Friday, April 26, 2013

99% Done with the Afghanistan Adventure - The Final Countdown



Dear all,

Today I received a unit coin from the military unit I've supported for the last few months. I got a handshake from the colonel, a certificate of appreciation, and a few warm "thank you"s. That can only mean one thing: my time is coming to a close. It is almost time for me to go.

I passed 99% of my time out here yesterday. I'm officially a one-percenter now. Not in the economic way, of course, although they do pay well for those willing to volunteer to work in a war zone halfway across the world. But I am a 1%'er as in I can see the finish line. It's right there. A few days away.

If you have kept up with my blogging or emails throughout this adventure, you know I have learned a lot. I've met a lot of great people, many of whom I might never see again. I've learned a lot and become smarter, both in my job and about this part of the world. There was recently a comment by a senior general in Washington who said when he planned to visit the top general in Afghanistan he would ask if the general in Afghanistan had learned anything. If the general in Afghanistan said "no", the Washington general was going to admit he picked the wrong man for the job. That's the reality out here. You have to learn and you have to stay fluid, flexible, and adapt to whatever comes your way. That was the only way I stayed sane. I learned you can't control a war zone, especially one with this many moving parts. I just tried to stay on top of the wave and not drown.

My interaction with the locals on the bases is also a part of my adventure I won't soon forget. From working with Afghan government officials on my first base to just saying "hello" and "thank you" to the Afghans who work on the base laundry center or at the dining facility, they have all been great people and I wish them the best. I hope they can live in a place that let's them live healthy and prosperous lives. I think if just one person is able to look back at the US intervention in Afghanistan since 2001 and say that their life is better than it was under the Taliban or during the civil war, then we have done our job. And if that person is a woman who is able to attend school, walk independantly down the street, divorce out of her arranged marriage, and even move out of Afghanistan if she wanted, then we have done very well.

As for me, I have a whole new road ahead. I have to determine which way I want to go. Do I want to keep going along the same career path I've been on? Will I be able to with budget cuts and other Department of Defense rearranging? I've put in an application to an MBA program. I thought about going back to school a few years ago, only I didn't due to financial restraints. Now I have the money, and an MBA would be great for career flexibility. And as I am working on that, maybe one of my creative endevours will pay off.

Speaking of, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, the rough draft of my first book is done. It's very, very, very rough and will require a lot of re-writing and editing. But the plot and the characters are there. When finished, I don't want to self-publish this. I want to look for a real publisher and maybe even look to get published. I think my story is that good and now I have to convince someone else that it is as well.

I also definitely want to get back into comedy wherever I end up. Between watching a documentary on great Boston stand-up comics such as Steven Wright and Denis Leary and keeping in touch with Michael James Nelson, a former co-writer of mine at the FSU newspaper who wrote the jokes for the recent MTV Movie Awards, I again have the itch to get on stage and attempt to make someone (yup, just one person) laugh.

I'm also getting an itching to see some live music, a comedy show, a pro wrestling show, and a baseball game or two. All of which I should be seeing in the first few weeks after I get back.

What I don't have the itching for is work. But we will see about that after I spend a week at the beach and then a few weeks in Tampa catching up with friends. I guess I'll have to work again at some point, but after seven months of 12-hour days and the stress and wear and tear of Afghanistan, I just want a vacation.

And that will start in a few days.

In conclusion, it's been fun, it's been a great experience, but now it's time to say good-bye to all my Afghan family.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg



As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of media that combines two or more of my interests. If you make a heavy metal song about Star Wars, I'll listen. If you write about hip-hop in Senegal, I'll read it. This wide array of interests usually makes it easy for people to find things I'll like. I'm not hard to buy for.

Knowing my fan interest in baseball and my professional interest in military intelligence, a few friends included "The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg", a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, in a care package I received last summer. It was a very good call.

I had heard of former baseball player Moe Berg before. I remember reading a magazine article stating he worked for some high-level intelligence agencies during World War 2. Turns out, that magazine article, from Sports Illustrated, was also written by Dawidoff. The Catcher Was A Spy expands on the article and provides results from years of researching perhaps the most mysterious man in baseball history.

According to Dawidoff, Berg filled many roles during his life. He was at one time or another, a student, lawyer, linguist, sightseer, vagabond, advisor, babysitter, consultant, investor, writer,  and of course, catcher and spy. Dawidoff weaves each of these titles into an interesting story, while attempting to reveal the secrets Berg kept from many people he knew.

In the beginning chapters of the book, Dawidoff discusses Moe Berg's professional baseball career and his baseball life intersected with his academic interests. In a nutshell, after a distinguished college career at Princeton, Berg did little at the big league level. A quick aside look-up on Baseball-Reference.com lists him as the 15th worst baseball player with a minimum of 500 games. That's bad. But yet Berg hung on, playing over 75 games three times in a 15-year career. Dawidoff stipulates that Berg's closeness with front office management allowed him to take up a roster spot that might be better given to a minor leaguer.

But although Berg wasn't playing, he was getting smarter. Which according to Dawidoff, is one of the overarching themes of the book. During the baseball chapters, Dawidoff writes about Berg's dalliance with law and business, and how Berg would wow his teammates and coaches with stories and facts few athletes took the time to learn. Dawidoff does state that Berg was also knowledgable of his craft,  so much so that he became an impromptu coach during his last few seasons.

The conclusion of Berg's baseball career in 1942 ends the first part of The Catcher Was A Spy. The second part of the book details as best as possible Berg's work with the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor of the CIA). Through an index full of library research and interviews, Dawidoff pieces together Berg's travels through Europe during WWII and his attempt to acquire as much information as possible about a possible German nuclear or atomic bomb. Here the names sometimes blend together as Berg travels from country to country talking to nuclear scientists and other scientifical types. Dawidoff also writes about Berg's interactions with various intelligence personnel in the OSS, US military, and other branches of government.

By the conclusion of the very lengthy chapter on Berg's spy career, the reader is given the impression that although Berg did some good work, he thought too highly of his own worth. The impression is that Berg believed he was the best spy the CIA had, and could hence run up expense accounts and travel willy-nilly as he wanted, as long as he met with an interviewee on occasion. Dawidoff quotes other intelligence personnel who state that Berg wasn't as big of a deal as he thought himself.

Although this chapter is nearly 50 pages and Dawidoff did what he could in his research, my question is "is that all?". Was all of the Berg information declassified prior to or for the purposes of this book? What information did the CIA or other government organizations not let Dawidoff see? Would they have changed the reader's perception of Berg? Did he do anything greater or more important to national security than what is already mentioned?

Following discussion of Berg's war service, Dawidoff attempts to detail Berg's transformation into an itinerate wanderer. According to Dawidoff, Berg bounced from house to house, taking advantage of friends' kindness and compassion. Dawidoff hints at some awkward moments that give the reader the impression that Berg was a bit social inept, from the story of Berg tickling a little girl alone in a darkened room to Berg's fascination and desire to cling to friends and associates suffering from tragedy.

In the final chapter of the book, Dawidoff tries to piece together Moe Berg. Dawidoff comes to the conclusion Berg was an outsider, unable or unwilling to connect with people in a "normal" sense. Dawidoff suggests Berg's idiosynchrisies derive from his attempts to impress his father, a man who never believed Berg should pursue baseball but should stay in more honorable pursuits. Dawidoff also stipulates Berg suffered from a lack of importance after World War II and set himself adrift, successfully floating until the day he died.

With nearly a 70-page bibliography, The Catcher Was A Spy is an incredibly well-researched book. Is the mysterious Berg a subject worth the research? For sure. Berg was neither a Hall of Famer or a real-life James Bond. But he was was one of the most interesting people to ever play professional baseball and work for the CIA. Thousands of people have done one of the two. Only Moe Berg did both.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

95% done with the Afghanistan Adventure - Let the countdown begin



Yesterday I passed 95% complete with my time in Afghanistan. Wow. It's almost over.

That means only a few weeks left.

Other than that, not much is new. Only that it is time to start mailing my things back to the states, finishing up the work projects, and ensuring all of the knowledge, wisdom, and insight I've gained on my job is imparted to the new folks sitting my seat. That's kind of great feeling.

As for what I am going to do when I get back, I'm still not sure. I'm trying to keep a few pots on the fire and have a few avenues in which to go down, to include putting in an application to business school. The impression I am getting from the headlines and news reports is that the economy in the US is still crappy. And of course, there is that whole "Sea Quest Nation" thing gutting the government and contract possibilities. So no matter how well I do here or have done in the last 13 months, I might have to start over with a new career. Could be exciting.

But first, I want to relax. My goal is to get a room in a nice beach hotel, either on the west or east coast of Florida, and sleep. I also want to catch a few concerts, see a few baseball games, and drink a few beers. All those things I've been missing out on over the last year and a few months.

One of the biggest challenges will be not to jump back in too fast. I have a lot to do when I get back - everything from getting a new car and phone to finding a new job and place to live. I also want to see the eye doctor, the dentist, and a dermatologist. But I have to realize I can't do all that the day I get back. Nor can I do it all in the first week or even the first month. I gotta pace myself. The beach should help with that.

Just like when I left the military the first time, or when I left Tallahassee to move to Tampa, or when I first came out to Afghanistan, or even when I grabbed my lunch box and walked down Chestnut Street in Hicksville, NY way back in 1980-something to enter the first day of kindergarten, it's time to start a whole new adventure.

It's been fun, Afghanistan. You taught me a lot and I hope I helped you out a little, but now my time to go is right around the corner.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Boba Fett catches a Roadrunner



I found this picture on the DeathStar PR Facebook page. Not sure where they got it from, but I think it is absolutely hilarious. Sometimes you gotta say "Screw Acme, I'm going with a professional".