iraqistan

11/7/2009

Basic Communication

Filed under: — lana @ 2:38 pm

Thursday was yet another day in this humdrum life I call the Army. That is to say, it was full of mishaps and misadventures that usually end up with me being at least an hour away from anywhere practical and moderately annoyed. Most of this, as usual, happens because someone doesn’t feel like listening. Usually, that is because listening might involve work, and there are definitely some work-adverse people in my daily life.

I began my day with the Semi-Tri-Annual Local Area German Random People Somewhat Affiliated to Us Meeting. While that may appear to be a long title, and is indeed one that we made up, it is shorter and more pronouncable than whatever it is actually called. It happens approximately once every year and a half, so that is the best we could come up with. Also, the German who works at my office could not seem to really identify who would be there aside from the one guy who passed us the invitation, so I had to wager a guess. I did not wager much. I asked my warrant to assist, particularly since preparation work needed to be done, and to attend with me. He decided that it would be better if I went alone, leaving him to attend a huge ceremony on our base that would leave him alone for the better part of the day. I chided myself for asking him to actually work and instead concentrated on preparing for the meeting.

At the meeting, I was to present something. I also had to wager a guess at this, since the instructions were not terribly specific. I opted to name some of the threats to U.S. Forces in Germany and what we do to counter those threats. I figured that such a briefing must exist somewhere already in the vast system we call our analytical section.

I figured wrong, forgetting the work-adverse nature of certain elements. They sent me a few items, mostly newspaper articles. I ended up making up the presentation, picking hot topics like “Terrorism,” phrasing them like they were new and exciting, and stressing how the Germans have to do all of the work anyway for any investigation off-post, but we are certainly there for moral support. Go, Team! Oddly, they seemed to react well to the whole thing, with the head of the meeting expounding upon some of the examples I provided. Very heartwarming. My warrant, when he saw me working on the briefing and regularly harassing analysts and everyone else I knew in the country for an official briefing, told me that he must had misunderstood the nature of the meeting and didn’t know it would be so much work for me. He was very proud of me for having done it, however.

Now, I had to leave the Semi-Tri Annual Local Area German Random People Somewhat Affiliated to Us Meeting early on account of the fact that no one could give me a straight answer if there existed an implied task for me to head to the area of the Company headquarters and watch the Sergeant Major of the Army give a speech and try to score myself a coin. A warrant officer told me that it was not required, but I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling. Since at present I was the highest-ranking enlisted person in the Company actually working, I changed into my uniform and headed to the theater.

At the theater I ran into every enlisted person from the tenent infantry unit waiting in the lobby. I promptly walked back out of the theater and went back to the headquarters. Mission failure. I decided to wait around, because my warrant officer had told me in no uncertain terms that a piece of equipment for our computer network would arrive at the Company and I had to pick it up and return. His persistence had even caused me to set up for the local tech guys to come bright and early the next working day for the installation.

And so I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Luckily, there was a suspicious package scare with some powdery substance occuring back at my home station, so I filled my time writing reports that my warrant had not done because he misunderstood another warrant who told him that it was unnecessary. The other warrant had actually told him that until my warrant had more information it was unnecessary, but that was not how it was heard as that would have meant my warrant would have had to get the information and then actually write it. My warrant called me from the office several times to give me all of the information, but assured me the reports weren’t required. Skeptical, I called the other warrant and discovered the miscommunication. By then, naturally, my warrant had been told to clear out of the office by the emergency personnel and was not about to go to the other locations where they had access to the reporting system two blocks away. But I didn’t really mind, seeing as it filled my time waiting for our communications guys to deliver the equipment. His reaction to my having to write the reports? “Oops. Thought it sounded odd that we wouldn’t report that. Huh. Well, thanks!”

Still I waited. Three hours later, the communications guys finally showed up. I asked them for our equipment. They gave me a blank look instead. Several phone calls later, it turns out that when my warrant had heard “The equipment will be hand-delivered tomorrow because these guys have to go down to your company anyway, so send your NCO to spend her afternoon picking it up,” what our communications shop had actually said was “Your request for that equipment has finally been sent up to Brigade and may take a little while longer yet for approval. Don’t expect it anytime soon, much less tomorrow.”

I tried to grab a computer or something just so I didn’t go back empty-handed, but my commander caught me. The computers, one of which actually belongs to our office to replace my ancient machine, were still not network-ready anyway.

My warrant’s reaction to this one? “Hmm… I must have misunderstood. Oops! So, when you coming back? Yeah, sorry about it being well after the duty day already and all with you still being way near the eastern border, but I’m on my way home for the night. Anything else you need?”

I asked him go fetch me a sandwich to leave on my desk. I figured since my whole day was largely his fault, I may as well get something out of the guy for the day.

Lo and behold, he screwed up my order. Says it was some sort of miscommunication. The sandwich was still good, but I have decided that from now on I am only communicating with him in writing and recommending that others do the same. Simple words, large print, on sticky notes left on his computer screen. I have around six months left here, so I need something to be done right once in awhile before I lose my mind.

I am not, as it turns out, going to ask him to do the supply request for this new method of communication; I do not even want to see what would happen should I ask him to order pads of sticky notes.

11/2/2009

Lost

Filed under: — lana @ 3:58 pm

Sometime this afternoon I received a disconcerting telephone call from my Operations Officer. It went something along the lines of:

Him: So… can you send me a map?
Me: Sure. I got maps. If not, I can make them up and pretend. What maps?
Him: One of your Garrison area of operations, if you have one.
Me: Coincidentally, I have that, having asked our Garrison for one since no one else in the Army seems to know what the areas are. Need your area, too? The guy at my Garrison sent me all of them.
Him: You have that? That would be great. Saves me some time, because I have to draw in all of the boundaries the Garrisons have as well as all of the boundaries our Battalion says we have. Oh, could you send me what you think your boundaries are, too?
Me: Sure.
*pause for effect and confusion caused by flash of logic*
Me: Um… wait… shouldn’t someone have this already? Like, the people that draw the boundaries between our areas? Like, the people at Battalion that tell us where we should be working, since they told us to work there?
Him: You would think so, wouldn’t you… Funny thing about that…

It appears, somewhat not surprisingly, that my Battalion has absolutely no idea what areas we are actually covering, what any office is actually responsible for, nor what logically we should be doing in order to support the unit’s (somewhat theoretical) mission statement of supporting Garrison Commands. This actually makes sense when one comprehends that sometime last year my office was told that we were responsible for a district completely outside of our Garrison boundaries and were, in fact, no longer responsible for our own surrounding community.

However, I do not encourage one to attempt to comprehend such things. We still have to re-explain it to our Operations Officer every now and then, like we did today. He is so cute: he still tries to think that there was a logical decision behind all of it. He has only been at our unit a few months… he still has to accept how some things operate out here.

See, it seems that while I was temporarily on some assignment somewhere last year someone decided to redraw the boundaries. They did so, it now appears, without actually looking at a map, which we pointed out but were dutifully told to shut up and get to work. As a result, today we had to convince people that our physical Garrison is actually located an entire district north from where they apparently thought it was. I ended up having to draw a picture (the original map I sent apparently ended up being too confusing despite the pretty colors and the fact that it came from Europe’s Garrison Headquarters) which my warrant officer turned into a very pretty PowerPoint so our Operations Officer could forward it to our Battalion. I was so proud; I knew he went to warrant school for something…

Now we, as it turns out, have been muttering about these odd boundaries for a long time, as I may have alluded to previously. It turns out that no one was taking us seriously not because they are just used to tuning out muttering, but because they legitimately thought we were located in a completely different place than we actually are. Even our Operations Officer argued with us about the district our Garrison is physically located in, having run on the assumption that to have us in any other district would be the stupidest thing he had ever heard.

Turns out, it was at only the stupidest thing he heard before I also mentioned that his office, two hours away, is actually responsible for the town in which my cat spends her days waiting for me to come home after work. I made the request that he feed the cat whenever he popped by. He was not amused.

So to break it down: an entire battalion and operational section seem to have lost our office. That, and it appears they may have a little trouble with basic map reading since the district lines are quite clear on area maps. Some re-training might be in order. Even my mother, who has a map aversion recalled from car trips long past, can look at a map and tell me that Hawaii is not actually a part of Kansas. She can also tell that Trenton is not in Pennsylvania because the big, fat, New Jersey state line gets in the way when one is crossing through Camden towards Philadelphia. This makes my mother, the same woman who slept resolutely through 10 hours in the car with two screaming children and a husband perpetually singing show tunes just so she could avoid being called upon to communicate directions from our massive and intimidating road atlas, more qualified to determine operational boundaries than the people who are theoretically qualified to periodically take large groups of Soldiers into the woods and demonstrate for them how to find their way back using a stick, a shadow, and a string with some beads on it. That should disturb people. A lot.

There were times when I would find it nice that no one knew where we were: it implied that no one could just pop in for a visit. But it would be nice to have a job for my last few months in this unit, to perhaps get a little bit of support for a mission we know exists but can’t quite get to, and maybe every once in a great while have someone in our own parent unit identify our district correctly on a map at least perhaps three times out of ten so I could be confident that should they find their way out for a visit, I don’t have to worry about them starving on the Autobahn somewhere near the Swiss border because they thought they were somewhere completely different when driving back. Is that really so much to ask?

Nevermind. I should just go ahead and warn the Swiss now and save myself the trouble.

10/27/2009

Playing in the Yard

Filed under: — lana @ 3:57 pm

Sometimes, when a parent is getting annoyed that their children are pestering them for something to do or a little bit of attention, they give vague instructions. Usually, in decent weather and reasonable neighborhoods, those instructions are something along the lines of, “Go play in the yard.”

Mother Army is no exception to this. For roughly my first two years at my current unit I spent an inordinate amount of time pestering people in order to find something to do with myself. I usually asked questions that annoyed Mother Army, such as, “Um… so if you want me to do this, doesn’t that impact our supposed mission negatively?” and occasionally, “So you still want me to do it… which implies the question of what is our mission again?” or perhaps, “Isn’t this a little out of our scope and covered already by someone else?” along with frequent mutterings of, “This makes no sense at all, but okay…”

Last winter, Mother got annoyed and sent us out to play with vague instructions of where to go. We found some toys and offered to share and wandered out to do whatever it is we could do with such vague instructions. I questioned the logic (or apparent lack thereof) but was told to go anyway, so go I did.

Trouble is, it was not our yard. It was a neighbor’s, because we were not allowed to play in our own on account of another neighborhood kid already playing in our yard with no good reason for it. When this was pointed out, I was told to carry on and just work around it. I worked around it until it could not be worked around anymore, and then tried to mention it and was dutifully ignored. The trouble with the Army is that when someone tells you to get on a plane (or in a car) and go, you go. I went, and apparently was skipping rope on the neighbor’s sidewalk. I explained to them that Mother Army had sent me out to play and that no, I had no real reason for being there other than that, so would they mind if I stayed for a little bit until Mom would let me back in?

I ended up developing a pretty reasonable mutual respect with them in a short amount of time through sharing of toys and swapping of stories, and in the meantime knocked loudly on Mother Army’s door and mentioned that there was a slight problem outside because I am on someone else’s yard but it seems I couldn’t play in mine for some illogical reason that was not explained in adequate detail during the past nine months of me asking.

I knocked pretty loudly a few weeks back, ruffling some feathers in the meantime as I am wont to do when I get restless and things in the Army get more illogical than usual, and then this evening the door to my house reluctantly cracked open out of necessity to at least let me inside, if not let me play in my own yard. The reason I got back inside: I was told to pack up my toys and go by the neighbor, who finally kicked me off of their lawn. No real trouble on my part, since I had told the neighbor that I was only there because I was told to be and would leave just as soon as I could anyway if we could just convince someone to let me play in my own yard. The annoyance is that they kicked me out before we had worked out some of the logical steps within my own unit that would allow us to function as we should have been functioning for the past three and a half years. The same steps I have been asking about taking for the past three years. The same complaints I have had for nine months when I was kicked into the neighbor’s yard. The questions being asked now are only new to the people who had told me to be quiet before; I have been keeping a running list in my drawer, along with some of the solutions that no one has been interested in until this week. I just have to word those solutions now, no doubt, into a way that they can turn it into a nice evaluation report bullet for the highest ranking in the bunch. Chivalry is in fact dead, folks: it was murdered and taken over by politics long ago.

Nevertheless, until things get sorted it appears to be a rainy day as we are now not allowed in our own yard nor the neighbor’s. Good thing my warrant keeps a stock of toys up in the office or it could be a very dull month or so. Game of Scrabble, anyone?

10/20/2009

Warnings

Filed under: — lana @ 2:46 pm

The cat should have been my first clue.

I wake up in the morning and notice it is a little cooler than usual in the apartment, but think nothing of it because it is Germany in October and therefore already colder than normal humans should have to tolerate this time of year. It is also a little before 0400 and I have to leave to go to the range in half an hour, so I hop in the shower. Upon getting out of the shower, I notice that when I crack the door the cat does not try to bustle in and roll around on the bath rug, which is odd.

Just to clarify, the odd part is not the rolling around on the bath rug, because she does that every day. Well, it might be odd, but so is the cat. It was simply odd that she was not there.

I wander out of the bathroom to don my uniform and, upon turning on the main light, notice that the main door to the apartment is cracked to the width of one smallish cat-sized object. The downstairs door, leading outside, hasn’t properly closed in weeks and I can’t remember enough German whenever I see my landlord to get it fixed.

The cat had chosen today, the day I had to meet my Soldiers bright and early for a long day at the range an hour and a half away, to finally figure out the right way to jump up and open the door. She has been working on this awhile. Today, she finally won. This should have been my cue to just go back to bed.

I find the cat a bit later, her having returned of her own accord while I was out by the street looking for her. She undoubtedly didn’t get far anyway, being smart enough to realize that living things can’t survive long in this environment. I was wearing five layers by then. She had some fur. She was displeased, and appeared to blame it all on me. I opted to go to the range instead of appeasing her. I picked up my Soldiers and we headed out, possibly while she emplaced her hex upon my day.

At first, all went well. My Warrant was late, as usual, but we still made it out to the arms room on time to get our weapons. I usually tell everyone a half an hour early to allocate for the fact that he will be between 10 and 20 minutes late for most events, particularly since he maintains that he only gets up before 0600 once a quarter, and that he fulfilled his quota already for this quarter. I think he is right; I dragged him out for some other random tasking earlier in the month. Regardless, we get to the arms room, draw our weapons, and I find our acting first sergeant.

The warnings started right back in. One of the Soldiers on the ammunition detail, who had to pick up ammunition an hour and a half away in another direction and then return with it, had hit some traffic on her way. But she made it there, so we headed out to the range. By then it had warmed up to a balmy 28 degrees or so, which was nice. We set up the range and waited to hear about the ammunition.

And we heard about the ammunition. That, in fact, became the morning saga. As the Soldiers waited around with no heated areas to speak of and we pretty much did the same only where the Soldiers couldn’t hear us making fun of them, we all watched the ammo drama unfold before our eyes. First, the Soldiers drawing the ammo were asked a question about their date to leave Germany. One, who is supposed to leave soon, did not know how to respond and so did not respond until she called her sergeant. Her sergeant told her what any self-respecting non-commissioned officer would do when he needed that Soldier to draw ammunition three weeks before her departure date: he told her to tell them her date was in 2010. Obvious to us, but not so to them, so by the time they passed along the information at the ammunition supply point several other vehicles had gotten in front of them. So the wait began.

0800 passed. No phone call. 0900 passed, which was the time we were supposed to start firing. No phone call. At 1000 or so the phone call came in that they had actually just gotten in and the supply point seemed to be running slow and strangely. Then, at 1115 or so, they called again. They had gotten the ammunition in the form of two measly crates. They had loaded it and gone to inspection to leave the supply point and start the hour and a half drive back. They get to inspection and inspection tells them that there are 28 extra rounds in one of the crates, so they cannot go through and have to be turned around to sort it out.

28 extra rounds, nearly 5 hours after they were supposed to draw ammunition, so turn around. Short answer? No. We instructed them to just sign for the rounds and come back. Oh no, said the supply point managers, that is not possible. Those 28 rounds come from a different lot number, and lot numbers cannot be mixed. They must go and turn in the rounds. Okay, says the sergeant who was up drawing the ammunition, just take these extra rounds back then so we can go. Oh no, said the supply point managers, that is not possible. We are going to lunch. Try again at 1300.

Really. Of all of the inefficient things I have seen German civilians on military bases do, this might actually rank up in the top five. Dare I say, top three! But such was the case. Instead, we used that lunch time to find a way to store the ammunition down at our location, told the Soldiers at the supply point to just get the ammunition somehow and bring it back, and we would just try again tomorrow to actually fire any rounds.

I assigned myself the task of telling the medics who were there to fire with us. I head to the vehicle where they are sitting. I open the door and tell them that because of the late hour, we are going to delay the range or possibly call it off completely. One of the Soldiers, an E4 I believe, thought to ask the question why we were drawing ammunition from an hour and a half away when there is an ammunition supply point on the base where I currently stood talking to a car full of medics. I explained that the supply point at this base only supplies blank ammunition and no live ammunition.

She asked me, completely straight-faced, why we didn’t just go ahead and qualify with blanks then.

I had no idea how to respond to such a question. I did my best, her not being one of my Soldiers to allow me to fully explain to her just how moronic that statement was coming from anyone who has ever even thought about holding a weapon, much less a Soldier. I pointed out that I supposed we could qualify with blanks, as long as I had ample time to walk up to the targets and jab my pen into the targets in the spots where it looked like something would have hit had the rounds not been blanks. She still looked confused, so I pointed out that live rounds have an actual projectile in them and blanks do not. She still looked confused. I walked away. Imebciles: One. Me: Zero.

We ended up leaving approximately an hour later, giving up. We finally get back to the office and attempt to get a few things done just so we can waste the entire following day with confidence as well. We attempt to get some inventory done for the Commander and to get an upcoming exercise to support the post worked out.

The computer systems went down. My warrant proceeds to call the help desk and nearly flip out when the help desk explains that everyone who could actually help had already left for the day, and this help desk guy was just there to answer the phones and put in the help desk request tickets. I thought it was funny, my day having been what it was. My warrant, grumpy from the early wake-up, was not as amused. We finally give up, debate a few things about some office matters, realize there is nothing we can do anyway because the systems are down, and decide to go home. We head out to the parking lot.

The icing on the cake! My car is dead. We attempt to do a rolling start, which was only fun because my warrant officer, who rarely does any type of exercise, tried to push my rather heavy, steel vehicle across the parking lot so we could try and build up speed (on flat ground, which was even better) to pop the clutch. Needless to say, it did not work and instead we pushed it into a parking spot and gave up for the evening, working out my transportation plans instead until I could get a new battery.

I finally get home in time to realize that in approximately eight hours I have to be back over to pick up my Soldiers to start all over again.

I should have listened to the cat. She was only trying to warn me…

10/17/2009

Choices

Filed under: — lana @ 11:29 am

The military is full of options. No matter what, you can always make some sort of choice with your life. Just take me for example. I finally got in touch with my branch manager and started asking him what the options were for someone of my rank and capabilities. I mentioned that I am considering a reenlistment because of the probability that I will be on the list for senior enlisted this winter, but want to check options before my retention representative’s head explodes with my random requests. So many places to choose from! So many different tasks and different things to try and different people to make angry. So he booted up his system and pulled up all of my fine and fantastic choices to further my military dreams.

I can reenlist for either South Korea or Georgia.

I mean, at least my branch manager could happily narrow down the long list of every military outpost in the world so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I thanked him profusely for this favor. Then I asked him what else he had. Turns out that answer was simple, too!

Nothing.

Well, that isn’t really true. He has more options, so long as I am willing to request them by name and he can call the major command and see if he can squeeze me in. I am having him do that now, as a matter of fact, because the calls of Ktulu - I mean, the calls of the medboard office - grow louder in my ear as I contemplate spending a year of my life somewhere near the demilitarized zone on the border of North and South Korea or at the unit I will continue to avoid like the plague for the duration of my military career: a combination of my current unit and my Fort Bragg unit mashed into one enormous conglomoration of pain and stupidity. They forget that word gets out about places like this unit, and about places like just about all Korean assignments. They also apparently forget that I am not stupid.

At least he gave me a choice between two of the locations to which I would never agree to go, much less reenlist for. Also on that list of automatic “no thank yous” is Fort Bragg (been there, and I am happy to live my life without ever returning to Fayetteville again), Fort Hood (Fort Bragg on steroids), Fort Wainright (middle of nowhere Alaska), my current assignment (please, someone save me), Fort Huachuca (where I involuntarily spend a lot of time anyway, to include an impending six week course I have no desire to attend), Fort Polk (the mosquitos are bigger than me), and anywhere in Kansas (just because). Coincidentally, when I mentioned this list to him, he found it most amusing because all of those were on his list of places he could probably get for me with minimal hassle. I even asked him about one of those one-year tours to Afghanistan with a follow-on to station of choice. He said those had all been scooped up as well.

Does that strike anyone as odd? Temporary assignments to Afghanistan are full, but Korea and Fort Gordon are wide open. That should say something to someone, somewhere…

But hey, at least I have choices, right? No one ever said you have to like any of the options…

10/16/2009

Flu Season

Filed under: — lana @ 6:42 pm

Every year all of us military folks, regardless of branch of service or rank, all hear the same thing:

Go get your flu shot.

The flu shot is free for us military folks, and everyone has to get it in order to prevent the spread of nasty disease. We already have to quell stupidity on a fairly regular basis, so the last thing we all need is additional swelling of the brain because someone caught the flu. Not that it actually stops anyone from getting sick and passing it around anyway, given our love for standing in the snow for long periods of time like I am about to do at the firing ranges next week, but it’s the thought that counts.

So I got the annual phone call early in the week and explained that I would get the Soldiers there, but that an entire Brigade was busy competing for the clinic’s attention due to impending rotations towards and away from all places that contain an awful lot of beach for no water. I was told to get it done or face getting jabbed with the flu mist up the nose during the range. I went to the clinic to see what I could do.

I ended up grabbing my Soldiers right after physical training on Thursday morning and handing them to a friend of mine who specializes in jamming flu mist up peoples’ noses. He crammed the little tube up their noses and a needle into my arm (Xenu doesn’t react well to the mist), collected our little papers saying that we had been de-bugged for the year, and sent us on our way. My Soldiers, aside from frowns and sighs, did not complain and succumbed to my glares and instructions. Fear can be a useful tool.

But my challenge was my warrant officer. He is usually lumped into the “Challenge” category, so this was no real surprise. When he showed up for work, I handed him his form to fill out and instructed him that he was to go down to the clinic that afternoon and get his flu shot.

Let the whining commence.

Warrant officers must get a class in dodging obligations. I used to notice a strong tendency towards mid-day napping when in Iraq, but this one is more discreet. He can find any way to get out of anything, usually involving a trip to the bank or some other non-work related commitment he forgot to mention any time other than when he needed to do something actually pertaining to his job or the Army. He is increasingly annoyed that I have long since caught on and have my ways around letting him dodge things that I know will eventually come back to annoy me, such as repeat calls from the command about why my warrant officer is the only one in the company showing up as not having received a flu shot this year.

He asked me who would know if he got it or didn’t get it. I told him the shot now goes into the main system and will come up as not having received it to both the clinic and to the company. He told me he would just fill out the paper and turn it in without getting the shot. I pointed to the little “lot number” section on the paper that the medic fills out. He told me he would tell them he lived in a bubble and couldn’t get the shot. I asked him if he would please go ahead and do that then so I didn’t have to listen to his whining any longer, or at least it would be muffled by the bubble. He called me a nasty name. I agreed with him and told him to get his shot and stop complaining.

Finally he agreed to go. I left to take my Soldiers to practice firing, since neither one could qualify at the last range, and reminded him to get his shot. I came back several hours later. His paper was still blank on his desk and he had several not-very-good excuses as to why he had not gotten his shot.

Technically, he outranks me. He even has more years in service than I do, as well as a larger paycheck and that “Officer” title. He also writes my annual evaluations, or at least edits the ones I write for myself before submitting them.

That did not prevent me from ambushing him when he came into work on Friday morning, escorting him over to the clinic, walking him to my friends at the Soldier Readiness area, and watching them administer flu mist straight up his nose. We stopped at the Commissary on the way back so he could buy a croissant to shove into his mouth, thereby at least momentarily pausing his tirade of how much he hates me.

Soon enough I got him distracted by discussing the difference between how a bat hears versus how a dolphin hears, and later explaining the concept of black holes as they pertain to theories of relativity after he sneezed and blamed me for everything that was wrong in his life. I find that he is similar to a child whining about bath time, who forgets all about it when you read them a story before bed.

Another day at the day care I call the United States Army. These big kids are really starting to try on my nerves.

10/11/2009

Let the Games Begin

Filed under: — lana @ 11:58 am

Soon enough, my life in Germanistan will come to an end. This is inevitable, since I have neither the rank nor the desire to stay here forever, wallowing in the oddities that come out of combining German law with a Status of Forces Agreement that really should be updated more often. The end of such an existence means transferring to at least one more duty station in this Green World, and in order to avoid what I consider the inevitable horrid assignments such as Fort Bragg or Fort Gordon, I must once again posture before the Great Branch Managers and try to get something good, such as Fort Sam Houson, or at least something reasonable, such as Fort Lewis. Really, anywhere except the southeast. Nothing against the southeast, but… no, actually, I have a lot against at least every base in that region, so go ahead and take it personally, southeast. I don’t mind. But finding the branch manager is something of a challenge in the Army, probably because they know just how much no one wants to go certain places so by staying elusive they figure they can still staff them however they please. But I, for one, am going to fight that every step of the way, no matter who gets hurt.

That one getting hurt, given my stellar track record, will probably be me.

It brings to mind one day a few months ago, while stretching out for another fine and wonderful physical fitness session at our hangar-converted-to-gym, I happened to look in on the raquetball court. There I witnessed my life for the past six and a half years: analysts playing racquetball.

A few of the people I deal with around here are analysts by name, if not by trade. They are tragically ripped from their job and put in large security shops where they wallow in despair and check on the progress of someone’s security clearance for roughly nine hours a day. They then, as a general rule, go home and play computer games and drink soda while complaining online to analysts around the world about how their life has taken such a tragic turn and if they could only get themselves out to a large analytical element somewhere so they could really do their job.

To them I say, “Welcome to the Army. It should not have taken you this long to figure this whole thing out. I will be your glorified babysitter of the day. If you will just follow me to this dank,windowless room with nothing but a cot and a computer screen, I can show you your living quarters for the remainder of your contract.”

But I have sympathy for these poor, bespectacled friends of mine, so when we pass in the gym or out around the base we stop and converse. But needless to say, these folks are usually not what you would call the “sporty” type.

They did, during the course of this, allow my Soldier and I to come up with a new saying to replace the somewhat crude expression “Like watching monkeys doing inexplicable things to a football,” with the “inexplicable things” replaced with standard Army profanity (as per regulation, I think).

It is now “Like watching analysts play racquetball.”

One hits the ball. The ball hits the wall and shoots back and hits him in the face. The other one swings and misses on his serve. When he finally connects, it goes straight down, smashes off the floor, hits the ceiling, and catches him on the top of his head. The first one tries again and hits the side wall to have it somehow come back and catch him in the spine.

We could only watch for so long, having to get a workout in before my First Sergeant used his seventh sense to realize one of his Soldiers two hundred kilometers away was not getting proper cardiovascular instruction, but it was long enough: The saying was born.

The saying also serves to demonstrate my tenure in the Army. As mentioned, I am currently trying to get in touch with my branch manager, who is actually not my branch manager but a surprise temporary replacement since my actual branch manager seems to have disappeared within the six weeks I was galavanting between school and the field. She is obviously smarter than the rest of us, who have been trying to disappear now for years.

So I find this replacement’s number and give a call, allowing for the time change. Not only does he not pick up, but his voicemail is full. I don’t know how many calls it takes to fill up a government voice mailbox, but he reached the limit. So I sent him an email. No response. A week later try again, this time with a read receipt attached. No response. I contact someone who says he knows the guy. He says he thinks the guy is at some conference and good luck either way. Great. Somehow, I feel like I just got beaned in the spine by a rubber, spherical object.

But I have yet to give up. I have recruited others to my case, all of whom are now encountering the same difficulties. My warrant officer, who does very little after 1600 anyway, calls for me on the off-chance that his mystical warrant powers will actually come in handy (since the rest of us are still trying to figure out what exactly those powers are good for anyway). I call, my friend calls, another person interested in our job field is sending him emails… the effort is there.

But I point out that the analysts also made a very determined effort to make contact with the ball using anything other than their faces, and most times failed miserably. My theory goes that sooner or later, by chance, they eventually would hit the ball as they were supposed to and some semblance of a game would eventually appear through the chaos. That is therefore my theory here as well, that sooner or later, just by chance, I will catch him when someone he really doesn’t like is in his office so he answers the phone just to have an excuse not to talk to that person. I do that frequently, so I know it is possible. One of these days, my racquet will make contact and I can at least try to prevent myself from getting a crappy assignment. I would rather make contact and have the whole thing still come back and slam me in the ear than to watch my career bounce and roll miserably across the floor towards Fort Bragg because I was too uncoordinated to hit the thing.

But really, this analogy goes further. After all, such has been my life in the Army: wandering about, trying to accomplish great things but continually getting blindsided by whatever happens to be inbound. Usually, those things are just like the racquetballs: they are something I may have set in motion but wasn’t expecting to come back and blast me in the back of my skull a short time later.

Life in the Army is, therefore, really just one big racquetball game… and we are all really just mere analysts trying to make it through an hour-long physical fitness session with as few injuries as possible. By nature, we know that the injuries are coming; analysts are inherently uncoordinated, and we enlisted are inherently suckers when it comes to assignments or extra duties or changing something or just trying to get through a weekend without the Soldiers calling and saying, “Oops…”

So hey, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a helmet.

10/5/2009

Little Help?

Filed under: — lana @ 2:37 pm

The Army, as I have mentioned previously, has streamlined their travel order system. The old way was paper. You got orders from your unit to go somewhere and arrangements were made. You went. You got back from your trip, went to finance, filled out some paperwork, handed in some receipts, and waited awhile, occasionally reminding finance that you were in fact still in the Army and still waiting to be paid. But now it is all on the computer! Efficient! Streamlined! Handy-dandy-wonderful!

By streamlined, as usual, I mean somewhat broken.

It works sometimes. You get told you are going somewhere and are told to log into the system. You work your way through the maze of screens where you need to know exactly what to select to ensure you don’t get hoodwinked (again). You finally digitally sign something. It gets sent to people in some chain of command somewhere (sometimes yours, sometimes not) who may or may not look at it in a timely manner. Everyone on multiple particular (and seemingly arbitraily assigned) levels has to sign in exact order. Then, when everyone has signed, you can print out orders in 8-point font that no one can read and go book your travel arrangements. All the ladies in my travel office now wear glasses. Anyway, you go, you come back, you go back into the system. You find the original orders set, called an authorization, and pull up the voucher that is now magically attached to that authorization. You work through another screen maze and upload receipts and sign the voucher. It goes through another set of signatures, usually getting kicked back several times which can take days if not weeks. When (and if) it ever goes through, you get paid a few days after the final, usually about the sixth, signature.

Sometimes it works.

Many times, it does not.

Aside from the system being down regularly, either not working completely or just degraded (I particularly like the “system performance degraded” one: I like to think someone has properly insulted it and it is eating a pint of ice cream while it’s computer-friends tell it that all will be okay while they secretly think it shouldn’t be eating so much ice cream and it should get back to work already), many things can go wrong while waiting on that many signatures that many times. With the paper system, it just went to finance who said “You had the orders, this is the pot the money was supposed to come from, we know what to do so we just have to lose this a few times and then we will pay you.” Now, everyone and their cousin’s dog has to sign off on everything, and most of these people care even less about me and my credit score than anyone in my finance office.

This time I ran into a new conundrum. Back in August, I had signed orders (in 8-point font), so I got my tickets and skipped town as instructed. I got to Arizona. About two weeks into the course, I get a random system email from the travel system. It said my authorization had been returned. That was odd: they were signed and authorized already. So I open the email and it says that someone whose level had already signed off had returned my request because she wanted to see receipts and I had to resubmit as a voucher.

Tricky part 1: The system will not produce a voucher for submission if the authorization is returned, even if the authorization was previously, well, authorized. She returned the authorization after it was, well, authorized because she wanted the accompanying voucher. Catch-22.

Tricky part 2: She wanted me to submit receipts in order for her to authorize the orders (again) so the receipts could be paid via the now non-existent voucher. I had no receipts yet, because I had yet to finish travel. So she wanted the receipts ahead of time?

The folks in Arizona told me not to worry, that it would all be fixed when I returned. They clearly don’t know my unit well. So I graduated, returned, and headed to the field as instructed. Come to find out that one of the reasons I was pulled back from the field was because I had yet to submit my voucher for Arizona and had shown up on some spreadsheet somewhere because my voucher wasn’t submitted. This being the same voucher I could not actually submit because the authorization was returned because they wanted the receipts along with my voucher in order to authorize the travel which would then generate the voucher I needed to complete in order to clear their spreadsheet.

Or something like that. If I figure it out, I will be sure to let someone know. If someone else figures it out, we could use a little help over here…

10/4/2009

Who is Watching Who Here?

Filed under: — lana @ 1:02 pm

My boss is a good guy. He is a warrant officer who reminds me exactly why I should be happy that I never went warrant, even if the Army G-3 had approved my profile waiver.

I actually like working and like being responsible. He, by and large, hates both.

Friday I had to take a physical training test. Because of my broken state, I just have to do a modified version. Since I keep in shape anyway by regularly stretching the rules of my doctors’ orders, this is not a big deal, but according to the Army I can only be tested in one particular fashion: walk 2.5 miles at a reasonably faster pace than one might peruse a shopping center. The pace is actually around a 14-minute mile or so, but I don’t like to shop much so I tend to get it done quickly anyway.

So I asked my warrant officer, who had to give me said test, where he had stashed my personnel file. Him being my supervisor and the one responsible for my ratings each year, he is supposed to maintain the file and update it with things like physical fitness and job performance. The theory goes that this way maybe one day I will not have to write my own annual assessment. Maybe one day…

I asked him where it was, intending to take the scorecard and send it to my company who was flipping out because I had not turned one in sometime between going to Arizona for 5 weeks and then tentatively going to the field for a week or so. I was getting tired of the messages reading, “Soooooo… we know we made you really busy and you aren’t even around right now to read this, but do you mind taking the test and sending us the scorecard sometime like yesterday?” He gave me the test and wrote down the score. I figured he had transferred it to the card in the file. There I go assuming again…

He asked me if he was supposed to have the file. Then he asked if I even had a file. I explained that yes, I did, and I knew that because I had to make one for myself last year when the company wanted to inspect the files. I told him I had given it to him because that was where it belonged so he could update it. He still seemed confused, so I had him search his desk. He eventually found it, I think under some throat lozenges, an empty pack of cigarettes, a few pens that no longer work, and coffee receipts. On the postive side, he did finally throw out most of the trash in the drawer. This allowed me to point out to him that the entire adventure was successful, and he seemed proud. While it might seem trite to mention that he asked for a cookie at that point, it was indeed the case. He is not allowed to keep cookies in his office because he eats them too quickly, so I have to ration them from my desk. He was permitted a cookie for finding the file and cleaning out the drawer. I used the opportunity, after having sent the scorecard, to also inform him about what his schedule looked like for the upcoming week and to inform him things we needed to discuss with counterparts and our higher headquarters elements, then explaining to him why the things were pertinent when I received blank looks.

I like him. He is rather fun and when he gets motivated doesn’t really care who yells at him for making phone calls I would get my life threatened for just eyeing the telephone and thinking of making. He has gotten me out of a few administrative jams and, when reminded and occasionally pestered, argued on the side of good now and then against the various forces of evil lurking within our unit. He has also read more of the boring regulations than I have gotten around to perusing, which makes him handy from time to time when I get a crazy idea that turns out to be just this side of legal.

But really, who is watching whom here? He gets the pay for his rank, as well as a title for the job I do for him, and shows up a few hours here and there to try and convince me to give him back his foam-dart firing gun. I am not so foolish as to give him back the darts as well, so he must have caught wise and wandered out on one of his many daily excursions to buy a replacement pack for the darts.

14-year olds take note: enjoy the perks of regular babysitting while you have it. Once you get older, it’s apparently just part of the job without the 10 dollar-an-hour pay or the cold pizza in the fridge. While you don’t have to change diapers (often… I let his wife figure out what to do with him when he drinks too much on social outings), you so have to clean up spilled coffee and let him go home to change his shirt and then cover for him when he is late after he picks up his cat from the vet and gets cat puke on himself an hour before a meeting with high-ranking people.

I figure after this job, I will still have no idea what a supervisor actually does, but I will be certainly qualified to operate a daycare center.

10/2/2009

Predictability

Filed under: — lana @ 12:53 pm

I am becoming an expert at expecting the unexpected. Where most people would think something so illogical it surely would be impossible, I have instead come to anticipate such things.

I hurried out to the field long before the crack of dawn on Tuesday. I hurried because the person whose spot I was filling had departed the night before to tidy up all of the things he needed to do before departing for a course he had just been told he would indeed attend. The officer who was supposed to be running things had to attend a video conference regarding, naturally, the field exercise she was supposed to be running instead of attending the video conference. When I asked why no one had at least used the video conferencing center I believe is still located just five minutes away from the exercise instead of the one an hour and a half away, all I received were dirty looks. Presumably one should not ask such things.

So I made it out there, read the one-page note left for me which told me to remind the field attendees not to sleep with each other in the general vicinity (outside of that vicinity, it can be assumed, is therefore fine), to talk to another unit about bathroom cleaning, and an apology for what he had left for me to work with.

The entire day he was calling asking questions about how to get himself out to the course because he couldn’t find the people who needed to sign his orders.

The next day, the day he was supposed to fly, he called in the late evening to ask if the commander had called to tell me to go home. I said no, and in fact had already put in the travel order, so not to worry about it because I had finally figured out what it was I was supposed to do for the next two weeks.

The following day, the first day of his course which he clearly was not at, he called again to ask again if the commander had called, because he had just been yelled at for not being in the field. For the past 48 hours he had received repeated assurances that his paperwork would work out and he would still be flying to Arizona at any moment, but this time there was no apology, just a lecture on how he was supposed to be in the field because he was in fact not in Arizona. The commander had still not called us, the ones in the field who would be affected by another swap.

Twenty minutes later, the commander called.

The officer got a talking to for not having switched us back earlier, which was entertaining because the entire time the other non-commissioned officer had been told he could still make it to Arizona so be ready to get on a plane. Also entertaining because at no time did anyone mention to the officer or to me about the fact that we were obviously in the wrong for my presence in the field, which is where I had last been instructed to be. I, of course, was to return to home station the moment everything finally fell into place with me being in the field.

I shrugged and, after waiting for the other non-commissioned officer to show back up and angrily take over whatever I had accomplished in 48 hours or so, packed up my field stuff to return. We then all went and got chinese for dinner and bemoaned the length of time remaining in the unit, exchanged the hotel key confusing the Germans who had witnessed the reverse exchange roughly three nights prior, and off I went to the amusement of the contractors who had never seen such oddities. Clearly they have never worked directly for our unit. We, on the other hand, just went about this as though it was business as usual, because that is exactly the description of such activities for us.

I have not been so foolish as to unpack, of course. Such pre-emptive action would only result in a phone call asking me why I am not back in the field, or perhaps at some range somewhere. I schedule out as far as one day and still say “tentative.” I did, however, reclaim my cat, but am leaving the carrier out just in case.

Predictably unpredictable. Seven months, seven days until I can at least move to another unit in this Grand Ol’ Army. And counting…

9/28/2009

Off Again

Filed under: — lana @ 3:31 pm

Someone owes me a cheeseburger.

See, good cheeseburgers are pretty hard to find in Germany, so whenever we make a bet it has become habit to bet a cheeseburger. My first sergeant appears to have started it.

Well, I was right on this one. Shenanigans were conducted, and I now get to head to the field at sometime-before-the-sun-rises tomorrow.

Luckily, since I am on field staff for the exercise, it isn’t a real field problem for me. I can bring a few uniforms, but can change into People Clothes after the day is done and go back to a hotel room. My officer said she didn’t want to sleep on a cot this time, so we are all getting full duty pay to get a hotel for our element. Apparently, this is the way this whole course that we are hosting is supposed to run, but this did not occur on all previous iterations. So really, I am just going to a hotel for two weeks and spending my day herding cats… er… privates… same thing… around large open areas interspersed with asbestos-filled buildings from the days Elvis was a private.

Then I come back and a week later spend three MORE days in the field showing a different group of cats which end is dangerous on the boomstick. Hopefully I can doctor-dodge long enough to fire a boomstick myself this time, since they get uppity when my shoulders act like party favors and move in ways shoulders aren’t supposed to move. But either way I will have to go and chaperone, so good times. Maybe it will start snowing by then, too, which always makes for a great time standing outside yelling at people for 12 hours or so of my day!

Ah, the Army life. Who could possibly want to get out?

Off to pack. Then again, I am expecting a call tomorrow that says funding got cancelled and thanks for playing, go home. I said I wanted variety in my life. Looks like I at least got unpredictability, which is close to variety… though it has become rather predictable unpredictability…

9/26/2009

More of the Usual

Filed under: — lana @ 2:23 pm

So about a week ago my warrant officer sent me an email. It went something like this (not a direct quote, but in essence):

“You have to go to the field the Monday you get back. It’s because you are one of the only non-commissioned officers left in the company. Have fun. Sorry. Bye.”

It had more detail, but that was essentially the message. My unit periodically runs a refresher-type course for our units and other participating units out in Middle-Of-Nowhere, Germany. By periodically I mean a few times a year. He was notifying me that it was my turn to go be the NCO link to the other units, and I would start two days after my return from my course. Good times, only not really.

So I returned on Friday afternoon and proceeded to make the phone calls to figure out where I needed to be and when and if I had time Monday morning to pick up a prescription which wouldn’t get me to the field until late morning. Despite having notified me, he apparently hadn’t really found time to figure out those essentials in the past week or so despite being located in the same area as the others attending the fun. I made one phone call, found the Officer-in-Charge of the ordeal, and asked her. She mentioned she thought I wasn’t coming anymore. Apparently the person covering for my first few days (the exercise prep started a few days earlier) had not received funding for the course he was supposed to attend this week, so it had been assumed that he was staying. I called him to confirm, and he bitterly responded that he may as well stay, but I HAD to take the next one (he also took care of the last one and we are supposed to rotate between the three people of acceptable rank for the job). I will probably head out there by the weekend instead to relieve him, seeing as how I had planned to be there anyway and now have that oppressive guilt that comes with someone telling me “Don’t worry about it… I will do it for you this time.” It’s like when my mother used to ask me to clean something and I would wait too long so she would say, “Fine. I’ll just do it myself,” usually with a follow-on threat to throw everything I owned into the garbage.

But it is definitely business as usual, seeing as how the person covering has no idea if all of a sudden on Monday or Tuesday the funding will come through and I will have to rush out to cover him. That is actually anticipated, seeing as how I received funds a week prior to my departure and the last person to attend the course received funds roughly two days prior. So back to my world of not knowing where I will end up 36 hours from now, back to my world of sudden phone calls of, “Uh oh… could you,” and back to my days of planning things that I have to cancel because they are more than a week away.

Basically, back to business in Germany. 7 months, 14 days and counting…

9/21/2009

Getting Along

Filed under: — lana @ 1:16 am

This year Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan, folks, stay with me…) and Rosh Hashanna (Jewish New Year… I promise that’s all the foreign stuff for today) fall on the same weekend. Muslims and Jews, partying together. For slightly different reasons, but the two biggest holidays of two cultures are for once having their people thinking more about having fun than annoying each other. It only lasts a weekend, but every weekend counts.

In our line of work it is helpful to know quite a bit about other cultures. The more you know, the easier your job becomes. You don’t have to believe it or even like it, but you have to know it to be able to do what it is we are supposed to do. I happen to like that part, not just because it makes me better at what I do, but because it brings me one step closer to figuring out how people can do some of the things they do.

The other day, class conversation got interesting. We have a tendency to get sidetracked when sitting around after having already been there for twelve hours and still writing reports. I have a theory I could have gotten out of there a lot earlier every day were it not for those conversations, but they are interesting and sometimes irresistable.

The other day the Marine in the class and I sparked a debate on whether or not Lazurus was a zombie because he had been brought back from the dead. That debate goes on, because we never finished once we got started on other religious thought. Someone mentioned Mormons. One of the Warrant Officers in the class mentioned he knew someone who had converted from Islam to Mormon and thought that was something new.

I pointed out it wasn’t such a far stretch. Come to think of it, all of the monotheistic religions aren’t really too far from each other. I said that Islam states their prophet went to heaven, came back, and wrote (well, spoke) about it. Is it such a far-fetched concept to then believe that someone else, more recently, wandered into the wilderness and found some golden tablets no one else could see or read? Moses, at least, brought back some rocks everyone could see with the words written in local tongue, but there is that strange burning bush thing. Jesus, of course, said the same thing written on the tablets to a bunch of guys that all wrote it down later, among the whole water into wine and walking on water and raising Lazurus thing.

All of this sounds like blasphemy to whomever it offends, at least until you step back and look at it from far enough away. Once you look far enough away, all the lines get blurry and you realize that actually, all of them are the same. Offend one, offend all, but before the molotovs start flying through the window, that also means understand one, no excuse not to understand all. Let’s try that game a little bit, shall we?

Everyone had their main spokesman asking people to just go ahead and get along. Sometimes things ended up on stones or gold, sometimes people seemed to disappear and come back later, and everyone had some sort of theatrics or another. But the point is, everyone wanted to tell everyone else to just go ahead and get along. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, whatever, they all eventually have their inexplicables and oddities and, at the core, the same message.

Funny thing is, that message seems to have caused more wars than anything else ever known. Religion, even though all of them are so similar, makes people forget that the basic message is pretty simple: be nice. Usually there is a “Come to my faith so you can go to heaven,” but none of the religions say that whether or not someone else is “saved” is actually your personal problem enough that you have to force them to believe exactly the words of whatever prophet you got your message from.

The two holidays allowed two religions, supposed enemies since the Jews did not show up for Mohammad’s battle (twice, if the literature is accurate, though according to the Qur’an even afterwards the only real bad guys were the polytheists because he could forgive), to party together. For one weekend, everyone could get along. They could see the similarity on this one because it is obvious with all of the apples, honey, hummus, pita, and things made of dates and figs. But the rest of the time it isn’t so obvious, so people forget. But for one weekend whenever the lunar calendars line up just so, they can remember they are cousins. Whoever did what miracle is put aside by everyone (well, except Ayatollah Khamenei, but very little cheers him up) and for a little while, everyone can get along.

I am aware that many people don’t want to hear things like this. No one likes being told that their enemy is more like them than they care to admit. No one wants to look at the stories they were told and figure out which ones are real and which are just trying to teach us all a lesson that should be common sense but one that too many forget. No one likes having their belief system challenged.

But I can’t believe that no one likes to get along. Research doesn’t back that up. As volatile as religion can be, if it works for one weekend when everyone just has a similar holiday, it should be able to work once people take the time to actually get educated on someone other than themselves.

Then again, perhaps I ask for too much. I hate to ask for people to get along and end up like everyone else who ever mentioned it to a reasonably-sized group of people.

9/18/2009

One More Reason

Filed under: — lana @ 10:40 pm

I keep a running list. On the left side are the Pros, the reasons to stay in the Army. Mostly it tends to involve things like “pays the mortgage.” The right side are the Cons, the reasons to get out and never, ever look back. Let us check an example or two, shall we?

Today was my best friend’s wedding. It was in Northern Virginia. I am told it was lovely and fun and everyone had a fantastic time. Though, see, I wouldn’t know: the military kept me in Arizona.

I am in the middle of an exercise. Because it is an exercise where you schedule the timing for the tests, I could have gotten away with having nothing on Friday, the day of the wedding. I could have hopped in my car, driven north, gotten on a plane, flown east, taxied to the hotel, gotten changed, gone to the wedding, eventually gotten back on a plane, and would have arrived safe and sound for further testing on Monday.

This past Monday was scheduling day. I had discussed my plan with my head instructor, she said to give it a shot. I am doing very well in the class, so why not? I put together the schedule. A little work and a little bargaining and Friday was clear. I told my head instructor. She went over to check with the Senior Course Non-Commissioned Officer. He is a Marine, but he smiles sometimes. I have caught him. He can’t fool me.

He told her if it were up to him, sure, no problem, but it has to get past the school Sergeant Major because it is still a training day even though I can set my training pace during the exercise. He was told “No” before he even picked up the phone. The Sergeant Major wanted no words: a policy was out that military could not leave the area on a training day without having completed at least part of the day with the exception of emergency leave. Civilians taking the course, as roughly half the course is? No problem. But military is being paid to be in Arizona, so the military must be in Arizona and be trained.

Shot down and angry, I decided to go ahead and schedule one more test for the day to fill in the time (I had intended to do that test maybe Monday or first thing Tuesday), so I didn’t get extremely bitter, but it happened anyway. See, on a full day off during this exercise, since most people don’t get one anyway, we are technically more than welcome to sit in our hotel and not even really roll in to say “Hello.” But military must do that from somewhere within shouting distance of the base. Not so for civilians. A civilian friend of mine, as a matter of fact, left for a wedding today. She did roll in during the morning because she is reserve Air Force and today is the Air Force birthday (ceremony was short and we had cake), but then she went and caught her flight out. Me? I decided to come in around 0800 and didn’t leave until around 2030. If I have to be here because the Army won’t let me be anywhere else, may as well stick around and finish up every last little thing on a Friday night.

The mortgage is still getting paid, so the Pros side has yet to be affected in all of this. But my list of reasons to get out grows nearly daily. Today, on top of already being angry that I once again had to miss my best friend’s wedding (I missed another best friend’s wedding over the summer because the course got bumped so the scheduling didn’t line up) when she spent every day visiting me in the hospital last year among seeing me through countless other things usually involving pints of ice cream, I also found out that when I get back to Germany next Friday I get to unpack, find my Army stuff, pack, and head out Monday for the field for a few weeks because everyone of higher rank will be otherwise tasked somehow and they need an NCO-in-Charge for an exercise. Nevermind that I am nearly out of medication because I kept having to stall doctors for a class that kept getting bumped, a month (soon to be two months) late for an MRI on that pesky battlelord in my head, and had some rather critical meetings and tasks lined up for the weeks ahead already. Nope, they needed an NCOIC, and actually when you spin the wheel of choices it has already narrowed down to about a 75 percent chance of landing on me anyway these days given the manning and taskings.

As though I really needed the “Get Out” side to get longer. If it keeps up like this, I am going to need more paper…

9/12/2009

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Filed under: — lana @ 8:32 pm

Arizona, my love affair with you is now officially over. No longer will I stand it when you are warm and beautiful while I sit in a classroom with no windows, then rain the moment I step outside after class. No more must I sit idly by while creepy bugs with long antennae and sticky feet swarm my car while we drown our sorrows at Applebee’s Happy Hour. No longer shall I deal with your changing construction patterns so as soon as I find a viable route to class, the next day I need find another path.

That is it. We are officially through, at least as far as wanting to come here is concerned. You may have some beautiful mountains for hiking and lovely and fun towns such as Tombstone and Bisbee and… well, Tombstone and Bisbee… but I no longer wish to call you up, even just to hang out once in awhile on a boring Saturday evening.

Not to mention that on Friday as I drove through one of the 14 construction zones to get to class a small nail lodged itself in my tire just deep enough to cause it to leak. By fifteen minutes into class, I had a note on my windshield, a mass email sent by one of the course administrators to the entire school trying to find out whose car had the flat, and my instructor giggling as I read her my license plate number from my keys. At lunch, the rental company told me they would send someone out just to change the tire, though after that I would have to drive it to Tucson at 50 miles per hour or less in a 75 mile per hour zone so they could give me a new car. I told them nevermind; I am perfectly capable of changing a tire myself, having gotten so much practice in Afghanistan, and would hate to inconvenience them. So after class an Army Ranger Warrant Officer, a Navy Officer, and a retired Army Sergeant Major, with their powers combined, changed my tire to a spare (the Marine Staff Sergeant offered to help as well, but I finally convinced him there were plenty of cooks out there already to spoil the soup). The nice thing about being in the military is that it seems many of the gentlemen only signed up to prove they were men, so they will usually offer to do manly things like change a tire for any vaguely feminine-looking object that wanders past. These three also happen to be friends of mine, so their bonus was I could offer to bring them beer when I suffer through a football game tomorrow. They got the tire changed in only slightly more time than I could have accomplished the task solo, mostly because they kept rotating positions and complaining about how squatting made their knees hurt. I mostly watched and laughed. The Ranger then told me of a place that would patch the tire for free, which I took advantage of today. Discount Tire Company is actually quite nice, and speedy if you make an appointment online, which I did. Hopefully I will never return to this one… good tire service aside, southern Arizona and I are on the outs.

But breaking up is hard to do, as the song says. I recently received an email from my unit asking for some of my basic data (all of which, I pointed out, was readily available both in my office and at the company, but I digress) so I could be placed on the order of merit list for Basic Non-Commissioned Officer Course Phase Two, which is four weeks of mind-numbing PowerPoint interspersed with half-hearted attempts at physical training. All four weeks, I point out, are at this very same base where I now sit. Rumor has it my unit is even too cheap to give attendees a rental car for the duration of that trip, despite nearly every other unit giving one to their students because to not provide one would be absolute torture. Those from my unit can be spotted easily: they are the ones trying to thumb rides to class from everyone else since the barracks is quite a walk from the windowless building where the PowerPoint torture takes place. So hopefully I can at least delay that experience long enough to get to a decent unit that is actually participating in the Army suicide prevention programs by allieviating some of the depression associated with such schools. So perhaps I can delay my return for six, perhaps seven months.

But I know I will have to return sooner or later, dispite my disdain for my current location. I am about at that age (in Army years) where I can be evaluated for the next rank and, should I be so foolish as to take it, will have to attend at least one or two more schools here.

Make no mistake: any return will not be by choice, southern Arizona. It is like when you find out that popular brat you secretly hated in high school is going to be at a party you are attending and so you feel you really HAVE to sit through at least a drink and a few bits of idle conversation. They have changed, you have changed, and it is time to move on and you don’t have to pretend to like them anymore. I will always enjoy Tombstone and Bisbee and the scenery in the canyons, just as I enjoy the company of the others at the party whom I actually came to see. For now, and as long as I am forced to endure, I shall tolerate this place and this conversation, but then I shall move on.

Given the choice, however, I would prefer to simply go to the Crystal Palace in Tombstone, knock back a whiskey chased with a rum and Coke with friends, and then head out to my best friend’s wedding which I am missing because I am trapped here with a patched tire, a headache, and my course certification exercise. The separation paperwork is in, Arizona. Expect to be hearing from my lawyer.

9/6/2009

Brainwashing

Filed under: — lana @ 1:32 am

I work in a strange environment. That goes without saying at this point, I suppose, but occasionally bears repeating. But really, the strangeness is spreading.

There is someone in my class who regularly espouses his opinion on politics. I don’t really mind, since he is fairly young and seems to just like using big words to make him seem smart, so it just turns into a tragic game. He declared he is a libertarian, so I now regularly spit out views to get him to disagree. The fun part is when I get him to disagree with libertarian views, which has become more frequent as he falls into the pattern. Mostly, this only serves to prove I am a bad person, but really, this is very common through the military. And the more I read the news these days, the more I notice it everywhere: the world is becoming brainwashed.

The military is particularly strange. It is a socialist, almost communist environment, in theory to promote discipline through taking care of the “Everything Else.” Free health care, cheap life insurance, free education for Soldiers and their children, discounted goods, free housing… I could go on. What is so peculiar is that so many people in the military are terrified of such living for everyone else. They rarely even realize that they live the way they do, many of them indoctrinated otherwise in one way or another. Some of them from home, having grown up in gun country. Some of them get it from work, from the media, from a myriad of sources. The military attracts them. It’s actually remarkably frightening some days, despite the potential entertainment value. They remain blissfully unaware that everything that comes out of their mouths which is a repeat of a statment from The O’Reilly Factor is in direct contrast to the life they already lead.

This morning, as I waited for my breakfast to digest so I could go to the gym, one of the supergeniuses from one of the mixed armed forces that pop through here from time to time was watching the news. On the television was the usual tripe about who hates whom this week and for what imagined reason. She, unlike the television, was impossible to ignore, however, so I had hear it. She was boasting about how her friend was going to keep her child home from school because the president was going to be aired at the school, “Spreading his brainwashing program.”

While I normally just laugh at the stupidity of such a comment, remembering when Bush Senior went on television for the exact same reason and we got the special treat in school of watching it (my school rarely allowed us onto any live access ever since we watched the Challenger explosion), I also observed that she was not alone. Apparently, the president can no longer encourage students to stay in school without raising a ruckus among those terrified of brainwashing. They are apparently unaware that they, therefore, have been brainwashed. Even right-wing media has shown that the speech will be about studying and staying in school, and that the Department of Education rescinded the silly wording that went from “goals to help the president” (ahem, even that wording was about personal education, not about health care, people… the kids are not of voting age) to “goals to get smarter” (paraphrasing). But really, who gets that far in the article? I get surprised when half these people show proof they can read at all.

When did people stop thinking for themselves, and where was I when this happened? Was I on vacation or off napping when everyone went dumb? Is it because I have not owned a television in three years or so, therefore meaning I have to read whole stories instead of being innundated with two minute talkies with flashing lights and pretty pictures and people with nice hair and smooth voices? Or is it just my natural cynicism and charm? This woman’s friend was going to keep her child from a day of education because she is afraid of a speech about… staying in school. So she doesn’t believe he should be president, therefore she does not believe he should be the one telling her child to stay in school. So she keeps her kid home. Does anyone else see the irony here?

She is right: she should be the one telling her child to stay in school (and sending her child to the aforementioned school). But the problem is that also doesn’t occur to people these days. Despite not wanting someone from the government to brainwash their children, people also want to blame the government when their child can’t get a passing grade. Wanting everyone to stay out of your business all the way up until something goes wrong, at which point it becomes someone else’s fault. Just like these people who agree with libertarian views unconditionally all the way up until someone asks what happens when one state won’t recognize a driver’s license from another because the laws are vastly different.

Now I don’t get involved in politics. I stay educated on them, but really politics has become so polarized that there is little point in discussion. No one listens, so no one learns. I even got points taken off the other day during an exercise because I found an article when doing my required research that contradicted what the instructor had on paper. He didn’t know how to react, so he told me the research must have been wrong and docked points. Evidence, as usual in these situations, was pointless. Plus, the class is pass/fail, so I did the unthinkable (for me) and bit my tongue in hopes that I can make it two and a half more weeks.

We now live in a world where the president cannot do the same as several predecessors (of the other party) because people are afraid. Everyone is scared that a decision might be the wrong one, so no one makes one. It’s everywhere, from the people to the military to the government. We are in a mess. It is why we can’t get beyond health care, why my unit can’t figure out if they want to pay me or not, and why my class of eleven people could not come up with four toppings to put on pizzas for dinner on Friday when we had to stay until almost 2100.

So who is brainwashed now? Give you a hint, people, it ain’t your kids. They are fine, and they should stay in school and study so they can learn to make up their own minds and thus be smarter than you.

As for us, well, half an hour later we settled on two chicken and pineapple and two various pork product pizzas.

9/2/2009

Lessons Learned

Filed under: — lana @ 12:28 am

So the course, which I finally got around to attending, is a bit on the sensitive side. They get all jumpy even though a lobotomized monkey could, provided he had internet access (and time available from his apparent day job somewhere in the upper echelons of the military), find out at least the basics on the web without even so much as a half-thought-out password. But they get ancy, and I want to graduate, so let us just stick to lessons learned.

Today was particularly educational. Here is what I learned:

1) I know nothing about submarines.
2) I know nothing about torpedoes.
3) I know nothing about destroyers.
4) I know nothing about how ships are designated.
5) I know nothing about boat yards.
6) I will continue to know nothing about any of these things (and many others, particularly maritime vessel-related things) unless certain people stop waiting for key words and start answering questions like a human being.
7) Never go to a military course and let them figure out early on that you have already done this a few times. It only makes them front-load the really obnoxious and difficult instructors.

The course which I am attending is completely subjective. Before my test this afternoon the instructor with whom I was about to take the test reminded me of this as well as reminding me of some other basic tips. He also asked me to break some basic patterns that I already know work and try something new… on a tested block. I’m doing well, so I figured sure, why not. I made a few modifications, figured I would take a small hit to try his new technique. How much could it hurt? Let’s see what he’s got.

Well, he’s got more than I do, apparently, and I paid for it with my hide. He wrote the background information paperwork and then contradicted every single scrap of the background in the first five minutes. He danced around a small topic like nomenclature for twenty minutes because my questions were too specific, then danced around a larger topic for twenty more minutes because my questions were too general. He told me I was illogical in my pattern because I had to revisit topics after he contradicted himself. Then in the after-review of the test he wrote things down and told me new things (usually more contradictory things) and circled things (on the library map, not even the photocopy… my mother would have a fit!)… and now I have to wake up in the morning and be careful not to include anything he told me in the review or else get an automatic failure. My primary instructor, upon hearing the conundrum, could only inform me that I was officially screwed, gave me a few tips on how to minimize the damage, and promptly made his exit stage left for his house while we stayed another hour to get organized. An hour, it turns out, was not long enough. What a surprise.

Oddly, I passed the test with a fairly good score. Well, I think a fairly good score, since no one really knows how the grading system works around here so we just operate on the thought of “so long as I don’t get called into the office for a private conversation, I know I can come in as usual tomorrow.” Even most of the instructors seem to make it up as they go along because the formula is contained in the head of one senior instructor somewhere who decided to use a base 8 mathematical system for grading. Engineering school was too long ago for that, so we just go about our daily duties and hope no one calls us in to tell us we failed. Really, what this has done is initiated a small group of us to declare our own table at a few local happy hours. Whoever has the worst instructor of the day gets to drink for free. Today was my day… I have now had, out of two tests, two of the hardest instructors in the course. The theory goes that my next test will simply be a dull stick repeatedly poking me in the eye. I might actually request it at this point. After happy hour, a few old television shows where I can watch other, fictional people use poor questioning techniques, and then bedtime before another delightful day of contradiction and confusion at this course, one of the best courses those in my job field can hope to attend.

But before I go enjoy reruns of Law and Order I would like to point out to those interested and/or simply following along that I still know next to nothing about items 1-5. Item 6 I am told is not to be resolved via throat punches, but that remains up for debate for now since no better answer has yet been presented (though other punches were suggested, I maintain the throat will at least stop the inane circle-talk for a few minutes).

And as for item 7, well, that one I learned well. Next time I head to one of these courses I am putting my dog tags on that lobotomized monkey for the first few days of class. It’s a win-win: gets me some easier instructors to get warmed up, and it keeps that monkey away from my travel orders.

8/16/2009

Found in Translation

Filed under: — lana @ 12:15 pm

We have a slight problem with the one guy in our office who was hired because he speaks German:

His English isn’t always so great.

I have come across sentences of 86 words. I have cut down paragraphs of two pages. I have completely edited random phrases such as “The so-called alliance waved banners and flags of dissatisfaction because of the legions gathering in the neighborhood and to encourage that they disperse.”

He meant that a group got together to have a protest about how they don’t like the increased number of Soldiers in the area. It’s like putting something into a translation program and then watch it spew smoke and gear bits before it vomits up a phrase completely unlike anything you would ever see, and certainly unlike anything that would ever make sense.

So when I open his reports for editing, I always do so with medication nearby. But this was to be a special occasion: the meeting of which he wrote had been conducted entirely in English.

Disaster ensues. You would think it wouldn’t, but it did. I am now almost out of red pills. Security cameras were in the report where none had existed in reality. Landline telephones became cellular. Dogs and cats lived together in peace and harmony. The armies of Allah were bringing handfuls of wildflowers to toss in the streets ahead of their western allies. We had gone back to the moon and returned with great, delicious cheese in our pockets.

Given how critical accuracy is in our reporting, this simply would not do. But recently, I found a website which takes a phrase, translates it into Japanese, then back into English, then into Japanese again, then back to English, and so on until it reaches equilibrium which is defined as the point where further translation only generates the same word sequence.

If you put a normal phrase into it, you usually get back some sort of very amusing garbage. Why couldn’t those Babylonians leave well enough alone? But I came up with a theory. Shakespeare in, garbage out, so perhaps it works in reverse. My logic was that the German was doing this in his head anyway with his language, so what would it hurt to throw in his random phrases and get them back and forth to Japanese a few times?

It actually worked. The sentences that came back were much closer to proper English and actually made a great deal more sense. The moon still had cheese, but at least I could tell he was trying to tell me it was Gouda instead of Parmesean. We even tried it with some of his irritating spoken colloquialisms, which you can spot by listening for him to start out any sentence with, “You must know…” which is then followed by complete nonsense. Now, after three years I am finally able to start understanding why Germans have everything delivered to their homes and what those wooden platforms are next to every tree on the median downtown. I can actually understand the mess of language being spewed in my general direction, making things a little easier.

I am convinced that this could stop wars. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Crusades, the fall of the Mayans… perhaps all of it could have been prevented with a little more understanding of “It is the same in the Bundeswehr!” Just toss that back and forth into Japanese a few times and Genghis Khan might have actually understood that you were telling him he could use land to graze his sheep if he would just sell the wool at a discount on the market this winter instead of “THIS MEANS WAR!”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold, it is very cold in space… KHAAAAAAN!” Best war line from Star Trek II translated into poor German because I had to look some up in the dictionary: “Man muss die Rache kalt genie├čen und es ist im Universum sehr kalt… KHAAAAAAN!” From him I would get, “One must the revenge coldly enjoy and it is in the universe very cold. Khaaaaaan.” Throw that into Japanese a few times and you get: “If, in the case where the cold is very cold, in the first case you can enjoy the revenge… KHAAAAAAN!”

Still not Shakespeare, but good enough for government work.

8/15/2009

Broken

Filed under: — lana @ 1:07 pm

My one useful Soldier, whom I am about to give up anyway for the greater needs of the Army, is officially broken. He didn’t end up in a cast, but I think his brain is on vacation and forgot to book a return ticket back to my Soldier’s head.

Now, I have known he is not always the sharpest knife in the drawer for quite some time. But he is a good kid, good Soldier, might grow up to be a fine NCO once he learns to shut his mouth.

And stops doing things that are very, very dumb.

He came back from his month of training both bitter with me for having sent him and with a dent in his shin. Story went he was completing a task as assigned by his supervisors and hit himself in the leg with a sledgehammer. I decided that was a good time to just stop asking questions.

About a week later, the swelling had not gone down, so I sent him to sick call. In order to do so, I had to find out the rest of the story. Turns out he was told to use a post-driver (usually a metal-shafted, two-handed, heavy piece of equipment used to put posts into the ground) in place of a sledgehammer to complete a task because they couldn’t get any sledgehammers. My Soldier picked it up, swung it, missed his target, and hit himself in the shin.

What was the task, one might wonder?

Drive a few posts into the ground.

I sent him to sick call with special instructions to ask the doctor to check his head, too, and make sure he still had a brain.

Anyway, I had to send him back this week because his leg wasn’t healing. As luck would have it, the swelling was down enough for proper x-rays and he came back with severe shin splints, hairline fractures. I sent his profile higher and told him to go away before my brain jumped ship in an effort to save itself.

No results on his head. I am pretty sure I know the answer either way. The doctors apparently thought I was kidding. They must not have heard the whole story.

8/10/2009

Off-Day

Filed under: — lana @ 12:36 pm

I suppose we are all entitled to an off-day. Today was mine.

The weather did not cooperate, so I started out rather grouchy and with a headache. Under normal circumstances, I would take the red pills (not the green ones; they make me more grumpy) and the headache would go away after a bit. But I am almost out of red pills and cannot get more without a trip west to visit Those That Want Me Medically Boarded. So I, in my infinite wisdom, have avoided getting a refill by just conserving pills for a month until I get back from my theoretical class. The class is still theoretical, by the by. While they fixed the routing and someone agreed to pay for it, absolutely no one has signed the authorization yet. But that is a mere digression and not even remotely out of the ordinary for this band of zoo escapees, so I continue:

I started out off and things did not improve. I went for a meeting, did my thing, and came back full of fabulous information but a much worse headache and having made the decision that I have a sincere dislike for one of my co-workers. By the time I was done with my day, that number was up from just one, but patience, patience… all in due time. This particular one simply bored me with poor English and inane topics for a two hour drive each way. Because of the headache, I could not evade as well as usual and instead was forced to talk about the weather, the concept of a Jeep Cherokee versus a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and why Americans call the side of the road “The Shoulder.” I weighed options of a quick death and opted not to grab the wheel. A foolish choice, in retrospect.

Upon my return, I asked my warrant officer if he had caught up on any reports while I was gone. I have not been in the office for a full day in the last seven or so working days, so I am a bit behind and have worked at least 12 hour days to catch up, all of which has been fruitless. He said he had not caught up on the reports at all, had not even looked at them, but did I happen to read a funny internet article he passed my way last week? My decision to leave the wheel alone haunted me, but I had work to do. I left some cake on his desk I had somehow acquired over the weekend. It entertained him enough.

I did some work, playing around with a new system to which we just got access. There was a four-page mini-instruction presentation which I skimmed through and I got to work. I should have known better, given my state of mind. I mistakenly thought that once I routed a query, were the query not answered within the computer I could go back and change the routing before submitting a formal request. That would be logical, so I figured it must be so. A mistake, as always. I sent the request before realizing I had just requested something directly from some basement (I suspect, because they usually are) office somewhere back in Washington D.C., as opposed to the basement a few hours away but at least still in Germany. I only realized it because about five minutes after I hit “send” my phone was ringing with someone in the general vicinity of Europe asking me if I really meant to do that. Since I had no idea, he and I had a lovely conversation about what I thought I had done versus what had actually happened. I learned an awful lot. He was most pleasant about it, explaining that it happens nearly every time someone starts using the system because it isn’t the most clear of structures, but now it would take him a few days to fix it. The trouble with my job field is that they love introducing new technology but they hate making it intuitive and really hate training people on it. Analysts come up with a way to make their lives easier, but it complicates things for the rest of us. I function, still having some semblance of engineering background, on logic. These guys seem to focus more on whim and what they had for lunch. We don’t always mesh, but at least one of them caught it three minutes before I received an email stating that my request was now abandoned to some other system. The guy on the phone, who also saw the transition pop up on the system, informed me that he just bumped his estimate from a few days until the end of the week. I told him to take his time.

During this time, my warrant (who never uses the new system, possibly because that would require him to work instead of having me do it) giggled incessantly at me while eating some leftover cake with his fingers. He only paused to answer his phone (getting icing all over the place). Turns out it was our other two Soldiers who were on their way back from the company headquarters but had somehow taken a detour and ended up on the wrong highway with no idea where they were or how they got there. We go to the company headquarters about twice a month. The detour, which I just took with one of them on Friday, takes them towards a large city with clearly marked signs to the correct highway. Upon guiding them back to our general vicinity and waiting for their return, I discovered that they had in fact actually successfully navigated the detour in the first place and even ended up on the main highway back to our area before they got lost. They got lost because they have never once in all the times we have gone to headquarters paid attention regarding how to get back and had left the correct highway for an incorrect highway about halfway through the drive. And no one called until they were a good hour out of the way.

While one might think this would make me feel better, thinking that at least I wasn’t the only one having an off-day, that one would be mistaken. This is about right for the pair I sent out there today, a non-commissioned officer and a soon-to-be non-commissioned officer. The former couldn’t find his way out of an open cardboard box and the latter, while being a good Soldier, still relies a little too heavily on instructions (in the form of a navigation system that they had not taken with them). The blind leading the blind. I was just surprised they made it back before finding out what Berlin was like this time of year. Probably muggy, like the rest of the country.

I am chalking today up to just being an off-day, brought on by the weather and my dwindling supply of red pills. As such, I am going to just have to do what I always do: try again tomorrow. At least I already know how not to have my reports end up halfway around the world. It may not be much, but it’s a start, and we all have to start somewhere.

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