Archive for the ‘A Day in the Field’ Category

A Day In The Field – Month 9 (or …)

November 22, 2009

Mad Moments 5 (or …)

How Projects Get Messed Up (or …)

Spring 2007

I dragged ex-boss Tom out to Alamo Road today. Well, come to think of it, he rather foolishly volunteered (must have been a dreadful meeting on the schedule …), choosing a day dedicated to digging holes in the road shoulders.

This unpleasantly arduous activity was ordered by some officers and talking heads up in air-conditioned Baghdad. During a recent telecom they asked whether the road is really 9cm thick all the way out to the edges. While I stifled giggles and rolled my eyes, Tom leaned toward the phone speaker and said, “For the most part, yes!”

A typical Tom answer, this is accurate without necessarily being true. It was offered with the hope that (for the most part!) they’d be satisfied and move on. Really, of all the things to be worried about on this project, the edges of the road probably ought not be on the radar. These aggressive vocal overseers of ours could worry about the subbase, the base, the thickness of the asphalt in the lanes, or in the center, or better yet, the constitution of the asphalt itself! Really, if so inclined, Tom and I could suggest some really important things to worry about … but Tom is a secretive and diplomatic fellow.

My own inclination would be to tell all these generals and colonels and majors and paper engineers every single deficiency of the project. Left to my own forthright devices, I would tell them that due to their constant, unholy pressure to get the work completed at the stated expense of quality, they’re now in no position to be whining and fretting to us about the outcome. I would also point out to them (politely, and using the word ‘sir’ as often as it struck my fancy) that their own pitiful budget was understood at the very beginning to be inadequate to the needs of this light military transport road, meaning the design was substandard even before, by the way, they changed the designation and intended use of the road from a light military transport road to a heavy military transport road halfway through the project without having provided any collateral shift in funding or design in order to accommodate their own changes …

But that’s just me.

Where was I? Oh yes, the telecom wherein the brass are beating on us (again) and Tom is taking it … Is the asphalt 9cm thick on the edges? For the most part it is.

“Go measure it,” someone snapped at us through the phone speaker. I made a nasty face at Tom. He made a nasty face back, then leaned toward the phone speaker and chirped, “Roger that!”

I’ve noticed that when Tom thinks an order is stupid, he says, Roger that! instead of something more normal for a civilian, like ok. I’ve noticed that most of the military men respond to stupid orders with that phrase as well. I’ve decided that I’m going to practice doing it. I’m going to try to remember to add “sir” to the end of it to see if Tom can keep from busting out laughing when I say it.

Just for the record, digging eighteen holes at five kilometer intervals down the shoulder of a 109 kilometer road in 120F wearing a full uniform and body armor … sucks.

About four hours into this farce we finally hung it up. Sweat-stained and a bit sun-dazed, we climbed back into the Land Cruisers and told the PSD men to take us home. I stared out the window wondering how the colonels would take the news that only about seventy percent of the road edges were to spec. The answer to that didn’t take long to figure out, so I emptied my mind and just stared out at the beautiful expanse of gold sand, effectively ignoring the stupid road we were now driving back north on, passing all the stupid little holes we’d chipped into its shoulders.

“I think,” Tom said suddenly, turning to look at me with a satisfied expression on his face, “that we should write up the scope of work for the maintenance contract on this road so that the contractor has to make all the patches to the road in shapes of different animals.”

I stared back at him, trying to catch up. Road patches in the shapes of animals?

Ignoring my blank stare, Tom went on. “Then we could just say, There’s a new pothole out by the lion, or The giraffe area needs a surface treatment – it’s unraveling.

We both turned our heads to look straight ahead, between the heads of our PSD men in the front seats, through the ballistic windshield glass, and down the long straight black asphalt road we were traveling. Huh.

“It might help keep the convoy truck drivers awake,” I suggested. “The road has so few landmarks of any kind. This would give them something fun to look forward to. They might say, Oh good, we’re already to the rhino – we only have the mouse, the lizard and the tiger, then we’re already on Tampa!”

“We could have the contractor post signs,” Tom added. “Just a picture of a rabbit or a donkey on the sign. Then people would know where they were in the dark.”

I turned to stare at Tom again for a moment. His cheeks were sunburned, but other than this idea of road patches in the shapes of animals he didn’t seem sun-addled. His mysterious knack for maintaining a sense of humor and essential calm in the face of profound stupidity and aggravation might no longer be so mysterious; a creative imagination is a valuable resource. 

“What?” he asked.

“I just had no idea,” I admitted.

I turned back to my own window and stared out at the desert, now choosing animals that might be appropriate to the environment: lizard, goat, hawk, toad, sheep …



A Day in the Field – Month 3

November 8, 2009

October 2006

While I was conducting the final inspection a prison project prior to signing off on it as complete, a Navy lieutenant commander approached and asked what I was doing. I showed her my ID and explained that I work for the Corps. I asked what the Navy was doing at this base. She explained that some of them rotate through as prison guards, and asked what my role is with the Corps. When I told her I’m basically the contract manager for the prison project, her face got stiff and she snapped, Who designed these shelters!

The Army signed off on the designs, but I thought it might be interesting to wait a few minutes before I told her that. (I’m so bad!)

Why? I asked. Is there a problem?

There’s nothing but problems! she spat. She proceeded to drag me around the inside and outside of the huts, aggressively pointing out all the pieces that the prisoners would detach in order to make weapons: nails, screws, metal grates, plywood, concrete, wires … let’s see, that about sums up everything in the building. They use these tools to dig escape tunnels, she growled. They hurt and kill American soldiers with these weapons! The Lt Commander concluded, glaring at me.

I held up one hand as if to ward her off. I didn’t design them! I told her. The Army command may have designed them – they certainly signed off on the designs, so I guess you could take it up with command.

She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Her mouth snapped shut. She spun on a heel and strode off across the hot sand, heading toward the gate.

I’m imagining this Lt Commander’s shelters built without using nails, screws, metal grates, plywood, concrete, wires … even a square of cloth for shade would require a stick.

Sandstone igloos?



A Day in the Field – Month 8

November 4, 2009

Friday the 13th, April 2007

Another Friday the 13th and 13 hours of Alamo Road labor for me, instead of everyone else’s half day off. Black Friday. Feeling frustrated and sorry for myself, compensation was measured by the PSD team that drew my mission: Falcon 10, always good company.

George is driving, the only American on the team. A goofy little guy, his saving grace is his lack of the typically American competitive machismo. Riding shotgun: Grant, master of the understatement, with a delivery so dry if you aren’t on your toes you’ll miss the best chance you’ll ever get to fall down laughing. Rhys and Sean are leading the convoy, leaving Conor, Jimmy and Matt eating dust in the gun truck. The team has chosen the route that takes us under the powerline pylons, a winding river of dust through flat sand, sky a big bowl of pounding hot nothing.

An hour into silence, everyone in our truck painfully bored, the radio crackles to life:

Sean: “It’s the day the Knights Templar got it.”

George: “What are you talking about?”

Rhys: “You don’t remember your history, George?”

 George: “The things you try to pretend you don’t know when you’re young are the things you wish you knew now.”

Sean: “The Templars were wiped out, George … Friday the 13th. Black Friday. What do they teach you in history class?”

(George, grinning in an aside to me: “Not that!”) 

Someone answers Sean with a riff of a rock and roll song, coming through scratchy but solid.

Someone replies to that with a riff of some snaky song reeking of gutters and guns, lyrics lost in the static.

Sean ups the ante with a riff of Winston Churchill’s speech. … “…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets …”   

Grant snags the cd from Sean when we stop to hand off bottles of water to the small children in that ramshackle shack by the line. We listen to it as we careen around powerline pylons, sliding on sand as slick as ice: 

 “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

“At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government – every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France,

we shall fight on the seas and oceans,

we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,

we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,

we shall fight on the beaches,

we shall fight on the landing grounds,

we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills;

we shall never surrender …

“… And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

It’s quite moving, really, that speech. I’d read it, but never heard it spoken by Churchill.

Just another excruciating day in the field with Falcon 10. (Thank god …)


2009 …

Though we were supposed to get a half day off work every Friday, I never did and I whined about it. In reality, aside from three or four long months working on the aggravating Alamo Road project, the fact that I had too much work to do to be taking Fridays off was mostly my own fault: I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to work insane hours just to learn what I should already have known when I was hired for the job.

But that doesn’t apply to April, one of the three or four months that the cosmically cursed, breath-takingly absurd, officer-ridden, extremely high profile Alamo Road project dictated the shape of my entire existence. PSD teams drove me two hours out to Alamo every single day of the week on bombed out, dusty, terminally boring dirt tracks, then stood around in the searing sun while I harangued the Alamo project manager in his air-conditioned office (or as I sat comfortably in that same office, leisurely trading laughs with the lone westerner on site after the project manager ran away). The teams walked beside me the entire ninety-six kilometers of Alamo Road more than once over the months, one kilometer at a time under a brutal sun and weighted down with fifty, sixty, seventy pounds of body armor and weapons. Then they drove me home.

I got to know some of the men fairly well during this time, spending six or eight hours a day with them, and they treated me more familiarly than they did other clients because I was on the road as much or more than any one of the teams (‘on the road’ as in traveling on the dirt tracks and highways, in this case – not ‘on the road’ as in ‘on Alamo Road’). I became more comfortable with them than I was with my co-workers at the office. I shared more laughs, more impassioned rants, and more weird adventures with them than I did with anyone after Corviday redeployed. They, in turn, often ran on open mic and often let me in on the teams’ private business: personality clashes within the team, their beefs with other clients, and their frustrating power struggles with the colonel.

Five teams rotated the Alamo Road missions, so any one team drove me no more than once or twice a week, but I think they all hated that project even more than I did. Often being kept on hand for the colonel’s useless missions into the city, Falcon 10 rarely drew a rotation to the Alamo project. I considered it a magical day if I found them waiting for me in front of the office. The scowls on their unhappy Alamo-day faces were memorable, matched only by the ferocity of the grin on my own.

The story above can’t stand as an example of the intellectual level of all the PSD teams – Falcon 10 was special. Rhys is blessed with a sharp and curious mind, and I suspect that he built and cultivated a team that provided him with the mental stimulation he needed. Sean and I discussed EU immigration policy and political implications of Darfur. Paul was an opera singer. Grant and I compared real estate prices in the Baltic States. Rhys and I shared our saddest eyes when passing by children begging on the side of the road. Falcon 10 offered not only excellent personal security protection, but the intellectual companionship which was not always available from colleagues and which I craved. Engineers can be extremely intelligent, but many of the ones we had were not the brightest bulbs when detached from their engineer’s power source. As often as possible, I was an Falcon 10 pilot fish, feeding off the slipstream of the brilliantly vivid creation of Rhys’s – a creation that positively shone in the de-intellectualized, Mission-oriented, macho-militarized American reconstruction effort. I took advantage of the mental stimulation as often as possible, often wishing that I could be a legitimate part of its witty brotherhood.

A Day in the Field – Month 4

November 4, 2009

One of my favorite PSD teams was one made up almost exclusively of South African men over thirty-five. Being a little older than most of the other teams, their decisions tended to be circumspect, based on reasoned caution (try to be a little bit scared; try to be a little bit careful). Yet they’d all fought in Angola, so they didn’t spook easily. They wouldn’t pack me up and rush me off a site just because of a little SAF* six blocks away. Their minds worked without the rush of adrenaline screwing things up. That significantly upped the odds that we’d get home alive.

This team also provided me with some entertaining moments in the field, of which this story is one. Traveling to and from construction sites was often a long, slow, boring journey on bumpy dirt roads. This little exercise broke the monotony. Eleven months later I’d remember this day and laugh: this drill was a lot more fun than the real thing!

You’ll need to know that SAF is small arms fire, and that Evan was a big, young, trash-talking good ‘ol boy Texan who’d been working in Iraq since just after the invasion. He and EB had worked together in Baghdad when Iraq was a free-for-all, when drunken parties went on all night and field visits to sites required just one hungover gunman per client. They welcomed any and every opportunity to harass each other.

December 2006

We started the security drill on open desert, driving in formation. When the team leader cued an imaginary attack, our driver slammed on the brakes as if our vehicle had been disabled, engulfing us in a cloud of dust.

The other two wagons converged on our disabled vehicle at high speed, sand flying. They were in position almost as soon as we’d jerked to a stop. A man from one of the other vehicles appeared through the fog of dust outside my window, snapped my door open, and roughly yanked me from the truck. He practically carried me by the scruff of my neck to one of the other wagons that had parked two meters away. The man’s hand left my collar to plant itself in the center of my back and with a good shove I was through the door. Good thing I was wearing my helmet …

I scrambled over to the far side of the seat as quickly as I could, jamming myself against the passenger door. While I was still scrabbling my way awkwardly across the seat, men started tossing weapons in my general direction and piling in after me. One man – one of the largest of the lot – rolled over the back of the seat into the cargo area and lay there where he landed, sprawled awkwardly atop med kits, tires and other paraphernalia, ending up jammed in like a piece of carry-on stuffed into an airplane’s overhead luggage rack. Half buried under rifles and a large pack, I joined in the chorus of go-go-go’s! as someone slammed the last door shut.

We shot off a few meters to simulate a getaway, then stopped abruptly, armor smacking painfully against faces and elbows, awkward positions pinching fingers and jabbing legs, dropped cartridges of ammo scraping our asses. A gun barrel slammed into my chin and someone’s elbow trapped my wrist awkwardly against the sights of another. A chorus of good-natured curses rained down on the driver.

The doors were immediately flung open, but it took a couple minutes for the first man to emerge from the mess that we were. Dust wafted in like slow steam. Untangling ourselves laboriously, the men retrieved dropped radios and cartridges of ammo from the floors and seats as they crawled one by one back out of the wagon, laughing and coughing and shouting, shaking themselves off like dogs once they’d made their exit.

I randomly doled out weapons as they debarked, rubbing my sore chin between handouts, half amazed that they’d tossed all those long guns into my arms. We civilians aren’t allowed to touch a gun, and here I sat with an armful of M4s. I haven’t got any interest at all in shooting at humans, but I am familiar with an M4 and it was good to feel the businesslike heft of each rifle as I handed them off.

The men stood around the truck for a few minutes, still shaking themselves out, laughing and griping about the tight fit of Land Cruisers. I handed a stray Glock out the door by the barrel. Someone laughed. Hey Rob, he shouted. Here’s a good one – the client’s got your gun!

While I checked the nooks and crannies of the truck for stray bullets and cartridges, the men gathered around EB to debrief the exercise. A few minutes later we rearranged ourselves into the proper vehicles and sedately made our way back to the road.

EB turned in his seat to grin at me. “Next time,” he said with an evil gleam in his eye, “we’ll run it when Evan is with us, and he’ll be a casualty.”

I can only imagine what injuries EB will dream up for him … and I don’t doubt the men will drop him (hard!) a few times on their way to the imaginary air evac helo …

It’s nice to have something to look forward to.

Unfortunately we never ran another desert drill, schedules never quite meshing in a way that allowed for it. I had to wait almost a year for another drill, then it was the real thing 🙂    (or   😦   !).



A Day in the Field – Month 1

November 2, 2009

This is a portion of the account I wrote about my first day in the field visiting construction sites. I didn’t know what I was doing on all sorts of levels. My background is not construction management, so I didn’t know what we were looking at or for during these visits. I’d been around military and guns, but not in a threatening situation, so I was interested in the non-verbal interactions taking place between the many armed men. I hadn’t been in Iraq long enough to know which uniformed Iraqis were likely to belong to which official agency, nor did I know the implications apparent in those uniforms. I felt like I was learning a lot of new things very quickly. I loved it.

August 2006

I went out in the field yesterday to tour some of the construction sites belonging to contracts that I’ll administer soon. The man I’ll be replacing, Ted, was my tour guide, and the office commander, a Lt Colonel, invited himself along as well.

Our convoy consisted of the standard three armored Land Cruisers. I rode in the lead vehicle with a personal security detail (PSD) driver and navigator. Ted and the Lt Colonel rode in the second vehicle with a driver and a guard. The third vehicle generally holds a driver and two gunners, one in the front passenger seat, and one in the back cargo area looking out through an open window or hatch, getting bounced around eating dust. Riding in the front vehicle is considered most dangerous, an equivalent to walking point. I suspect I was chosen for the position because the Lt Colonel is considered (far) more important than I am in the pecking order of the office, and Ted knows what he’s talking about so he was the logical companion to the colonel.

Perfectly happy with the arrangement, I settled into the back seat and took it all in. I was fascinated by the vigilance applied to traveling on the roads of Iraq. The navigator called the route and all obstacles, approaching vehicles, people on foot near the route, safe havens along the way, and anything else that caught his eye, keeping up a constant patter over the radio using a verbal shorthand that took awhile for me to decipher … white truck approaching fast left three hundred [meters]; two pax [souls: people] on foot right berm ten o’clock two hundred [meters]; [turn] right-right eight hundred past feature; bump; IP check point five hundred -six [men] at front, five longs [guns], waving us through … one clear [through the checkpoint safely]…feature ahead five hundred …

Riding in the client vehicle, the middle or second of a convoy, I’m told that none of that chatter is audible. The navigator’s radio feeds the ear mics of each man on the team, rather than coming over the radios mounted in each Land Cruiser. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be put in the lead vehicle again, so I’m glad that I had this experience. Now I have some idea of what the men watch for as we travel off base. I’d only have guessed otherwise.

The first site that we visited today was an electrical substation that was pretty well destroyed during one of the wars (Iran or US, I don’t know). The reconstruction contractor is French, and I’m told the company has never worked on substations, which may account (at least in part) for the fact that all five of their contracts are almost a year behind schedule.

When we approached the site, armed men were milling around outside and inside a locked gate. Aside from the dangers inherent in doing work for the Coalition Forces, a lot of looting that goes on at electrical substation construction sites. Site security costs are written into this and all government construction contracts. Most contractors will use those costs to hire twenty-four hour armed guards, and nearly all of the construction sites in southern Iraq have protective fences constructed around them, either cinder block, plastered block, or wire.

As we turned off the highway onto a dirt track to cross a big area of bare dirt in front of the substation, the contractor’s armed security guards quickly moved into defensive positions that offered clear field of fire, kicking our own PSD team into high alert.

People from our offices have visited this site before, but our PSD team said that they didn’t recognize these guards. A changing of the guard is never a good sign, apparently, being a possible sign that militia or a tribal group has gained control. One of our trucks cautiously approached the gate while the other two hung back at a safe distance. We watched one of our PSD men climb out of the vehicle at the gate and talk to one of the armed contractor guards. His mic was open, but again it fed the radios each man on the team carries, so I wasn’t in on what was being said. I watched arms wave around, then the men shook hands. Our man waved us ahead. We followed that lead vehicle through the gate.

Inside the yard our drivers parked our three vehicles in positions that offered a quick exit. Our drivers stayed in the vehicles while the other men opened our doors to escort us out. They immediately herded us together then kept us together, pushing us by moving in close and lightly bumping against us like border collies herding sheep. While we greeted the contractor’s project manager, one PSD man stood at each of our elbows on a man-to-man defense. Their eyes constantly scanned the hired guns positioned around the perimeter of the site and moving around the two-story brick substation building. Three other PSD men spread out, checking around corners of the brick shell of the building, choosing berms to stand atop that would offer good fields of fire. There were a lot of guns watching guns.

We toured the site with the contractor project manager, a young man with cold eyes. His contempt for me was transparent, though no one commented on it. As we strolled through the yard and building our hired guns trotted at our heels and stopped us to clear areas ahead of us. Another layer of our guards orbited thirty meters out from our little pack. The contractor guards would constantly shift, and our men would immediately shift in answer. My PSD guard kept muttering into his radio, eyes scanning around in all directions. At one point he pulled a cell phone out of a pocket and spoke quietly into it for a few minutes, eyes still flickering from one contractor guard to another.

Touring the site I wasted about five minutes trying to comprehend the dense and alien language of electrical substations by following the conversation Ted and the Lt Colonel were having with the contractor’s manager, who had a nearly impenetrable accent. Frankly all the orbiting guns were too distracting. I was interested in how our PSD men deployed at sites, so I was keeping an eye on them. The contractor guards were tracking us with guns half raised, so I tried to follow where they were in relation to our men. At the same time, I was prudently noting places that I might dive for cover if someone sneezed. While busy with those tasks, I was practically wilting in the 120F heat with the thirty pounds of steel plate on my back and an itchy helmet on my head. The complicated nature of the situation struck me as comical at the time. Once as I practically tripped over a clod of dirt while craning my neck to see where the 50 cal was set up, unable to hold back my amusement any longer, I grinned at my guard. He probably thought I was demented.

When we’d finished the fifteen minute tour of the grounds, Ted and the Lt Colonel disappeared into the office trailer to check designs. Being entirely ignorant of anything remotely related to electrical substation designs and momentarily curious about other things, I chose to stay outside and have a smoke with my PSD guard. He confirmed that these contractor security guards were unfamiliar and suspiciously aggressive. He also told me that while we’d been touring the site he’d received a phone call alerting the team that someone had hit an IED on the road we’d planned to use to get back to base, and another team had taken some small arms fire. An Iraqi politician had been assassinated last night by a northern militia group, precipitating a spike in violence, so the province would go under curfew at 2pm.

In the end our hyper-vigilance was unnecessary – or successful. We left the site without incident a few minutes after Ted and the LTC emerged from the office.

The second site we visited was a water treatment plant not too far distant from the substation. This site was located in a walled yard within another walled yard. Our PSD team had never been to this site, so when we were confronted with armed men at the outside wall, we again held back while one of our men spoke with the guards. The guards didn’t want to let us in at first, but our man persisted. After almost five minutes of arm gestures and head shaking, they waved us past. One by one our trucks drove slowly through the gate and turned left, following a track to the gate on the interior wall.

As we passed through that interior gate, two Iraqi Police (IP) emerged from a stucco building straight ahead of us, setting off a rapid-fire chattering exchange between our PSD men. The IP are considered completely untrustworthy, the navigator told me in a quick aside. Their ranks are littered with insurgents, and/or tribal connections that outweigh any responsibility they might carry toward national interests of law and order. The mortar attack we had the first night I arrived on base is known to have been launched by the IP – from another of my electrical substation projects, by the way. (?!)

We cruised slowly past the IP, our men staring at them, them staring at us, our men with hands on guns, and the IP with their guns held down but casually tracking our progress by rotating in an arc across the ground halfway between them and our trucks. As we drove around to the back side of the building, the IP walked slowly around the corner of the building to watch us with their flat, hard experessions.

Again the PSD men parked our trucks for a quick exit, and this time they suggested we make our visit a quick one. Construction on the project had just begun, so there wasn’t much to see in any case. We took a quick walk around the cleared pad and climbed right back into the Land Cruisers. The IP stood on the front porch of the building and watched us drive away.

In order to get back to base before curfew, we traveled the main highway back to camp, the same road on which a truck had been hit by an IED earlier in the day. Our team figured the road couldn’t be much safer, having been cleared the hard way that morning. We didn’t see any sign of the IED that had detonated, but did run by a burned out truck in the road at another location. We spent a good part of the trip running on the wrong side of the road to get around convoys, a common maneuver appropriately referred to as ‘running kamikaze’. I can see how this could potentially be more unnerving than the thought of running into an IED, as an IED exists only in the imagination until you’re hit while running kamikaze you get to watch the cars coming straight at you for quite some time.

Just outside the base we veered off onto a dirt track shortcut. Lined up beside the kilometer long track are tens of bombed out shells of tanks.

In Iraq every experience, no matter how mundane, contains some facet that makes it new and engaging.