November 30, 2007
Our first night of liberty, one of the Marines with my squadron went out on libo with a buddy from the infantry. They were having such a grand time out in Sihanoukville, that they decided to stay out overnight. Sure, the order said that liberty expires on the pier at 2000, but they planned to come back on the next day's libo boats, and surely no one would notice their absence.
They were mistaken. Their absence was noted with urgent concern. They hadn't even whispered this little plan to any friends. So while they were out in a beachside bungalow with some local ladies of negotiable virtue, the boat was turned upside down looking for them. When command was convinced that they were not aboard, they were declared Unauthorized Absent and the hunt was on. The Shore Patrol was given their photos, the NCIS agents went looking, we even notified the local police. With two Marines missing, the hope was that they had just holed up overnight somewhere; but the fear was that they had either deserted or had been mugged or worse.
The next day the two wandered back to the pier with the intent of quietly getting back on the libo boat to return to Essex. They were apparently quite surprised when NCIS cuffed them, although they did get to skip the uncomfortable liberty LCU and rode back instead on the captain's gig.
So right now, our guy is waiting around while the higher-ups argue over who gets to serve as the Wheel Of Justice and grind him into flour. He's facing Non-Judicial Punishment, but the strenght of the punishment offered depends on the rank of the officer presiding at NJP. In the squadron, all NJPs are typically done by our Commanding Officer, who as a Lieutnant Colonel can issue up to 60/60/60- that is, 60 days of half pay, 60 days of restriction to quarters, and 60 days of Extra Punative Duty. Word is (from someone that would know) that the ship's captain wants him to get 90/112/112. Now, I'm not certain how the UCMJ works in this case, because the ship's captain is not actually in our chain of command. But on the other hand, a ship's captain traditionally has legal authority over all persons aboard his vessal. But anyway, the captain is a Navy Captain, equal in rank to a Marine Colonel, and the 31st MEU is commanded by a Colonel that is indisputably in our chain of command.
That being said, I think 112 is beyond the limit of a Colonel- I think he can only go 90/90/90. That suggests that the ship's captain wants these guys NJP'd by the Rear Admiral in charge of PHIBRON 11, the amphibious squadron of which we're a part. Getting NJP'd by an admiral would be a rare priviledge; I've never met anyone with that signal honor.
You may note that this is being taken very seriously. Partly that is because going missing in a foreign country is looked at much more seriously than, say, getting in a bar brawl. But also, this is the first visit by a US capital ship in many years, and the command element is under a great deal of pressure to make sure this is a diplomatic triumph.
A few more random observations from my nine hours in Cambodia:
- The exchange rate favors the US Dollar to a tremdous level. Sihanoukville is a tourist town, so the ATMs even gave dollars. In dollars, things were cheap. Very cheap. A decent bungalow runs $3 a day. That excellent meal I had at the Holy Cow? I'd've paid $30 for it back in the States, and $40 in Okinawa. It cost me $7.50.
- The town caters to foreign visitors from all over, so the place is a linguistic babel. The bookstore had sections for English, French, German, Chinese, and naturally Khmer.
- There were plenty of foreign visitors in town already, so the ship arriving didn't discombobulate the locals too much. Although we were told prices did rise about 25% the day we showed up.
- Despite our bombing of them, the locals seemed to genuinely like Americans. I suspect that's because they hate the Vietnamese, whom we were bombing much more enthusiastically. Plus, the Khmer Rouge kind of beat the desire for socialism out of these people.
- The economy seemed to be doing well. Quite a few buildings were going up, and the town center was getting a sewer system installed. It needed one.
- I took plenty of photos of the distinctive local architecture. Along our beachfront walk I stopped, stunned at a hideously out-of-place building. It was total Soviet Brutalist style, circa 1960. Angry angular slabs of concrete, small windows, it had to be hideously uncomfortable in the tropical heat. Turns out it's the Vietnamese Consulate. They must have borrowed the plans straight from the USSR. Idiots.
- Cambodia has a reputation of being very corrupt, but no one tried to shake me down here. Unlike in the Philippines. Although sharp bargaining with the tuk-tuk drivers was necessary.
- Being experienced in these matters, I always take a dose of Imodium before I go ashore in a third-world country. The LCpls haven't learned this yet. So I got treated to some complaints about the state of the local toilets. Here's a hint, folks- the hose is for bidet usage. Seriously.
- Tip: Never ride in a tuk-tuk when the driver has a crash helmet. Not wearing crash gear is an incentive to take better care with the passengers.
- The Cambodian military is strongly army-centric, which is typical of small nations. The Marines and sailors onboard Essex outnumber Cambodia's Navy and Naval Infantry. (They don't really have a Marine Corps as such.)
- The official local currency is the Cambodian Riel. It's currently about 4000 Riel to the US Dollar. Cambodia has minted no coinage for some time, so essentially all circulating currency is paper. The smallest bill is 100 riel, worth about 2.5 cents. The unofficial local currency is the US Dollar, accepted everywhere I went.
November 29, 2007
We're still working a full flight schedule, but we managed to squeeze out some liberty for the shop, at couple of people at a time. Yesterday, I got to go, and herded two of the shop's junior guys along. One, LCpl A, has been with the squadron almost a year, and is rather experienced. The other, LCpl G, we flew onboard when we sailed past Okinawa on the way to Bangladesh. This'll be his first liberty port. He's also a total hick, so it'll be only his second experience outside of the continental US, and he spent less than two weeks on Okinawa, so that barely counts.
Getting ashore is the first challenge, because we're not pulled up to a pier, despite their being a very nice unoccupied passenger pier with plenty of space, in an secure area. But we can't launch aircraft while pierside except in an emergency, and flying every day kind of obliviates "emergency". So we're at anchor, and people going on liberty need a ride to get to shore.
Hong Kong is plentifully supplied with harbor taxis, so the ship hired a herd of them. Cambodia does have harbor taxis as well, but they're little wooden canoes with converted motorcycle engines as a powerplant. Using those things fails the Operational Risk Management test.
We could use our Landing Craft, Utility, except that the ship has Landing Craft, Air Cushion this time, and a beachside resort town doesn't want those noise things running back and forth all day. Plus, they're fuel hogs. So, someone convinced the Cambodian Navy to use two of their landing craft as liberty shuttles. They were nice and new, having been given to the Cambodians in August 2005 by the Chinese. I hope our intel guys got a good look at them.
We puttered ashore along with a hundred others looking to escape the ship, then ran the gauntlet of tuk-tuk drivers at the pier gate. LCpl A had been on shore patrol the night before, and he convinced us to just start walking. It was lunchtime, so we stopped at the first place we saw, a Chinese restraunt. It had just opened, so we got a primo table, three feet from the beach. The waves crashing, the sea breeze blowing, sitting in the shade of a tree- it was heaven. But they served Chinese food that was of the authentic Chinese variety, as opposed to the Americanized stuff we usually encounter. I'm used to it, but it kind of freaked out my libo buddies. Tough.
After lunch we went walking down the beach, to the resort-front restraunts and pavilions. It was nice, but then LCpl A decided to buy a woven wristband from a wandering vendor, woven with the name of one of his multiple girlfriends. (One in every port, don't 'cha know.) We lost an hour sitting around while it got made, and then the fourth in our group decided he had to have one too, so his had to get woven. I was impatient, because I wanted to see the country, not sit on a beach.
Eventually we got moving again, and climbed Victory Hill, overlooking the bay. Quite nice. It was covered with tourist bungalos and little restraunts. We stopped and had a snack, because some of the guys hadn't managed to finish their Chinese lunch. While there, we had a nice chat with a random old guy, who had been in the Navy in the 1950's, aboard the USS Kearsarge (CV-33). We had a lovely conversation. I got some extra amusement from the way that my highly-homophobic libo buddies failed to notice that the guy was vacationing with his male "domestic partner".
People we getting tired of walking (not me), so we hired a tuk-tuk to take us downtown. We wandered around looking for a pub that LCpl G had heard good things about, failing to find it. I didn't mind, because I love to walk around towns and observe. Others were getting bored and tired, so we stopped in for dinner at the Holy Cow.
Ah, the Holy Cow. What a good choice we made. It's a restraunt that seems to have been created by expatriate British hippies. Excellent food, both English cuisine and Cambodian. I had a shepard's pie that was just delicious, then a decent chocolate milkshake. (On ship, there's ice cream in the officer's wardroom, but none in the enlisted mess deck.)
We were running out of time, since for unexplained reasons liberty was expiring at 2000 on ship. Walking back looking for a tuk-tuk, we stopped at a bookstore. I even found two books I wanted.
Then it was run the gauntlet of motorbikes, tuk-tuk back to the harbor, and back to the ship. I hadn't mentioned the gauntlet here. Cars are rare and expensive. Everyone rides motor scooters and small motorcycles. Hundreds of them, weaving back and forth, dodging collisions and moving with the grace of a flock of birds. It was pretty damn impressive.
Back to the ship, into the rack, up at 0430 for work. It's a life.
November 26, 2007
Hmmm. As I mentioned, this is a working port for the Air Combat Element, as we're flying insert and extraction missions all over the country, to the limit of our fuel range. (It's insertion by air because this is a country that makes the Philippines look wealthy. A friend of mine flew 200 nautical miles yesterday and saw only two paved roads.)
So getting ashore for liberty requires careful arrangment to have sufficient workers in the shop. We had it all worked out- some of the guys get liberty today while I and a new guy hold down the shop; tomorrow the new guy and I get to take our turn.
But at 0200 last night, I was shaken awake to be told I'm today's DNCO, standing watch in our berthing. So someone is going to have to come off liberty to hold down the shop, and I am going to be sucking wind by tomorrow- after a 24 hour post, walking around town on libo is going to suck. Caffeine, don't fail me now!
I've been waiting to use that title for a while.
We're currently anchored outside Sihanoukville, Cambodia. It's a port city in the southwest corner of this country. It's got an interesting history, it was built by the French when the Phnom Penh's port was captured by the Vietnamese.
Anyway, we're here as a diplomatic gesture. We're the first American capital ship to visit this country in the last thirty years. That is, since the unpleansantness when Henry Kissinger was practicing 'peace via B-52's'. I say "first capital ship" because apparently a destroyer stopped by a few months ago, mostly to pave the way for this visit.
Problem is, this is a working port for us. The Navy is getting some shore liberty, but we're still working to schedule the shop some time on shore. We're flying very heavy schedules every day, sending medical and dental and engineering teams out to the hinterlands. (The engineers will be digging wells.) We're also doing community relations projects, i.e. visiting orphanages and dropping off school supplies and whatnot. What with all the flying, we maintainers are very busy at work.
Also, we had to scrub the hell out of the ship, because the American embassy is hosting a formal dinner inside the hanger bay tonight, for all sorts of Cambodian bigwigs. The ship had to be spotless for their inspection tour. Now, I can understand getting the hallways and the bridge and whatnot clean. But the four hour field day in our berthing was just silly. No visitor to this ship is going to be remotely interested in touring the Air Combat Element Enlisted Berthing. It's 300 guys living in less space than a typical American home. No matter how long you scrub, it'll still smell like 300 sweaty guys stacked three high and four deep.
There's a particular armor panel on the right side of a CH-46 that is often painted. It's a way for us to show some unit pride and express our creative urges. Anyway, please enjoy the following photos. I had to squeeze the hell out of them with the Gnu Image Manipulation Program, so they're kind of grainy. Sorry about that, but we're limited on bandwidth here. If you're wondering about the scale, these panels are about two feet wide.
I learned something funny today, from Gunny P, who spent a couple of years being the boss of Marine Security Guard details, the Marines that protect American embassies. (I'm going to loan Gunny P some Retief novels when I get a chance.)
Any embassy have an Economics Officer and a Political Officer, and bigger embassies have several. Both are civilians, working for the State Department. The Political guy talks to the local govermental types, and the Economics guy talks to businessmen and keeps track of trade, tarrifs, that sort of thing.
The funny bit is, all the Economics Officers that Gunny P met had political science degrees. And most of the Political Officers had economics degrees. Gunny's theory, which I subscribe to, is thus: Poly Sci types that join the State Department tend to be idealists, looking forward to international harmony and cooperation when diplomats of good will get together. Those guys get torn apart by the corrupt sharks that provide the upper-level bureucracy of the typical corrupt nation. But they do fine talking to businessmen in international trade, who have to face facts on the bottom line. So the idealistic types end up in the Economics branch.
Meanwhile, the graduates with economics degrees join the State Department with the knowledge that international trade is ruthless and nasty- the weak die, the wounded are eaten. So they're all suspicious, constantly on the lookout for ultior motives and double-dealing. That makes them well prepared to deal with the nasty corrupt governments that control most non-first world nations.
This came up, incidentally, because while Gunny P would like me to stay a Marine, if he can't get that he wants me to join the State Department. I like Gunny P, and I trust his judgement, so I've been considering his opinions. Despite what I've learned from reading the Retief novels.
November 23, 2007
The cruise book has been my baby. I've been planning a long post about it when I finished it, which was supposed to be tonght. I just ran a proof off, and I didn't see any more typos.
So I ran back through the chain of emails about the project, looking for where to submit it. I discovered something interesting. I'm responsible for creating pages 133-164 of the book. When I started the project, I looked at those numbers and concluded that I had twenty-five pages to create.
Sadly, 164-133=31. So now I have to come up with six more pages in a rather compressed timeline. This makes me sad. And worried.
Well, we're not going to Bangladesh after all. Apparently the powers that be decided that one MEU would be enough, especially with us falling behind due to bad weather. So we're heading back to our original scheduled destination. We're behind schedule, but we're basically there for a diplomatic gesture, and I'm told we'll make it on time for the only non-optional event. So we'll probably only be there for three or four days, and I'll not get a chance to go ashore. No big loss, especially if it gets me back to Okinawa sooner.
Basically, the motivation has drained out of me. I'm tired of the ship, I'm tired of sailing around to host ambassadors and "provide visible evidence of the United State's commitment to fufilling it's treaty obligations".
Maybe some of my bad mood comes from Thanksgiving dinner giving a bunch of us food poisoning.
November 22, 2007
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, because I'm up late writing this. But for my family back at home, now is turkey time; football's on TV, turkey's in the oven. Here I am, out in the Pacific, crossing another timezone as we head toward the Strait of Malacca.
But worry not for me, for I am not without family here. I had my Thanksgiving dinner with several thousand of my brothers and sisters. A family of purpose, of service, of loyalty. We eat overcooked turkey as just another sacrifice to the duty we have chosen. And that's the great thing about the all-volunteer military, no one is here because the majesty of the state forced them to. We choose to give our time and our blood for loyalty, for love, for duty.
So I give thanks this day. Thanks for a eighteenth-century experiment in republican government, thanks for the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and even thanks for the politicial horse-trading following the Vietnam war. This place, unpleasant though it may be, is exactly the place I choose to be in.
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