Trying to leave Kuwait

Welcome sign at Kuwait International Airport.

As you can tell by the title, the saga continues.  Yesterday I boarded a shuttle from Camp LSA to the Kuwait International Airport.  First we had to stop at the APOD (another location that nobody seems to know what the acronym stands for).  Here we waited for another shuttle to take us directly to the airport.  We arrived at the airport around 2:30 pm and I decided not to pick up my luggage right away and walk around the airport a little bit.  I was still in civilian clothes and did my best to blend in with the local populace.

Harley Davidson store in Kuwait airport.

This airport had every popular fast-food restaurant you could think of.  But it also had some specialty stores including Rolex and a variety of French specialty stores.  There were designer clothes stores, jewelry and the one that really stuck out was Harley Davidson.  They even had one on display!

I purchased a Café Latte

Vendor selling designer knock-off bags at Camp LSA.

at Starbucks for $6.00.  The exchange rate is terrible here when you exchange good ol’ greenbacks for Kuwaiti Dinars.  Thinking ahead for a contingency and further boredom, I brought along a book to read (Christmas present from my wife).  Greg Mortenson’s new bestseller “Stones into Schools.”  I had about an hour and a half to kill before the next shuttle.  Around 6 pm, I was informed they weren’t going to send a shuttle just to pick me up.  Instead, I would have to wait until the night passengers arrived before leaving the terminal.  This meant I had another 3 ½ hrs to waste sitting in the airport.

Holy water from Mecca.

I went outside to get some fresh air and noticed a dozen carts with identical items being pushed along.  My curiosity got the best of me and I got closer to examine them.  It looked like jugs of water, carefully packaged in plastic.  I was rather intrigued and sat down next to a Muslim from Sira Lanka.  He explained the packages were water from Mecca.  Since not every Muslim can attend the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, they bring back packaged vessels of holy water to distribute to other Muslims.  This holy water is then given to family members and friends as a sign of good prosperity and health for the coming year.

The bag that has caused me so much distress.

I returned to the airport and visited the baggage claim center.  This was the moment of truth and I was breathing a bit rapidly in anticipation until the clerk delivered my Army green duffel bag to me.  Gosh it was a beautiful sight and at the same time, I wanted to kick it out of frustration.  If it wasn’t for this bag being lost, I could have been with my team for Christmas and not have to endure these past few days of sheer boredom and restless nights.

Around 9 pm, the rest of the folks returning from R&R arrived.  We waited about 30 minutes and then departed.  The bus dropped us off at the APOD again and we were informed to get comfortable as it would be a 2 ½ hour wait.  The Subway and Pizza shops were still open for those who were hungry.  The rest of us would wait inside a tent that had a large screen television.  I used this time to read some more of Greg Mortenson’s book.

Reading “Stones into Schools” is just as fascinating as “Three Cups of Tea.”  It doesn’t surprise me that this book is mandatory reading for military officers studying counterinsurgency concepts.  I have also noticed during my travels to various camps, FOBs, etc. that they have copies of “Three Cups of Tea” stocked on their shelves.  It’s really great reading and gives the readers an insight to the complexities of conducting any sort of business or transaction in the villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Mortenson makes a great point about establishing relationships, understanding the culture, and listening to the needs of the people.  If our counterinsurgency plan is going to work in Afghanistan, then I think its imperative we heed Mortenson’s advice and listen to the people and not try to tell them what they need.

I’ve talked about FOO projects in my blog and all of the restrictions placed upon them.  But there is also another pot of money used for larger projects and it is entitled CERP.  Due to lack of sleep, I can’t recall what this acronym stands for.  These funds can be used to build roads, schools, clinics, dig wells, etc.  Anyhow, Congress has taken an interest in the expenditure of these funds and has placed narrow limitations on them as well.  So now it’s much harder to build a road connecting these villages, but it is permissible to build a fire station or buy fire trucks.  Hmmm … first the villages need a source of water like wells first.  Also, many of them don’t even have vehicles or know how to drive and their houses are built of mud-brick which doesn’t catch fire too easily.  I’m not sure where the logic is or perhaps some aspiring junior Congressman or seasoned Senator is hoping for a contract for one of his constituents who builds fire engines.  In my personal opinion, Congress needs to address the multi-million dollar contracts handed out like candy to their constituents and question the amount of money they are soaking the taxpayers for.  Don’t get me wrong, corporations deserve to make a profit, but 200-300 percent is egregious and in my opinion greedy.  I might also point out that US contractors stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and abroad should be well paid for their sacrifice, skills and for the risk they take.  But then to turn around and charge the taxpayers double and triple the amount in the name of maximizing profits is sheer thievery.  Mortenson refers to these as “sweetheart” government contracts.  He is able to build schools for a fraction of what it costs the US or the NGO organizations established in Afghanistan.  Perhaps the US government should hire his “Dirty Dozen” crew to oversee the contracts.  But then this would deprive the corrupt Afghan administrators of their cut of the piece of the pie and would make it extremely difficult for them to retain their standard of living, driving SUVs, wearing expensive suits and ties, and living in wealthy neighborhoods on their maximum government salary of $650 a month.

Anyhow, we finally departed the APOD and arrived back at Camp LSA.  It was around 1 am and the plane I had planned to board already departed.  I guess it’s another night in the tent and maybe tomorrow I will leave this place.

Introduction to ANA colonel

ETT Team leader meets with ANA colonel.

ETT Team leader meets with ANA colonel.

This morning after our daily ETT meeting, we met with our interpreters and walked about ½ mile to ANA land.  The plan was to meet the ANA colonel and then be introduced to his staff of officers.    Before we had a chance to meet and greet, the colonel whisked away our team leader to attend a Brigade staff meeting.  The rest of the ETT team

ETT Team has question-answer session.

ETT Team has question-answer session.

accompanied the Support Operations Officer (SPO) to a large setting room.  For the next hour my team peppered him with questions about Afghanistan, election runoff, culture, and our ANA Kandak.  The officer was very informative and seemed very relaxed talking to my group.

After our question and answer session, we met

Omid and Religious Education officer.

Omid and Religious Education officer.

in a large conference room.  The furniture was very crude and older than me.  This was the first meeting the new colonel had with his officers and it gave us an insight to some of the challenges faced by our ANA Kandak.  It was obvious this colonel was rather seasoned and in due time will shape up this organization.  Each member on my team was asked to stand and introduce themselves to the colonel’s staff of officers.  These officers are the same ones we will mentor for the next 6 months.  I will be dual-hatted and have the privilege of mentoring the Sergeant Major (SGM) and the Religious Officer.

My SGM was absent today and attending a funeral.  The Religious Education Officer was eager to take me to his office and explain his responsibilities.  Captain Latif is not only in charge of ensuring religious education for the soldiers, but he runs the literacy program too.  He has different programs set up to educate the ANA soldiers.  The curriculum includes politics, religion, math, science, English and infidel misperceptions.  Next week a new semester will start and I have been invited to sit in the classes.  I’m particularly interested in the infidel misperception.  Earlier in the day, I read New York Times reporter David Rohde’s saga of being kidnapped by the Taliban and he relayed how his captor viewed him as unclean and demanded he use a separate drinking glass to protect them from the diseases they believed festered inside nonbelievers.  So this might be an opportunity to break down these misperceptions and give the class a chance to ask me questions.

My host also gave me a hint of his background history too.  Captain Latif has been serving in the army for 20 years.  He studied in the Soviet Union and received a Master’s degree in military operations.  He boasted about being frequently selected to command the troops during maneuvers.  He had 2 wives until one passed away, but is still the proud father of eight children.  Another one of his responsibilities is coordinating the Humanitarian Assistance (HA) drops to the villages.  I was rather excited about this aspect and informed him about my school supply project.  So now him and I are going to actively work together to select a village or school for distribution.  The government HA program is being audited and all of the resources frozen until their investigation is completed.  Hopefully soon we will be able to get additional resources to include blankets, firewood, flour, beans, etc for the poor people in the mountainous villages I flew over.  In conjunction I plan to distribute the school supplies I have collected to date.

Boxes of school supplies in connex.

Boxes of school supplies in connex.

Today I also had 2 surprises. The first surprise was the receipt of several death threats from a disgruntled and warped reader through my blog.  I have elected not to post his comments.  But the big surprise was this afternoon when I retrieved 8 more boxes of school supplies from the Post Office and added them to the collection of 24 boxes in the connex.  My wife has informed me to expect several more dozen boxes.  I am truly amazed at the outpouring of generosity by the folks in Florida, Ohio, Georgia, and Pennsylvania who have conducted school supply drives for this worthy cause.  I also owe special thanks to WUSF Radio, the NPR affiliate that has graciously aired my request for school supplies and my deployment journey on the radio station. And I am extremely grateful to SS American Victory, the museum ship at Channelside in downtown Tampa, for working with my wife to give us a wonderful storage and packing facility for free.

Autographed book by Greg Mortenson sent by Zack Bonner.

Autographed book by Greg Mortenson sent by Zack Bonner.

But the package that caught my eye today is from an 11-year old local boy from Valrico, Florida.  Zach Bonner and his Little Red Wagon Foundation, Inc. (whose focus is on homeless kids and education) sent me a box of school supplies along with an unexpected gift.  He sent me an autographed copy of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea book.  Apparently while he was at an event in Denver with Mr. Mortenson, Zack told told him about my project and had him autographed a copy of his book for me.  What really caught my attention was the personal letter that accompanied the package.  Zach wrote: “It takes a brave man to do what you are doing.  I hope if my country needed me I would be of strong enough character to defend it.”  Zach, the military is not for everyone and you don’t have to join it to defend the principles of our homeland.  What you are doing is having a long lasting effect and helping to make our country a better place to live.  You are answering the nation’s calling in a different way.  Thanks Zach, you made my day!

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