Seeing the West

After returning home in July, I spent a couple of weeks getting settled into my new job, meeting people in my new organization, and doing battle with the IT folks.  (After three weeks, they still haven’t gotten my Email working properly!)  I didn’t go directly on vacation, because 1) the kids were in a series of Summer camps and 2) we planned for our vacation to begin with our family reunion in Mark, IL, (population 400-500, depending on the source of the information) on 6-7 AUG.

Family sitting under pavilion in Mark, IL
Family sitting under pavilion in Mark, IL

The reunion was largely planned and organized by my Cousin Linda and my Aunt Margaret.  As usual, the Illinois part of the Serafini side of the family bore the brunt of the preparations.  As the Serafini side of the family is Italian, the reunion involved a huge amount of food, which included Linda’s famous masticioli recipe, my Aunt Margaret’s famous canolis, and something called bognacalda (sp?), which is reputed to be the first food dip invented.  Bognacalda is essentially garlic, anchovies, and butter cooked down into a paste with some whipping cream added at the end.  You dip bread, cabbage leaves, and/or celery into it.  You also don’t spend much time around other people for a day or two.

I also had a chance to visit the graves of my paternal grandparents and the old family house.  My grandfather was born in 1914, and my grandmother was born in 1918.  As I spent most of my Summers in Mark with my grandparents, it still feels to me that an era ended when my grandmother died two years ago, just a couple years after my grandfather.

From Mark, we headed West.  The first day (7 AUG) was a killer, 12-hour drive.  We stopped at Brooklyn, IA , where they’ve put up a nice display of American, State, and Service (e.g., Army) flags.  On these vacations, we like to avoid chains and hit mom-and-pop places, so for lunch we bought some ham sandwiches at the local grocery store, just about the only place open on Sunday in the town.

On the 8th we continued West, stopping in Mitchell, SD, to see the Corn Palace.  We arrived in Keystone, SD, mid-afternoon, after a stop for lunch at Al’s Oasis.  Al’s Oasis had billboards along the highway for miles, like South of the Border (between North and South Carolina along I-95).  It wasn’t nearly as large or involved as South of the Border, but it made a nice one-hour break.  We spent two hours in the Badlands National Park, including a mile or so hike and climbing a few rocks (which was authorized).  The scenery in the Badlands was amazing, something between the Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert.

After checking into the K BAR S lodge in Keystone, SD, we headed up to Mt. Rushmore.

Surdu family at Mt. Rushmore, 8 AUG 2010
Surdu family posed on the Grand View Terrace at Mt. Rushmore, 8 AUG 2010

Arriving in the evening, taking photos was a problem as the Sun was to the left and behind the monument.  We were able to get a few good shots.  This photo, because of lighting, looks fake, like we posed in front of a green screen.  We were actually there!  In the evenings, they hold a nice ceremony.  It began with the park ranger describing the hardships of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition, a 10-minute movie on the history of the four presidents featured and the making of the monument, and a salute to veterans.

The presentation and movie included more political correctness than I would have liked.  I’m getting really tired of revisionists who want to recast everything in terms of today’s social outlook.  The description of the Lewis and Clark Expedition harped on the involvement of Clark’s slave.  Lincoln’s achievements were overshadowed by the Emancipation Proclamation, rather than the preservation of the Union.  Roosevelt’s position on the evils of big business were described, but there was only passing mention of the Panama Canal or the creation of the national parks.  (By the way, it was the Panama Canal that was cited by the sculptor as the reason Teddy Roosevelt was included on Rushmore.)  Finally, I really wish people would just sing the national anthem the way it’s written instead of “interpreting it” like some Vegas lounge singer.

So far, this has been a nice trip.  We have a short drive today, with stops at Devil’s Tower, WY, and the Little Big Horn battlefield.  Then we’ll spend a couple of days in Yellowstone National Park.

I’m Home!

I arrived safely at BWI after a VERY long “day” at 2300 on Sunday, 18 July.  The day began for most of us at 0400 Saturday morning Kuwait time (2100 Friday night East Coast time).  Lots of bus rides, long hours on planes, and waiting to get in line to wait some more.  The whole process went quite smoothly.

We arrived in Atlanta about 0800 Sunday morning.  In 30 minutes we were in a bus heading toward Ft. Benning.  There was a short welcome-home ceremony in Freedom Hall at Lawson Army airfield, a quick lunch, and then off to CIF to turn in weapons an gear.  Many of you will remember the old days of CIF in which they played games with you about whether the canteen cup you never used and was still wrapped in plastic was clean enough to turn in.  Those days seem to be gone.  Clearing CIF was just making sure you had the equipment and it was serviceable.

By 1515 many of us were ready to leave.  I shared a shuttle to Atlanta airport with several other guys.  I was going to cut it close for my 1900 flight.  Fortunately, there is a state law in Georgia that no flights in or out of Atlanta area allowed to be on time.  It had rained somewhere in the Western Hemisphere that afternoon so my flight out of Atlanta was delayed almost two hours.  That gave me time to change out of my reeky uniform, scrape a piece of metal across my face, and get a salad for dinner.

My bags arrived (hooah!) and came off the belt quickly, so we were on our way within 30 minutes of landing.  Candy had a cold Vernor’s ginger ale for me in the car.  It is a short ride to APG from BWI, but I still had trouble staying awake.  The bed felt great!

The Journey Has Begun

I’m currently in Ali Al Salem in Kuwait awaiting the “Freedom Flight” back to the Ft. Benning to turn in my weapon and head home.  It’s difficult to get the Air Force to do anything in a hurry.  They are also famous for “crew rest” that stops aircraft from flying right when you need them most.  Strangely enough, just about every flight I’ve been on during my tour seems to get to Ali Al Salem at 0230!

Tent City at Ali Al Salem, Kuwait

This trip was no exception.  We had to form up at 1900 for a 0245 flight.  Yes, that’s not a typo.  We had to be there 7 hours early!  By the time we pulled our bags off the pallets and I was assigned a space in the “VIP tent” (yes, you read that right a VIP tent), it was almost 0500.  Fun.

Anyway, I’m safely in Ali, and will get two days to read and decompress before heading home.  Looking forward to a real pizza.  The food was great in Iraq, but real pizza was rare.

I’m Heading Home

I have been in Iraq for a little over six months.  Later this evening, I’ll head to Sather Airbase here on Camp Victory for the flight to Ali Al Salem in Kuwait.  There I’ll wait for a couple days and then fly to Ft. Benning to out-process the CONUS Replacement Center (CRC) and fly home.

RDML Morneau presents my service award, 12 JUL 10
RDML Morneau presents my service award, 12 JUL 10

My tour here has been a tremendous experience.  I was able to really make a difference and get a lot done.  Despite popular belief and the dearth of coverage in the media, there’s still a war going on here.  US soldiers are still getting killed.  As the Science and Technology Acquisition Corps Advisor (STACA) I was able to help ensure the right technologies were brought into Iraq to ensure the safety of US soldiers.

Rear Admiral (Lower Half) (RDML) Morneau said a very nice thing to me as he was pinning on my award.  He said, “Many receive this award, but you earned it.”  That made me feel that my tour was worthwhile.

I’ll be changing jobs when I return home.  I’ll become the Military Deputy Director of the Communications Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) on Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), MD.