Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Water Hog

If you are a fan of Jeopardy, you may have noticed on more than one occasion the category of "Potent Potables" - which typically had answers (remember, in Jeopardy you get an answer and respond with a question) relating to alcoholic beverages - hence, the booze being the potent and
the potable (poh-tah-bull) meaning "drinkable".

Here in Bagram, and just about anywhere else in Afghanistan, Soldiers are strictly forbidden to drink alcohol and while the local water may be potent, it's certainly not potable.

All our potable water comes in half-liter plastic bottles which are ubiquitous (look it up) here as the rocks and dust.

While individual bottles are available in every mess hall, also outside of almost every living quarters, work place, and various random spots, you will find a bus stop like structure housing a six-foot high stack of grab-and-go plastic-wrapped 12-packs - depending on the location, sometimes the stack is just plunked down in the open air. As the palletized stacks get consumed, about every two-weeks or so, a truck (civilian contractor) comes by with a new load.

So there is plenty of potable drinking water; although the plain Jane flavor can get boring which is why many Soldiers' Care Package wish lists include those
little sleeves of flavored drink mixes
 for their bottled water.

But what about water for bathing, brushing and shaving?

Well, like just about every other consumable item that makes life possible here, if not wholly bearable, it is trucked in on a fairly regular basis by, you guessed it, a civilian contractor, and stored on site. 

Sometimes the storage container is a ginormous heavy-plastic bag that looks like Godzilla's own old fashioned hot water bottle but where we live there are up-right water tanks.

If you look closely at the picture above of our water tanks, you should be able to read "Disinfected Non Potable Water"; which means heavily chemically treated to kill bacteria - depending on how "fresh" the water is, it can smell like you are taking a shower in rotten eggs.

When we (sulphur) shower, wash our hands, flush the toilets (thank goodness we have 'indoor' toilets!) the water comes from those tanks - so, on the rare occasion, when those tanks go empty, so does the wash basin taps, etc., until the "Non Potable" truck comes and does a refill.

What goes empty much more often and seems to take even longer to refill, is the much smaller tanks within the shower areas where the water is heated for our sinks and showers. With a whole bunch of Soldiers shaving and showering each morning, if you do not get yours at the right time, you can end up doing the chilly willy dance.

Just like back home where you have people who seem to feel parking space lines are just suggestions and selfishly straddle, we do have a small minority of Soldiers who feel it is okay to full steam ahead on their showers.

Most Soldiers, however, do what my ex-Navy Dad called a "Destroyer" shower: Get in; get wet; turn off the water; get soapy; turn the water on; get rinsed; turn the water off and; get out.

Personally, I do my best to be quick about my shower and use minimal amount of hot water when shaving. But, I'll tell you, man, oh man, I can't wait to get back to the States and be a real water hog.

@ www.operationshoebox.com - Mary H. and volunteers - The eight home-made treat bags were very nice and were distributed to Soldiers within my work area and were immediately opened and enjoyed; thank you for the gifts and your ongoing support of deployed Soldiers.
@ Angela Wood of Fort Campbell - You are the greatest!  The Met-Rx bars and almonds will be my lunch for weeks but the fantastic school supplies could make a life-time difference to the kids at Cat in the Hat - I will be taking the items this Sunday.  You really are a wonderful person.
@ SFC Terry Brillhart, US Army (Retired) and Friends - Thank you very much for the thoughtful cards/notes; I hand-delivered a couple to Soldiers on Gate Guard but had enough that every Soldier in one of our Battalion's smaller company units was able to get a letter/card.  The school supplies are wonderful and I will take them to CITH this Sunday.  The MP3 players are very generous - my plan is to give one to the winners of our Battalion's Soldier of the Month Board for November and December - if the winner is amenable, I will post their pic and bio.
@ Helen C and the Virgin Angels: Damian, Dustin, Kristin, Andrew, Nina L., Joe and Ashley (hope I got everyone) - Thank you for the punny H'ween card and super Care Package; even if I had no idea who had sent it, just by the contents I would have known it was from SF.  I mean, Miso Soup?!?  I joke, but I went all Gollum-it's-mine-precious on the soup and gave everything else away (okay, I kept the Edamame, too).  The mini-packs of M&Ms, almonds/nuts and Swedish Fish and caramels went into a box of other items I took to be distributed to Soldiers who do not get much mail.
@ Carl Corbin - My brother and Army Veteran; thank you for taking the time to get a package out - the Dr Seuss stickers are pretty cool and will definitely bring some smiles.
@ All above: I promise a written letter as well - Thank you very much for your care; it is truly appreciated!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Top Chefs

Top Chefs SGT C (Right) and SPC P (Left) (two of five of the day shift)

Up in the morning, 'fore day;
I don't like it, no way.
Eat my breakfast too damn soon;
Hungry as hell, by noon.
Went to the Mess Sgt on my knees;
Said, Mess Sgt, Mess Sgt, feed me please.
Mess Sgt said, with a big ol' grin;
If you want to be One-oh-one, you gotta be thin.

The above running cadence says "Mess Sgt" because that's where Soldiers went to eat chow: at the mess hall.

At least, they did when I first learned the cadence in Basic Training at Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, Misery (that would be Fort Leonard Wood, MO to you non-Army types) back in June of 1983.

But when I came back into the Army in '09, when we were talking about the chow, I kept hearing people refer to the "Dee Fack". I was truly puzzled until I asked someone and they explained that the DFAC was the Dining Facility - somehow, in the short 19-odd years I was out of the Army, ‘mess hall’ changed to ‘DFAC’.

I've been back in the Army for almost four years now and I still haven't made the adjustment; I still refer to the mess hall and do a mini-mental adjustment whenever I hear someone say DFAC - just one of the many things that sets me apart as an "old school" Soldier.

Here in Bagram, and in most of Afghanistan, the people who cook/serve the food and keep the mess hall clean are not Soldiers at all, but civilians. Typically locals, eg Afghans, hired by whatever company the Army has contracted to provide food services.

There are several mess halls scattered throughout Bagram and each meal is served for several hours - they almost all also offer midnight chow (everyone still calls meals "chow" so why DFAC?!?) so there is plenty of chances to eat.

The issue, sometimes, can be the time to eat. Where me and many of my unit's Soldiers work is just far enough from the closest mess hall that at lunch time it would take at least an hour to walk, wait in line, eat, and walk back.

Even though we are working an average of 10-12 hour days (I can just hear some of the Soldiers here saying "you just work 10 hours?!?") taking well over an hour out the work schedule to get chow is just not acceptable and could negatively impact the mission.

So, since Mohammad can't get to the mountain (in a timely manner), our leadership has arranged to bring the mountain to Mohammad - in the form of Mermites.

Not termites, not
vegemites, but Mermites - large insulated aluminum canisters with a rubber gasket between the lid and base; basically, military grade Tupperware.

Twice a day, once for lunch and one for midnight chow, a handful of Soldiers drawn from units working in the immediate area go to the civilian mess hall and load up a truck with Mermites full of something like Swedish Meatballs, Ham (usually there is two types of
meat offered), macaroni and cheese, and corn.
They might also grab a box or two of mixed fruits such as pygmy pears, Granny Smiths and oranges. But they always bring back loads of various types of pies, cakes and cookies.

The Soldiers bring the chow back to a rectangular wooden building that was commandeered and set-up with acquired dining tables and chairs along with an electric cooler for drinks.

They set-up the Mermites, lay out the desserts, ensure the cooler is fully stocked, and open the door to the Soldiers who have already lined up; hands-washed and ready to eat.

After a couple of hours, the mess hall closes, gets cleaned, and the mostly empty Mermites get loaded up and get returned to the civilian mess hall.

And the Soldiers who did all the hauling, serving and cleaning?

Once the mess hall work is done, they go back to their real jobs; such as
94R Avionic and Survivability Equipment Repairer or 15D Aircraft Powertrain Repairer.

The mess hall tasking gets rotated so the same Soldiers have it just about every day for a couple of weeks and then some different Soldiers take over for a couple of weeks.

But I have noticed a couple things stay pretty regular and consistent - the service is always with a smile and a maybe a joke; the drinks' cooler is constantly restocked; desserts are sliced and laid-out just as quickly as they are put on plates and; the Soldiers obviously take pride in doing a good job ensuring their buddies are well fed.

So, while they may not be cooks by trade or training, in my opinion, those Soldiers are all Top Chefs.


@ Charity S. of hockey fame – Your emails bring me a smile but the chocolate got a huge “yahoo!”; the combo of treats was perfect and not melted at all.  I kept the beef jerky for myself but everything else got distributed to people in my work area and a big box went to the Medics and their “customers”.  I read the magazines in one sitting and gave them to other hungry readers.
@ Vivian and the rest of Ms Soto’s Big Spring’s Elementary 3rd Grade Class – glad to hear you liked my letter and I look forward to receiving your art work.
@ Kim W. of Cheney, KS – a certain 1SG loves popcorn and workers in my area now have PopTarts for breakfast.  Thank you for the sparkly black-cat and looking into supporting CITH – it is truly a good cause.
@ 10 y/o Madeline of Knolls Afterschool Club in Simi Valley, CA – thank you for the Halloween Greetings - scary blue-skull pirate!
@ www.ForTheTroops.org and volunteer Catherine M. – the people who deliver the mail had me come to them for the giant three boxes; every person in my Platoon got a box and there was two left over I gave to Soldier’s in my Company; they all extend their sincere gratitude for the Care Package and your ongoing support.
@ Helen C. and Dustin B. of the San Francisco, CA “Virgin Angels”; thank you for your letters and sharing stories of your lives back home.  If you click on the “send a package” link on the upper right there is a list of current requests.  Please expect a snaaaaaaiiil-mail letter back from me.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Books, instead of Bullets

Sunday Girls' Class
One of my earliest memories is from around the time I was in 2nd grade; laying on the living room floor trying to decipher "Snuffy Smith"; "Maybe you should stick to the other comics," I remember my Mom saying when I asked her what "'nuff" and "Revenuer" meant.
One of my favorite childhood pictures shows me and my brother Carl, when I was around five or six and him around one or two, sitting side-by-side in a dark lime-green easy chair with an upraised 1970's paisley pattern: me reading an open Dr Seuss book in my lap and Carl monkey-see/monkey-doing with a comic book in his.
Another Elementary School era memory is the many, many times me, Carl and Alex (another brother) sat on the floor next to the comic bookshelves of a local used bookstore while my parents browsed the dim-lit and dusty aisles of "grown-up" books. 
Dad usually gave us each a buck each to spend how we wanted - which meant the delicious dilemma of selecting and setting aside the best ones to take home while speed-read cramming as many others as possible. 
Most of the comics ranged from five cents to 25 so you could get quite a few  for a dollar - and if you were a conniving shyster like I was, you could get a few more by convincing one of your younger brothers to trade you his dimes for your nickels, since they were bigger, until your Dad found out and gave you a week or two of zero dinero to teach you a morality lesson. (I still think I was teaching an invaluable lesson on caveat emptor.)
What I'm getting at, is I come from a family of (voracious) readers and it is very difficult for me to imagine living life not having the delightful pleasure - nay, the necessity - of reading.
In Afghanistan, depending on what source you reference (I checked the Army, CIA and the UN), the literacy rate is around 35% - that's for males, females is about 10%. That means only one in three guys and one in TEN women can read or write their own names. 
Can you imagine? 
Here at Bagram, there is a group of volunteers who are doing what they can to make a positive difference to those ratios: The Cat In The Hat (CITH) Language Arts Center
The CITH mission: "To empower the children of the Bagram and Parwan Provinces of Afghanistan by providing a nurturing, safe learning environment in which they are not only educated, but inspired to bring change to the country as the pioneers and stakeholders of its prosperity. Our efforts support the COIN [COunter INsurgency - meaning, countering the propaganda of the Taliban such as: 'Americans are evil conquering invaders'] effort in Bagram by showing the local Afghan population that the tenants of Bagram Airfield are supporting and caring for their children while providing the tools for innovation that will slowly matriculate into change for the well-being of all.
The CITH is 100% volunteer and about 99% of them are military - Army, Navy and Air Force (probably Marines, I just haven't seen any - and I am doing my very best to not make any jokes regarding leatherneck literacy) - spending their very, very limited free time to run the program, teach, tutor, paint walls (with illustrations from, who else, Dr Seuss) sweep floors/take out the trash, etc.
I have been spending about five hours each Sunday for the past month or so volunteering and am forming a slowly growing bond with an eight-year old little girl named Krishma (she's second from the left.) 
And I got to tell you, I get all weepy inside sometimes at her obvious desire to learn and do well - her high-pitched little bird voice as we go over numbers, "Wun, doo, tree..", gets me every time.
I honestly look forward to Sunday all week long - it is the absolute highlight of my week. My roommate, who recently joined me, best described the feeling I get when he said he feels "absolutely cleansed and refreshed" after the classes. 
Which are held on Tuesdays and Sundays; about twenty boys and twenty girls, each in separate classes/time periods both days - twenty kids is about all that can fit into the classroom at one time.  On Tuesdays the kids are from the community right outside Bagram Air Field and on Sundays the two classes get bussed in from Kabul for a current total of about 80-kids each week. 
I say 'current', because CITH is looking to expand to include a Thursday class for an additional twenty boys and twenty girls.
Since it is all a volunteer effort and not an "official" endeavor, there is zero financing from the Military with every item of school supplies, from erasers to laptops, from crayons to backpacks, all being donated. The money ($400 a month - a Fortune!) paid to the local bus driver who picks up the kids from Kabul and brings them to the gate, comes from internal fund raising. 
Now, I know you are thinking, "Gee, SGT Corbin, what can I do to help support the CITH?"
Well, I'm glad you asked. 
You can send an email to CITH.bagram@gmail.com and ask for more details.
Or, you can send some cash and, depending on how much you give, you'll get a pretty unique commemorative coin or patch in return.
Or, if you are not comfortable sending cash, you can also send school supplies of any type; right now there is a Dire need for lined tablet paper but just about anything you might find in an elementary room classroom, such as small toys, books, pencils, crayons, tape, color books, flash cards, etc. will go to good use.
Where do you send the cash/stuff?
Easy: Cat in the Hat, Bagram AFG, APO AE 09354. 
Or you can click on the "Send a package to Corbinistan" link, on the upper right of this page under my helmeted mug, for my address and I will gladly deliver the items when I go on Sunday. 
AND, I will give you a much-coveted "Shoutout" right here on Corbinistan. 
For example, when I bid and won some Walt Disney comic books on eBay, once the seller found out I was ordering the comics for CITH (I'm not sure what he thought at first about a Soldier in Afghanistan bidding on "Donald and Daisy" comics), the most excellent SFC Brillhart 19D US Army Retired from Texas, not only refunded my money, in one package he sent twice as many comics as I "paid for" along with some small toys, and sent a second package with even more comics, cool toys and fun kid stuff. 
This past Sunday, after each class, as the kids filed out of the classroom, I handed them a comic book of their very own to take home and enjoy - I probably could have warned them about not wasting their money on ordering the "Amazing Sea Monkeys", but I figured I would wait until this Sunday. 
So, in summary:
I come from a family where growing-up, I distinctly remember the local bookstore calling my Mom to let her know there had been a new delivery of paperbacks.  When I was grounded to my room, I would have to be dragged away from my Collier Golden Encyclopedias to come to dinner.
I am a deployed Army Soldier who carries a large automatic weapon, with live rounds, that I will absolutely not hesitate for a moment to use if ordered or the situation requires. 
And, once a week, I have a wonderful volunteer opportunity where I get to focus on books, instead of bullets.
@ www.operationbuckeye.org & Connor S. of Lewis Center, OH for the great packages with fruit gummis, beef jerky and Pringles.  I kept the beef jerky for myself but made several other Soldiers very happy as well.
@ www.operationbuckeye.org &Catie D. of Westerville, OH.  I hope it won't be long before you get to sew your Girl Scout Silver Award for raising military awareness; the great snacks and treats you collected were greatly appreciated by the Soldiers who deliver mail and the ones who spend all day on Guard Duty.
@ www.operationbuckeye.org & the May Family of Grove City, OH.  All the yummy stuff from your box was shared with the different groups in my work area with my "next door neighbor" calling dibs on all the Starburst.
@ Kara T. of Houston, TX.  Thank you for the letter and package - I had a couple of the granola bars for lunch and gave the coffee, crackers and candy to Soldiers who work in the supply warehouse.  I hope you and your husband you have a good time in NO but leave the cats at home; they can be real party animals.