Going on Leave Soon

My leave starts very soon.  I will be in Camarillo for 15 days starting sometime next week.

Life as usual goes on here on JBB.  Work is busy, and there is always something interesting to do.  Last night, for example, I saw the movie “Terminator, Salvation” which is a first-run movie that played to a completely packed theater.

There was a rocket attack last week.  These happen once in a while.  I’ve never gotten too close to one.  A couple of months ago, I was riding my bike and heard an explosion.  About a half mile away I could see the smoke rising up from a mortar/rocket attack.  That’s the most excitement I’ve had the whole time I’ve been here in Iraq.  Oh, just one time, I saw the CRAM system fire its orange bullets into the sky.  

Like I keep saying, it’s really not so bad here in Iraq.

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War is Hell

 Brian Luke 1 

Joint Base Balad has two swimming pools. One is indoors, and you can go there year-round to exercise. It’s a nice pool, but mostly just for lap swimming. Then there is the outdoor pool that is only open during the warmer 6 months of the year. It’s quite a luxury to have such recreation services here on JBB. In fact, last week I was having dinner with BG Michael Lally and a funny statement was made. Someone was asking him how he liked having a pool in a war zone, to which he replied “Which one?”

 I finally went to the outdoor pool yesterday. Sunday is the most popular day, and noon to 4PM is the most popular time. It was very crowded, and somewhat difficult to even find a chair. My friend Luke Bird and I (pictured) ended up with a nice view of the pool and the 3-level diving board. Several soldiers did clumsy dives off of the platform, while spectators cheered them on.

JBB Outdoor pool

Many people played volleyball or other water games. Even a number of Ugandans come out to play. It’s a very large pool, and I think it was used by the Iraqi Olympic team during Saddam’s era for training. So the diving platform is actually built to Olympic regulations, I believe. My one complaint is that the water is highly chlorinated, and after a bit of swimming and diving, it irritates the skin and eyes quite a bit.

One thing I noticed is that nearly half the soldiers have tattoos, some of which cover large parts of their bodies.  I think these are very unattractive, and a big waste of time and money.  Quite a few soldiers disagree:

 Tattoos

They play music, and have cold drinks standing by.   It’s a chance to see people in a different environment, without their Army Combat Uniforms or even PT clothes, just beach wear!   It’s a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon in Iraq. So with the movie theater, shopping mall, rec centers, and outdoor pool, you can see that life is really not so bad in Iraq, at least here at JBB.

 

(getting  a drink while poolside)

Brian Luke 2

(Me and my friend Luke Bird)

At the Movies

One of the nicer things about being at JBB is that we have a good movie theater. They show first-run movies, and these come out as quickly as a week after they premier in the US. For example, the new Star Trek movie just came out on May 9, 2009, and was playing in Balad on May 15.

 The theater was built by the Iraqis before the US Invasion in 2003, and has the strange feel that most of the Iraqi buildings have. But it’s definitely a well built theater. Here is what it looks like on the outside, with bomb-shelter built overhead, of course:

 JBB Balad Theater

On the inside, they have concession stands where you can buy popcorn, pizza, and drinks,

Popcorn Stand

as well as a Subway sandwich store on the upper level:

 Upper Level chandelier

The theater has an upper balcony, and a large lower general seating area. It claims to have THX sound, but I find the acoustics in this theater to be less than stellar, although they certainly play every movie loudly. But hey, we’re in a war-zone, so there is no sense in complaining about such things, right?!?! It’s a real, full-size movie theater, and I love movies!! Here is the view of the screen from the upper balcony, note the soldiers with their weapons waiting for the movie to begin:

 Balcony at JBB Theater 

I don’t know how many of you know this, but I acted in the new Star Trek (2009) movie. It was filed in early 2008. In March 2008, there was a call for “extras,” background actors, to walk around during the scene at the Starfleet Shipyard (actually the Pastoria power plant near Bakersfield, California). The scene occurs early in the movie, and I’m walking around in a blue jumpsuit, carrying some space-ship repair part. This was something of a life-long dream for this Trek fan. So here I am at the theater, about to go in on Friday, May 15:

 BN Star Trek in Iraq

Last Friday was a very lucky day because the supervisor of the legal office closed down the office for a staff party, and the party was the 1700 first showing of Star Trek at the JBB movie theater!!! First time EVER shown in Iraq. This was lucky because they also had a 20:30 showing, but that showing had a line with hundreds of people waiting to get in an hour early, and it is likely we would not have been able to get in to that one. So I got off work an hour early for once, and got to see Star Trek in a non-crowded theater. Hooray! The scene I’m in is where Kirk decides to join Starfleet Academy and rides up in his motorcycle to get on board a space shuttle. It is a very short scene, perhaps 15 seconds long, and I did not see myself, although others claim to have seen me.

 So that is a brief overview of the Balad, Iraq movie theater, and all the fun times that can be had there. In case you are interested, here is a listing of the movies that are playing this month:

Iraq, Balad

Sustainer Theater Movie Schedule

 

THU APR 30 – 1700 Miss March (R)

2000 The Last House On The Left (R)

FRI MAY 01 – 1400 Coraline (PG)

1700 Duplicity (PG-13)

2030 Obsessed (PG-13)(1stRun)

SAT MAY 02 – 1400 Duplicity (PG-13)

1700 Obsessed (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Coraline (PG)

SUN MAY 03 – 1400 Obsessed (PG-13)(1stRun)

1700 Coraline (PG)

2000 Duplicity (PG-13)

MON MAY 04 – 1700 Duplicity (PG-13)

2000 Obsessed (PG-13)(1stRun)

TUE MAY 05 – 1700 Obsessed (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Coraline (PG)

WED MAY 06 – 1700 Coraline (PG)

2000 Obsessed (PG-13)(1stRun)

THU MAY 07 – 1700 Miss March (R)

2000 The Last House On The Left (R)

FRI MAY 08 – 1400 Race To Witch Mountain (PG)

1700 X-Men Origin:Wolverine (PG-13)(1stRun)

2030 X-Men Origin:Wolverine (PG-13)(1stRun)

SAT MAY 09 – 1400 I Love You Man (R)

1700 X-Men Origin:Wolverine (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Race To Witch Mountain (PG)

SUN MAY 10 – 1400 X-Men Origin:Wolverine (PG-13)(1stRun)

1700 Race To Witch Mountain (PG)

2000 I Love You Man (R)

MON MAY 11 – 1700 I Love You Man (R)

2000 Race To Witch Mountain (PG)

TUE MAY 12 – 1700 X-Men Origin:Wolverine (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Madea Goes To Jail (PG-13)

WED MAY 13 – 1700 Madea Goes To Jail (PG-13)

2000 I Love You Man (R)

THU MAY 14 – 1700 Race To Witch Mountain (PG)

2000 X-Men Origin:Wolverine (PG-13)(1stRun)

FRI MAY 15 – 1400 Monsters vs Aliens (PG)

1700 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

2030 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

SAT MAY 16 – 1400 Adventureland (R)

1700 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Fast And Furious 2009 (PG-13)

SUN MAY 17 – 1400 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

1700 Fast And Furious (PG-13)

2000 Monsters vs Aliens (PG)

MON MAY 18 – 1700 Monsters vs Aliens (PG)

2000 Adventureland (R)

TUE MAY 19 – 1700 Adventureland (R)

2000 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

WED MAY 20 – 1700 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Fast And Furious 2009 (PG-13)

THU MAY 21 – 1700 Fast And Furious 2009 (PG-13)

2000 Star Trek (PG-13)(1stRun)

 

FRI MAY 22 – 1400 Observe And Report (R)

1700 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

2030 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

SAT MAY 23 – 1400 Knowing (PG-13)

1700 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 12 Rounds (PG-13)

SUN MAY 24 – 1400 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

1700 12 Rounds (PG-13)

2000 Knowing (PG-13)

MON MAY 25 – 1700 Knowing (PG-13)

2000 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

TUE MAY 26 – 1700 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

2000 Observe And Report (R)

WED MAY 27 – 1700 Observe And Report (R)

2000 12 Rounds (PG-13)

THU MAY 28 – 1700 12 Rounds (PG-13)

2000 Angels And Demons (PG-13)(1stRun)

Skype and Pixtorie

 My children are only 3 and 5 years old. Because they are young, it’s hard to have a good conversation with them on the phone. We do use Skype video conferencing a few times every week, and the children like being able to see me. The Skype video call looks like this:

 Skype Call Nov 17 2008 from Camp Buehring Kuwait

(note Judy is holding her beloved little white rabbit).

 So Skype is pretty nice, and it’s free. The main problem for me is getting the hardware (webcam and headset) over to the Cyber Café in the early morning and then logging on before my children go to sleep. 6AM here is 8PM in California.

 Another service that helps keep me in touch with my family is Pixtorie (www.pixtorie.com).  This is an online photo scrapbook site, run by my friend Sam Gasowski’s wife, Susan and her partner.

PixtorieForBlog 

Pixtorie allows you to pick templates, and then put in photos and captions. This is all done on-line. The actual album is made using high-quality materials and scrap booking techniques. The result is a very nice family heirloom scrapbook, with great pictures and effects. We just finished this, and it’s a real family treasure. It has several sections showing the children at school, fun family trips taken together, and then a section about me in Iraq so the children can see where I am. The children are not great at talking on the phone, but this is the perfect item for someone deployed overseas. It was a delight to hear my kids going through the album and saying what they saw and enjoying the pictures, and it’s a nice reminder to them that I’ll be home soon.

 Here is what one of the proofs look like in the Pixtorie Scrapbook we created:

 PixtorieProof 

Anyway, if you have some nice digital photos and some time, I’d highly recommend Pixtorie!

True Religion

Joint Base Balad has 30,000 people, and many different religious practices. To accommodate all this, there are dozens of chaplains. The chaplains also serve to offer guidance and counseling to military personnel.

 There are dozens of different worship services that happen every week here, in addition to which there are over 50 weekly small-group meetings. Here is a listing of just the scheduled religious services on base:

 JBBCHAP

People are amazed at the ecumenical diversity of the religious offerings on this base. The Pagan/Wiccan fellowship is particularly of note. I have visited this group, mostly out of curiosity, and find them to be a very friendly group of people.

 This schedule is geared primarily towards military personnel. Some contractors also attend. There are thousands of other TCN’s (third country nationals) who are from India, Nepal, and other places including Fiji and a host of other countries. Most of these are Hindu, but some are Muslim. I have never seen religious services geared towards these folks, and of course our chaplains are not here to serve these folks. Most people here work 7 days per week, so I guess for most of the TCN’s here on base, they just don’t have any religious time.

 The service that I go to most is the Liturgical, which is very Episcopal, but quite similar to Lutheran. It’s at the Gilbert Chapel (everyone calls it the “H-6 Chapel” because it is right in the middle of my H-6 housing area). Here is what this chapel looks like from the outside:

 Chapel entrance

Here is what it looks like inside with a group of worshipers being led by the chaplain:

 Church

(It is perfectly acceptable to go to church in Physical Training clothes, basically workout shorts and T-shirt, due to the heat of the afternoon when this service is held)

It’s a good service, and I like it. We have to make do without any music, which is a bit disappointing, but it does make the service go faster. We’re on our 3rd chaplain since I’ve come here, because the Air Force rotates chaplains on 4-month tours. Lucky Air Force dogs to have such a short tour!!!

 The big chapel on post is Provider Chapel:

 Provider Chapel

Note the bomb shield over the building, and the fact that it is completely surrounded by concrete T-walls.  They even have an annex (on the right side of the picture) for smaller group gatherings. 

My unit’s chaplain is Captain Peter Strong, and he is a diligent worker who serves the spiritual needs of everyone in my unit. For US Military, at least, there is a wide array of choices for religious services and there is always a chaplain ready to talk.

A Few Interesting Things

Life goes on here at Joint Base Balad (JBB). A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a talk on divorce law. I’m no family law expert, but I do know more than a layman on the subject. It was a conference with about 20 chaplains, and the purpose of the speech was to give an introduction to divorce and family law issues, because chaplains often counsel people who are confronting this topic.

 

The talk was well received. Here is a picture of me giving the powerpoint presentation, with my pistol on, of course. Believe it or not, this is the best picture that was taken (not sure why my arm is like that):

 Speaking at Conf

This morning, the JBB Olympics kicked off. I participated in one event, the “Desert Firefighter Challenge.” This involved putting on my body armor and helmet, and then grabbing a firehose and running up to the top of the Holt Stadium. Then I had to pull up another firehose, and run back down to the bottom. Then you hammered a tire across a bench (not sure what that had to do with firefighting), and ran and got yet another firehose which was connected to a fire truck. You run 50 yards with that, and then shoot water to knock a basketball off an orange pylon. The final event was dragging a 185-pound sand-filled dummy about 50 more yards. This was a killer for me, because I was already weighed down with my body armor. I nearly gave up, but couldn’t do so with 50 people watching me and being the highest ranking person out there. Someone finally told me to stand up and lean backwards to get the best angle at dragging this dummy, which helped greatly.

I finished the Desert Firefighter Challenge in under 5 minutes, which was slow. The other guy against whom I was competing beat my time, but suffered more than I did and had to lie down for 10 minutes tended to by the JBB Fire Department. It was the most exhausted I’ve been in a long time. At least I got the JBB Olympics T-Shirt!!

 JBB Olympics

I hope you can read the events. Some are not what I’d call traditional Olympiad canon.  By the way, the quest for T-shirts is another subject all in itself.  Suffice it to say the military spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on these t-shirts, and I often wake up very early to go on 5-k runs to get my share.

 

In my office, I meet lots of people. According to my statistics, I’ve had client counseling sessions with 600 people over the past 5 months, which comes out to about 6-7 people per day meeting with me face-to-face, sometimes more than once. I meet with many other people in different contexts, and the Legal Assistance side of my job has handled over 2,000 client interactions (mostly powers of attorney or notaries) since my arrival here in November 2008.

 

When I meet with people, I always let them tell me their story. There are people who complain about how their commander is treating them. Problems of all sorts with the military bureaucracy, or getting the correct pay. The most common problems I deal with are family law related, mostly divorce and child custody or child support. I sometimes hear strange and unusual stories. For example, there was a first sergeant who was complaining about the troops he led. He was in a unit that did convoys: Basically big MRAP’s going around escorting supply trucks from base to base here in Iraq. His soldiers are very professional and on-the-ball when preparing for or going on a convoy. This is appropriate, because when you are outside-the-wire (off-base), you have to be very vigilant at all times. But as soon as they return to their base, these soldiers became a big bunch of prima-donnas and crybabies. The soldiers would complain if one got a cookie and the other didn’t, or any other perceived slight or injustice. It was very amusing to hear things like this about the soldiers who are out here in Iraq going on dangerous missions and doing fine work.

 

I met another young man who came to my office demanding to know how he could become an infantryman, as he had previously been promised. Over 90% of the military personnel here never go outside the wire, and that is where it is safest. So it was unusual to see a person who demanded to not only go outside the wire, but to do so as an infantryman, clearing buildings and going on patrols. He somewhat reminded me of myself when I was 20 years old, actually.

 

That’s enough writing for today. There is always loads of useful work to do here, and it is never boring for a moment in Iraq.