I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Yesterday, I sneezed. Well to be accurate it was early this morning. Also, it wasn’t really a sneeze, it was one of those almost-sneezes. A non-sneeze. A snooze. Still, it was the culmination of a monumentally joyous experience. Let me tell you all about it.

I’ve been generally aware of the eventual need to sneeze for most of my time out here. I first got that pre-sneeze tingle several months ago. I knew it was coming, and I knew it was going to be big - one of those truly messy, mucus-rich, high G-force, double-barrel sneezes.

This one was going to require a tissue.

However, getting a tissue in Afghanistan is not as easy as you might think. I talked to our SMEs (subject matter experts), got estimates on the amount of tissue I would need to mitigate the effects of my sneeze and when I could expect final tissue turnover given an X-man working party working Y-hours a day for Z-days (and z-nights), looked up the tissue man-hour engineering utilization ratio chart in Field Manual Lima, briefed representatives from each nose-hair on the requirement, intent and ultimate disposition of the tissue, made countless adjustments, filled out the requisition forms, crafted a persuasive letter of justification, outlined the statement of work, staffed it all (in my enthusiasm, I failed to cross all my i’s and dot my t’s and had to redo and resubmit the paperwork), made my case in front of the Bodily-fluid Acceleration Review Forum, received funding approval from the BARF, requested delivery of the tissue-building materials, found out the on-hand materials were…not, resubmitted the tissue request and supporting paperwork for contracting, awaited sourcing of the tissue contract, took a quick but relaxing (relatively) break to herd some cats, provided the tissue specifications, escorted the tissue delivery personnel to the work site (my upper lip), drafted a FRAG-O to man the tissue working party, negotiated with adjacent units on the sourcing of the tissue working party personnel, deconflicted the tissue working party with a simultaneous but unrelated toilet-paper planning group, coordinated transportation, food and heavy equipment (forklifts, trucks, pneumatic fluffer, etc.) for the off-loading and placement of the tissue materials, ensured all tissue working party safety requirements were met and equipment was provided (gloves, eye protection, ear protection, throat protection, groin protection, soul protection, flak, kevlar, water source, boots), provided the morning brief on safe tissue handling, filled out an operational risk management matrix for the tissue employment, managed the timing and placement of the tissue with all stake-holders (the nose being the ultimate arbiter), took another quick (relatively) break to carve a life-sized stone sculpture of Joseph Heller using nothing but a feather and a steely glare, maintained accountability of the tissue working party, checked daily on the status of the tissue working party, submitted a nightly situation report on the progress of the tissue working party, synchronized my right hand with my left (ambidextrously resolving any disputes between them), adroitly modified the tissue plans and diagrams to accommodate ever-changing tissue-utilization requirements, and when the tissue was finally in place…

…well, you know, sometimes you think you need to sneeze, but it passes.

Lucky for me. This morning I got an e-mail that key parts of the tissue were emplaced too far to the west, obstructing my left ear canal.

Ah well.  Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's cold in the desert

At dawn it’s now in the mid-20’s here in central Helmand, up to the 50’s during the day.  In the evening the sun sinks below the horizon as you watch, with the temperature falling just as rapidly and the intense reds and oranges reflecting off the low-hanging dusty haze. 

1000 splendid words

But despite the cold it doesn’t feel like winter – no frozen puddles (because no water lying around), no frost on the windows in the morning (well, no windows anywhere either except on vehicles), no clouds in the sky.  Some days if you just walk around with your head level, it feels as dingy and overcast (from the gray dust) as a cloudy winter day back home, but if you remember to look straight up, above the dust, you find the sky is still a brilliant blue.  It’s odd.

Right now it’s about an hour after sunset, with just a sliver of a moon that’s about to set – we’re just exiting the low-light period of the month.  One way I find myself marking the passage of time is the moon phases, not because I’m in the desert and reverting to some nomadic view of time, but because each morning I sit in on a long powerpoint brief where one of the slides deals with lunar data.  Every time we hit low light it means another half a month has gone by, and when we hit full high light again, same thing.

It’s been an interesting week or so. 

On Friday I took a day trip to a small FOB (forward operating base).  I was up around 0330 for a dawn flight.   

Waiting for our flight at dawn

Our ride out was on a CH-53D.  They say about this aging bird that if it’s not leaking, it’s empty.  Ours was not empty, as evidenced by large grease stains on my cammies.  


It was a quick flight.  We landed in a rather large LZ and I spent the morning checking out the FOB’s security.  Wish I should share more on that but obviously I can’t.  Met some interesting Afghans, saw some interesting sites, had lunch.  Spent the afternoon laying in the sunlight in a gravel clearing, reading a book on my iPod touch.  (Have I mentioned that was my best investment before coming out here?)    

Striking a pose

The flight back was around sunset on a CH-53E, obviously a newer version of the same aircraft.  Two easy ways to tell the D and the E apart from afar (because you know you want to) are that the E has a refueling boom and a canted tail rotor.  The most enjoyable difference is that the E has much more powerful engines.  My first helicopter ride, way back in OCS, was on a 53E and that pilot maneuvered in ways that you’d never expect from what is essentially a large flying bus.  It was exhilarating.   


 Heading "home"

The past eight days have, of course, also been Hanukkah.  I believe I managed to light the candles every night – except that Friday now that I think of it.  We had a handful of Jewish service members here and down at another base where I went from Sunday to Tuesday.  On that trip I was traveling with the head chaplain for all of 3d MAW (Third Marine Aircraft Wing), who is a Rabbi here visiting for the holiday.  It’s kind of amazing to have a Rabbi in that position – he’s a Navy Captain (one rank below an Admiral), and a MAW is a division-level unit.  Rabbi E is a very entertaining guy who had clearly done this once or twice before, and we got along well.  

Jewish mafia

Naturally, during the trip I double-dipped to get some AT/FP work done, but Gunny and I managed to mostly take it easy.  Since Tuesday things have been largely back to normal.  Tomorrow night we’ll have Shabbat services with the Rabbi, and he leaves shortly after that.  On Sunday it will be exactly two years since my commissioning, and I’ll pin on 1stLt.  I’ll be sure to post some pictures. 

In fact, I cannot believe it’s already December.  I’ve been out here since March, and I can tell you that in June or July, December seemed like an illusion – something that would never come to be.  Pretty soon it will be New Year’s, and I’m sure you know what the next milestone after that is…that’s right: pitchers and catchers report to spring training. 

Well that’s all I’ve got.  Some potentially exciting things on tap in the next few weeks, so wish me luck.

Another day at the office

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The best holiday

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.  I'm not really sure why.  The food's great, but my mom's Passover meals are better (and without even the benefit of bread!).  And it's patriotic, being an American holiday, but the 4th of July is more so.  It's got a good ideal behind it, but so do most holidays.  And growing up it was not one of the holidays that brought the family together, any more than any other.  Again, that would probably be Passover.  I guess it just combines all my favorite things about holidays into one...though without gifts.  

So it's Thanksgiving.  It hasn't felt like it today - just another work day.  It's also two weeks since my last post, but that's ok - I have a doctor's note.

First to get you caught up on the last two weeks.  The Kandahar visit was moderately productive, I guess.  A few days after we got back came Operation Feeding Freedom, known informally as Operation Outback.  It was a great treat, complete with 12 oz steaks, Bloomin Onions, incredible rolls, some kind of vegetable ravioli thing and cheesecake.  Alas, no Foster's.  As promised, they didn't run out of anything.  I've never had any special feelings toward Outback one way or the other but after this I'll definitely be eating there more once I get back to the states.  That night there was also some country singer who performed on base, I forget her name, an American Idol runner-up or some such.

After that things settled down to normal until Saturday when I started getting sick.  Spent Sunday and Monday and most of Tuesday in bed - just a cold, nothing serious, but enough to get me thinking about what it must have been like for the Marines on Iwo or Guadalcanal, coming down with Malaria and spending weeks or months in a crappy cot (if that), under a crappy tent (if that), with nothing to do, no laptop with DVDs to keep them occupied or take their mind off their misery.  In this war, if you come down with anything serious (including Malaria), you're just medevac'd out of theater and are probably home within a week.  Don't get me wrong, Marines (and other troops) still sacrifice plenty, even setting aside the unevolved bloodiness and loneliness of war, but we have it exponentially better than those before us ever did.

Amazing how a mild case of the sniffles is enough to get me on my soapbox.  Anyway, that's why I didn't post anything on Sunday, which is otherwise my goal.  I'm feeling better today and am going to try to PT later today for the first time in six days.  Ridiculous.

Today, the chow halls have Thanksgiving food for lunch and dinner, and it is good.  Pineapple ham (or whatever), turkey, beef, stuffing (dressin' for you southerners), sweet potato casserole, corn, gravy and pecan pie.  I had a light lunch of about 3000 calories and will go back later for a heavier dinner.  I don't think I've had a Thanksgiving lunch since I was in high school in Alabama.

And now for a Thanksgiving list: ten things I'm grateful for, in no particular order.
  • All the e-mails, FB messages, etc. that expressed some variant of "thanks for serving."  You're welcome.  My part is really pretty small and painless as you already know.  And in general I'm grateful for the support of all my friends and family these last 8 months, which has made all the difference.
  • Sweet potato casserole
  • EOD - explosive ordnance disposal, aka bomb squad.  You think you know what kind of risks these guys face by the very nature of the job, but you don't.  Trust me, you don't even know the half of it.
  • Cpl Yale and LCpl Haerter, and also LtGen Kelly (the speaker) and his son, 2ndLt Kelly, whom I graduated OCS with and who died earlier this month in Sangin.  This part could easily become its own list.
  • My brother's IDF service.  
  • An Israeli organization I knew a little about but have learned much more about lately called Save A Child's Heart, in which both my middle brother and his wife are involved.
  • Derek Jeter.  It's not entirely rational, it's not even a little homosexual, it just is what it is. Yanks need to stop screwing around and resign him already.
  • An organization called Project MOT, which sends care packages to Jewish service members.
  • Grass.  Not the kind you smoke.
  • HL
Well that's all I've got.  I better run if I'm going to work off today's lunch and dinner.  Enjoy the holiday and stay warm.

I'm thankful I don't have to do that anymore.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Three-thirty thoughts

So what am I thinking at oh-dark thirty in the morning, trying (and failing) to sleep in a large "transient" tent at Kandahar airfield?
  • I hate the guy who was crinkling his little potato chips package so loudly he woke me up an hour ago.  Don't worry, I told him.
  • Why on earth would anyone care what I’m thinking at 0330 anyway?  Don’t worry, I’m still going to tell you.
  • There are jets taking off every few minutes here, 24/7.  I first got hooked on the roar of jet engines going to air shows as a kid.  It is still one of my favorite sounds in the world.
  • I will never again take for granted high speed internet.
  • It was nice chatting with my friend PT today.
  • Speaking of PT, I had a great PT session earlier – 35 minute run in boots and utes, must have been about four miles.  I quit running in green on green around early August – didn’t seem to be a very realistic form of combat conditioning.  My joints are occasionally less than pleased, but my resting heart rate is currently…about 48 beats per minute. 
  • It’s Veteran’s day, or just was.  As I told PT earlier, it’s hard to think of myself as a future vet – I just don’t have the hat, vest and pin collection to pull it off (yet).  What else do I think about Veteran’s day?  Well as a Marine I’ve learned a lot about what other Marines went through, and out here where I have a bed, a good pair of boots and global connectivity, that’s pretty much always on my mind.  Also, I think we as Americans have moved significantly in the right direction in the way we think about “the troops” and “the vets” as compared to the dark days of Vietnam and “baby killers.”  That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it, at a time when so much seems to be moving in the wrong direction…
  • If you aren’t just swept away by Chopin, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.  I miss my piano terribly.  I also play it terribly, and especially will after a year of not touching one, so that’s nice and symmetrical.
  • I learned today that when glass breaks, the cracks move at over 3000 mph.  Interesting.  But what gets me is that cracks aren’t things…they’re where things (e.g. glass) stop being.  So it’s nothingness expanding at 3000 mph.  Just let that one twist around in your brain for a bit.  Hurts, huh.

Well that’s about it really.  Looks like about 9 thoughts – a respectable number given the time of night.  10 would be presumptuous, perhaps even arrogant; 8 and I would have had to leave out the glass-cracking thing.  So 9 it is.

Good night.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Happy birthday

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m going to try to get back into posting something on here weekly, if only quickly to let you know that I’m still OK.  I’ll be doing a little traveling over the next month or so (nothing to worry about) but I should be able to post at least that often.

For now, it’s been a while since I described what things are like here, which I think is the one thing I can offer you, my fanatically loyal reader(s?), that you might not get somewhere else.

Some things never change of course – it’s always dusty.  But at least it’s not hot, in fact it’s getting to feel quite cool.  At dawn it’s in the low 50’s or high 40’s, and in the day it gets up to the 60’s or 70’s.  Yesterday was a gorgeous day, and even the sunset was amazing since we had some clouds.  In fact it actually rained here one night last week – first precipitation since April.  Winter in this part of the country is mostly a cold, rainy season, though it will drop below freezing at night here and there.  Further north even a little bit, where there’s some pretty fierce fighting going on, will be colder and more miserable, so keep those guys in your thoughts and treat them well when they get home. 

As I write this the sun (and the temperature) is going down.  Per usual, the ranges are providing an appropriately martial sound-track for my thoughts – impressive booms and crunches from artillery and mortars with shockwaves you can feel in your ribcage; the rattle of all caliber of machine guns, a sound unmatched in its ability to motivate; the muffled thump of grenades – probably the 40mm variety, not the more commonly known hand-grenades but who knows. 

At night it’s really an impressive show, between the tracers, the explosions and the battlefield illumination that reveals hidden clouds of smoke and dust.  And of course, at all times of the day or night, one of the world’s busiest airfields lies just a few clicks away on the British side of the base.  I don’t think anyone even notices anymore the almost constant, if usually distant, thumping of rotor blades and the occasional roar of some behemoth of a cargo plane landing.

Similarly, at work the constant flow of intel has resolved into a sort of background hum.  I’ve gotten good at picking out what’s relevant to my work, and I skim through the rest quickly, somehow avoiding thinking too much about what incredibly (potentially) dangerous information is contained when it doesn’t pertain to me.  (BOOM!)  I can only assume – and it’s a safe assumption I think – that the Marines to whom that info is relevant are doing the same thing.  

Well it’s getting late and I have to run.  Literally.

Wish me a happy birthday.

 November 10, 1775

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

I haven't posted anything here in a while.  That's because, paradoxically, I've been very busy, and yet nothing has happened that really seems interesting enough to write about.  But I guess it's just that I've gotten used to what we call the "battle rhythm" - basically the daily flow of things that, outside of a combat zone, might seem more note - or blog - worthy. 

Last post was about Israel and R&R.  I got back around the third week of September I think - about 5 weeks ago.  The day I got back, the first of four "sticks" - groups of Marines - of the HQ squadron left Leatherneck to rotate out to the states.  Their replacements had gotten here while I was gone.  Next week, the last of the four sticks will rotate out.  Already, most of the familiar faces have been replaced with new ones.  And despite the fact that most of the replacements get at least some overlap/turnover time, there is certainly a steep learning curve.  As a civilian, if I put in 50 or 60 hours at work I considered that a pretty busy week.  Here, I'd say at least 75% of the Marines put in about (wait, I need to use a calculator here)...84 hours a week (12/day times all 7 long days a week).  Ok Sundays are usually easier - maybe a half day if you can get away with it (I usually can). 

I say all this not to show how hard we work.  We work hard.  Big deal.  But the point is, with that many hours put in, and with ops of course being 24/7, the pace at which things emerge, develop, happen and pass is breathtaking.  It's like a month's worth of events, ops, incidents, etc. crammed into each week.  So the point of my point is that I guess I can understand that it took the new guys a little while to get up to speed.  It was frustrating to see some of them bumbling about, lacking confidence and moving slower than I was used to, but it's gotten better and at the same time I've gotten a little more patient.  There's at least one new unit out here who can tell you a whole helluva lot more than I can about the price of being the new guys.

So back to specifics.  As you've been reading in the press, things heated up here recently and despite the end of the fighting season, they continue to remain pretty kinetic.  I know a recent NYTimes article about how we're making progress against the Taliban down here in the south made some waves a few weeks back.  Obviously I'm limited in what I can say but I'll say this: militarily, I never doubted and still don't doubt that we can win.  That's actually saying something - COIN (counterinsurgency) is not easy to win, especially in Afghanistan, as the Soviets, the Brits and Alexander the Great will all tell you.  But where others fail, the U.S., especially the USMC, can and will succeed - is succeeding, although at a cost that no words can describe.

But all that doesn't mean victory.  In COIN, as just about everyone knows by now, tactical victory is ultimately meaningless unless you can make it stick.  You can only make it stick if the locals buy in and the local security forces can take over the mission.  Both those things take an incredible commitment on our part.  You have to be ready to see it through, and convince the locals that you're going to see it through, so they'll take the enormous risk of joining forces with you.  If you're willing to do that, if you have the strategic as well as the tactical patience, you can win, even in backward, tribal, fragmented, corrupt and utterly inhospitable Afghanistan.  At least that's what I think, sitting here in the relatively safe and cozy confines of Leatherneck. 

Ok I seriously have to get off my soap box.  Back to the transcribing the daily grind.  I have a new Gunny - Gunny D went home and now Gunny M is here.  He's also very experienced, and his fresh perspective on our work out here is invaluable.  At the same time, Gunny D was my first Gunny, and also a truly unique personality in the Marine Corps as far as I can tell - just the right mix of professional and relaxed that I needed to feel comfortable growing into and learning this role.  So I'll miss him, even though his Texas Rangers eliminated my NY Yankees last week.  Ridiculous.

What else.  We did a base defense drill here recently (we do them regularly) and this one got written up by our wing public affairs office.  So if you never really understood what it is I do out here (join the club), maybe this will help.

Also I just got back a few hours ago from a little farewell BBQ for a British unit - I'd worked with some of their MPs on flight line security and was sad to see them go.  That was nice - I didn't get to eat but it smelled great and made me pine for just one (non-non-alcoholic) brewskie. 

So...since tonight is Halloween where most of you are, have a great time, take pictures, and have a cold one for me (as though you needed an excuse).

Thursday, September 30, 2010

That hit the spot

Started this post 9 days ago...took that long to upload pics.  Enjoy...
For those who have never been, how can I describe Israel?  I've been there seven times now that I can remember (plus two as a baby), and each one has simply been one unforgettable experience after another.  Just as Israel the land condenses the whole world - painted desert, coral paradise, snow-capped mountains (at least in winter), green valleys and coastal plain - into a country the size of a Manhattan balcony; just as thousands of years of human history can be traversed there on a single tank of gas, so too can a lifetime's worth of profound moments and memories be created there during a single visit.  And it happens every time.

Where to begin?

I arrived on Sunday night (day 0 of R&R) and was picked up at the airport by mom (time not seen: 9 months), brother and sis-in-law (also 9 months).  Stopped for shawarma on the way back, then on to my grandmother's (6 years) where I also saw an aunt (2 years) and uncle (15 years).  Trip already worth it.

Day 1: Walked around mom's hometown of Hadera, buying some necessities, reliving old memories, eating street-vendor falafel and trying not to stare at Israeli women, who are so blindingly beautiful you need SPF-protected sunglasses.  Trip already worth it.

And they carry guns...

Day 2: We drove down to Dimona for my youngest brother's graduation from sergeant's course.  Ceremony was one part moving, two parts cringing: Israelis march in formation only slightly better than startled cats.  But I was very proud of my brother, who earned his stripes over three challenging months of training.  Trip worth it just to share that accomplishment with him.

ok, maybe two parts moving

L to R: Porky, Wolfman and Q-ball

That night on the way back from Dimona we stopped by Tel Aviv where my brother and his wife (A&C) signed for their new apartment (they just moved to Israel the week before).  Mazel Tov!

Apartment negotiations went deep into the night

By then it was getting late, so the new sergeant and I decided to call a cousin in Tel Aviv and stay out later.  We had Israeli beer, kosher burgers and a plate of "cheeps" (fries).

Day 3: The next morning found us at the train station early.  I was enjoying the Two Beer Hangover thanks to General Order #1, but other than that it was a brand new day:

The next few days (days 3-5) were Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  We started eating on Wednesday afternoon and finished around sunset on Friday.

Surrendering to the food.  In a room full of Jewish mothers, resistance is futile.

My uncle M on Saturday morning...

 And the previous Tuesday... 

Day 6: I don't remember what I did.  I think I went to Haifa to see my best friend, HL.  If you're wondering why there are no pics of her here...well I'm an idiot.  I only took a few and none came out well.  But I got to spend lots of time with her, almost making up for a 6 year absence...

Day 7: Finally it was time for my much-anticipated vacation in Eilat, Israel's resort town on the Red Sea.  I've tried to make it down there on previous trips and it never worked out, so this time I made my plans in advance, rented a car, gritted my teeth and made the 5 hour drive through the gorgeous Negev.  Along the way I picked up my brother from his base on the Gaza border, right as Hamas decided to fire off a few rockets in our general direction.  I didn't see or hear anything, but that didn't stop me from taking off into the desert as fast as my mint-green, four-cylinder Daihatsu with the 12-inch rims would go.

File photo (forgot to take a pic).  Mine seemed...mintier.

In Eilat, we stayed at the Queen of Sheba hotel thanks to my dad's recent accumulation of 2389232 Hilton points.  Points left after 3 nights?  Zero (followed by 10 zeros).  It was a great place to stay, though nothing can compare to my Afghani-can.  We did the usual beach stuff - getting sunburned, drinking to excess, plotting advanced fire-and-maneuver tactics to cut off thieves if they stole our stuff while we were in the water.  I'll let the pictures tell the story...

Our hotel.  Todah abba.

View from our balcony

and at night

Thanks, Hilton Honors.  I'll be the Mr.

From the top-floor restaurant

Speaking of food, breakfast was possibly the best I've ever had.

The spread

Some cheeseseses


Day 8: We just tooled around, did a little shopping and were generally lazy.


infidels raining death and destruction

infidel riding donald


The happy couple at dinner

After dinner we went out and got properly smashed.  Alas, though he did his best, never take a religious Jew along as a wing man.

I don't even picture taking this remember

Breakfast on day 9 - with a side of sauteed Marine

My first time.  Incredible.  If you've never done it...do it.


Rock on

Where are we?

Navy Seal pose - had to be done

Some more pictures from the trip...

airplane landing in the middle of Eilat

Israelis - straight to the point 


The Jordanian flag flying in the city of Aqaba just across the bay



where the streets have no names...

No fun allowed

clear meat - a Jewish delicacy


Day 10: Time to leave Eilat.  In the morning though, we rented an ATV and raced through the desert.  I was instantly hooked - new hobby for me.  Didn't get any pics though - too busy arguing with the rental place which ripped us off.  After that, it was time to leave Eilat and go back up north...
Negev, looking back toward Eilat 

Egyptian border 

Back in Hadera that night, my mom threw a party in honor of E's graduation, A&C's aliyah and my b-day

todah ema

Day 11: Rise and shine!

During the day we took a trip to Mt. Tabor...

Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor 

 Mt Tabor

On location at filming of Monty Python/Holy Grail 

Mt Tabor 

Mt Tabor: better in person 

E proving he can be shorter than mom 

Great day 

...and in the evening we went to the ancient port of Caesarea, where the ruins of King Herod's palace still stand right on the shore.  From Wikipedia:
    In 22 BCE, Herod began construction of a deep sea harbor and built storerooms, markets, wide roads, baths, temples to Rome and Augustus, and imposing public buildings.[3] Every five years the city hosted major sports competitions, gladiator games, and theatrical productions in its theatre overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
You can still see the chariot race track, the public bath house and of course the amphitheater, which hosts concerts and events to this day.

Security is of course an ever-present issue in Israel.  
This is a concrete pit for suspicious/explosive objects.

ancient jacuzzi

The amphitheater - my camera died before I could take my own pics

Days 13 and 14 were Yom Kippur.  Got to hear the Shofar in Israel and attend both the next-door Ashkenazi synagogue and the neighborhood Sephardic shul that my grandfather used to belong to years ago.  Fasted and such. 

Then came day 15 - my last day - and the much-awaited trip to Jerusalem.

Along the way we first stopped at Latrun, an IDF base and tank museum and site of some of the bloodiest fighting of Israel's War of Independence.

The old British Tegart fort at Latrun

Israel's newest tank, the Merkava 4

Recreating a childhood pic

and then, Jerusalem...

Walking through the Old City

Entrance to a shuk (market) in the Old City

Mount of Olives (al Aqsa mosque seen on the left)

The Western Wall, with the Dome of the Rock above it 

Some historical context, gratis:
The First Temple was built 3,000 years ago (10th century BCE) by King Solomon.  It stood for over 400 years, until the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE.  It was reconstructed about 70 years later - we know that reconstruction as the Second Temple.  In 19 BCE King Herod expanded the base of the Temple, known as the Temple Mount.  The Western Wall is the sole remaining segment of the Temple Mount - it and the Second Temple were destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE.

Jews have been praying at this spot for a very long time. I've prayed there several times in my life, including of course on that day.  Like on the night Sugar Bear died, at first I didn't know what I wanted to say to G-d, but this time, out of nowhere, the words came.

Jews at home

Dome of the Rock

A little later on in history - in the late 7th and 8th centuries - Muslim conquerors built al Aqsa mosque (the gray dome) and the Dome of the Rock (the golden dome) atop the Temple Mount.  The Rock referred to is the Foundation Stone, believed by Judaism and Islam to be the spiritual center of the universe.  It is the holiest site in Judaism.  If you'll indulge me, let's play a little game of compare and contrast...

Compare: Israel conquers the Old City in 1967, marking the first time in 2,000 years that Jews have sovereignty over their holiest site.  However, the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, is also the third-holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina I believe), and of course in 1967 there's already big shiny mosque over the Foundation Stone.  So rather than assert Jewish sovereignty, they grant authority to the Muslim waqf.

Contrast: The waqf, the authority over the entire Temple Mount, naturally bars all Jews.  Additionally, they along with many other leading Arabs such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, deny that the Temple(s) ever existed there and thus that the Jews have any claim to the site (and by extension, of course, to Jerusalem or Israel).  This has tangible consequences...just look at how they treat the place, attempting to erase ancient evidence of the Jewish connection to the site.

ANYway, we talked a little about all this but mainly just soaked in the experience of being there.

E having an Abbey Road moment

The road he's actually crossing was the border between Jordanian- and Israeli-held Jerusalem from 1948-1967.  If you look closely at the building across the street, you can still see bullet holes from the fighting that raged across this boundary.

After an amazing lunch we went back to the Old City, spent a little more time there and did some shopping.  By then it was getting late...

Sunset at the walls of the Old City

We made a quick stop at Mt. Scopus (Hebrew U) on the way out, then made it back to Tel Aviv for dinner with the cousins.

Like a maniac, I then drove to Haifa and spent two hours, from about 1-3 AM, with HL.  So glad I did.

And then R&R was over.  By the numbers:
  • 15 - days spent in Israel
  • 6 - years since last visit
  • 4, maybe 5 - average hours/night spent sleeping
  • 17 - cousins seen
  • 13 - new babies in the family since I was last there (#14 announced while I was there)
  • 1 - days spent fasting
  • 30 - approximate number of gut-busting home-cooked meals eaten
  • 5, maybe 10 - number of lbs gained
  • 1015 - pictures taken
  • 6 - breathtaking panoramas not adequately captured by pictures
  • 140 - maximum number of km/h driven
  • 5 - times I got to see HL
  • 2 - cheap sunglasses I bought and broke
  • 0 - times I thought about Afghanistan
  • 180 - approximate number of days until I land in California
  • 31 - number of years I have lived, as of today.  How do you sing Happy Birthday in Arabic? 
My goal on this trip was simple: enjoy every minute of it.  I did.  Yet I also was glad to get back, though I can't really explain that feeling.  There are a lot of new faces here, now that so many people are rotating out at the half-way point.  But for me, no question, staying the year is the right decision, and I've got a good feeling about the next six months.