08 May 2008

Road Show

The students from Ms. Parker's class at Los Alamitos Elementary, avid writers and artists of cheery letters and pictures, joined me for a photo when I visited them to say thank you.

I became huge fans of Ms. Matzuk's class in Doylestown, PA and Ms. Parkers class in Los Alamitos, CA.  The letters and drawings, as well as the unintentional and innocent humor contained in many, never failed to brighten my day and cast rays of sun on my officemates as well.  So I happily accepted an invitation to visit Ms. Parker's class when I was in Southern California.  

Filled with questions, the students squirmed and raised their hands almost to the point of hyper-extending a joint.  

"What is it like to shoot someone?" one asked, with a seriously inquiring countenance.  To his disappointment and befuddlement, I had to tell him that most military members never have to do that, fortunately.  

"What is your favorite animal?" came another query from a shyly grinning little girl, perhaps wondering if one could have a favorite animal AND be in the military at the same time.  Ask me what I think about some geo-political issue and I am on it.  Ask me my favorite animal, and I am stumped so I diverted and talked about all the migratory bird life at Camp Victory.

I guess it is the simple questions like that one that I need to spend some more time thinking about.


05 May 2008

Party!


Party hosts Paul and Denise Fejtek went all out for my USC Welcome Home Party.  

I had largely eschewed any going away parties eight months ago but there was really no denying Paul and Denise Fejtek when they offered (or did they decree?) to host a party at their home in Newport Beach.  Although initially billed as a USC party, the guest list quickly expanded, as Paul admitted that he might have forwarded my blog to a few friends (and friends of friends).

As I drove down the narrow beach street the party venue sat on, I briefly cursed whoever had dared to park an H1 Hummer in such close quarters . . . that is, until I looked up and realized it was in front of the Fejtek House.  Along with sandbags, camo netting and a great big banner. Paul and Denise had actually gone to the local Hummer dealership and got the vehicle on loan for the event.


The consummate hosts, Paul and Denise made sure everyone had something to drink from, in the form of a desert-tan canteen either pre-filled with a margarita or quickly charged from a nearby keg.  You had to be issued dog tags and a tee-shirt first though.  Their roof deck was hopping and the additional camo netting draped above it offered much needed concealment from the hordes of news helicopters that swarmed the sky to get a glimpse of an all-star cast of many of my best friends from USC who arrived from far and near to welcome me back.  

A college nickname that seems to have staying power . . .  it has also been my email address of  15+ years.

Of course, I regaled them all with a dramatic recital of one of my many poems penned during some of the darkest hours of the insurgency and entitled "Oh Yee Wicked and Vile Computer Printer: This Evil Jam Shall not Dissuade Me!"  As you can only imagine, I had to ask some parents among the guests to retreat to a safe distance with their offspring  lest the retelling of this horror mar the children.

The California Beta Chapter members of Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity in attendance.  It was absolutely terrific to see these guys - they don't make fraternities any better than Sig Ep.

A lot of people have asked me if I have changed as a result of my experience in Iraq.  Some seemed concerned that somehow Iraq had stolen something from me and others merely curious.  Just by virtue of the question, I had to pause when I was first asked and try to discern if the question was a function of a change they had noticed in me or not.  I mean, surely, as you can tell from these photos, I came back as a steely-eyed warrior . . . . or maybe I was thinking blood-shot-eyed warrior.  In any case, I don't think I have changed.  Improved, absolutely, but I'm pretty confident that I have not changed.  Much of my outlook during the deployment was readily fueled by the wealth of emails, cards and packages, large and small, I received from friends, family and yes, even strangers (but now certainly in the category of "friends" - thanks U. of Pittsburgh Nursing School Association - do you all have an end of school dance or something you need me to be your date for . . . ?).

I must have dozens of photos almost identical to this spanning the last 15 years since I became friends with Jason and Gary.


The grenade balloons and photo cutout were literally the icing on the cake of an incredible party.


A familiar face and founding member of the O-3 Dinner Club, Jeremy was with me at Camp Victory and made it down from Ventura to join the festivities.


The real treat was seeing Rich and Alexis Fiore, whose family size doubled just five months ago.  They both appeared to be extremely impressed with my plan to outsource to India the rearing of any children I have.


Some of the usual suspects from Trojan football games, I missed the banter of Holly, Janine and Kari from our season ticket outpost high in the "we didn't donate to the Athletic Department" seats at the Coliseum.

More faces from the past, Teri and Cody Burke were in part of the "Originally Met In DC" USC Delegation.


I'm not sure how many people can actually fit in the back of an H1 Humvee, but oddly enough and in sharp contrast to those in the desert, this Humvee had wood trim, leather seats and carpeting.  I must have been issued last year's model in Iraq . . . .


04 May 2008

All in the Family


The post-party party table.  My cousin Duke negotiated a table for us all well after our banquet time had expired at Maggianos.

Of all the people that worried about me while I was gone, my folks surely had standing to be at the top of the list but were the best troopers of them all.  I knew I was always safe (I mean, mostly safe . . . it's all relative) but my parents and family (and friends) would not.  Broadcast news, a regular programing choice for the large TV in the office, often reported the worst and frequently disregarded the best.  Somewhere in between, shrouded by the "fog of war" lies the truth.  So I actually think it was far more difficult to be here, in the U.S., than there, in Iraq.  My folks were very caring but amazingly stoic throughout, surely a credit to them both.

But right now, the larger credit was the party they threw for me and 39 members of the family.  A bevy of food and drink to be sure, but more importantly, a feast of family, all of whom I was incredibly happy to see and be with.


My two favorite nieces (of two).


The hosts and very relieved parents.  For those of you in the DC area who have already asked me about the next Hal and Betty Happy Hour . . . plan for early November.

The patriarch on my mom's side, my cousin Duke plays the guitar, flirts like a Marine (he use to be one) and will sell you a citrus orchard, all in under an hour and over three rounds of drinks. Joining us is the family priest, Fr. Blasko.


And on my Dad's side of the family, my great Aunt Jenny, fondly mentioned in my Thanksgiving post back in November.  She threatened to hurt me if I got hurt in Iraq.  Apparently it worked.  (You don't mess with Aunt Jenny).  I bet if you put her into a room with the Iraqi Council of Ministers, this war would be over in under a fortnight.  

30 April 2008

Kind of Weird . . .

Driving
On bases in Iraq, even on free and clear stretches of road, the speed limit was never more than about 35 mph and often as slow as 10 mph.  I didn't realize how profound an effect this was on my behavior until I was on the 405 freeway in LA heading to Port Hueneme (the "welcome-home-and-all-that-stuff, now-please-do-this-paperwork" part of my orders).  I was cruising, I mean REALLY, serious Bob Kurkjian SPEED DEMON extravaganza.  Just call me turbo.  "Wow!' I thought to myself, " this is some real speed I have going here . . . these cars passing me must be doing 100 miles per hour!"  "Who is that moron honking at?"  Me?  Yes.  As I looked down at the speedometer, in a land where going under 80 miles per hour on the freeway is legal justification for capital punishment, I saw the needle solidly placed on the midpoint between 50 and 60.  As if someone had placed a wedge in the middle of an angry, flooded stream, cars were darting and flowing around and past me in quick succession, to my amazement.

Money
Although I previously documented the painful process to procure cash in Iraq, truth is , I just liked to have some in my pocket - I really did not spend much.  I had not used an ATM in over six months and I wasn't even sure I remembered my PIN.  Remembering that I actually NEEDED money was a different challenge.  America is so strange about that . . . I have to pay for things like food?  WHAT!?  In Iraq, the postal supplies are free (boxes, tape, envelopes, etc.).  I was in the post office yesterday.  With two unconstructed boxes in hand, I was preparing to leave when another customer asked the postal clerk the price for a small box.  "Duh, I thought to myself, they are FREE . . . "  "Those are $2.29 each sir" the chipper clerk replied.  I sheepishly pretended as if my awkward footwork from the door to the counter line was entirely planned, but much like dancing at the Oak Middle School Sock-Hop when I was in sixth grade, I was not fooling anyone.  So, shoplifting charge averted, as well as my opportunity to blog from jail.  There is still New York . . . 

Choosing Clothes
In Iraq, the most significant attire choice I had to make was whether to wear the fondly called "Booney cover," a broad brimmed hat, or the "eight-point cover" which was more like a baseball cap.  That was it.  No dithering in front of the mirror juggling five ties, no black shoes or brown shoes, just desert camouflage.  Now, for the love of god, where did all these COLORS come from in my closet?

TV and Commercials
12 channels of Armed Forces Network have now become 150 channels of Comcast digital cable.  But I am hopelessly marooned without the AFN commercials/public service announcements I grew so sedated to Iraq.  I froze as I went to cross the busy intersection in front of my home.  I didn't recall seeing an AFN commercial on how to cross such a large street, and although I will surely look for the word "whole" in front of the word "grain" on my next bread purchase, that was of no help as I  struggled to navigate the complexity before me without any guidance.  Surely the Army has  regulations for street crossings but all I could remember was the commercial that covered crossing the street at NIGHT - certainly of no help to me at noon on a cloudless day.  I was distraught, but able to meekly hold-on to the walker operated by the senior citizen standing next to me, as she crossed.  Whew!


19 April 2008

Wheels Down

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have just crossed into American territorial airspace, welcome home," said the pilot of our chartered 767 airplane, to the applause and smiles of all onboard. Under two hours later we were at BWI airport. The journey began over 30 hours prior when we reported to the Navy Customs Battalion at Camp Arifjan. 
 There, our luggage was systematically taken apart and inspected, one item at a time, to the point of ridiculousness.  Now, I can't blame the Navy for this since they are doing a job the Army asked for help on but I can tell you now, of the 45+ countries I have visited, I have never been exposed to anywhere near this level of scrutiny.  Apparently at the beginning of the war, Army guys were returning home with everything from live grenades to pet scorpions, so now we all go through this three to four hour process.  Thanks Army!


Our ride home.

The last time I had a beer before noon must have been in college . . . 

Our plane made a three hour fuel stop at the sprawling Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany around 0800 on Saturday morning.  Displaying the type of enlightened leadership that Navy Chief Petty Officers are known for, Chief Morton (center, with cover on) commandeered a taxi and lead a highly successful expedition to the commissary for beer.  A light mist falling from the ashen gray skies by no means dampened our celebratory leanings, and Chief Morton went old school with a 40 of malt liquor, in the paper bag, for extra effect.  

But the best part of the entire trip was the huge and heartwarming gauntlet of well wishers, from Cub Scouts to USMC veterans, all part of Operation Welcome Home, on hand to greet us at the airport when we exited from baggage claim.  Cheering and waving American flags, this robust and noisy bunch, numbering well in excess of 75 folks, young and old and in-between, offered hand shakes, high-fives and a bag of snacks to all of us weary but exhilarated service members.


video


18 April 2008

The Blog Will Return!

Standby for more fun and excitement as I spend the last two weeks of my active duty time on staff for New York City's 23rd Annual Fleet Week (www.fleetweek.navy.mil) with friends LT Dwight Roberson and LT Nathan Soloman (see NMCB23 positng from back in September). Look out NYC, here come the Seabees. Lets get the Pope in and out of there fast lest lightening strike us all when we arrive.

17 April 2008

Ku-Wait a Minute . . .

No one carries weapons here at Camp Arifjan. And I was amazed to see much of the post in civilian attire after 1700 hours. The personal hygiene and beauty products section of the PX was actuallyLARGER than the tactical gear section (items like holsters, knives, ammo pouches, etc), which occupied a single lonely rotating display. There are regular passenger vehicles, like Nissan Sentras and Chevy Malibus. No armed guards at the PX and the DFAC . . . The DFAC looks like a regular restaurant and tables are not so close that you have to climb over other people to get to an open seat. And I am not seeing a single helicopter in the sky. Like Christopher Walken in the classic SNL "cow bell" sketch, "I just need more helicopters." All this made me think how boring would it have been to be stationed here.

The trip to Kuwait began on the military tarmac at Baghdad International Airport where it was a lovely 97 degrees before you too into consideration all the body armor you are required to wear on a C-130 flying in Iraq. When the plane arrived, we all dutifully, in single file, followed the guide out, safely around the plane's spinning props and to the aft ramp. And that is where, for unknown reasons, progress temporarily stopped. At this point, we all became human rotisseries. Between the heat and the even hotter exhaust gushing from the four props, you literally had to rotate yourself a few degrees every three seconds to avoid being burned while we vainly attempted to hold our breaths. So that will be my last C-130 ride for a while. We'll fly back to the states on a chartered jet.

The warrior transition program is well run, if not a little drawn out. Looks like I appear normal enough for them to let me come home. I should be back in the U.S. on Saturday.