Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Pretty Sad Excuse

I'm not sure if some witty neologist has already come up with a word for this phenomenon, but there oughta be at least a five-yard-and-repeat-of-down yellow flag that concerned citizens should be able to throw down somewhere when they see badly forced acronyms, i.e. where it's clear that the word was chosen first, or at least most of the way first, and then the terms thrown in to the point that they only *sort of* make sense.

I'm sitting at a computer terminal at Ali Al-Salem (it's either an Air Force or Army base in Kuwait) and the poster above the computer says, "SHARP: Sexual Harassment Assault Response Prevention." For the record, there's no ampersand thrown in between the words 'response' and 'prevention' that would actually tie the whole thing together and make it make sense.

Whether someone just really liked the word 'SHARP' or they saw it coming together when the S, H, A, unfolded in sequence, what they're literally promoting there is the "Response Prevention."

I don't mean to make light of something that is actually a serious matter within the military, but I'm trying to imagine some very "empowered" organization focusing on "response prevention" and I can't help it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It Will Be

You may not have known this, but there are three sitting US Senators in Afghanistan...on Annual Training.

Senators and Congresspeople visiting the 'Stan is nothing out of the fact, it's so ordinary that many units consider the Congressional Delegations (CODELs) a huge nuisance that drain their time and manpower away from their actual missions. But in the case of Senator Brown, Senator Graham, and Senator Kirk, they are actually spending their congressional recess here, in uniform, serving in actual billets.

Sort of.

Because they also *just so happen* to be sitting Senators, their visits come with a lot more pomp and circumstance than would those of any other pair of O-5s and an O-6.

Getting to meet with LTC Brown was still pretty interesting, and he talked to us about making sure we preserve the gains made in Afghanistan rather than pull the plug on this thing too precipitously and risk losing the momentum that the Afghan government has. That momentum is real, by the way, and I see it every fact, the entire size and scope of the training mission is precisely what makes us NOT the Soviets, the British, Genghis Khan, or Alexander the Great, all of whom failed to build lasting institutions that survived much beyond their respective departures.

I can, and will, write more about that another time.

For now, I'm mostly just thinking about a trip I'm about to take. It's a scheduled follow-up thing with Mass Eye and Ear...and it was a requirement in the med waiver that allowed me to go on this deployment. Basically, I get to go home just long enough to get poked and prodded a bit and have a camera shoved up my nose and into the back of my throat (seriously). After this visit, the next periodic check-up will be once I'm *really* back home, so I can get back on a normal schedule with them then.

I was dreading it for a while, just because it's a LOT of pain-in-the-keeshter of moving through Bagram, Kuwait, Atlanta, and Logan in a nonstop blur that might also involve Leipzig and/or Shannon...and on top of that, I was not looking forward to putting my wife through roller-coaster trip number 5 (the icy parking lot in Reading, then pat leave, then the pass from Hood, then R and R, and now this), but the closer I get to home (the journey starts today), the more I realize I am looking forward to it.

I don't mean the medical part of it, but I do mean the time with Ratriey and Lily. Even if it's just a couple days, I know it will be special, and I know it matters to us.

Plus, it sort of breaks the time up. Once I get back from all the traveling, there will only be three flips of the calendar before the Georgia guys come for the RIP/TOA (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority).

I vow, just as I did last time, to try to write more, to photograph more, and to document more thoughts in the moment.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Getting My Transatlantic Alliance On

I have to give a hat tip (not in the blogger sense but in the old-fashioned one) to the retired O-6 in the room who warned me things might not be so easy post-R & R.

I thought I would sort of waltz back and since I was no longer the "primary" for my section, I would get to hide behind Dad most of the time, work a cushier schedule, and have more time for lengthy PT sessions, watching movies, learning Dari, etc. Not so fast.

As Cliff Krieger warned me more than once when I was home, if the O-5 boss has his druthers, he'll put the motivated O-3 to work. Sure enough, the new boss does, and he has.

Not that that's a bad thing -- the long, long days make the time go faster (on a clear day, I can see past the Hindu Kush foothills clear into September). As I wrote about a couple entries ago, the big picture is that no matter what I was doing here -- no matter how good, bad, exciting, boring, stimulating, or mind-numbing -- the most fundamental, central fact is that my unit will be off of our active orders come February.

Nothing really changes that, so I'm quite happy to be put to good use. It does of course mean that I put any e-mail in my Facebook or Yahoo inbox low enough on the daily to-do list that the box never gets checked (and if you've e-mailed me on either, I won't even say the 's' word because I know you understand), and that I'm not exactly taking time for some of the touchy-feely Morale, Welfare, and Recreation stuff that occupies some soldiers here.

But anyway, back to Camp Phoenix. Seeing some footage of the events this week in Libya naturally got me thinking about NATO. If you forget the whole issue of the-world-is-better-now-but-let's-brace-for-whatever-might-be-taking-shape-in-Tripoli-next and strictly look at things from a tactical perspective, score one for the Treaty Organization.

Things looked quite bleak for a while, and there's no question -- at ANY level of classification -- that NATO airpower and maybe even some, uhh...other power helped tip the scales on this.

NATO has been beaten up a lot lately in intellectual circles, but down at my level (senior Company grade and Field-Grade Officers) things honestly couldn't be much better. A huge portion of my day involves liaising with the French and Canadian militaries (I don't say 'Army' because they're not really divided the way we are), as well as the Bulgarians, Romanians, and once in a while the British.

Everyone shares. Everyone helps each other. Yes, we all have slightly different 'lanes in the road' (it wouldn't make sense otherwise, now would it?) but we have a common goal, which generally involves security operations in and around Kabul, and training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). No one comes to it with a 'zero-sum' mentality, and a lot of us go out of our way to push information out to the others when it really matters.

It's easy for me to start to fall into the mentality of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (not at the end, though, but towards the beginning when he sees only futility in the repetition), and let thoughts about little peeves or the big things I'm missing at home get in the way, but one thing I know I will look back on after the deployment is the way our guys have forged strong relationships with the Canadian and French "J2 guys" that have gone way beyond the initial small formalilities and the shared laughter of trying to literally translate each other's bad words.

We won't all be Generals some day aspiring to be SHAPE, but I think that on some level, that stuff really matters.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Saluting My Sister-in-Law

It's been said many, many times that the toughest job in the military is the one that falls on the spouses and children of deployed soldiers.

Maybe it's almost a cliche, but I don't think that makes it any less true. Yes, we've got the stress, the anxiety, and the Groundhog Day effect going on, but we're with our unit, the folks we know, and we're (theoretically, at least) doing the jobs we were trained to do.

Our families, meanwhile, are going about their business but with a void at home that they'd probably rather not think about or talk about, but can't help from keeping on their mind. Always. For 365 days, which I'm learning can be quite a lengthy period. Unlike this, they don't really know what's going on *over here* even though we have a generally good picture of what's going on *over there.* That can't be easy for them.

And when I think back on stressful professional and personal situations, the toughest times have always come when I was doing something alone, or at least perceived it to be that way. That's what a lot of military spouses go through on deployments, day after day after day get the idea.

Even with a large extended family to offer some help, my wife definitely has the challenging, full-time/all-the-time job of raising an infant while I'm off on the mobilization. The large family is a great help, but the tricky thing there is that most of them have things going on that keep them lots of other little kids to watch after.

But the one key player for us this deployment has been my wife's younger sister, who has been living at our home and helping out a metric ton with babysitting, general support, and a presence which goes a long way.

This really sank in for me when she went away to California to visit some other family members, leaving my wife alone with our daughter. I noticed the tone of frustration that came through in some e-mails and over the phone, and when I tried to calm everything down as only someone 8000 miles away can, what I heard back was a feeling of "This sucks...I'm here dealing with the screaming and crying (which I could hear through the phone) and it just won't stop."

Then, when her sister came back, everything went back to the way it was -- she's not thrilled to be dealing with all of this right now, but the day-to-day aspect was manageable again.

I don't think it comes down to any secret formula or special skill, but it's the general presence of a loving, caring sister and aunt in the house that conveys an unspoken message of 'You're not alone in this' that calms everything down and allays fears.

And that, in turn, puts me back at ease, which I appreciate tremendously.

Less than five months now 'til the replacements come...hooah!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What Pete Said

So there's a guy in our unit who's a partner at a Boston law firm.

And not just ANY law firm, mind you, but a white-shoe firm where even senior associates are proabably getting into quarter-mil territory. I mention that because it's rare to meet Senior National Guard Officers and NCOs who don't either work full-time for the Guard (it's called AGR, or Active Guard/Reserve) or work in a public-sector field like local/state police, or federal/state government GS-type stuff.

That probably has a lot to do with correlating interests, but it also has to do with the fact that the time demands on senior people in the Guard aren't super-compatible with jobs that have strenuous time demands of their own, let alone time for families and other pursuits.

So the partner guy, who's a JAG O-3 (Captain) here, and only a few rings-on-the-tree past me, came into my office the other night, and I got a chance to pick his brain about what it's like over in this Corporate America place.

What he said confirmed everything I think about why I want to check that place out. While there are aspects of his job that basically suck, like the fact that he has to track his time at work down to 6-minute increments (yes, 6-minute increments!) in order to properly bill clients, the basic fact is that no one there has to justify his/her existence, even for a second.

Because it's a firm that optimizes profits, there are people who constantly review its budget for places to cut corners, trim fat, and improve the bottom line. As a result, there's no one in the building who's there just to breathe oxygen. Obviously, people are there to perform different functions, but everyone is needed, and if someone weren't measuring up, well, they'd soon be looking for something new.

Yes, the hours were long. I tried to corner him into telling me about a 'typical' day (there's never such a thing, right?) and it sounded like 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.-ish, with an emphasis on the 'ish').

Sure, that's a lot longer than the typical 40-hour government week, but at least during my active duty and Guard time, days like that have always been the norm. They may have started a bit sooner and ended a bit sooner, but they day length sounded about right.

Another major difference is that there's true zero-sum competition for certain spots. The firm uses one of those pyramid systems, where such-and-such a number of first-year associates will be hired, and then there will be a percentage asked to come back each year, and so on, all the way up to partner. I'll admit that that will be a culture shock coming from seven years in a non-zero-sum type environment.

Still, all told, I'm intrigued by this whole suit-and-tie thing.

At least until I write a follow-up entry a few years from now, lamenting everything about corporate culture and getting wistful about the days in the *actual* green-collar industry.

Just Saying No to This Bailout

I read an article in Stars and Stripes about a week-and-a-half ago about active duty military folks asking for government aid because houses they had purchased were no longer worth the purchase price.

The justification they used in asking for the bailout was that since Uncle Sam had made them move, they had gotten screwed over by the other circumstances, they would just stay in the houses they'd bought and ride the storm out, but here they had no choice but to either take the whack on a sale or continue making payments.

And yes, of course, they made a bunch of sympathy-evoking pleas to their Congresspeople to try to get this legislation through.

I may sound like the evil grinch in August for saying this, but if I were in Congress, I would vote AGAINST a bailout in this case.

To explain, let's put all the 'support the troops' stuff to the side, because I think we can generally assume peoples' hearts are in the right place on that (and if it seems like I'm scoring an own-goal there, well, at least I'm doing it from Kabul).

The facts are, the active-duty military moves its people around every few years. That's part of the deal all along. No one should be surprised by that. Except for a VERY small number of people in a VERY select, small number of units, the military does not allow its people to *homestead.*

The next fact is, the military pays its servicepeople a generous BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), which is not taxable. With a couple Google searches you could look it up for your ZIP code, but as a married Captain living in "the Hanscom AFB area" I get somewhere north of 2500 but south of 3000 (I could look it up myself, but yes, the Wi-Fi here really is THAT slow). Anyway, that's a very generous sum...even with my massive mortgage, that covers the whole enchilada, plus my condo fee and a few other monthly bills. And that's totally separate from my 'base pay' or overseas incentives. But anyway, I'm digressing.

The military treats its people like adults by giving them the BAH, adjusted for rank, ZIP code of duty station, and whether the servicemember has dependents. Then it lets them do what they want.

If you wanted to rent a room in someone's house somewhere for $250 a month and pocket the difference, you could.

If you wanted to rent a 1BR apartment in the Back Bay and blow the whole stipend, you could do that, too.

And yes, if you chose to invest in a house, you could do that, too. But if you were doing that knowing you'd be moving within three years, a lot of people would say you were speculating. And if you were speculating based on the old logic that housing prices only go up, while interest rates only go down, then it's too bad things didn't work out. But the whole *I was forced to move* sympathy bit would only work on someone who didn't realize you knew you would have to move all along.

The fact that the market tanked, and your investment went in a direction you didn't expect is not Uncle Sam's fault. We have to draw the line somewhere, and here I'd say it's a pretty fair place to draw it nice and thick.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Thinking About the Crash

No stock market references in this post, though.

I've been keeping up on all the stories to have come out in the media since the Chinook carrying 38 souls was brought down in neighboring Wardak Province the other night. One of the things I feared -- that someone on that bird had been a guy I had deployed with (Habbaniyah, 07-08) has already come true and I'm bracing for the full release of names by the Pentagon.

One of my best friends is a Naval Officer who supports *those guys* in Virginia Beach. Though he's not a SEAL either, he's a part of the greater community and, considering he's just committed another three years to a constant in-and-out overseas deployment rotation cycle with them, he is fully vested in what they do. I haven't written to him yet, maybe because I don't really know what to say.

What I do know, though, is that op-ed writers, bloggers, and others who are looking for some kind of great symbolism or meaning from this on the strategic level are misguided. Coalition aircraft get shot at every day in Afghanistan. Trust me, I read the reports. A lot of times, it's small arms, which don't pose a huge threat (though if they hit the hydraulic lines in just the right way, look out), but when we're talking RPGs (Rocket-Propelled Grenades) there is a risk to the aircraft. And in Afghanistan, where there are mountains everywhere and most roads are impassable, we rely on those Chinooks quite a bit.

There was no secret that a special brand of Coalition Forces was in Sayed Abad a couple nights ago, as Direct Action missions followed by huge firefights in the middle of the night tend to fall right into their lane.

Everyone in the area knew they were there. An insurgent saw the target, and he fired at it. A terrible tragedy ensued for a lot of people -- not just in Virginia Beach, but in lots of other parts of the US, and in Afghanistan, too (remember, there were seven Afghan soldiers plus some of our regular, non-SEAL Joes).

Whether you agree, disagree, or are somewhere in the middle on the question of whether we should stay committed to Afghanistan, militarily, that SIGACT (Significant Activity) shouldn't change your calculus much.

As for me, I think we're generally on the right track as far as reducing troop numbers gradually (although we play a shell game with troop numbers by hiring 90,000 contractors here...yes, 90,000). We can still stay committed in a more subtle way, as we do in places like Colombia and the Philippines, where insurrections can be quietly thwarted without too many headlines or too much interest back home.

I would also point out that there are a lot of cultural factors in play here in Afghanistan that don't get covered in the "if it bleeds, it leads" 24/7 news media cycle. Driving around Kabul, the signs of western influence are everywhere. Things are way different I'm sure in the Nuristans and the Kunars, but the trend here, where 10%+ of the population actually lives, is a sharp turn away from the folks who would roll the whole thing back to the stone age.

That's not just about televisions, and energy drinks, and American pop music, but it's also a statement about the basic preventive health care introduced since 2001 that's estimated to have saved over a million lives (that's based on Afghan Ministry of Health stats, partly drawn from decreases in infant/child mortality, and partly by reductions in easily-preventable/treatable diseases).

Even though I'm not actually outside-the-wire every day, or even more than twice a week in most cases, a lot of my job involves following trends, writing reports, and developing an understanding of the society around me that can be pushed both up, down, and laterally across the battlespace.

After a few months deeply immersed in observation, reading, writing, and conversing, I don't have any grand conclusions to draw, other than to drown out the shrillest, least informed voices on both sides of the proverbial aisle and come back to this shade of gray: It's complicated.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Secret Out Here

In "Band of Brothers," there was one certifiably badass Officer who was either very brave, very crazy, or perhaps a mix of each. One day, as Easy Company was digging their "improved fighting positions" in the woods of Belgium, someone asked him his secret.

"That's simple," Lt Spears said. "The whole trick in battle is that once the shooting starts, just assume you're already dead. At that point, you stop caring, and then you just can't go wrong."

Of course, that advice doesn't really apply in this portion of this theater at this time. Because we're Fobbits one day, drinking tea with Afghan police chiefs the next day (see picture), then truck commanders the day after, and liaisions with our NATO buddies from France and Canada each morning around dawn, that advice doesn't really apply. On the one hand, our mission is far, far safer than what Easy Company did on its journey from Georgia to England to Germany. Then again, ours is way more complex and varied.

If there were an equivalent "mental trick" out here, it'd be this: Just bear in mind that nothing you do, or are asked to do, is going to get you home to your family any faster or slower.

I think that all the high-performers I see around me intuitively *get* this. As I've even heard our Commanding General say, "I'm not thrilled to be in Afghanistan, away from my wife and kids, but while I'm here I'm damn sure going to make the most of it." The people who don't quite take on this gung ho attitude (and why is it that the most disgruntled tend to be the worst performers?) are too busy complaining about what someone else is or isn't doing, and often spend more times trying to avoid duties or complaining about them than they would just knocking them out.

I'm not even halfway done with the mobilization, though I can't help but notice that "halfway day" is coming closer and closer on the calendar. But what I'm not going to get into is a countdown mode. Besides the fact that it's just too soon for that, the better mentality to have, I believe, is to take whatever comes each day, get *lost* in it (errr...maybe I mean 'immersed' there) and then just sort of let the calendar take care of itself.