07 December 2016

A Holiday Postcard from Camp Dodge, Iowa

Last Fri., Dec. 2, I was honored to present a library copy of the recently published "Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011" to the board of directors of the Iowa Gold Star Museum. The museum is located on Camp Dodge, the National Guard post located in the suburb of Johnston, north of Des Moines, Iowa.

The book collects more than 280 news reports and 320 black-and-white photos from the 2010-2011 deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. The presentation was made on behalf of the Task Force Red Bulls public affairs team of soldier-journalists, who produced most of the project's content while downrange. As a civilian who once embedded as media with that team, I helped collect, collate, and edit the product into book form.

The board's reception of the book was warm and enthusiastic. The board president even inquired as to how to make the book available for sale at the museum's gift shop. I'll keep you posted!

Just before the meeting, an old friend of Sherpa and the Red Bull gave me an unexpected and priceless gift. To a mutual colleague—and in front of me—he recommended my 2015 book of humorous war poetry, "Welcome to FOB Haiku." He then proceeded to quote a few of his favorite haiku from memory! I'll admit, I blushed a little—no doubt, I turned a deep "Red Bull" red. But it was incredible to hear someone I've known and respected for years, quote me to ... well, me. Needless to say, it made my whole weekend!

Before I left the museum, I browsed a display of three Christmas trees in the building's lobby. Each tree is thoughtfully adorned with ornaments naming those fallen service members with Iowa ties.

The Camp Dodge office of the U.S. Army Survivor Outreach Service, the people who provide long-term care to the families of U.S. service members who have died in the line of duty, apparently maintain the display. Visitors to the museum can leave information of other service members to be remembered.

I stopped long enough to find the names of a number of citizen-soldiers I'd known. It was a lovely way to pause for remembrance and reflection, before making my way back into the noise and cold of the workaday world.

Happy Holidays!

30 November 2016

'White Christmas' (1954) is an Olive Drab Fairy Tale

An epiphany of sorts occurred earlier this week, as the Sherpa household took its first steps into this decidedly snow-less Advent season: "White Christmas" (1954), a beloved movie musical that stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, has as much to say about civil-military reintegration as it does getting into the proper holiday spirit.

The movie opens in the European Theater on Christmas Eve, 1944. Army Capt. Bob Wallace (played by Crosby) and Pvt. Phil Davis (Kaye) are entertaining their fellow troops of the fictional U.S. 151st Division. Wallace is a celebrated Broadway entertainer. Davis is hustling for a big break. The first song is the movie's titular track—the big guns are upfront. Fire for effect.

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" manages to deliver the same melancholy as "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a similarly brief 1943 tune composed by Walter Kent, and also popularized by Crosby. Lyricist Kim Gannon wrote the latter based on a poem by Buck Kent. Listening to each song, it's easy to put oneself in the mindset of a soldier deployed far away from home, although only the latter was explicitly written with that intent.

Just in case you don't remember it, Berlin's song goes:
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow […]
While the division's new spit-and-polish commander gets sidetracked on a "shortcut" route back to headquarters ("There's no Christmas in the Army, Colonel!"), outgoing division commander Maj. Gen. Thomas F. Waverly (played by Dean Jagger) says a heartfelt and bittersweet good-bye to the troops. The scene accurately captures the shoulder-chuck joshing and good-natured posturing that is universal among soldiers, in my opinion, as well as the hail-and-farewell affection between officers and subordinates.

(Another example of such humor, later in the film: "We wouldn’t be any good as generals," says the former Pvt. Davis. Waverly gently chides, half-smiling: "You weren’t any good as privates.")

To an upbeat marching tempo, the troops sing a tongue-in-cheek tune called "The Old Man." The title evokes the military custom of informally referring to a commander as "the old man," as long as he is not present:
We'll follow the old man wherever he wants to go
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe

We'll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay
Long as he stays away from the battle's fray

Because we love him, we love him
Especially when he keeps us on the ball

And we'll tell the kiddies we answered duty's call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all
After the war, Wallace and Davis team up on stage to great success. They meet two sisters, who are also entertainers. Eventually, through a series of misadventures, the four encounter the retired general in Vermont, where he owns a failing winter-season resort. There is no snow.

To help bail out their former commander, Wallace and Davis bring their full song-and-dance troupe to Vermont. Wallace surreptitiously reaches out to the division's alumni via an old Army buddy's television variety program. "Remember, then, your objective is Pine Tree, Vermont," says Wallace to the national TV audience. "Synchronize your watches for Operation Waverly!" The troops show up en masse. The girls maneuver the general to wear his old uniform to that evening's stage performance. It is a hugely successful surprise operation. Everyone eats cake.

Appropriately enough, the cake has a tank topper.

Before Santa Crosby shows up, and before the cast sings "White Christmas" one more time, the cast performs a number called "Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army":
[...] When I mustered out
I thought without a doubt
That I was through with all my care and strife
I thought that I was then
The happiest of men
But after months of tough civilian life 
Gee, I wish I was back in the Army
The Army wasn't really bad at all [...]
There's a double-romance in the movie, too, of course, with lots of understandings and misunderstandings along the way. That alone is usually worth the price of admission. Then again, I've had a crush on Rosemary Clooney since I was my son's age. But for me, at least this year, the primary story was that of the general. And the tribe of old soldiers that deployed themselves to do a good deed for an old Army friend. Because they love him.

God bless our buddies everywhere. God bless us, everyone.

22 November 2016

Book Captures 'Red Bull' Stories from Afghan Surge

At the height of the Afghan Surge, more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops were committed to a counterinsurgency (COIN) mission of "clear, hold, and build" on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan: Clear the countryside of insurgent fighters. Hold the terrain, alongside Afghan security forces. Build infrastructure, commerce, and rule-of-law.

As part of this wave, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) deployed more than 3,000 citizen-soldiers to Eastern Afghanistan. It was the largest call-up of Iowa troops since World War II—and one of the only times a U.S. National Guard brigade was designated as a "battlespace owner" during Operation Enduring Freedom. They called themselves "Task Force Red Bulls."

Johnston, Iowa-based Middle West Press LLC announces the November 2016 publication of "Reporting for Duty," an historical collection of U.S. Army public affairs articles and images released during the 2-34th's 2010-2011 deployment as Task Force Red Bulls. The fully indexed, 668-page trade paperback features more than 285 easy-to-read articles, and more than 360 black & white newspaper-quality photos. Retail price is $27.99 U.S. The book is available via national on-line book vendors, such as Amazon here.

A 60-second promotional book trailer is here, and below this blog post.

"Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs produced an amazing amount of content while in Afghanistan—easily more than 1 million words, and hundreds of images," says book's editor Randy Brown. Brown is a retired member of the Iowa unit and a former Iowa community newspaper editor. In May-June 2011, Brown also embedded with the 2-34th BCT for a few weeks in Afghanistan. "During the deployment, readers of individual news articles probably couldn't appreciate the scope and the scale of the missions at hand. Each story related to the larger "clear, hold, and build" mission of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan."

"It's been amazing to pull all of those narratives together, and to re-order them chronologically," Brown says. "With everything collected as a book, the Red Bull's deployment year becomes this epic story—with a beginning, middle, and end."

While digital archives such as the Defense Video and Image Distribution System (DVIDS, pronounced "DIH-vids") continue to operate, Brown notes that many deployment-specific websites and social media channels have proven less permanent. "Websites such as 'IowaRedBulls.com' and 'CJTF-101.com' simply no longer exist," he says. "This on-line history needed to be preserved in print."

With assistance and new insights from former members of the Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs, Brown compiled, edited, and indexed 2010-2011 Army news coverage from "Area of Operations Red Bulls," which includes Parwan, Panjshir and Laghman provinces, along with a portion of Nuristan.

Also included is similar coverage from Paktya Province—"Area of Operations Lethal"—where Iowa's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.) was deployed "Task Force Lethal" under a different brigade's control. Coverage includes a full-spectrum of activities and actions by Red Bull units and their partners, including Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.), Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.), Embedded Training Teams (E.T.T.), and more.

"I'm particularly pleased that we were able to successfully index the coverage," says Brown. "Readers can look up soldiers by name, to find family and friends in every story or photo in which they're mentioned. This is a great research tool. I particularly hope this book finds its way into community, school, family, and museum libraries."

In 2017, the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division celebrates its 100th anniversary. "Middle West Press will be looking at additional projects involving Midwestern voices and history. And continuing to tell the Iowa National Guard and 34th Inf. Div. stories will, no doubt, be a large part of that effort," says Brown.

Middle West Press LLC is a Central Iowa-based independent press, with a mission of preserving and promoting new voices and visions of the American Middle West. For information:
Middle West Press
P.O. Box 31099
Johnston, Iowa 50131-9423
Or visit: www.middlewestpress.com.