29 March 2012

War Stories and Coffee Talk

I wore my Afghan media mufti earlier this week. The madness of deploying and not deploying to Afghanistan now over, I'm volunteering again as a board member in our homeowners association. Our suburban neighborhood was developed by Pioneer Hi-bred, a company with a proud Iowa history and connection to the land. Developers interspersed lots of green spaces among the houses and cul-de-sacs, and even designated a prairie restoration area.

One graduate school degree later, I now understand that the term "restoration" presumes that there was prairie there to begin with, and I'm not intellectually prepared to argue that we're turning back the clock in any way.

We city-folk in Iowa tend to think two things about our land:
  1. Before European settlement, it used to be prairie. There may have been buffalo. And tall grasses.
  2. Today, it's industrialized, planted out in corn, hogs, and soybeans. There is very little "nature" left in our patch of the Middle West.
Still, the prairie is a unique feature to our neighborhood, and gives us a sense of place and character that wouldn't otherwise be found in our otherwise cookie-cutter production homes. A few board members, volunteers, and contractors were going to walk the terrain this week. We'd recently hired a crew to conduct a prairie burn, and wanted to assess the results. We also wanted to plan our summer attack on weeds and invasives.

So I wore the same kit that I wore in Afghanistan. I've taken to calling it "mufti," after the British military custom of altering the uniform for off-duty wear. (Think "fez and slippers," because I know I do.)

Red Bull Rising blog readers may remember how I agonized about what not to wear during my 2011 embed with the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT). As a citizen-soldier, Uncle Sam tells you exactly what to pack. When you're a civilian writer, however, Uncle Sam gets a little passive-aggressive: Don't wear camouflage patterns or military equipment. No weapons. Bring your own flak vest.

The Arabic word "mufti" originally meant "an Islamic scholar who is an interpreter or expounder of Islamic law." I enjoy the multiple layers of meaning. Makes me feel like bit of an infidel.

For the prairie walk, I wore my tan ACU-style trousers (cargo pockets!), my civilian Gore-Tex hiking boots, and a wicking T-shirt under a powder-blue long-sleeved travel shirt. The kind that you can hand-wash in a sink full of non-potable water, and afterward dry in about 60 minutes of Afghan sun. And my Iowa Cyclones ball cap, subdued brown instead of the usual cardinal-and-gold.

To paraphrase a favorite line from "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), however: "Before the prairie must come the coffee."

When I walk into the local Starbucks for a cup of the dark stuff, I'm greeted by the same National Guard officer who hired me on temporary duty back in summer 2010, after my wife and I learned three weeks before mobilization that I'd not be deploying with the rest of the 2-34th BCT. I'd worked with him previously, when he had been the brigade's executive officer. In 2010, he had been the state mobilization officer, and asked me to join an Iowa "white cell" team. Our mission was to help get the Red Bull to Camp Shelby, Miss., then to Fort Irwin, Calif. After that, we joked, the brigade would be "beyond our help."

In effect, this was the gentleman who started "Operation Bad Penny"—my continual visitation of Red Bull units through post-mobilization training and simulated combat.

A couple of weeks after hiring me for stateside duty, my new boss was himself called to deploy with the 2-34th BCT. He eventually commanded an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) in Panjshir Province, then part of the 2-34th BCT's "Area of Operation Red Bulls."

When he spots me in Starbucks this week, I'm pretty much wearing the same thing I wore when I got of the helicopter in Panjshir, minus the body armor. After we shake hands, he turns to his coffee shop colleague, and proceeds to tell the story of how his team had gotten the word that some civilian V.I.P. named Sherpa was in-bound. He hadn't made the "Bad Penny" connection that it was me, however, until I'd arrived in person at FOB Lion. It's a story I've heard him tell before, of course. I've even told it a few times myself.

It's like I say: "Big Army, small world."

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