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September 30, 2007

Dulles & Frankfurt: Good Beer Makes it Okay

Dulles & Frankfurt exert gravitational pull on my life.  Dulles has been the jumping off point and Frankfurt the landing spot for most of my overseas adventures.  In spite of dozens of stops in Frankfurt, I have left the airport only twice: during my first international travel in 1979 (when I hitchhiked down the road, promptly got lost and spent the night on a park bench in Heidelberg) and last year when I made some local appointments.  Frankfurt is an interesting place, but most of us see only the transit airport.  We arrive tired, dirty, cranky and eager to go someplace else.  We leave with a bad impression.  Too bad.

The State Department generously gave me business class because my travel time is well over 14 hours, so I got some rest on the flight over.  Now I have the 8+ hour wait before I leave for Amman to await milair to Baghdad. 

I am sitting in the Business Lounge in FRK.  Snacks and Coca Cola are free.  I can plug in my computer.  Other than that the place has little to recommend it.  I arrived to a rows of unattractive grey chairs, crowded with unattractive grey people surrounded by dour grey and blue walls.  Sadly, this is the place where I belong.  We all tend to see FRK through grey filters.

However, things are looking up.  After a little while, most of those crowds moved along to their final destinations (what an ominous phrase) leaving the place quiet for us happy few long-term residents.  It is not so bad w/o the tumult.  I managed to sleep a little and although I have the stiff neck to prove I can sleep sitting straight up, I feel refreshed and in a much better mood than when I walked through the door a couple of hours ago.

Seat

I have also found another thing that discerning travelers appreciate about Germany – beer.  They have a splendid little machine that dispenses Beck’s beer the German way – with the proper amount of foam in the proper type of glass.  It may be mere psychology, but the stuff we get in the bottles back home just is not the same.  The properly tapped beer is an art form, with froth just above the rim, so that you enjoy the visual beauty, feel and smell the flavor before you taste it.  Some people appreciate fine wine.  That’s nothing but grape juice in old bottles to an old Milwaukee boy like me who prefers beer.  Since I will not be seeing much of the golden liquid grain in Iraq, I do not mind drinking it here.  The grey surroundings have brightened.  They are even some big pretzels and what looks like goulash soup.

Es gibt kein schoneres leben, even if it is only an airport and only for a moment.  On the road to Iraq, I take it when I can, because when I am gone from here, everybody else will be drinking all the beer.  FRK is not all that bad, once you get to know it.

beer

 

September 25, 2007

Tying Up Lose Ends

I am finishing up my old job this week.  I fly out on Friday and I still have lots of things to do.  I hope to write more on the blog on Sunday or Monday with my first impressions of Iraq.   I will then delay my postings so that I cannot inadvertently reveal anything I should not.

Here are a few things I found mentioning my upcoming tour, background until I can write again.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams Are Improving Lives in Iraq

State Department Cajoles Young Diplomats Into Iraq Service - This one has me near the end.  The title is misleading, IMO.  Of course clearly "young diplomats" does not mean me.

September 24, 2007

2007 Tree Farmer of the Year

This is my 2007 tree farmer of the year article from Virginia Forest Fall 2007 issue.

Mike T. Jones and his family were selected by the Virginia Tree Farm Committee as outstanding Tree Farmers of 2007. Mike’s Springview Farm spreads across 335 acres on a beautiful stretch of rapids in the Nottoway River at the northern edge of Greensville County, Virgnia, near the community of Purdy. The Nottoway River is a big part of Mike’s life and story. He loves the river and works hard to protect its natural beauty, clean water and abundant wildlife. Herons, eagles and osprey patrol his one and a half miles of river frontage. A variety of fish, including the endangered Roanoke Logperch, thrive in the clear flowing stream. Mike has created various wildlife infrastructure such as nesting platforms for osprey, woodduck and tree swallow boxes. He uses discarded Christmas trees for fish structure in the three ponds. His personal “Hole-In-The-Woods” project involves placing nest boxes throughout the farm that will invariably be utilized by many wildlife species (e.g. flying squirrels, gray squirrels, Great-Crested Flycatchers, owls, etc.)

Mike has constructed and maintains over three miles of fences to exclude livestock from timberland, sensitive wetlands and stream corridors (alternate livestock water sources are provided); he is conscientious when using herbicides for brush control, timber management and wildlife enhancement; his roads are properly constructed with water bars to avoid erosion; and he maintains wildlife friendly buffers around all pastures, crop fields and other open areas. Soft edges between forests and fields are the norm here.


Forestry is a family affair for Mike Jones. It was his grandfather, Millard M. Jones, who originally established the Tree Farm on portions of this land and was publicly recognized by the governor of Virginia as our state’s first Tree Farmer in 1947. Mike’s four  children still work around the farm and are carrying on the family tradition. Springview Farm is the perfect example of sustainable forestry. The picture of Mike’s grandfather standing next to his Tree Farm sign, in front of a healthy stand of loblolly pine, could be reenacted today. Despite two generations of harvests, the forest of today looks similar to 1947.
prescribed burning
Springview Farm is outstanding proof that our land can produce wood, clean water, recreation and wildlife at the same time. However, doing this correctly requires diligence and an astute understanding of forestry and wildlife management concepts. Mike, who manages his land in harmony with natural principles, is an excellent steward of all our natural resources.

Virginia’s forest evolved with fire. Native Americans used fire as a  management tool to encourage game species. Preventing all fires in the forest can encourage pests, alter the fundamental nature of the forest, and create volatile conditions that can lead to disastrous situations.

Wildlife plot
However, since fire is a natural and necessary component of our forest ecology, it is also a potential friend. Mike Jones is a certified prescribed burning manager who knows how to use fire as the environmentally friendly tool it is. He burns the pine understory and warm-season grass fields on a
regular schedule to release nutrients, significantly improve wildlife values, control understory habitat and improve growth potential. This wise use of the practice on forestland is producing a beautiful savanna pine forest similar to what likely existed in 1607. 

 
Mike is also experimenting with longleaf pine. The longleaf was once common in southeastern Virginia, but years of development and diligent fire suppression (the longleaf ecology depends on fire) have reduced it to mere remnants. Mike’s farm is located on the northern edge of the Longleaf’s natural range and he has dedicated a site to improved longleaf pine seedlings, which are still in the “grass stage.”
longleaf pine planting


Wildlife thrives. Deer and wild turkey are common sights on Springview Farm. Although bear and bobcat are seen less often, they are often watching you. Mike ensures that necessary forestry operations leave no long-term scars. After a recent harvest, for example, he ripped the compressed soil at his log decks and planted them with forages, allowing them to quickly recover and become wildlife feeding plots. Mike also assures that the forest edge flows into the field with a soft boundary that protects wildlife and provides an additional habitat type.  A beautiful riparian buffer of mature hardwood trees borders this entire one and a half mile stretch of the Nottoway River.

That old philosophical conundrum —whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it—has particular meaning to forest owners. We are dealing with an increasingly urban population, remote from the rhythms of the country and the cycles of nature. They often do not understand the principles of good forestry and may be suspicious of those who utilize and harvest the products of the forest. After all, the forester’s years of good work are often literally hidden in the woods, while some of the less attractive aspects of harvests, and especially the period immediately following harvests, may attract attention.

This is where Mike Jones is performing a valuable service to every forester and the 384,000 private forest landowners in Virginia. In many ways he has opened Springview Farm to the public and this has allowed many people to learn about the stewardship aspect of forestry. He hosts the annual Virginia Tech soils tour of the state, as well as an ornithology class from Longwood University. The Boy Scouts are regular visitors to his farm. His segment of the Nottoway River is a macro-invertebrate study area used to monitor water quality. Mike leads wildflower field trips, in this respect doing double duty by showing the wildflowers themselves and defining their dependence on good forestry practices such as prescribed burning. Last fall Mike hosted the Southside Virginia Forestry and WildlifeTour.

It was on a Virginia Tech Extension Southside forest tour in October 2006 that Georgia-Pacific forester Scott Detar met Mike. After a tour of his Tree Farm, Scott knew that Mike was a very special landowner doing great things on his land. It was then that Scott decided to nominate him for Outstanding Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year.

Scott was right. Mike Jones is an extraordinary landowner. He and his family have introduced hundreds of people to the beauty, bounty and diversity of a well-managed Tree Farm. Their efforts are an inspiration to all on how the many principles of natural resource management, stewardship and tree farming can be blended successfully.

VFA and the Virginia Tree Farm Committee heartily congratulate Mike and his family. They are making us all look good.

September 23, 2007

A Car Sick & Melancholy Resident of the Twilight Zone

September 20, 2007

Today was the kind of day I will look back on with some fondness, but it was not a good day.  I can liken this experience to going to the amusement park and getting to ride the roller coaster – ALL DAY.  I am in W. Virginia for evasive driving training.  It was good at first.  We did some driving on slick surfaces.  It was fun to skid around and not too hard for me.  Next was also fun, driving around the racetrack dodging orange plastic cones.  I did that well too.  But then one of my car mates got sick and threw up out the window.  I figured that if he was sick, there might be a reason. After that I felt sick myself for the rest of the day.

Of the 28 people in my class, about half of us got sick.  It was very jarring.  We had to avoid objects and break rapidly.  It did not like the smell of exhaust and burning rubber.  Hardest for me was driving backwards.  I have never been good at backing up and doing it at high speeds is scary for me.  Suffice to say, I drove over a few cones.  We also had to crash into other cars and ram them out of the way.   This was interesting.  It is not something you get to do very often w/o pushing up your insurance rates.  Tomorrow the bad guys will attack us and we will have to respond by evading driving out of danger.  Like so many things relating to Iraq, it will be good to HAVE done, but not good to be gonna do.  I think this will become my catch phrase.

September 21/22

It was more fun today.  I did not get sick.  We had to evade and escape. I did that okay.   I enjoy it a lot more when I am not sick, but I am really glad it is over. 

At the end of the day, the instructor blew some things up, including an old car, to show us how the different explosions look, sound and smell.  That was cool.  It is interesting how you can feel the shock waves.  Once again my joy in seeing such strange things was mitigated by the knowledge that such things may no longer be so strange in my future life.

Going to these courses makes you a little paranoid.  Security guys take some pride in their ability to stimulate unease. They kind of look down on us ordinary guys who do not find the world so immediately threatening.  I understand that the situation in Iraq is dangerous and I admit that there are times for vigilance even in America.   But I am glad that most Americans can live most of their lives in a state of general unpreparedness.  Isn’t this what we want from security?  It is a great advantage to be able to walk down the streets of home lost in our own mundane thoughts.  I hope that we can help the Iraqis get that back soon and we have to make sure Americans do not lose it - the right to be distracted, the right not to pay attention, or maybe just freedom from fear.

I also called to confirm my milair flight from Amman to Baghdad.  They are efficient there.  I am on.  They said they will inform me of the "show time" when the time gets closer.

I am in that funny twilight zone right now between my former and future lives.  I still have to do a few things for IIP/S and I still am the director.  People are asking me for decisions and I still have authority.  But there is not much left .  I will be in Iraq by the end of next weekend. 

Now I am going through all the “lasts” at least for a long time.  Mariza came down for her last visit before I leave.  I went to Arthur Treacher with CJ for the last time this morning.  Tomorrow I plan to run for the last time along the upper bike trail.  On Monday, I will ride for the last time to work on my bike.  Unfortunately, I will not have the time to go down to my forest.  I think it will be a lot bigger when I get back.  Those tree grow really fast.  It is a melancholy time.  The feeling has nothing to do with Iraq.  This is always the case before a PCS move.    I think of all the things I have become accustomed to doing that I will not do for a long time to come, maybe for years, maybe forever.  Iraq will be quite an experience no matter what.  It will be good to have done it.

September 21, 2007

How to Contact John Matel

If you want to talk to me w/o posting on the internet for everyone to see, please write me a note below.  If you leave a contact email I will get back to you.  Please no telephone numbers.   I don’t do telephone well.

 

Please tell me in the subject line that your comment is not for publication.

 

Thank you.

September 20, 2007

Exploring My No Skill Zone

Usually I like training.  Not this time.  Some things are cool.  I thought the body armor and helmets were interesting.  But then I started to remember WHY we need to wear such things all the time in Iraq.  They are also heavy.  It will be good exercise to walk around with the things on.   I used to have a weight coat when I was young and more vigorous.  I never thought I would get another one.

I really didn’t like the first aid course.  I am squeamish about such things and some of the things were were “squeam inducing”.

I learned what a to do with flailed chest is and how to do preliminary treatment on a sucking chest wound.  At least I know in theory and I have a wallet sized card re the proper order of things, but still have little confidence in my abilities.  They tell us that we are unlikely to be the only people available to to help.  We will play at best a supporting role.  One of the marines said that maybe I could help carry the strecher.  In fact, they say, one of the reasons they give us this course is to let us know that we are not super heroes.  It worked.  Even in the training sessions I feel clumsy. 

This afternoon we went up to West Virginia to train with guns and learn how to drive cars as if the bad guys were chasing.  Very macho. They assured us that we would probably not have to really do these things either.  Diplomats do not generally get the opportunity to drive or shoot in Iraq.   This is a good thing.  A man has gotta know his limitations.

I am a reasonably good shot with the pistols, but I really am no threat to the enemy with an AK or M-4.  I suppose if a couple hundred stood in a line like the Redcoats during he revolution, I could hit one or two.  I just cannot shoot.  We did identify a possible reason for my extraordinarily poor aim, however.  I am right handed, but evidently my left eye is dominant.  I just do not look down the barrel properly.  I could probably learn to do a little better, but never would be Davy Crockett.  Fortunately, this also is not one of my core activities.

I am good at talking and not bad at writing or understanding what I read.  That is how I got into the FS.  I like to think up all sorts of permutations and scenarios for organizations and management.  Sometimes they work.  That is how I can add value.  People tell me that I can be persuasive and even charming.  That is why people cut me some slack.  Lucky for me.  I probably could not earn much of a living if I actually had to make physical things on my own.  If I lived in the cave man times, or even in practically any age before our own, I would not survive long unless I could find work as either a the local soothsayer or the village idiot.  I am happy that I live in a society that values and rewards the things that come in my skill cluster. 

Tomorrow we have to do the defensive driving section.  I didn’t own a car until I was 28 years old.  Neither of my parents even had a driver’s license.  I bike to work or take the Metro.  Suffice to say, I just don’t know from cars.  I suppose I will enjoy crashing them – one time. 

I will be glad when this week is over.  I do have to mention, however, that this area is really nice.  Lots of horse farms and restored old houses.  I should not complain so much.   One of my colleagues commented, "Getting paid to drive cars and shoot.  It don't get no better than that." I am not sure I agree entirely, but it is more fun than getting poked in the eye with a pointy stick (oh yeah, we learned about that injury too).

 

John Matel

Winchester, Virginia

September 19, 2007

September 19, 2007

Iraq From the Bottom Up

I wrote this essay for another blog.  I am really proud that I will be a PRT leader, but for this entry I did not want to call particular attention to myself, so it is a little detached.  I include it here because it sums up a lot of what I think about Iraq (or what I think I know about Iraq.) 
All Americans – and of course Iraqis - have a stake in a successful Iraq. Past Iraqi policies of centralization resulted in terrible suffering and if we look in this same place for achievement we will be disappointed, as we have been so far. However, the ongoing turmoil and violence mask significant potential and progress if you look away from the middle.

The more I study the modern history of Iraq, the more profound my sense of tragedy. Although Iraq was cobbled together from Ottoman provinces and had no particular history as a country in its current form, the region has a long history, which I need not repeat. Just a few highlights: this is where they invented the wheel, the place where Hamurabi wrote his law code, the center of golden age of Islamic civilization. Modern Iraq sits on cultural and economic crossroads. It is/was blessed with good agricultural potential, a sophisticated and skilled population and - perhaps a dubious benefit - oil.

Until around 1970, Iraq was one of the most promising states of the Middle East, but it was infected with Baathism - which sought its models in totalitarian communism and Nazism - and then a ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Under Saddam Hussein, power was centralized, or more correctly any power that could compete with the central authorities was crushed. The Baathists had learned from Soviet communist experience that the way for the party to stay in power was to tie all local institutions to the state. They systematically destroyed or co-opted what NGOs existed. Any strong private businesses were similarly liquidated. Opponents were killed. We recognize the pattern. It has little to do with Iraq or Islam. It is the classic totalitarian power consolidation. Stalin, Mao, Hitler or Castro would understand the method.

All this would be bad enough, but Iraq has also been in a state of nearly perpetual war since 1980. In those years, the wealth of Iraq went into weapons, waste and corruption. It got even worse during the 1990s. Saddam created roadblocks to allow him and his cronies to steal money that should have gone for food or medicine. The younger generation of Iraqis is significantly less well educated and less skilled than their parents and a country that could be rich lies in ruins. Sorry for the digression, but I think it is important to remember that Iraq had a history BEFORE the U.S. got involved.

After the overthrow of Saddam, the coalition inherited this mess and exacerbated it by attempting to reestablish a centralized, top-down system. In all fairness, many Iraqis were used to top-down and uncomfortable with freedom and taking the initiative, which they had learned to fear during the long night of the Baathist. It is time for a new paradigm.

Iraq is a rich country even now. The Central government is sitting on a yearly budget of around $40 billion w/o a real capacity to spend it. It is something we rarely consider, but it takes functioning institutions to properly use money. Institutions are like pitchers. You cannot pour more into them than they can hold. Maybe the central government can better share it out a bit to the parts of Iraq that need it and can use it.

As with the successful transition of former communist countries of Eastern Europe, the key to success is decentralized power and institutions. Micro loans can help set up business that are not dependent on state corruptions - sorry - I mean corporations. Decentralized power generation can begin to bring prosperity to the countryside. NGOs can take up much of the jobs that corrupt bureaucrats do not very well. Iraqis can learn to take the initiative in their lives and regions. Americans can help, as we did in Eastern Europe, but also as in Eastern Europe, the local people must - in the end - do the job.

Americans ARE helping, however. Working with local leaders was one of the keys to the dramatic turnaround in Al Anbar province.  We have deployed provincial reconstruction teams around the country. These are led by senior State Department officers and include people experienced in AID, agriculture, business development and municipal management.  In January, President Bush announced that he was doubling the number of teams and beefing up their staffing and he is keeping his word. This is the building part of the surge. 

I still do not know if we will succeed in Iraq, although I am much more hopeful today than I was six months ago. I still consider success in Iraq crucial to our future and worth taking the risks. John Matel

Vienna, Virginia

September 18, 2007 


 

September 16, 2007

John Matel Goes to Iraq

I am going to Iraq to be a provincial reconstruction team leader in Al Anbar province.  I am starting this blog to keep track of my experience.  Maybe it will be interesting to people who know me.

This is John Negroponte and me at a meeting of PRT personnel.  I am the bald guy (among bald guys) in the lighter colored suit.

PRT Leaders Meet John Negroponte 

 Follow this link for the NPR story with one of my comments.

 

Why I Volunteered to Go to Iraq

In thinking about why I decided to go to Iraq, I decided first to eliminate things that were NOT key factors.  I do not feel pushed to go to Iraq.  On the contrary, I am happy with my life in Virginia.  My family is great.  I have a job I love, probably the best job I have ever held.  I own a home, a forest & just about everything I really need or want.  Money is not a problem for me anymore.  My retirement is reasonably secure.  The State Department did not push me to go.  On the contrary, I got to my current job for the next two years and one of my biggest regrets has been that I am leaving bosses and colleagues who want me to stay. 

So what is pulling me to Iraq? 

Patriotism is my biggest pull.  I feel a little embarrassed to put this front and center.  Our ironic age tends to dismiss these sorts of things.  It is not the patriotism of the Sousa music and the grand parades.  Perhaps more a call of duty.   It is something I should do.  Others are doing their part; it is time for me to do mine.  I supported an aggressive policy in Iraq back in 2003.  It did not play out as I hoped, but I think there is still a good chance for success.  Beyond that, the consequences of failure are terrible.  My contribution to this success will be small, but we all need to make our small contributions to make big things happen.

Professional growth is my second reason.  The PRT job description sounds exciting.  Leading a multifunctional team like this is what my experience prepared me to do and it is the kind of opportunity you cannot get anywhere else.  A person should do what he does well.  My FS career has been good, but it is almost over.  I doubt I would ever have another opportunity to lead an operation overseas, certainly doing nothing as complex or important as the PRT leader.  

I do not see this as an opportunity for career success IN the FS.  I cannot think of many jobs in the FS that I still want.  Unlike most of my colleagues, I have not made the big deal for the follow on dream job.  In fact, I have not even bid at all on any positions at State after Iraq.   I plan to retire at the end of 2008.  I do hope that this experience will help me with a post FS life.  However, it will be indirect.  

I cannot leave out the money I will make.  State Department gives significant financial incentives for service in Iraq.   But money is not a motivator.  I am not doing this for the money, but I think that w/o the money I would feel like some kind of chump.  It is what organization behavior people call a “hygiene factor”, something you need to have to go forward, but not something that causes the action.  I will try to save almost all the additional money for retirement (Chrissy will be able to put her TSP to the maximum.   Mine is already there @ 10%) or forestry.  For example, I am already getting some wildlife plots put onto my land.   W/o the Iraq money I could not afford to do that.

In summary, my reasons are complex.  I am not sure myself why I am doing it.  I suppose that I will have lots of time to think about these things in Iraq.  Frankly, that is also one of the draws – time to think.  My predecessor tells me that the job consists of periods of intense and sometimes scary activity punctuated by periods of profound boredom.   My quarters are a 9x17 shipping container (w/o a bathroom) in the middle of a desert.  I figure this will create some forced introspection.  In the past, whenever I have been in these lonely and/or disrupted situations, I have come up with some new ideas that have worked out.

I am not very worried about being killed or seriously wounded.  I understand the danger and am aware of the risks, but I also can figure the odds.  I could be wrong.  If that does happen, I will have led a good life and gone out when things were still good. 

That is the story so far.  My year in Iraq is about to start; let’s see how it ends.  

John Matel

Vienna, Virginia

September 16, 2007

 

 

 


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