Sunday, November 21, 2010

When Do We See God at Work?

Yes, it has been a while. I apologize for being away so long. Sometimes in life other things have precedence and just take over. This is not a continuation of my financial situation series, but I do plan on sharing more of that story at some point. Since I have had such a long break from posting, I thought a brief change in topic would be in order as well. Today will be a heavier subject than personal finance...

Most who know me, know that I view most things in two extremes. There is rarely any gray. Life and Death: given the choice, most of us would prefer to talk about Life. Death is a heavy subject, one that is often avoided. At the other extreme, Life is a more pleasant subject. We typically equate Life with God, the Giver of Life. Can we consider for a moment seeing the presence of God, even in Death? Sometimes sharing the stories of how God works, even in the moments of our lives when we experience death, provides some of the great glimpses of the Hope that we live for each day.

On 10 November, I was changing my facebook profile picture to one of me in uniform. The next day was 11/11, Veterans Day in the United States. At first, I just changed it to a previous profile picture of me in uniform, one from my last promotion in 2009 (my blog profile picture above). Then a thought entered my mind, "No, use one from Iraq." As I was looking through my Iraqi Freedom pictures from 2003-2004, one in particular jumped out at me, along with another thought, "Use this one."

The next day, I had a facebook message, "Thank you for posting the picture of Denny, would love to see more if you have them." On what would be MSG White's last Veterans Day, I spent some time, searching, and pulled together an album of 27 photos from our time in Iraq. When I reflect on each of the moments during that 24 hour period, I am amazed at how God works through his Holy Spirit to prepare us for the inevitable.

Today, it is difficult for me to remember many specifics of our conversations while we were "over there", but on the day I learned of his passing, I reflected on one thing that was important. Through my years as a teenager and through college, I rarely was able to spend time with my real father. During our year-long deployment, sometimes MSG White would jokingly tell me that he was like my father, and he was right. During that time, we shared a two man tent at the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Needless to say, we had plenty of time to build a father-son type rapport. At the rank of First Lieutenant, I was his Platoon Leader and he was my Senior Non-commissioned Officer. We were battle buddies and mostly inseparable. His steady demeanor and mentorship served me well while deployed. That year spent with MSG White was priceless, and I believe a fundamental work of God. In a mysterious way that only God can perform, it not only brought me closer to Denny, but further opened the door to rebuilding the relationship with my real father. For that, I will always remember Denny. I am proud to be able to say that I served with MSG Charles Dennis White and I am forever grateful for his service. I look forward to the day when I will see him again on the High Ground!

"There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." - John 15:13

Headquarters Support Company
389th Engineer Battalion Combat (Heavy)
Roll Call of Honor:

MSG White?

MSG Denny White?

MSG Charles Dennis White?

First Sergeant, MSG White is not present. He has fallen.

MSG Charles Dennis White (66) passed away peacefully on the morning of 17 November 2010 at his home in Springfield, MO. MSG White was not only a Veteran of Iraqi Freedom, but also served two tours in Vietnam with the Navy. He served proudly in Iraq as the Senior Non-commissioned Officer for the Maintenance Platoon, Headquarters Support Company, 389th EN BN CBT (H). He turned 59 while serving in Iraq, and could keep up with the best of them over there. He was very proud to still be serving his country. After returning home, he served six more months in the Army Reserve before retiring in November 2004 when he turned 60!

The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”  - Psalm 91:14-16

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Couldn’t You Have Picked a More Exciting Hobby? (4)

So, that’s where I found myself in 1995 and as I stated in the first post of this series I was searching for a way to solve my money problem. After 11 years of searching I had made no real progress in paying off the debt. In fact, after buying a house and another new vehicle, the debt had only grown. I honestly believe I had just resigned myself to the typical myths:

"I will always have a car payment."
"I will make minimum payments on these student loans until they are done."
"30 years from now, I will have this house paid off."
"This is normal, life is full of payments."

At some point in 2006, I reached the point where I ended my first post in this series:

You ever have one of those moments where emotionally you have given up, but mentally your mind says, “God, I’m ready and willing, please help.”?

Because I had quit trying to find the money answer on my own, I stumbled onto Dave Ramsey through a Focus on the Family (FOTF) radio program. I rarely listened to FOTF, and I am not sure why I was listening on that particular day. I was streaming it while at work and listening through my headphones. It was during the last two weeks of 2006. Focus on the Family was replaying some of their most requested programs from the past year. As I listened to Dave, something struck me about how he talked about money and having financial peace.

He mentioned things about handling money God’s way, and that the “borrower is slave to the lender”. Well, I had enough debt for that statement to ring true. Dave said, "We give you the same common sense advice that God and your grandma did; only we keep our teeth in!" It wasn’t long before I found his website, and started doing more research on him.

I bought his book, The Total Money Makeover (TMMO), which I had seen in the stores many times but never picked up. As I said before, I had resigned myself to just making the minimum payments and living a normal life. I already had so many personal finance books, why would I need to buy one more?

One of the greatest discoveries in listening to Dave was that life did not have to be full of payments. I was right, broke was normal, and according to Dave:

"Debt is Normal. Be Weird!"

Within the first month or two of 2007, I had read the book, and was quoting things in it to Mindy. The book is set up in two parts, not literally, but through the message that it delivers. The first half starts with a challenge to stop denying that you are not doing too badly with money and start behaving differently. Dave discusses things we believe about money merely because it is so engrained in our American culture. These are labeled as myths, about both money and debt. He gives common sense advice on how to look at these myths differently. Through his explanations, it is easy to understand how we keep getting the same bad results when we live by the same bad rules. Your knowledge and understanding of money goes through a process of transformation by reading and studying the first five chapters.

In the second half, Dave’s plan is laid out in seven baby steps. The baby steps lead you on a walk out of the bondage of debt and into a life of financial peace. The walk is one of both contentment and sacrifice, but depending on your level of “gazelle intensity” can start to look like a full sprint. Overall, his strategy is loosely based on the Bible and he includes a few scriptural quotes. But, as he says in the beginning, it “isn’t a Bible study on the subject of money.” The subtitle of the book is “A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness”, and as Dave states, “that plan includes addressing the spiritual issues surrounding money.”

I was very interested in getting started, but as with most things I tend to lack patience. As we progressed through the year, I applied his plan incorrectly. At the end of 2007, Mindy and I were still struggling with quite a few financial issues both on paper and in our attitudes. Through my impatience I was trying to apply at least four of the seven baby steps all at once, instead of concentrating on the step I was on.

I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the book (most libraries carry it), and see what you think. If you do start to apply the plan to your life, remember that focus is one of the main keys to success. Next time, I will discuss the focus we found in 2008, to be continued...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Couldn’t You Have Picked a More Exciting Hobby? (3)

Before I headed off to the University, I wish someone had sat down with me and shown me the financial facts on paper. Now that I am older and a little more experienced, I can see how the money-thing works. But, back then I really needed someone to enlighten me. Bear with me on this, as my numbers reflect figures from 20 years ago. In my head it would have went like this:

Ok Wes, three months from now, you will be starting school. Tuition for the year costs $4K; Books cost $500; Room & Board will be $7K. How much do you think you will need for gas & entertainment each month? One hundred dollars. Ok, that is every month, over nine months, we will just plan for an even $1K. So, totaling that up, we have $12.5K. Now, that is the total of your expenses.

What about income? Your GI Bill is $150/month for nine months, annually that is $1350. You make $133/month for your Army Reserve Drill weekends, annually that equals almost $1600. With two weeks of Annual Training, you have another $500. You have a part-time job, right? Yes. That gives you another $2450 per year. Is that it? Yes. Ok, well, your total annual income is $5900. That leaves you with a shortfall of $6600, how do you propose to make up the difference? Well, with student loans of course. Student loans? Really, ok! Can we look ahead to the future? Sure.

You plan to be there for three years. After three years, you will have a shortfall, or student loan debt of $20K. Then, what do you plan to do? Get my Masters Degree. Oh, do you have to attend Graduate School? Yes, for architecture I will need more than a 4-year degree. You need a professional degree for architecture! Ok, here’s a good school, and after two years there, you will have another $30K in student loan debt. So, now, we have you fresh out of school with $50K of student loan debt. What do you think your starting salary will be? I do not know, but I have always been told architects make lots of money. You are not sure; except that you are sure whatever it is, it will be enough. Pretty much, I do not plan on making six figures right out of school, but I should be able to live well enough.

Ok, well – I took the liberty to research starting salaries in architecture. Based on these figures, you are looking at about $25K per year. Wow! What do you mean “wow”? That seems like a lot, at least compared to what I am making today. Oh, you think that is a lot, because it is almost 5 times what you are making today – I see. Care to look at how that breaks down after taxes and deductions. Sure. First a few questions: Would you like Health Insurance? Of course. And 401K? Yes. And how much? 3%, I will start small and build up over time. And you live in the city, right? Yes. So, an additional 1% income tax. Ok, bottom line: you will receive an average $1443 per month – some months a little more, some a little less, as you will get paid every two weeks. Care to see how far that goes? Guess it would be good to know!

Architecture Income: $1443
Reserve Income: $150

Total Income: $1593

Rent: $500
Car Payment: $230
Utilities: $100
Cable: $50
Cell Phone: $50
Food: $250
Gas: $150
Student Loan Payments: $253
Total Expenses: $1583

Total Income – Total Expenses: $10

Well, would you look at that – you did it! You are $10 ahead. Oh, but wait, you are a young man. Were you planning on going out on the weekends? Of course. $10 is not going to get you very far! No, it is not.

Wes, looking out five years into the future, what do you think of this plan now?

The fact is that I did not look five years into the future before I started at the University. Due to my choices, which lacked wisdom, knowledge, and counsel – this was the predicament I was saddled with, more or less, when I finished graduate school in 1995.

Is it little wonder why I was searching so desperately for answers to my money problem?

What about you? Have you taken the time to see how much you spend each month? I am not just talking about the mortgage/rent, food, gas, and utilities. What about the little things? The things that add up, slowly each month, perhaps on a credit card, and become long-term debt. If you are to ever win at this thing called money, you need a plan (a budget) - "on paper, on purpose before each month begins." (DR) 

Start today, use a small notebook and track each dollar you spend for the next 30 days. The truth might just shock you into starting an all-inclusive spending plan next month. When you do that, you will start to change your money spending behaviors.

To be continued...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Couldn’t You Have Picked a More Exciting Hobby? (2)

For those of you who follow: I sincerely apologize for how long the continuation of my last post has taken. I feel like I wrote a cliffhanger the last time, and made you wait for the new fall season to reveal more of the storyline.  As I am sure you all know - Life can get busy.  Several things have kept me away, but not from thinking about this thread.  Maybe later I can write about the several things.  For now, here is Part II in a Series...

Perhaps I should get a job writing prequels. It wasn’t long after writing my last post that I started thinking I needed to back up – I had not started at the beginning. Realistically, we all start our life being debt-free. Technically, if we include our portion of the national debt which we will pay on during our adult-working life, we do not start debt-free. But, I’m talking about personal debt here. At the time of the mid-1980’s, like most teenagers, I was debt-free; not a care in the financial world. I believed I would graduate high school, go to college, and like most graduates finish with some student loans. But, given the unfounded belief that I would be rewarded for my diploma with a high paying job, those student loans would disappear quickly.

Well, after high school, I joined the Army Reserve and decided to attend Junior College for two years. This would give me the opportunity to not spend so much on college at the beginning. I could get the basic courses out of the way without spending too much, or taking out a loan. This plan was a good one as the tuition was less expensive. By working hard and a payment plan through the semester, I could pay as I went for an Associates Degree. I would be able to enter the big University still debt-free.

For my generation, most often, our elders taught us very little of personal finance. They did not sit us down and explain personal finance to us. Perhaps they believed we were picking up those lessons in public school. But the truth is: when the Great Depression became ancient history, people stopped teaching personal finance. With credit being in large supply, there was no more demand for the lessons learned during that era. We learned indirectly what little financial knowledge we gained from our parents. By watching the habits of our parents, most in my generation received this personal finance golden rule:

“Money = Spend; No Money = Spend with Credit”

I, too, followed the notion that I should start “building my credit”, and opened up an account of credit with a national chain. I did not go crazy, only buying some tools with the card, and quickly paying it off. I never really felt that I had a problem with credit cards. In fact, I despised them, but considered them a necessary evil in this world of "needed credit". When I got to the University, my financial problem was that I had no idea how to handle money. I thought I knew! My personal finance golden rule was this:

"money in the bank meant time to spend; no money in the bank meant time to stop"

My problem with following that rule, was I always spent until I had to stop, with no thought about what I might still need in the future.

To be continued...(much sooner this time, I promise)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Couldn’t You Have Picked a More Exciting Hobby?

Perhaps you have borrowed too much on your home. You have credit cards, a car loan or two, and even student loans. Most Americans do; it is considered "normal". For the past few years, times have been tough and families have had to cut back. Maybe you have struggled for so long that you have accepted the situation and are no longer looking for a way out. Today, allow me to begin to share that there is a way out, but it will require extreme sacrifice on your part for a period of time.

Over the years, I've read several financial books and articles. I even spent real money on some of those books, actually on quite a few of those books. I could probably stack them up to my waist. I thought one day I’d look back and consider them a wise investment. Most of them covered what needed to be done with money, but lacked in the “how to” department. Some discussed ways to make more money, but didn’t really share the secret of not spending more if you did.

You might say that since leaving college, studying personal finance has been my hobby! Right now, someone is thinking, “Wes, couldn’t you have picked a more exciting hobby?”

Now, let me tell you right up front that I am not a financial planner or a CPA - just a normal guy who had money problems. I think that defines the majority of Americans: Normal people with money problems searching for a solution. I searched for years for a money program that would get me out of the big, deep hole I had dug financially. I was responsible for the hole; therefore I wanted to be responsible for filling it in.

Honestly, there have been a couple of times in my life when I had credit card debt and then I did not. The first time, it was because I took out a consolidation loan. I rolled my credit card debt together with my car loan. Amazingly, after spreading out the pain over five more years, collectively I had a lower payment. The consolidation loan seemed like a great deal, except that it did not teach me a thing about getting and staying out of debt. In fact, it was not long and I had credit card debt again. Also the new loan extended the period I would pay on my car by three years past the original payoff date.

Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others. - Proverbs 12:15

Then a couple years later (2000), I was at a six-month school for the Army. I was not spending much money and was able to quickly pay the credit card debt. I do not remember how much it was, but $5,000 would be a close guess. It was a great feeling to be free of credit card debt. I felt like a chain had been lifted from me. I still had several other chains holding onto me though: the consolidation loan with three more years of payments and quite a bit more in student loans.

Even though I had conquered the credit cards, I was not able to apply the same discipline to the other loans. One reason was that compared to the small amount of credit card debt, the student loans were an enormous amount. The payments were not huge and I could afford them. Paying them was painful though. Each month as the checks were written, I would think of what could be done with the money dedicated to them.

So, I continued to search through books for a plan: the perfect scheme to solve my money problem. Recently I found out that whenever I brought home a new book, my wife’s thought was, “Oh boy, another book on money.”

At some point, I had had enough of programs and “get rich quick” solutions – unconsciously I had stopped searching for a fix. I was ready to accept the “fact” that I would always need a credit card for emergencies. Life was trying to tell me, “You will always have a car loan, home loan, and student loan payment." Personally, acceptance of that kind of mediocrity would have been regretful! I would have been going through the motions: working hard to keep the bills paid, but never really seeing a brighter future through it all.

Have you ever had one of those moments where emotionally you have given up, but mentally your mind says, “God, I’m ready and willing, please help.”

To be continued...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Was this really that long ago? (Addendum)

Addendum: same ROE as before: Red text denotes current thoughts & notes.

As I was preparing Part III of this series, I found a paper copy of the letter.  Part III wasn't in the paper copy, but only on the electronic word document that I had originally found.  This post was at the end of the paper copy, but since it was not germane to the Recovery Mission, I decided to save it for later. Now is later.

Also, I should state that it wasn't long after the "mission" that we received the newer vests with plates...

Architecture and Food - Two of My Favorite Things

At least the trip allowed me to see many residential areas of Baghdad. They build their homes in a much different fashion than ours in the States. As wood is at a premium, they build with block. The lots are smaller than a typical American lot, and are square, or close to it. They do not have large lawns, but use the lot entirely for the building. Usually the back and two sides are built as plain walls, stucco over the block. The front facade is where the exterior design elements are, and where the money is spent. Usually, there is a 6-8 foot wall around the front, with the space behind it carved out to create a courtyard, balconies and various other design elements. The front facades are very unique from home to home. Some facades incorporate marble columns with ornate capitals. Even the window designs are unique and vary in the shapes they create, unlike ours which are ordered directly from the double-hung catalog. With the many variations in design, both in elements used and space created, the homes are distinct and differ in character, despite the fact that most are similar color and materials used.

I am sure it won't be long before there is a McDonald's on every corner here also. After all, there has been a Burger Kind on BIAP for over a month already. If you want a Whopper, sometimes it can be up to a three-hour wait. I have been able to try some of the Iraqi cuisine a few times. Most everything I have had has been pretty good. I even had some Iraqi pizza, which is different than American style.  It was good though.

One of the things I miss about home is the change in weather, if you can believe that. Since we left the States, the only weather we have seen is hot and sunny. No rain, no thunder, no lightning. I think when I return I will probably go outside and jump in a puddle the first time it rains.

Anyway, I should end this. Thanks for your support, thoughts and prayers. At least for me, Iraq is not as bad as it is probably portrayed on the nightly news. I have actually met some very nice Iraqi citizens, and enjoy learning about their culture and views, especially political (now that they have that freedom). They enjoy learning about America also.

Love and prayers, Wesley

When I used to write things like this back to the States, it was mostly in email and shot out to all my contacts. I labeled the subject line, "News from the Engineer Front".  I always signed them "Love and prayers".

A few years ago, I was printing the emails off to PDF files and saving them to my hard-drive. Then I would delete that email. My plan was to eventually print each one to paper and place them in a three-ring binder for my children. At the end of 2006, my hard-drive crashed and I lost a number of them. I did not have them backed up and learned my lesson. For the sake of Part III, I'm glad I found the electronic version of this letter.

Of course, as the years go by, and other events take precedence in my mind, I don't remember as much about what happened day to day "over there". Early on, I had started a journal, but it did not stick. It's so easy when we are going through life to think that we will remember the really significant events later.

What are you experiencing today while thinking, "I'll need to remember this later"?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Was this really that long ago? (Part III of III)

Excerpts from a letter written on 9 Aug 2003 – This is the third part. Red text denotes current thoughts & notes.

Hot & Humid With a Chance of Fire!

The Soldier who was injured during the IED attack, SPC Chasen, received a Purple Heart, and was returned to the United States. From what I heard, he got a piece of shrapnel in the back of his upper thigh - think Forrest Gump!

At the time of the Recovery Mission, we had not been issued the new Interceptor Vests w/ Armor Plating. We went out on the mission with the Vietnam-era vests, no protective plates.

It was very warm that day. We rehearsed our actions on the objective several times, starting at 0700 that morning, and left the LSA around 1300.

It was very hot and humid at the objective. By the time we left, my weapon was so hot in my hands that I just about wanted to hand it off to some of the Iraqis observing us. There were some homes in the area, and of course, all the residents came out to watch our actions.

We were unsure if during the first mission, someone in the area had tipped off the enemy on Alpha Company’s presence, which then led to the original attack. So, there was a thought that our presence could be tipped off again. Therefore, we wanted to spend the smallest amount of time at the objective as possible.

On the way out, which due to the area was the same way we came in, there were a couple of men standing along the side of the road. They were burning some dry grass or leaves, and for some reason, the fire was spread in a line half way across the road (a very narrow road). As we went out, the vehicles were in the opposite order of march, so I was near the tail. The lead vehicle radioed back about the situation. As we approached, I switched my M-16 from safe to semi, keeping the weapon pointed down towards their feet, at the ready. My eyes followed them completely as we drove by. I am not sure why they were burning in this manner, but if they had even flinched wrong, we would have been exchanging more than glances.

Nothing happened.

I am actually surprised that the enemy burnt the vehicle, when they could have very easily just stolen it, using it on a farm, or a worse attack. As the Maintenance Platoon Leader, this was about the most exciting thing I have been able to do here, other than leading the main HSC (Headquarters Support Company) convoy from Kuwait to Baghdad. If you want some really good stories, you should get in touch with 1LT Brad Lavite, who was transferred from the 245th (Maintenance Company) into a Transportation Company. He should be headed back to the U.S. in April (2004).

That day, as I rode in the front passenger seat of the HMMWV, I was sitting sideways, facing out. No doors, no plates; just that Vietnam-era vest with a seat belt holding me in. We didn't have up-armored vehicles, and the original doors were no thicker than plastic wrap. They held the heat in, but little out. It's always better to have physical protection in those types of situations, but honestly I preferred having full range of movement from the door opening. Call it naivete, but being in Iraq during that period didn't create blame in me towards anyone else for what was lacking. Instead, it made me more aware that I needed to rely on God for safety and protection.  Many people, including me, prayed Psalms 91 during that are some of my favorite verses:

v2: This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust Him.

v4: He will cover you with His feathers. He will shelter you with His wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.

v11: For He will order His angels to protect you wherever you go.

v14-16: The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love Me. I will protect those who trust in My name. When they call on Me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. I will reward them with a long life and give them My salvation."

I'm humble enough to know, despite those prayers, I still could have lost my life at anytime in Iraq.  I do not pretend to understand why God allowed me to make it home unscathed. He is my God and I trust Him.

On this day, the seventh anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I would be remiss to not remember those who did give the ultimate sacrifice and in memory of them simply say:

"Thank you"

Click for Addendum

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Was this really that long ago? (Part II of III)

Excerpts from a letter written on 9 Aug 2003 – This is the second part.  Red text denotes current thoughts & notes.

High Profile Recovery Mission

This last Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003, I was put in charge of a recovery mission to grab a 2 ½ Ton Truck for our Alpha Company. It was involved in an incident with an improvised explosive device (IED) about two weeks prior to our recovery. The soldiers involved left the vehicle to take a wounded soldier for medical attention. When they returned later, the vehicle had been burnt to a crisp, a complete loss.

It was located in a bad area of town, just outside of the built-up area of Baghdad. The location was about 1000m from the Tigris River, and the vegetation was quite high surrounding the road where it was located. It looked more like a jungle than a desert. We took 13 vehicles out to recover it, including three Military Police vehicles (each commanded by a Captain) to assist with security. The Group Commander, a Colonel, and his Command Sergeant Major also went. The location was 20 miles away from BIAP, but with traffic it took us one-hour travel time each way.

After checking for booby traps, we lifted the vehicle onto a lowboy trailer with a crane truck. The recovery operation took 30 minutes. We closed the narrow road while we accomplished the operation. The operation was a complete success without any serious incident or enemy contact. Thank God for that. Despite the success of that recovery, I do not want to see another area similar to that one the remainder of the time I am here.

Looking back, this mission is a classic military case study on the fallacy of micro-management. Based on the excessive command attention I got, you would think it was the mission meant to end Operation Iraqi Freedom. Maybe it was in some "war hero's mind"! At the time, I was a Platoon Leader (First Lieutenant) in the United States Army. The nation was entrusting me to fulfill the responsibility of that role. I appreciated having the Military Police there to help with security and firepower, and the three Captains knew their role was support. They did not try to take over my mission. But, did I really need a Colonel and his Sergeant Major to successfully complete this mission?  Why did they feel the need to force themselves onto the scene and control every minor detail? Would I have done everything in the exact manner as them?

If they wanted to lead this mission, then why did they need me to tag along? When leadership does not allow their subordinates to step up and take charge, then the subordinates will learn not to step up and take charge. Novel concept!

Leaders, if you do not allow your subordinates to fail, how will they ever learn to succeed? ...Besides, it's a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer's job to make sure his Lieutenant doesn't fail!

Click for Part III

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Was this really that long ago? (Part I of III)

Excerpts from a letter written on 9 Aug 2003 – I plan on posting this in three parts. As I read through the original, it seemed to break up nicely that way. Lately, I've been finding things I wrote a few years ago. Thought they might be worth sharing...

Greetings from BIAP, IRAQ

For those who are unaware, BIAP is the Baghdad International Airport, formerly known as Saddam International Airport. No, he isn't a narcissist! Anyway, now we pronounce it “Bi-Op”. I have been here for a little over two months now, after spending a little more than three weeks in Kuwait.

Sometimes it seems surreal that I am really in Iraq, a country that the U.S. has been aware of for over 20 years now, but few Americans have visited. Currently we are going through the hottest time of the year, with temperatures ranging up to 135 degrees. It feels sort of like sticking your head in a brick oven. They say it will start to cool off at the end of August. Maybe we will see it drop to below 120.

In 2 months time, we have seen some things improve quite a bit and other things not so much. We continue to live in our tents, obviously, but at least we have wood floors built in each tent. We have A/C units for the tents, but continue to wait for the power grid to come up in order to actually see them work. Yesterday we were served our first meal out of a hard stand dining facility, instead of the normal Mobile Kitchen Trailer (MKT). The Dining Facility is run under a contract, so there are civilians working it, not the battalion’s cooks. Currently we only get dinner there, so we are still eating Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) for breakfast and lunch. But within a week’s time, they will serve 4 meals a day at the contracted dining facility, including a midnight meal (Soldiers are working 24/7!). The dining facility is nice, with lots of A/C and potable ice. First time we have had that in over 3 months.

As far as missions, the battalion continues to improve the military side of BIAP. Preparing the ground for the master plan and many buildings to come. I have the feeling that there will be an U.S. military presence here for a long time. Eventually, it will be just like Korea, with active duty soldiers serving 1-year hardship tours continuously. We don’t know anything about an exact date of when we will be allowed to return home. Rumors swarm every couple of weeks or so. We have orders that go to next May, but they could be shortened, and they could be extended. Some think they won’t let us go beyond six months, as that is when VA benefits kick in. But, six months is not too far off, and we have not heard anything yet.

On BIAP, we enjoy a relative amount of safety and security. Sure, something could still happen, and you must keep your guard up, but at least we are not out in the middle of the desert or a jungle. I only get to leave BIAP on occasion, and when I do, it is with quite an arsenal of weapons and ammo.

Honestly, with all that's happened since I wrote this, it feels like it was a whole other lifetime ago. I'll post Part II in a few days...

Monday, February 1, 2010

What Are You Going To Do About It?

Recently, I had lunch with a colleague, and we discussed many things. At one point, we were discussing the Connect Group which Mindy (my wife) and I lead through our church. It’s a book study group based on Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover (TMMO). We’ve led the group through two semesters, and are just about to start our third. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a passion for personal finance. I’ve read all kinds of books on it, and tried all sorts of systems. But it wasn’t until TMMO that I found something that really works.

My friend told me what we are doing is important, and he put it this way: “The three big rocks in a marriage are Intimacy, Communication, and Finances.” I’d never really thought about marriage with such uncomplicated clarity before. Both he and I are Christians, so involving God in your marriage was a given. The more I think about what he told me, the more it makes sense. If a man and a wife get those three things synchronized, then any other issues should tend to fall in place.

Now, I’m not about to give anyone advice on Intimacy, but I do know it’s important. Anyone who watches the news reported on society today would know it was important as well. And, I’m the last person you should talk to about better communications with your spouse – I’m too task-oriented. But, you start talking about Personal Finance and you’ve got my attention.

It’s no secret that our economy has struggled for the last two years. In turn, this has caused many families to struggle as well. But, my question would be this:

“What are You going to do about it? Are You taking a good, hard look in the mirror?”

See each of those big three rocks mentioned above are very personal things. No one is asking the government to assist their marriage with bailouts of Intimacy or Communication. Why then would we ask the government to assist with our Personal Finances? Maybe as a Nation, we just don’t know where to start. Here is a starting point, two items: Contentment & A Developed Plan.

Contentment: We are a living in a Society of Debtors, because we are not content. The wealthiest nation on the planet, and yet we are servants to lenders! Being a debt society is one of the culprits of our current economic crisis. We have replaced our needs with our desires. We place our desires before our needs. We need healthcare, but how many are willing to place that expense as a priority above entertainment? It is great to have desires, but we must live within our means and not “reward” ourselves until we can afford it. Contentment requires discipline. Discipline requires Focus.

A Developed Plan: A well-written plan requires focus to develop. It must be laid out in an achievable manner and help you reach your goals. A plan isn’t just something you write and throw on the shelf though either. A plan is a course of action, which means that it must cause you to do something. In this case, we want it to be positive action. A study of Harvard graduates found that after two years, the 3 percent who had written goals achieved more financially than the other 97 percent combined! That is an incredible stat which should motivate you to write down anything you hope to achieve.

This may not directly help with Intimacy or Communication in marriage, perhaps only in an indirect manner. Start working on the betterment of your Personal Finances, and partner with your spouse in this area. Doing this will open up lines of communication, and get you agreeing on the money allocation plan (budget) together. When you start communicating on one thing, other topics are sure to follow. The more you are communicating with one another, the more intimacy you will start to enjoy. I’ve heard it said that money fights are the number one cause of divorce in America. So, stop fighting about money, and start focusing on being content and building a plan. It may just transform your marriage!