September 7

Q&A: Literary Absence.

Q: Why haven’t you been writing?

A: I have a whole slew of excuses, but the real reason is simply… I don’t feel like the approach I was using lends itself to the sort of journal I intended to keep.

Back in 2010, 2011, I sat down and took notes in Evernote, developed the ideas into full-fledged story entries, and posted them when they were polished. I got away from that over time and the quality (in my mind) suffered… my posts became little more than “this is what’s up” and “this is irksome,” so I quit.

(As an example, see this entry. 😉

So… I’ve gone back to the drawing board… or the Evernote notebook, if you like. I’m taking notes on ideas to develop and stories to tell, and… when I have time enough and I’m relaxed enough… I’ll sit down to write.

Until then, I’ll post monthly or so to keep the 2 or 3 people who actually visit this blog appraised of my continued existence. And, I’ll continue to love/hate my extended LOA from law school.

 

August 12

Q & A: Travel on that LOA

Q: Do you get to travel much while you’re in Afghanistan?

A: Alas, no.

As Tier 3 support, my job is to handle enterprise (read: overarching) issues. I don’t get to do much with the physical side of the house, so I’m mostly camped out in one place. Occasionally, there are opportunities for someone to go do some hands-on field work, but I’ve not been the one going out just yet.

When I do travel, I tend to go to major bases. Since I “graduated” from field tech to system engineer, the opportunities available for me at the smaller bases has dwindled significantly. When they do have positions, they don’t pay nearly as much for the effort involved, so… here I sit.

While I was studying abroad (Milan & Tokyo) I was able to get out and explore. Of course, being a broke ass law student means not having the cash to travel in style, so I ended up limiting my excursions. I did, however, manage to make it to Switzerland, Germany, and France while in Milan, and I did a ton of local exploration while in Tokyo. I considered doing more, but a) I was there to learn, not screw around and b) I find travel more satisfying when I have the money to do the things I want to do.

That being said, I may try to plan a lovely travel trip post-graduation if I can. I (should) be in the somewhat unique position of having a bit of cash left over after law school… versus the debt my poor classmates are likely to have. We shall see.

August 11

Q & A: 101 Uses of a Law Degree

Q: What do you plan on doing with your law degree?

A: Well there’s a question for the ages.

Right now, I have a number of paths I’m considering, and I’m researching a couple of alternatives that could be interesting. I suppose that could be seen as a euphemistic way of saying that I’m not quite sure yet, but really… there are options on the table.

What I don’t want to do… and what (in part) motivated me to take a year off to work in Afghanistan… is feel trapped into taking a job I don’t want to pay my law school debt. Working in Bagram for a year will leave me debt free, which (ought to) reduce the temptation to take a high paying job that I’m ambivalent about over a lower paying job that I think I’ll love.

Or, more practically, it’ll let me avoid the ramen noodle and after-party leftovers diet that seem to support many young lawyers.

I suppose that’s a long-winded way to say “I’ve not yet decided.”

August 10

Question: Did You Drop Out of Law School?

Q: You’ve been gone from the law school since 1L, and you’re (I think) a 3L now. Are you ever coming back, or did you decide to drop out for good?

A: First of all… yes, I plan on coming back. That’s always been the plan. I went into law school knowing that I would almost certainly be studying abroad for at least one semester, probably two, so my being gone for 2L was more or less planned. As far as this follow-on year abroad, well…

You know, if you’re a law school student, that law graduates are having a tough time finding good work.  You also know (or should know) that the debt you incur during law school is substantial. While my university has been extremely generous with their money thus far, the idea that I’d be entering a new phase of my career saddled with a ton of debt was unpalatable. As I am an older student, I also have less time, objectively speaking, to pay that debt off.

So… here I am, taking a leave of absence and working (in Afghanistan!) during my LOA year to make sure that my graduation is pure and unsullied by money owed. When I’m done with the year, I’ll return to the classroom to wrap up that final 3L year. It’s unfortunate that I’ll not be doing so with the class I started with (part-timers aside) but I’m used to being the black sheep / outcast / square peg by now.

And hey, at least I’ll know a few baby lawyers when I graduate, right? 😉

 

July 23

Q: What your day in Afghanistan like?

Days in Afghanistan for me aren’t particularly exciting, unless you’re excited by work, sleep, eating, and fitness. This is a typical day for me:

          0600 – 0700: Wake up, get dressed for the gym, eat a quick breakfast.

          0700 – 0900: Work out (with built in foot dragging)

          0900 – 1000: Do a bit of personal maintenance, read, get ready for work.

          1000-1230: Work. (And study in my downtime.)

          1230-1330: Lunch.

          1330-1830: Work.

          1830-1930: Supplemental evening workout & shower.

          1930-2200: Work.

          2200 – 0600: Go back ‘home,’ read, get ready for bed, sleep.

On my days off, I get up a little later, don’t work, work out, and wander the base (sometimes) to take pictures and relax.

Told you it wasn’t particularly exciting.

July 19

Parallel Universes & Time Travel (Of A Sort)

I’ve not written in a while… no good reason why unless you count the long days as reasons… but I’ll give it a shot today.

Coming back to places and people after being gone for years can be strange.

When there are minor changes, it feels like you’ve entered a parallel universe where things are just a little bit different. Maybe a coffee shop has moved. Maybe the road has an extra lane. Maybe the houses on a street you used to travel are painted different colors. Those small changes can be a little unsettling… things are just off enough to make your past familiarity suspect.

Major changes, well, those are easier. Those are more like traveling in time. Imagine going to sleep, Rip Van Winkle style, and waking up to discover that your town had implemented Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. In my case, after leaving for a year and a half, an entire light rail system that changed the flow of the entire downtown area came to be. While strange, it was BIG strange… and because it was BIG strange, it was somehow more palatable.

Of course, those are just place changes. People also change. They age, sure, but their relationships change, their interests evolve, they have children, their children grow… you go from friend to friendly acquaintance to a likable outsider who left the flow of their reality way back when. And even when you do reconnect, you’re reconnecting to the new them with the new you. You’re not so much rekindling old friendships as you are building a new friendship on the foundation of the old.

And heck, people forget you, except as an idea or an abstract concept. “I know this guy who travels the world,” they say, but the truth is that they KNEW you, and now you just exchange an occasional hello on the Internet. And (despite your initial angst) you get used to it, accepting that this is a) psychology in action and b) the fault of everyone involved. After all, you know that you didn’t make the efforts (in most cases) on your side either.

Basically, you settle into your role as a time-traveling ghost, avoiding more than friendly acquaintanceships because you know that more often than not, you’ll be losing touch once your geography no longer matches. Best scenario, you’ll skip across time and space to say hello years later.

(Incidentally, this is why I relate to The Doctor in Doctor Who… I get, in my own way, what it is like to be untethered from the day to day reality of the people I know / knew / will know.)

And… enough. Back to your life, and I’ll go back to mine. 😉

June 18

Danger, Desert ,and Downtime (Q&A)

I meant to write on Tuesday, but I got distracted with nothing in particular. Sorry!

Q (Multiple People): Is it dangerous [in Afghanistan]?

Okay, so first things first. There is always an undercurrent of danger when you’re working in a combat zone, but for what I do, the danger is relatively low-key. I tend to equate the danger in living here to the danger of living in a major city. If you are smart, exercise good judgment, and don’t intentionally do stupid things (like ride on convoys unnecessarily) then you’re almost certainly going to be fine. I mean… I’m not a gun-toting mercenary, shooting at the Taliban… I’m a system admin. Let’s be real.

And sure… I’m jaded. I’ve been here often enough (this will make the third time) and I’m not the kind of person to freak out anyway. But I’m also careful. Any risks I choose to take, here or elsewhere, are calculated. So… short version, you’re probably more at risk in the USA from traffic than I am from random terrorist silliness.

Q (Multiple People): So how’s the desert?

Kuwait sucked… it was like, 117 and humid and gross. Bagram, however, is at 5000 feet above sea level. There are trees here, there’s snow on the peaks, and it doesn’t get much above 90 or so. So… it’s no worse than summer in the USA, really. It IS pretty dry, though, and the altitude does take some adjustment… especially for my running; I can definitely feel it… so it isn’t all peaches and cream.

Q: (Multiple People): What do you DO out there for FUN?

Dude, I work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Free time is limited. But… I mostly read, study some things I didn’t have time to study while I was law schooling, and I work on getting fit. I’ve set the bar for this year pretty high… we’ll see how much I can accomplish in my year “off” from law school. 😉

June 12

Q & A Series: Travel in Afghanistan

Andrew B: Is [Afghanistan] an easy country to travel?

Like many questions, the short answer is “it’s complicated.”

Getting into Afghanistan isn’t particularly easy. Where I was once exempt from requiring a visa, now I have to be vetted and approved by the Afghan government before I even think about traveling. Of course, that does give me the freedom to come and go as I please for a year, within reason… assuming I could get to Kabul airport, I book a ticket and fly away. Those visas typically do not issue to tourists, though, so good luck finding your way in

To get into Afghanistan, I rely on military transport, so I’m subject to the whims of the US military. When working as a contract employee, I tend to fly military air, or “MILAIR.”

Exiting the base is also nearly impossible. Personnel on the base are (with exceptions) supposed to stay there, so I’m basically on a small city sized installation with no way to explore elsewhere. With my 12 hour work weeks, that’s fine… just about anything I want is available on the base, Amazon ships here, and I can eat for free. So, no reason to leave.

Of course, I have left the base before, last time I was here, to ride from Kabul to Bagram. In reality, there’s not a whole lot to see in this area. Afghanistan has suffered immensely, so most areas…. Kabul being the exception… are ill-suited to random travelers.

I do have the option to fly out “commercial.” There’s one carrier that goes to Dubai daily… when I leave for my vacation, I’ll almost certainly fly out that way. That’s typically how one leaves for vacations… MILAIR is too unreliable as far as scheduling to bother with.

On base, there’s a bus system. For official business I can check out a vehicle, and for most daily activities (the gym, laundry, food) I can walk. Mostly, I walk… there’s no real reason to be lazy unless I’m going more than a mile or two. It’s pretty safe to walk, all things considered, so I tend to walk even after dark.

In the more general sense, Afghanistan is a difficult place to travel outside of city center Kabul. Finding lodging would be difficult, you’d stand out as a foreigner, and you’d have a pretty good chance of being targeted for attack. Hell, even in Kabul, you risk being targeted… there’s a reason most hotels catering to foreigners advertise their security features. One even has a dedicated private entrance to a shopping mall so you can remain inside for the duration of your trip.

Anything I missed? Let me know!

June 7

AFG III Series: Deployment as a Contractor

So, let me explain how heading into the Middle East* (and Afghanistan) works if you’re an average contractor. The process isn’t particularly difficult, but it can be time-consuming and occasionally obnoxious.

T Minus 30 (Days): There are a number of things you need to complete before your contingent offer becomes a solid offer. First of all, your background check must come back clean. Then, you need a special government ID issued, a special training account, and a valid passport with a visa for your destination country.** You also need to have your eyes checked, and (depending on your employer) you’ll need a physical, blood work, and a dental exam.

T Minus 7 (Days): Assuming the previous step was completed successfully, you’ll fly to a “CRC.” A CRC is basically a mobilization center, where you’ll do a ton of computer based training, medical screening, classroom work. You’ll also be issued a 50 pound bag of gear, 30 pounds of which will almost certainly remain in the bag for the duration of your tour. Expect 10-14 hour days during this week of training… and unless you want to come out of pocket (or your company is exceedingly generous) expect to stay in old military barracks with no transportation. But hey… food is free, right?

T Minus 0 (The Flight): You’ll have to be ready to go at 0430 to 0630, for a flight that will leave around 1200. The flight itself will be a charter plane… if you’re lucky, Delta, if you’re not, some unknown carrier using 1980’s planes and 1980’s food. Your flight will stop at least twice for stuff and reasons… once to do a bit of PR, and once to refuel.

When you arrive (almost certainly in Kuwait) you’ll think you’re done. 5pm isn’t so bad, right? Not so fast. You’ll take four hours to immigrate (9pm) and three more to get to the base. (12a.) You’ll sit around for an hour or two, processing and listening to an in-brief… finally getting released to go to bed around 3am.

Your sleeping quarters are (usually) a shared bay that fits 200 people in bunks. You’ll be there for 1-7 more days, at which time you’ll be bused to another place (2.5 hours away) to wait all day to get a plane to your destination. As an example, I am writing this from a terminal at 5pm, waiting for instruction at 6pm… and I started this process this morning at 0930. I’ll probably fly around 8-10pm, arriving in the wee hours of tomorrow morning.

And there you have it! The convoluted process of deployment.

* Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, and the UAE. As far as I know, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia don’t use this process.

** This is sometimes waived, but waivers are becoming less common.

June 3

And here I go.

So, it has been done. My transition back into IT (albeit temporarily) is complete. I’ve passed all of my medical and training and I’ll be on a plane tomorrow to dive back into the world of “austere” support environments and technical skills.

But… I’m not just retreading what I’ve done. I’ll be building new skills, because… let’s face it… leaving on an epic journey into a dangerous place almost demands that you come back better, stronger, more skilled… else, what’s the point in going?

I mean. Aside from ensuring my freedom from debt. That’s a big one.

And yes… I do have a new plan. A year-long plan, even. It’s not done… I’m still working out the details… but there are a few broad stroke items I’m going to address.

1) Fitness. Always and forever, but this time I’m going to try to do a few things with it. One, I’m going to rock a Marathon… either on my own for distance, or officially with a base event. That’s been on the eventual list forever, so I’ll try to knock it out. Two, I’m going to work on flexibility. I think my flexibility limits my strength, so… time to knock it out. And lastly for now? I’m going to to try for a fitness level that meets top-level Army requirements.

2) Cybersecurity. I plan on using Coursera, my law student resources, and some IT training to beef up my skill in Cybersecurity. I’m toying with the idea of privacy law and cybersecurity / cyber-law… but I need more skill on the technical side to excel so… that will happen. Without going into tons of detail today, I suspect we’re approaching a battle over government need and individual liberties.

3) Human Rights (Trafficking.) The exploitation of individuals sucks, and I’ll be looking into ways to fight it using the tools I already have and the tools I intend to acquire.

4) Post-Law Plan. I’ll be working on this while I’m gone.

Questions I’m getting:

Are you coming back to finish law school?

Yeah, I think so! I never say for sure because that’s inviting trouble. But my plan is to do a year or so before I return. Sorry, classmates… but I’m sure you don’t miss me much anyway. 😉

Why did you do this? You’re crazy!

Because it makes sense for my long-term plans. And yes, I may be insane.

Is where you’re going dangerous?

It can be, but I’m surrounded by the best of the best. So… you’re probably in more danger walking through NE Philly at night.

Will you send me something cool?

Maybe. I’ll definitely send a postcard… but if you want more than one, you have to write back.

Anything I missed? Let me know.