Egypt in Transition: Sidenotes from Personal Experience

Like many others, I’ve given quite a lot of attention in the past several days to what’s been happening in Egypt.  For certain, what changes will be made there, whether there will be a complete change in government or whether Mubarek will stay in some sort of power, remain uncertain.

I think I watch what’s happening there with a different perspective than a lot of Americans.  As I’ve written here, and those that know me might be aware of, I was an Arab linguist in the U.S. Air Force back in the 1970s.  I studied the Egyptian dialect and the main focus of my work was Egypt, though I never set foot in the country, until a couple of my fellow airmen and I took a 10-day, TWA tour of Egypt in April of 1974.  (I’ve had a more detailed description of that trip started for some time now, so I won’t go into all of that now.)  But in looking back, it’s surprising that the Air Force let us take that trip to a country which had been the center of so much of our military work, especially the October ’73 War, which had taken place only about half a year earlier.

When we got there, we discovered a couple of things.  First, the Egyptian people liked us Americans, despite the country still being under some influence of the Soviet Union, as evidenced by the great number of Soviet tourists that we encountered and some military installations around the then new Aswan Dam.  Second, the country was very poor, but teeming with people.  The current news media talk about squares filled with people, making it sound as if is something unusual.  The streets were filled with people on a daily basis even back in the 70s, when the population of the country was around 33 million, nothing like the 80 million of today. In Cairo, people hung off the sides of buses, and the trains from Cairo to Alexandria had riders on top of the cars because inside there was no more room.  The big difference, of course, was back in those days, people were just going about their daily lives, not protesting for a change in government.  I also remember the poverty evident most everywhere.

Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt in those days, coming into power after Nasser.  I admired Sadat a lot and felt that he really wanted peace for the region and with Israel, unlike so many other Middle Eastern leaders, who wanted–and want–to do away with Israel.  I was really saddened when he was assassinated in 1981 by fundamentalists, they said, but I have always wondered if Mubarek didn’t have something to do with it as a way to get power.

I think the current problem in Egypt is, yes, partially, that of a government not giving enough freedoms to the people.  But there is another problem–a world problem–too many people.  And too many people too fast.  Egypt’s problem is not so different from that of Mexico.  Poor countries (and some rich ones too) in the past century have grown in population by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it’s because of having more access to medicines and health care.  But go to a poor country these days, and you find that the majority of people are young, and these huge numbers of young people are having more babies.   And more people use more and more of a country’s resources, but the countries just cannot create enough new jobs for everyone.

I took a lot of slides when I was in Egypt, and I’ve had a few of them digitalized.  (How many of you will have those pictures you’ve downloaded to Facebook 40 years from now?)   Here are some I like:

Night view of the Nile River and the boulevard running alongside it (1974)

Pyramids of Giza (1974), at that time the pyramids were a ways outside of the city

Luxor, Egypt (1974), the street running alongside the Nile River, across the river from the Valley of the Kings

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“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Is No More; President Signs Repeal into Law, Today, December 22, 2010

President Obama signs law repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on December 22, 2010

“It’s a great day,” stated the President, and, indeed it is a great day. 

I got up at Annie’s regular going-out time, and even though I have the day off, I did not head back for the coziness of the bed.  I flicked on the TV, looking to find which network might have coverage of the signing ceremonies.  MSNBC, as would be expected, started showing the event at 8:00 AM (CST), but then by chance, I found even more direct coverage via whitehouse.gov.

I’m sure there will be any number of youtube videos up soon if not already of the event, but from a personal point of view, putting off a planned trip in order to watch was more than worth it.

It was definitely emotional to be able to watch the happenings on such a momentous occasion, something I had almost given up on just a couple of weeks ago.  But I was even more impressed by the President’s words before signing the repeal into law (Again look for the youtube video.  I’ll add it here later.)  Today I saw a happiness and a sincerity from the President that I haven’t seen for a long time, probably since the campaign.   The President was truly happy to be able to get this law passed as he had promised, but even more, was happy for the people who had long been affected by the discrimination of DADT.

What this indicates is that this President is going to be a stronger President now despite the results of this past election.  Maybe having a majority in both houses of congress was not the challenge he needed in order to show his strengh.

Today, December 22, 2010, should be remembered as a proud day for all Americans.

(I’m even going to remove the widget on the sidebar asking for people to call congress to lift the ban.)

U.S. Senate Votes To Eliminate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Announcing the vote count of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the U.S. Senate.

Today, December 18th, 2010, at 2:30 PM (CST), the U.S. Senate approved the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the 17-year-old law which denied openly gay military members from serving.  The final vote in the senate was 65-31 on the bill which the U.S. House of Representatives had approved by a 250-175 margin earlier in the week.

The bill now is to be signed by the President.  However, both the President and the Pentagon must agree about how and when the measure will actually go into effect.

U.S. Senate To Vote on DADT Repeal; Call Your Senators Today–Easy Access to their Phone Numbers Here

The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved legislation to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) in this Lame Duck session.  Senate Majority Leader Reid has called for the Senate to vote on the same legislation on Saturday, December 18th.

It’s time for you to do your part.  Call the senators from your state and tell them to vote for the repeal of DADT. 

Unlike some days, when I have had difficulty getting through to Senator Cornyn’s and Hutchison’s offices, this morning I was immediately able to speak to interns (I assume) who listened to my point of view and probably were tallying those for and against.  Maybe it’s easier to get through because it’s Friday or people are Christmas shopping.  Whatever it is, it seems like today is a good day to call and be heard.

Find the numbers for your senators here.  Just click open that cell phone and call.

11 and a Half Inches, Right There in Front of My Face

Yes! Eleven and a half inches! along with rest of this evening's takings from the garden.

Bending over, pulling back the leaves on the bean plants to see if there were enough for a mess, I turned my head , and saw hanging from the trellis, among the thick foliage a huge cucumber (11 1/2 inches–I measured it!).  I was surprised not only by the size, but that there would be even one cucumber mature enough to pick.  Only a couple of days ago, I had pulled up the only other cucumber plant because it was yellowing and drying up.  I had rescued just one small, somewhat shriveled cucumber from that plant before its demise.  This other plant has been blooming for quite some time, and its vines have begun to trail down from the trellis and all over the rest of the garden, but only in the last few days have I been able to spy a couple of small inch-long cukes.

It took me just seconds to grab the big cucumber, pull up a couple of green onions, and pluck a ripening tomato from its vine.  I knew what I was going to do with it!

Make a Greek salad!

This salad made with fresh tomato, cucumber, some onion, feta cheese, a shake or two of pepper, with oil and vinegar splashed on has been my favorite since my Air Force days in Greece (see more here).  A neighborhood pizza place just around the corner from my apartment in Glyfada was almost my home away from home and where I often had a big Greek salad, and a delicious pizza, something that ruined me on American pizza for a number years after I got back to the U.S.

My salad tonight tasted almost as delicious as the Greek salad that lives in my memory.  There were already a couple of tomatoes I had picked earlier in the week waiting to be cut up, added to the rough chucks of cucumber, bits of onion, and the feta cheese that had been waiting in the fridge for this occasion.  I have to admit that instead of vinegar and oil, I use Kroger’s Greek dressing, which I like even better.

Oh, and I don’t care what you’ve been served in restaurants; I never had one Greek salad in Greece with lettuce in it.

“Getting a Top Secret Security Clearance”–Segueing into “Stories from the Frontline”–SLDN’s New Push To Get DADT Repealed

How much money the Air Force had spent on my training by the time I got my Top Secret Security Clearance had to have been a large sum.  After all, there had been 6 weeks of basic training, almost 9 months of full-time language instruction, and several months of technical training.  Even more training was yet to come after I received the clearance, before I went on to doing “real work.”

The military started the clearance process in San Antonio while I was still in basic training after they had decided what field I was going into.  I had to fill out a form that asked for every place I had ever lived, names of people who could verify that, and a lot of other details that I was hard-pressed to remember.  Family members and other acquaintances back home told me later that “some government guy” had been out to check on me, and they had had to give the names of other people who knew me.  I’d finished college when I went into the A.F. and had summer jobs, but I hadn’t even gotten a traffic ticket yet; my rural existence and fairly controlled upbringing hadn’t given me many opportunities to stray from the straight and narrow.

More than a year after the process started, I was called to personnel to finalize the process and be given my clearance.  As I remember it now, it felt a bit like an interrogation, but, in reality, it probably wasn’t much more than a clerk–I say “clerk”–but perhaps on second thought, it was an officer–asking a number of questions and checking them off on a form.   One of the questions was about “homosexuality”.   I don’t remember if it was the direct question, “Are you a homosexual?” or something a bit different.  The fact is, though certainly thoughts along those lines had been in my head, my life experiences up to that point weren’t broad enough to answer that question any other way than with a “no”.

I learned later that the military’s position then was when it came to military intelligence a “homosexual” was a liability, because if that person were captured by the enemy and the enemy found out he was a “homosexual”, they could use that as a way of getting whatever secret information out of him.  That’s pretty laughable in and of itself, because most gay military (or any other) men or women, especially back then, had already had a lot of experience at keeping secrets.  How were they going to find out anyway?  Drag some hot guy out in front of him and see how he reacted?  I mean if they were dragging out hot guys to get gay guys to spill the beans, couldn’t they do the same for straight guys by using hot women?   (These days they always want to drag out the scary shower story, but I’ll get into that another time.)

So that was before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”” and I can say, “They asked.”

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” really is a dinosaur and needs to be repealed.  I’m not a big activist, but I want to help and get others to be aware of what’s happening.  Service Members Legal Defense Network is pushing to get the President to honor his word and trying to get Congress busy and repeal DADT this year.  Read the following post from their website.  I urge you to act and contact your representatives and senators.  You can find their phone numbers here.

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Stories from the Frontlines: Letters to President Barack Obama

“Stories from the Frontlines: Letters to President Barack Obama” is a new media campaign launched to underscore the urgent need for congressional action and presidential leadership at this critical point in the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). Every weekday morning as we approach the markup of the Defense Authorization bill in the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, SLDN and a coalition of voices supporting repeal, will share an open letter to the President from a person impacted by this discriminatory law.  We are urging the President to include repeal in the Administration’s defense budget recommendations, but also to voice his support as we work to muster the 15 critical votes needed on the Senate Armed Services Committee to include repeal.  The Defense Authorization bill represents the best legislative vehicle to bring repeal to the president’s desk.  It also was the same vehicle used to pass DADT in 1993.  By working together, we can help build momentum to get the votes!  We ask that you forward and post these personal stories.


April 26, 2010

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

If you end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), I’d re-enlist the day you sign repeal into law.

For thirteen years, I served in the United States Air Force where I attained the rank of major before I was discharged under DADT.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee considers including repeal in the Defense Authorization bill, we’re very close — just two or three votes — to passing repeal in committee. I ask for you to voice your support to put us over the top.

I come from a family with a rich legacy of military service.  My father is a West Point graduate who taught chemistry at the Air Force Academy, flew helicopters in Vietnam, and ultimately retired as a senior officer from the Air Force.  One of my uncles retired as a Master Gunnery Sergeant from the Marine Corps, with service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  Another uncle served in the Army in Korea.

Growing up, I didn’t really know what civilians did, I just knew I would follow in my father’s footsteps and become a military officer.

I joined Air Force ROTC in 1988 and was awarded a scholarship.  I earned my jump wings in 1991.  In 1992, I graduated from ROTC in the top 10% of all graduates nationwide.  In 1993, I went on active duty, just as DADT was becoming a law.

Stationed in Oklahoma, I was named officer of the year for my unit of nearly 1,000 people.  Later, I was one of six officers selected from the entire Air force to attend Professional Military Education at Quantico, Virginia.

During my career, I deployed to the Middle East four times.  In my last deployment, I led a team of nearly 200 men and women to operate and maintain the systems used to control the air space over Iraq.  We came under daily mortar attacks, one of which struck one of my Airmen and also caused significant damage to our equipment.  Towards the end of this deployment to Iraq, I was named one of the top officers in my career field for the entire Air Force.

In the stress of a war zone, the Air Force authorized us to use our work email accounts for “personal or morale purposes” because private email accounts were blocked for security.

Shortly after I left Iraq — during a routine search of my computer files — someone found that my “morale” was supported by the person I loved — a man.

The email — our modern day letter home — was forwarded to my commander.

I was relieved of my duties, my security clearance was suspended and part of my pay was terminated.

In my discharge proceeding, several of my former troops wrote character reference letters for me, including one of my squadron commanders. Their letters expressed their respect for me as an officer, their hope to have me back on the job and their shock at how the Air Force was treating me.

Approximately a year after I was relieved of my duties, my Wing Commander recommended I be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, even though the Air Force was actively pursuing my discharge.

But instead, after 16 months, I was given a police escort off the base as if I were a common criminal or a threat to national security.  The severance pay I received was half of what it would have been had I been separated for any other reason.

Despite this treatment, my greatest desire is still to return to active duty as an officer and leader in the United States Air Force, protecting the freedoms of a nation that I love; freedoms that I myself was not allowed to enjoy while serving in the military.

Mr. President, I want to serve.  Please fulfill your promise to repeal DADT and give me that chance.

Thank you,

Major Mike Almy

United States Air Force

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Greece in a $100 VW Bug

A gypsy encampment in northern Greece (taken about 1974)

One of the things that I have spent some evening hours doing is going through boxes of slides that I haven’t given much attention to in a long time.  The move to my new house has made them more accessible, but viewing what’s on each of the little colored transparencies hasn’t been easy.  The projector and small box-type viewer have long since disappeared, so I have been trying to glean through them with the aid of a flashlight. The majority of the slides were taken when I was in the Air Force stationed in Greece.  I’ve written about having been in the Air Force in other posts.  I was lucky enough to have an exciting job and be stationed with the 6916th Security Squadron at Athenai Air Base.  I was also fortunate to be able to have a job where I worked six days in a row, then had three days off.  I spent a lot of those days traveling around Greece, mostly on day trips, in the beat-up VW Beetle that I had bought for $100 dollars soon after I arrived at the base from another guy who was being transferred.  That little bug had a loose steering column and wobbly back wheels, but it took me and friends on many jaunts about Athens and to quite a few places out into the Greek countryside.

The photo at the top gives you an idea of some of the amazing sights this country kid from Kansas encountered.   My old boxes of slides are certainly bringing back a lot of memories.  However, cleaning off all the bits of dust and lint isn’t easy, and getting the slides digitalized so that I can see and share them isn’t cheap either.  Consequently, I’m doing all of that a little at a time.

The quality of the photos is pretty good (if I do say so myself), so I’m planning to enlarge a number of them and frame them to use in my house.  Hopefully, my writing fingers will get into the mood once again as I have a couple of posts started about those days back in Greece, and some of the photos would make good accompaniments.