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BLOG: 140th Civil Engineering Squadron in Slovenia

SLOVENIA -- The following are notes from Slovenia, where the 140th Civil Engineer Squadron is currently working.

Day 1: We finally arrived in Slovenia, but the jet lag is insidious. 

Our journey started in Denver on Thursday morning at Buckley Air Force Base.  Some had driven more than an hour to report at 0730 and others wrapped up late business staying up late the night before.  Some were simply tired when they arrived.  But the excitement of traveling to Slovenia for National Guard training displace all that tiredness.  We were heading over to Europe and that is cause enough to be awake and ready to go.

Because of a snafu with the Base's bus, transportation to Denver International Airport was purchased out of pocket.  Chief Allen rented a Hummer limousine which came out to $12 per person for cab fare - and that was cheaper than any other shuttle.

We all left from Denver International Airport and would arrive in Venice, Italy.  But there were different airlines and routes.   It wasn't a tactically devised plan to divide the group.   But after a military airlift fell through, no one single airline had enough seats for everyone in the squadron.  Some flew Delta through Atlanta, others flew American to Philadelphia, and others connected through somewhere else.

On those flights, some of us were able to catch a nap during the 14 hours of flying.  But restful, relaxing sleep in an airline's cheap-seat section is almost impossible.  We all watched movies on the little screen in front of us, ate a couple of meals and shifted uncomfortably in those too-small coach seats.  Even though crossing the Atlantic today is miraculous compared to just 50 years ago, modern air travel on a budget is still tiring and cramped.

At 0900 on Friday morning, we arrived, tired but enthusiastic to be in Europe.  We collected our baggage then boarded a Slovenian Armed Forces bus for the two hour drive to our final destination.  Most of us have never been to Italy or Slovenia before.  A mix of tiredness and excited chatter filled the bus with the novelty of seeing this part of the world overwhelming the desire to sleep on the ride.

When we arrived at the barracks, a tour, a classroom briefing, a project update and sitting still  allowed the pent-up weariness to escape.  Yawning and a fatigued brain-fog set in on most everyone and the symptoms of jet lag became apparent.   It is insidious.

Here's how jet lag sneaks up on you:  Jet Airplanes can move travelers anywhere on the planet within 24 hours - which is the key.  Most humans have an internal biological clock that keeps their brains and bodies synchronized over 24 hour periods.  That means the weird fatigue we're feeling in the bright European afternoon is a fight between the brain wanting to automatically slip into an early morning deep sleep cycle while the body is seeing bright afternoon sun and enjoying the adventure of being a tourist.  It is a very real mix of deep sleep brain waves and wide awake activity that makes the traveler feel "foggy."  The body's confusion is so real, the FAA has taught pilots for years that jet lag's brain-fog can be a recipe for disaster.

Today's work schedule was designed to "hit the ground running."  But Captain Jerome Limoge, the Squadron's commander, can see the fatigue in everyone and has made a decision to stop.  Fatigue causes accidents, and safety is paramount.  Whatever was scheduled for Day 1 would be pushed into Day 2.  Instead of "hitting the ground running," Day 1 would be adjusted to unpack suitcases, shower and hitting the rack. 

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Day 2: The day began with 5AM daylight brightening the rooms.  The early morning sun began separating the wooded mountain horizon from the sky just a few minutes earlier.  Where exactly is east?  No one can tell just yet with the sky simply getting brighter while the sun remains hidden behind one of the many mountains surrounding the barracks.

The morning sounds are a hushed blanket of running water, electric toothbrushes, razors, and limited conversation.  Everyone has the same pressing mission: get up, get dressed and walk to the chow hall for a cup of coffee and breakfast.

The Dining Facility, or DFAC, opens at 0600 and is much larger than this little base seems to need.  No one but our little squadron is eating breakfast there anyway.  We arrived during Slovenia's Independence holiday - which means a 4 day weekend for most of the full timers on the base. 

The tables are dressed with fabric tablecloths and the flowers centerpieces are real.  The European sense of proper dining is a fact of life here, even in the military. 

The cooks prepared breakfast before the DFAC opened, and now at 0600 they relax and chat with one another at a table.  Breakfast isn't served, it is waiting in a corner self-serve breakfast bar. 

Everyone has the same question, "Where are the coffee mugs?"  Plastic tumblers are stacked up by the hundreds, but there are no mugs.  It doesn't take long for a pragmatic Airmen to grab a tumbler or two and make do. 

Two large stainless steel thermos dispensers sit side by side on a cart with hand written signs identifying the contents as "cofi" and "milk."  Boxes of shelf-stable milk sit next to the thermos but most Americans expect milk to be cold - no matter how it's served.  But the milk isn't cold, it's steaming hot.

Some of our sleepy brains won't discover the temperature inversion until we sit down and try to chug a tall glass of milk.  Others will soon figure out that their stays-crispy-in-milk cereal turns into a wilted mush instantly when hot milk is poured over it.  The abandoned tumbler filled with hot milk sitting next to the dispenser was a warning sign that many of us missed.

At least the coffee was a known quantity.  You should see the dark rich blackness that poured into the plastic tumblers.  Their cofi is some of the blackest brew that a few of us die-hard coffee drinkers recognize as a little stronger than normal, but the urge for caffeine overrules the stark blackness.

New Orleans is known for chicory coffees.  They sell it as a specialty brew and charge the tourists extra for it.  But chicory is a penny pinching ingredient that "helps coffee go twice as far."  Or perhaps the Slovenians have a recipe similar to Postum. the "roasted grain beverage" invented by the Possum Cereal Company in 1895 as a healthful alternative to coffee.  It isn't until the first sip that the double-takes start.   My eyes see coffee, but my tongue knows it ain't.  This goes on for sip after sip around the room.

Our Slovenian hosts know there's a difference too. That's why there's an instant coffee vending machine on the first floor of the visitors' barracks. 

Day 2, Part 2:

This morning's briefing outlines the day's tasks, safety concerns, and logistic tasks.  It's mundane stuff for the initiated, but for observers, this project looks like a orchestrated parade.  We met four Colorado Army National Guardsmen who arrived late yesterday.  They bring electrical, plumbing and structural experience with them and plug into the team effortlessly.  There are a few Army/Air Force jabs, but everyone knows we're Guard family with a slightly different uniform.

We board the bus and take a leisurely ride through Slovenia's beautiful wooded mountains.  They remind me of the Smoky Mountains with some of Colorado's taller and more jagged peaks a little further on the horizon.   After winding along a dirt road for a few kilometers and passing large piles of cut trees, the bus reaches our destination.  Slovenian and American soldiers are nearby in a small tent city for a training exercise.

"This is the project." Captain Limoge announces somewhat proudly with a sweeping hand.  It is a barn.  But it isn't an ordinary barn, It is an extremely old barn that is part of Slovenia's national heritage.  Someone cracks a remark that "All that barn needs is a good coat of fire."  Nope.  It's going to be rebuilt into an office building and the 140th Civil Engineers are the ones who are going to do it. 

Walt Disney made the Ugly Ducking famous in 1938.  The poor ugly outcast that later becomes a beautiful swan is a cliche these days, but that's the idea with this barn.  The blueprints show a conceptual drawing of the stone building with arched doors and craftsman style windows.  Comparing the blueprint drawings to the actual barn, it looks like an army of workers are going to transform the place.  And that's exactly the plan - except most of 'em are Air Foce.

And since it is a Slovenian Armed Forces property, it will be more utilitarian than and architectural showpiece.  But the transformation will be somewhat miraculous.

Walt Disney also made this barn famous.  Well, sorta.  Disney retold the story of the rescue of the Lipizzan horses during World War II by American troops in his movie, Miracle of the White Stallions.  Those horses came from this barn that was originally built in the 17th Century to house the Lipizzan breed that takes its name from the Slovenian village of Lipica (spelled "Lipizza" in Italian). The Habsburg nobility supported the breeding efforts and paid for the barn that would later become a barracks for Italian soldiers, then Yugoslavian troops. 

Today, it sits on Slovenia Armed Forces property and the state partnership with the Colorado National Guard and Slovenia is the perfect avenue to train Guardsmen how to deploy and build in foreign environments without a Home Depot a couple miles away.  The training also forces troops to work with metric dimensions while working with Slovenian purchased supplies.  And the work will be difficult.  Renovation is much more difficult than building new construction.

A horse barn built 300 years ago has some design differences than any modern building.  Built on a hill, one end is substantially higher than the other to allow for water to flush the muck away from the stalls.  The rough concrete floor has two gutters molded into the floor that look like deep tire grooves in a road.  The floor also has embedded stantion post remnants and what look like original wrought iron hobble rings.  Today, laser levels were used to draw lines for stepped level decking over the sloped concrete.    

As for the ceiling, it is an example of old world craftsmanship with hewn beams supporting square timbers that hold sawed boards.  Any Tudor style building from 300 years ago would have a similar ceiling.  This created an attic which was insulated with straw.  Today, that straw  created a cloud of foul smelling dust when the crew took turns shoveling it to prepare it for modern insulation.

Tomorrow, the floor and attic will be getting a cleaning, then a modern material makeover.