Monday, February 28, 2011

Two Days in the Life

The days are kind of a blur.

Yesterday morning, we pushed out at oh-dark-thirty to start a 24-hour exercise that involved convoy movement, reacting to IEDs, *quelling* ambushes, and towing disabled HMMWVs. It was pretty cool. Very scripted (it was the same thing 3 x in a row, just first without firing shots, then with blanks, and then with real rounds), but still very "hooah" for me because this is the first time I've done this stuff, which is unusual for someone wearing the two bars.

We did it all over again at night, so another big "first" I can check off my list is being able to move, shoot, and communicate while wearing night-vision goggles. Previously, that sort of not-quite-focused greenish imagery was something I only saw in movies and CNN.

Then today, four other soldiers and I trekked down to "regular" Fort Hood for a class on CIDNE (Combined Information Data Network Exchange), a really cool software tool that helps users understand their environment by graphically depicting the Significant Actions (SIGACTs) that occur in the neighborhood.

So in just a span of a few hours, I got to go from jumping out of a gun truck to put down an imaginary ambush with real bullets to "dorking it out" with imagery overlaid with important events on a software system that we'll use in our TOC (Tactical Operations Center).

Two key observations here, both about the nature of modern warfare.

First, the modern U.S. soldier carries way more stuff than his counterpart from any other era or country. In fact, adjusting to all that *stuff* has been one of the toughest transitions for me. It's like, no matter how solid I am with PT, cultural knowledge, Dari, or the day-to-day taskers, I'm still going to look like a soup sandwich if I've got loose straps hanging off my gear, or my helmet looking cockeyed on my head. I know all the stuff we carry is useful, and much of it potentially life-saving, but it sort of makes me think back to Band of Brothers and long for the simpler times when a guy went into the field with his rucksack and rifle. Period. However, those *simpler* times probably meant leaner chow, worse combat medical aid, and greater risk, so I'll stop short before really wanting to make the trade.

Second, the modern U.S. soldier is expected to perform more roles than most peers across time, countries, and cultures. I hesitated and then balked there to use a superlative (I was sure of the first because I know the Roman centurions weren't carrying heavy radios and laser range-finders, but I don't know if they were doing what we'd call Civil-Military missions...and I'm not arrogant enough to say they weren't). My transition from emptying a magazine of 5.56 rounds to plotting points behind a laptop screen isn't even considered remarkable in today's Army. If you'll pardon the awful pun, that's just how we go rolling...along. In fact, that doesn't even factor in the roles of medic, aid worker, social worker, radio operator, diplomat, negotiator, and trainer that any single deployed soldier might be performing in a single day.

Time to go to bed. Stepping off to lead PT tomorrow at the crisp hour of 0450.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Skill Sets

One of the cool things about being in the Army, or just the military in general, is that it gives you a hands-on way to learn about a lot of practical things.

For our convoy training tomorrow, we had to get some HMMWVs ready today. Part of that process inolves PMCS (Preventative Measures, Checks and Services). In other words, we had to make sure the vehicles were ready to go. I could've pulled the "I'm an Officer" card and sort of just slunk back to the rear, but that's not my way. Now, I know my way around the area under the hood of a Hummer, and can do all the basic services, checks, and fluids. I can also load frequencies into the radios and set up the vehicle's interior comms system.

Even just 24 hours ago, I woudn't have been able to say that.

For the rest of our time mobilized, I'll periodically try to *capture* new opportunities to develop new skills. Covering them here will give me a great way to look back down the line and say, "Oh yeah...that's where I learned about setting up that MacGyver-looking tennis ball toaster bomb. That thing was pretty cool!"

But seriously, though...people always talk about making themselves better on their deployments. 9 times out of 10, that's going to be a diet or exercise reference, but another way I might take it on is by concentrating on practical skills (basic mechanical, building repair, vehicle maintenance, etc.) and thereby growing my personal toolkit in an area where it feels a bit light sometimes.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hey, Who You Callin' a POG?

"The older I get, the faster I was." -- Anonymous

Roughly two thousand years ago, just after a legion of Roman soldiers stopped in front of a steam to take a drink and a break before making the rest of their way across Carthage, one turned to the other, and said, "You know what, man? This isn't the shit that I signed up for."

Of course, I wasn't there...I was late for the party by roughly two millennia, give or take a few years. So what makes me so confident that it happened?

Because the italicized line above is among the most common laments of soldiers across all cultures, countries, and eras. Once or twice since we've been mobilized, I've even let it slip a time or two. My sob story is that I came over to the Army to do Civil Affairs -- the MOS that I thought best matched my interests, abilities, and ideals. The spot the Guard offered up wasn't there for me once I got there, so I sort of fell back on the world I had come from. I love that world, but it's not as hands-on as Civil Affairs, where the real backbone of counterinsurgency lies.

As a staff puke with a Brigade Headquarters Unit, I am certainly a Person Other than Grunt (POG). POG, by the way, is a derisive term used to describe Fobbits, REMFs, or whatever other term is used to describe those who primarily work on bases. However, the important thing to bear in mind is that the appellation fits for ALL of the unit, which is a Brigade Headquarters. The problem, though, is that everyone has some type of "Action Guy" background to bring up whenever dismissing the other people in the unit as being a bunch of snivelly POGs.

Never mind how old, out-of-shape, or tactically unsound someone might be today...the fact that they held an 11B infantry MOS and used to do 12-mile ruck marches uphill both ways in the snow during the 1980s is their scoundrel-esque last refuge for settling any tactically-based argument.

At some point, I'll admit, it becomes hard for me to listen to (Hey, I warned you...not all the entries here are going to be 100% positive). I'm just not that impressed with the "Combat Arms" credentials of someone who spent a few years' worth of weekends in a Field Artillery unit and has spent the last couple decades talking about it. Ditto for someone who did a four-year enlistment in the Marines, followed by twenty or so years in the Guard, but still calls himself "Devil Dog." Huh?

I think if you're going to walk the walk, awesome...and I'll measure anyone's ability to do that by what he or she can do today. I'll embrace my "Combat Support" role for the next 300+ days with gusto, but I think when I get back home to Massachusetts it might be high time for another unit and Military Occupational Specialty.

I'd prefer the company of those who do, now as opposed to those who did, then.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Living FOBulous

So North Fort Hood isn't really Fort Hood proper. In fact, it's a completely different posts with different Entry Control Points...and it's about 45 minutes from the main post. We live here with several other National Guard units -- mostly bound for Afghanistan, but some headed to Iraq (including a Maintenance Co. from Maryland that has the interesting mission of traveling around the American bases still left in Iraq and helping get rid of broken gear).

The conditions sort of replicate a Forward Operating Base (FOB). We carry our weapons wherever we go, we eat in a chow hall reminiscent of the ones overseas, and we're restricted to either the Army Camouflage Uniforms or our PT uniforms.

Despite some of the stressors of training, the sleep deprivation, and the fact that I'm living next to or on top of so many people (the picture here doesn't really do our squad bay's 68 guys living like this in a big room with a few lockers in between rows of bunkbeds), life here is pretty routine and it's not that bad.

I have three meals a day, I never have to wonder what to wear or where to go, and I've always got something to be doing. I could sort of go on like this indefinitely.

The tough part, however, comes when I stop and think about how much I miss Ratriey. Still, I consider myself very lucky that she has a huge, supportive family.

I think the military model really breaks when people marry young, plant their wife down somewhere like Watertown, NY or Fayetteville, NC where she no knows no one and has little support structure, and then go on repeated combat tours overseas. On top of the normal stressors of separation and anxiety, the real challenge for the spouse that's *left behind* there is how to find constructive, positive ways to cope with the isolation. There are aspects of this deployment that will be hard on both my wife and I, but neither of us will struggle to find our place this year -- I'll be putting in the endless days with my unit, and she'll be essentially living the life she lived before we met, in the same physical environment with nearly all of the same people.

Maybe this is an absurdly "glass half-full" way of looking at it, but it may even make all involved parties stronger.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why It's Different This Time

24 down, 300-something to go. Acclimated to the Texas heat and humidity, and actually enjoying the break from the Massachusetts winter, thank you very much.

So my Internet access is sort of spotty, and my time is sort of limited. Blog productivity is down a bit lately and may stay down for the next month or so. When I do post, I am generally going to focus on "snapshots" -- either actual pictures or quick stories that give little vignettes into the ongoings of a National Guard unit getting ready to do peacekeeping, or security providing, or full-spectrum operations, or whatever else someone might want to call it. It's not necessarily going to be anything philosophical or thoughtful, so please don't read into it too much (the tone may swing from frustrated to ecstatic to overtired and back again all within a week's worth of entries).

That said, one thing worth reflecting on, now that I've been down here for just over a week that feels like just over a month, is how different this deployment is from my other trips overseas.

The most major difference here is that when I was in the Navy, I did spend 15 months in Iraq, but they were in an explicitly *support* position. Now, while I'm admittedly going to be quite a ways away from the riflemen down in Khost or Kunar, both literally and figuratively, I'm still at the end of the day a soldier in the war zone who may be tasked with any of a myriad number of potential tasks, and who must be trained in several core competencies.

That makes this go-around totally different from the times before.

While I undoubtedly did some pretty neat stuff over there, most of what I did was constrained by the confines of a large Forward Operating Base. Even when I left the FOB, I was literally surrounded by Marines or SOF operators who were the "rough men ready to commit violence" that George Orwell credits with our sound sleep at night. Only now do I realize how woefully underprepared I had been if the fit really had hit the shan. Would I have been able to perform immediate actions on my rifle it didn't fire right away? No. Now, I can knock out a functions check in my sleep and can field strip the thing in under a minute when it needs cleaning.

And as much as it frustrates me that regulations don't allow inter-service transfers to wear the "been there" patch, and the way that some people don't seem to take the idea that sailors might actually be risking their lives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan seriously, I have to concede that they're *sort of* on to something.

I never had to drive HMMWVs or ride in deuce-and-a-halfs before. I never had to maintain my personal weapons for inspections. I never had to practice an escape from an upside down MRAP in a simulator at Fort Hood while three Staff Sergeants grilled me for risking my guys' lives by not pulling security in the right position. I had a much narrower lane, and all I really had to do was stay in it. It was still meaningful, and important -- in some ways, moreso than whatever the people who roll their eyes at me when I mention Iraq may have done -- but I can see why, in the eyes of some soldiers, that it doesn't really *count.*

There are still some tough growing pains with the adjustment to the Army, like when I reached "Winchester" on my rifle qual with half the targets still yet to pop up, because I didn't realize I had only 40 rounds to shoot at 40 targets (I had been taking second and third shots at pop-ups that I missed). Wearing the gear properly is still challenging at times, and it still causes confusion among Privates and Specialists who wonder why "that Captain" has all kinds of loose straps dangling off of his body armor.

I think that'll settle out when we get "over there," and the confidence I've gotten from having been to the rodeo a few times before will pay off in a major way. Knowing what I know about Kabul, having an Officer on staff who understands Afghan culture and can carry on a 15-minute conversation in Dari is infinitely more valuable than a comparable soldier who doesn't understand the operating environment but can put steel on 40 consecutive pop-up targets on a range.

I'm feeling readier and readier for that C-17 ride all the time.

Friday, February 18, 2011

All Good in the Hood

19 in, 381 out.

So far, so good.

I've been taking notes here and there, I've been snapping away some photos with my handy iPhone here and there, but the biggest limitation I've had here w/blogging is the lack of Wi-Fi in the barracks. Internet access is limited to a shared, public area with more people trying to get online than there are available terminals.

I'm hoping to be able to blog a bit more as there are rumors of Wi-Fi coming around soon. Amazingly, I may have a much easier time blogging from overseas.

I hope all is well in your corner of the world...and as always, thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Warehouse of Nothing

14 in, 386 out.

If you can understand and appreciate the ending of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," you already know pretty much everything you need to about being on a staff.

A lot of your success has nothing to do with marksmanship, land navigation, tactical first aid skills, or even physical fitness. Instead, it mostly has to do with whether you're a self-starter, and whether you have a dogged persistence in you to follow up on taskings from higher up the food chain.

If your boss is worth his salt, he or she will NEVER settle for "it's in the works" as a complete answer to a follow-up query about a tasking. Instead, the second-and third-order questions that should follow will be along the lines of "Okay, well, where exactly in the process is that?" or "Whose hands is it in right now?"

Those aren't unreasonable questions. What no one wants to have happen is for an important document or product to wind up in the virtual equivalent of the warehouse shown at the end of the first of the Indiana Jones flicks.

If everyone on a staff landed in the upper-right corner of the Competence and Motivation Matrix, a lot of the follow-up wouldn't be required.

I'll admit that it's tough for me to see how people whose motivation level seems to register barely above a "flatliner" suddenly become very engaged when the subject of 'goodies' comes up...whether it's a cool new piece of gear, a chance to get some bonus leave or a pass, or an opportunity to clarify their own clerical issue, people who would otherwise be content sending things off to the warehouse featured in the 35-second clip can suddenly find that innovation, creativity, and motivation that don't seem to apply when we're talking about the mission or its requirements.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Boston's Other Boggs

A few days in, a whole lot more out.

The Globe ran a great story today about Major George Boggs of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, who was recently recognized for his excellent work with the BPD K-9 unit. (And yes, there's a Lowell connection was Commissioner Davis who recognized him).

He is now getting a ready to spend a year away from the Department as he'll be serving in Afghanistan.

This story, much like the WCVB coverage referenced in my last post, or the story here about Lieutenant Colonel Bazer, the 'rabbi for the heroes,' shows that the media isn't necessarily 'out to get' the military. Yes, the media plays a role in exposing wrongdoing (in the military or anywhere else) but it also highlights positive stories such as these. I would argue that both sides could benefit from more mutual understanding.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

WCVB...Reporting from Kabul

11 days in, 389 out.

There is some really great coverage of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, all the way from Milford to Reading to Bourne to Kabul and everywhere in between, all linked here on the WCVB website.

If you click on the Sean Kelly embedded stuff, you can see a reporter who has been over to Kabul with the 1-181 (that's an Infantry battalion based out of Worcester). The videos give a sense of the soldiers' experiences living at Camp Phoenix, conducting foot patrols out in town, and some of the day-to-day stuff they deal with.

It's worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Don't Sweat the Staff Stuff

10 in, 390 out.

If you want to get a glimpse of what things are like in the wild and crazy mountains along the Af-Pak border, read "War," by Junger or watch Restrepo.

Now imagine the total opposite. Imagine Office Space, but everyone's wearing a cool-looking camouflage-pattern uniform. That's more like being on a staff.

I haven't even left Massachusetts yet, but my days have been long (from the alarm clock going off to the key turning in my front door we're talking 16 hours, easily) and somewhat stressful. I haven't come up with a great analogy yet but I sort of imagine it being like the ball inside a pinball machine -- always bouncing around, dodging obstacles, occasionally racking up points for being in the right place at the right time, but never really resting.

When I think about the crazy things that happen in a day -- the fiesty Captain who somehow thought it was my fault that some e-mails sent overseas were bouncing back, the people who freeloaded off the pizza I ordered even though I put it out as a $5 take-it-or-leave-it buy-in offer, and the confusion among some of the staff sections about which duties belonged to whom, something becomes very clear: None of that stuff really matters.

Life, limb, and eyesight matter. Afghanistan getting up on its own two feet matters.

Stolen pizza, arrogant Officers, and top-heavy staff shenanigans don't.

The beat goes on.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hey Sarge, Can I Blog This?

If you've ever wondered whether deployed soldiers are allowed to blog, the answer is a resounding, "YES." There were a lot of issues with blogs and social media at first, but at some point the military realized that if you can't beat 'em, you might want to join 'em, and that they can be a great way for deployed soldiers to stay in contact with loved ones, and also to share information with future would-be soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, or coasties.

The obvious points are, well, obvious. No talking about future operations, capabilities, known enemy capabilities, etc. The big picture stuff is fair game, though, and this dawned on me when I sat down at Mickey D's on Main Street in Reading today and saw this:

The 26th “Yankee” Brigade Headquarters and the 26th Signal Company stationed right here in Reading at Camp Curtis-Guild will deploy to Afghanistan for one year beginning this February.

There is going to be a deployment ceremony held at the Reading Memorial High School Hawkes Field House on February 15, 2011 at 9:00 AM. The 300 Soldiers attending this ceremony will board busses at the conclusion of the ceremony and depart for their planes at Hanscom Air Force Base.

Frank Driscoll, Reading’s Veterans Service Officer, is asking the residents of Reading to donate the cost of a specially designed sweatshirt, purchased locally, to be given to each Soldier as they board the bus to show the support of the town, and to boost morale for the journey ahead. The cost for each shirt is $25 and your donation can be dropped off at the Town Hall or mailed to Frank Driscoll at Town Hall, 16 Lowell Street, Reading MA, 01867. The deadline for donations is Thursday, February 3rd.

The t-shirt deadline has passed (and they exceeded the goal!) but the point is this -- not everything involving the military is shrouded in secrecy and it shouldn't be. 'Citizen' still makes up half of 'citizen-soldier,' and if the military wants to complain about media or widespread societal misunderstanding of what it is and what it does, a good place to start is by sharing the shareable.

The Eleventh Floor

8 in, 392 out. The 'period not to exceed 400 days' just keeps rolling along.

So how 'bout that Super Bowl prediction, eh? That guy is amazing.

I saw a great YouTube video of Daniel Gilbert speaking at a conference. He asked the audience, "Who do you think is happier -- a paraplegic or a lottery winner?"

As it turns out, it's not a trick question, but the answer might be counterintuitive to many. Of course, for a short burst of time immediately following either a lottery win or a life-changing accident, the involved individuals are likely to see a big spike or big drop in happiness, respectively. However, once the waters settle back down, so to speak, people just revert to however they were before. So if someone who wins the lottery is paranoid and insecure, he or she will be right back at it within a short period of time. If someone with a pleasant demeanor and positive outlook gets hit by a bus and loses the use of both legs, that same personality isn't really going to be affected in the long-term.

When Gilbert mentioned how people almost always revert back to their baseline happiness levels within three months of a traumatic experience, I wasn't surprised at all. It's hard to believe, but three months back from the time I had heard it, pretty much all of my major bodily functions involved tubes, and the prognosis was unknown.

By the grace of God, that's no longer the case at all...and the few periodic checkups won't even affect my deployment schedule. I braced for the worst, but eating and talking are, by and large, just like they were before.

Personality-wise, I'd say I'm the exact same.

I still believe in transparency, inclusion, and a wariness towards the *hard sell.*

I still get frustrated on the road when drivers act like everything is zero-sum and they will somehow *lose* by ceding an inch or letting someone in who needs to change lanes.

I still act just the same towards colleagues at work, towards my wife at home, and towards friends anywhere else.

And, even though it'd be no surprise to Daniel Gilbert, someone who studies happiness for a living, the same small day-to-day things bring a smile to my face.

Still, today was my last periodic visit before the big plane ride, and I think one of the things that hits me by going back up to Floor 11 of MEEI or Floor 7 of Yawkey is the way that certain thoughts, fears, and memories can crawl out of the places where they're normally stowed away.

I've obviously moved forward -- and that's undoubtedly a good thing -- but going back to such places is still an important reminder about what not to take for granted.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Break Time

7 in, 393 out.

Well, it's really nice to be home right now. After a long week that really felt mostly like a long day, I'm home at a normal hour tonight as we were cut loose for the Super Bowl. My wild and crazy plans involve Pizza Hut with Ratriey and (hopefully) falling asleep early enough to recover from the nagging cough/head cold that I've been trying to fight all week.

I've been kicking around all kinds of thoughts about being a staff officer, about how the unit is coming together now, about how things might change at the mobilization station, etc. but right now I'm too exhausted for it all, so I'll kick it off to another day.

I will say this, though -- I know a guy here in Lowell who predicted every single NFL playoff game this year. I was there when he did it, and then when he got to the AFC and NFC championship games, he said "The Super Bowl is going to be the Packers and the Steelers," and just sort of stopped there.

I'll admit I had some goosebumps when it happened, and I just had to check in with him last Saturday.

His prediction? Packers, covering and going over. Maybe just to show off a bit, he even threw a score out there -- 33 to 26.*

* I am writing this 15 minutes before kickoff.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Maybe It Oughta Be...You

4 in, 396 out.

After two straight nights of catching z's on a linoleum floor under a desk in Reading, it's nice that work and weather have let up just enough to get me back to Lowell -- even if it's just for an hour or so before hitting the hay and then waking up at 0400 to drive back.

Before I do that, though, I'll say this: we are very top-heavy. Emphasis on the very. We are an HQ staff, so nearly 1/3 of us are officers, and if you add in the senior enlisted (E-7 and above), you're way into the numerical majority.

That's not really how it's supposed to work. In a normal line Company, you would have a handful of Officers (including the boss, a Captain), several more NCOs, and then you'd have a huge *base* of junior enlisted (Privates and Specialists). Think of a pyramid as a model.

We kind of flip that on its head, which is generally okay, but it drives me nuts every time I hear someone say, "I can't believe I'm doing [x]. Isn't there some Specialist or Private who should be doing this?"

Well, oftentimes there simply isn't.

So the way I interpret that is that if the water bubbler is empty I can simply grab a full one, rip the top off, and replace it...rather than kick it, curse, and walk away.

If a trash barrel is being stuffed past the brim, I can tie it up and put in a fresh liner...rather than play the trash 'jenga' puzzle of seeing where I can stack my garbage on top of something else.

And if something needs to be cleaned up, that means the choice is sometimes between doing it now, doing it later, or not doing it -- but certainly not expending just as much effort finding someone to pawn it off on.

Top-heavy units aren't all bad...they bring a lot of operational experience and perspective to the fight.

But the whole thing only really works when the people in them can check their egos at the door. Sometimes, if a Master Sergeant or a Major wants to make something happen, the simplest and most effective way might be the self-initiated one.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When Summer Camp February

3 in, 397 out.

The pic you see here was blatantly heisted from You might recognize its author as the "Pride of Attleboro" featured in Monday's entry.

Someone asked me what day of the week it was today, and I honestly didn't know. I don't mean to be too dramatic here -- of course, after a few moments of moving back from Monday and then going forward from there I cracked the riddle -- but the way the days of the week can pretty quickly blur into irrelevancy during a deployment is well-known among all services and branches.

Maybe it's a little scary that I'm hitting that milestone so soon, but I think I can pass that off on how not going home last night threw me off just enough to kick the ol' day-to-day rhythm off its axis.

Still, how fitting is it that it would happen on Groundhog Day?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Problem? Not Here..

2 in, 398 out.

The First Sergeant's guidance on Monday was pretty clear:

"As we all know, there's bad weather in the forecast. That's not an excuse for being late to formation...leave your house an hour early, or just stay here on post, but if you miss formation on Wednesday, you will be spending some quality time with me in my office."

That made my plan here simple -- bivouac here in the office tonight, avoid tonight's evening commute along with tomorrow morning's commute, and rule out any possibility of being *that guy.*

Inevitably, someone will miss first formation tomorrow, and he or she will blame the weather. If there are disciplinary consequences, the soldier will complain to any sympathetic ear that the leadership is just being so ridiculous, because the treacherous commute is clearly the reason for the infraction.

Conveniently, the offer made by the leadership to stay the night will be left out in the retelling.

That's almost always the case with stories like that.

Yes, things get screwed up in the Army, as they do in any other organization. Sometimes the regulations don't make sense, and oftentimes they're enforced arbitrarily.

But anytime you hear stories about the heartless First Sergeant who punished the poor Private for a rules infraction despite the obvious mitigating circumstances, it's always important to remember this:

You're only hearing half the story.