Saturday, October 23, 2010

Context for 12 Tours

Okay, so back to another theme here -- civil-military relations.

Recently, a 29 year-old Sergeant First Class from the 1/75 Ranger Regiment was killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan while serving on his twelfth tour of overseas duty.

There has been a lot of emphasis put on this number in the media (including Bob Herbert's column today), and a lot of genuine curiosity on the part of people who wonder "How is that possible?"

First of all, it is an amazing, impressive testament to the sacrifice this soldier has placed above so many other areas of his life...not just personal, but even his professional military education (ironically enough, right?). He didn't look for desk jobs to hide out in stateside to work on his degree. Essentially, he has been either at war, in reset phase, or in workup phase to go back, for the past decade.

But back to the question -- it's important for people to know that not all *tours* are created alike.

The first time I went to Iraq was in May of 2006. I took a small plane from a small base in the American southeast to a place called Fort Campbell, KY, which sits just outside of Clarksville, TN. I was with just a couple guys sent out to augment another unit, and the ride we were hitching was courtesy of a unit called the 160th SOAR. Just to make small talk, I turned to the guy next to me in the back of the C-17 and I asked, "So, how many times have you been over to Iraq before?"

His answer: "This is going to be my thirteenth time."

No typo there. And again, bear in mind that this was 2006. By now, this guy may have easily passed the quarter-century mark. The reason why is that his unit is a Special Operations Aviation Regiment that rotates equipment, helicopters, pilots, and mechanics in and out of "theater" on a constantly-rotating basis. He might go in for two weeks, help install replacement parts on four of his birds, fly back home to knock out administrative work at the unit, and then be back in Iraq before the calendar page even turned once again. The marginal cost of all this is very low, by the way, because the heavy birds are going to be doing their inter-theater thing regardless.

All the people I got to know said they really didn't mind. In fact, if you ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine a question along the lines of, "Would you rather have to say goodbye for your family ONCE but for an entire year, or do it four times, all spread out, for three months at a time?," almost every single response will show a preference for the latter.

The Air Force, which tends to be the most personnel-friendly branch, *gets* this. Air Force personnel can deploy, get to know their Army buddies on a base, finish their own deployments, come home, work up again, and then deploy AGAIN back to that same base...and yes, those Army Joes are STILL there, still on their same *pump.*

Special Operations units, which operate at a breakneck optempo, can't deploy people in the same way that a conventional National Guard unit does.

A few years ago, a helo mechanic made huge waves in the headlines by screaming to the media about the Big Bad Army forcing him out the door on his 5th deployment. "Five is just too many!" was the rallying cry he and his wife made. But closer analysis showed that the TOTAL amount of "boots on ground" time the guy had spent was less than that of someone from a conventional unit who had gone twice.

In sum, anyone who has been deployed 12 times since 9/11 is an amazingly noble, dedicated servicemember who repeatedly placed himself or herself in harm's way despite several opportunities for "outs." At the same time, so is any conventional "green-suiter" who has done four standard year-long tours. One is less eye-popping than the other, but the overall sacrifice is similar.

No comments: