new incomes breathe life into declining communities.  But these shifts fundamentally change the character of the countryside.  When significant numbers of owners and rural residents themselves no longer have their livelihoods significantly tied to the surrounding land, their perspectives are different. 

This change happens in a variety of ways, some obvious others subtle.  The most obvious is when someone from outside the local community buys a tract forest land.  This has been happening for a long time, but the trend is accelerating.  A wholesale change in ownership patterns took place over the past decade as forest and paper firms sold off large tracks of forest land to private individuals, investors and timber investment trusts. 

The more subtle change in emphasis can take place due to inheritance or just changes in lifestyle.  Relationships and feelings about the land change when long time resident farmers or forest owners begin to earn more or even most of their incomes from non-agricultural or non-forestry sources.  Of course, children who inherit family farms often have an emotional tie to the land, but may lack practical ties or skill sets that keep them managing the land in same way.

This picture is from near the same spot as above, but during July.

A key attribute of a traditional family forest, or those owned by paper and forest product firms for that matter, is/was that these were working lands, used in multiple ways to include profit generating activities such as forestry, hunting and non-timber agriculture.   When land changes hands, the new owners may indeed leave a forest intact.  In fact, they may have purchased the land specifically to “preserve” what they believe is the local ecology.  But preservation or changes in land management fundamentally alter its nature and that of the surrounding community by perhaps not engaging in those activities that traditionally linked the human and the natural communities.  The idea of humans are active participants in the natural environment wisely and sustainably using natural resources is the basis of conservation but it is an idea that can be misunderstood.

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is adapting in response to the changes in ownership patterns, motivations and needs of our constituents. As it has done since 1941, ATFS is working to improve forest management through education and advice.  Today there are 87,000 certified Tree Farms covering 29 million acres.   Obviously certifications and inspections remain the backbone of the tree farm system, but increasingly education and outreach will take on greater significance.  New tree farmers and new types of tree farmers will need to understand the nature of a working forest and its place in a sustained and healthy environment.   Here are the boys in the pine plantation last year.  We will have to do some pre-commercial thinning this summer so that the little trees can have room to grow & stay healthy.

Some of the education will represent a change in emphasis from how to sustain a multiple use forest to why they should want to do that.   ATFS has often explained to owners how to manage their forests to produce timber while at the same time caring for clean water, providing recreational opportunities and creating great habitats for wildlife.   It was taken as a given that owners wanted to produce timber and gain some income from the investment in their land.  Many new owners may be less enthusiastic about making sure their land profitably produces timber at all.   They may have bought the land as a home site or in order to create a preserve of some sort where forestry or hunting are not priorities. ATFS will increasingly need to explain why it is important to keep timber lands producing timber and why they need to be managed to do this.

Well managed forests producing wood, clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities are a great American tradition well worth keeping.  Each generation of forest owners must learn or relearn the lessons of good forestry.  As the demographics of forest ownership change, education becomes more important.  ATFS understands this and is ready to provide the information and education that will keep Virginia a place of beautiful, well-managed and productive forests for years to come.

Bright Light Curses the Darkness

The profound darkness disturbed me when I got to Al Asad.   At first I didn’t like it, as I stumbled around looking for my can in the blackness, but after awhile I got used to it.  I liked the moonlight and the stars.  I developed a muscle memory that got me easily home in the dark and walking home in the dark became a nice way to unwind at the end of the day. 

Now they have installed a big light that pierces the darkness and shines in my eyes, making it hard to see the moon and the stars.  Beyond that, the less you can actually see of Al Asad, the prettier you can imagine it to be.  The stark chemical light against concrete barriers is not pleasant.

It is surprising how well you can learn to see in low light.  I recall skiing at night in Norway and how that had a special magic.   Al Asad is not like that, but I have learned to enjoy some aspects of the Iraqi night.  Funny how things grow on you.  At first you may dislike it; after awhile you accept it and then miss it when it is taken away.  Walking home in the dark, I noticed the phases of the moon and the contours of the clouds dimly illuminated in the moonlight.  On several occassions there was a haloed moon. Of course, I could see and enjoy the stars.  This was good.

Friends Leave

Above is a picture of Dennis,  our agronomist, and  Reid who has done engagement with local leaders on a truly impressive scale.

My good friend Reid Smith will be leaving Iraq today.  He is one of those I mentioned a few posts back re losing my best.  I am losing him a little earlier than anticipated because of bureaucratic mazes we couldn’t find out way through.

Reid has his own newsletter about his time in Iraq.  As military person, his perceptive is a bit different than mine, but the similarities far outweigh the differences.  Below is a copy of his last post in Iraq.

Hey everyone,

I planned on staying here in Iraq until mid May in order to complete my one year boots on the ground.  As sometimes happens, the paperwork got screwed up.  The State Department, who doesn’t have a thorough understanding of how the Army orders process works, failed to request an extension to my initial mobilization orders.  Now, with less than a week’s notice, I have to clear out. 

The bottom line here is that I am coming home earlier than anticipated.  I know, I know, I should be happy right?, but this made me very angry at first because I feel like I’m just now getting really good at my  job.  That’s just the way it is sometimes.  As my first platoon sergeant, SSG Velez told me in 1984 in his very strong Puerto Rican accent “well ju know sir…sometimes…ju just get f—-d”.  This is a true statement if ever I heard one.

I’ve now had a few days to let it settle in and I couldn’t more excited to go back to my home and family.  Everything works itself out the way it is supposed to and I’m very glad to be headed home.
From my perspective we have defeated the insurgents.  We are only dealing with amateurs now and of them there are only a few stragglers. Those few that we do encounter are poorly led, poorly equipped and poorly trained.  In our sector for the third time in a couple months an  insurgent has blown himself up accidentally.  The latest blew his own hands off and if not for prompt medical care he would have died. 

In another case we were able to locate an IED emplacement group while they were meeting together.  We could have simply bombed them and been certain of killing them, but in order to make sure no innocent people were killed we used different techniques.  This is important because terrorists frequently travel with women and children just for the protection they provide relative to our targeting.  It took us three tries, but task force elements finally got them and no innocents were hurt.  This is an amazing capability we have developed as a military and you should definitely be proud.

We recently had one Marine Infantry battalion complete their seven-month rotation here and head home without having even one KIA.  This was  1/7 Marines who I worked with in the city of Hit, they were extremely active, did a lot of great work.  This is remarkable when you consider that normally in just one month at the National Training Center, in a training environment, we will suffer at least one soldier killed as a result of accident or mishap.

Now it is up to the Iraqis to take the victory over the insurgents we’ve handed them and be successful at governing themselves.  This has been my job over the past 10 ½ months.  It has been frustratingly slow work, but we have seen significant improvements and I am confident now that we will succeed.

It has been quite a ride and now as I look back I will miss both my team mates and the Marines who I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve with.  I will miss the many Iraqis heroes who I’ve become friends with who struggle daily to make this work despite a constant threat to their life and that of their family.  It’s an odd thing how as bad as this place sucks, it does get in your bones in a way that is hard to describe.  Without trying to be too melodramatic, perhaps it’s the fact our struggle here in many ways marks the success or failure of America  in the post cold war world. 

To all of you who have supported me with your e-mails, letters, packages etc I just want to provide a very heartfelt “Thank You”!  I would add that it doesn’t stop here and even though everyone is tired of this war, the troops over here still very much desire and appreciate your steadfast support. 

In terms of support I haven’t run into anyone over here who simply desires and end to this for their own personal safety.  This is an all volunteer force and if there is any disappointment felt at being here it normally surrounds not getting any “trigger time”.  We want the victory we’ve worked so hard for and will settle for nothing less.  We hear people often say “I support the troops”, but what we wished we’d hear more often is “I support victory in Iraq”.  

Semper Fi


Sorry about not writing for awhile.  I arrived safely back in Iraq, via Kuwait.  My trip & being back in Iraq is my new normal.  I have written about such things before.  You can only go on your first helicopter or c-130 ride once.

I have been involved in some inside management issues, which I was not going to write about, but as I consider it, I think it might be important to mention some of the prosaic things that occupy a lot of our time here, so here are a few.

Five new team members have arrived in the last couple of weeks.  Let me introduce them.

I have a new deputy and he is a great guy.  As a retired USAF bird colonel, my new deputy knows the military and how to manage a team.  He also worked as a program manager in Baghdad, so he knows the inside game there.   We have already developed a good working relationship.  We agree on goals and seem to have complementary skill sets.  I do not think I could have hoped for a better situation. 

Our economic and budget specialist is a young man on his first tour outside the U.S.  He is also exactly what I need at this time.  In October, we got a budget for making grants to stimulate projects among the Iraqis.  My team and I were extremely enthusiastic about these things.  It allowed us to build influence and complete project that would create an environment unpleasant for the insurgency (our mission).  But all grants require accounting and all projects must be tracked.  All of us were into doing.  We had a bias for action.  This is good, but you can action yourself right out of business.  I was beginning to become seriously concerned.  Now I got somebody who has the skills and inclination to take on the task.

The new civil affairs man is an Army Lieutenant Colonel with experience in Iraq.  I am asking him to be our man in Rawah/Anah.  This is a place we have needed someone for a long time.  He has been working hard to get up to speed on the tribal and civil relationships and he has the experience to command respect.  I am confident that we can expect good things from him.

Just yesterday we got two new bicultural-bicultural specialists.  Since I just met them, I cannot say anything in particular.  They are native Arabic speakers and both have experience working with coalition forces in Iraq.  I insisted that our colleagues be American citizens and have security clearances and both our new guys fit the bill.  We work very well with Iraqi citizen translators in the field, but on the base it is hard for anyone to work w/o a clearance and only American citizens can get one.  It is a bit of a myth that we do not have enough Americans who speak Arabic.  This may have been the case a few years ago, but we now are doing okay with finding and hiring fluent American citizen Arabic speakers.   

Perhaps the biggest challenge of team leader in an isolated, intense and stressful environment like ours is to balance the personalities, skills & predilections of team members.   Team member skills are complementary and the team leader has to make sure these synergies work.  Not everybody can work in this environment.  The day before yesterday I lost one of my team members.  He arrived only a couple months ago and has not been a strong performer.  He went down to Baghdad for some routine work and never came back.  He literally fled the country mentioning that he had enough.  Since he was a contractor, that is his prerogative to quit, but I have never before experienced anything like this before.  I keep on thinking of that rhyme, “when in danger when in doubt, run in circles scream and shout.” 

I have thought about what I might have done to help him out, but have concluded that his leaving was the best thing for us all.  I am not sympathetic.  I probably should have pushed him out sooner.  He was not working out well.  My job is to help my team accomplish our common goals and it is my duty to ensure they do.  Most of my team is great and they would perform even w/o my efforts.  Those who cannot or will not do that should go home.  I don’t want to create an environment where the non-productive can feel comfortable.  It may sound mean and I don’t think of myself as a mean person, but that is the way it has to be in our particular situation.

Seeing the Old Things

I made it to the Archeological Museum today – finally.  No strike today.  Lots of the things there I have seen many times in pictures.  It is interesting to see them in real life.  The museum is very well organized. Each of the exhibits has explanations and descriptions in Greek and English.  The English is very good, obviously written by an educated native speaker.  Many of the sculptures are grave monuments and they can be very poignant.  As the descriptions explain, they often show the deceased saying goodbye to his/her family and the joys of life.  The artists capture the expressions very well so that we can feel the grief across the millennia.

 I also saw the gold mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae. This is the real one. The one in Mycenae is just a copy.  There are also lots of pots.  Pots are some of the most important clues to archeologists because they are so common and cheap.  When they break, people don’t bother to retrieve the all pieces.  They just sweep them outside.  Ancient cities tended to rise in layers of dirt, refuse and pottery shards, with each layer representing a different time period, so everything lays around in distinct layers and archeologists can use pieces of pottery to identify and date cultures. 

Nothing Too Much

This is the kind of place I always find, a little stream in a quiet park.  I am sitting again in the garden park near the Parliament.  I put the kids on the plane at 0655.  My plane doesn’t go until 1805, so I figured that I would go to the Archeology Museum, the one I missed because of the strike.   I will write about that later.

I sat at this very spot before the kids came a few days ago.  The feeling was different.  That day the sun was shinning; today it is overcast and drizzly.  My moods reflected the weather on both occasions.  Then I was about to get on the Metro to go and get them at the airport so that we could see Greece together.  Today I am getting ready to get on the Metro to go back to Iraq.  The kids have left.

The excitement of Iraq wore off with the first step I took in that dusty desert. Now I just want to finish my job.  Some people think it is a bad idea to go on R&R, especially the short ones I have chosen.  The received wisdom is that getting out for a short time just makes you want to stay out.  Of course that is right, but most people still want to take the R&R. 

Above is a very from a hill in Aegina, an island near Athens.  Maybe because I am in Greece, I remember the classical debate about having and not having.  Some thought that you should not have anything you could lose, so as to avoid the pain of loss.  Most Greek thinkers were moderates, however,  who didn’t believe in excess – nothing too much. They understood that an excess of pleasure seeking would lead to unhappiness, but they also knew that an excess of denial would produce the same result. 

I enjoyed being with the kids and finally seeing this place and adding Greece to our shared landscape of memory.  The joy of having done these things greatly outweighs the pain of losing it and the memory will brighten up my time left in Iraq.  It is not that long anyway.  I have half done and since I have saved my R&Rs for the second half of my tour, I have lots of time out coming.

Below are cats in Poros sharing the catch.

Iraq has been a fantastic experience, but it is less attractive prospectively than retrospectively.  This is a great thing to HAVE done, less fun to be doing.

Island Hopping

Much of Greece consists of islands.  The Aegean is really a drowned mountain range with the peaks protruding above the water and the valleys sunk below.  And the islands are very close together.  You can usually see the next island from the one you are on.  This invited exploration even by sailors who didn’t like to be out of sight of land. 

Below is the Orthodox church on Aegina. Aegina is a big island, as you can see from the background.

We took a cruise to three islands: Poros, Hydra and Aegina.  Poros was not very attractive.  Well, the island was pretty but the houses were that 1960 socialist style.  It was worth seeing, but not worth going to see.  Hydra was beautiful.  The natural setting was spectacular and the buildings were well constructed and good looking.  There are no cars on Hydra, which makes it an exceptionally good place to walk. Aegina is the biggest of the three and it was an important center in ancient and medieval times. There is an ancient temple and a Greek Orthodox monastery.  This island is fertile and is a paradise, with olive & pasticcio groves mixed with citrus framed by pine forests all overlooking the blue sea.   The pictures do not do it justice, but look at them anyway.

Above is the Temple of Athesis on Aegina.    

Cruising itself is not much fun. A cruise boat is like a big floating bus.  But being there among the islands is great.

Below, Espen deals with the early wake time and the slow boat syndrome.

The Theatre

The amphitheatre at Epidarus supposedly has nearly perfect acoustics.  We walked up to the top and indeed we could hear people speaking down in the center.  Evidently the sound waves flow up the hill and then some bounce off the stone seats in back of each audience member.  Given the speed of sound, this is not enough to produce a discernible echo, but prolongs the sound.  This is not perceivable and our brains make the necessary corrections so the whole thing enhances our senses.  At least that is what I heard.  This is one of the birthplaces of drama.  It started out as story telling and gradually developed into the kinds of things we would recognize as a play. 

This theater is still intact because it was isolated and people didn’t have as much incenitive to steal the stones.   Many ruins are not wrecked by time, but rather by salvage.

Epidarus started out as a healing center dedicated to the god of healing, Aesclepius.  People would come here to make offerings to the gods.   After a while the priests developed a modicum of physician skills and you can trace the origins of medicine to these places.  Of course most of what they did had little more effect on actual sickness, other than the value of the rest and psychosomatic benefits.  The ancient Greeks were profoundly superstitious people.  All pre-modern people were/are superstitious because they don’t have any scientific alternatives.  Even those of us who should know better still fall for faith healers, shamans and other charlatans.

The natural setting is beautiful and if you got to hang around here watching plays and not having to work, I bet many people did recover their health, so I suppose it worked.  The proximate cause is not always the apparent one, or that one advertised.  I remember reading that in the 18th & 19th Centuries many of the very young women who married old rich guys were evidently barren.  Their husbands sent them off to “take the waters” at some spa, where lots of young men worked and the miracle of the spa restored their fertility.  

The Workers – United – Will Close All Museums

I would have to tell the story of today by telling what we didn’t do.  We didn’t go to the Archeological Museum.  We didn’t go any other museums.  We didn’t even go to the park.  All these places were shut because of a strike/demonstration by government unions.  We DID see them marching and chanting.  It was very 1930s except the banners are more colorful: less red, brighter pastels. 

Demonstrations are always the same.  You get the big march and the chanting in simple words and cadences that the cognitively challenged can repeat w/o too much trouble, something like “The workers – united – will never be defeated.”  We saw on the news that some fire bombs and tear gas were used after the main demonstration.  The protestors looked peaceful enough when we saw them.  I think most were just ordinary people, but there are always some of the violent guys who take any opportunity to make trouble.  

We walked a lot, since the Marriott shuttle couldn’t drop us or pick us up in town. I had a good time being with Mariza & Espen.   Above is one of the steep paths we climbed.  Since I didn’t get to go to the museums, I have rationalized it away.  It is true that actually seeing the real thing is sometimes less satisfying than seeing a really good photo, since you can usually see more detail in the photo and there is more explanation.  That is what I am telling myself anyway.  It is not entirely wrong.  I recall when Chrissy and I saw the Mona Lisa in Paris.  It is smaller than you think and farther away than you would want.  The same went for Stonehenge.  On the other hand, even on this short trip the Acropolis and Mycenae were more than I expected.

Anyway tomorrow we have an island cruise day and then the kids go back to America and I go back to Iraq.  They rhythm of that reminds me of Davy Crockett’s campaign slogan.  I will recall as best I can.  “If you reelect me, I will serve you well and honestly; if you do not, you can go to hell and I shall go to Texas.”  I felt funny not being in Iraq for a few hours, but I came to my senses.  Still I have to go back so I may as well make the most of it. 

Espen has decided he will look angry (and tough) at all the photo sessions from now on, so whenever he notices the camera…well you see.  Who knows why?  But I will post in any case.

I did get him when he wasn’t looking, however.