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


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'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.