Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Follow the Calling

This post is inspired by a sermon called “No Small Callings,” given at BRUU by my minister, friend, mentor, and future colleague Rev. Nancy McDonald.

Until I became a UU and started hanging around ministers, RE teachers, board members, and other unsavory characters, I’d never thought much about what it meant to have a “calling,” or to be “called” to do something. Gradually I became aware of people using the term “calling” to describe the aspiration, nay the compulsion to become a minister. I have also heard this compulsion described as a “longing” or a “grinding.” I never really understood it until it first crept, and then burst, into my life.

I first considered the possibility of a second career in ministry when I noticed that many of the things my good friend and minister Forrest did in his work – teaching, leading, and taking care of people - were exactly what I’d enjoyed most in my military career. I asked Forrest about life as a minister, and I’ll never forget what I heard him say: “Ministry is a great career, but it’s really hard. If you can do something else, do it.”

By the time a year had passed, I had become much more involved as a UU, and the idea of ministry came to me more and more frequently. It was helped along by people in my congregation who would ask if I had considered becoming a minister. I think they could see something in me that I wasn’t quite ready to articulate.

I took a big step on this new path when I first expressed my calling out loud. At UU Leadership School, when people in my class asked me what I would do after my military career, I had been telling them my “stock answer,” that I planned to retire in Monterey and teach. My calling revealed itself when at breakfast one day Claire, the Dean of the school, asked me quite innocently “so, what are you going to do after the military?”

I was a bit taken aback when “I want to be a minister” came out of my mouth! As I lived with the idea, however, it felt right, if not totally comfortable. It felt strange telling my family and friends of my new plans. If someone had told me even two years before that I would be actively involved in RELIGION and regularly attend a CHURCH, much less want to become a MINISTER, I would have laughed out loud!

This was the summer we moved to Virginia, so our lives were in transition anyway as we drove across the country to live in a very different place. Once we were settled in our new home and adjusting to our new lives, reality set in. The slight discomfort I had felt about my new plans turned to doubt and fear (of the unknown, of course). How would I pay for seminary? What would be the impact on our children? Could we live on a minister’s salary? I let myself focus on my fearful expectations of the outcome of taking this path.

I let this doubt persuade me to take an easier, more practical road to a second career, and I started doctoral work at George Mason University two nights a week. I figured I’d finish my degree in time to retire, move to Monterey, and teach. Once the kids were grown, sometime in the distant future, then I would revisit this desire, this call, to be a minister. But of course the call wouldn’t wait for me, and soon a little voice was whispering, “you don’t want to be a professor; you really want to be a minister.”

The following summer I spent two weeks in California, first at a conference in Monterey, then attending the General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in Long Beach. Throughout this trip, I met many new friends and ran into lots of old ones. The more people I told of my plans to get my doctorate, teach, and then pursue ministry later in life, the more it sounded like someone else’s story. I began to realize I really did want to be a minister as soon as possible.

During the course of GA, I met several people who were working in various parts of central or northern California and commuting to Starr King School for the Ministry, the UU seminary in Berkeley I plan to attend. By the time I left California, I had a new plan: I would still get my doctorate and move to Monterey, but I would teach part time while commuting to Starr King.

On the flight back to Virginia, however, I had an epiphany. I realized that although my new plan was economically practical, it would prolong the road to ministry and be very challenging to my family life. I didn’t relish the thought of commuting over two hours each way to class, when I was already rapidly tiring of my 45 minute commute to GMU.

What hit me physically, mentally, and emotionally on that airplane was the realization that what I truly wanted to do, what I must do, was to follow this call with one hundred percent of my being: to move to Berkeley, go to Starr King full time, and live my life as a seminarian, a husband, and a father. With the love and support of my family, it will work.

By letting go of fear, expectation, and outcome, I was able to finally hear what Forrest had really told me about ministry that day two years before: “if you can do something else, do it.” I can’t.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The View from the Tower

Camp Kalsu, my home for the foreseeable future, is very small (less than 2km square), but there is a lot going on. It can all be seen from the airfield control tower.

Kalsu is located south of Baghdad along the major north-south highway from Basra. All night long American convoys travel this route, convoys composed of Humvees, trucks, and tractor trailers. During the day, the traffic is mainly Iraqis. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) here at Kalsu man traffic checkpoints on this highway. It is a thankless job for those on the checkpoints, for they are shot at and confront IEDs on a daily basis.

Besides US forces, this base is home to several Iraqi security elements, mainly police and National Guard, being trained by a U.S. Army MP company. Given the level of infiltration of the security forces by insurgents, often when I see a group of them I wonder where their loyalties lie. Some of the Iraqi units participate in security operations with our Marines, and from what I’ve heard they can be quite helpful in identifying insurgents trying to blend in with the local populace. This includes several former members of the security forces.

Kalsu is also home to a detention facility temporarily housing detainees captured during MEU operations in the area. From what I hear they are treated well, eating and living much the same as we do. Periodically they are transferred to Abu Ghraib prison for interrogation.

For the past few weeks, we have hosted some British soldiers from the Black Watch regiment. They operate their helicopters out of here in support of their troops in nearby FOB Dogwood. It is interesting having them around, with their distinctive uniforms, equipment, and accents.

The part of the FOB where I work, of course, is the airfield. It is essentially a large flat area covered in gravel and surrounded by dirt berms (much like the rest of the FOB); it is home to part of the MEU’s Air Combat Element. There are several U.S. attack helicopters permanently based here, as well as the British Army and RAF "hellies." Our helos have permanent parking spots, and there is a road "runway" for the British and transient aircraft. The transient aircraft are helicopters that transport people and cargo among all of the FOBS and main bases. Our airfield is too small for fixed-wing aircraft, although a Harrier could land here in a pinch. Once.

Besides the parking areas for the helicopters, the rest of the airfield consists of aviation support activities. There are fuel bladders and fueling points, a very small "passenger terminal" known as the A/DACG (not even the Marines who work there know what the acronym means!), a Ready Room tent for the resident pilots, maintenance and administrative tents, lots of generators and vehicles, and, of course, the control tower.

The tower is the highest point on the FOB, and from it one can see everything there is to see at Camp Kalsu. From the highway on one side, to the detention facility on the other; from the MEU command post to the living areas to the trash dump, it’s all laid out below. Kalsu’s small size belies the large impact of the Marines, soldiers, and Iraqi security forces who live here. It is a microcosm of the entire country, where relatively few American troops have a disproportionately large effect on the infrastructure and populace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Giving Thanks

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am struck by how much I have to be thankful for. Being deployed helps me appreciate things I took for granted at home now that I don't have them, such as seeing my family every day. I regret every missed opportunity to spend time with my wife and children. I am recommitted to making my relationships with them the number one priority in my life.

There are other things I miss and appreciate, like riding singletrack, sitting in the hot tub, going for a walk in the woods with fall leaves crunching underfoot, sitting on the deck watching the birds and playing my guitar, playing with the dog, going to church, and going to the movies!

That's not to say that there isn't a lot to be thankful for here; there are many things I appreciate every day. First and foremost is having such an excellent connection with the outside world. When I started this weblog, I had no idea if I would actually be able to keep it up to the degree I have. It is truly a gift to have Internet connectivity and e-mail here pretty much any time I want it. I have also been able to call home at least once a week, and often two or three times. It is surreal being able to talk to my kids while I'm half a world away and in a war zone. I called my mom last week and she was quite taken aback - "I've never spoken to someone overseas before!" she said. The world is truly a small place in this respect.

I am very thankful for the living conditions here. It is nice to have hot showers (most of the time), clean clothes, and be well fed four times a day if I want it. Although I'm living in a tent, it is dry and has heat and air conditioning, and I sleep on a real bed with a comfortable pillow. That's a lot better than many people in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world, have it.

Most of all I am thankful for the many relationships I have with wonderful people all around the world. Closest to my heart, although furthest away physically, are my wife, son, and daughter. They are truly the focus of my life and give it meaning and joy. I also very much appreciate the rest of my relatives and my extended UU family. Thank you for being a part of my life and allowing me to be part of yours.

If I could have one wish, it would be that wherever you are this holiday season, rejoice in being with your loved ones, family, and friends. Don't take your relationships for granted – show the people in your life you love them and they are important to you, for tomorrow may be too late.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Monday, 24/7

There is a saying here at FOB Kalsu: every day is Monday, and only the date changes. When you never have any days off, and the routine is the same every day, it might as well be so.

I typically get up between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon, spend an hour or so writing and doing spiritual practices, then head to the gym. The gym is in a large tent, and is surprisingly well equipped for where we are. I typically ride the stationary bike or use the elliptical trainer for 30-45 minutes, and some days for an hour. I then lift weights for 20-30 minutes and call it good.

When I’m lucky, I have a nice hot shower after working out, but sometimes it’s a cold shower or, worst case, a water bottle shower. See my previous post "Simple Gifts." After getting dressed, it’s off to eat.

The best thing about my evening meal is I get to have dessert for "breakfast." Dessert is one of the best things about the chowhall here - there is almost always pie or cake, and there’s always ice cream. Most days there are healthier alternatives too, such as fruit salad and jello. One of my favorite desserts is fruit salad with ice cream on it.

The rest of the meal is not always great, but I never go hungry. This chowhall is definitely geared toward the carnivore; there are always two meat choices, and only rarely is one of them fish or seafood. I was lucky the last two days to have gotten shrimp and fish nuggets. Typically I have rice, noodles or potatoes, vegetables, and a salad. I eat a lot of beans when they have them for some protein. Eating as a "vegequarian" was much easier at Al Asad.

After dinner I either go to the "internet café" and have an online chat with my wife, or back to my tent to write in my journal, read, and relax. The last few days I have been sitting out in the beautiful moonlight, enjoying the cold crisp night air and the peaceful feeling of watching the waxing moon.

My work "day" starts at 9 PM, and I spend about the first hour getting a feel for what’s happened during the day, and if there are any changes to the night’s schedule. The helicopters that are based here, as well as the other ones that come and go, typically do most of their flying at night (it’s safer then).

I usually spend the next hour catching up on e-mail and internet news, and dealing with the comings and goings of aircraft. Depending on how busy things are, I might put in a movie at this point. Somewhere in there I eat "lunch," typically an energy bar and some fruit. I haven’t been to "mid-rats" at the chowhall yet – I have no desire to eat dinner twice.

Things are usually very quiet by 3 or 4 AM, and this is when I break out my guitar. I really enjoy having so much time to work on my playing, which will be dramatically improved when I get home. If nobody else is around I’ll even sing a little bit.

By 5 or 6, things pick up a little bit and there are reports to write, the next day’s schedule to put on the whiteboard, and a final check of the news. I wrap things up by 7, when my relief comes on. There are two people on the day shift, so I convinced my boss to shorten my hours. The 12 hour shift was about more than I could take mentally. This current routine suits me fine.

After breakfast, typically cereal, a hard-boiled egg, and toast, it’s back to my tent to read and relax outside in the sun if it’s pleasant. So far this has been about my favorite time of day, but with the waxing moon and clear nights I’m not so quick to claim that. I am in bed by 8 or 8:30, have a good day’s sleep, then it starts all over again!

See an article about Camp Kalsu and the 24th MEU.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Great Expectations

When I was 17, I attended a month-long wilderness survival course in southern Utah. It was a very intense experience where I learned a lot about my limitations and how far I could push them. I also learned a lot about expectations.

One of the leaders, a man in his early 20’s named John, told me something one day that I’ll never forget. We were resting at the end of a long day of hiking, thinking we were almost ready to stop for the night, when he said “saddle up, we have a lot of miles left to go.” I was angry and frustrated, because I had really expected to be finished soon, and I could just taste the lentils and rice I knew we would be having for dinner.

What John later said about the situation was “don’t live by your expectations.” Don’t let your desire for a specific outcome leave you frustrated and angry when that outcome is not realized. Be flexible enough to accept what comes to you after you have planned and hoped and worked for something else. I have spent the last 20 years trying to make this idea part of how I live my life.

“Don’t live by your expectations.” This advice is congruent with something I learned more recently at UU Leadership School, which is “let go of outcomes.” To let go of the outcome of a situation, focus on process and relationships over goal achievement. Allow how you go about your tasks and how you relate with others to be more important than your accomplishments.

Of course, like all important life lessons, learning to let go of expectations and outcomes is much easier said than done. We are programmed from birth to look toward the future, set goals, and make plans. Letting go becomes a wonderful Taoist paradox: you must make plans and set goals in order to live your life, yet at the same time have no expectations about the outcome.

The essence of letting go of expectations and outcomes is to let go of their power over how you live your life and how you relate with other people. It requires intention and focus, and a commitment to live life as a continuum of experience rather than as a series of accomplishments. Letting go of expectations and outcomes requires putting other people and your relationships with them ahead of the issues between you. It is always hard work. Some days it is nearly impossible.

I believe that living an intentional life, rich in experiences and relationships, can lead to happiness, peace, and enlightenment. The rare periods in my life when I have opened myself to just living, without striving to force every situation into a desired outcome, have been the times when I have made the greatest strides of self-understanding and been happiest. Usually these “moments of clarity” came on the heels of some great disappointment, out of the crushed expectations of an outcome that did not come out my way.

In typical human fashion, though, I always once again make my plans and develop my expectations, forgetting to live my life rather than focus on the next accomplishment. Life always catches up, so the next disappointment reminds me to stop living by my expectations, and the cycle begins again. The ever-flowing Tao is always there, careless of whether I choose to ride its currents, strive against it, or get out and walk.

In my current situation, it is particularly difficult for me to let go of expectations and outcomes. Obviously I am very focused on one outcome: getting home safely to my family. “Letting go” of this outcome means transcending the daily tedium, disappointments, and frustrations to glean the essence of my experiences. It means holding my beloved community of family and friends in my heart and head, while simultaneously honoring and developing the relationships I have with the people I know here. It means living my life here and now. It is hard work. Some days it is nearly impossible.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Things That Go Boom in the Night

Life here at Kamp Kalsu is settling into a banal routine. Being confined to a patch of dirt that’s about 2 kilometers square, doing the same thing seven days a week, will do that. Given the alternative, however, boring is good.

During my first visit here last month things got very exciting (see my post “Fear”), but there has been no more of that since I moved here, with the exception of one rather unremarkable rocket attack. I like rockets better than mortars – at least you can hear them coming. It’s sort of a “whooooooosh – BOOM!” This latest attack occurred in late afternoon, while I was sleeping, and I was on the deck and in my flak vest before I knew what I was doing, and I was in the bunker before I really woke up. The rockets impacted pretty far from my tent, so it was not very eventful.

Vehicle-borne IED (VBIED)Because there is a war going on around us, there are explosions and loud noises from time to time, often unexplained. When these occur at night, when I’m on duty, people typically freeze, wait to hear if there are more than one, and then ask one another “what was that?” Occasionally the command post will call and tell us what it was, but usually it’s a mystery.

The most threatening sound is that of incoming indirect fire, of course. It is unmistakable for its volume, and in the case of rockets, the sound of its passage overhead. Then there are the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) which sometimes explode on the main road just to the east of us. An IED is an artillery shell, bomb, or other explosive rigged to explode when a vehicle or a convoy passes by. A VBIED is a Vehicle-Borne IED, and an SVBIED is a Suicide VBIED, more commonly known as car bombs. Unfortunately IED, VBIED, and SVBIED attacks are very common, and they account for the majority of our casualties in this area of operations.

The sound of an IED is distinctive, because it’s usually a BIG sound, but not loud – kind of like thunder in the distance. Occasionally it’s close enough to sound like incoming, but there is usually only one explosion. Sometimes the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Marines “blow in place” an IED that has been discovered along the road, or maybe several of them at one time. This can be very loud. Theoretically we are notified when these “planned detonations” will be occurring, but often there is no notice and it’s as much of a surprise as an IED or incoming explosion.

Camp Kalsu has its own indirect fire weapons, and occasionally we send out some rounds of our own. The sound of this “outgoing” fire is fairly distinctive, and we are supposed to be notified of it ahead of time. That seems to be the exception, however.

The final type of noise we hear is gunfire, sometimes in conjunction with one of the other explosions. This might occur when a convoy gets hit by an IED on the nearby road, or when the Marines in the guard towers feel threatened.

A most disconcerting incident occurred recently, when we had what is known as a “negligent discharge.” In this particular case, an Army soldier coming back from patrol did not properly clear his vehicle-mounted grenade launcher, and he accidentally shot a 40mm grenade across the camp. It impacted very near a guard tower, precipitating a phantom gun battle between the guards in the tower and their imagined enemy. Thankfully nobody got hurt except a speed limit sign, which nobody liked anyway.

One shot, one kill

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

On Television

In a 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Chairman Newton Minnow decried the "vast wasteland" of television programming. He gave notice to the network leadership of his vision of regulating the industry focused on placing the public interest above all others. Compare that to the attitude of the current FCC Chairman, Michael Powell, whose main idea of "regulating" the industry is to remove obstacles to consolidation, and then trust the corporations to police themselves. What we have now is a nearly INFINITE wasteland, controlled by fewer and fewer corporate entities, operated with NO regard for the public interest. Most television programming, including news, is "infotainment" carefully packaged to deliver advertising to its viewers.

I never watch commercial television at home. Since I’ve been in Iraq, however, I’ve been exposed to a lot of TV news, and I don’t like what I see. I’ve noticed a pattern, where one story becomes "it" for several days, with around-the-clock repetition, until it is eclipsed by the next big event. To illustrate this, consider what I’ve seen on CNN International over about the last ten days.

Last weekend, it was "all Fallujah, all the time." This was understandable, as despite President Bush’s claim last May, the upcoming battle would be "major combat." Every report I saw in the days leading up to the assault portrayed it as a military and political necessity, an inevitable step required to stabilize the country. I didn’t hear a peep about the possibility that assaulting this small city might be a strategic mistake or a humanitarian disaster.

As the week and the assault progressed, the television cheerleading continued, and I was reminded of the coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Embedded reporters gave dramatic accounts of firefights, aerial bombardment, and artillery attacks, of insurgents captured and killed, of weapons caches found and destroyed. Exciting stuff - the display of American military might was truly amazing. It was an orderly attack, running very smoothly, almost as if made for TV.

Other news crept in – a sick and dying Arafat, a guilty verdict in the Peterson case, resignations from the Bush administration. But the central story was always Fallujah, and how well things were going there for "our side."

While observing the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of fighting, killing, and dying on TV and in the mainstream corporate media, I also saw stories of a different battle unfolding in the alternative and independent media. This battle featured children bleeding to death from shrapnel wounds because they were afraid to leave their houses to get care. In this battle, the civilian population cowered in what was left of their houses, afraid to stay because of the bombs, afraid to leave because of the snipers. Some stories were not credible, such as reports of A-10 jets "raining cluster bombs on the streets" (cluster bombs, which have a very high dud rate, would not be used in a confined area where friendly troops are fighting). But was this falsehood "enemy propaganda," or was it the hysterical mistake of a terrified innocent person? Which story was true, the antiseptic version seen on TV where only combatants die (but never on camera), or the more graphic and horrifying one in the alternative press? Where was the balance? Why didn’t the TV news show both sides of the story?

As a medium, television is unparalleled in its reach and influence, and it can create or perpetuate public perceptions which may be inaccurate. Most Americans get their news from the major corporate television networks, which in the last decade have gone to great lengths to portray American military actions in a positive light. On TV news, war is usually portrayed as glamorous, noble, and stirring - like an adventure movie, where Americans are always the heroes. Maybe if war were portrayed more accurately – as a dirty, terrifying, and cruel undertaking, where real people just like you and I kill others and are killed, then it wouldn’t be so appealing. Unfortunately, you have to dig deep and winnow a lot of chaff to find that kind of reporting.

The latest development in the Battle of Fallujah is the apparent killing by a U.S. Marine of a wounded, unarmed insurgent, caught on video by an embedded reporter. This is certainly newsworthy, but the way it has been portrayed on TV is illustrative of the excesses of the medium. The clip of the incident was played over and over all night and day long, interspersed with "analysis" by various talking heads. Now this one incident has become "the story," and will occupy center stage until something more dramatic occurs. It is shocking yet fascinating, and playing this clip over and over will doubtless sell lots of advertising.

Television programs exist only to get viewers to watch the commercials. If the programs aren’t entertaining, advertising revenues decline. Television news is primarily entertainment. Turn off the TV, read some alternative or independent news sources, and liberate your mind and your life.

There are no pictures for this post, but here is a timely and relevant article.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Simple Gifts

Often we take the simplest things for granted, things that have a disproportionately large affect on our happiness and well-being. Take personal cleanliness, for example.

When living in and around dirt, sand, and dust, there is no finer feeling than having a hot shower and a clean set of clothes to put on. It puts a new light on the day, and brightens your outlook immediately.

Out here there is no wallowing in the luxury of a "Hollywood shower," to which most people are accustomed, where the water runs and runs and runs until you’re finished. When water is scarce, however, we take "Navy showers." A Navy shower consists of getting wet, turning off the water, soaping up, then rinsing off as quickly as possible. It uses probably 20% of the water that a Hollywood shower does. Actually, it’s not so bad, and when there’s no hot water, there is less of an incentive to leave the water running. It’s still not the same, though.

Sometimes there’s not even the luxury of a Navy shower. All of our non-drinking water comes from a ROWPU (Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit) system, which purifies water taken from a local source (I’m not sure what that is – perhaps the Euphrates?). This removes most of the "bad" stuff from the water, and although it is not potable, it is useable for washing.
Unfortunately the ROWPUs have a finite capacity that doesn’t always keep up with demand, so occasionally when you turn on the taps, nothing comes out.

The first time I encountered this I was hot and sweaty from working out, and the empty tap was a big disappointment. I returned to my tent and had a "baby-wipe" bath, which was adequate but unfulfilling. Even clean clothes don’t make up for not being able to bathe. That whole night I was a bit grumpy and out of sorts, and I think it had a lot to do with not being clean.

The next morning there still was no water, so I tried the other alternative: the "water-bottle shower." Ironically, although there is a shortage of ROWPU water, bottled water is abundant. I had been told that 4 1.5 liter bottles were needed for a "shower." For my first attempt at a water-bottle shower I tried to be frugal, using two bottles. Not quite enough – I ended up wiping soap off with my towel. That wasn’t very comfortable either. The next day, still no water; I use three bottles this time – getting better, but still not quite there. I guess "they" were right – four bottles it is.

One very inconvenient aspect of a water-bottle shower is carrying all that water, plus flak and helmet, towel and toiletries, to the shower. This evening I was really prepared – I got out my pack, loaded it with four bottles of water, my towel, clean clothes, and toiletries, and off I went. Of course...running water! Yay! It made my day to be able to shave and shower normally. Maybe tomorrow there will actually be HOT water!

Like a hot shower, it is easy to take relationships for granted. Every day we wallow in the "Hollywood shower" of our relationship with parents, wife, husband, partner, children, friends, etc. For some, a busy life can be like a "Navy shower," short little bursts of loving relationship in between the phone calls, e-mails, commuting, and meetings. Sometimes the water is shut off – permanently by death or divorce, or temporarily by moving or deployment. When that water’s gone, you realize how precious it was and wonder, "how could I have taken that for granted?"
This deployment has been an eye-opener for me about how much my wife, children, and UU community mean to me. I hold them in my heart and head, indulging in the water bottle shower of the connection by phone and e-mail. I’m looking forward to not just a shower, but a long, hot bath when I get home.

You never know when the water will go out, so cherish those hot showers while you have them.

Thursday, November 11, 2004


A friend from California sent me this poem, thinking it reflected the "metaphorical and literal darkness" of my situation. Well said – I agree. Enjoy.

We grow accustomed to the Dark--
When light is put away--
As when the neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye--
A Moment--we uncertain step
For newness of the night--
Then-- fit our Vision to the Dark
And meet the Road--erect--
And so of larger--Darknesses--
Those evenings of the Brain--
When not a moon disclose a sign--
Or Star--come out--within--
The Bravest--grope a little--
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead--
But as they learn to see--
Either the Darkness alters--
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight--
And Life steps almost straight.
Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


About the hardest aspect of this deployment has been the separation from my family and my UU community. It was much more difficult to leave on such short notice than having had months to prepare, as for my previous deployments.

In one respect, however, it was easier to leave my wife this time than the others. Usually, with all that time to dwell on the fact of leaving and stress out about it, my wife and I would go through a lot of pre-separation tension, as if we were trying to make it desirable to be separated! This time, however, it all happened so fast that we barely had time to process it and make the basic preparations for my absence. Before I knew it I was packed and saying goodbye at the airport, and we never had time to argue! Small blessing.

I have continued to feel a very strong connection to home and the people I love and miss since being here. First of all, the wonders of modern technology allow almost constant communication. One of the highlights of this trip has been being able to call my little daughter on her third birthday, the day after I arrived in Iraq. Hearing her sweet voice was such a treat, and it is every time. It is somewhat surreal to be able to write e-mails and call home from the middle of a war zone – I can only imagine what it’s like for the Marines who go on patrol then get to come back here, eat a hot meal, and call home!

Something else that helps me feel connected is the set of "talismans" I carry. There are five things I keep in my pockets all the time; special things I’ve borrowed that I must return when I get home. They are no small comfort to me, and every time I touch one of them I am reminded of the wonderful strength of my relationships.

This process started at the BRUU Pagan Circle Mabon (autumn equinox) feast, when a friend suggested, or rather insisted, that I take something from the garden’s medicine wheel, to be returned when I came home. Honestly, at first I did that just to humor her, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, and the more right it felt. I found a nice stone, small enough to fit in my pocket, smooth as glass like a worry stone. When I touch it I see Tom’s wonderful garden and the smiling faces of my BRUU community.

Soon I decided I should have something special from each of my children. I asked my son to pick something out for me, but he was a little reluctant. I found the perfect thing, though – a small rubber lizard that he called a "crop lizard" when he was very small. He willingly agreed to let me have Lizard, so long as I bring him back. He rides in my pocket, raising eyebrows when he comes out to look around. Not to be outdone, my daughter gave me a little stuffed puppy dog, saying "here, daddy, you take my puppy." Ironically, it’s a toy I brought home to her from a trip last summer. Puppy has a nice home to himself in my cargo pocket.

I didn’t think to ask my wife for anything, but she provided a crystal we had found during a very special camping trip many years ago. It too is perfect. The final talisman I carry is a yellow Lance Armstrong "liveStrong" bracelet loaned to me by my cousin. She had gotten it from her sister, so it has extra special meaning. It is a reminder to be strong – to live my values and bear witness – every day. I can return it to my cousin when I pass through California on my way home.

It might seem silly to carry these objects rather than pictures, but they represent a very real and tangible connection between me and my loved ones at home. Imagine a long, stretchy rubber band, subtly yet insistently tugging me back through these months, until at last I return the talismans (and myself) to their rightful places, restoring the balance that has been disturbed.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Talking About Religion

As I mentioned in a previous post, Hooch, my boss and roommate here, is a devout Catholic. As I thought about what it would be like to work closely with him, I realized that I have really never had a theological discussion with anyone who’s not UU! My attitude used to be that religion and spirituality are personal, private matters that weren’t necessarily open for discussion – you know the old saw about religion and politics.

In the last few years, however, my religious and political views have expanded, to say the least. I have enjoyed theological discussions with other UUs, usually because we have similar philosophies, but always because we operate within the same framework of respect for each others’ personal beliefs and affirmation of the primacy of relationship over creed. I wondered, then, what would it be like to have an open religious discussion with a religious conservative? Would it even be possible? Last night I had the opportunity to find out.

It all started yesterday because Hooch had hung a crucifix in our common work space. He also displays a crucifix in our tent, which doesn’t bother me a bit, but I found it very inappropriate to have that symbol in our "office," which is anything but private. I asked him to take it down, and to consider how he might feel if I were to hang a pentacle on the wall, for example. I expected this to draw a strong reaction, but it didn’t! He said that wouldn’t bother him personally, but he could see how it might offend someone (as might his symbol), and he took down the crucifix.

This exchange was the beginning of a very interesting conversation about religion, which I am sure will be continued. He was curious, as might be expected, about Unitarian Universalism. He asked "are all UUs agnostic? How could you be otherwise and be UU?" That was a perfect opening for me to tell him about the individual UUs I’ve met who practice Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism, and Wicca. He could see the Christianity and Buddhism, but was a bit skeptical about the others.

Of course he asked me about my theology, so I told him I currently practice "Spiritual Humanist Taoist Paganism," which of course led to a discussion of what that meant, and some explanations of Taoism and Paganism. I should have just called it "Panentheism" and been done with it. I thought his next question was very astute: "How many other UUs have the same beliefs?" Of course I was happy to say "I don’t know, probably none!"

Our discussion then turned to what he conceived as a competition among religious beliefs. For example, to believe as a Muslim does that Jesus was a prophet, but not the Son of God, Messiah, and Lord, is heresy to a Catholic. Likewise, a fundamentalist Muslim declaims the infidel unbeliever. His thesis was that if there is Absolute Truth (he thinks there is), then there can be only one right answer. If Christianity is "right," then Islam is "wrong," and vice versa. To illustrate this concept, he used the example of a green car. Even if you call it blue, it’s still green, because there is Absolute Truth about colors. It can’t be green and blue at the same time.

But who defines the colors? I argued that in my opinion, humans have created all religions in order to express the inexpressible essential nature of the universe, which can be called God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Goddess, Tao... If there is Absolute Truth, then it must surely be the same for the entire Universe (UNI = one!). You can call it green, and I can call it blue; what if it’s really purple?

Monday, November 08, 2004

Night Life

Here at Kalsu I am the Assistant Airboss, which means I work the night shift (the Airboss, a LtCol, works during the day). It’s been a long time since I’ve consistently been up late at night (much less all night), and I have found a mix of the interesting and different, along with the lonely, tedious and boring.

Although I am now gainfully employed (as opposed to my previous life of leisure), I am far from busy. Being the airboss is not very taxing, especially at night; in the course of my 12-hour shift, I’ll have about an hour or two of actual work. The rest of the time is spent waiting for things to happen or trying to be proactive about things that are coming up. I try to fill the waiting time with reading, web surfing, journaling, writing posts, and practicing my guitar. So far I have had trouble concentrating on reading and writing thanks to the fatigue of adjusting to this new schedule.

So what takes up the 2 hours of actual work? I am essentially a central coordinator and information manager for the air operations at the FOB. I coordinate and facilitate the air support provided to the ground units by our aircraft, and function as an extension of the Marine Aircraft Wing’s Tactical Air Command Center. I spend a fair amount of time on the phone and computer communicating with various people and agencies here and throughout the area.

In becoming a night owl, I’ve realized just how dark it can be here at Kalsu. There are no streetlights, vehicle lights, or white lights of any kind. There is starlight and occasionally moonlight, but when cloudy it is pitch black. As I walk along, people come and go like ghosts. It’s actually more attractive, not being able to see the mud, vehicles, and barriers. Unfortunately it’s also easier to step in puddles, wander off the road, and run into things. With "light discipline" in effect, a small colored light is OK, and is usually enough to keep me out of trouble. Coming out of a brightly lighted tent or chow hall, however, leaves me without any dark adaptation, and thus pretty blind for a few minutes. I have some scratches and bruises from running into things, and when it was raining I stepped into a calf-deep puddle.

An interesting side effect of the eyes’ decreased nighttime acuity is the brain’s compensation with other senses, such as hearing. Sounds seem to be magnified at night, and I’ve noticed some noises I hadn’t heard during the day. For one, the A/C unit in the Internet Café tent makes a periodic squeaking noise that sounds uncannily like a field full of spring peepers! At first I thought there were actually some frogs brought forth by the recent rains. I was somewhat disappointed to realize it was not – my son would be very interested to hear about frogs in the desert. The other sound I’ve noticed is a repetitive clanking noise like a blacksmith’s hammering. I’m not sure what it is – perhaps a pump or engine of some kind.

Even the food is backwards at night - I eat dinner for breakfast (Saturday it was lobster tail) and breakfast for dinner. Lunch, if I want it, is called "mid-rats" (midnight rations), and it's usually the same food as dinner.

One aspect of this job I hadn’t anticipated was the loneliness. There is really nobody else around most of the night. I would have thought that as a lifelong introvert I would appreciate all the solitude, but what do you know – I’m lonely! Maybe I’m not such an introvert any more...

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Whos in the What

One of the most rewarding aspects of this experience has been the great variety of people I’ve met. I have had conversations with Marines of all ranks and occupational specialties, who hail from all around the country. Some of them are glad to be here, some are not, but all of them want to “get the job done” (whatever that means to them) and go home. Amen.

I’ve already mentioned Otis, one of my early roommates, to whom I felt some kinship in many ways. So far, he is the only other person I’ve met and talked to who is not a fervent Bush supporter (but there must be others here; remember the porta-john graffiti?). Unfortunately, he has long since departed for his FOB and I’ve only heard from him once via e-mail.

Chuckles was my roommate during most of my stay at Al Asad. He is a father of three children, a dedicated Marine officer, and a quiet sleeper (most of the time). He is also a passed-over major, but he’s been a “charter member of the Order of the Golden Oak Leaf” for a few more years than I. Interestingly, he seems not at all put out to be here, although he is set to retire next summer.

Chuckles and I have had many conversations walking to and from chow or the PX. His outlook is generally what I would call “mainstream Marine,” which means he is pro-Bush, a hunter, and a sports fan. However, he is religiously open-minded, having grown up in a Catholic family and being married to a Jewish woman. His professed religion is “troutism.” This reminded me of a friend (named Jim) who claimed to belong to the “Church of Jim.”

Here at Kalsu, my co-worker/boss/roommate is a reservist whose callsign is Hooch, a self-described “devout conservative Catholic somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.” When he found out I am a UU, his comment was “so why do Unitarians go to church, anyway?” He is also very funny and gregarious, and the longer I know him the better I like him. He has six children, with one on the way, and seems very devoted to his family. It should be an interesting experience living and working with him.

I have also met many folks whose names I don’t remember, like the two enlisted reservists from Southern California who are in the security battalion. They left their jobs at Sam’s Club and Staples to spend 6 to 8 hours in every 24 up in a guard tower, locked and loaded, ready to repel “the enemy.” I am glad they are there. One evening I ate dinner with two young captains who are excited to be flying helicopters in combat on their first deployment. I met some young Marines from the Wing Band, who are here guarding the HQ area. They will be playing at the Marine Corps Birthday celebration next week. I heard two of them practicing their trumpets, and stopped to chat. Here at Kalsu I have talked to some Marines who go out in the surrounding towns on foot patrols, and man checkpoints on a nearby highway. They tell me that most of the locals are afraid of the insurgents and glad we are here.

The military may be a “what,” but it’s full of “whos,” each one unique and important.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude

After nearly three weeks of living large and staying busy with nothing at Al Asad, here I am at FOB Kalsu, presumably my home for the remainder of my deployment.

Kalsu is south of Al Asad, so it’s a bit warmer. Thankfully we are entering the cooler part of the year, so it’s not a huge change. The “attitude” here, however, is very different! Al Asad felt a lot like a base in the US, like 29 Palms or Yuma, but certainly not much like a war zone. Here, however, it definitely feels like we’re at war.

For one thing, as I wrote about in my previous post “Fear,” we get shot at. Not all the time, or even every day, but often enough to keep us on our toes. The “incoming” is indirect fire, or IDF, typically mortars or rockets. The threat of IDF leads to the difference in attitude.

Now I walk around with my flak jacket and helmet all the time. They feel much more comfortable (and comforting?) since my one experience with rounds landing nearby. Besides wearing helmet and flak, it is nice to be able to take cover from IDF, so there are concrete and sandbag bunkers spread throughout the FOB. As I go about my business, I am always on the lookout for the nearest one. I don’t want to waste my time deciding which way to go – I just want to go. In addition to the bunkers, there are concrete barricades just about everywhere you look. We have “Texas” barriers (big) and “Alaska” barriers (bigger).

The amenities here are a little less grand than Al Asad, but still a lot better than I expected to find in Iraq. There is no store or movie theater, but just about everything else. The showers are actually nicer, and there are more of them. Water seems to be in short supply, however. I now live in a tent rather than a “tin can,” which is a mixed blessing; I have more room, but a little less privacy. The chow hall is smaller, but the food seems about the same.

And then there’s the mud. It started raining the night we arrived, and by the time it was done two days later, it’s a sticky mess here. This is industrial strength mud, the kind that sticks to the bottom of your boots 4” thick when you squish through it. It is amazing how quickly the “moon dust” turned into “gumbo mud.”

Learn more about FOB Kalsu.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election Day

“Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Mead

Happy Election Day! No matter who you vote for, please vote. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

As you go to the polls, remember that the government has great power (and a great responsibility, in my opinion) to do good in the world. Regardless of who wins the election, it is up to people of conscience to hold our elected leaders accountable for the actions they take in our names.