Monday, July 14, 2008

My Friend Brian

I have had the good fortune to be reunited with a good friend from college, Brian Conklin. I saw his profile on a mutual friend's Facebook page, and I decided to drop him a line. I'd heard he's been in Iraq, galavanting around the countryside, but I didn't know in what capacity. He added me to his Facebook page, and I e-mailed him with four questions:

#1 What are you up to?
#2 What in tarnation are you doing in Iraq?
#3 Who are you voting for in the Presidential election and why?
#4 What is going on there in Iraq that we don't know about?

Here are his unedited responses. SERIOUSLY copy and paste these links to your browsers and see the amazing work that this guy is doing! I don't know why we're not privy to this information here in the states. I don't even want to THINK about why that might be. I'm just doing my part to spread the word of the astounding endeavors of our troops and USAID workers across the sea. And, if you think about it, could you say a prayer for this guy? He's the guy standing in the brown, bullet-proof garb with helmet, second from the left. (Brian, it's just occurred to me: You're the first person in my "Heroes" series that isn't a chick!)

Here's Brian:


Hey Christian ! (can I do that once? :)

Okay - Daisy from here out. It's just been so long that I want to reach out, give you a hug and say "hey there." Wow.... what a blast from the past. I'm still just sitting here stunned. I don't even know where to start with my questions. And wow..... I've got more than a few of them.

Where are you? Who are you? :) (just kidding). What in the world has been going on in your life? I just caught a glimpse of your blog, so I'm getting a small sense of things. Are you still singing? You have to catch me up on the last..... god, how many years has it been?

Okay - for me, I'm all over the place. My name has stayed the same, and I'm still doing music, but that's about it. Long story short is that I joined the diplomatic corp as a foreign service officer about a decade ago. I've been overseas for the last 12 or so years - Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ukraine, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and now Iraq (ugh!). Most of my work has been with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) - doing humanitarian / economic development work.

I was recruited for this job in Iraq. It's a bit off the normal diplomatic track. I'm attached to a Brigade Combat Team (2/25 Infantry Division) northeast of Baghdad in a place called Taji. I've been here for 10 months and have two more to go - just trying to get out of here in one piece.

I'm part of the Brigade and running what they call an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team - basically overseeing all the reconstruction, economic development, essential services and humanitarian issues in our 1,400 square mile area. It's been a tough year. I'm out every day with the soldiers that are assigned to my unit, working face to face with my Iraqi colleagues and doing my best to get everything back on track. Here's a couple of articles that popped up recently. The first one is from Vanguard and has some cool pictures. Here are the links:

http://www.vanguard.edu/uploadedFiles/Alumni/Magazine/Spring%202008%20-%20Rebuilding%20Iraq.pdf

http://www.usaid.gov/press/frontlines/May08_FrontLines.pdf - scroll down to page 12

http://iraq.usembassy.gov/prt_news_05162008.html

Anyway - I'll let you read up on the "what." I volunteered for the assignment, and believe strongly in what we're (the US) is doing here. I'm outspoken critic of the Bush Administration and felt from the get-go that the war here was a bad idea. As a president, I think his foreign policy (don't even get me started on his domestic policy) is an abject failure. The thing is, we dismantled this place and I really believe we need to stick around long enough to help it right itself. I get really frustrated with folks in the States that commit us to a course of action that radically impacts the lives of others, and then wants to bail on it when confronted with the complexity and responsibility of dealing with the problems caused by our actions.

Getting back to your question, there is so much that isn't being covered by the press. When I first got here, I was thrown into the thick of things. I came in with the military's surge and a few months of training with the military. That said it was really tough. We were being hit (either by mortars, IEDs, or sniper fire) on the average of about 360 times a week. It was a battle just to get out the front of the base. Being rocketed at night while living a small tin trailer wasn't my idea of a good time - I lost some friends and and members of my team from IEDs while out on the road. About a month into things it changed drastically. The Sahwa (reconciliation movement) began to happen. A number of our Sunni Sheiks came to the table, quit fighting us and we sprang into action - setting up local government councils, getting the water, sewers and electricity going, working to get the irrigation canals flowing, rebuilding schools and medical clinics, and working on a plan for economic revitalization. All of it in partnership with the local sheiks and the Iraqi government. You wouldn't recognize the place today - it is truly an amazing transformation - and for all the time I've spent with reporters from the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times, it's not a story anyone seems interested in. It's a hard blow to come back to the US and no one has any idea what's going on out here. Damn, I've risked my life on a daily basis, and poured untold hours and hours, sweat and tears in this place - really my whole heart into it and no one has any idea. I don't get it.

I watched the Democratic Primaries in amazement. I love Barrack Obama - but the guy doesn't have a clue about things here. It took us 40 years to rebuild Germany and Japan. In two short years we've made dramatic progress (thanks to General Petraeus and his strategy) - we continue to build capacity, expand our influence and draw down our troops. It will take another couple of years but we're so close to doing the unimaginable and all I hear about are these idiotic ideas that we're going to pull everyone out of here and go home. I really don't get it.

On the personal front it's been tough. I've been apart from my wife and kids for a year and a half. I left in in Jan '07 to work in Zimbabwe and then from Zim to Iraq last summer. While things are going well here, and the success is evident, things still happen. It was a real blow when a team member and friend was killed a couple of weeks ago. I believe so much in what we're doing, but I want to come back safely to my two little girls and my son. My friend's death has just taken every ounce of heart I had for this place. To add to things, I found out tonight that we just doubled our area of operation and I'm taking over a dangerous section just north of Baghdad. Somehow I need to reign it all in, and get it done. Two months.....

I haven't decided who I'm voting for. I'm surprised to see myself saying it, but McCain "gets it." At least he gets what we're doing here. I've lost some of my idealism this year and I want someone who is grounded and not afraid to say or do the right thing - even if the press and the American public haven't caught up with it yet.

Wow.... It's 1:00 am and I've only flown into Baghdad a little earlier today. I'm sorry for going on like this. Writing you has really stirred up some of my feelings about being back. I still have a couple of days to get to Taji - jumping on blackhawks at night and working my way back out to our base.


So - that said. I've got a wife (her name is Dawn) and three kids. Kyle (15), Kaylee (10) and Elysse (8). They've lived most of their lives overseas - most recently South Africa. We're headed to Uganda next. Dawn and the kids are moving there ahead of me to get started with school. I'll join them in October when I finish here and do a mandatory month in the US.

What about you, my friend?

Last I heard you were in Vegas. I saw the Platters on TV a couple of weeks ago and thought of you. How's that for coincidence? You seem happily married (from your blog) and that life is going well. Tell me what's been going on.

Drop me a note.

Take care,

Brian

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