Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Some Light Reading

Howdy Friends and Family...

I know, shocking, 2 posts in one week. However, I came across some light reading this evening and thought I would pass it along. There are some great quotes here.

Unfortunately, the author was not very keen on specifics with regards to unit names...I am officially a part of the 777th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (BEEF) Squadron. At least he acknowledged that I'm in the Air Force!


Sunday, July 11, 2010

End of Week 24 - The Light at the End of the Tunnel, Oh Wait...

Friends, Family, and all others who are just along for the ride...

Well, I can finally say that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I thought for a while that the light was actually a freight train heading directly for me. However, the light showed up in the form of my replacement! And yes, there was much rejoicing when I picked up Capt Jimmy Jeoun from the passenger terminal on Sunday. I'm not certain the folks at the terminal quite understood why I was smiling as large as I was when he actually got off the plane. Regardless, he is here and the transition has begun. Capt Jeoun is an active duty Air Force Civil Engineer assigned to Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs. Fortunately, we will have a full work week to transfer as much background and knowledge as possible to bring him up to speed. I think I may have overwhelmed him a bit on Sunday. By the time I dropped him off at his billeting unit, he looked beat. Or maybe it was the jet lag. Yeah, the jet lag. I'm way too low key and reserved to wear someone out.

I passed the 6-month point on 10 July and am now into the 6+ month deployment. If all goes as planned, I will be off to Manas AB in Kyrgyzstan next weekend. As of right now, the team will have a couple of days at Manas before jetting off for BWI. I'm all about getting to Manas as soon as possible...this will trigger the start of the end of my deployment. Jennifer has planned several great trips for the family when I get home...Wild Dunes with some of the Grahams, a get-away to the Homestead, and a week to Navarra (hopefully minus tar balls). I am looking forward to them all, but most importantly I'm looking forward to being home with my girls and re-establishing our routine.

I had the chance to take a flying tour of Camp Leatherneck this past week courtesy of the 41st Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, aka the Pedros. This squadron is made up of HH-60 (Pave Hawk helicopter) pilots, Para-rescue jumpers (PJs) and aircraft mechanics. Below is an aerial shot of the compound that we have been building over the past 4-5 months for the Pedros.

Below is a picture of an HH-60 on the ramp.

"HH-60 on Alert"

"HH-60 door gun!"

These are the guys that fly into the battle space to pick up injured soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Usually, they are flying into hot landing zones and quickly retrieving the injured warrior to get him back to base for life saving treatment. I've had the opportunity to work with this incredible group of airmen during my tour as we built out their compound. They are very humble and grateful for what we have done for them...I'm in awe of them and the mission they perform. Their motto is "That others may live". These airmen put their lives on the line every time the helo takes off, and there are countless service personnel that owe their lives to these heroes. You may recall that I posted a link back in early June to a story about a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 4 of these heroes. These airmen, Sra White, SSgt Smith, TSgt Flores and 1Lt Gentz, all paid the ultimate sacrifice going to help an injured Marine. I have the program from their memorial service sitting beside my computer as a reminder of what we are doing here and the lives that have been lost to defend the freedoms you and I enjoy every day. As you pass thru the day today, please say a prayer for the families of these airmen. They all left behind families: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, sons, daughters and friends, who are certainly still grieving their loss.

I have some shout-outs to great folks who have sent care packages over the past couple of weeks: The Flemings; Matt, Mike and all of the folks at Smith Barney; Hamilton 4th Floor at Booz Allen (thanks Michelle!); The Thetis; and Team Andrews (thanks Yvonne!). All of the goodies, treats, snacks and such have been shared across the office here. I cannot thank you all enough for your incredible graciousness with all of the care packages. These have been a special treat during my 6-months away. My guys are kind of bummed that I'm leaving b/c the supply of care packages is about to dry up. I've promised to send stuff their way once I get home.

Well, I fell way short of my goal to keep you all updated as to the weekly happenings in Afghanistan. However, I hope that my semi-regular updates have been enjoyable and informative. I'll try to get out one or two more postings before leaving the theater to help put a nice bow on this present of 6-months in Afghanistan. I can say with all honesty that it has truly been an incredible experience supporting the United States Marine Corps here at Camp Leatherneck. My respect and admiration for the actions these brave Marines take on our behalf will never wane.

Until next time...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

End of Week...well Mid-week 20 (His Perfect Timing)...

Greetings All...

I've decided to mix things up this week and actually blog in the middle of the week. Not that you have come to expect my blog on any given day, but it is a change for here goes. The past 2 weeks have been full of highs and lows. I've been told by folks who have deployed in the past that month 5 is often the hardest, from a mental, physical and emotional perspective. I would have to say that I agree with them. For those of us on a 6 month deployment, at this point you come to realize that the end is near and begin to look forward to a glorious reunion with family and friends. However, you cannot begin to count the days as the work remaining to accomplish is still in front of you.

I have determined that I have "billed" enough hours to take the next 16 months off and still maintain a full-time status without working another hour. Of course, it does not really work that way in the military, and I doubt Booz Allen is going to let me carry these hours over. Needless to say, there are days when the new couches we purchased for the MWR area in our tent call my name, and I squeeze in a quick 30 minute nap. My guys are great at "preserving" this time for me and shielding me from visitors. This ends up being some of the best sleep I get all week! I'm certainly not complaining about the hours because the work we are performing here is exhilarating, but I will enjoy having some down time at home with the girls come July!

As the subtitle of this week's blog implies, events happen in our lives at the perfect time of our Risen Lord and Savior's choosing. I had one of these experiences this past Friday evening. After what was a very challenging day when I questioned why I was working so hard to only have everything I'm trying to accomplish here questioned by some who have very little situational awareness (SA) of the day-to-day operations, I headed off to the dining facility (aka chow hall, DFAC, mess hall, place where we eat) for what was supposed to be a quiet dinner to churn my bitterness and anger. I made my way through the serving line selecting nothing of particular interest, more looking for fuel to get me thru the rest of the evening. As I walked to the dining area to find a place to sit and watch whatever dated program AFN (Armed Forces Network) was running, I noticed one of the O-6s with whom I have been working on a couple of pretty high priority projects over the past weeks sitting alone. Now, as all of you know, I am a very shy and reserved individual who doesn't like to talk to others (especially senior officers). So what did I do, I joined the Colonel. I know, surprising...

Regardless, what was supposed to be a dining experience of solitude ended up being an hour long conversation about coming to faith, family and the crazy experiences the Colonel had faced while running the camp. I won't bore you with all of the details of the conversation, but I can tell you this - the Lord's hand was at work on Friday night as he led me to that table. I left dinner with a smile on my face, a renewed joy in my heart for the work we are accomplishing here, some great stories that I will pass along in time and an even greater respect for the Colonel who provided a blessing beyond anything I could have imagined. I realized as I finished my cold butter noddles and corn bread that the work my incredible team is accomplishing here at Camp Leatherneck is valued beyond anything I can measure and our opinions are respected and wanted - and at the end of the day, this is all that matters. My time here at Camp Leatherneck is not about some award or a Letter of Evaluation that will end up in my personnel record. It is about making an impact and doing so with a smile and joy. It is about saying hello to the Marine checking IDs at the Entry Control Point to our compound, thanking the server in the dining facility, and being a positive influence to others. You know, this deployment has really taught me what it is I love to is positively impacting people's lives. And my way of doing that is through construction and facilities. I know, sounds kind of strange, but in some way I have figured out that my technical skills are merely a tool to allow me to interact with people.

Below are some pictures from my adventures of the past couple of weeks. I had the chance to ride out to the area just outside the Main Entry Point (MEP) to the camp called Soak City II. This is the area where all of the trucks hauling goods and material to the camp wait before being escorted to the MEP. In case you have ever wondered if the Afghans are capitalists, what I saw outside the MEP proves they in fact are. Numerous merchants have set up all kinds of shops to serve the needs of the truck drivers...from gas stations, to places where the drivers can wash, to small "Afghan 7-11s". There is an area called the strip mall with some food vendors that sell some incredible flat bread. I purchased some to bring back for me and the guys to enjoy.

I also got to see some Afghan construction first hand as one of these entrepreneurs was hard at working building a shop along the strip mall.

Below is a picture of me with one of the trucks that is typical of what is used to haul everything into the camp, affectionately known as a "Jingle Truck". The Afghan drivers take great pride in their vehicles and go to a lot of effort to make their trucks as "jingly" as possible.

I leave you this week with several quotes from former President Ronald Reagan. I was doing some Google searches earlier trying to figure out the context of one of Reagan's quotes and came across a gold-mine of statements he made throughout his Presidency. I think his statements below are as applicable today to the struggles we face as a nation and a world as they were when he was President.

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. Ronald Reagan

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free. Ronald Reagan

The ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas-a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish and the ideals to which we are dedicated. Ronald Reagan

And finally, one of the Marine Lieutenants forwarded to the office the picture below, which I thought was so appropriate.

Until next time...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Additional Photos from the Week...

Greetings! Thought I would upload a few more pictures from the fire last Sunday.

Unfortunately, we lost a fire truck in the event.

The black smoke from the burning tires was very intense and thick.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

End of Week 18 Update!

Hey All!

Welcome back to another edition of Todd's Deployment Adventures. I actually sat down with a calendar this evening to figure out just how many weeks I've been in country. Hard to believe, but I just wrapped up my 18th week in this glorious country of Afghanistan! I give thanks to the Lord Almighty for how quickly the time has passed and for his continued provision of safety over all of my fellow servicemen and women with whom I work here at Camp Leatherneck. I refuse to count how many days/weeks I have left in country as the work remaining to complete before I leave is great and the impact the work will have on the Marines here is high. I have realized that there really isn't a sunset on the construction activities. As long as there are servicemen and women aboard Camp Leatherneck, there will be requirements for construction. Though it will be hard to walk away from "unfinished" business, I know that whoever comes in to take my place on that glorious day in July will pick up the reigns and take the program to the next level of success.

The past couple of weeks have seen some really fun times and some really hard times. First, we were treated to an outdoor concert by Toby Keith on May 5th. He played a 45 minute acoustic set of all his famous military/war - esque songs. Toby definitely knows how to "play to his crowd." The next day, Toby spent some time on the camp meeting folks and posing for pictures. I was walking into the office and happened upon one of the photo shoot locations, so I jumped in line for a quick pic with Toby. He is a huge supporter of the military and was extremely gracious in his comments. Whether you like his music or not, he has a heart for the military, and we appreciated his time.

Unfortunately, last Sunday 17 May brought one of the harder times to Camp Leatherneck. We experienced a devastating fire within one of the main supply yards that destroyed well over 15 acres of parts, supplies and equipment. As I posted on my Facebook page, we were very fortunate to come thru this dramatic event with only minor injuries. The event started in the late afternoon and lasted well into Monday morning. All of the responders to this event worked throughout the night to safe guard the rest of the camp from what could have been utter disaster should the fames had spread to the life support areas that are right across the street. The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation. Below are some pictures of the event.

In the middle of the fire, a massive dust storm blew thru the camp dropping visibility to almost zero. Below is an amazing picture that one of the combat camera staff got of the dust storm just before it overwhelmed the site of the fire. This is one of the most amazing shots I have ever seen.

One of the ironies of this fire event is the previous week, new fire trucks were set to depart Kandahar Air Field for Camp Leatherneck. Unfortunately, there were some challenges with the selected means of transport. As you can see the "jingle truck" selected for this critical mission was not quite up to the task.

One of the successes we experienced over the past week is the opening of the gravel transfer yard. You are probably asking yourself, "What in the world is a gravel transfer yard?" Well, this just happens to be one of the first efforts I undertook when I got to Leatherneck in concert with my Marine Corps Construction Chief counterpart. He and I developed the concept of getting gravel onto the base via a transfer yard vice truckload after truckload thru the main entry point. After working thru the security details with the both the US and UK force protection officers, we received authorization to construct a 30 acre complex for contractors to drop and pull gravel. We officially opened the transfer yard for business last Sunday 16 May. The picture below is of me in front of one of the security gates as the first trucks enter the yard to drop off gravel into transfer cells.

The new operation significantly increased the level of security of the material entering the base and significantly reduced the number of trucks our security personnel have to screen on a daily basis as the trucks hauling the gravel out of the transfer yard into the base never actually leave the confines of the base security perimeter. This is probably one of my most rewarding projects as it had an immediate impact on the security personnel's workload and drastically improved construction timelines across the board.

Before I close for the week, I need to send some "shout outs" to all of the folks who sent care packages over the past couple of weeks!

Thanks to Jennifer and the girls; Mom & Dad; the Booz Allen Team at Andrews AFB; Matt, Mike and the team at Smith Barney; and the Hirneisen Family! The treats and goodies are being enjoyed by all of the staff here in the office...not to mention Marines across the Helmand Province as we repackage items to send out to the field with staff when they travel for site visits.

This experience continues to be one that will forever shape my view of my fellow servicemen and women who put themselves in harm's way on a day-to-day basis to defend the freedoms that we all enjoy in the States. I in no way can compare what I am doing here at Camp Leatherneck with what the Marines are doing out in the villages across Afghanistan. My goal is that when these Marines are able to get back to home base after hunting those who wish to put an end to the freedoms we enjoy that they come back to a safe, secure installation with a comfortable place to rest, clean-up, get a good meal and mentally prepare for their next mission. My prayer is that as you have followed along with me on this adventure, you too will come to appreciate even if only on the surface the sacrifices the young men and women of our Armed Services voluntarily make for you and me!

Until we chat again,


"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will Abide in the shadow of the Almighty." Psalm 91:1

Sunday, May 2, 2010

End of Week "I Have No Clue"...

Greetings Family, Friends and Other Random People Who are reading this blog..

Well, it has been quite some time since I have actually updated the blog tracking my experiences here in Afghanistan. For some reason, the time since my last update has flown by, which I guess is good thing. Since March, I crossed the half-way point of my 6-month deployment, passed the 100th Day (which I understand is a big deal in schools these days), had a birthday, said good-bye to some incredible Air Force Civil Engineers, and received the dreaded email that one of the girls had to visit the Emergency Room.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the Camp Leatherneck happenings, I first want to send out many thank yous for the great care packages that have arrived over the past 6 weeks...Mom & Dad, Susan & Wade Cox, Jeff & Heather Brown, the Smiths, the Thetis, Julie & Josh, MPC MOPs Leadership, the Janetskys, Anne Lanz, Jerry & Lisa Lanz, the Hamilton 4th Floor Crew at Booz Allen, the Andrews AFB Booz Allen team, Carlton & Kristen Hendrix, the Flemings, the O'Quinns, and Park Presbyterian Church. All of the goodies have been spread far and wide, and some of the treats we re-packaged here at the office to send out to the Marines at the smaller forward operating bases and combat outposts.

At the end of March, the original 777th Expeditionary Prime BEEF Squadron - Leatherneck crew bid us farewell. Lt A.J. Harris and MSgt Will St. Peter (pictured below) were here for the stand-up of the new Prime BEEF Squadron and were a tremendous support for me as I got up to speed on the chaos otherwise known as the Camp Leatherneck construction program. A.J. went back to Alaska to prepare for a wedding, and Will went back to Dover AFB via the beaches of Florida. I would never have survived my first 2 1/2 months here without their knowledge and expertise. They are both fine Air Force Civil Engineers and did our career field proud here at Camp Leatherneck.

MSgt Will St. Peter, Maj Todd Graham, Lt A.J. Harris - in route to the Passenger Terminal!

In early April, the 2D Marine Expeditionary Brigade transitioned authority for the control of the Helmand Province Battle Space to the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). This probably means absolutely nothing to most of you reading this blog. It really didn't mean anything to me until the Marine Lieutenant Colonel I support explained that I MEF (FWD) would be arriving with about 4 times the number of folks as 2D MEB. I quickly learned that a "MEF" is a larger military unit than a "MEB". I would have known this already had I completed this section of my Air Command and Staff College course. The picture below is of the 2D MEB welcome sign into Camp Leatherneck. We ran out to the sign in early April to get this picture before it was swapped out for the I MEF (FWD) sign...which I have not taken my picture with yet.

You are probably thinking, "What's the big deal...MEF, MEB...they are just acronyms?" Well, when you are in charge of all contracted construction activities on the camp about to receive all of these service men and women, it means a heck of a lot of construction in a very short period of time. We have been building facilities at a "cyclic" rate, as the Marine Colonel likes to state. Currently, we have over 100+ active construction projects valued at something like $64 million. Needless to say, this amount of construction has resulted in some very long days, late nights and early mornings for the entire team here with me. Fortunately, I've been blessed with an incredibly talented team to make all of this construction a reality.

With the arrival of the I MEF (FWD) Engineers in early April, I got to serve as the continuity for the office. Essentially the entire G-7 (Engineers) staff turned over in a matter of weeks. One of the new Marine engineers with whom I work happens to be another South Carolinian from Darlington. Maj Gary Humphries (pictured below with me standing atop one of the new 10 meter communication towers we built) walked into my office when he first got here, saw my Clemson Flag hanging behind my desk and stated that we were going to get along just fine!

Gary ordered a South Carolina State flag when he first got here and it finally arrived last week. We flew it over the I MEF (FWD) compound in which we work. Below are some pictures documenting the glorious event for the State of South Carolina! Since Gary's arrival, we have tracked down another 3 fellow South Carolinians...all thanks to the Tiger Paw behind my desk.

Early April also brought a bit of drama in the Graham household back in Virginia. Poor Campbell had 2 separate visits to the emergency room/urgent care. The first was for what was reported as a "huge splinter daddy"! Campbell was out playing on our swing set, took her shoes off and walked around on the mulch barefoot. Needless to day, the result was not all that pleasant. Jennifer did everything she could at home to remedy the situation, but to no avail. The next stop was the ER at Walter Reed. Below is a picture of the good patient after the doctor removed the splinter. I hated not being home to hold my sweet little Campbell's hand during the "procedure".

The second visit was a result of a spill down the stairs and a hard smack on the head. Fortunately, she only ended up knot on the head and another entry into her medical record. If there could be a silver lining in all of the incidents it would be that Jennifer now has the whole Tricare thing down pat.

Merritt also had some excitement - losing 3 teeth. She now could pass for a citizen of West Virginia, but I told her they would not keep her since she will have teeth grow into the empty spots. Supposedly the Tooth Fairy has been very generous during my deployment...I'm going to have to chat with her when I get home to make sure she understands that the going rate for teeth is far exceeding the rate of inflation!

Well, I could go on and on...especially since I'm trying to capture something like 6 weeks of activities, but I won't. I'll promise to blog more frequently as I head into the home stretch! I have not started counting the days/weeks or loaded up the infamous "Donut of Misery" onto my desktop yet. As I tell Jennifer, there is too much to accomplish before I leave to be counting the days already. Being away from my girls has been hard, especially with all of the happenings home. But I have been blessed to be a part of a great group of engineers with a mission that most of us will never see again in our careers. The Good Lord continues to watch over us, and it is only thru His strength that I can endure the time away. Thanks for all of the thoughts, prayers and notes of encouragement. The Lord is hearing your prayers!

Until next time,

P.S. I leave you with a quote from the Chapel Service last week: "Joy is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

End of Weeks 6, 7, 8 & 9

Howdy folks...well, I have completely failed at this whole blogging thing. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the things I want to write, but not a whole lot of time actually, in honor of the end of my second month in Afghanistan, I've decided to turn over a new leaf and improve the regularity of my blogs!

It truly has been an incredibly busy couple of weeks. I was having dinner w/ some of my Navy Seabee (Seabees are a lot like Air Force civil engineers) colleagues tonight, and we were commenting on how quickly these first 2 months have passed. My prayer is that the next 4 go by just as quickly so I can get home to my incredible wife and 2 beautiful daughters. Though Skype, email and phone calls are great, there is nothing better than a hug from my girls when I get home from work in the evening and kiss good night from my wife!

Over the past couple of week, I have experienced the true cost of this war, the challenges of military airlift and joy of passing an ACSC exam!

2 weeks ago Friday, I joined COL Faxon, the Assistant Chief of Staff Engineer (essentially my US Marine Corps boss here at Camp Leatherneck), as representatives of our section at a ramp ceremony for 2 fallen Marines who were killed during Operation Mostarak. As a way to pay respect to a fallen comrade, members of the Camp Leatherneck community line the flightline as the casket is carried from the ambulance to the C-130. Marines from the unit of the fallen Marine escort the casket along the path while those paying respect render honors. This was by far one of the most moving events I have experienced in quite some time. On the other end of a very long flight would be a family to receive this casket who had just learned less than 12 hours before that their son / brother paid the ultimate sacrifice. This drove home to me the far reaching impact of the operations our Marines are undertaking. I pray for the families of these fallen Marines and ask that you do as well.

On a lighter note, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my fellow UK engineers while working here. Last night, I had dinner with 2 the majors with whom I worked most joint projects. They are both returning to the UK tomorrow after completing their 6-month tour. Below is a picture from a drive around we did yesterday as Maj Andy Green (far right) was getting his replacement (far left) up to speed on all of the projects. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm the one in the middle in the uniform that doesn't fit in.

For those of you who have had the chance to get to know someone from the UK, you might be aware of the Brit's dry sense of humor. Well, it turns out that I fit right in with this group...go figure. Andy told me at dinner last night that after my first meeting with the UK/US engineer working group, they all commented that I would fit right into the group. I took this as a high compliment. I now have a laundry list of places to visit when Jennifer and I travel to the UK, and a roladex full of email addresses of folks who have offered to show us around. All I need to do is figure a way to get the trip on the master family schedule!

I've also traveled up to Kandahar Air Field twice over the past couple of weeks. The first trip was to restart my Air Command and Staff College progress by taking a test. The good news is that I passed...the bad news is that I now have to start studying for the next test...There are a total of 7 tests to complete the course. My goal is to be finished before I go home in July. A lofty goal, considering I have been attempting to complete this program for the past 6 years and my track record is not all that great. As much as I enjoyed the break from Leatherneck during my visits to Kandahar, I found myself looking forward to getting back to life with the Marines. These trips also provided me the chance to experience aircraft delays US military style. After boarding a C-130 for my return trip to Leatherneck last Sunday morning and sitting on the flightline for an hour, the crew chief announced that the flight was cancelled for mechanical issues. Something about a hydraulic pump that controlled the rear aileron. It sounded as if this part is fairly important to controlling the aircraft, so I didn't argue with him. We de-boarded the plane, unloaded our gear and sat for 6 hours for the next flight. I guess this is what folks who fly American and Continental feel like every day.

Finally, for all of my fellow engineers out there who are still following along, below is a picture of a concrete culvert. Not all that exciting, but I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the work we are planning here at Camp Leatherneck. This culvert is actually up at Kandahar. I was driving around the base during my first visit and saw these. I made the driver pull over so that I could get a picture to bring back to the engineers here at Leatherneck and tell them that this is what I want installed at all of our intersections and driveways.

I appreciate all of the care packages that have come in over the past couple of weeks! The entire office has enjoyed all of the home-made goodies from folks like Diane Hutchinson and the members of Park Presbyterian Church in Beaver, PA (presumably the women). I had forgotten how much fun it is to get "snail mail" until I got here. Mail call is a lot like Christmas morning...without the christmas tree, decorations, festive atmosphere...ok, maybe it isn't a lot like Christmas, but it is fun to receive packages!

Until next time...I leave you with a quote from General Chamberlain, a Union general who found himself leading a group of rag-tag militia from Maine into battle with the Confederates...

"The inspiration of a noble cause...enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone..."