Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Back Home

Well, I'm back in the US and I haven't come close to writing anything on this blog since setting foot on American soil back in October. I promise, one day soon I'll finish up the deployment blogging. But right now I'm back home in Nashville, sitting in my parents' living room, sort-of watching college football while the Christmas tree lights glow by the television. Last year at this time I was at FOB Lagman in Afghanistan to play music for the troops there, which was a nice break from being at Kandahar Air Field. While I am honored to have spent nearly a year over there and our holiday jaunt to Lagman was actually a pretty enjoyable trip, it is good to be back home. Very, very good. I still have friends back in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas and I hope they can all experience the holidays with their families soon enough. This year I've thought less about gifts and more about how being back in my home nation is a gift, and that just having the freedoms and luxuries that we do is a gift. So to all of you reading this, I ask you to take a minute and reflect on the blessings we have and the sacrifices that make them possible. I hope you all have an extraordinary Christmas. And to the extremist terrorists whose actions necessitate our overseas actions, I leave you with a quote from John Lennon: war is over, if you want it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The New Guys

Though we have been preparing to depart, that hasn't been the only activity recently for the 10th Mountain Division Band. We've also been preparing things for the band that is replacing us, the 82nd Airborne Division Band from Ft. Bragg, NC. They began arriving in late August, with most of their personnel coming in September. The transition is interesting partly because they are bringing a larger group, over thirty people, while we had just over twenty.

Part of the transition is turning over vehicles, ammuntion, and other equipment for them to use. We also have to find our "job counterparts" for the various additional duties that we perform and train up those people on how the system works here at Kandahar Air Field. During this time we've gotten to know the members of the 82nd, and so far the transition seems to be going smoothly. They are already taking over our partnership missions with the Afghan National Army's 205th Corps Band and have been rehearsing daily in their various small ensembles to prepare for performances. Their intent was to hit the ground running, so to speak, and they seem to have accomplished that goal.

I've been glad that they arrived when they did, since I mentioned in a previous post that all of 10th Mountain's instruments were sealed up after our September 11 performance. The members of the 82nd have been gracious to let me borrow a trombone and get some face time on the instrument! This has been a wonderful opportunity to not lose whatever improvements I've made as a musician recently, and I'd like to publicly thank them for their generosity. Sure, I can "buzz" on my mouthpiece, but nothing compares to actually playing the horn.

The members of the 82nd seem to be excited to take over the mission here, and I have no doubt they will do great things. Having been able to listen to some of their rehearsals, I can say that they have some great performers and they will represent the proud heritage of the 82nd Airborne Division quite well during their time here. Our commander talks about how the whole Army Band field is like a large family, and he's right--already after a few days, I've gotten to know many members of this group and I hope I have a chance to serve with them down the road. I've also gotten to talk with a few people I've served with previously, and also of note is that my instructor at the Armed Forces School of Music and the band liason who held my entrance audition are in the 82nd, so it is fascinating to get to spend some of my last deployment time with two people who played a large part in my entry into the active Army. Airborne all the way!

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Power to Move You, Part 4

Last Sunday, September 18, we moved again. Moving is always annoying in this type of situation, but this time the reason for moving was different. We moved out of the modular housing, or "mods," into the transient tent in preparation for leaving Afghanistan. By "we," I mean "virtually everyone in the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters regardless of departure date." They wanted to clear out the mods so that the members of the incoming 82nd Airborne Division could move in. (Note: as of this writing, they still have not moved the members of the 82nd Airborne Division into the mods.)

We were originally told that we would move approximately five days before leaving, but they decided to shelve that idea and just move everyone out at the same time, so we now have considerably more time in the tent. The tent is not like what you would take camping; it is very large and spacious, with lights, air conditioning, and a concrete floor. And bunk beds. Lots and lots of bunk beds, virtually all of which are occupied by either people or luggage.

I actually claimed my bed, an upper bunk near a power outlet, on Saturday when I was told that people were already moving in. I got a couple of my bags that were packed and placed them on the best bed I could find to reserve my spot, though I didn't move the rest of my stuff and turn in my room key until Sunday afternoon. I also spent a good chunk of Sunday afternoon mailing some of my things, including my guitar and a lot of care package items, extra bedsheets, etc. in a large box I constructed out of three smaller cardboard boxes. I sent them off to New York, where I hope they will be waiting for me when I arrive, or at least show up a few days afterward. This not only saves space, but means I had a lot less stuff to either carry or throw away.

Meanwhile, I spent much of this afternoon reorganizing my things, and I think I may actually have plenty of room for the remaining things I need to carry with me. Waiting for the order to get on the airplane...that's the hard part!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Patriot's Day

I'm down to my last few days in Afghanistan, and I have limited computer time, which is going to make writing a blog even more difficult than normal. But I'm going to try to keep some daily updates here the next few days as we prepare to ramp out of here. Let's see if I can actually do it!

A couple of weeks ago was September 11, the tenth anniversary of the attacks that resulted in our invasion of Afghanistan and the conflict we're currently fighting over here. There was a commemorative ceremony here at Kandahar Air Field, with speeches by various people giving their thoughts on the occasion. One of the officers in our battalion spoke about his memories of that day--at the time, he was assigned to the Pentagon and was inside the building when it was hit. Naturally, we all thought about where we were and how the news of that day has impacted our lives. (Perhaps I'll write about that in a future entry.)

The band was part of the ceremony as well, and our small group of remaining instruments (2 trombones, trumpet, clarinet, tuba, saxophone, and drums) made for an electic but effective ensemble. This also marked the final performance of the 10th Mountain Division Band for this deployment, as we had to pack up our instruments the next day to prepare them for shipping back to the United States. It brought a sense of closure to play our final performance in Afghanistan on the anniversary of the attacks that had led us all to be here. Now we could start getting ready to go home!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Beginning of the End


As the last weeks of this deployment roll by, I find it increasingly difficult to focus on writing a blog. The psychological toll of being in a deployed environment, and the physical toll of changing work hours, lack of quality sleep, and an increasingly dusty atmosphere that is treating my respiratory system like Rocky pounding sides of meat have dampened my desire to write about what's going on. Combined with the cooler-but-still-draining heat of the day and my down time is increasingly consumed with an urge to be as inactive as possible, not counting time spent working out in the gym or practicing.

The focus of this all-too-delayed entry is the final job of my primary group, the "Bunker Brass" Quintet. Our quintet was the first functioning ensemble to arrive at Kandahar Air Field back in October, with only our commander and two "unit movement officers" arriving before us. (The UMO's are responsible for coordinating the shipping and placement of the containers holding our equipment, and as such had to be among the first people on the ground. Had they not been effective, our quintet would have arrived with no instruments to play!) We performed our first mission just a few days after our arrival, and performed numerous morale and ceremonial jobs afterwards, sometimes traveling to other Forward Operating Bases and even once into Kandahar City. The Bunker Brass performed its final mission in Afghanistan on August 25, 2011 for the Role 3 Medical Clinic (the hospital on KAF), which was holding a "transfer of authority" ceremony to mark the transition from one commanding officer to another. Because the hospital is located next to the actual airport runway to facilitate quick movement of incoming casualties to the hospital, the ceremony was interrupted several times by the roar of incoming or outgoing aircraft. In fact, the ceremony was delayed slightly by a medical team rushing from the airfield to the ER with patients in tow, a sobering reminder that a lot of people over here have much tougher jobs than I do.

In terms of the performance, it was a by-the-book mission like many others we have done: some light "fun" pre-music, the National Anthem, the service songs of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. But as the final performance of our "original" music group, it felt a bit different. Since then, three members of the quintet have already returned home to their families while a couple of us have remained with a skeleton crew of bandsmen to pack up everything else and assist with the transition for the 82nd Airborne Division Band that will be taking on our job here. But it is a good feeling to know that the next time we all perform together again, we'll be back home in the US!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

De-tent


Above: Preparing to clean the central section of the former rehearsal tent.
It's a new month, and with the turning of the calendar I am now measuring my remaining time in Afghanistan in weeks rather than months. Much has happened in the past several days since my last post so I'll try and catch up quickly, but today I'll focus on a milestone event in the 10th Mountain Division Band's deployment--the deconstruction of the tent. Not long after we arrived here, we set up a tent to use as our rehearsal facility. It also became our meeting area and instrument storage space. It wasn't perfect--the air conditioner frequently broke down in the stifling heat of the Afghan summer, the acoustics were nothing special and did nothing to keep the sound of loud rehearsals from "bleeding"into the outside world, and keeping it dust-free was a fantasy--but it was our space, and we were happy to have something that kept us out of the bunkers for practice time.
We began the process of disassembling the tent in early August by packing up nonessential equipment or moving it to our office in the Headquarters compound. We then had to take down the storage locker for the instruments that had been built out of some spare wood. Then came the process of taking down the lights, disconnecting the power generator, and removing all the interior support struts before actually taking the various sections of the tent apart. Spreading this out over several days allowed us to not only do our other jobs, but also avoid overexposure to the triple-degree heat.
I actually missed the day that the tent was finally finished because I was elsewhere on the base inspecting some equipment before it was packed up to ship back to Ft. Drum. I'm not complaining about that, though; I don't envy the people who had to figure out how to get that thing back on the trailer. (The trailer also contains the power generator; when disassembled the whole thing-except for the wooden floor-fits into a single unit that can be towed anywhere by truck.)
Of course, that isn't the end of the process. Once disassembled, the tent must be cleaned. Anything, indoors or out, that spends any length of time at Kandahar Air Field gets dirty. There are copious amounts of dust in this region, and the tent's various components were saturated by it despite our best efforts to keep them clean. This was especially true for the outside of the tent, which received less attention over the past year than the inside. So we spent the next Saturday at the motor pool using a pressure washer to clean the tent. Every single piece of it. We started about 6 am, and were not done until after 5 pm. Long, long, day. And also hot. But the tent was cleaned, and the parts actually dried off very quickly in the sun. I was glad to have my sunscreen with me. I don't burst into flames anymore when I walk outside like I did when I was younger, but I still burn easily and I'm sure the Coppertone SPF 30+ saved me some very sore moments later on. It is a bit odd to think of our place of work being folded up on a trailer now, and we are again having to improvise places to practice and rehearse (yes, we still have a few performing jobs left to do!). I'm glad I have a Best Brass practice mute for my trombone; it allows me to practice in my room occasionally without disturbing the roommates, or neighbors, too much. Of course, we still have the wooden floor just sitting there all by itself. Not sure what we're going to do with that....

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Turn Around


Photo: an unusual display of the flags of Bulgaria and the state of Tennessee on top of the living quarters at Kandahar Air Field.

Things are changing at Kandahar Air Field. We are moving closer to our "redeployment," which is our return to the United States. (Yes, "redeployment" sounds like it means "deploying again," but it actually means "leaving the deployment theater to return to home station." Don't ask me why.) This has made for a different way of operating in the past couple of weeks. We are spending much of our time packing away the equipment we no longer need, turning in equipment that needs to stay here or be trashed, mailing home items that we don't want to carry back to the States with us. There has been less time for rehearsals, very few scheduled performances, and more emphasis on individual practice time.

Another change is that most of August is the annual observance of Ramadan, or as it's pronounced here, Ramazan. During this period, Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. As a sign of respect for the local Muslim population, we've had to change a few things. We are now required to wear our full uniform at all times when out and about; unless we are actually engaged in exercise we are not to wear the Physical Fitness Uniform. We are also expected to refrain from eating and drinking out in public, though meals in the dining facilities are unaffected. (After sundown, the eating and drinking restrictions are lifted since the fasting period is only during the daytime.) These are simple changes, of course, though with August being one of the hottest months of the year they do test one's patience at times.

Temperatures have been very, very hot. Triple-digit Fahrenheit temperatures, up to or past 120 degrees, are not unusual this time of year. Folks are getting frustrated about having to move, clean, and pack equipment in the afternoons and fatigue, both from the environment and nearly a year of being here, is wearing all of us down.
I'm spending time doing customs inspections; this involves inspecting gear and luggage that is about to go back and making sure that it is clean and contains no contraband items before it is sent to the US. Each company has a few members trained to do this, and I'm one of two that the band has. The caveat being, of course, that I can't inspect any of the band's luggage or equipment since I might be tempted to show "favorable action."

I did have an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago. I found out-almost literally at the last minute-that I needed to go to a briefing room to meet a "state official." So I went there and waited for a while with several other Soldiers from 10th Mountain. The officials in question were state governors, from Kentucky (Steve Beshear), Utah (Gary Herbert), and my home state of Tennessee (Bill Haslam). Gov. Haslam was easy to identify, with his baseball cap bearing the familiar "tri-star" emblem of the state flag. A resident of Knoxville, his face lit up when I mentioned attending the University of Tennessee and playing in the Pride of the Southland Marching Band before joining the Army as a bandsman. It was a totally unexpected experience, and I appreciated him being willing to travel to a combat zone to visit some of the troops here.

In my next installment, I'll tell more about the final days of our rehearsal tent!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Venting

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it's easy to keep up with the news here. We have televisions to watch in the dining facilities, and with internet access in our rooms we can follow new developments almost in real time, though the time zone difference doesn't always make that desirable. Right now is one of those times I almost wish I didn't have such easy access to what's going on back in the US. Frankly, it's disturbing, and almost heartbreaking.
On Facebook, I get updates from a lot of friends voicing their opinions on the budget issues, and I'm dismayed at the harsh things they say. "What would they say to my face if they knew I disagreed with them?" I think. I have a standing policy not to post on political/controversial topics or comment on such threads, though there have been a couple of times I couldn't resist the urge to weigh in because I felt someone needed to say something contrary to the often ignorant things that people post. And then I wait in anticipation for my "friends," or friends-of-friends, to slam me for disagreeing with them. Why has it come to this?
Part of it is the fact that US culture has developed (primarily) two modes of thought that are completely diametrically opposed. They don't just disagree; they hold fundamentally different views of how the world should work and how people should act. They will not agree on much of anything in terms of policy because what one believes is certainly right the other believes is certainly wrong, and the true believers are not going to compromise on that.
Then there's the part where they become unable to have a civil discussion. You may remember back in the winter when the President called for a shift in the tone of political rhetoric in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Giffords. You may also recall that about the same time, a whole lot of people were blaming former Gov. Sarah Palin for influencing the shooter, despite a complete lack of evidence that such was the case. (This is a textbook example of "irony.") If you think that the President's words for a new tone have been taken to heart, read this. No doubt some people will look at that link and say, "But that isn't hateful rhetoric! It's just true!" If that's what you think, congratulations, you are part of the problem. Yes, I said it. If you think people refusing to raise taxes because they promised not to vote for a raise in taxes, or people insisting on raising taxes because they think it's the right thing to do are the moral equivalent of people who are determined to kill as many innocent people as possible to make others fear them, than you seriously need to reevaluate how you define terrorism. I'm in Afghanistan right now; I think I know a little something about terrorism and a Congressional debate ain't it. I don't expect the different sides in Congress to agree on much of anything (I'm becoming more cynical by the hour), but I don't think they're the moral equal of the people we're fighting over here.
This weekend, ADM Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (in other words, the top military officer in the country), came to Kandahar Air Field to talk to the troops and answer some questions. Numerous people asked if the current debate would have an effect on military pay, benefits, or retirement, and mostly he had to give the honest answer that he didn't know, but that he would do his best to see that our interests are protected. And he was right: General and Fleet officers don't get to make the budget, Congress does. I do find it interesting though that so many in Washington are willing to make cuts to the military budget, which is something approved in the Constitution, without cutting other things not mentioned in the Constitution. I'm not saying that there isn't wasteful spending that can't be curbed-I'm sure there's plenty-but it always seems like we're among the first on the chopping block.
Sometimes, I procrastinate. I freely admit it. (That's why my blog postings haven't been more frequent!) But this problem could have been easily solved before January, when all of Congress was controlled by one party. After all, that's what they did with the health care bill. But over 800 days of one-party control produced...nothing. The President's budget proposal received zero votes in the Senate. So when people complain about the minority party holding up progress, it's very, very hard for me to take them seriously.
Our system of government is designed to produce gridlock. The fact that the President can't make laws, the Congress can't sign bills, and things have to get through two different groups of people to get passed...it's all designed to slow things down and force people to work together to come up with something better. Or, more palatable. Or, less hated. It used to be a no-brainer that if we were running out of money, we'd just raise the debt-ceiling and presto! Problem solved (well, problem kicked down the road to rear its ugly head again, but let's not worry about that now). The fact that there's debate on this issue is good--a debt ceiling is useless if you can just change it when it becomes inconvenient. President Obama himself opposed raising the debt limit in 2006. (I think he was right back then--it was a bad idea in 2006, and it's a bad idea now.) I remember struggling for years to get out of debt that was a result of my immature and foolish spending choices, and for a few years now I've been able to live without spending money I don't have. I think it's very wise for my tax dollars to be used the same way. I understand it is hard to get out from under a deficit. Been there, done that. (Thank you Dave Ramsey!) But if individuals should do it, if states should do it (most states have laws requiring a balanced budget), then the Federal government should do it to. How to get there...that's the real trick.
I remember reading a lot of heated comments from friends and associates who are teachers and were livid about state governments trying to change the collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions and re-writing pension and insurance plans. I understand why they were mad-no one likes to find out that a system they like is going to change-but I kept asking myself, what if the money isn't there? Isn't that a reasonable question to ask? (And frankly-getting cynical again here-if they want Republicans to be more forgiving to unions, maybe unions should stop exclusively supporting Democrats. I fully believe many Republicans will gladly cave to the unions if they just get a bit more campaign cash.) Until now, I have remained silent, since I used to be a teacher, and I am a musician, and it's professionally unwise to let a huge block of potential future co-workers know that I wasn't ready to join the picket lines with them because I could see the other side of the argument. But did anyone really deserve death threats over the issue? Keep in mind, my parents were both teachers (they're retired now) and I was a public school teacher before I went to the Army. (For what it's worth, I found an article about how some of the controversial changes are bearing some fruit.)
One thing that's apparent is that one must be careful about the promises one makes. Some Representatives and Senators pledged not to vote for tax increases. That could cost them depending on what compromise is eventually reached. The government itself has pledged to pay certain benefits and incur certain debts. The obligation to pay those while dealing with a shortage is going to cause problems, somewhere, somehow.
In my experience, debt is rarely the result of an income shortage so much as it is the result of too much spending. Giving more money to someone with a spending problem doesn't solve the issue; the only way to do that is to replace bad habits with good ones.
But don't get too upset about all this...I'm just venting.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Independence Day


Monday, July 4th, 2011 was a slightly unusual day for the 10th Mountain Division Band. Even though Kandahar Air Field is home to personnel from many different countries, the Americans are going to celebrate. Many people in the unit were spending the morning involved in a big re-enlistment ceremony: a big event in which General Petraeus, the top military officer of the coalition forces, did the swearing-in duties for a large number of US personnel who were renewing their commitments to the Armed Forces. Some members of the band were providing music, others were re-enlisting. I was not involved in the ceremony, so I was with a small group of people who were helping to set up equipment on the Boardwalk for the afternoon festivities. I also took some time to try fixing my tenor trombone--the "spit valve" had come off the slide and I needed to make repairs before the show, since the trombone is unplayable without a functional valve. (I should like to know that this was a brand new trombone that had only been in use for a few weeks, and this was the second time the valve was causing trouble. Not to insinuate that all Bach 42T trombones have quality control problems, but...really.)
With the band split into separate groups, our transportation was stretched a bit thin, so we ended up hauling the sound gear and several instruments in a pickup truck and a minivan. Fortunately, we managed to get just about all of it in two trips. After taking shifts for lunch/equipment guard, we waited for the rest of the band to arrive at the Boardwalk for the sound check. While most of the performances that I do depend on the natural acoustic power of the instruments, that wouldn't be sufficient for this one. So all the instruments in the band had individual microphones clipped on, which meant that every single instrument had to have its volume individually adjusted. It required some patience, but we managed to finish the sound check with time to spare. I was able to join another member of the band to walk around the various games and activities that were set up in the center of the Boardwalk. (I managed to win a set of Skipbo cards, as a matter of fact.) Then it was time for the show to start.
Task Force Dixie, a Dixieland jazz group, opened the show. Since I'm not in that group, I was able to sit in the shade and listen. The next group was our W00T! Brass Band, which played a mix of funk and soul music. (pictured above) Following that, the 10th Mountain rock band Avalanche did a set of mostly classic rock tunes. By this time, it was starting to get dark and we Linkwere ready for the big finish, sans fireworks of course. The horns from W00T! joined Avalanche to play some patriotic numbers--"Warrior Ethos" (a song based on the Army's "Soldier's Creed"), Toby Keith's "American Soldier," and Phil Driscoll's arrangement of "America the Beautiful," with SSG Jason Bemis doing a pretty good reproduction of Driscoll's chop-busting trumpet solos.
Afterward, we had to pack up. This time we had the band's large tactical truck to haul gear, so the real trick was getting it backed up close to the Boardwalk so we could load equipment into it. By the time we were finished putting all the instruments and equipment back into our tent, it was after 2100 (9 pm) and the heat and activity had completely drained everyone. We were surprised to be given a complete day off on Tuesday to rest and recover, and I think everyone took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in.
It was not a spectacular day, but it was busy and full of music, and I think we helped remind a lot of the Soldiers over here what they're fighting to protect. Not a bad day's work!

Friday, July 8, 2011

End of an Era


In my next post, I'll write about the 4th of July festivities that we had on Kandahar Air Field. Today, though, I'll write about something I watched on television. Just minutes before I wrote this, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched into orbit, beginning the final flight of NASA's Shuttle program. I have written in previous blogs about my attempts to watch a launch in person, which finally happened on April 5, 2010 as chronicled in my "Liftoff!" entry. As I have mentioned, I've been a fan of the space program all my life and especially fascinated with the Shuttle since April 12, 1981 when Columbia made its first flight. I still remember being in kindergarten and my dad waking me up early before school to watch the launch on television. Ever since then, I've watched launches whenever I could.
Though I often dreamed of being an astronaut, my interests were too mercurial and my dislike of advanced math and physics ensured that if I ever do go into space, it will have to be as a civilian in some sort of commercial capacity. (My naturally poor distance vision also convinced me early on that I would not be a pilot.) But every time I watched one of those Shuttles take off, I felt like my fantasies of spaceflight were somehow being fulfilled.
So this evening, just before 8 pm Afghan time, I sat in a dining facility with an unobstructed view of the television showing the British Sky News channel, waiting for them to switch coverage from the newspaper hacking scandal to the Shuttle. Sure enough, they switched over just before the countdown resumed from its T-9:00 minute hold. I watched as they defied the reports of bad weather, waited as they held the countdown at T-31 seconds, unable to hear what the problem was over the noise of the chow hall, and then did a double-take when I saw the clock had started again. And then, the familiar shots of the noise suppression system shooting into action under the main engines, the main engines coming alive in a bright orange burst, and the rocket boosters shooting Atlantis into the (unusually cloudy) sky.
As I walked away from dinner, I thought about how for the final time, somewhere in the sky above KAF, a US Space Shuttle orbiter was flying. While it was inevitable that the flights would end sometime, a combination of slow development, cost overruns, and bad planning has left the US without a manned launch vehicle and nothing past the drawing board stage. Our astronauts now have to travel to Kazakhstan to fly on Russian Soyuz rockets. While we will eventually develop some new method of space travel, the scuttling of NASA's planned Orion program and the lack of progress from private developers leaves us empty-handed, and that's a shame for the only nation to put humans on the Moon and build a reusable spacecraft. The people who built such a legacy for our space program, and the future generations they will inspire, deserve better.
So Godspeed Atlantis, and many thanks to the astronauts and ground crews of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Endeavour. You have carried my dreams, and the dreams of the world.
Photo courtesy NASA: Atlantis STS-27 liftoff.

Friday, July 1, 2011

R&R


It's been over a month since my last post, but I have a good excuse this time--vacation! Policy dictates that those of us who are deployed in an overseas combat zone be given fifteen days, plus travel time, to get out of the theater and enjoy some rest and recuperation. While a few people take the opportunity for international travel--our tuba player went to Ireland with his wife--I decided to go home.
The 10th Mountain Division Band is broken into smaller groups, and the different groups each took R&R together, meaning that no performing ensemble was incomplete for the better part of a month and the remaining groups could cover any missions that came up. The Brass Quintet was the last group to go on R&R, and while waiting so long was difficult it does mean that we had far less than half the deployment remaining upon our return. I can't reveal much about the process of traveling back to the US for security reasons, but I did get to spend an entire day in a place I'll refer to as "Sandblastistan." I thought that the triple digit temperatures at KAF were bad, but Sandblastistan was even hotter. Imagine walking around on a hot day with a hair dryer blowing at full power three inches from the surface of your skin--that's what it felt like. I was glad to be away from there. The flight over was not comfortable for me because I was sitting in the middle of the plane--I'm about 6'2", and having such limited arm and leg room while flying halfway around the world did not make for a pleasant experience.
But it was worth it to arrive in Atlanta and be met by Julia, a lovely girl who I met through some mutual friends a while back. We made sure to stop at Chick-Fil-A for lunch and thought about attending the evening's Atlanta Braves game, but I decided I needed to stay in and rest up from the trip. We drove up to my hometown of Nashville the following day to stay with my family. That night we attended the Nashville Symphony's performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection." It was astounding--the orchestra has never sounded better, the Chorus was magnificent, and hearing it the exceptional acoustics of Schermerhorn Symphony Center made it easy to understand why many think that "Resurrection" is the best of Mahler's symphonies.
We spent the next day at my sister's house, where I got to spend plenty of time with my niece, who is about 18 months old, and we ended the day with a delicious family meal at Steak'N'Shake. The following day after I took my parents to the airport (they had made plans to vacation in Hawaii several months before my R&R schedule was finalized) Julia and I had breakfast with my sister's family at the Pfunky Griddle, a pancake restaurant that lets you make your own pancakes on a griddle in the center of the table--fun and tasty! After that, the two of us headed to McMinnville and Cumberland Caverns to enjoy Bluegrass Underground, a monthly event in which a bluegrass concert is held inside a large chamber in the cavern system. The opening act was a modern bluegrass group called Newfound Road, and the headline group was Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, a more traditional group that highlighted Cleveland's dazzling virtuosity on the fiddle. It was a fun performance, full of typical bluegrass subjects like trains, heartache, and murder, though after a while the constant 56-degree F temperature did begin to feel a bit chilly.
The next day, we headed back to Atlanta so Julia could squeeze in some time at work and I could visit some of my many friends from when I lived there. One of the hobbies I developed during my time in Atlanta was ballroom dancing, and so I made sure to get some lesson time with my teacher Natalie. We also joined a couple of Julia's friends for Mellow Mushroom trivia, where we placed a very close second. (Oddly enough, I'd gotten a photograph of these particular friends of hers--dressed as Indiana Jones and "the Bride" from Kill Bill--at DragonCon the previous September, completely unaware that they knew each other!) We met other friends at places as diverse as California Pizza Kitchen and Cafe Intermezzo--good food and good company.
The last few days were spent back in Nashville when my parents returned from the islands. Some quality family time was mixed in with a trip to Cheekwood to see the gardens and model trains, Ruby Falls (an underground waterfall located inside Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga), seeing old friends from college and high school, swimming at the neighborhood pool, catching up on the Harry Potter movies, visiting the famous Jack Daniel Distillery, and finding out that my Connect Four skills need some polishing. Then it was back to Atlanta, where I spent some of my last evening in the US enjoying the delectable tiramisu at Capozzi's in Decatur and enjoying the view from the Sundial revolving restaurant in the Westin Tower with my friend Jeff, an old Army buddy from my days at Ft. Benning and Ft. McPherson.
It was not easy going back to the airport to fly back to Afghanistan, but knowing that we're very close to being done with this deployment did help. I had a great time, made some great memories, and there's a lot of people I didn't get to see that I hope to meet up with next time. Meanwhile, there's more work to be done at Kandahar Air Field, so stay tuned!

Friday, May 27, 2011

It's All About....Timing


Sometimes you just have to laugh at the crazy things that happen in life, and that holds true even in a combat zone. I recently experienced a couple of moments at Kandahar Air Field that I thought I'd share here. Incidentally, I include this photo because I thought that the warning label graphic was amusing.

Every so often, stuff blows up here. Most of the time, these are "controlled explosions," meaning that bomb technicians are blowing things up on purpose. We are typically not informed *what* it is that's going ka-boom, but we are often told when it's going to happen. Normally, an announcement is made over the loudspeakers that there will be an explosion in x minutes, and x minutes later we hear it. Sometimes we don't hear anything. But one night a few days ago, a painfully slow announcement came on. Perhaps if the guy had been speaking more quickly it would have worked out better: "There...will...be...a...controlled...explosion...to...the...west...of...KAF...in...five...
BOOM!!!!!...minutes. End...of...message."

Yesterday, the Brass Quintet was playing music during lunchtime at one of the dining facilities. We were doing our usual eclectic selection of non-standard quintet music, which has expanded in recent weeks to include tunes like the "Pennsylvania Polka" and "Come On Eileen." We had spent some time working on an arrangement of John Williams' "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back, easily one of his best pieces from one of his finest film scores. It is a very good arrangement, but tricky for all the players in the group. We had a good run-through in our last rehearsal, but hadn't yet performed it for an audience. A couple of us in the group were lobbying for a performance, but the others weren't sure we were ready. As we prepared to start up our Metallica medley, someone walked up and asked, "Do you guys take requests?" We responded that we would take requests, though we might not necessarily play them. "Can you play the Imperial March from Star Wars?" We took that as a sign of Divine Intervention, and flipped over a few pages to play the march. It actually came off really well, though our requester was nowhere to be seen, probably departing the building after the first few notes. At least we could vent our frustration by playing Metallica.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Eyes Have It





I will now take some time to talk about eyewear. As I have mentioned before, I normally wear contact lenses because I'm very nearsighted. However, US military policy prohibits wearing contact lenses in combat zones, so ever since I got on the airplane in October I've been wearing glasses during pretty much all of my waking hours. This can be a bit cumbersome sometimes, especially during the many bright cloudless days when I need to wear sunglasses outdoors. If I'm going to eat at one of the dining facilities, I must put on the sunglasses--which are actually dark protective ballastic lenses with attached prescription inserts--and upon entering the building, remove them and put on my regular glasses so I can see inside the comparatively dim entryway.



But the main thing I wanted to write about was the ridiculous effort it took me to get some new lenses. When I came here, I was wearing glasses that were provided, free of charge, by the government. They were fine, except that the frames weren't quite balanced right. I managed to get them adjusted, but they were just a bit crooked. I was fine with them when we left. After a few weeks in Afghanistan, with the constant moving around, changing of one set with another, the dust, the heat, the cold, what have you, I began to realize the wear and tear was beginning to bug me. The things just weren't comfortable anymore. They were starting to get more scratches. One of the nosepiece pads snapped in half (!) one day, making things that much more uncomfortable. I needed new glasses. Also, I lost a set of my prescription ballistic inserts, so I needed another one of those.



Back in November, I went to the optometry section at the hospital. I didn't need a new prescription, I informed them, just new glasses. After examining the glasses I had on, I was told it would take a while..."six to eight weeks." Why? Because apparently my prescription is so thick that they couldn't carve the lenses properly here, so they'd have to order new ones from the closest US supply base--in Germany. I was puzzled, given that I could order new lenses from the US and have them shipped within a week, but no problem, I could deal for a couple of more months. Which came, and went. Then another month. When my "six to eight weeks" had long expired and I had no new eyewear, I went back.



"I ordered new glasses and lens inserts back in November, and they're not here yet. I need to get some new ones." "Well, sometimes it takes a really long time." "Well, some other people I work with got theirs in two weeks." "But your prescription is really bad, so it just takes longer." Not completely convinced, I walked away.



After waiting a few more weeks, I realized I needed to be more proactive. I decided that I'd go to optometry and actually get the numbers on my prescription. While I was there, they managed to put in another order for me, and this time the Specialist who normally handles things got a Major involved as well to make sure they got it right. I requested a paper copy of the prescription, and they printed one from my file.



When I got back to my room, I got on my computer and looked up 39dollarglasses.com. I placed an order for some frames that I like, very similar to my previous set, and put in my prescription. Perhaps this would give me a solution. I can't be sure exactly how long it took my new glasses to arrive, because I was off the base with the Brass Quintet for a few days. But less than two weeks after I placed my $39 order, my new glasses came and were waiting for me when I got back. They fit well, and were properly balanced. They even got my prescription right! So for those of you who are not in the military, I can vouch for 39dollarglasses.com. I took my previous glasses and cut off the nosepieces and earpieces, and with a careful application of duct tape I improvised new inserts for my sunglasses. They worked about as well as "real" inserts. At last, I was content with my eyewear.



About two days later, my ballistic inserts arrived. And a day or two after that, my regular glasses. I still am not sure if those are from my first order, or the recent one. But it is nice to know I have a set of backups if I need one.



Friday, May 6, 2011

A Wolverine Easter



No, this post is not about celebrating the Resurrection at the University of Michigan.



My Brass Quintet took a trip over Easter weekend to Forward Operation Base Wolverine, located in a nearby province of Afghanistan. We left on the evening of Good Friday. In fact we left quite late and arrived sometime around midnight, which was disorienting given that the FOB is very, very dark after the sun goes down. Fortunately, there wasn't much on the schedule Saturday so we had most of the day to recover from the very late evening. We were there by request of the Chaplain for the base, and he and his assistant were very gracious to arrange our lodging and allow us to use the Chapel for rehearsal and instrument storage.



After a quick rehearsal Saturday, we played in the chow hall during dinner time. The chow hall at Wolverine actually has pretty good acoustics, and we felt very comfortable playing in there. I wish we had gotten a recording of it! Dinner music can be an odd experience for the performer; in a matter of minutes we'll go from playing Duke Ellington to Queen to Star Wars music. Some pieces that we're very proud of will go by without any reaction from the diners, and then others will receive raucous applause. And of course, the obligatory shouts of "Free Bird!!!!" from some clever guy who thinks he's the first one to think of that. It was a bit surprising to discover that our arrangements of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and a medley of Metallica songs ("Unforgiven," "Nothing Else Matters," and "Sad But True") were probably our most popular offerings. (Yes...a Brass Quintet playing Metallica. We do what most quintets won't dare.)



We were up before dawn Sunday morning to provide some music for the Easter sunrise service. We found ourselves situated in front of a helicopter hangar, looking towards the mountains as the sun began to creep above the jagged horizon. We had planned three "pre-music" selections, but ended up playing a few more while everyone waited for a couple of noisy Apache helicopters to come in and refuel. (The Chaplain remarked that this was his first Easter service to be delayed by attack choppers.) Once they departed, the service went ahead smoothly, though I had to don my sunglasses to combat the glare once the sun was over the mountains.



We had the rest of the morning off, and then played more music at the dining facility during lunch. Of the many places I've been thus far on this deployment, I should say that Wolverine has had the best food. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the mint chocolate chip ice cream. They also had sweet iced tea, which I very much enjoyed.



That evening we played some more music for the evening "contemporary" service, and a couple of us joined in to play some horn parts with the band. Monday morning, one of the units was changing commanders, and we provided our more traditional ceremonial music for the occasion. Except that after the ceremony, one of the officers requested the Metallica music, so we finished it out with some headbanging. (They say part of the job is knowing what your audience wants....)



Later in the afternoon, we were called into the headquarters building for a presentation with the base's commanding officer. He wanted to present the group with Certificates of Achievement for the morale boost we had provided over the past three days. To his surprise, and ours, what was supposed to be a quick acknowledgement had turned into a presentation in front of most of the base's command staff. It certainly made us feel appreciated, and the commander gave us a nice speech about appreciating the training and education that bandsmen have, and the importance of our role in maintaining the morale and tradition of the military.



That night, we waited for our flight back to Kandahar. Our "fifteen-minute" wait turned into over ninety minutes, but it did give us a chance to appreciate the spectacular starry sky that we don't get to enjoy much at the much more brightly-lit Kandahar Air Field. It was a good trip and I hope I get to return to Wolverine soon...the ice cream is calling me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

After Osama



Before I get around to those two blogs I mentioned last time, circumstances dictate that I write something about the big news today: last night, US Navy SEALS were given clearance by the CIA and President Obama to conduct an assault on a fortified compound in Pakistan, in the process killing Al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. It's been almost ten years since the 9/11/01 attacks that he inspired and celebrated, and one of the largest manhunts in history is over. Naturally, Facebook and Twitter lit up with commentary, most of it celebratory, with a small minority of muted reaction to the celebration of the death of another human.



While I'm not the type of person who celebrates the killings of others, I do celebrate justice. And this, I believe, is the closest we could have come to carrying out justice for this man and his thousands of victims. Had he been captured and sent to trial, he would have been given a platform to proclaim his warped and twisted views about war and Western culture. Had he been captured and given a military tribunal, his acolytes would carp about the secrecy of the trial and pronounce it a miscarriage of American justice. And if the pursuit for him ended with no success, he would be viewed as victorious over all the resources of military might and intelligence gathering that were used to hunt him down. A government has not only the right but the responsibility to protect its citizens and remove the clear threats of those who would kill them, and a man who has used his own fortune to raise armies, train them, and convince them that hijacking airplanes and blowing up office buildings is noble--that man must never be allowed to continue to be a threat, and his followers must never be allowed to think that he can get away with it. To do otherwise shows weakness that invites more misguided leaders to strike the innocent.



The current war has been an unusual one--we do not fight a government, but an idea. Our Civil War and World War II--combined--took less time for us to fight. As former President Bush noted early on, many of our successes have been kept secret, for to proclaim them would alert the enemy to our tactics. In such a conflict, those who have endured losses often have little assurance that we are winning, that their sacrifices were worth it. This event, hopefully, gives them that assurance.



As far as what it means to the current situation in Afghanistan, today has been a very normal day. The nature of the Al-Qaida terror network is such that there is very little centralized leadership, and bin Laden himself probably had little to do with the plans and activities of the insurgents here. His loss to them is symbolic more than strategic, though as a symbol his defeat is--we hope--a very powerful one. Just as we continue fighting to prevent dangerous men from filling the power vacuum left by the Soviets, then the Taliban, so we must continue fighting to prevent another, possibly more dangerous, idealogue from taking his place. My job here continues to be playing music to support and encourage our troops, and to train personnel in the Afghan National Army. And I expect that will continue to be my mission until my twelve-month tour is up. But I do hope that these events are a reminder to our allies and our enemies...we always get our man, and we don't stop until the job is done.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Logic and Leadership



It's been a busy week--the Brass Quintet made another trip to another base to play for some Easter activities, and I'll see about writing more about that soon. Also, I got some new glasses, which is a subject for another blog post (you'll understand why when you read about it). There! I already have 2 more subjects to write about! But I'm not going to do those at this time. Instead, I'll do something that I haven't done in a while, which is to write something just to "get it out" of my head.



We are fortunate over here that we have relatively easy access to internet, and multiple television channels available in the chow halls and USO, etc. It is easy to keep up with the news, so I can check the baseball standings, follow my Nashville Predators as they (finally!) advance to the second round of the NHL playoffs, track the progress of the next Space Shuttle launch, and find out all there is to know about disasters such as the Japan earthquake or spring flooding in Tennessee. And of course, we now have the President's full birth certificate. (Disclaimer: technically, he is my boss.) (Also, I have known for a long time that the Honolulu papers printed his birth announcement in 1961, so this whole "birther" issue is nonsense. His opponents who have pursued this issue have only made themselves look foolish, being distracted from real, pressing issues by a red herring.)



But anyway, reading a lot about the political climate back home in the US has me thinking about something I saw on an episode of Star Trek. Many people have this misconception that the smartest people make the best leaders. Sure enough, all of our Presidents since 1989 have come from Ivy League backgrounds. (Take that as you will.) We like to place a premium on education. Have a graduate degree? A lot of jobs will pay you more for it. (I know from experience; I hold a Master's Degree. Just saying...) We typically like to be thought of as "smart," if only to not be thought of as dumb. And education is, by and large, a good thing. (More disclosure: I used to be a teacher, as were both of my parents [they're retired].) But does getting degrees and getting Jeopardy! answers make one a better leader? Does it matter if you're smarter than a fifth-grader?



Here's where the Trek comes in. In an early episode of the original series, "The Galileo Seven," seven members of the USS Enterprise crew are stranded on a barren planet when their shuttlecraft crashes. Mr. Spock is in charge, and because he's a Vulcan, dedicated to living his life by strictly logical principles, he decides to make the most logical decisions to keep his crew alive to be rescued. (I don't think that commentators who favorably compared President Obama to Spock were thinking of this episode, and you're about to find out why.) Spock is a smart guy--great memory, ship's science officer and first officer, by all accounts brilliant. He's also logical--he takes being compared to a computer as a compliment. He never lets emotion cloud his judgment. And in his first real test at command...he's a miserable failure. Not only does he not gain the trust of his crew, who find his cold manner off-putting, but his logical approach results in the deaths of two crew members. Naturally, he can only save the day when he makes an intuitive, near-emotional decision that defies what logic would dictate.



The sad truth is that leadership is not based strictly on knowledge, nor creativity, nor innovation. It is not enough to learn facts; one must be able to learn and adapt from experience. Logic is not enough to lead others, because people are not logical. While humans are capable of rational thought, rational thought is hardly the norm. Making a "smart" decision is not necessarily making the "best" decision. And having a degree doesn't mean you can't be wrong. To be a good leader, one must understand that there is often a wide gulf between intelligence and wisdom.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Turnaround



People don't try to jerk you around a lot in Afghanistan. It just seems that way some of the time. This past Sunday, the Bunker Brass Quintet got a nice dose of it. The problem stems from the fact that anytime personnel from the band are tasked to go to another base and perform, there are many, many logistical hoops that must be jumped. And at any given point in the process, we have to understand that there may be very good reasons why we can be scheduled to fly out, only to be bumped for other people that need that flight more. Or the flight itself may be canceled, delayed, moved forward, etc. All of which are issues that (thankfully) I don't personally deal with. Also, coordinating a trip requires good communication with a point of contact at a distant location, often a point of contact who has many more pressing things to deal with than whether or not the band folks have a place to sleep or chairs to sit in. Add to that the fact that getting good communication with anyone anywhere in Afghanistan can sometimes be a very challenging...um...challenge.



But we were scheduled to fly out Sunday afternoon to another base where we would be playing at a couple of Transfer of Authority ceremonies as well as doing a morale performance at a dining facility. We were packed and ready to go, loading our instruments and other gear onto the truck at our tent, when we received word that our trip was no-go. Slightly disappointed, but not very surprised, we trucked our personal gear back to our rooms and met up at the tent afterward to do some rehearsal. After finishing our first number, the phone call came--we needed to be at the departure ramp in twenty minutes. Fortunately, none of us had taken the time to unpack anything. A couple of people loaded our instruments, stands, and music onto the truck along with the "kicker," a large container that we build around the gear so it can all be forklifted at once onto the helicopter. The rest of us hopped into the van and went back to the rooms to grab all the personal gear. We met up at the loading ramp area, just in time to build the kicker and get on the aircraft.



We experienced something similar Thursday morning while waiting for our flight back to KAF when the chopper arrived about half an hour early. Gave everyone who was scheduled for that flight a bit of a surprise, but that's why you get there well before you're supposed to fly out. We had to take the kicker apart for that particular flight, as we were on a different helicopter with different space requirements, but we still managed to load and move everything by hand. (Including the disassembled kicker box.) One thing about traveling around Afghanistan--it is rarely, if ever, dull.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Power To Move You, Part 3


This week has been a little crazy! Primarily, of course, due to what I'm about to describe in this blog. We had been told not long after we moved into our housing that we might have to move yet again. They want to have all the US personnel grouped according to the units they are in, i.e. the 10th Mountain Division Soldiers should all be in a particular area. Having been in the same room since November, I was beginning to think that nothing would happen. Monday, April 11 proved me wrong.

We had spent the morning doing some more training with the Afghan National Army's 205th Corps band, and after returning the Brass Quintet had rehearsal. During rehearsal, I and another member of the group were informed that we would be moving, along with another of our roommates, that afternoon. The new building is just across the street from where we were, so the distance was not much of an issue. The condition of the room was, however, a bit of a problem. The new room apparently had not been lived in for a while, and there were copious amounts of dust. Also, some of the bed frames were rickety and the mattresses left much to be desired in terms of comfort and support. Also also, there was no refrigerator. We decided to take matters into our own hands and give the room a thorough scrubbing and sweeping, and to swap out a few of the beds with the ones from our old room. We also got clearance to move the refrigerator.

Every time I have to move, I'm amazed at the amount of stuff I accumulate and how long it takes me to get it organized and packed. Even in a war zone, this is the case. Partly this is a result of me receiving lots of packages and not being able to use or consume it all very quickly. Partly it's just human nature--we collect and store things, no matter where we are. (I direct you to George Carlin's famous monologue on "Stuff.") So it took me longer than I expected to get all my things together. At least moving gives one an opportunity to reorganize. I think my new living arrangement is superior to my previous one.

For instance, they have "extenders" that can be used to raise the bed, allowing for more storage space underneath. I picked up some extenders a while back, but the "feet" were still in the bedposts, so I was never able to use the extenders. Since I had to disassemble the bed to move it anyway, I figured this would be a good chance to fix the problem. I got my Gerber multi-tool out, and managed to pry the feet out of the bed. Now that I have the extenders attached, I have more of my things stored under the bed, and thus more floorspace for everyone.

I was concerned about not being able to connect to the internet, but one of the roommates managed to get our router connected and solved that problem. So now we're settled in, waiting for a couple more roommates to arrive back after their R&R leave period. I just hope the next time I have to move all my stuff, it's because I'm leaving Afghanistan!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Joyride


Sometimes I have to go for a drive. Not a recreational, change-of-scenery drive, but from time to time my job over here requires that I get in a vehicle and pilot it to some other destination. (A few of the people in our unit are trained, qualified, and licensed to operate tactical vehicles, but I am not one of those. So unfortunately, I will not be writing a blog about driving an up-armored tactical vehicle anytime soon.) Our band typically has one or two "civilian" vehicles available, so I can drive those. The minivan we typically use is in the shop, though. (That's the vehicle in the picture above.) We recently got a small box truck, so yesterday when I had to run some errands with another supply sergeant that was our ride.

A few things about this truck: the doors in the back storage area (the "box") do not latch closed. They are supposed to, but they don't. It is a British-style truck, by which I mean the steering wheel is on what we consider the passenger's side in the US. (As is the minivan, by the way, again pictured above.) Also, the truck has manual transmission, so the driver has to be able to operate a stick-shift. I'm fine with that--my very first car was a stick-shift--but it is a bit different when you have to shift with the left hand when you're used to shifting with the right. (I felt like I adjusted pretty easily, maybe because I'm left-handed.) Also, the gear shift doesn't "slot" very well, so hitting the wrong gear is a lot easier than it should be.

So anyway, we started out. Most of the roads on KAF are not paved. Thanks to the rains last month, there are a lot of potholes in the dirt roads. As we approached our first destination, I saw something in the passenger's side mirror (remember, that's the left side of the vehicle). "Is that the back door?!" I asked. Turns out it was. The constant jarring had caused one of the doors to fling itself open. Fortunately we were about to stop anyway, so once we parked I tried to get the back doors locked. Unable to make any progress, I tried to think of something to secure the doors shut. I didn't have a roll of 550 cord handy, which is what I'd normally use. (550 cord is parachute cord; it consists of an outer tube with several inner strands that give it a great amount of strength. Supposedly one cord can hold up to 550 pounds, hence the name.) The only thing I had was the retaining strap on my sunglasses. So, I removed the strap from the earpieces and strung it through the door latch and double-knotted it. Problem solved.

On the way to our next destination, we got stuck behind a convoy of tractor trailers. They were moving very slowly over the pitted road, and eventually came to a halt. Apparently there were items being moved through a security checkpoint off to the side, so someone was directing all the traffic movement. After waiting for several minutes we finally got moving again. It's fascinating how much better it feels to move slowly when you haven't been moving at all. Still, I was glad when the trucks all turned right where we needed to turn left.

When we pulled up to our next stop, it was closed. That is, the entrance gate was blocked off. Some people waved us to keep moving, so I continued to follow the road, though both of us were a bit puzzled as to why the entrance wasn't open. The road had a nice couple of big dips in it, but fortunately I was going slow and my sunglasses retaining strap was holding the doors quite nicely. As I turned the corner, the road was totally covered in water for a ways; I was glad that it wasn't deep enough to keep the truck from moving through. Eventually we entered the yard through what was normally the exit; I don't know why but I guess that's how they're doing things now. We had to make a couple of stops inside this area, so I'm glad I had someone with me to serve as a ground guide. (The box effectively blocks the rear view, so backing up can be tricky without someone out there to direct the driver.)

After we were done there, it was time to take the truck back to the band tent. We hadn't even driven six miles, but the whole trip took about 90 minutes. Just another of the unusual things we do here at KAF.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tools For the Job


It's been nearly a month since my last post, so clearly my attempt to post more regularly has failed thus far. The last part of February and first part of March have been busy and stressful, and I haven't been in a good frame of mind to write much. Our physical training program has been changed, resulting in some much longer days, and I'll cover more about that in a future entry. I hope to start writing some reviews and commentary about some of the music, movies, books, and TV shows I watch to pass the time, much like the entries I often wrote before the deployment.

For today, I'll write a little about something that happened this afternoon, because it is a very important part of our mission here. As I have mentioned before, we spend a few a days every week working with the Afghan National Army's 205th Corps Band, a much smaller and relatively (musically) inexperienced band located near our base. One thing we realized early on is that the band is not particularly well-equipped: most of their instruments are old, poorly-made, and in disrepair. It is unfortunate that top-quality instruments simply are not easily available in this part of the world, and I'm not sure where any of these came from. Even though the Afghan soldiers have had little formal education in music, it became clear that their substandard instruments were impeding their progress. Instruments that cannot be easily tuned, cleaned, or maintained, that can't be held correctly lest they fall apart, and have frequent mechanical breakdowns are not conducive to making music to inspire Soldiers. Because funds are allocated to help the International Security Assistance Force equip and train the ANA, it was decided that we would request funds to secure new instruments and equipment for the 205th Band. (I just now realized the irony that I'm writing this after having written a post about getting myself some new mouthpieces. I guess I'm all about band equipment these days...)

As our band's Resource Management Noncommissioned Officer, it fell to me to do the legwork in getting the process started. I'll spare you the complex details, but ordering anything through official channels is a complicated process over here, largely to insure that the system isn't abused through frivolous spending. Our commanding officer played a large part in making sure that as many people as possible understood the importance of a successful military band, and how important it is for a band to have the right equipment. After determining what type of instruments, maintenance supplies, and equipment such as music stands were needed, I had to contact vendors in the US and get price quotes. I also had to write up the proposal stating how badly these items were needed. It took several weeks for our proposal to get all the way up the chain to reviewing personnel in Kabul.

Last week, we recieved official confirmation that a contract had been approved and the order was being filled. We expected it might take up to another two months for everything to arrive. But to our great surprise, we got that anticipated phone call that our order had arrived today, and could we please get our sizeable amount of boxes out of the contracting office. So most of my afternoon was spent securing a pickup truck and hauling all the new gear to our storage area. Next on the agenda, probably tomorrow afternoon, is checking all the boxes against the shipping manifest to make sure that everything is accounted for, and then inspecting the items to see that they survived the shipping process.

It may seem strange that a shipment of band instruments could be important in a war zone, but we hope that by helping this band to become stronger and seeing that they have the right tools for the job, we will have done our part to strengthen the bonds between the US and Afghan forces.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Feel the Burn

It's a little surprising to me that I haven't talked at all about fitness on this blog, since that is a major part of life in the Armed Forces. We spend time nearly everyday doing "physical training," or as we typically call it, PT. There are two reasons for doing this: 1) to stay in the best physical condition possible so that we can accomplish the missions we are given, and 2) to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) so that we don't get penalized for not passing it. (It is required that we take an APFT every year, usually two diagnostic tests, each followed by a "record" test about a month later that actually counts.) Deployment offers--in theory--a great time to work on PT, since many of the time-consuming aspects of normal life aren't over here. (In other words, you can't take a trip, you can't visit your family and friends, you can't go hang out at the mall, so you might as well go to the gym and exercise.) There are multiple gyms at KAF, two of which I've used thus far. One is the NATO Gym, which is operated under guidelines established for use by NATO forces. They require that all users change into a clean pair of shoes upon entering the building, so as to keep the facility clean from the dust (or mud this time of year) that permeates KAF. Because this is a European facility, all the weights, machines, treadmills, etc. are designed with metric measurements. Thankfully for the Americans, there is a metric conversion chart on one of the walls, but woe unto the unsuspecting US citizen who forgets that 20 kg is a LOT heavier than 20 pounds. The NATO Gym is my perferred destination for weight work because of the cleanliness and the variety of different types of equipment they offer. (I've been to a few Gold's Gym locations in the US, and the NATO facility is comparable in terms of the quality of the workout environment.) The equipment is kept in good working order, and I've been able to get a feel for what types of metric weight I can handle in various exercises. There is also a gym operated by the US military's Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department. The MWR Gym is located in a large tent, but it is considerably smaller than the NATO Gym, which is a solid building. There are no rules about the footwear, so the gym is not nearly as clean. The equipment is older and tends to break down more frequently as well. The MWR Gym is also a lot more crowded, though this is partly because people to have to buy new shoes (or clean their old ones) to go there and partly because MWR is closer to the US living area. (Because of the crowding and dirtier conditions, I sometimes walk into MWR and think, wow, this is what I will smell like in 20 minutes.) I generally only go to MWR for cardio/treadmill running, as I know how my pace feels using miles instead of kilometers and there is less waiting for treadmills at MWR than there is at NATO. One of the guys in the band also has the Beachbody "Insanity!" program, so from time to time I do that with him. Since being here, I've actually lost 6 pounds--first time that's ever happened!--and cut a good thirty seconds off my running time. We had a "record" PT test a couple of weeks ago, and the whole unit passed, so we're all happy about that, as we can spend the next few months focusing on achieving fitness goals beyond just being able to pass the test. For the record, my test results were: 71 pushups, 63 situps, and the 2-mile run in 14:28. (Total score was 276/300)

Friday, February 18, 2011

New Mouthpieces!


This post is about my new trombone mouthpieces, so I understand that non-trombonists my not find this as interesting as some of my other posts. But this is something that has a huge impact on the job I do here, so I felt that it was worth writing about.

The mouthpiece is the part of a trombone (or any brass instrument) that is most tailored to an individual player. The size and shape of the rim, cup, and shank of a mouthpiece greatly affect the way it fits on the different sizes and shapes of a human face. This is especially critical to someone like me who frequently alternates between tenor trombone and bass trombone, which require noticeably different mouthpiece sizes. Many trombonists are always looking for the next development in mouthpiece design that will give them an "edge" on transforming the music-making process into something easier. (All too often, the most important factor is still the player, not the instrument.)

I've spent several years now playing the same two mouthpieces: a Greg Black/Joseph Alessi 2M for tenor, and a Yamaha Douglas Yeo for bass. (Both designed for established professionals: Alessi is the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and Yeo is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony.) I'd been doing well on both, but was starting to feel that I needed something a little different, especially with the Yeo, which is a very deep mouthpiece. I decided to get serious back in December when we played for the Slovakian President in very cold, windy weather. Playing on a metal mouthpiece in those conditions is quite uncomfortable so I decided to contact Doug Elliott, a freelance musician in the Washington, D.C. area who also makes his own line of low brass mouthpieces. Doug's designs include separate rims, cups, and shanks which can be screwed together, allowing for a huge variety in combinations and the ability to tailor a setup to one's preferences beyond what most other designs allow. One of the options he offers is the material that the rim is made of: silver-plated, which is the most common type, gold-plated, or Lexan (a type of clear plastic). I wanted to see about ordering tenor and bass mouthpieces similar to what I was using, but with Lexan rims to allow for more comfort playing in the sometimes extreme conditions in Afghanistan.

I contacted Doug through email, and over the course of a few messages we ironed out the combinations that would work best for what I was requesting. I finally placed my order shortly after I returned from FOB Lagman over Christmas. (For those who want to know, the parts I ordered were: TENOR: XTL105 rim, XTH cup, H8 shank; BASS: LBL113 rim, LBJ cup, J9 shank.) The rims for each match the size and feel of the mouthpieces I was used to, but both have slightly shallower cups. This makes it a bit easier to play in the upper register, but without compromising my flexibility in the lower register. And I can confirm, having had to play a few morning performances in ~40 degree F weather, that the Lexan rims make playing in the cold much, much easier. (I expect they will also prove advantageous when the summer heat comes along in a few months.) They arrived in the mail January 2. It took a few days to really get a good feel with the tenor mouthpiece; I liked the way it played immediately but there were a few things that took a while to "fit" with the way I was accustomed to playing. I'm happy to say that with some time to get acclimated with the new setup I feel very comfortable with just about all the material that I play regularly. The bass, however, didn't require the same adjustment--I loved the feel of it from the first note, and I have no reservations in saying it's the best bass mouthpiece I've ever used. (Note: this is in no way a criticism of the Alessi or Yeo mouthpieces; they are well-crafted and stood the test of time for several years; they just aren't as good a fit for me as the Elliott customized ones.) For those familiar with the bass trombone repertoire, I feel like I can easily switch between Das Rheingold's "spear motive" and Hary Janos's "Napoleon" section. (For those who don't know, one is REALLY low, and the other is REALLY high.) In fact, it's the first bass mouthpiece with which I feel I could play the tenor Bolero solo if I had to!

Some of you may be wondering, "doesn't the Army pay for your instruments?" Well, yes, and the trombones I use over here all belong to Uncle Sam; I didn't bring any of my own horns. And it's not uncommon for the unit to purchase new mouthpieces. However, purchasing anything through government channels in a combat deployment is not an easy process. (I know this because that's my office job with this unit.) I didn't want to order mouthpieces for winter playing and face the prospect that they might not arrive until July. So I felt no regret at purchasing them myself and having them in my possession within a week. I expect I'll be using them for years to come.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Funky Weather


Kandahar Air Field is located, for all intents and purposes, in a desert. The main city, a few miles away, is close to a river so there is water near the population center, but it's pretty dry at the Air Field most of the year. Not so much in February, though. We have entered what is called the monsoon season, and things have gotten a bit unpredictable. The cold temperatures have let up a little bit, but the shifting currents and fronts in the past several days have created some wild temperature swings at times. And there's the rain. For the past few weeks, we've had some sporadic rain, which changes the ground from being very dusty to very muddy. A couple of nights ago, we had steady rain all through the night but sun the next afternoon. KAF is covered in standing water, and we've all been notified that, due to the mud and water, vehicle use has been restricted to essential use only.

Last night (Saturday, 12 February) there was constant rain. This morning, I was surprised to discover that it was bright and sunny when I went to breakfast, and I had high hopes that some of the mud would dry up today. Right before I left for work, the floodgates opened and we had a downpour. With HAIL. And swirling winds. I was being pelted by small ice fragments all the way to our rehearsal tent. It did cross my mind that maybe I should have worn my helmet! I would have missed it all if I'd left ten minutes earlier, so that's another mark in the "reasons to not procrastinate" column. And about eight minutes after it started, the storm stopped. The sun came out. The Dixieland group ("Task Force Dixie") decided to go ahead with preparations for their afternoon concert at the boardwalk.

But the weather wasn't done yet. A little before 1500 (3:00 pm), another dark cloud opened up and more rain and wind came down. I reconsidered going to the boardwalk to see TFD and decided to stay in the tent and continue practicing my trombone. The Dixie group eventually returned early, having only played two numbers in their set before the inclement weather forced them back to the tent with their gear. Sure enough, by the time I left to go check my email at the office, the sun was back out.

One thing about monsoon season at KAF: it does keep you guessing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Special Deliveries


Earlier this week, the 10th Mountain Division Band received some items we had been eagerly anticipating. The first happened on Tuesday, when the furniture arrived. A while back, we had placed an order for some office furniture--office chairs, folding chairs, shelves, desks. We had been relying on leftover or unclaimed chairs and derelict office furniture for a while. In fact, the carpentry shop had actually built some quick makeshift shelves and desks for us to tide us over for a while. The chair shortage was especially problematic, as people found themselves sitting on plastic crates and metal containers in lieu of functional chairs. (On occasion, I would use a substitute instead of an available chair because the chair would be more uncomfortable.) So we were happy to receive notice last week that our shipment was on its way.

It was my job to wait for the call that our furniture truck was at the gate so I could escort the driver into our office area, and that call came Tuesday afternoon. I was a bit dismayed to see that the boxes in the back of the truck looked a little beaten up, but that wasn't too surprising given that the bed of the truck had no top. (I am really glad that the delivery was made before the heavy rains we've had the last couple of days.) Some of the boxes had started to fall apart and we had to have people fish furniture parts out of the truck bed. In the end, though, we got all the boxes out and started assembling our furniture. In a matter of moments, our office went from looking like an office to looking like some kind of miniature mutant central-Asian IKEA store. The desks and shelves turned out to be a bit flimsy, mostly particle board, but functional. The office chairs, however, are surprisingly comfortable, a big improvement over what we had. The folding chairs are in good condition also, so we're happy that the seating issue has been resolved.

The other big delivery showed up at almost the same time. Last summer, we shipped most of our instruments and equipment to Afghanistan in large metal containers, which arrived before we did. We sent one additional container of stuff right before we left Ft. Drum. This container had a few more unit items, such as some additional guitars we had ordered for the rock band, a crate of toilet paper, a few folding chairs, and so on. It also had some personal items--clothing bags, personal guitars, video game consoles...you get the idea. We anticipated it arriving in December, but it never showed up. We sent requests numerous times trying to locate where our container had vanished. But Tuesday, we got the word that it had been located and was on its way to KAF. Wednesday morning, it was delivered and place right next to our rehearsal tent. I was glad to see it there, as it contained one of my guitars, as well as my DVDs of season one of Bones seasons one and two of Chuck, plus a copy of Stephen King's The Gunslinger, the first book in his "Dark Tower" series which I've wanted to start reading for a while. It's so nice to have a few more comforts from home, especially now that I can unwind from a long day by pulling out my guitar and strumming for a bit. Whether or not my roommates find that relaxing is another matter....

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Proud To Be(come) An American


It's February now, and I realize that my posting frequency dropped a bit last month. Partly that's because things here are "routine" now and it's a bit difficult to come up with topics sometimes, and partly it's because there have been days when I just didn't feel like writing anything even though I could have. But I'll try to be a bit more consistent this month.


This past Saturday, January 29th, was a momentous day. It's a momentous day for me because it's my Dad's birthday, but it was also momentous for a whole lot of other people. Our brass quintet was assigned to provide music for a naturalization ceremony--numerous servicemembers serving in Afghanistan officially became citizens of the United States. On the surface that might seem a bit strange, but yes, one does not have to be a full citizen of the US to participate in the Armed Forces. (Though they must still pass the criminal background checks and other paperwork gymnastics that are required of US citizens, in addition to meeting physical requirements and passing the ASVAB test. They generally must also have a functional grasp of English, typically to include the words "yes Drill Sergeant!!!") I don't know the exact number who were there Saturday, but there were quite a lot, and from numerous backgrounds. I think I remember hearing that about thirty different countries could claim the origins of our new Americans. That didn't surprise me too much; during my time in the Army I've personally served with (or at least met) people born in China, Turkey, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, Italy, and Egypt. (I can't be certain they were all US citizens, and some may have gained citizenship prior to joining the Army. I know of two for certain who did gain citizenship during their service, however.)


I do have an admiration for those people--they have spent a good deal of time and effort to gain something I've had since the moment I was born. What I, and most of the people I know, have by accident, they have by choice. The magnitude of the event was marked by the presence of the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry (himself a military veteran), and several Congressional Representatives, particularly Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) who was a guest speaker along with the Ambassador. Mr. Issa commented on how unusual it was to have such a ceremony someplace other than the US, but that having it in Afghanistan was an example of the level of commitment that these people have made to the country. We were also treated to a pre-recorded address by President Obama, followed by a video presentation of Lee Greenwood's iconic "God Bless the USA." It's a good feeling to know that so many other people want to call your home their home. After all, even though the land is vast and magnificent, it's the people who make it America the Beautiful.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Madmen Across The Water


Last week, we had some visitors to Kandahar Airfield. Well, having visitors is not an unusual thing, but having another military band is. The Band of the Parachute Regiment, located in Colchester, England, United Kingdom, has been in Afghanistan for a few weeks making a tour of the country and they spent a good deal of time at KAF. Those of us in the 10th Mountain Division Band were able to spend plenty of time getting to know them and play some music together. Some of them also joined a few of our members on a couple of trips to work with the Afgan National Army Band located near here. We had initially planned to do a big afternoon concert together, but for whatever reason those plans got scrapped. We still managed to spend two mornings doing some concert band rehearsals together. Given that 10th MTN hasn't had to do any full concert band material since before we left the US, it was a bit strange to sit down in the Fest Tent amongst a combined group that totaled over forty members. We started off with a band transcription of Michael Giacchino's music from the recent J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, which was a lot of fun. We played through some other tunes that were written for concert bands (one of which, "Invictus" by British composer Philip Sparke, was commissioned by my previous band, The Army Ground Forces Band at Ft. McPherson, GA), and all I'll say about that is that the formula for concert band music is getting a bit stale--everything is an overture, start fast, have a slow lyrical middle section, then a big rousing finish and a loud BANG at the end. It's as if composers are afraid that they might be remembered for only one piece, so they should throw in everything they can to make sure it's all covered. But I digress.

Wednesday night, the Regiment's rock band "Ripchord" performed a scaled-down show at the Dutch Corner, a sort-of lounge area operated by the Netherlands. I didn't see the whole thing, but I loved their closing number, a song called "Fire" by the British indie band Kasabian. They promised that to get the full effect, we really needed to see the whole group--more guitars, background singers, and a horn section (pictured above). Fortunately, we only had to wait for Friday night as a joint performance was being planned with our rock band, Avalanche. It was a bigger--and louder--show, with Ripchord rolling through their set with enthusiasm, followed by Avalanche's heavy metal smackdown. The two bands joined for a big finale, and a good time was had by all despite some occasional problems with the sound system. (And Avalanche's NCOIC who got so into the performance that he hurt his back.) I was just glad I remembered to wear earplugs.

Saturday morning a few of us joined the BOTPR for a ceremonial performance...kind of. We headed to the bazaar area, which opens to numerous vendors every Saturday. The bazaar includes a school, and we were going to play some music for the students. Since their 2nd trombonist was gone with our staff to work with the ANA band, I filled in for him. It was a bit of a challenge sight-reading their selections, most of which I hadn't seen before, but I think I managed to pull it off without too many problems. We played through selections as diverse as the opening of the "Light Cavalry Overture," the "Post-horn Gallop" (featuring two trumpeters on post-horns, which are basically small straight bugles--no valves), "Wizard Weezes" from the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova," famously used as the theme for the Austin Powers films. In a surprising move, we had a bunch of kids from a predominantly Muslim culture clapping along to the Yiddish tune "Hava Nagila." (!) We ended the performance by marching around the school building playing the march "Punchinello." This was not an easy thing to do, as the ground was covered with lots of small and medium-sized rocks, in addition to the fact that we Americans were not familiar with the British marching commmands. Afterwards, the British gave out some football (soccer!) jerseys and played a football (soccer!) game with the students. Many of those not in the game ended up playing on the merry-go-round, which is where I wound up as well. Who would've expected to be pushing a bunch of kids on a merry-go-round on a Saturday morning in Afghanistan? I later decided that that was my exercise for the day.

In all, it was a fun week and we enjoyed the chance to work with a different group of musicians and get to make new friends. Their French horn/keyboardist celebrated his birthday one night, and a few of us had a celebratory dinner at TGI Friday's, where I appreciated watching him dance on the chair like I had to for my birthday. We will hate to see them leave so soon, but we all enjoyed getting a chance to foster some international cooperation through music. Cheers!