Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Plate of Shrimp

Well, I finally got off the ship yesterday about 2000 and got some beer in me. I also slept for about 12 hours, which seems to have done me some good. I looked back at yesterday's post and it sounds a little bitter. Rest assured, I am not bitter. Just annoyed at my shipmates.

Still, OPS came back last night, hands full of shopping bags, saying, "I know you're mad..."

To which I said, "Why would I be mad? You had obligations, I understand. The mission comes first. You know I don't keep count. Just get your uniform on and relieve me so I can go get beer."

"Well," he said. "I feel really bad about all the duty days you've been standing and I'm going to hook you up..."

And he told me his plan. No duty in Norfolk and at least the first weekend in Mayport off. I like his plan. See, OPS writes all the watchbills as the Senior Watch Officer, so he gets to decide who stands which watch as long as the CO buys it. I don't like him feeling sorry for me. I don't want him to feel sorry for me; I want him to take some responsibility. I dislike the expectation that I will just pick up the slack all the time and I really dislike pity.

Anyway, we’re talking about managing liberty and whatnot while my brothers in arms are in the desert getting shot at, which puts it all in perspective. I’d much rather be contributing to the Global War on Terror than worry about when I’m getting my next beer, or how much time off I get in Norfolk and Mayport. I wasn’t kidding when I said the mission comes first.

So here, in SOUTHCOM, sitting pierside in Panama, or doing all these multinational exercises and engaging foreign navies, or even sitting in the eastern Pacific trying to round up drug smugglers, how is that contributing to the GWOT? You may view it as a bit of a stretch, but I’ll tell you the way that I’ve always thought of it when I’ve been stuck doing missions in backwater areas.

Take UNITAS as an example. It’s designed to improve interoperability between the U.S. Navy and our allies in South America so that if there is a security situation or a war, we know we can work together as an international force. That’s really the reason we do any international exercise anywhere in the world, training other navies to be as good as we are, and for us to learn how best to operate with them.

Consider that Venezuela is becoming a belligerent nation and a destabilizing force. We may need to take action someday against Hugo Chavez, and it sure would be nice to have some allies in the region. Additionally, the sort of politics Chavez, Evo Morales and Fidel Castro practice impact the economics of the region and therefore the world, to include the U.S. A lot of oil, coffee, lumber, etc. comes from South America. Think about Venezuela’s increasing ties to Iran and the Muslim presence in South America. Luckily, the navies in question are largely coastal defense types, but that didn’t stop Iran from launching Exocets at the USS Stark.

Also consider that there are some significant rebel/terrorist groups in South America (like Shining Path in Peru, or the FARC in Colombia). There is also a minor presence of various Middle Eastern-based groups, not to bomb us, but to provide financial support. Most terrorist groups get a large amount of funding from various illegal commerce, primarily the drug trade. This is why they call is “Counter Narco-Terrorism Operations” when we come down here to stop drug smugglers on their way to Mexico. (They don’t need to take marijuana or cocaine directly to the U.S. because the laws in Mexico are lax and the border is porous). I’ll probably write more about CNT operations on my CNT deployment next year. This is also why my best friend Egon nearly gave his life to give Afghan farmers an alternative to growing poppies (it is slightly more complicated than that…). I’m glad he’s writing a book about his experiences and hope I get a signed copy.

Think about the Panama Canal and the fact that it is a single point of failure for the global economy. Goods bound for ports all over the world pass through it daily. It ties America’s east coast and west coast together. PANAMAX, the exercise I’ll be doing this week and next, is all about stopping a terrorist threat to the Canal. This is not an imagined threat or an exercise with some wild imaginary scenario. This is based on real life and protecting real world interests.

We’re living in a world that is increasingly interconnected, mainly because of economics and commerce. This is a big reason targets for terrorists are commercial targets – huge potential body count, soft targets and biggest impact-to-resources required ratio. Terrorists are not stupid people and realize America’s strength and the strength of all industrialized nations lies in our economic stability. And trade between the US and smaller, poorer nations increases the strength or those nations as well.

If we help those nations become stronger forces in their regions and increase the capabilities of their militaries, they’re more likely to become stabilizing forces themselves and maybe even our friends.

So when I’m having a beer on the pier in Colon, or I’m refueling from a Chilean Navy oiler, or folding my socks, I’m supporting the Global War on Terror. And damn proud of it, too.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tedium

Just thinking a bit about how I'm a little bored and frustrated today and wondering how good of an idea it is to pour my heart out on the blog. Deployments are like that. It's really crazy one minute and the next minute you're just wondering what to do with yourself.

Here's something I realized, though, even when I'm bored I'm doing stuff nobody else gets to do. For example, I am currently the ranking officer on board the ship. I'm, like, totally in charge. And I've got my helicopter on deck conducting ground turns - meaning she's chained to the flight deck and engaging her rotors while we are pierside in Colon, Panama. Come to think of it, that's pretty cool, but it doesn't involve me much other than that I am giving permission for the Air Department to do cetrain things when they ask.

I've got other things going on as well, like high-visibility repairs to items that are mission-impacting. Of course, it seems like every casualty we have these days is mission-impacting. The best part about those problems is that we fix them and usually without any help. Ships get awards and extra money for that kind of thing, so I'm really excited about how self-sufficient we are. I've been on ship that couldn't do much without outside assistance.

This is another one of those liberty ports that kind of blows and I don't get to leave the ship anyway. It's even worse this time; Colon is a huge industrial shipping port on the north side of the Panama Canal where there's really nothing to do and judging by the liberty policy set forth by the Senior Officer Present Afloat (SOPA), USS Kearsarge, it must be the most dangerous place I've ever been. Liberty is confined to the pier for all six ships in port AND you have to have a liberty buddy.

In fairness, the pier isn't too bad for liberty. It's a big shopping arcade for cruise ships waiting to transit the Canal. There are a couple of bars and stores and kiosks. There's a whole bunch of pay phones, too, so I'm definitely giving Red a call tonight.

But for now, I've been Command Duty Officer since we pulled in yesterday. I'm doing by best to just chill out unless there's something I can't delegate to someone on watch. Am I lazy? Mmmmm, yeah, a bit. Also sick of doing this every port; not the duty so much as the failure of my peers to plan. Once again, Firebug had to attend a bunch of meetings and refused to plan accordingly, and tried to point the finger at me, saying it was my fault for not planning to swap duty with him when he's the one with obligations to meet on his duty day. When he told me I would be standing his duty, I immediately told him, "Bullshit!" and said he could swap with Oscar. Oscar commenced whining about how he would need to be here all day Wednesday whether he had duty or not.

These two should get down on their orange and yellow knees and kiss my clown feet that no one made them an Engineer. It is the department head's lot that work must occassionaly be done when you would otherwise have a frosty alcoholic beverage in hand. It can't be helped, the mission comes first. The first day in just about any port, I spend refueling and I work with my folks to get things fixed the rest of the time. I love it, and wouldn't have it any other way. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best billet I've ever had. And it's work-intensive and sweaty and dirty and six kinds of awesome. The riders have no idea how good they have and whine about things constantly. An engineer sees them for what they are - pansies.

It might be apparent that the effect this has on me is frustration because they lack the big picture. I've done Oscar's job before, and it's not that hard. I've never done Firebug's job, but I understand how much it sucks, which is why I never want to do it.

So I've made the most of my pereptual duty by playing a couple of rounds of Scrabble last night. I won both. The first one, Gator joined in late and said we didn't have to give him an extra turn and he came very close to beating me anyway. The second round, on his last turn, I had a score of 180 and he scored 182. I had one letter left in my hand - an "E". My only hope, of course was to able to place it somewhere and end the game. The board was tight, but I finally found and a free spot and spelled "el", tying the game, going out and forcing him to subract his remaining two letters from his score and add them to mine, roundly crushing my opponent.

And I finished off the evening by watching a bootleg copy of Superman, which I've been waiting to see for years, and when it finally came out, it was the exact day I left for deployment. In Asian and South American nations, there is a huge market for bootleg videos for tourists. One of officers bought this, and although I've been resisting the urge to borrow it, I finally succumbed to the temption of it just sitting there in his inbox every time I walked past it. The quality was poor and someone walked in front of the camera once, but otherwise I really enjoyed it and can't wait to buy it when I get home. That and the first season of Dr. Who. I could do it now, but I want to, yes, make sure it's OK with Red.

Tonight, assuming I get off the ship, it'll be a little souvenir shopping, postcards and beer. It looks like there's a little mini-mart, too. Perhaps some groceries.

Lunchtime now. There are tater tots. They're not American tater tots, but more like little balls of deep-fried mashed potatoes.

But it'll do in a pinch.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

I Play the Guitar.

Poorly.

For my 28th birthday (two and half years ago, for those of you keeping track), I told my wife I really wanted to learn how to play the guitar. That kept up for about six months, and I haven’t played much since. Most of what I’ve learned has been through sites where musicians post tablature (“guitar tabs”) for songs that they have either picked out themselves, or copied out of books.

I can play “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and “What’s Going On?” by Four Non-Blondes, and that’s about it. Egon tried to teach me “Creep” by Radiohead, but that didn’t stick very well. More practice is required! I’m planning on bringing my guitar for the second half of deployment. I also want to learn some kids’ songs for… well, my kids. I really got my daughter Kiddo interested in guitar and bought her one for her birthday, but all she remembers is an “A” chord. So if nothing else, it’s something fun we can learn together, and hopefully for Jack as well, when he’s older.

Now, according to Bob Tedeschi of the New York Times and Ian Youngs of the BBC, the music industry – which consists of people who would like to send you to prison for making mix tapes, by the way - is saying that guitar tab sites like GuitarTabs.com are taking money away from hard-working musicians by teaching aspiring musicians how to play their songs.

No seriously. I can’t teach myself to play songs for my kids, or I’ll go to jail.

The advent of Internet made the sharing of ideas that human have always done for thousands of years really easy and lightning fast. So now, ideas are shared in bulk. This goes for music. When I was a kid, I’d buy tapes or record songs off the radio and mix tapes together and share them with my friends. Now, it’s done in such mass volume that it’s a crime. Now I can’t even learn how to play a song without paying ten dollars for sheet music per song? (Making up a cost, here. I remember that it’s not worth it.)

Now, I understand about copyright law and intellectual property law, but I’m a common sense guy. If I ever do write that book someday, I wouldn’t want anyone to steal it, copy it and sell it as their own. But, playing the songs of artists you like should be flattering to those artists. Why record albums and do concerts and shows if you don’t want people to enjoy the music? Are we seriously going to make laws that say it’s only OK for me to listen to a song if the original artist plays it?

Are there going to be middle-of-the-night raids on night clubs featuring cover bands and tribute bands? “Dude, did Lars Ulrich give you permission to play “Ride the Lightning”? No? You’re so busted!” How far will it go, I wonder? We have a petty officer onboard known only as “The Artist” who worships Prince and is able to perform like Prince, too. I have the video to prove it, which I will upload as soon as I get some freakin’ bandwidth.

What of him, U.S. Music Publishers Association? What of him?

UPDATE: More guitar bloggery from Earl at guitarguitarguitar. Thanks for visiting, earl!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Weighing Anchor

Actually, we already weighed the anchor and judging by the bumps we just experienced, we're probably in the first Gatun Lock by now.

You can actually watch the ship, or any ship pass through the Canal via the webcams at the Panama Canal Authority. So forgive my overlooking of OPSEC at the moment.We're going to be hanging around Panama for a bit, conducting PANAMAX on the Caribbean side. We'll not be getting much liberty, so I'm looking at Norfolk, VA, as my next opportunity to get off the ship for a bit.

The exercise with Ecuador was interesting if not frustrating. In the U.S. Navy we operate under a concept of decentralized control. We divide the war up into different areas of responsibility and each commander acts indepentently in his area unless directed otherwise by the overall officer in tactical command. We're faster and more flexible that way.

The big difference I've noticed in operating with the various navies of South America over the past two months is that they are extremely centralized, in that one commander has overall control of everything and no one makes a move without getting it OK'ed by him.

Ecuador so far has been the most frustrating example. Twice in 24 hours I was directed by the Ecuadorian commander to recover my helicopter immediately after I launched it, becuase he hadn't said it was OK for me to launch it - even though it was in support of an event the required the helo to be on station at a certain time. In the U.S., if we say the helo must be on station at a certain time, it is expected that the ship will act independently to get the helo airborne and on station on time. The Ecuadorian commander was adamant about having each event finished before we could even prepare for the next one, and therefore nothing started on time.

Peru and Chile weren't nearly as bad, but also very centralized. I'm interested in, but not looking forward to, seeing what working with Panama will be like. There are a lot of other American ships and special forces down here now, so it should be pretty cool.

Want to see a picture of my ship? It's really tough to make out on that webcam, this picture is better.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Valparaiso

Sunset between Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, Chile.




Wine country outside of Valparaiso

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Lemming

Since I love to read and no one tagged me, I figured I'd share the memeage.

One Book That Changed My Life: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
A book I have read more than once: As a rule I don't do this much. The one that comes to mind is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
One Book I would want on a desert island: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
One Book that made me laugh: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.
One Book that made me cry: There's been a few, but right now all I can think of is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling.
One Book I wish I had written: Space Cowboy (working title) by Matthew T. Armstrong
One Book you wish had never been written: None. I suppose this is worth expounding upon, but put simply, wishing certain books had never been written puts me in mind of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
One Book I am currently reading: System of the World by Neal Stephenson
One Book I have been meaning to read: The Commodores by Guttridge & Smith

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Captive Audience

One thing I really like about deployments is the fact that everybody’s stuck on the ship, so we may as well train ourselves. What else are we going to do? I suppose we could sit around and watch movies all day, like the Air Department… but no! I spend up to ten hours a day on watch and the last three days when I haven’t been sitting in cool, blue-lit room in front of a radar scope, I’ve been running Basic Engineering Casualty Control Exercises (“BECCES,” pronounced “beckies”). Eight hours of plotting disasters for the watch team every day really tends to fill the time between watches, resulting in a stack of paperwork on my desk that I am ignoring at the moment.

I'm getting a little downtime to enjoy the scenery too. There have been some gorgeous sunsets at sea and the full moon has really made the evenings beautiful. In Valparaiso I also got some postcard-esque sunset pictures.

The watches themselves between Valparaiso, Chile, and Manta, Ecuador, have been slow and good for training time as well. I did only one battle scenario, but I’m helping junior officers get qualified to stand watch in CIC and the bridge during the down time. I also have to give an Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) board for my Auxiliaries Officer (AUXO) and Main Propulsion Assistant (MPA) so they can help out on the watchbill and also move on to higher qualifications. I’m hoping AUXO will be our fourth Tactical Action Officer (TAO – the watch I stand, which means I will stand less watch) and MPA will need to get up to the bridge eventually. I’m working actively to professionally enable the men who work for me as much as possible.

Of course, we do occasionally get distracted when there’s not much going on during watch and sometimes people get squirrely. Last night was interesting because my Watch Supervisor walked up to me asked a really thoughtful and important question: MacGyver or James Bond?

Good question! At first I was inclined to say James Bond, as were most of the sailors because he obviously gets all the women, but that’s too easy. To me the question is about the gadgets; who would you rather be in a life-and-death situation? James Bond survives by virtue of overconfident villains and Q. MacGyver has a Swiss Army knife and a houseboat-load of pluck. And he gets plenty of girls, but he treats them with respect, and they dig his mullet. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I dig James Bond, but between the two, I’d rather be MacGyver.

So I pose the question to you, blogosphere: MacGyver or James Bond?

In other news, the no-shave chit for a week went well. Beard growth was trucking right along before it was cut down in its prime last night; however, I’m keeping the mustache. Here’s me in my Engineering Training Team Leader gear a few hours prior to its untimely demise.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mail Call

Red finally sent me some pictures of Pirate Jack. It really made my day. I'm missing the heck out of them, but I'll get to see them in September and hearing from her periodically makes me smile.

Good day today but tired. Fought a couple of battle scenarios in multiple warfare areas on my watch this afternoon and spent the morning with the department trying to catch up on work. It's tough getting it all done when I'm standing watches in CIC twice a day or so. Luckily, I have amazing people working for me that can make things happen, but I still feel like I'm neglecting them a bit.

The engineers are busting hump trying to get our spaces ready for just about everybody to inspect them. They started with me, then I have an entire month of zone inspections with the Captain (one division a week for four weeks), another inspection in the fall and the really big inspection that happens every five years that eats COs and Chief Engineers for breakfast: INSURV.

The Board of Inspection and Survey was established by CONGRESS in 1868 under Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (who just had another ship named after him) to ensure that the ships of the United States Navy are properly equipped for prompt, reliable, sustained mission readiness at sea. They have been striking fear into the hearts of decent sailors ever since.

It's a leadership issue, and my department has that in spades: they've been starved for it and are eager to get the material status of the ship up to where we want it, so we can show it off.

Anyway, I'm not sweating it because comparing the way things were when I reported to the way things are right now, I see significant progress. I'm really proud of the work they're doing. When it comes right down to it, they take pride in their work and want to succeed just as much I do. It's easy to get worried about these things. My biggest worry is living up to the responsibility and honor of being their leader.

And lastly to really coax out your closet geek, Star Trek Inspirational Posters, courtesy of Ewin.

Not very profound lately, sorry. Have to get up at 0100 for watch.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Holiday Routine

I really have to learn to stop thinking about things to post right before I have meetings. Today we’re having some well-deserved holiday routine. You may say, but Robo, you just got done with two days of liberty in Valparasio, Chile, you just had a holiday.

Well, sure if you want to be pedantic. I did make some non-restful choices, however. The first night in, ORDO, 1st LT, two midshipmen and I met up with our karaoke buddies from the Araucano for dinner before getting wined and dined (mainly wined) at the Chilean Naval Club, then out with our friends to discotheques all night long. I arrived back at the ship that night at 0500… Woke up at 0830 to go on a wine tour (should’ve gone skiing, ended up spending about as much and would’ve had a better time, but done less shopping). Steak dinner later on and an early night on Friday.

Since we got underway in the afternoon yesterday, I ended up standing the reveille watch (0200-0700), which worked out pretty well with not much going on yesterday or this morning and time to rest up.

So with all that down time, why holiday routine today? Well it’s normal practice in most ships to have holiday routine on Sundays and federal holidays whenever operational commitments allow. There’s no quarters or mustering, few meetings, lay services and we get to take it easy a bit for the day. With the last month or so of zooming around the southeast Pacific with several of our closest South American allies for UNITAS 06, the schedule has been packed too tight for that kind of thing.

I don’t know how long ago, probably since the last time I did UNITAS four years ago, the other countries that participated said that there was too much down time. So in the planning process for this one, the schedule was packed so tight that it was impossible to do everything. At the debrief, the other countries said that maybe that was a bit too much. I agree, it was miserable; but outside the liferails we looked pretty good. The other navies involved (Spain, Peru and Chile) were impressed with our performance, even though we were hard on ourselves.

Ooh, the second class association is selling no-shave chits on the mess decks! I’m going to get one of those! It’ll give me an excuse to grow my mustache back. That’s usually how it starts. Then Red tolerates it for a while and finally tells me to get rid of it. It’s the Circle of Facial Hair. I showed my watchteam in the Combat Information Center (CIC) my military ID with the mustache I had two years ago and they couldn’t comprehend its awesomeness.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Game On

I took a quick look at my blog the other day and noticed it had miraculously fixed itself. So I'm cross-posting a LiveJournal post for now. We'll see if it works.

U.S. Navy Supports Chilean UNITAS

While we were in Mejillones, some of our sailors did some community service at a retirement home, helping to rebuild a deteriorating building. Later on the mayor of Mejillones treated them to dinner. A bunch of my enginners helped out, especially the electricians with the wiring, and one of my guys (Hull Maintenance Technician Fireman Alex Anderson) was quoted in the above article.

The first half of UNITAS was extremely busy. Now we're doing the final battle problem, a large part of which will involve querying and boarding other ships looking for weapons smugglers. The bad guys have been probing us most of the last few hours, but we're overt and not engaging in open hostilities.

Yet.

Shenannigans always run rampant among the Americans between OPFOR and Blue Forces in these exercises. USS CARNEY and USCGS MOHAWK are playing for the bad guys and the smugglers respectively and have already tried getting us to give away our position on our common circuits... of course, I did the same thing.

I didn't really have to give them our position anyway, they know exactly where we are, and we know they're watching. In fact, one of the submarines on their side, a Peruvian Type 209 called the SS Thompson, called us up and asked us to relay our own postion, course and speed to the OPFOR commander, thinking we were USS CARNEY. We're answering the phone as "orange forces" next time they call.

Looking forward to Vaparaiso and the possiblity of no duty, so perhaps I'll get to see and do more this time. Picture posting is light because it takes forever - I'm trying to do it now, but sleep time is precious!

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