Monday, August 26, 2013


Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless-service, honor, integrity and personal courage.  I remember my reaction when I was at Basic Combat Training (BCT) and the Drill Sergeants started talking about these values; the army values.

I was taken aback when I heard that in addition to learning how to fire, maintain and perform function checks on an M16, an M249, an M240B and learning how to don MOPP gear including the M40 gas mask and learning how to function as a member of a fire team, and learning proper customs and courtesies and drill and ceremony and buddy team movements that we were also going to learn about values.  They are an impressive collection of values.  One would be hard pressed to find another value worthy of inclusion on this list of Army values, save faith, hope and love.

I remember thinking of the monumental task that lay before the United States Army (USA) in teaching these values.  Teaching how to field strip an M16 is relatively easy when compared to teaching personal courage.  With an M16 you can step-by-step pop the the pins, separate the upper and lower recievers, take out the charging handle, the bolt assembly, the buffer spring, etc.  You can physically show people how to utilize the tools to clean the dirt and carbon build-up on the weapon and you can show them how to reassemble the weapon.  You can show them how to clear a jam--slap, pull, observe, release, tap, squeeze--drop a clip, reload a magazine and then you can show them how to effectively use the weapon to engage targets.  You can teach sight picture, center of mass, breathing techniques, the fundamental rules of handling a weapon--treat every weapon as if it were loaded, never let the muzzle cover something you are not willing to destroy, keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target, be aware of your target, what is in front of and behind. These are solid truths almost as certain as 2+2=4

But, how do you teach honor?

You can't field strip honor.  You can't take someone through every situation they will face in any given day and say this is what honor would do.  However, the USA does try to teach honor.  They provided cards and books with cumbersome definitions and tasked us with looking for instances of the values being acted out by our "battle buddies".  It was a frustrating task because it wasn't quite hitting the mark.

It is amazingly commendable for the USA to see the importance of these values.  They are important.  They are, quite frankly, the best lessons that can be learned at BCT, they are timeless lessons that transcend the battlefield and carry over to all aspects of life.  The Army Values establishes the plumb line from which a person can measure themselves to determine what kind of a human being they are.  Am I loyal, do I have duty, honor, integrity?  Do I guarantee respect to the people that I meet?  And do I have the personal courage to serve others selflessly?  My God, how can someone do all those things and how could the USA teach those lessons?

One thing the USA does is they tell and share stories about men and women who have embodied these values.  They tell the stories of simple men and women who have, under great peril to their own lives, embodied these army values.  They tell stories of men valiantly jumping on grenades to save the lives of their brothers.  They tell stories of men taking enemy positions by themselves under withering small arms fire.  They tell stories of snipers rapelling into hell to secure a pilot whose Black Hawk was shot down.  They faced impossible odds and knew they would be overrun, that their blood would spill but served selflessly, loyally, dutifully, courageously and honorably. 

In these stories you get a glimpse, a sense of what it means to be a soldier in the USA.  I know that not all soldiers take these precious lessons from BCT.  The media makes damn sure that everyone is aware of the failures of the USA.  I know that many that I went through BCT were not much more than kids and their grasp of the gravity of the profession they were entering and their commitment that they had made may have been lost to them.  They never lived on their own and were new to the world.  Some never had a bank account, a beer (legally), a vote in a presidential election, a budget, a mortage payment; some didn't have Fathers or Mothers to teach them these values.  And here is the USA adopting them and giving them a set of brothers--sometimes sisters--a purpose and a guideline for life.  The USA then tries its damndest to get people in leadership positions to model these traits and show the sons and daughters of America what it means to be a soldier.  What it means to be a man, a woman.

I am glad of this decision that I have made and pray to God each day that I can live up to these values and do my part to show others what it means to be a soldier in the USA.  It truly is an honor.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


It is difficult to be on this trip separated from family, friends, the trappings of modern day life and the social structures which hold life into place; to be excised from all the moorings of normal life and placed in this unique situation.  One needs to develop and create ways to stabilize life and bring some semblance of order.  The outside forces will wreak havoc unless a solid framework can be formed. 

The best way to develop stability is to create routines.  Because of the nature of the organization a routine is easy to establish and essentially pre-made.  The absence of responsibilities from home--not all of them--allows for freedom to put just about anything that is morally sound and beneficial into the routine.  There is a great amount of flexibility in the routine from week to week and variety makes the routine interesting.  The routine helps to take the mind off of the loss and gives the mind and body work.  It engages the mind and keeps it busy; focusing the mind on problems at work, on solutions in thought and rest during recreation.

There is one constant in the routine and that is human relationship.  These are another way to develop stability in this unstable environment; human relationships.  From the moment I arrived here--even before then, when I was at the airport and months before this trip--relationships were being formed with people who would be essential to the team's success and my personal success.  I have met people from all over the country serving in a variety of capacities.  People with graduate degrees, people with bachelor's degrees, people in the infantry, people in intelligence, people in medicine, reservists, funny people, caring people, loyal people.  The list goes on; the dumb people, the lazy people, the corrupt people, the broken people, the unstable, the weak, the shy and reserved.

And now, after only a little while here in this place, some of them are leaving.  I have spent countless hours with these people, we have broken bread together, we have drunk together, we have played together, we have laughed together, we have sweated together, swam together, suffered together and worked together.  And just like that they will be gone.  It is worse than leaving family and friends behind because the reality is I will never see these people again.  There is the hope of meeting family and friends at the airport; but my new friends won't be there.  It is the truth and it may sound morbid, but it is like they are dying.  They are friends, the only flesh and blood connection to the "real world" that can relate to everything back home and everything that is western and they will be gone never to be seen again.  Their jobs and families will take them all over the world and country.  Their families will take them back.  Back to the real world and away from us left here in this place. 

And it hurts.

I didn't think it would.  I didn't think I could care less.  But now I know that I was wrong.  Take another pill and push through.  These things will work out.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Yesterday, a soldier invited me over to his house for lunch.  He made his way over to where I stay and together we went to his place where we shared a meal of fufu and pepper soup and Cokes. 

Fufu is hard to describe, but I will give it a try.  It is made from cassava leaves, how, I don't know.  It is not translucent, but it is not white.  It is grayish, but not because that is it's color, it is greyish white because you can't see through it.  It has little air bubbles in it and it has the consistency that is a bit more heavier then leavened dough that hasn't rested.  It sits in a mound in a bowl and you use your spoon to cut a piece out of it.  It sticks to your spoon and maintains its shape all the way to your mouth. 

Before this, however, you pour a soup over it.  The soup that was served was spicy and red.  It had fish, dried fish--I'm sure it was the kind I see sold on the side of the street that I have been admonished not to eat--a lobster tail, cow meat, peppers and a whole single orange prawn perched on top.  My friend, his beautiful wife and African Queen daughter shared the same bowl.  You dig your spoon into the fufu and get a piece of that, gather some of the red liquid, one of the myriad pieces of meat or fish and eat, making sure not to chew the fufu.  I was instructed to not chew the fufu after my first few bites where I had in fact chewed the fufu.  I noticed no difference in tast and am unsure of what the reasoning is behind not chewing the fufu.

Afterwards we sat and talked.  His wife is going to school at the University and is fortunate enough to work there as well.  Their daughter recently was recognized as the African Queen of her school and awarded with a scholarship for a half-year tuition at her school.  They showed me pictures of their daughter as she had to dress up as a queen for the contest; it was easy to see how this little girl was able to win the award, she truly looked like what I, as a westerner, would describe as an African Queen.

I am honored to have met this man and honored to have been invited into his house.  He is an outstanding man and has impressed me with his professionalism, his knowledge of his trade, his devoutness to his religion, his care for his family and his hospitality to his friends.  Unbeknownst to him, he has taught me a few things; he has taught me about loyalty and duty, respect and honour, selfless service and personal courage.  I love seeing these traits in these soldiers and in this man.  When I see these traits embodied all the way over here it demonstrates that some things transcend culture, space and time.  What it means to be a good human being; what it means to be a decent human being; what it means to be human is constant and absolute.  These traits may manifest themselves slightly differently from place to place but human beings must strive to allow these traits to guide their actions.  I would assert that people who embody these traits especially well may find themselves at peace with those around themselves and satisfied with themselves as a person, much like my new friend.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


They are amazing.  The best thing about this place.  If the flights here were not upwards of 2K, and if there wasn't a lingering thought of the government toppling, and if there was a reliable source of electricity, and if there wasn't a need to take Malarone, and if the best hospital in the region wasn't a world away, I wonder if it would be possible to create a tourism sector?

The sand is fine, the waves are fun to play in and it's been a while--I think--since there was a shark attack.  Maybe it is because I grew up with the freshest greatest lakes in the world, I am still amazed and in awe of the ocean.  I hope I never loose that.  I have encountered some people in my life who grew up close to the ocean and it has lost it effect on them.

I am filled with both excitement and trepidation when the ocean pulls me out as the next wave comes crashing down.  If the wave crashes ahead of you the ocean pushes you towards the beach and may choose to slam you into the ground. It is no wonder that some people here are afraid of the water.  There are also stories of ancient peoples who live in the ocean and pull people in to their deaths.  The ebb and flow of the ocean is a mysterious thing.

Not all the beaches here are created equally, though, and ones near the city are too be avoided.  Run-off can cause havoc on some of these beaches.  Some of these beaches are literally treated like a latrine.  Swim with caution, sharks and shit may be in the area.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I never knew that separation could cause physical pain.

I don't know why this one is different than the other times.  I've been away before for days, weeks and months; maybe it is because this one is so long. 

It's a long way from home, the jar is still half full.

I have been a bit of a hermit.  I haven't come out of my room much except out of necessity.  This makes the pain all the more poignant.  Food, work and beer are at the top of the list of reasons to leave these four walls.  I'm going to have to break out of here soon and go run amok in the streets and see how things really are.  They can't be as bad as they say they are.

One thing that I have been pondering in my goings out among the city is that the way things are done here sometimes seems illogical, improbable and counter-intuitve.  As I dwell on the subject more, I realize that it is just simple living; it is normalcy.  Many times things seem ridiculous, yet they are actually the necessary result of the complex factors at work.  Take the driving, for example.

There are only a few well maintained roads around here, and the road that goes where I need to go is the same road that everyone else has to take.  There is no interstate, there is no DOT or money to fund signage or street lights or stop signs.  How could things possibly be done differently?  Not everyone can afford a car so taxi's and motorcycles offer an effective alternate mode of transportation.  It is the solution to the problem of traveling by foot; there is an effective, efficient necessary solution.  You can write down laws and say people need to drive a certain way, but how do you enforce the law?  The money for law enforcement and all the other frivolities needs to be spent on clean water and a power grid, or does it?

Is electricity an essential? 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Just push through

There are many fascinating things about this place.  I might be aggrandizing in that last statement when I say "fascinating".  Maybe things are just different and not fascinating at all. 

The traffic flow in the city and outskirts is what I was thinking about when I wrote the title and when I made the first paragraph.  Presently, driving is the task that I have the most apprehension about.  I relished in the fact that when I got here I was "unqualified" to drive and unable to navigate the traffic streams in the city.  However, as time goes by and people get wise I have to accept the fact that driving is a job that I am going to have to perform, maybe on a daily basis.  I don't have much of a choice, I suspect my superiors--there are many of them--will probably delegate the driving duties to me.

It is unfortunate because driving is one of my favorite pass times.  Night driving, highway driving, country-side driving, city driving and four-wheel driving are things that get me excited.  Not many things compare to an open road, a stout vehicle and good tunes. 

There are no open roads in the city.  The vehicles are not stout and the radios, well, the radios actually might provide some relief.  I'm not sure, I haven't tried them yet.

The best advice I have received concerning driving in the city--probably the best advice since I have gotten here--is to just push through; that things tend to work themselves out.  There is a sense of ordered chaos on the streets, of impending doom.  Fearless violence of action is the recommended course of action for guaranteed success.

As I thought about this advice I reflected on how well it has helped in the past.  It is the mindset that has been ingrained into me over the past several years and it is the very fabric of this culture I have embraced.  It is an approach to life that I have always latently held true. 

There have been moments in my life where quitting a given task was an option.  Quitting, I think, is sometimes easy and sometimes it hard; sometimes it is encouraged and sometimes maybe necessary.  Then there are other tasks that must be accomplished, that must be completed successfully in order to move on to the next day.  I remember moments in my life where I have had to just push through; where quitting was not an option. 

This is one of them.  I just have to push through.  When there are vehicles that have crossed the center line and are quickly closing the distance, when you have to make it three wide on a road for two vehicles because the taxi suddenly stopped in your lane to pick-up a fare, when the vehicle in front of you lacks turn signals and brake lights, when you have to make a left hand turn during rush hour at an intersection with no stop signs, no signage, pedestrians in all four crosswalks and motorcyclists weaving in and out of traffic; you just push through.

Of course, it's not just for driving.  It's not just for dealing with the flow of traffic and overcoming the sense of vulnerability and danger that occur when you turn the key in the ignition.  You just push through when the pills don't seem to be moving from the bottle, when family fails, when loneliness sets in and causes physical debilitating pain, when your lungs bleed, when your legs can't run another mile, when the stench of corruption and shit forces its way into your nostrils, when you think about the hopelessness of the situation and wickedness and atrocities of man, and when you fail.  You just push through.  These things tend to work themselves out.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


There is a bottle on my shelf with some pills of Malarone in it.  These symbolize the count down until I get to go home.  The bottle is half full, however, the journey is just begun.  Here is one of the many contradictions I have encountered on this journey.

A half filled jar of pills but a completely full hourglass until I get home.  Why couldn't I have gotten a smaller bottle or the pill be bigger, why is there so much empty space in this bottle?  The space doesn't symbolize a pill that used to be there but is now gone because the day is done; it symbolizes inefficiency, wastefulness.  One of these pills could have been smashed because of the long trip it would have had to make from one end of the jar to the other.  Then I would be missing a pill.  That damn bottle made my carry-on bag a bit bulky.

I haven't even seen a mosquito, yet.  I have already ran and walked 10 to 20 miles in this country, ridden probably 100 miles and been exposed approximately 24 hours.  I guess that is one more contradiction, taking medicine for a sickness I don't have and might never be exposed to--I probably will exposed to it eventually. 

I have never seen whiter whites and more vibrant colors than what some people are wearing; electricity is not a commodity and there aren't many washing machines or dryers around here.  People are husky and seem well-fed; the per capita income is about 200 or 250, depending on where you look.  Food can be purchased from street vendors for a buck or two; there are several Lebanese owned and operated restuarants that charge $4 for a Heineken, $12 for a burger, $12 for a Greek salad and $24 for locally caught Grilled Tuna. Those are American dollars, by the way.

Nice beach not far from where I stay.  Can't go swimming, though, unsanitary.  Just one more contradiction.

I am sure these are just the first of many.  There are others that I have seen but they escape me at the moment.  I imagine once I get to see how things are beyond the personal everyday matters, more contradictions will be noted.  By then it will be time to talk about something different.