Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Dinner

A very nice Christmas dinner was served at the DFAC.  The staff did a great job decorating the place and the food was great too.  The staff were dressed up like elves, wise men, and a Santa.  There was an ice sculpture, many large & elaborate ginerbread houses, animals made from bread, and a huge cake. There was even a fountain serving the sparkling grape juice.  There was just about every type of food one might imagine at a Christmas dinner including appetizers, seafood, beef, turkey, southern soul food, and tons of sides and deserts.  I slept in late missing breakfast, then skipped lunch - to save up for one big meal.  Pretty good - only possible improvement would be to have been with my family.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas from Camp Lemonier

Merry Christmas! Not a white Christmas, the temperature is in the 80s here. It doesn't feel like a typical Christmas but I'm glad some people are trying. I took a few photos of some of the decorations around camp. One of the best was the homemade decorations made by the janitorial service contractors. They took empty water bottles, painted them, and put them together into some star shapes - including the use of mops and brooms. They made a great 3D Christmas tree out of painted green water bottles too. Some of the guys saw me taking pictures, they were quick to come over and pose. They are proud of their shop and work and I'm happy to include them in the blog. Next is one of the doors to the Dining Facility. Each door has a foam panel with a painting, I like the Santa Soldier one best. The Sea Bees put up an inflatable snowman in front of their workspace - one of several of the inflatable decorations around camp. I like their everyday signs and decorations, the snowman was just an excuse to include a picture of their tents. On the sign behind the snowman is a counter for 'mishap free days'. Poor Sea Bees are having a tough time, the counter has been reset to zero a few times since I've been here already. Nothing major.

I miss my family. I'm glad I can watch the girls upon presents on Skype but of course its not the same as being there. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Restaurants in Djibouti

Tonight I drove a vehicle off camp for the first time. It was a very short trip - which was why I wanted to drive, a warm up to the sometimes chaotic driving here. We went to a new Indian restaurant close to both the French and American bases. The food wasn't too good, proably because there weren't any Indians operating the place. I spent 2650 Djiboutian franks for a Coke, Chicken Masala, and a portion of an appetizer - thats about $15. That is the least I've spent at a restaurant here. A more typical meal seems to run about 4000-5000 DF (with a beer). I was anticipating that food and drink would be cheap out in town, $20 is a lot of money to a local Djiboutian. However, the restaurants and nightclubs (at least the ones downtown and near the base) are not frequented by the locals - its mainly French and Americans. The standard price for a beer is 1000 DF, $6.

The downtown area has several restaurants, nightclubs, and small hotels. I went to a pizza place and a Lebanese restaurant recently. The food at both was very good. Great European style pizza and nice atmosphere at the pizza place. The Lebanese place was fun, our group got the 'special' - they bring out several bowls of different kinds of hummus, appetizers, salad, sauces, and baskets of bread, and pita. The next course a tray of chicken and lamb kababs are passed around. Pretty good! My wife asked me when I was going to an African restaurant while I am in Africa. There aren't any traditional Djiboutian restaurants that I'm aware of (or that someone who has been here a year is aware of) in the parts of town where one would go. There are a few Ethiopian restaurants that I want to try as well as a Yemenese restaurant (not African but just across the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti).

Djibouti is a fairly safe area, but we are close to parts of the world where bad guys come form that might want to target Americans. In the interest of OPSEC I've deleted the names of the places. Not that its hard to pick out Americans here, we stand out, but I don't want to provide any open source intel or make it easier.

Baby Orphanage

On Saturday I participated in a volunteer event organized by the camp Chapel. Four times a week a bus departs camp for the baby orphanage in Djibouti city run by some Catholic nuns. Volunteers feed babies bottles, feed toddlers, play with them, and then put them to bed - over a 2 hour period. It was my first trip but most of the 17 attending were regulars. In fact, there were more people wanting to go than seats on the small bus. I wanted to go because I miss my children and I wanted to do some good in this poor area of the world. In some ways it was sad to see all those infants and toddlers that did not have mommies or daddies; however it was worth it to interact with them and see them smile. I was expecting the worst before I arrived but was relieved to find the place clean and in decent repair with children that looked well cared for. It was a very simple and modest operation but it appears to be working. I will probably attend regularly on Saturdays (which is a half work day for us). Click here, here, and here for photos and news stories.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Camel *ss

Every evening, maybe an hour after sunset, the sky is choked with smoke and it smells, really bad. Camel Ass! That's what everyone calls it. All the garbage is burned each night, not brought to a landfill. This is coming from Djibouti city, not the camp. Its called Camel *ss due to its smell and because animal carcasses (including camels) are also supposedly burnt with the daily trash. It is thick every night, like a heavy but smelly fog. I won't run at night, don't even like the short walk from my CLU to the DFAC. I'm sure its just great for one's health.

Swimming with the Whales Sharks

I did not take the first photo (thanks Google Images) but that about sums up the experience - although the whale sharks I saw were not quite that large, "only" about 20 feet long.

On 7 December I went on a whale shark trip. It required getting up at 0430 in the morning to make the early roll call but was very much worth it. About 35 of us took a short bus ride to the pier and boarded the "yacht". The yacht was towing a small boat, and another two small boats met up with us later. It was nearly a 3 hour transit at a slow 6 knots. We went west from Djibouti, staying in the Gulf of Tadjourah. During the transit we had a dive brief and then a whale shark brief: don't touch them - it will spook them; don't go in front of them - they won't turn; remain clear of the tail fin - one good kick can cause serious injury. They eat plankton, not fish or people, so becoming lunch was not an issue. Upon arriving at a little cove I went scuba diving (not with whale sharks). It was a beautiful reef with many fish of amazing colors. I bought a waterproof camera, its a cheapy 35mm film camera with a clear pressure shell around it. Not bad for $13, good down to 30m and it stayed dry. I just sent the film back to the states today to get developed so it will be a few weeks.

After the dive we loaded into the last remaining small boat (the non-divers were already out looking for whale sharks in the first two boats) and started the hunt. The scuba gear was gone (too bulky for chasing down the fast swimming whale sharks and the frequent climbing in and out of the boat) but we still had mask, fins, and snorkel. We soon saw some whale sharks, fairly easy to spot: they swim near the coast and close enough to the surface that a fin sticks out - just like in JAWS. The boat gets close and then its a scramble of rolling into the water and trying to chase them down. They aren't fleeing, just moving at thier steady pace which is just about the max speed one can swim with help from fins - eventually they pull away as you get tired. Next bob around in the water looking for a signal from the boat. A few times a whale shark would be coming towards me, allowing a great look up close. I hope my pictures came out well. Climb back into the boat and repeat for a few hours. After the first few times we figured out how to stop kicking each other during the mad dash after rolling off the small boat. An amazing experience to swim up close to the largest fish in the world! We returned to the 'yacht' for lunch, then some people went for another dive, most others went snorkeling near the reef. I had already seen the reef so I just relaxed and read a book.

During the ride back I got this great shot of the sunset. After it was completely dark the boat broke down, dead in the water. One passenger had been puking the entire trip back so they put him in one of the small boats to get back to land. After drifting for a half hour one of the other passengers, I think he was a Navy Seabee, went to try and help the crew. He fixed it and we made it back just before the dining facility closed. A great day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Its Been a While / JPME / Khat

Ok, its been 9 days since I last posted, ruining a good streak of a post every couple of days. A variety of boring reasons why: lazy, more busy at work with new position, and playing XBox. Yeah, the XBox 360 I ordered arrived last week - the temptation of playing Gears of War 2 all evening is hard to resist. At least I've been able to make myself get to the gym everyday. I have been less successful in studying for the JPME course I signed up for. JPME is joint professional military education, its an academic certification for field grade officers - about leadership, strategic planning, joint military operations, etc. It's required for command at the O5 level and makes one more competitive overall. I'm taking the Air Force distance learning version of JPME. There are 7 courses, 18 months max to complete. This deployment is probably the best opportunity to do it, I hope to get at least 5 courses done. I don't want to study that stuff at home. Part of the reason I haven't gotten much done on that yet is that I don't have the books, still waiting on delivery, 3 weeks so far. I don't like reading a textbook on the computer screen.

On Saturday I went out into town during the day. I got a good tour of the city from an officemate. A big part of the culture here is men chewing khat in the afternoon. The leaves of this plant are chewed for a narcotic effect, nearly all Djiboutian men do it. The whole city is much less active each afternoon after the daily Khat plane arrives. Selling khat employs a lot of women, they have little wooden stands setup on the street, with a burlap sack full of the stuff. In fact the closest intersection to the camp is called Khat Corner. There is a wide range of living conditions in Djibouit city from crowded shacks & shantytowns up to apartment buildings and homes that wouldn't look out of place in a western country. Djibouti even has a five star hotel, the Kempinski. I saw the downtown square area, there is a variety of shops, restaurants, and nightsclubs - what one would expect in a downtown area, just with its own African twist. Of course, its the foreigners that support those businesses.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Moucha Island

Today I went on a trip to Moucha Island. Every Sunday (and sometimes other days of the week) there is a trip somewhere. Usually it involves going on a boat somewhere - and scuba diving or snorkeling is often an available activity. I went scuba diving in the morning. I hadn't dove in 10 years. At first I was panicking but I calmed down and enjoyed a good dive. We were off a colorful reef with lots of tropical fish, a large barracuda, and sting rays. Everybody saw dolphins except me and my dive buddy. After the dive I hung at the gazebo bar until lunchtime. For lunch they served some excellent shish kabobs (cooked over wood bbq) with rice, salads, and a desert - better food than at the DFAC. After lunch it was more time at the gazebo bar then I went and sat on a lounge chair and read before going back to the gazebo. It was about a 25 minute boat ride from the port of Djibouti. Its a small island, 3 km long. There is a dive shop, gazebo, eating gazebo / kitchen, beach, bathrooms, some cottages, and some building where the generator and water stuff is.

On the way back I saw the Djiboutian Navy in port, all of it I think.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Job Change

So I originally wrote that I was going to be a watch officer in the Joint Operations Center.  Well, the plan changed this last week.  I'm now going to be a Country Desk Officer (what I was told I was going to be doing before I arrived in Africa), replacing another fellow who is leaving this coming week.  We started our turnover the day before Thanksgiving.  For the countries I'm assigned to I will be coordinating all travel and operations there.  I will be working with people at the U.S. Embassies in those countries to obtain clearances as well as brief the HOA commander on the status of operations each week.  It should be more interesting than the watch.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

They put on a very nice Thanksgiving feast at the DFAC here in Djibouti. The place was nicely decorated and there were even ice sculptures. An excessive amount of food was available and it was actually pretty good. I appreciate the effort but I just want to be home with my family. This is the first holidays that I'm missing with the children.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Containerized Living Units (CLU)

I'm located at Camp Lemonier. Notice the word camp, not base, this is an expeditionary location. There is a distinct lack of permanent buildings. Everyone lives in a CLU. Take a shipping container, put a door, A/C, lights, and some basic furniture and you have a CLU. CLUs are a huge improvement from tents that were the main housing and working spaces here only 1 to 2 years ago. Many of the tents are still here but most are empty, however there are still some "offices" that are in tents. Some workspaces are "CWUs" (pronounced chews) that are 2 shipping containers with one long wall cut out and welded together.

Pictured is the CLU I lived in my first two weeks here. It is a 2 man "dry" CLU. Dry meaning no plumbing facilities. In the middle of each row of CLUs is a separate trailer with showers, sinks and toilets. I was also down at the far end of camp, a long walk (15 minutes to the office). Fortunately that location was just temporary while I was on the waiting list for one of the O4 / O5 CLUs to open up (I just moved two days ago). What I described is the permanent home for all E6 and below. E7 through O3 get an upgrade of a private CLU with an attached bathroom that is shared with thier neighbor. The O4 / O5 CLUs, where I now reside, have the advantage of being centrally located as well as private bathroom and wired for internet, AFN TV, and camp phone. My quality of life went way up in the last few days.

First Trip Outside the Wire

Last night I left the camp for the first time. I went out on liberty with 4 other guys from my office. It was a little scary at first. After exiting the multiple layers of security I started to fell naked and anxious. Next there was some haggling with cab drivers and then about a 15 minute ride to our destination, a Chinese restaurant. Its hard to give a fair description because I was only out at night but one thing is for sure: its nothing like the US, western Europe, or Japan. You know that you are in a developing country - it's very poor. There are no streetlights, traffic lights (traffic circles are used), and few paved roads outside the capital city. We encountered a slow moving train, its main cargo was camels, the secondary cargo was many people sitting on some flatbed cars, children were running up to the train and jumping on for a ride. We passed the French military base, they have a large presence here. Most signs are in French, so I can at least partially read them.

Dinner was good, a nice change from the DFAC. The other customers appeared to be French, except for one family we talked to who worked for the contractor that provides the food for the camp - no locals. The same cabs were waiting for us when we left the restaurant. On the way back we passed the presidential palace, the port, and "Djiboutian Disneyland" which features some bootleg Mickey Mouse characters on top of some carnival type rides. I'm looking forward to getting out again to see more local culture and cuisine - even though it is a little uncomfortable to leave Fortress America.

The photo up top is not mine, got it here: Charles Goulet. The three photos below I took from the plane on the way in: you can see the most of the city, some of the better buildings in town, and a shack area.

Friday, November 21, 2008

NIACT part 3 - Predators!

PREDATORS! That's what my platoon was conditioned to holler when called to attention. It became a sort of greeting. Thanks Drill Sergeant Shep. That is us above, Bravo Company - 2nd Platoon. I'm in the back with the rifle in the air. That picture is from the last day, after some of our members not flying with us had already left.

One of the best days at NIACT was the heavy weapons familiarization training. We got to fire the Mk 2 50 cal, M-240B, and M-249 SAW. Just enough ammo was provided to get a feel for each, about 30 rounds per weapon - I'm holding it for the two smaller guns. I'll tell you what, that 50 cal is both impressive and intimidating but lots of fun to fire. I put a few holes in the beat up trucks out on the range. Check out this video of me shooting the SAW, Hooah!

During the final few days we were preparing for our final exam like event, the Convoy exercise. We practiced stacking up and kicking doors in for entry into a building, IED identification, radio communications, convoy procedures, crowd control, vehicle inspections, more first aid, and land navigation. The convoy exercise was pretty good. It was complete with IEDs and staff playing the role of bad guys. The convoy ended up in a mocked up city. I wound up getting "killed" from a bad guy hiding up high in a tower but the platoon accomplished its mission. Overall NIACT was a good experience and I learned a lot. Fortunately most of the skills won't be used or needed in Africa. Go Narmy!

Here I am with all my gear, 3 full seabags, a suitcase, and a carry-on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hey Cuz, What you doing for the Navy today?

The Army calls it the DFAC (dining facility), its Galley in the Navy; either way its where you go to eat. Camp McCrady has one very lively character working at its DFAC. Everyone just knows him as Cuz. He very happily greets each person in line with the standard "What will it be Cuz?" followed by his catch phrase or trivia of the day. For example "What you doing for the Navy today Cuz?" or "Who was your first grade teacher Cuz?" For the females he would call them 'Sister Lou' instead of Cuz. Cuz always made my day, even if having breakfast at 0530, with his thick Carolina accent and positive outlook. Going to a meal was eventually known as 'going to see Cuz' or 'going to dinner with Cuz'. On the last day he said something like "Tell all them other Navy fellas where you're going that Cuz said Hi". I have been Cuz, and everyone remembers you.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

NIACT part 2

Here is a typical day: up before 0500, breakfast at 0530, formation at 0600 in full "battle rattle" (body armor), then load the buses for the trip to one of the many ranges at Fort Jackson. At this point get ready for a large serving of hurry up and wait - a recurring theme throughout all three weeks of training. There is a safety and orientation brief, lane assignments, and a favorite of the Army: getting into lines. Eventually your turn to shoot comes and I always enjoyed it. Lunch would be in the field too, usually MREs (prepackaged meals ready to eat). We had 5 rifle events and 3 pistol events, each most of the day.

I did well with the pistol, earned the Expert qualification. The rifle was another story. The Army's rifle qualification is much more difficult than the Navy standard. The Army uses a range with pop-up targets at distances between 50 to 300 meters. The targets come up one or two at a time in a set pattern, from 3 to 11 seconds depending on the range - 40 targets in all. It was a humbling experience because I had previously shot pretty good at the static bulls eye target. During the pre-qualification day I failed to get a good enough score. On qualification day I was shooting much better but had bad luck of a lousy magazine that kept causing weapon malfunctions (jams). During the course of fire I had three such stoppages, you have to take the corrective action, in the meantime the targets keep coming up and down. Close, but still a fail. I was not a mandatory qualification for the rifle (only those carrying one into theater were - typically junior enlisted) so the Army did not provide me any additional opportunity or training. They considered it a familiarization for the officers.

Let me tell you about the body armor. That stuff is heavy. This is not like the soft bulletproof vests that you see police wearing. There are composite material plates that are inserted into the front, back, and sides. Those plates can stop some serious firepower but at a cost, its really heavy. I'd guess that between the helmet, plates, and all the various other pieces of the armor it weighs about 50 pounds. You'll also be carrying a weapon(s), ammunition, water, and other gear you need. I'm glad I was doing this training in late October during cool weather. I really feel for the troops wearing this equipment in the desert.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

NIACT part 1

The flight to Columbia, SC did not go too well. None of my baggage arrived. The Master Chief who greeted us assured me he would get it when he picked up the next load of people coming in on an later flight - he made good on that word. We arrived at Camp McCrady after a 30 minute van ride. Camp McCrady is a National Guard training center where NIACT takes place; its part of Fort Jackson. We were greeted by Army drill sergeants, they told us our company and barracks as well as gave as linens and a roll of toilet paper. Our living arrangements (pictured above) were open bay barracks, boot camp style - the pits. Only very senior officers (O6) had something better and even they had two man rooms.

The first day was all about gear issue, lots of it. The gear included a complete set of body armor, helmet, sleep "system", "hydration system", mosquito net, sunglasses, ruck sack & frame, shovel, goggles, and a full set of extreme cold weather clothing. Two full seabags of stuff and there was more to come later. I used a lot of the gear during the training but now that I'm in Africa most of it won't get touched again.

The second day was the start of our weapons immersion training. Each of us were issued an M-16 rifle and some were also issued an M-9 pistol. Depending on your mission and destination your issued weapon(s) were either a 'go to war weapon' and/or a loaner. I just got a loaner M-16, folks going to Djibouti don't carry a weapon there - fortunately, its not needed. From that point on we had to carry the weapons with us everywhere, even the dining facility. The only exceptions were at night when sleeping, in the bathroom, or on liberty; however, during those events a watch had to be setup to maintain accountability of the weapons. We then learned how to disassemble and clean the weapons. The following day was classroom training, including combat first aid, personnel recovery, and humvee rollover trainer familiarization. The next week and a half was focused on rifle and pistol marksmanship. With the exception of a few classes and HUMVEE driver training we were outside on the firing range most of the time.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mobilization Processing

I received a phone call in early August from the Navy - I was served notice - in two months I would leave for processing, training, and eventually to Djibouti. That was all the information I had, the anxiety level was high. It was a little shocking, even though I knew recall was always a possibility and would eventually catch up to me. It was hard breaking the news to my wife.

During those two months I had a lot to do: preparing the family, settling personal business, getting an official passport, completing 16 online Navy training courses, immunizations, turning over all projects at work, shopping, as well as turning over the Navy Reserve unit I had command of. During the two weeks prior to leaving I took vacation from work. It was great spending that time at home with the family.

It started on 9 October, that night I drove to Harrisburg, PA - where I drill. The following day I met with my Reserve boss, the CO of NSA Mechanicsburg for a turnover and performance review. I then went to the NOSC (reserve center) for one more immunization and some paperwork. With a simple entry on the computer I was back on Active Duty. I went back home for the weekend, then flew to Gulfport, Mississippi on Monday.

I was at Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport (home of the Seabees) for Mobilization Processing. Guflport is one of 4 sites that each week proceses sailors, both active and reserve. During the week there are many briefs: legal rights, family support, financial, etc. There is more medical and dental checks; uniform issue, fitting for chem/bio suit, setting up of pay accounts, and of course plenty of forms to fill out. It was a slow week, lots of waiting in lines, with intentional gaps in the schedule to allow time for people to fix problems or do things like make wills or power of attorney. The sailors with me were heading all over the world, Iraq and Afghanistan or course, but also Djibouti, Philippines, Honduras, and Tampa, Florida (Centcom).

My next stop was Fort Jackson, SC for a three week course taught by Army drill seargents: Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training (NIACT).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why am I here?

I was active duty Navy from 1997-2003 and served in the Submarine community. I continued in the Reserve Component and have been drilling for the last five years. The Navy has been supporting the Global War on Terrorism by mainly sending individual sailors (vice complete units) to particular jobs on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, and other places. These sailors are called Indivual Augmentees (IA), and now I have been recalled to active duty and joined thier ranks.

My assignment is to the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) for 270 days "boots on ground". Combined means partner countries are involved, joint means all services (Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force). The Horn of Africa area of responsibility includes the countries of Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Yemen.

CJTF-HOA conducts unified action in the Combined Joint Operations Area - Horn of Africa to:
PREVENT Conflict
PROMOTE Regional Cooperation
PROTECT U.S. and Coalition Interests
PREVAIL against Extremism

I'm just beginning to learn what that means. So far I understand it to include many humanitarian and civil affairs missions that include medical and veterinarian assistance, well digging, school construction, as well as military to military training. Its very different from what you might see on TV about Iraq and Afghanistan - here its about building relationships to get ahead of problems and prevent opportunities for terrorists vice direct action against them.

I will be working in the J33 shop - Current Operations. I will be a watch officer monitoring operations and communicating with the teams "downrange".

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Really Long Flight

Well I made it. After numerous delays the flight finally left Columbia at about 0100 on Sunday. It was 1300 local time on Monday when I set foot on the ground in Djibouti. It was interesting to not have to deal with TSA security being it was a chartered flight, especially with most of us carrying firearms in the cabin. We passed over Greenland prior to our second stop in Reykjavik, Iceland. Check out the photo of Greenland from 35,000 feet.

Next was Budapest, Hungary where many of my shipmates with final destinations in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kuwait enjoyed one final visit to the airport pub. I then spent about an hour in Kuwait prior to the last leg to Djibouti.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Does this thing work?

This is my first post, not sure of what I'm doing.  Today is my last day in the USA.  I leave tonight on a chartered military flight.  Its going to be a really long flight, depart on Saturday night, arrive in Africa on Monday morning.  There are three refueling stops, then another stop in Kuwait where most people will depart, finally to Djibouti.  

I have some catching up to do on posts.  My processing and training is complete and I will document that experience. I've got plenty of pictures.  I'm off to my last meal at the Camp McCrady DFAC, then onto the busses to the airport.