On 21 February, I began the latest chapter in my Army story. That’s when I started my preparation for a six-month deployment to U.S. Army Central Command in Kuwait as the Bands Liaison Officer. On the 21st, I arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas, which is adjacent to El Paso. Spending a week at the Conus Replacement Center (or CRC), I got a healthy dose of training, a couple of duffle bags worth of gear, and an all expenses paid trip to sunny Kuwait.
The funny thing about Fort Bliss / El Paso and Camp Arifjan (where I’m stationed) is that they look and feel remarkably similar.
For obvious reasons, I’m not going to post a wide-angle picture of a forward base that may give clues to layout, location of facilities, or security…you’ll just have to trust me when I say they are basically the same place in a different time zone.
When I finally did arrive at Camp Arifjan after a long, long, “day” of travel, and waiting and waiting some more…I got to bed around 0400 in the I-Bay (don’t ask why it’s called the “I” Bay; no one knows) – my “quarters” consisted of a little cubicle in a large room full of cubicles with a bunk bed and locker. For a room full of men, it was eerily quiet…day and night; it was vey strange. Luckily as a major, I was eligible to get on the housing list for a “pod,” which is basically a small room with a bed, a couple of lockers, and a couple of nightstands. You can add some ammenities, which I have courtesy of my predecessors, who left a small TV (on which Armed Forces Network is available) and a refrigerator. Also available is wireless Internet, which I am using as we speak to post this blog.
Arifjan itself is quite comfortable for a deployed location. Sure, the hours are long; the work is challenging – I’m sure this will be my toughest assignment yet; the environment has it stressors – but I have a little room that’s mine; the chow hall is pretty good; and there’s plenty of activities available to keep me sane. Besides missing my wife terribly, I can’t complain.
Now, on to business. My first excursion outside the gate was last week when Maj. McKenzie (the officer I replaced), a Lt. Col. who happens to play bagpipes, and I visited the Kuwait National Guard Band and their Commander, Col. Jamal Mubarak. Now luckily, Col. Mubarak and I have some history together as we met last summer when he and one of his officers came to the U.S. to visit the Army School of Music. This was helpful because, while personal relationships may help grease the skids in the U.S., they are critical in the Arab world. One does not go to a business meeting with a Kuwaiti, sit down, and start talking business. Relationships must be built and trust must be earned. I have to say I like their style. Now, don’t get me wrong – when I sit down for a meal at a restaurant and you’re my waitress, I don’t want to hear about your issues and I certainly don’t want to tell you mine. Take my order, be courteous, and bring me what I ordered in a timely manner and you’ll get a good tip…
In business, however, I certainly see the value of getting to know your associates over coffee or tea and slowly moving to business at a natural pace. When the three of us arrived at the KNG Band building a little after 0700, this was certainly the case. While we arrived too late to see their marching rehearsal, we would later be treated to a little concert. (More on that in a moment.)
Col. Mubarak was as I remembered from our first meeting – a commanding presence yet quite gregarious in nature. As you might expect, as a Colonel and the head of the elite Kuwait National Guard Band, he was a gracious host. When we entered his office, he was just getting off the phone, and upon seeing Maj. McKenzie (with whom he had come to enjoy spending time with), swallowed his hand in a warm, two-handed grip. Then, to my surprise, a look of recognition came across his face when he saw me. For much of the first 30 minutes are so, the Colonel and his executive officer (with whom he traveled to VA Beach) reminisced about their time in the States (and especially VA Beach). I promised him that the next time he visited, we would ensure his hotel was right on the water. That made him quite happy.
As we talked, one of his civilian staff took care of preparing refreshments, which began with wonderfully flavored coffee served in very small vessels. The staff member stood in the corner of the room as we drank and talked, ensuring anyone who wanted a refill, got one. With this, I quickly picked up the subtle cues for “refill my cup” or “I’m finished.” If you wanted more coffee, you simply had to drain your cup and the server poured you some more; if you were finished, you held it out to him and shook it in your hand from side to side, signaling “no more” (or you could simply leave a little in the cup to also signal that you were done). That coffee was excellent. What followed was incredible. Col. Mubarak had the server bring us “French style” coffee, which was similar to a latte. Pictures can’t do it justice, but here’s one anyways.
After some general discussion – what we in the States would call small talk, but what in this instance was…talk – it was Col. Mubarak who shifted the discussion to business, and in particular, questions he had based on a brief on the U.S. Army Music Program prepared by Maj. McKenzie. This led to a long, thoughtful, and interesting conversation – all through our skilled interpreter. As we spoke, water and sweets were brought in…and more coffee!
We had talked for about two and a half hours when the Colonel announced that his band would now perform a few tunes for us. This was a surprise and a great sign of respect and trust. We were led to a somewhat typical rehearsal room with tiered steps, a mirrored wall, and a row of plush, leather sofas with a table for refreshments. What? Your band hall doesn’t have that? The KNG Band’s did. Again, while they are trying to derive lessons from how we conduct business to better their program, in all seriousness, there are things we can learn from how they conduct business too – and I don’t mean having MOS caterers among our bands’ personnel (although not a bad idea) – I mean the attention to detail in how they treat their guests; their tremendous hospitality; the importance of trust and building relationships – these are things we can perhaps learn from their experience to make us a better organization. But I digress…the plush sofas and more refreshments:
We were treated to a mini concert by a small contingent of their pipes and drums.
As well as a chamber group.
It was wonderful to hear them perform, and we were very grateful for the opportunity. As what often happens when musicians get together, Lt. Col. Gunther, who is not an Army Musician but simply a bagpipe enthusiast, brought his instrument along and ended up playing with the Kuwaitis in a wonderful display of comraderie.
Once the jam session was over, we returned to Col. Mubarak’s office for more coffee, discussion, and to wrap up the visit. Ever the gracious host, Col. Mubarak furnished the three of us, plus the interpreter, with tokens of his appreciation – a Kuwaiti National Guard keychain (which I am using for my pod key); a wonderful KNG calendar set, which included a wall calendar, desk calendar, wallet-sized calendar, note taking materials, and a pen; and the Kuwait National Guard coin. Here’s the Colonel and Maj. McKenzie:
And here’s a close up of the coin:
All in all, it was a tremendous visit and a great start to my tour. I promised the Colonel I would be back with more information based on our discussions. While I’m looking forward to meeting our counterparts from other nations while I’m here, I certainly am anxious to return to our friends at the Kuwait National Guard Band.