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: "
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 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 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.