Friday, July 13, 2007


More on where Nathan will be spending the next few months.

Biggest Base in Iraq Has Small-Town Feel

Most Troops at Balad Never Meet Iraqis

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006; A14

BALAD, Iraq -- Staff Sgt. Chad Twigg is on a one-year tour of duty in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. But on a recent winter morning, he wasn't digging a foxhole or tracking an enemy sniper or trying to grab some sleep between firefights.

Instead, the Army mechanic was checking out iPod accessories in one of the two post exchanges here at the biggest American base in Iraq. He worries about the lure of the PX, with its walls of shiny electronic devices and racks of new CDs. "I try to stay away from it to save money," Twigg said. But on average, 15 soldiers a day succumb and buy a television, said John Burk, the PX manager.

Balad Air Base is a unique creation, a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq. While soldiers drive as fast as they can beyond its perimeter to avoid roadside bombs and ambushes, on base they must drive their Humvees at a stately 10 mph, the strictly enforced speed limit.

The 20,000 troops based at Balad, home to the major Air Force operation in Iraq and also the biggest Army logistical support center in the country, live in air-conditioned containers. Plans are being made to wire the metal boxes to bring the troops Internet, cable television and overseas telephone access.

Balad is scheduled to be one of the last four U.S. bases in Iraq and probably will be the very last, officials say. "Balad will be here, I believe, to the very end," said Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the Slovenian-born F-15 pilot who commands the Air Force side of the operation.

Like most towns, Balad has distinct neighborhoods. The southwest part, home to thousands of civilian contractors, is "KBR-land," a reference to the construction company. "CJSOTF," for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, is home to a special operations unit and is hidden by especially high walls. Visitors aren't welcome there, and the Army public affairs chief on the base said he'd never been inside.

Next door to CJSOTF is the junkyard, one of the places where war comes closest -- it contains dozens of Army Humvees wrecked by bombs or rollovers. The other place where the war intrudes is the busy base hospital, where doctors perform 400 surgeries a month on the wounded.

The base boasts its own airline, "Catfish Air," that shuttles soldiers among the U.S. bases in Iraq. It also has its own customs post, run by a relaxed but savvy group of Navy reservists.

Searching for drugs, pornography and souvenir weapons, they have learned the favorite places that departing Army troops use to hide contraband -- Bibles, picture frames, soap dishes and the sleeves in body armor vests that hold the bulletproof plates. Army engineers undergo especially close inspections because "they think they know where to hide everything," sometimes building false bottoms in toolboxes and containers, said Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Honer.

Offenders simply suffer confiscation, but the base does have a genuine criminal element: Recently an Army enlisted man returning from medical leave went AWOL, living with a cousin in the Air Force part of the base for two weeks before being apprehended and placed in the base's small brig.

Of the 20,000 troops at Balad, only several hundred have jobs that take them off base. Most Americans posted here never interact with an Iraqi, and some never see one, said Army Lt. Col. Larry Dotson, who is effectively the city manager. The closest some troops here come to experiencing the Iraq seen on the evening news is the miniature golf course, which mimics a battlefield with its baby sandbags, little Jersey barriers, strands of concertina wire and, down at the end of the course, what appears to be a tiny detainee cage.

The town's most distinctive feature is the long runway that bisects it. Air Force officials say it is now one of the world's busiest. "We are behind only Heathrow right now," said Gorenc, the Air Force commander.

As a Black Hawk helicopter was landing recently, an unmanned Predator drone was taking off, two Hellfire missiles slung under its wings. Next to land was an Army RC-12 Guardrail, a sensor-laden aircraft bristling with antennae. It was followed in quick succession by an F-16 fighter, a C-130 propeller-driven cargo plane and a C-17 cargo jet that taxied near a sagging Russian IL-76 freighter plane with a bulging glass nose like a World War II bomber's.

More than 250 aircraft are based here -- 188 helicopters and 70 fixed-wing aircraft, including relatively obscure ones such as the Guardrail and the Army National Guard's C-23 Sherpa, which resembles a small flying boxcar. One of the challenges for air controllers is juggling the wide range of airspeeds of incoming aircraft, with five to 15 stacked up in the skies at a time. Having a Predator, with its lawnmower-like engine, flying near an F-16 jet is "like putting a VW bus on a NASCAR racetrack," said Capt. Brian Chandler, the chief of airfield operations.

Pilots find flying into the base a sporting challenge. "It's like putting Chicago-O'Hare right in the middle of Iraq," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tate Johnson, a C-130 pilot who flies here frequently. "It's a very complex air picture."

Another C-130 pilot, Lt. Col. Jim Barlow, said Balad reminded him more of Atlanta's airport. "But," he added, "in Atlanta, there's no one shooting at you."

That overstates the danger a bit. While the base still gets hit occasionally by mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades, it hasn't had a soldier killed in action for two years.

These days the most dangerous spot on the base might be one of its four mess halls. As at other U.S. installations, the food at Balad is both good and abundant, a major change from the early days of the U.S. presence here.

Dinner on the night of Friday, Jan. 27 offered entrees of baked salmon, roast turkey, grilled pork chops, fried crab bites, breaded scallops and fried rice. The smiling servers standing behind those dishes were from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

Soldiers who were still hungry could hit the two salad bars, the sandwich line or a short-order stand for a cheeseburger, hot dog or grilled cheese sandwich. There were also two soup offerings and a dessert stand near the exit with chocolate mint and vanilla ice cream, banana pudding, pumpkin pie, cherry pie and yellow cake.

For those bored with the mess halls, there are a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, an ersatz Starbucks called "Green Beans" that serves up triple lattes, and a 24-hour Burger King.

It is little wonder that military nutritionists worry. Three years ago, the average U.S. soldier lost about 10 pounds while stationed in Iraq for a year. "Now they gain that much," reported Maj. Polly Graham, an Army dietitian here.

Back at the Balad West PX, Burk, the manager, is pleased that he has managed to tamp down panic buying by visiting troops -- the 82nd Airborne Division always wanting Copenhagen snuff, for instance, or the Air Force hoarding Marlboro Lights. The biggest change in buying preferences in the last two years, he said, is that T-shirts advertising service in Iraq no longer sell quickly.

"A lot of people don't want shirts with OIF on it," Burk said, citing the initials for Operation Iraqi Freedom. "They want clothes they can wear when they get home, and OIF has kind of lost its pizazz."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Push Over

Yesterday I did something I never thought I would do: I handed my credit card to some kid on the street. OK, not some kid. A Greenpeace kid. And he wasn't really a kid either. Tom was pounding the pavements of San Francisco over the summer between semesters at Vassar as a champion for Greenpeace. "In just a few minutes you'll be a Greenpeace warrior!" I laughed at the thought of me, dressed as the Roman God of war, writing twenty dollar checks once a month to Greenpeace, violently stabbing the dot for the "i" in my last name.

This is a test, I told myself, a test of your strength. Don't give in to the hype, the campaign, the pressure. Hold your ground firm. It's a sales pitch. A game.

It reminded me of a moment in the movie "Rodger Dodger". The main character is in advertising. He tells someone that commercials aren't just about making someone feel like they want something, it's about making them feel bad about what they do have. Dirty dishes. Smelly pets. Too much weight. Bad sex. You would be happy if your hands weren't so dry. You would be happy if your hair would just lay flat. You would be happy if your car could do donuts like this. The choices you've made aren't good enough, you need to make these choices.

Anyone who's been in retail or sold girl scout cookies or who works a bar crowd looking to take someone home knows the secret to selling anything is persistence and stamina and a tough skin. Assume everyone will say no first, because they will. Assume everyone will say no twice, because they will. Assume everyone will say no a third time, because they will. But if they haven't run away, punched you, or called the cops after the third no they aren't going to. And it'll only take two more nos before the yeses start flowing. And if after all that, you still get a no...walk away, pretend it never happened, and move on to the next person. And start all over.

I once asked a guy, who I thought was good looking enough but didn't have any particularly charming qualities that I could tell, how he dated so much. He was out with new girls all the time; while another friend of ours who was gentle and good, handsome and intelligent, had a hard time getting a date. The answer was simple, "I ask until I get a yes." And if you don't get a yes? "I ask someone else." Easy as that? But what if you liked the person you got a no from? "Then I don't like them any more." Easy as that? "Easy as that. I can't like people who don't like me. It's no fun." Easy as that? For a salesman? Yes. Easy as that.

It doesn't matter the product. The formula works. But it's not an easy skill to master. One must also have in their bag o'tricks the "Gift of Gab", that elusive ability to talk about everything and nothing at any moment. To remember names, places, facts, ideas, authors or make up what you don't know. The singular ability to put people at ease, to get them rilled up, to make them feel sexy, or to make them just feel wanted. Often you will hear people say, "When he talked to me I felt like he was really talking to ME. He looked at me." It is the ability to read the slightest facial expressions and react to them accordingly. To make people be as putty in your hands.

But I wanted to be stronger. I know the tricks. I know the five no's. I've never been the life of the party, but I know whey someone is talking their way into my thoughts. I can see a sales pitch when I see one. It doesn't matter if it's Cutco Knives, braclets, crying children or what. I've even resisted kittens. KITTENS!

But I was no match for Tom Stevenson, a street warrior for Greenpeace.

Like others of his ilk, kids out of college for the summer maybe fresh from some Ivy League school where they feel the world is out of touch with reality, he held a small folder in his hand and an open friendly look on his face. We've all seen them. The Greenpeace kids, the stop smoking kids, the save the children kids, and the political kids. They are eager and enthusiastic. They ask guilt inducing questions you have to answer like, "Do you have 30 seconds to make the world a better place?" or "Do you have ten seconds to save a child's life?" or "Do you want cleaner air?"

To make them more official looking they now wear bright colored rain jackets and polo shirts. (I should have asked Tom if his blue polo was made from recycled cotton, or fair trade, or something like that.) They also hunt in packs now. Usually groups of four stand in such a way on a side walk that you can't help but walk by one of them. And they are all well schooled in the arts of intercept and gab. "You look like the type of person that cares for the environment."

I was grudgingly walking up the stairs out of the Church street station. I had chosen to walk to the rehearsal space in the Mission rather then take the N train to BART and BART to the street I needed. My recent resolution to once again try and loose the 30 or so pounds I had gained the year after I graduated from college propelled me to enjoy the beautiful summer day. But I had wanted to take the escalator, which was unfortunately broken. My thoughts were on the exposed innards of said escalator and exploring that mysterious mechanical world when I emerged on to market. My mind elsewhere, I just narrowly missed running into a suit who's mind seemed bent on escape. Behind him a blue polo happily kept pace. Like any trained city dweller, I cast my eyes downward and prepared my "no's".

"Oh come on, I know you already saw me." He said in a flirty way I'm sure works with all the girls. "It's just Greenpeace, and I know you know about Greenpeace."

"Thank you, no."

"It'll only take a few minutes and I'll walk with you."

And that was it. I wasn't going to shake him. I had already smiled. I had already looked him in the eye. And I took the walk with you as a challenge.

Sure. Walk with me. I dare you. Walk with me all the way to Mission. I know you have to work that corner. I'll get you nice and lost while we talk about Poler Bears and Old Growth Forrests. Then I'll give my sixth no, and you'll have to find your way back.

And that my friends was how I lost the war. As soon as I let him walk with me, that was as good as a yes. I mean, come on, other then Eco-terrorism, which Greenpeace may have been wrongly accused of anyway, how can you say no to saving the earth? I tried to hold my ground, but I was asking stupid questions because I'm under informed and careless about my own environmental footprint. Because I'm a hypocrite and one of those guilty liberals who feel bad about everything. Because I hate the thoughts I have like: "Fuck you, I'll drink my bottled water and I'll like it!" or "There is no good solution so I'm just going to keep going the way I am." or "This is all irrational sensationalism."

But to tell you the truth, I didn't want to spend the twenty dollars a month on Greenpeace, because I wanted to spend it on another group. I really did. And that's the honest truth. I didn't want to let myself be sold because I wanted to invest in stoves. Dr. Ashok Gadil, a physicist at Berkeley and an inventor was approached to invent some sort of press that could turn their garbage into fuel pellets. The problem being it's too dangerous for Darfurians to venture out to look for fuel. Women will be rapped and tortured. Men will be killed. And the journey to fuel sources could be seven hours round trip. Or the cost of the fuel makes it impossible to buy food. Or if a family buys food, it is impossible to buy fuel to cook it with. Even the simple act of boiling water to make sure it's clean to drink is beyond most families.

But Dr. Gadil said, the refugees don't make enough garbage to burn. There is nothing to burn.

So we have to find a way to make what they do burn do more with less. So he invented a stove that is simple to use and burns hotter with less. The organization he is partnered with is trying to find a way to have the stove manufactured in Darfur with materials that already exist there. Refugees would buy the stove, but they would be buying it from there own people and the money would stay in the country.

And what can we do for Darfur? We can't go around sticking flowers in people's guns. We can't send in our military to stop what we don't understand, or to force our own sort of colonization. Our hands are tied. And, again, I am horribly ill informed to even so much as have an opinion. How can I help? But, I like this. It feels good. It feels like something that could be good, not just for Darfur, but other refugees all over.

So, I will be giving money to this cause and asking others to think about it. And I should have said something then, to Tom, about the human element.

But then, Greenpeace appeals to me because of the theatrics. The performance of the protests. The costumes, the signs, the colors. And I do want to save the rain forests, the old growth, the polar bears, the owls, the oceans...and the humans.

And so I gave in. Why? For the same reason every sucker gives in, it was easier to do then not. I didn't want to just walk away, I didn't want to be that person that day. I didn't want to say anything mean. I didn't want to argue. I didn't want to make excuses. And I didn't want to feel bad about myself any more. And Tom had an answer for everything. He knew all about this movement, and that movement. He knew all about the horrible things Kleenex was doing to the world. He knew all about this Bill in Washington and that one. He talked excitedly about all the good Greenpeace was doing. All the good it would do with my money...once they got it.

So I gave in.

At the end of our walk, after I'd turned over the credit card and gotten the cute Greenpeace thank you thing, I asked Vassar what his major was.

He didn't know. Maybe psychology. (A major that had always been in my mind a refuge for people who just didn't know what to business.) The was going to be in his second year, and he wasn't sure. He liked psychology. He started talking about it a little, but I could tell the fire was gone. He was no longer in his element. He was unsure and uncomfortable. He wanted to get back to his corner and try to make another sale. He had finished this one...

And it made me sad. He was going to one of the best schools in the country and, even though he was a sales person, he obviously did care about Greenpeace. And he was totally lost. Lost in the city. Lost in his education. Lost in life.

He walked away. Stalking out his next victim and I couldn't help but think, "I hope Greenpeace fights as hard for that kid as he's fighting for them." And maybe psychology was the right place for him. The ability to reach into someone else's mind and play. And maybe he would do great things with it. Maybe he'd go into environmental law and maybe win one or two unwinable battles against the Goliath's of business.

And then I wished he were still walking with me. Not Tom, but that sales person. Someone who would fight for me. Someone who would wade through all the "no's" and the bad feelings. Who would deflect the negative and doggedly fight for a yes. A signature. A positive. An answer. Someone who would be able to shake it off and try again.

And then I was glad I signed up, that I gave in. That there is someone like Tom out there fighting for the things I care about. Whales. Bears. Small islands. Rainforests.


And I can still give to Darfur Cookstoves.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How Bazaar

So I talked the department into buying a camera and letting me figure out how to use it. It's an expensive camera. Well, expensive for me. Not for those people who all own iPhones now. But more importantly, it's hard to use. It's not point and shoot. It's adjust this dial, this setting, that setting, this dial. Test. Test. Adjust. Adjust. Test. Adjust. Point and shoot.

I'll get the hang of it one of these days. So there's not a lot of art in the photography or style or technique. But maybe there will be someday. For now I'm just trying to figure out the settings. But, when a nice picture does come around, I'm going to post it and let everyone know "Hey! I did that!"

These pictures where taken yesterday. The picture of Matt was taken on our way to the reading of "Aaah! Rosebud" the second picture is of our good friend Max while he looks over his script at the reading. I spent some time during the reading looking as if I knew exactly what I was doing while I wondered around the table and shot pictures. I'm willing to bet I looked like I always wanted to look when I held a camera, like I knew what I was doing. But for the most part, I was just trying out settings. These are my two favorite pictures, but I included a few others that I think are nice too, or at least show more of the readers.

The reading itself went really well. It took place at the Bazaar Cafe in the Richmond. I highly recommend the place. It was quiet (well, before we got there anyway) and had a decent sized menu for such a small place. Most importantly, the pies looked home made. I was too busy to eat, but they looked great.

The director, Dylan Russel, really cast this play well. Everyone really fits their parts and I can't wait to see this up. It's a comic retelling/parody/pre-quil to Citizen Kane. In our version he has a demonic sled that he uses to kill people and turn them into zombies that will do his bidding as part of his plan to take over the world. Matt plays Jebidiah Stanford, Kane's former right hand man turned mortal enemy. I play the production manager, the captain at the helm of this crazy ship.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Just don't call us the other White Stripes

Matt and I have decided to form two bands:

Guilt Muffin


Unconditionally Human

Guilt Muffin will be a hard rock hair band with lots of electric riffs and tons of cowbell. I will be on drums and percussion. Matt will be lead guitar. We'll both sing. Our first album will be entitled "Pushing the Bruise" named after our first single, which will also be found on that album.

Unconditionally Human will be our side project. It's an Emo band and will feature me on lead guitar and Matt on percussion. I don't know that we've named our first album as of yet, or the tracks. We're still just jamming.

UPDATE: Unconditionally Human's first album will be titled "Cream for Your Crêpes" and our first single will be "Strawberry June".

But keep your eyes glued to this site for more updates, venues, release dates, T-shirts, posters and other swag. But for now you'll have to wet your appetite with one of these.

November seems really far away...

Nathan took a direct flight from Colorado Springs to Kuwait Sunday July 8, leaving behind him in Colorado Michelle, Master Chief, Liger, and most of his heart.

Liger, looking more innocent then he is.
Here is Master Chief in what looks like his favorite position.
Nathan in his favorite position. Well...maybe not. He takes a lot of pictures where he looks like this:

He's such a ham.

And she's too cute.

But, I have heard more about where he will be. Not what he'll be doing, but to be honest, even if he told me I'm sure it would still be somewhat of a mystery. He'll be in Camp Anaconda (I'm not even going to think about how many times "My Anaconda don't want none unless you got buns hun!" is said on that base.) Also known as Logistics Support Area Anaconda. Also known as Balad Airbase (they are sometimes listed as separate places, but they aren't.) Anyway, someone has been so kind as to put up photos for everyone. You can also read more about it here. It's a very "Hoo-raa!" article, but helpful none the less.

"Even when the pilots return to Balad having not fired a single bullet or missile they are often crucial to missions by just the roar of their jet engines. The deafening and menacing sound is often enough to scatter insurgents and to reassure soldiers that assistance is at hand."

"As of Febuary 2006, Balad AB was home to about 25,000 U.S. troops. The base is so large it has its own 'neighborhoods'. These include: 'KBR-land' (a Halliburton subsidiary company); 'CJSOTF' which is home to a special operations unit,' the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force and is surrounded by especially high walls that is, according to The Washington Post, so secretive that even the base Army public affairs chief has never been inside. There is a Subway sandwich shop, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges which sell an impressive array of goods, four mess halls, a miniature golf course and a hospital. The base has a strictly enforced on-base speed limit of 10 MPH."

Thank God for a 24-hour Burger King and a miniature golf course. Wikipedia also has a very informative article on Nathan's new local.

But this picture was my favorite:

But I'm going to be honest with you. I doubt the freshness. But the building is a movie theater where they get first run movies they day after they come out here.

I hate to be a downer, but I hear they are having a hard time building schools and hospitals over there. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad to see that those contractors have put something so nice and obviously air conditioned together. And they even have street lights! The Bay View/Hunters point doesn't even have street lights! I'm not even going to go into the Olympic sized swimming pool.

Of course as ridiculous and phallic as Camp Anaconda sounds, it is preferable to it's other name. Morteritaville. Being so close to Baghdad does have it's down side. But, that also seems to be an older name. It is also contested by some people who say "No I'm based in Morteritaville!"

But on a cursory search I came up with a few interesting blogs from the people who know:

USAF Guy's Milblog
CASF In The Sand Pit

To be honest, I'm scared for Nathan but I'm also feeling better. Looking at the pictures and hearing stories, even the bad ones, gives me a better sense of place. It's better then him going off into a black hole.

Oh, and he'll have email and will be on Facebook from time to time. So, I'll update here as I know more. more picture of a cute cat.

Fine...fine. One more.