Friday, March 31, 2006

Over the Border

As soon as the wall came down a new industry was born. The people in Kirk's unit had spent a year learning Russian - what was more obvious than to head into East Germany and use it to good effect.

We always went at night of course. The border was only a few kilometers from Wildflecken and was a graphic commentary on 50 years of cold war. On the East German side the forest had been cleared back at least 200 yards along the length of the fence while the West Germans allowed trees to grow up as close as possible to give cover. A huge concrete tower, topped with a mirror-glass sided room and bristling with antenna sulked a few yards past the fence, and the road was guarded by several thoroughly armed soldiers. A couple of small crosses on the Western side of no-man's land spoke to the efficiency of the guards.

The progress of unification was played out here as well. After a few months the guards were gone, the small buildings deserted. Within a year the mirrored glass of the tower had all been broken out with rocks, and an Imbiss stand was doing steady business in the former guard shack.

There was an unmistakable smell to the air of East Germany. The Trabants driven by the vast majority of people used a small two-stroke engine that spewed horrible black smoke, and there was a thick brown haze everywhere. The small town that housed the Russian kaserne was grim and depressing. Many of the buildings showed what seemed to be bullet scars from WWII, and several still had bomb damage.

All trading was done over the back wall. It wasn't exactly secret - the Russian authorities must have known what was happening, but by keeping things around the corner they could more believably play blind, deaf and dumb. The Americans, at least from Kirk's unit, wanted particular items - tall leather boots, the heavy wool Russian great coat, and most prized of all, tank helmets. On their side the Russians wanted Levi jeans, Nike shoes, and American cigarettes.

We still have a lot of it. The tank helmet - not hard and solid, but black cloth and still smelling of diesel fuel - is one child's prized possession. There is an officer's uniform, looking like a marching band outfit in a doubtful green, and a pair of boots that look like they were made by someone with no concept of left or right. These last were particularly funny. Kirk was trading a nearly-new pair of Nikes for them and the soldier he was talking to was very keen. The boy rushed away and came back after several minutes. "Can you come back in about an hour? There's no one in your size that's gone right now that I want to steal from."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

More Good News

Journalist Carroll freed in Iraq.


Kirk was eventually assigned to a tiny base called Wildflecken. If you pronounce it the proper German way you'll probably get blank stares. To much of the army it was known as 'Wild-chicken' with a long, dipthonged flat 'a' in Wild that is probably best imagined. The base was an elite training facility for SS troops in WWII and sits at the top of a hill above the town. Base legend is that the streets were laid down by Czechoslovakian Jews, and so the rough cobbles have never been paved over out of respect. Most of the buildings were original as well; only the modern white chapel (complete with disco-esque purple neon lights) seemed clearly out of place.

Wildflecken sat right in an area known as the 'Fulda Gap' - a small corridor where both sides of the cold war were constantly told the other army was sure to invade when the balloon went up. In the late 80's what it meant was the military spent months on endless readiness exercises, and when they were home busied themselves guarding empty motor pools.

It didn't make for terribly high morale. Kirk's MI unit supposedly had the highest suicide rate in the army (well, that was what they told each other, and since they believed it, it might as well be true). Guards at the motor pool were originally given a gun with ammunition, but apparently someone either killed themselves or someone else because the ammunition was taken away, and the guard was given a baseball bat instead. Then they began using the bat on the vending machine, so that was removed as well. In the end they sat in front of a large, empty lot with a large, empty rifle. A visiting officer once asked Kirk what he would do if an invading army assaulted the motor pool. He wasn't sure quite what to answer. Do you wildly wave your empty and useless rifle in the faces of the Soviet menace? Maybe that would be enough to frighten off an enemy fool enough to attack an empty motor pool.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Wall

There's something so very egocentric about a blog - just the concept that the anonymous masses will be interested in your daily stream-of-consciousness. I suppose I could avoid the label by pointing out that the personality I'm trying to evoke is not my own, but it's still difficult to overcome the basic feeling of self-indulgence.

I am trying to find a way to clarify Kirk - his character, his experience, his story. So some of these posts will just be that - stories that hopefully give some sense of the very real person behind them.

Wben we first married Kirk joined the army as a Russian linguist. This was during the last bit of the cold war, prior to the draw-down. We were sent first to Monterey, California to the Defense Language Institute where Kirk went through a grueling year-long course in Russian. Our first child was born there, adding to the stress of the situation. Still, he passed well. On graduation, he was given soft orders (terribly contradictory phrase isn't it? Sort of evokes the iron hand/velvet glove idea) for Louisiana. We were both really unhappy about this; I dislike hot climates, and neither of us really wanted to go to the South. Fortunately the person responsible for paperwork at DLI somehow didn't bother to walk those soft orders across the road and actually put them in Kirk's file, so when we arrived at San Antonio, Texas for the next stage of training there was no record of them. Kirk was given the same generic set of orders as the rest of his class; he was sent to Germany.

Kirk's final training was in Massachusetts, and he had to go alone. He also had to get 'command sponsorship' which meant we couldn't go with him at once to Germany. To get his family there, he was made to extend his military commitment and wait several weeks, so the baby and I stayed in the states with my family.

It was November, 1989. Kirk had just bought a cheap car and with his first day off decided to take a long drive. He somehow, and I'm unclear how he managed it, ended up crossing the border into East Germany and making his way to Berlin. There was a great deal of chaos at the time, and he said everytime he was asked for paperwork he just handed over the flimsy gas allotment form he had been given. It was stamped three times, and he was simply allowed to go on. By the time he arrived in Berlin, it was late afternoon on the day the wall came down.

He parked the car as close to the wall as he could get, and set out on foot. He ended up a few yards down from where most of the news cameras were set up, but had an excellent view of what happened. The guards were extremely tense, he said, holding their rifles and bunching together. Then someone threw something and there was a still moment as everyone waited to see what would happen. The guards looked to their commander who froze for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands. Kirk said suddenly tools appeared from nowhere and people simply started attacking the wall. People were tearing at it, loosening great chunks of concrete, then scaling it and embracing the strangers they met on the other side. Kirk watched, for an hour or so, then realized he had to be back before long. He picked up a large chunk that had fallen nearby, and headed back to his car.

We gave bits of that chunk away through the years - to people who had been in Berlin when the wall first went up - but I still have a small piece somewhere. It's just an ugly bit of concrete studded with small stones, the flat surface a lurid shade of blue.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Immigration legislation

What on EARTH were they thinking??

"The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally, impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants and erect fences along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border. The Senate is to begin debating the proposals on Tuesday."
From a CNN article here.

I can't begin to comment on this - the bigotry and blindess, the negation of so much that America is supposed to represent... on the most basic level the complete idiocy of thinking we can actually enforce much less afford this law.

Of course, we could just go with our current plan of making the rest of the world despise us. That should keep 'em out.

Getting to Iraq part three: 9/11

9/11. The third key really. I've tried to write this succinctly and clearly twice now, and as I was procrastinating by reading another page on the web I saw an ad for some site claiming that 9/11 was not terrorists with planes, but a staged event with explosives. I admit I didn't follow the link so I don't know whether our own government is supposedly involved or some other bizarre consipiracy. I have no interest in grassy-knoll-type theories.

The thing is that when 9/11 happened everyone around us reacted as normal, civilians would - shock, horror, fear... but Kirk, isolated from the intelligence and military community of people who knew what he knew, felt what he felt, was essentially alone. For a year he had spent his days imagining just this sort of scenario. He had come up with countless plans, evaluated targets, totalled up casualties and estimated political value. He had thought like a terrorist so he could stop them. Now he had to watch it made horribly real - the nightmare he had worked so hard to avoid.

Again, I think it's vital to point out the difference between guilt and responsibility. Kirk had tried to make the warning, he had worked endless hours to stop this very thing happening. He knew he had no guilt that he had been ignored. But he retained an enormous sense of responsibility - not only for what happened, but for dealing with the new world that 9/11 ushered in.

The company he worked for did try at first to get into the Homeland Security business. They put together a proposal and asked Kirk to take a look at it. He told me later that what wasn't laughable in their pitch was illegal. They weren't terribly pleased with his assessment, and hired an outside consultant. They didn't get the contract.

When Kirk left the military he told me he felt he nothing else to prove - he had done more than enough. In his career he had helped stop a coup, saved countless lives, briefed the White House... the list goes on. Leaving when he did wasn't easy, but he could say he had made a difference. But 9/11 changed all of that. There was a great deal more to be done, things that he was uniquely suited to do. He began looking for opportunities to become meaningfully involved.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Getting to Iraq part two: Counter Terrorism

When we left Alaska it was to head to a joint-service job in Virginia. Kirk was going to continue the innovative work he had done in information operations, and set up an info-ops joint forces unit with the Navy. When he showed up in November, 1999 he was told that the plan had changed and instead he would be in charge of Y2K. I think it was basically a job no one wanted and the Powers That Be figured the new guy (and the Air Force guy at that) would be the best person to tag.

Kirk had never done counter-terrorism; the learning curve was enormous. He began the work pattern that would hold for the next full year. He would often get to work by 5 am, sometimes earlier, and not get home until sometimes after 7 at night. If it wasn't too late he would sleep for an hour, then spend time with the family, getting to bed around 10. On Christmas day he watched the kids open their presents at around seven, then headed in to work, not getting home until well in the afternoon that day.

But it was New Years' day that really sticks in my mind. Of course we knew he couldn't spend it with us, and he couldn't talk about what he knew, or what had been going on. The kids and I turned on the Crocodile Hunter marathon and watched home alone; Kirk watched the news at work. I remember flipping to CNN every hour to watch the New Year roll around the world. There was a sort of sick apprehension each time, and a nervous relief as Asia, the Middle East, then Europe, safely celebrated the new Millenium. Kirk said the tension at the unit was unbelievable; they knew how much they had stopped - they were terrified they hadn't gotten everything.

After Y2K, Kirk became more and more consumed by the counter-terrorism world. He was read into higher and higher clearances, learned more and more about the largest threats to the US and her allies. Specifically he became deeply aware of Osama Bin Ladin and his organization.

Kirk was involved with designing readiness excercises - scenarios to be used by various units as they tested their skills. He proposed that a small boat filled with explosives be used as a weapon against a large warship - and was told it was an unrealistic idea. This was, of course, well prior to the USS Cole attack.

He also, along with his team, not only suggested that a commercial jet could be used as a terrorist weapon, but predicted the most likely targets that would be chosen. Again, he was ignored, and sometimes laughed at.

Perhaps if the frustration hadn't been so high Kirk might have stayed with the military. He loved the Air Force - the work, the people, the culture. But counter-terrorism is a consuming job. To do it well you have to think like a terrorist - something Kirk found, in his words, 'profoundly discouraging.' With the clearances he held, it seemed likely he would be doing counter-terrorism for the forseeable future. He made the difficult choice to leave the Air Force.

Ugh - terrible prose! It's not easy to write all this... maybe at some point I'll edit it into better shape.

Gnocchi von Ackermann

For gnocchi:
2 large russet potatoes, peeled
1 egg yolk
about 1/4 cup white flour

For sauce:

1 clove garlic
1/2 lb assorted wild mushrooms
1 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine

To make Gnocchi -
1. Peel potatoes and cut into roughly 1 - 1 1/2" chunks. Boil until soft, mash thoroughly. Allow to cool.
2. Add egg yolk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead just until smooth.
3. Working in batches, roll dough into 1" ropes and cut into sections. Use a fork to shape and mark each gnocchi.
4. Cook in batches in rapidly boiling water.

To make sauce -
1. Brown butter in large skillet. Press garlic clove and add.
2. Chop mushrooms and add to butter, cook until fragrant.
3. Add stock and wine, reduce to rich sauce.
4. Season to taste.
5. Remove from heat, pour over fresh gnocchi and roughly chop and stir in arugula. Serve at once.

To personalize:

1. Remove all ingredients that have fat and/or cholesterol.
2. Remove all alchohol.
3. Triple recipe.
4. Squeeze 1 1/2 hour preparation time into a scant hour, because child forgot to mention it needed to take 'something Italian' to a school potluck it didn't tell you about until two hours ago.
4. Shovel 2/3 of finished gnocchi into a bowl, cover with foil and tear (late) up to school with child. Feel free to curse vigorously on the road.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Background - getting to Iraq part one

It's going to be impossible to maintain organization on this thing - bear with me as we move back and forth through time and subject.

So why go to Iraq at all? There was a lot behind the decision. Here's part of it.

In winter of 1998 Kirk was tagged for a 4 month deployment. At the time he was an Air Force intelligence officer stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. The military was well drawn down by this time, but overseas commitments had risen drastically and every military member knew that extended deployments were going to be a frequent part of life. Kirk was lucky, he was given a great assignment. He was sent to Vicenza, Italy to join a nato group watching the situation in the Balkans.

Of course the timing was lousy. His four months would mean he missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and three family birthdays, but on the other hand, he got four months in northern Italy. Naturally we were aware of tensions in the Balkans, but we didn't know the situation in Kosovo would erupt as it did while Kirk was there. He used to say that the war in Kosovo ruined his Italian vacation.

Kirk's unit was responsible (probably among other things - there was always much he couldn't tell me) for choosing strategic targets. They analysed the intelligence they got in, then figured out what was most vital to destroy. Part of that, of course, was looking over photographs and video after a mission was run to assess whether the target had really been knocked out.

In real terms what that meant was Kirk, and the people he worked with, chose daily where violence would visit. They always did their best to minimize collateral damage, but it was impossible to be sure. There were times when the timing of a mission had to be adjusted and so there was more traffic on a bridge than they hoped and people died. There was another time when because something wasn't successfully eliminated several dozen people were killed.

I think it's important to be clear that Kirk was an extremely intelligent and empathetic man. He did not take on a universal guilt that he did not deserve - he knew he had not made this war, and he was well aware of what needed to be done and why. But he did take on an enormous sense of responsibility. He made his choices based on what he honestly felt to be best, but was always aware of what those choices entailed.

There is so much to tell about Kosovo - even with the little that I know - and maybe eventually I'll write that as well, but the relevent point is that more and more after the war Kirk talked about wanting to be part of rebuilding since he had been part of destroying. When the job in Iraq came up, it seemed to be the opportunity he had wanted.

Good News

In the middle of all the horrible news out there, it's always great when something goes right.

Iraq hostages freed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Marketing 121

I pass a man on my way to work every morning who makes me think of a basic Marketing project:

Case: A public-spirited, deeply committed man with a moral message has spent two years on the same street corner conducting a protest. His promotion materials consist of a) chalk and b) one poster-board sign. Assume that traffic past his post is 5,000 cars per day, containing an average of 1.5 people, 700 pedestrians.

1. Calculate what percentage of his daily audience pass his corner every day as part of their commute.
a) Subtract the daily commuters from the average daily audience
b) analyze typical traffic patterns to determine how many new consumers will pass after a week, after a month, after three months, after six months, after a year. Graph these results and discuss in no less than one full paragraph. For extra credit, produce a credible analysis of the key audience numbers ie how many consumers already agree with the message, how many disagree and are unlikely to change based on a road-side protest, how many will not notice the protest, how many will change but do nothing, how many will change and become actively involved in the issue.

2. Analyze promotion materials
a) what is his message
i) what is the overt marketing statement
ii) what is his core message, what is he trying to get consumers to do
b) how successful are his materials
i) are the materials clearly and effectively displayed
ii) is the message effectively presented via text and image

3. Estimate and plot the returns on his message over time. Graph should clearly show key consumer response.

4. Produce a complete marketing plan for this client, including branding.

Being cynical, it also inspires a simple word problem:

A man has been protesting by the side of a road for eight hours a day, five days a week, for two years. Assuming that a volunteer at Habitat for Humanity can install a sink in two hours, how many sinks...


Kirk's disappearance is being investigated by the CID. That's alphabet soup for U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (yes I know that doesn't work out to CID). We're on our... I think fourth set of investigators, although I'm a bit unsure about the first two or three since I never met them nor talked to them on the phone.

Although I've now met with them - first in the summer of 2004, most recently about a year ago, the whole investigation is still opaque to me. They were quite pleased a year ago that they have increased investigative powers, but those same powers appear to have limited their ability to share information (which was already sketchy at best) so although they do try to keep in touch, it's all along the lines of 'we're still looking, we don't have any news.'

It's a complicated investigation anyway as Kirk's disappearance is only part of it. Two months after Kirk went missing, another employee of the same company was killed (the day before he was to leave the country). His death is still unsolved. To add to the confusion, that employee apparently had laid accusations of fraud, and those claims also are being looked into as part of the same big investigation.

On the positive side, Kirk's small case would probably not have had as much attention and effort put into it alone. On the negative side, since there is so little evidence, it seems likely that they will solve or at least resolve the other two parts of the investigation and Kirk's situation will always be unknown.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

October 9 2003

Kirk disappeared from a road side between Baghdad and Kirkuk on the afternoon of October 9, 2003. His car had a flat tire, and he called the company office in Kirkuk for help. When the car was discovered, the doors were open, and he was nowhere to be found.

Still in the car were his computer, his satelite phone and a large amount of cash. There was no sign of struggle or violence.

I'd like to say those are the facts, but even here I'm not sure. I don't know how much money was there, whether Kirk was alone (as I've heard) or not, even who found the car.

After two and a half years of investigation, the CID hasn't been able to tell me much more than that. The problem, as one agent said to me, is the evidence. There simply isn't any; or none that they can discuss.

Because of course it's not quite as simple as just a missing man in Iraq (as though that were simple). But this is where we start, with an abandoned car on the side of the road in what is known as the Sunni triangle.

For Kirk

Two and a half years ago Kirk von Ackermann went missing in Iraq. He was the first American contractor to disappear. During that time we have waited and hoped while the investigation went on. Now we know it's time for us, his family, to do somethings ourselves.

So this is for Kirk. To our friends and family, it's a place to learn what we know, to see where we are now. For us it's somewhere to tell Kirk's story and ours and maybe find a place of resolution.