Postcards from Tradocia

Category: MWME-2 (Page 1 of 3)

Space Rock

Two months back, and Kuwait already seems a million miles away and a lifetime ago. Like an elemental particle held against a repulsive force and suddenly released, I rocketed out of the deployment at incredible speed, hardly pausing after getting off the bus before jumping into post-war life. Mrs. Melobi put the house up for sale before I returned, and everything went according to plan after that: the place sold while I was demobilizing at Camp Shelby, I came home and we looked for houses, and within a month of my return we were living someplace new. This meant, of course, that it only took a month for virtually all of my mercenary spoils of war to evaporate in a puff of black ink and legal-sized paper, but those ill-gotten gains as my time as a fascist baby-killer were just numbers in the computer anyway. Better to trade digits in a spreadsheet for tangible goods, like an awesome giant house with a fucked-up roof.

Mrs. Melobi was amazed that, unlike the last time I returned from the war, I didn’t constantly babble about the people, places, and things there. Nor was I plagued with dreams of my comrades (not any sort of horror, mind you – just endless dreams of mundanity, a continual b-roll of the same damn people I’d spent 18 months with); it was almost like the whole thing never happened. Maybe that’s because so little actually did happen that in my memory, the repetitive bits are deleted and highlights (miserably few, those) compressed, so that the deployment is zipped into a little three-week excursion.

But it did happen, and it wasn’t three weeks. Just when I forget about it, I remember that there’s a year-long hole in my life; I catch myself saying things like, “last summer, I…,” before realizing that it was two summers ago, the intervening one having disappeared into the sandy horizons of Kuwait.

I struggled to contextualize the experience in the last months there, trying to find some larger meaning for an office job half a world away. Now that I’m home, I don’t feel that need so much – it just happened, and I can try to glean lessons about my career and think about individual events without fitting them into a larger whole. This also means that the deployment was evolutionary, not revolutionary; a continuation of a theme, rather than last time, which was a complete discontinuity. It was still a fitting end to a chapter – or a capstone event, if you will – since I’ll walk the path of a warrant officer soon, making this my last tour as an NCO.

And now it’s back to life in the human world, living and loving here as that sandy year fades into the distance, already a lifetime ago, with the glorious full-color world laid out in front of me, just waiting to be seen.


A Dream Within a Dream

Gazing into the sea

The soldiers from the North contemplate the sea

Pensive looks there, as we enjoyed the calming splash of water against the breakers and the warm breeze from the Persian Gulf, and talked about how close Iran was, just over the haze-cloaked horizon. It was a little escape from one prison camp to another, an all-day junket for work but also for sea-viewing and shawirma-eating.

We had to transport our measly three shelter trucks to the naval base for inventory, cleaning, and customs inspection, a task that should’ve felt like progress but really felt pointless, since two of the three trucks were never used. They came here on a boat, got shuffled around the camp from lot to lot, and will roll back onto a boat, never having been opened, except for inventory.

Civilians would be conducting the inventory, and they agreed to “start the day early,” saying they’d meet us at 0730. We arrived by 0700, and had enough time to make two runs to Dunkin Donuts, use the bathroom, and discuss everything wrong with our organization before the civilians arrived – at about 0845. “Starting early,” my ass.

The inventory went smoothly, although the civilians didn’t seem to know what most of the items were – several times, they’d read off an item (“AB-4289 antenna base? Got one of those?”), and I could’ve held up a ham sandwich and they would’ve checked it off the list.

After inventory, the vehicles had to be washed – can’t bring back any Kuwaiti sand, you see – so we had to drive them onto pairs of giant concrete wedges, angling them upwards to expose the undercarriage. Entering the wash rack, the ground guide pointed me to a set of ramps angled apart quite precariously; I was hesitant to approach but figured these guys do this every day so they must know what they’re doing. I gingerly nosed the truck up to the ramp and feathered the gas pedal, already formulating my statement for the accident investigation that I was sure to shortly follow. (Note that terms like “gingerly” and “feathered” are relative terms when driving a 15,000 pound truck that’s straining to climb a 20-degree slope, all while you’re trying to obey the precise directions given by the ground guide who’s almost completely obscured by the hood.) Somehow I didn’t steer the thing off the ramp, though, and managed to bail out of the vehicle and leave the thing in someone else’s hands. I swear the front passenger tire was halfway off the ramp (on the inside)…

Afterwards we enjoyed chicken shawirmas (kind of a gyro-like concoction, with chicken shaved from a rotating spit, then mixed with herbs & vegetables and wrapped in a tortilla or flatbread-like thing) and a trip to the pier, where the sea breeze washed over us and we furtively snapped pictures (trying to avoid the harbor facilities, lest the Coast Guard boat nearby train its .50-cal machinegun on us). Then it was back to the sandy waste of our own camp; it was the last time most of us would leave the place, until the end.

Speaking of the end, it’s almost at hand – our bags are packed, final packages sent, goods sold to the new guys or thrown away (we sold our 32″ LCD TV for what we paid, and got rid of chairs & rugs). I’m living out of one duffel bag until I return home, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, but it sure will be nice to return to the human world, what with the real furniture and indoor plumbing and non-brown environment and all that.

The Days of Waiting

All packed up and no place to go

All packed up and no place to go

The brigade commander said this morning, after hearing that our equipment turn-in was 98% complete, brigade-wide: “Let’s get us some flights and get us the hell out of here. What are we waiting for?” He was being facetious, of course – our timetable is on a fixed track and an organization our size is about as nimble as a fully loaded locomotive – but the sentiment was accurate. What are  we waiting for?

My time remaining here is measured in days rather than weeks, yet my impeding departure hardly seems real. Unlike last time, there’s no feeling of transition, since my job was office-based and our mission ended with a fade to black instead of a triumphant finale. Indeed, we’re not even being directly replaced; we’re literally just turning off the lights and leaving, with no successors to inherit our equipment and hard-won FOBbit wisdom. It’s an endcap of anticlimax to the ultimate anticlimax deployment, a giant squib round of a tour during which nothing seemed to happen.

That’s pure cynicism, of course – obviously we did things and stuff happened, but up here in the rarefied air of the brigade HQ, it’s all very abstract and distant. Particularly for me, acting as I do as support for staff who mostly make work for subordinates, it feels like I hardly deployed at all. Too bad I couldn’t telecommute to this thing! I’m about six degrees of separation from anybody who actually had direct activity in the war (known as “warfighters,” in the parlance of contractors and field-grades), making my job several echelons beyond mere terms like “REMF” or “FOBbit,” thus probably necessitating new terminology.

I’m groping for words here, trying to contextualize this experience. I don’t feel like my time was wasted, somehow, but I don’t know why, because on an individual level, it almost certainly was. Maybe it’s because I can see myself and my actions as part of a much larger whole, and place myself as a tiny part of the proverbial Green Machine that is the Army. I struggled with much the same rationalization during my Iraq tour, but looking back, that time seems so much more meaningful and important now than it once did.

In any case, it won’t be long before this trip is at an end, and I’ll return to the human world once more…

Ruined Planet

Life in the desertIn the dead heat of summer here, I didn’t think anything could survive – after months of scorching heat, how could a few paltry nights of rain be enough to revitalize anything?

And yet, here we have a little patch of life in the desert, maybe twenty yards long, right along Patton Avenue (the camp’s main drag), a riot of color in our otherwise brown world. A few small butterflies even flitted to and fro in the stiff north wind (I’m no bug guy – they looked kind of like the “Painted Lady“), and a pair of Crested Larks chirped and scuttled across the sand nearby.

Few will notice this little garden, since I’m sure it’ll be gone soon, and most traffic on the road is vehicular anyway. Still, it was heartening to see some life on Brown Planet; a mere preview of what awaits in the spring of home, three months and five thousand miles away.

My Friend of Misery

Wherever you go, there you are

Wherever you go, there you are

After an all-too-brief respite, I’ve returned to the Demon World for the final leg of my Mideast adventure. Six months of living in Kuwait, though, means that home feels temporary and unusual, while the brown universe of the desert feels normal. It’s both a sad and an impressive testament to human versatility, I guess.

The journey home was uneventful, if brutally long – 36 hours spent at the LSA, then the bus ride to the airport, then three long flights (including a punishing 10-hour Atlantic crossing, flying into a 100-mph headwind). I spent so long at the LSA because R&R flights aren’t exactly precisely scheduled, which irked me at first, until I realized that soldiers & civilians from all over CENTCOM were departing through Kuwait, which can make scheduling difficult. Not everyone is within commuting distance of the point of departure like I am.

Most of the soldiers on the flight were coming from Afghanistan, by probably a five to one ratio; this was made obvious by their Multicam uniforms, as opposed to my now-passé ACUs. This distinction marked me as not of their ilk, and this made me uncomfortable among them, as if they were judging me for my cushy rear-echelon deployment. In a way, I felt like part of a different Army than them, since the two theaters of war are so different. I talked with a PFC from the 172nd Infantry Brigade who described living on a mountaintop with his platoon of artillerymen and two platoons of infantrymen, their fights among each other, and of two days in October when they fired over 300 rounds through their two 105mm howitzers, while being rocketed all day and night. Needless to say, I didn’t talk much about my experiences troubleshooting computers or configuring printers.

Just a small sample

Just a small sample

Once home, it was as expected: enjoyable but not truly relaxing; an incredible amount of fun but all hurried as if it might not happen again. We managed to get in our fifth-annual “MANCATION” – the trip to JoKur’s cabin for a weekend of boozing and loud yelling and game-playing. Mrs. Melobi was able to attend under the Special Wartime Wife Exclusion Clause; as such, we were unable to engage in the usual secret rituals and whatnot. Since most of the attendees are regular visitors to Casa del Delobius, though, her presence didn’t much change the character of the event. She’s used to ignoring us in our most drunkenly obnoxious moments. The alcoholic highlight for me was the Yamazaki 12-year (pictured at right), a Japanese single-malt whisky. My palate isn’t sufficiently refined to describe its taste, but I’m assured by the internet that it has strong notes of shoe leather, saddle soap, honey, and anise, with just a hint of aged gnome testicles and unicorn scat.

Seriously, though, it’s great – who knew there was such a thing as Japanese single-malt?

On the return trip I had to spend two nights in Atlanta, since a mechanical problem on a previous day’s flight had caused the whole R&R process to come to a crashing halt, resulting in days of delays. They put us up in a pretty nice hotel next to the airport, with free food at the hotel restaurant, with a mild admonition that General Order 1B was in full effect (read: no drinking); this was naturally greeted with rolling eyes and mumbled “yeah right”s. My roommate for the weekend – an air medic from St. Paul, deployed to Afghanistan – really wanted to see the World of Coca-Cola in downtown ATL, which sounded fine except all I had to wear was my Army costume. We scouted a Foot Locker near downtown and took the train, with me in uniform, which was socially uncomfortable but was made better by the fact that everyone in Atlanta looks fucking weird, so I didn’t stick out nearly as much as I would have in, say, Minneapolis.

After visiting Foot Locker I made a partial transformation by ditching my uniform top for a sweatshirt (converting to the homeless look, which enabled me to blend in quite well), and completed the change in the bathroom at the World of Coca-Cola. It was fine, I guess; free for us military types, and all the weird soda flavors from around the world that you could handle. (Inca Cola – enjoy the taste of a lost civilization!) But Atlanta – I visited the place on my last deployment, and I forgot how much I hate the place. It’s dingy, and full of bums, and doesn’t seem like a place that anyone should visit. One might say the same things about my home town, given a visit to the right spots, but still – I don’t plan to pass through again, unless I must.

After that adventure, I boarded the time machine, and a couple of days later I was back in Kuwait, disoriented and ready to pack it in by my twelfth hour back, what with the war finished and the whole theater seemingly at a loss for what to do next. But here I stay, for another three months or so; then it’s home again, hopefully for a good long while this time.



Finished Symphony

The war in Iraq is officially over, with our last convoys crossing the border yesterday morning. One of our brigade’s convoys was the second-to-last out of Iraq; the honor of the final convoy naturally fell to the active duty troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, who as America’s First Team needed to be last out.

It was a jovial atmosphere in the TOC today for the morning SCUB, and we proceeded according to our usual routine of the last five months. The intel guy started the brief with the weather, as he has every day, saying, “The weather in Iraq for today…” The colonel cut him off abruptly with, “Wait. Do we give a fuck about the weather in Iraq anymore?” Everyone laughed, and he answered his own question with “no,” and the intel guy carried on without missing a beat. For my part, I stated that I’d no longer be briefing the cryptic pile of numbers known as the “convoy equipment status”…unless, of course, the colonel wanted to see it. He said no thanks, and away we went. Finally, the colonel said that now that the war was over, we’d have to refocus on our new priorities. After a pause, he then said, “So I guess I’ll figure that out in a couple of days and let you know.” Cue staff laughter.

His statement was a joke, but it rang true for me. With the closing of the gate at “K-Crossing,” my motivation to work deflated with amazing rapidity. As long as there was a war on, I could continue my menial office tasks as long as I thought that somewhere there was a soldier at the pointy end of the brigade who might be positively affected by the staff I was supporting. But with that motivation gone (the so-called “people-will-die” excuse, as in, “people will die if I can’t print this PowerPoint slide on both sides of the page!”), I looked around at my brown universe and thought, “now what?” Today I felt an incredible urge to just leave, buy a plane ticket home (only $1200!), borrow a car and leave it at Kuwait International. Good war everyone, let’s pack it up!


In all of the media coverage about the end of the war, what has bothered me the most is the constant focus on the dead. How many American military personnel were killed, how many Iraqis were killed, look at these grieving widows (but only the good-looking ones, as rather shamelessly featured on CNN’s “Heroes” program)… I’m not trying to denigrate the soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors who paid the ultimate price in the Iraq war, or the suffering of their families; rather, it’s the constant harping, the almost voyeuristic exploitation, the hammering of the point that the only thing that happened for the last eight years was death. There was even an article in the Washington Post chronicling the final US death in Iraq, which had to throw in the execrable John Kerry quote about the Vietnam War: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Even at the last, people are trying to turn Iraq into Vietnam, since all attempts thus far have failed.

All of this coverage makes it hard to remember that, functionally speaking, we won the war in Iraq. So why doesn’t it look like victory? What of the bravery, dedication, and success of the American (and few allies’) military in the face of a brutal and cunning insurgency? Instead, the media and commentators are busy shaping the cultural narrative, painting the war as an expensive failure, a Vietnam redux fought by poor kids duped into joining the military and leaving a trail of weeping families in their wake, ripe for exploitation by “sensitive” and “hard-hitting” journalists.

The whole thing makes me vaguely sick. Why fight for a nation that sees you as nothing but a pathetic victim, a sad charity case like a kid with cancer or a lost puppy? We don’t want sympathy, and we don’t want tears – we want appreciation, and pride, and respect. Not just pride in serving, but pride in victory, in defeating the enemy, in doing the job that the nation asks of us: to fight and win the nation’s wars.

Living with Determination

El Shrimpo off the starboard bow

El Shrimpo off the starboard bow

The Taste of Adventure has arrived at the camp, piloted by Colonel Sanders’ younger seagoing brother, Captain Sanders.

If only it were so – I’ve been in this brown place for five brown months and it’s starting to wear me brown down. The colorless unanimity of the place is in perfect harmony with the dull routine of our jobs here, such that everything – my clothing, food, entertainment, job duties, conversations, sleep schedule – is smeared into one huge tan existence. Yet the routine is comforting, and somehow helps the time pass more quickly. Routine turns everything into a milestone, such that the remaining time here can be measured in trips to the gym, miles run around the perimeter, Mongolian BBQ nights, or any other behavioral metric.

Last night we played Guitar Hero in the tent on the nice 50″ plasma TV our guys rescued from Iraq, which is by far the best thing out of the mountain of scavenged crap that our Hoarding Warrant found. My eyes glazed over after the second container full of stuff came back from the war zone, and I became convinced that he had lost his mind or gone rogue or something and there’d be some kind of Colonel Kurtz moment with him ensconced in a desert hideout, surrounded by a pile of old routers and air compressors.

Anyway, playing Guitar Hero reinforced the fact that I’m an insufferable snob when it comes to music games, in that I only want to play Rock Band and can’t stand Guitar Hero. It’s the aesthetics of the whole thing; I could go into detail but everyone laughs at me when I describe it so I’ll leave it at that. It was still fun to jam on the plastic instruments, though the drums were sorely missed, as was the booze. Playing also made me realize that I have a strong emotional attachment to the various Rock Band games, having played countless hours of the game with many friends, in many locations. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Rock Band changed my life, however absurd that might sound, and it’s a topic that bears full exploration at another time.

Meanwhile, a war is still going on, and as such some of our future replacements came to visit us this week. It was called a “pre-deployment site survey” or PDSS, which is a fancy term for a five-day binge of PowerPoint, shaking of hands, and driving around Kuwait. One of the officers that came with the PDSS was a trainer, responsible for planning the mobilization training for our replacements, and he was eager to ask me questions about our SharePoint site. No problem – I love playing show-and-tell so he sat down and I asked him what he wanted to know. Ninety minutes later, I had basically broken down our whole operation and given him a copy of all of our SOPs, forms, documents, you name it. Luckily I pay attention when I’m performing the monkey’s job of advancing slides in staff meetings, since for all he knew I could’ve been some Asperger’s-afflicted computer guy who didn’t know shit about anything. I kept trying to point him at the actual subject matter experts for each thing – why are you asking me when I don’t do that job? – but he just plowed onward, evidently deciding that I was indeed the “main effort.” True enough, I guess – Walter doesn’t call our shop the “S-Delobius” for nothing.

Long Way Back from Hell

Here we are, in the final month of the Iraq war, and as I expected, it doesn’t feel any different this far in the rear. As a computer guy at a headquarters, I’m about as far from the war effort as one can get: I’m supporting the people who are organizing the people who are in charge of the people who are actually doing the work.

It is, by all accounts, an incredibly well-ordered withdrawal; mundane, even, despite the vast scale. Meanwhile, Pakistan is cutting off our land resupply into Afghanistan, and Russia is threatening to choke off the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which could precipitate a serious logistical crisis for NATO. The retrograde from Iraq is just a continual reminder to me that we should’ve left Afghanistan years ago, as it’s a strategic, logistical, and economic dead end. I’ve written about this before (as have others), and my point still stands.


Micro-humans?!Yesterday night while walking to the latrine trailer for my nightly oral hygiene ritual, I witnessed a pair of soldiers embracing outside one of the female barracks buildings. Maybe they were a couple; General Order 1B doesn’t prohibit hugging or having relationships, just no serious hanky-panky. But then they kissed, making me d0 a double-take, looking much like Dolza (pictured at left) when he saw Rick Hunter kiss Lisa Hayes. I guess I’ve been away from the World for too long when something like that surprises me.

Speaking of, there’s a civilian worker at the help desk whose name is Lisa Hayes, which is funny to me, since I sometimes picture her working on my trouble ticket on the bridge of the SDF-1.


The brutal Kuwaiti winter is fully upon us; it snuck up on us, without warning, and now it’s a bitter 40 degrees in the morning, sending everyone to their duffel bags, digging for long-forgotten fleece jackets, hats, and gloves. Most of us hardy Minnesotans (intoned with the proper accent, doncha know) scoff at such accoutrements of true winter, but the continual wind here does warrant some additional clothing. Still, I’m pretty sure no one needs to equip Layer 7 of the ECWCS, despite the fact that I saw a soldier wearing the parka one morning. I wanted to ask him if he was on his way to Antarctica, but thought better of it.


Staff sergeant, noooooo!

Staff sergeant, noooooo!

As you can see, death awaits us at every turn here.

(This poster is likely prompted by the recent death of a 10th Mountain Division soldier from rabies.)

Last Saturday there was a widespread power outage in our part of the camp. This didn’t bother me much, since Saturday is my day off, and the weather was pleasant, so we propped the bay doors open and I sat and read and enjoyed a nice Burger King lunch over on the other side of camp. Unfortunately, the power went out at the TOC too, basically cutting the head off our entire operation here.

Eight years into the Iraq war, in a pretty established place like the rear of the rear of Kuwait, one wouldn’t think that a combat brigade headquarters could get blacked out for hours at a time, but indeed it can. This of course prompted a flurry of activity, mostly led by the S6 team – “set up the JNN!” “get the backup generator running!” “throw up the tent!” Since the weather was nice – and it’s not like it was going to rain – I suggested that they just run an open-air TOC. Set up some folding chairs and tables, plop down in the parking lot, and there you have it!

Nobody much liked my idea.

Another outage was planned for Sunday, though it was affecting some other part of the camp; naturally, everyone’s skittish about the prospect of losing power again, so the preceding week was marked by a series of debates about how best to prepare. A few of us (myself included) defended the “do nothing” position pretty strongly, mainly because a) we have a viable backup plan (drive across post to another building and operate there until power comes back on) and b) it wasn’t going to affect us anyway (per the plan). But in the face of last week’s confusion, we had to be seen as doing something – something always being better than nothing, you see – so off we went, running extension cords and positioning generators and calculating amperages.

Ultimately, nothing happened, as predicted. This stuff almost writes itself!

It’s the latest example of our reactive decision-making, where when something bad happens, we have to fix it right now, even if waiting and coming up with a better plan (or indeed, doing nothing) would be more effective.

It’s Getting Boring by the Sea

Fire retardant paint

Fire retardant paint

A power outage this morning gave me an hour of blissful silence – the first time in nearly four months that I haven’t been bombarded with some kind of continuous droning sound. Generators, air conditioners, fans, vehicle engines – this place is awash in white noise and it drives me insane. Even outdoors, there is no place that is truly quiet; if nothing else, the diesel-powered light sets every fifty yards make sure of that.


Inside the bay, the fire inspectors decided that our eight foot plywood walls looked too flammable. Luckily, that could be cured with a liberal application of magical Kuwaiti fireproof paint (pictured at right)! OK, so it’s regular indoor latex paint, but apparently the idea is that the paint will “soak” into the wood, rendering it less prone to bursting into flames when we burn furniture & old uniforms for warmth during the approaching brutal Kuwaiti winter. (The winter might be brutal yet, if only by our own doing – I’m wearing pants and a sweatshirt as I write this, thanks to the pair of monstrous air conditioners that are still running full tilt.) I guess I’m not a highly-trained Army fire marshal, so maybe the idea has some merit, but it sure seems like some pointless busywork to me.


Last week at dinner a few of us noticed that one of the regular tables near the salad bar had been replaced by a table only half as long, leaving a big gap. Upon discussing the issue, it was revealed that our sergeant major (technically “Command Sergeant Major,” or CSM) was angry about the salad bar running out of certain items, so he stormed off and demanded that the DFAC staff keep a cart of extra stuff on hot standby in that spot, making a sort of vegetable-QRF. We proposed that it be named the “CSM’s Memorial Salad Cart” and that the floor be taped off to mark the area. The half-table also sparked jokes that the CSM had hulked out and broken the table over his knee, which actually seemed more plausible than the salad cart idea. I guess if you’re high enough rank, you can make anything happen, though I’m not sure that deploying lettuce carts would be a priority for the use of my powers if I was an E-9.

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