31 January 2010

Kaboom: There It Is!

Kaboom cover.jpgThis is a short note that's a little off my usual territory, given that I've chosen to focus Red Bull Rising on a U.S. Army National Guard unit deploying to Afghanistan.

I want to relay some good news, however, regarding the blogging work of Matt Gallagher. Gallagher was deployed as a platoon leader to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2007-08, and was a popular and pithy mil-blogger up until the point that his "Kaboom" blog was shut down, and shut down hard. The subsequent brass-ackward hand-wringing over one soldier's use of the Internet is a cautionary tale, and one reason that I've gone into partial stealth mode as a mil-blogger myself, even while here at home, before the bullets fly.

It's a different Army now, of course, and a different Internet. Things are somewhat less hazy for mil-bloggers today, depending on the particular fiefdom in which you find yourself working. That's because of leaders like Matt Gallagher, who drew fire and cleared the way.

The good news: Last week, Gallagher told his readers that a book based upon his experiences in Iraq is forthcoming in April 2010, and is even available for pre-order from Amazon and other vendors.

Here's how he describes "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War":
It bears a passing resemblance to the material on [the Kaboom] blog, but the majority of its content is new and has been vetted by an honest to Allah editing process. Amazing what another set of eyes can do, isn't it? Further, it spans my unit's entire fifteen months in Iraq, as opposed to the six or so that are chronicled [on Kaboom].
He's a great and insightful writer. I regret that he no longer wears the uniform, but I wish him every success. He deserves it.

30 January 2010

The Ghosts that Haunt Us

I mentioned a little while ago that at least one brother Red Bull was heading downrange to Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (BCT). In a related item, an Associated Press article from earlier this week does a great job of reviewing the Green Mountain State's contributions to the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The article, bylined by the AP's John Curran, starts off a little tongue-in-cheek, but ends bittersweet. Read the first and last paragraphs, and you'll see what I mean:
Vermont, a bastion of ex-hippies and Ben & Jerry liberals, has another distinction seemingly at odds with its peace-loving, tie-dyed politics: It has suffered more deaths per capita in the Iraq war than any other state.


A 1,500-strong Vermont National Guard contingent is now headed for a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan. At a departure ceremony last month, two mothers of Iraq war dead watched solemnly as 350 troops were sent off to war.

“We get concerned that our mere presence is a bit of a downer for the troops,” said Marion Gray, whose stepson was killed in Iraq. “We’re like the ghost that hovers in the background, and always worry about the soldiers looking at us, knowing that we lost a soldier, if that puts a damper on things.”
The Iowa National Guard company of which I am a proud member has already lost one soldier in Afghanistan. Sgt. 1st Class Scott Carney was an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member in August 2007, when he died in a non-combat-related Humvee rollover in Herat Province. I didn't know him well, but he was a go-to guy, and I like to think that he and his family continue to be role models for us.

His widow Jeni was able to muster the wherewithal to attend one or two unit events after the fact, and her poise and grace and faith were absolutely radiant. It could not have been easy to revisit the armory where her husband once worked every day and every drill. I wanted to personally thank her just for being there, but I felt embarrassed and self-conscious. I felt it wasn't my place to intrude, and told myself that others would do the job for me. I talked myself out of my good impulses.

In short, I was a coward. It won't happen again.

I think about that Vermont stepmother, who was worried that soldiers might take her presence as an unwelcome reminder of the costs and risks of war, and her words haunt me. I developed a habit, a few years back, of pushing myself to personally thank veterans for their service. You don't ask about when and where they served--some vets, after all, don't want to dwell on such details. Others know that you had to be there. But, when you see the "USMC" ball cap or Purple Heart license plate or Vietnam campaign ribbon lapel pin, and you say, casually but sincerely: "Thank you for your service."

While wearing the uniform to a local restaurant or grocery store, I've occasionally been on the receiving end of such thanks. I don't always feel worthy of the praise, but I do feel proud--and humbled--that a fellow citizen has taken the time and effort to cross the distance between us, just to say thanks.

Personally, I try to thank family members, too. If you know what to look for, you can pick them out from a crowd. You'll see people wearing a yellow ribbon, or a pinback button with a soldier's picture on it, or a blue-star flag lapel pin, and you'll know that part of them i downrange, too. As the saying goes, "soldiers train, but entire families deploy."

Want to know what you can do? All you have to say is: "Thank you for your soldier's service. And thank you for your family's service, too." If you can read non-Army uniforms, use "sailor," "marine," or "airman" for Navy, Marine, or Air Force personnel. Not sure of the branch of service? Use the generic term "service member." (One final tip: "Airman" applies to both male and female members of the U.S. Air Force.)

I hope that someone told Marion Gray how much it meant to them that she was there. And I hope you reach out to a soldier, veteran, or family member sometime, just to say thanks.

And thank you for reading this.

(More news on the 86th Infantry BCT moving out here. I can't yet explain the headcount discrepancies; "1,500" vs. "more than 3,000" soldiers, but I'll work on it.)

29 January 2010

Housekeeping and Engineering

Every time I think I've established a new battle rhythm, something else comes along to muck it up. This past week, it was a visit from Omah and Opah Sherpa. Like the Air Force says, "Any landing (and parental visit) you can walk away from is a good one." They walked away with a few more grandparenting memories and war stories, and Household-6 and I walked away with a number of remodeling projects nearly finished. And there was much rejoicing.

We also got a chance to talk face-to-face with our parents, about our needs and fears and expectations for the pending deployment. We even talked in more detail than usual about the possible mission. (As an old radio guy, Sherpa refuses to discuss official news over cell phones, cordless phones, and baby monitors. Ever hack one of those Bearcat scanners? You might as well announce personal secrets and credit card numbers to the neighbors via a public address system. Or in the New York Times. Or on one of those ding-dang Internet blogs I keep hearing about.)

Sherpa grew up in an active-duty military family, so everyone was pretty familiar with the drill: You can't say when or where or how, because everything is a secret and, even if it wasn't, it will change 50 times and still be wrong. So it's "hurry up and stew."

I should mention here that there will be more Sherpa news happening in the next few days. Nothing big, but thought I'd try that "foreshadowing" thing I remember from high school English.

In the meantime, I've finally managed to follow-through on a few suggestions made by some supportive commenters and fellow mil-bloggers. Coffeypot, a salty blog-dog and storyteller, suggested the installation of the Blogger/Blogspot/Google Friend Connect "follower" widget in the Red Bull Rising sidebar. That's it, right over there. Ky Woman, of whom I've already sung many praises, helped expedite an introduction over at Milblogging.com. Milblogging.com is a perfect place to start a search for bloggers with past or current experiences, depending on where you're heading in the world. I plan to use it a lot in the coming months.

Ky Woman also urged me to link the Red Bull Rising blog with a Facebook page. I'd had some technical difficulties earlier, but they're solved now. See my mug over there, by that Facebook button? Click it.

I'm still waiting for this whole Internet fad to blow over, but I've noticed that some younger soldiers don't even e-mail anymore--it's all texting and Twittering and Facebooking. Some Iowa National Guard units use Facebook pages as their primary means of communicating routine information with soldiers and families. There's no official policy out there, for or against the practice. A short pro-Facebook editorial follows, however: If people are already using the tool, and it doesn't hurt security, use the darn tool. Don't stick it behind layers and layers of bandwidth-chewing passwords and card readers and then wonder why people aren't getting your messages.

End of mini-sermon.

So, dear reader, whether you read blogs by "following" via Blogger, via a Facebook fan page, via some sort of RSS reader, or just plain old-fashioned web-browsing, I hope you find this ongoing project variously useful, insightful, and/or entertaining. Thanks for your suggestions, and your support, and for recommending Red Bull Rising to anyone who might find it of interest.

Like my Engineer buddies say, "Essayons."

28 January 2010

A Soldier is a Soldier

Pop Quiz: "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regards the rights of all U.S. citizens to the freedom of ..."

(a) Religion
(b) Speech
(c) Press
(d) All of the above

Answer: D. All of the above.

God love those Dead White Guys who, despite the limitations of the day and their own human frailties and (mis)understandings, managed to put into words some of our unalienable rights. I bring up the First Amendment now, because I find that some of my Politically Active Evangelical Christian friends occasionally forget that they should be equally as interested in the sentiments of "Congress shall make no law ..." as are those Obviously Biased Liberal Media Types. (The italics, by the way, are courtesy of a former social studies teacher of mine.)

As a citizen, I exercise my First Amendment rights freely and often. In that role, I get to occasionally throw a switch and help elect a president. I also put my voice out there in other ways. Red Bull Rising is a good example.

As a soldier, I wear the U.S. flag on my right shoulder and ultimately answer to the president as my commander-in-chief. I am sworn to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic--not a flag, not a man, not a piece of ancient paper. That said, I know who my boss is; it is neither my role to praise nor to bury him. Remember "Render unto Caesar," and all that good First Amendment separation of Church and State mojo ...

Because of my dual-role, I don't plan to be a Thursday-morning Quarterback or Armchair General regarding the 2010 State of the Union address. Given some of my earlier posts and conversations here regarding George Orwell and Newspeak and related concepts, however, I thought I'd target a recurring contradiction in how people talk about soldiers.

Words matter as equally in the military as they do in politics. "Every time an acronym changes," I like to say, "a full-bird colonel gets his wings." Ask any Joe about how higher-ups get all wrapped up in changes of terminology, like when "Load Carrying Equipment" or "L.C.E." was changed to "Load-Bearing Equipment" ("L.B.E.") It was the same equipment--a harness on which a soldier would hang his/her ammo pouches and canteens--but woe to anyone who called it the wrong name in front of the drill sergeant, sergeant major, or newly minted officer.

Similarly, for years soldiers were "soldiers." Then, some sergeant major of the Army got the idea that the word should be capitalized on all uses, in order to show respect or importance, even though this is incorrect English. (Later, someone else would decide that "family" would be similarly capitalized. Then, everyone with a pet cause to stroke decided that they needed to arbitrarily capitalize a different Word, just to Feel and Be Special.)

Back in the day, soldiers annually trained and tested to a set of "common tasks." (Full acronym was "Common Task Testing," or "C.T.T.") These were skills in which every soldier, regardless of rank, should be proficient: "Put on a pressure bandage, prevent a fellow soldier from going into shock, use and maintain your rifle" kinds of stuff. About the time of the whole "Army of One" debacle, someone decided that "soldier" wasn't butch enough--that we should be called "warriors." (Oops, I mean "Warriors.") So "CTT" became "WTT": "Warrior Task Testing."

Don't get me wrong. I understand and appreciate that "every soldier's secondary Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is Eleven-Bravo (11B)": "Combat Infantryman." You have to be able to fight, regardless of specialty. There is no "front line" in modern warfare. In my humble opinion, however, not every soldier is a "warrior." For the record: Sherpa is a soldier, and proud of it. But he doesn't pretend to be something he isn't.

I'm a little conflicted, then, when I hear our political and military leaders talk about getting our "combat soldiers" out of Iraq or other countries. Yes, there are soldiers who are warfighters and warriors, who step into harm's way on a daily basis. Yes, there are "support soldiers" and "combat enablers" and "Fobbits," specialists who may rarely get outside the wire but whose every thought and action had better be "what can I do to help the warfighter today?"

Consider this excerpt from the State of the Union (italics are mine):

In Afghanistan, we are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans – men and women alike. We are joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitment, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am confident we will succeed.

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.

One shouldn't make a distinction between "combat soldiers" and then say "all troops are coming home." One shouldn't beat a rhetorical war drum such as "every soldier is a warrior," and then turn around and use "combat soldier" and "support soldier" as weasel-words. In poker parlance, we may be "all in" as a country, but we're not going to be "all out" any time soon. Our troops can be expected to have a role in Iraq and Afghanistan--as advisors, as trainers, as support personnel--for many, many years to come. (Personal, anecdotal evidence? Sherpa's first deployment in 2003 was to a then-25-year-old "temporary" U.S. contingency mission in the Middle East.) Once "invited," Uncle Sam tends to be a rather long-term house guest. Just ask Germany. Ask Japan. Ask Korea.

The bottom line: Soldiers are soldiers. We'll do the job. Just don't blow smoke and sunshine at us, or at our folks. Tell it like it is. People respect that.

So do soldiers.

Pearls of Wisdom, Neil Diamond, and Pebbles

True story, one potentially unrelated to the remainder of this post: Back in the day, Sherpa had this older, wiser friend who wrote popular-music concert reviews for the local newspaper. He reviewed a Neil Diamond concert that had taken place at Veteran's Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, the same place Ozzy Osbourne had once bit the head off a bat.

My friend writes a few punchy paragraphs about what Diamond had been singing at the previous night's concert, followed by: "Then, Neil Diamond bit the head off a bat."

Next paragraph: "Just kidding."

Neil Diamond fans across the state, as I remember it, were not pleased with the concert review. My friend may have even gotten death threats regarding the article.

So, let me say this now, to avoid possible misinterpretations and death threats: I ... love ... Neil Diamond.

I love how snippets of his tunes catch up with you in unexpected ways, then won't leave you alone. When the Iowa State Extension harvest report goes out over the radio in late fall, for example, and the radio guy says "Sep-tem-ber corn" in just the right cadence, I end up humming Diamond's "September Morn" for the rest of the day, even if no one hears it. Not even the chair.

OK, I can tell. "Sherpa," you're saying, "time to dial it back in. Just what the Foxtrot are you going on about?"

Well, one of the unexpected joys of mil-blogging is meeting new people and fellow travelers. One of those, I'm happy to report, is Kentucky Woman--"Ky Woman," for short. She writes a blog called "Little Drops," (aka "Pebble Drops") in which she conversationally takes on both downrange and homefront issues. Her philosophy, that small ripples can make great waves, is right in keeping with one of my own missions: "Find small ways you can support, celebrate, and remember troops and their families."

Her sidebar resource-lists are alone worth clicking over to browse (I'm looking at you, intel-buddies), and her fluency in What's Going On is downright intimidating. (I wish more of our fellow citizens were as tuned in.) You might say--Neil Diamond most certainly would--that I look forward to getting to know her. And her blog.

26 January 2010

The Voice of God

"I always feel like the worst mother in the world during your drill weekends," says Household-6, just as I'm hunkering down under the comforter. Baby, it's cold outside and I'm in my usual after-drill blue-funk-and-headache mode. I remember when we used to "do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day," like toss up antennas and talk on radios and stuff, but, for us, the January drill was an exercise in herding cats in the middle of a water polo match. I've got no room to complain, however. Household-6 has been herding cats of her own--two boisterous kids, ages 5 and 3.

My Own Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Drill Weekend started when my boss forgot to call me with a last-minute change in location, and I showed up in the wrong place and the wrong time for the Big Meeting. Let the record show, however, that Sherpa was in good company: The unit's lawyer hadn't gotten the good word, either. Neither had the chaplain. I felt like the cartoon guy with a devil and an angel, one on each shoulder ...

By the time I reached the correct objective, the new training scheme had been briefed, and it was mostly all over but the meowing. It then fell to Sherpa and his buddies to try to make sense of it all, put it all down on paper, and regurgitate it out to the people who need to know.

I had planned to bunk out at the armory Saturday night, to grab a cot and sleep in somebody's office or classroom or locker room. Household-6 called me on the cellphone at some point during the day, with my 5-year-old daughter Lena sobbing in the background.

"Daddy, I really miss you," she says.

It tore. Me. Up.

Household-6 and I had been married for a few years, but we were still trying to figure out whether we had what it took to be parents when I deployed the first time. We thought I might be deploying to Iraq, and we were a little freaked out about Gulf War Syndrome. We even discussed whether we should Hurry Up and Procreate, or whether I should, uh ... "invest" ... in one of those ding-dang fertility banks.

We did neither. Instead, we waited until I got home after a short deployment to a region best described as "none of the above," at compared to the usual deployment options at the time.
Lena was born an appropriate number of months after my return. She was a sweet baby, and slept through the night at the age of 2 weeks. A few years later, she was followed by her brother, Rain. Rain is also a bubbly kid, but he was a little fussier than Lena had been as an infant.

In the first two years of our Rain, Household-6 and I began to suffer the sleep deprivation and depression we'd only heard horror stories about. I began to understand how, when I was back in Army radio school, an Alabama National Guard buddy went from happy-go-lucky to nothing-and-flat when his wife had their first kid. He kept begging to escape the classroom, to ruck up and go out into the field.

"Chandler, you don't get it," we told him. "Here, we get coffee and air-conditioning. We go out for a field exercise, and it's bugs and wet and 24-hour operations."

"No, you don't understand," Chandler said, staring the thousand-meter-stare of a new father, "out there, in the boonie, I'd get more sleep out there than I'm getting at home right now."
Household-6 and I finally started getting the hang of it around Rain's second birthday. We got back to our old selves, and began again to relate to each other as partners as well as parents. We still talk of having two kids as being the hardest thing we've ever done, and then we remember that some of our friends have more than two, and we simply cannot comprehend how they do it.

Similarly, while deployed, I remember appreciating the sacrifices made daily by each of my buddies who had kids--the family events, the growing-up milestones, the thousand parental decisions made in their absences--but not fully understanding the awesome significance of these losses.

Now, however, my kid picks up on some pre-deployment vibe, or maybe just randomly misses her Dad, and I get a cellphone call. I mentally start flash-forwarding to every tear-filled send-off ceremony and staticky phone call that's yet to come. I start imagining every grumpy parent-child showdown I won't directly be a part of. I start realizing that, if having two kids was the hardest thing that Household-6 and I ever did, at least we had the advantage of doing it together. Now, with my pending deployment, she's staring down the barrel of doing it all solo.

Household-6 plays disciplinarian well enough to get by. Given Sherpa's big and booming baritone, however, he's more likely to play the heavy, the big meanie, the "bad cop." Sherpa's patented "Voice of God," he flatters himself, is still sufficient to cause a kid to freeze in her or his little tracks, to keep the kid from making an unsafe mistake. I am that I am, Shepa says, and I am loud. And it is good.

I remember that Old Testament story, in which Elijah sits in a cave on Mount Sinai, waiting for God to pass. He hears the winds, but the Lord is not in the wind. After the wind, there is an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, there is fire. But the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, there is a still, small voice.

(I just looked it up, by the way: It's 1 Kings 19: 11-12 in the King James Version of the Bible--which, my chaplain buddies assure me, is the best version for "Voice of God" verbal fireworks.)

After each of my kids was born, I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night, obsessing about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). There's no history of it in my family, but this turned out to be my own, personal obsessive-compulsive boogey-man. After I allowed SIDS thought to creep into my head, the only way to get back to sleep was for me to pad as silently as I could to the door of their rooms, and to listen, carefully and patiently, for the sounds of their breathing.

"I feel like the worst mother in the world during your drill weekends," says Household-6. I think about leaving her and the kids for more than a year, and it tears me up. Even for it's for all the right reasons. Even if it's for God, country, and guy in the figurative foxhole next to me. I already feel like the worst father in the world.

If I leave them now, I will miss the first day of kindergarten. I will miss the first loose tooth. I will miss the first bicycle ride.

How will they hear and heed my warnings?

How will I, in the darkness, hear the sounds of their breathing?

20 January 2010

To Preserve, Protect, and Defend ...

Twelve months ago, Sherpa and more than 1,000 other Red Bull soldiers--plus other Iowa soldiers and airmen--were mobilized on state orders with about 3 days' notice. We assembled, conducted last-minute training and certification, and moved by air and ground to our nation's capital. There, the troops were deputized as District of Columbia Special Police, in order to assist in the security and traffic control efforts during the inauguration of Sen. Barrak Obama (D-Ill.) as the 44th President of the United States.

Like I've said before, I'm a pretty non-political kind of guy. Put another way, I'm not paid enough to have an opinion. Like a whole bunch of other middle-of-the-road, salt-of-the-earth Americans we know, however, times are kinda tough for me and the family. I'd like things to be better. I'd like healthcare and banking and taxes all fixed in favor of the little guy. (And, as a citizen-soldier and veteran who is sometimes eligible for what some people call "public-option healthcare" or "socialized medicine," I wonder what all the fuss is about.) I'd like my country's political system to work More and Better.

I don't care whether you're a member of the "Just Say No ... to Everything" Republicans, or a member of the "Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight" Democrats--I think we'd all do well to take a deep breath sometimes, and remember what it feels like to stand on the National Mall, or on a Washington D.C. street corner, or in front of a television set in Iowa, to watch the simple and supreme act of our collective faith in the union: It all comes down to votes and words, and we peacefully transition power between governments.

Show me a country that does that better (and as often), while also--despite popular mobs and special interests--occasionally demonstrating a propensity toward progress.

In short, democracy rules ...

And Jefferson lives.

Let's roll.

19 January 2010

On the Net: Blogs of Interest

As always, Sherpa's looking for plain-speaking news, books, and blogs for citizen-soldiers heading downrange to Afghanistan, as well as for those soldiers' friends and family.

When it comes to blogs, I'm disappointed to find that there's a lot of "link rot" out there, particularly when browsing other mil-blogger's "blog rolls" of allegedly favorite sites. I'll try to avoid this with Red Bull Rising, and only put stuff out there that's well-maintained and specifically relevant to the mission at hand.

Unfortunately for Sherpa's purposes, the Marine writing "Embedded in Afghanistan" is now mission-complete, and it doesn't sound like he's going to continue writing. He operated as an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member in Kunar Province from November 2008 to August 2009. I hope he keeps his archived blog on the Internet, however; he gives great detail and insight into working with the Afghans. He's probably got a book in him.

Fardin Waezi is a professional freelance photographer based in Kabul, who regularly posts photos at "Thru Afghan Eyes." Like they say, pictures are worth thousands. Just browsing his pictures gives you a feeling for the country, its people, and the challenges we face together.

In the "coming attractions" category: "A Major's Perspective," a blog written by a North Carolina National Guard (?) officer, is currently off the net while he transitions downrange to Afghanistan. This will be "Major C's" second or third deployment--evidenced by pictures of him in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He's definitely got the mil-blogging battle rhythm thing down, however, and I look forward to seeing what he has to say when he comes back on-line.

18 January 2010

A Remote Sensing of Optimism

God works in strange and mysterious ways. And, sometimes, he works through my television remote. The kids have been getting more difficult to put to bed recently. Maybe they're like dogs and earthquakes, picking up on strange pre-deployment vibes. Maybe they're going though some stage. Maybe they're just kids.

So the standard parenting procedure has at Fire Base Sherpa has been: put assigned kid to bed, read some books, say some prayers, and return to hootch and wait. Wait half-awake and bleary-eyed in front of FOX or PBS for the inevitable sounds of 3-to-5-second rushes, and for drinks and monsters and other night missions.

My kids move tactically, by the way, like little ninjas: "I'm up, Dad sees me, I'm down." They teach that at Happy Infantry Summer Camp.

So I'm waiting for my elder child to start her nightly insurgency--while, in a separate police action of her own, Household-6 is laying down covering fire and tucking in the little guy--and Bill Moyers Journal is on PBS. I normally watch Family Guy or American Dad on Sunday nights, but tonight, it's Bill Moyers. God is in the details, as they say. And my remote.

The Jan. 15, 2010 program--there's a full and free transcript here--is a three-cherries jackpot of Red Bull goodness: First, a "1984" and "memory hole" reference leading into an interview with the Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" and "The Wrecking Crew." Remember the name, folks: George Orwell. Don't call it a comeback.

Second, and more importantly for Sherpa's usual purposes, there was a low-key interview with low-key do-gooder (and former U.S. Army medic) named Greg Mortenson, who I'll get to in a minute. But I need to quote some of the Frank interview first:
THOMAS FRANK: [...] Those things have all sort of been dwarfed by the economic disaster and the wreckage on Wall Street. But I would say to you that all of these things that we're describing here are of a piece. And that they all flow from the same ideas. And those ideas are the sort of conservative attitude towards government. And conservative attitudes towards governance. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: That government is a perversion.

THOMAS FRANK: Government is-- yeah, government is a perversion. And to believe that the federal government can be operated, you know, with all of its programs, can be operated well and do things that are good for the people, is, as you say, is a perversion.
Take a knee for a minute. I'm a pretty conservative guy myself--maybe even tend toward the libertarian side of the spectrum. I don't see anything too scary in a premise that government is inherently flawed, as are all human endeavors. That said, I also like my system of government--I'm pledged to support the Constitution, after all--particularly when I look around the world for alternatives. But what caused me to nearly short-circuit Sunday evening was the pairing of the Frank interview (which was generally about the mess that We the People are in), and the Greg Mortenson interview (which was generally about the mess that the Afghan people are in, and how we can help them out).

Some long-dormant high-social-studies part of my brain suddenly clicked on, and I had this thought: While U.S. conservative domestic policy purports to be about decreasing national-level governance, much of conservative foreign policy purports to be about increasing the national-level governance internal to foreign countries. How can it be that so many American citizens say dislike their government, but think so little of attempting to nation-build other countries into our own image?

Heavy, man.

Greg Mortenson, author of "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools," has been working in Afghanistan and Parkistan for the nearly two decades. His non-profit organization works with local leaders to fund and construct schools for girls. While he does not work with or advise the military, he has had occasion to meet some of the Top Brass on both the U.S. and Taliban sides of the conflict. Read the whole transcript, but there's some nicely understated words of optimism and purpose here, which might help citizen-soldiers talk with their families about What We're Doing Over There, and How We're Doing It. The italics are mine:
GREG MORTENSON: [...] We can't run democracy in secrecy. And it doesn't matter whether it's George Bush or Obama. That was one of my main concerns is-it's a big decision. The other thing is that there was no consultation with the elders or the shura in Afghanistan. Every province has three to five dozen shura. And these are elders. They're poets. They're warriors. They're businessmen, a few women. And they're not elected, but they've kind of risen up through the ranks. And these to me are the real people with integrity and power in Afghanistan. So when this decision was made to deploy troops, none, there was no consultation with the troo-- with the elders. And they felt very marginalized by it because, you know, want to go into another country, we want to be able to at least have a part and a say in it. And it's not that difficult. You can do it at a district level, or local level, or at a national level. It's, you know, I think half of diplomacy is just showing up. You know, we've got to actually just show up and start to talk and then maybe we could get somewhere.

BILL MOYERS: Clearly the militarily knows you know something they don't know. And why can't they know it?

GREG MORTENSON: Well ... good question, Bill. In "Three Cups of Tea" I was fairly critical of the military. And I mentioned that they're laptop warriors and there's no boots on the ground. But I can say now that they've gone through a tremendous learning curve. And I think in many ways the military really gets it. They, Admiral Mike Mullen, who's become a friend of mine, I've met him several times and we've spent time together. He says that the three most important things that our troops have to do is, number one, listen more. Number two, they have to have respect, meaning they're there to serve the good people. And, number three, that they have to build relationships. [...]

I tend to be an optimist. So here's the good news, Bill. The first thing is the number of kids in school has gone up ten times in the last decade to 8.5 million children. There's a central banking system in Afghanistan since 2006, which has been huge. There's a road building program, about 80 percent of the roads have been built now from north to south and east to west. It's like building a road from Minneapolis to Dallas and D.C. to-- or New York to LA. Now, that's maybe 70 percent of the way done. There are 80,000 troops trained now, the Afghan Army. The goal is 180,000. And some more interesting things are if you go into the district courts, you'll see the number of women filing titles and deeds for land ownership is skyrocketing. And I think that's a real important thing to note. I think the U.S., we're-- we've been far too busy in the last two decades trying to plug in democracy in the world. And you cannot plug in democracy. We have to build democracy.
A final fun factoid from the Moyers show regards the financial cost of the Afghan push. I've often seen bean-counter estimates of what it takes to train and equip a U.S. soldier, but I think this was the first time I'd seen a cost-estimate such as this: "It costs us a million dollars a year to keep one soldier there," Moyers said. "That's $30 billion for the new 30,000 troops."

How much democracy could you build for that kind of money? How many schools? Heavy stuff.

15 January 2010

It's 'Good Morning' Again, Mr. Orwell

In his Life, Love, and Truth blog, Jeff Courter can hit pretty close to home sometimes. He and I have something of a growing mutual admiration and aid society happening right now, and his most recent post--in which he briefly explores some of George Orwell's themes in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" against the backdrop of today's Afghanistan--further solidifies my opinion that we are fellow travelers indeed.

Don't worry: Sherpa's not about to start getting political on your buttocks. But Sherpa is a child of the '80s, and has the parachute pants to prove it. Orwell's book may have been first published in 1949, but it was on every overly earnest high school speech team member's lips back in the Heady Days of Reagan. Or it would have been, had I had my way about it.

Around New Year's Day, 1984, I even took to greeting friends and family with, "Good Morning, Mr. Orwell." It's a wonder I survived to tell about it.

I was recently moving boxes in my basement, and found a gallon-sized plastic baggie of political and novelty buttons from those days of whine and poses. The ones that jumped out at me? "Question Authority," "Big Brother is Watching," and "There is no gravity, the Earth sucks."

Words to live by, my friends, words to live by. Well, more the one about "Big Brother," and less the rather unscientific observation about gravity.

And, hopefully, I have lived by these words, albeit more quietly than when I was younger. And louder. And more perfect.

I had a regular stump speech as a hot-shot student speechifier. It was an award-winning 8-minute fully polished rant against Newspeak, the doubleplusungood ways that Big Government and Big Business attempt to change the way we think by changing our language. In Orwell's dystopian world, things aren't that bad, they're just "ungood." From there, it's just a stone's throw to our own world of slippery language, in which one government's nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is another's "Peacekeeper." One person's "bad breath" is actually a scary-sounding diagnosis of "Halitosis."

In his essay, Jeff applies a jaundiced Orwellian lens toward the Taliban. Not only that, but he pulls off quite the trick and manages to sound downright positive while doing so! I like how he puts things:
Inevitably, Afghans will choose freedom rather than ongoing oppression. So eventually, the Taliban will lose. Some day, extreme, intolerant Islamic fundamentalism will be as popular as Nazism – because both depend on coercion and cruel tyranny to survive.

I also believe the Taliban will be defeated – whether NATO remains there or not.

I have no way to prove this hypothesis today. I simply believe it out of faith. I have faith because I believe in intelligence and virtue. And history shows that these human attributes tend to triumph over oppression.
In Orwell's world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, three super-governments (think of these as stand-ins for the U.S./U.K., Russia, and China) vie for world domination, but are each so powerful that no two can overwhelm the remaining one. War is perpetual, alliances are always shifting, and civilian populations at home--lacking any source of information but a conveniently forgetful, government-owned and -operated propaganda machine--are lulled into compliance by cheap, jingoistic jargoneering.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (Truly and truthfully, could Fox News or MSNBC do any better?)

I share Jeff's faith in the human ability to withstand and eventually overthrow oppression. I hope, however, that our own base tendencies do not blind us to our own weaknesses, and the inherent weaknesses of the governments we empower. "We the People" is our blessing, and our curse. Even at our very best, "We the People" can be no more perfect than we are ourselves.

I'd like to believe that every U.S. soldier--enlisted, non-commissioned officer (NCO), or officer--would have recognized and protested the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but they didn't. I'd like to think that our political leaders might recognize that the people most likely to pay for chest-thumping, sword-rattling, cowboy-calls for terrorists to "bring it on" might be our very own soldiers. I'd like to think that phrases such as "Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)" aren't attempts to change the way people think about engaging in wars with muddy strategies or shifting policy goals.

Don't worry, I'm decisively and personally still in the game. I love my country, love my flag, love my weapon, and love my Apple Pie. I even love my neighbors, although I don't always like them. Like every other citizen-soldier, I regularly put my safety and comfort--and the safety and comfort of my family--on the line for what I hold most dear. There are easier choices. There are other temptations.

But I'm Here, and, let's face it, probably headed There.

Because, above all else, I'd also like to think that Orwell was wrong.

Who's Your J-Daddy?

I'm trying to catch up on last week's public-radio intercepts, and have just gotten to the 08 JAN 2010 episode of National Public Radio's "On the Media." Host Bob Garfield interviewed George Stanley, the managing editor for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the father of a U.S. Army Reservist deployed to Afghanistan. Stanley was given the unique opportunity to embed as journalist with his son's Wisconsin-based unit.

I encourage you to click over to the show in question, which features an MP3 download, links to a four-part newspaper series written by Stanley, along with both pro- and con- reactions to the idea of a journalistic visit from Dad while still in-country. (Best of all for Sherpa, who's already busy transcribing another recording of another, more-local show this week, there's a transcript.)

While I'm at all this, I encourage to support your local NPR station. The logic of my sales pitch?Freedom isn't free; maintaining freedom requires vigorous exercise of the First Amendment; so good journalism isn't free, either.

For those of us interested in U.S. citizen-soldiers both home and abroad, there a couple of quick takeaways from the Stanley interview: Observations about the normalcy of life in Afghanistan, for example, or living conditions on Bagram, and even possible insights into the difficulties National Guard and Reserve soldiers may face in communicating their values to their families.

Here's a quick excerpt from the "On the Media" transcript:
GEORGE STANLEY: [Y]ou know, one of the things that struck me [... is] that there’s a lot of normalcy in Afghanistan. You know, the violence is there, of course, but for the most part, 90 percent of the time and in 90 percent of the places, people are going on living their lives. Shepherds are walking across hills with their kids and their sheep. Kids are playing soccer, and most people aren't combatants. And most of the troops are not in harm’s way the vast majority of the time.

BOB GARFIELD: So, let me tell you what I really loved about your pieces. There were significant details that had somehow eluded me in the eight-plus years of reading about the battle on the ground there, the configuration of Bagram Air Force Base and how rinky-dink it is and how temporary it looks almost a decade into the war; how packed in the troops are in their quarters and, you know, how there’s no basketball court [...]


BOB GARFIELD: And I also liked the questions you posed. But I have to ask you, isn't your relationship with the son and his comrades such that it kind of makes it impossible for you to establish any kind of critical distance in answering the questions you sought to answer?

GEORGE STANLEY: I think I went at it like any other parent would. Probably the strongest responses I've gotten to the stories have been from other family members of the troops who say, you know, these are the same questions we are trying to get answers to, because even though the troops themselves are committed and gung-ho and volunteers, their families didn't necessarily volunteer for this.

And many, many of the troops are not from military families, traditional military families. Many are, of course, but the Reservists and Guardsmen, like my son, many of them come from families that don't have strong military backgrounds. And so, the families aren't necessarily as committed to this as the soldiers themselves and the Marines are.
The final factoid from the NPR report? Afghanistan will soon be the longest war ever fought by the United States. 'Nuff said.

14 January 2010

I've Got (Battle) Rhythm

"Battle rhythm" is what soldiers call the daily and/or weekly schedule of events. There's a more-doctrinally accurate definition of the term, I'm sure--something like "the process where the commander and his staff synchronize the daily operating tempo within the planning, decision, execution and assessment (PDE&A) cycle to allow the commandeer to make timely decisions"--but for Joe Snuffy, "battle rhythm" is synonymous with "the daily grind."

When you're living on an Army Post--and it's a "post," folks, not a "base"--you know that the bugler (or, more likely, a recording of one) will play reveille when the U.S. flag is raised before sun-up. There's an old Irving Berlin song called "You're in the Army now" that mimics those perky trumpet notes, a song which my parents used to sing when they were rousing Lil' Sherpa out of his lil' rack: "Ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up in the morn-ing!"

As with anything else that happens before your daily coffee ration, that's pretty darn annoying. It's even more annoying when you get it stuck in your head. "Ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up ..."

Every time I'm awakened at 0500 to the sound of reveille, I'm 5 years old again. Same internal whining, same attitudinal static, same need for coffee. The only difference is that I have to dress myself now.

Then comes PT (physical training), then comes chow, then comes the morning briefing, then comes chow, then comes vehicle maintenance, then comes chow. Like any mental or corrective institution, it's all very civil and predictable and organized.

In a foreign country, when the bullets start flying and personalities start fraying? There's a daily grind there, too. But that's a topic for another day.

Back in garrison, retreat is played at the end of the duty day, as the colors are lowered. When it's time to turn out the lights, the bugler plays taps. Taps is sweet, and dark, and sounds like a lullaby. Boy Scouts sing the second verse at the close of a campfire: "All is well, safely rest; God is nigh." It doesn't matter how routine or bad the days has been, taps is guaranteed to stop me cold, shake some perspective into me, and give me chills.

Not surprisingly, taps is also played at military funerals. One of the most jaw-dropping, life-and-soul affirming shards of trivia that I've recently come across involves Winston Churchill, the bulldog British prime minister of World War II. The way the story goes, he planned his own funeral: One bugler to play taps, to be followed by a second bugler, who would play reveille.

Get it? Rise after sleep. Life after death.

That story alone gives me chills.

I started this post with the intent to discuss how sparks from my initial blog experiments quickly ignited into full-blown execution. I thought I'd mention how the original purposes for this blog--tell a few war stories, translate National Guard and Reserve-speak into plain English, try to put world events into perspective, encourage people to find small and personal ways to help the troops--seem to have already resonated with a few people who know me, and a lot more people who I just met. I'm overwhelmed by your encouragement, and hope that my words continue to serve.

I haven't quite got my "blog battle rhythm" established--book reviews on Mondays, thoughtful news analysis on Wednesdays, service opportunities on Thursdays, corned beef hash on Fridays? I'm sure the schedule will work itself out toward some equillibrium. And I'll continue to keep you posted on how a citizen-soldier works with his friends and family to get ready to go do a job. Right now, however, I'm moving out smartly toward the sound of the guns. Thanks for having my back.

13 January 2010

Def Cat 5

200px-Hsas-chart_with_header.svg.pngI've decided to establish a personal color-coded threat-level system, something along the lines of the old (?) DEFCON scheme, or the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security's patented Rainbow of Terrorism.

This is partly driven by the past drill weekend, during which one of our officers told us that we'd officially thrown last month's plan out the proverbial side window, and were now driving on at a fast rate of march, wearing sunglasses, with fewer facts and new assumptions. Some of the most basic of those assumptions, as he put it, "at one point, changed three times in 20 minutes."

What resulted, at least for a good portion of our unit's time together, could be accurately likened to the professional herding of cats. Based upon this experience, I have decided to make this the baseline and foundation of Sherpa's Pyramid of Military Cat-astrophe. In ascending order of combined chaos, difficulty, and adversity, I propose the following cat-egories:
  • CAT 5: Herding cats.
  • CAT 4: Herding cats by committee.
  • CAT 3: Herding cats into a swimming pool, by committee.
  • CAT 2: Herding cats into an electrified swimming pool, by committee.
  • CAT 1: Herding cats into an electrified swimming pool. By a committee. Using only PowerPoint slides. While blindfolded.
I can haz deployment? You betcha!

12 January 2010

We Stick Together

On Jan. 12, 1943, Thomas Sullivan was going to work when a U.S. Naval officer, a doctor, and a chief petty officer arrived at his Waterloo, Iowa, house. The officer told Thomas he had some news regarding Sullivan's sons, who had enlisted with the request that they serve on the same ship. "Which one?" asked Thomas, recognizing that such a visit usually meant notification of a service-member's death.

"I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five."

Fighting in Guadalcanal Campaign in November 1942, the light cruiser USS Juneau was repeatedly struck by Japanese torpedoes. The ship was eventually sunk. Although 100 crew members survived, multiple communications mistakes and poor command decisions resulted in delaying for days any rescue attempts. Of the 100 or so sailors who survived the initial incident, only about 10 were rescued. Because the campaign was on-going, and the loss of the Juneau a secret, the Navy did not notify the Sullivans of the sons' deaths until the following January.

The story of the Fighting Sullivan Brothers--George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al--would later be celebrated in movies, books, and documentaries, and in the christening of ships, museums, convention centers, and schools. There's even a mid-1990s rock song about them. (You can listen to it at iTunes.)

While the deaths of the Sullivans may have caused each U.S. military branch to review and revise its policies regarding the service of family members, the practice of siblings, spouses, and other family members serving side-by-side is a proud and continuing tradition in the National Guard.

The Iowa Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, is headquartered in Waterloo, home of the Sullivans. The news program 60 Minutes shadowed the "fathers, sons, and brothers" throughout the battalion's 2007 deployment to Iraq. Check it out to see multiple examples of the Sullivan family spirit, played out in modern day. (And--before anyone takes offense at the gender-specificity of the "fathers, sons, and brothers" title--remember that female soldiers are not allowed to be assigned to U.S. infantry units.)

One of the great strengths of National Guard units is that they have roots (and, to extend the family-tree metaphor, branches) within the communities they serve. Because they are geographically dispersed--and inherently familiar with local governmental, environmental, and other factors--they can react quickly to supplement and support first-responders in the event of natural or man-made disaster. Because they are composed of citizen-soldiers--people with whom friends and family, co-workers and customers--have daily contact, they also offer a more-immediate connection between "We the People" and the use of our nation's military might.

Named after Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, the post-Vietnam War "Abrams Doctrine" was designed to require the use of the Total Force (both Active Duty and Reserve soldiers) in any larger-scale conflict. The Abrams Doctrine is/was driven by a number of motivations, including cost-savings (reserves are theoretically cheaper to maintain in large numbers). The one I like the most, however, is the sentiment that it's impossible to "ignore the war" when your neighbor, co-worker, or friend packs up and moves out in the name of God, Country, and American policy interests. Suddenly, war isn't something that just happens over there, on the Internet, or on the nightly news. The stakes are higher. All war becomes local.

And, having real skin in the game, communities indirectly share the risks their soldiers face. In 2005, for example, the U.S. Marine Reserves' 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines based in Brook Park, Ohio, lost 48 personnel in the Battle of Haditha and other Operation Iraqi Freedom efforts. It's not easy to watch, but if you want to see things Up Close and Personal, check out the "Combat Diary" documentary on the unit. There's also a noteworthy traveling memorial project honoring the unit.

The Sullivan family motto was, "We stick together."

Stick with us.

11 January 2010

Soldiers of Fortune-Cookies

During a tactical pause for dinner this past drill-weekend, a couple of my buddies and I went out to eat. We were so mentally fried that the only thing that sounded good was lowest-common-denominator Chinese food at the local grocery's deli. It was cheap, hot, filling, and spicy-enough-for-Midwestern palettes. (Remember, I also live in the land of "extra mild" salsa.)

Rhino, Trooper, Spartacus and I deployed together a few years ago, to monitor a crappy little peace overseen by a crowded multitude of countries. By the usual wacky set of circumstances, we've all found ourselves, years later, working different but strangely similar jobs at higher levels of alleged competence. Although we are comfortable in our skins and comfortable with each other, we are, by no means, masters of own destinies. The idea that we might be spending more-extended quality time with each other, in the coming months, is already part of our individual sanity-maintenance strategies.

The Chinese food came, of course, with cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies. Remember that game you used to play with your girlfriend (or boyfriend), the one where you added "... in bed" to whatever was on the little slip of paper in each cookie? On Saturday, we decided to amend the practice. We added "... on the deployment."

"You are what you eat," as they say. So, according to our Saturday night meal, here's what the future has in store for us four--we precious few, we happy few:
  • "Be what you wish others to become ...
  • "You will profit through experience ...
  • "Success is determined by how and what you think about ..."
  • "You can't slide uphill ..."
To the the Cookie-Confucius's credit, three-out-of-four of these are pretty darn affirming. Even the odd-man-out (for the record, it was Rhino's) sounds like a Roger Miller lyric, and that's not bad, either. You really can't roller skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy, if you've a mind to.

09 January 2010

Hail and Farewell

According to a couple of National Guard Bureau press releases today, there were eight Brigade Combat Teams either shipping out or coming home this past week. Only one of these, the 86th Infantry BCT, seems to be headed for Afghanistan. At least one brother Red Bull is headed off with the "Green Mountain Boys," and I wish them all Godspeed.

Here's what NGB had to say about the 86th IBCT:
About 1,500 Guardsmen from the 86th BCT are currently at Camp Atterbury, Ind., preparing for their deployment to Afghanistan, where they will replace the 48th BCT of the Georgia National Guard.

Army Brig. Gen. Jonathan Farnham, the Vermont Guard’s joint staff director, will head-up the newly created Afghan National Security Forces Development Assistance Bureau, which will oversee the training of Afghanistan’s security forces.

“It appears that my group will be doing some data collection, some analysis, receiving reports and doing some war-gaming of things to make suggestions on how to improve on how things are going given the resources that are available,” said Farnham in an interview with Vermont Public Radio in December.

He added that he will lead about 100 Soldiers, including some military members from Macedonia, which is one of Vermont’s State Partnership Program countries.

Farnham’s mission in Afghanistan is an offshoot of the Vermont Guard’s original mission of heading up Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, which was responsible for training the Afghan National Army.

“I know that Task Force Phoenix, which we originally believed tbe manning and managing, is in the process of going away and being reorganized,” he said. “It appears to me to be a little leaner and a smaller footprint than it originally was.”
One of the 86th IBCT send-offs was headlined by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (That's him talking with one of the troops in the photo above.) Here's an excerpt of another NGB press release offers a few toothsome quotes:
“Afghanistan has become a more dangerous place,” he said. “One of the reasons the president made the decision to add 30,000 troops is because the insurgency is much tougher and more violent.”
But while the mission is tougher, he added, it is not impossible. “We know how to do counterinsurgency,” Mullen said. “I’ve been doing this for over four decades, and I have great confidence in them. We know what to do, [and] we know how to do it.”

08 January 2010

Bullet Comments

First off, I'm not an intelligence analyst. I don't even play one on TV. I do, however, occasionally have to sit through long briefings and meetings. (Sometimes, there are even meetings about how many meetings we're having.) So-called "Death by Microsoft PowerPoint" is a real threat--too many slides, and either not enough or too much information--that is faced by soldiers everywhere, every day.

In the right hands, with the right kind of information, PowerPoint can be a powerful communications tool. Not all information fits nicely into a tight shot-group of bullet points, however. I recall an old SCTV or Fridays bit, which I'll repurpose here, summarizing Leo Tolstoy's 1,300-page "War and Peace":
  • It's cold.
  • It's Russia.
  • Everybody dies.
Loses something in the translation, doesn't it?

A number of blogs this week offered supporting fires and insights to a just-released Center for a New American Security (aka "the Shadow Pentagon") critique of intelligence work in Afghanistan. Other good summmaries here and here.

I plan to recommend both the CNAS working paper and the links above to my S2-shop buddies, as soon as I get a chance. Why? Because there's good stuff there, for anyone at any level who is trying to make sense of What's Going On Over There, in order to effectively communicate it to others. There's even some good, practical advice to be had here, whether you're a corporal or a colonel. Consider this excerpt of BruceR's "Flit" blog:
Because we are all part showmen, any intelligence officer I know is prepared on the drop of a hat to talk to fill the available space. You may get 5 minutes in the back of a helicopter with your boss, or you may get 50. He may ask you 1 question or 10. Doesn't matter. You roll with it.
It is commanders and their hatchet men (and I mean that in a nice way), the operations officers and adjutants, who control your time. Any important revelation you have needs to be served up on your part with a cold assessment of the commander's receptivity in those circumstances to that info. Your objective is always to influence their decisions, and every commander needs to be reached a different way. Lots of accurate assessments have been poorly delivered, and hence ignored. [...]
The upshot is no intelligence officer, possibly ever in history, has ever been told by their boss he (or she) didn't talk long enough or didn't write long enough. If he was good he shut the tap off at the point of maximum effect. If he was bad he prattled on until the commander or someone else told him to stop.
Gotta go pack the duffel bags and suit up for the weekend. Be safe, be warm, and have an Army day!

See You at the Movies

Callsign Archer and I like to talk. In addition to the usual military history tomes and science-fiction paperbacks, Archer has shelves full of dead-tree books on emerging technology trends and business management concepts. While he can get pretty Gee Whiz, however, Archer also enjoys putting theory into practice.

In a conversation with Archer earlier this week, we got into an impromptu brainstorming topic of "how to lead our fellow troops to the waters of cultural and political awareness and make them drink." In other words: How can you train soldiers on the terrain--the people they're going to be working with, the places they're going to be working in, the challenges they're going to face--in a way that doesn't seem like it's just one more pencil-whipping exercise in pre-deployment futility, or that you're somehow assigning them homework for their off-duty hours?

Complicating the problem even further: Not everyone learns the same way. I remember back in Army radio school, when Uncle Sam gave us all this crazy Myers-Briggs test to identify what kind of personalities we were. Were we extroverts or introverts? (Here's a tip: The Army doesn't attract a lot of introverts, even in the technical branches.) Did we base our decisions in logic or emotion? And, most applicable to the subject of this post: Did we learn best by hands-on fiddling around, or by sitting back and watching and reading and listening?

The test ended up explaining for us why half the class was having the Best Time Ever, drinking coffee and watching PowerPoint slides and taking written tests, while the other half was About to Explode Out of Their Tiny Little Skulls because they hadn't turned Knob One on a radio during the weeks of initial electrical theory classes. In Myers-Briggs terms, the first half of the herd were "intuitive" learners, the second half were "sequential." There were a lot of Electrical Engineering types in the first half, by the way, and there were a lot of Physical Education types in the second.

I'm not judging here. I'm just saying.

Sherpa is an intuitive type of guy, just for the record.

So back to my conversation with Archer: He reads books. I read books. We cannot, however, assume that Joe Snuffy likes to read books. We can probably give Snuffy a magazine-article-length reading, or maybe digest some concepts down into a few PowerPoint slides, but that might not do the trick. Call it homework, or classwork, it all seems like work. And Snuffy has enough "work" to do, keeping up with all his (or her) other training requirements.

So, how can we reach out and teach the soldiers who don't like to read, or the ones who will go to sleep during briefings?

One idea suddenly roared at us like the MGM lion himself: Let's put on a show!

Soldiers love movies. And, strangely, soldiers--both deploying and deployed--love war movies. I think that Anthony Swofford (of Jarhead fame) even went as far as to call war movies "military porn."

Joe Snuffy isn't going to learn anything useful from Rambo 6, but might there be some other films of more potential training value?

Since late December, Tom Ricks has been searching out a Top Ten list of Terrorism movies. He even calls his project a "Terrorism Film Festival." Similarly, Archer and I wonder if there's a possible list of TV shows and movies, both non-fiction and fiction, that might help Snuffy understand what we're all up against. It doesn't have to explicitly depict Afghanistan or surrounding countries, although that would be helpful. (Metaphorically speaking, asking a soldier to internalize an allegorical narrative is like ... but, wait, I digress.)

So, call the proposal "Operation Edutainment." Or the "The Red Bull Film Festival." Pizza is cheap, popcorn is cheap, and we, to paraphrase the words of Bill Cosby, "if we're not careful, might learn something."

07 January 2010

Hero Fantasies v. Fuzzy Gray Realities

Recently discharged citizen-soldier, OIF veteran, and mother Catherine Ross offers this perspective on maintaining one's post-deployment perspective in a "Home Fires" Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times on-line. It's worthy to quote at length:
I remember getting angry after a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a school that we had rebuilt. The rebuilding had gone well. It was now a much improved structure that would serve the students well, but despite all that, the faculty and staff had complaints and demands for more. I saw their response as ingratitude and was angered by it. It was definitely one of those days that prompted a hero fantasy in my mind, with a happily-ever-after ending.

Looking back now, I realize it’s not fair at all to expect gratitude from someone who didn’t even ask for your presence in their country in the first place. But I also realize that my hero fantasies weren’t really about ego. They were just more clear-cut versions of actual events. In the fantasy, you know exactly what you’ve done, what impact it’s had, and you’ve put smiles on peoples’ faces. But in reality, you don’t necessarily ever get to find out the true impact of your actions. You’re left with questions instead. Did rebuilding all those schools over there have any kind of lasting impact? Did the Iraqis we tried to assist believe that we were sincere in our efforts?

In my hero fantasies, there are no such loose ends or doubts.

[...] I satisfy myself with the knowledge that I did my best over there, just like every other soldier, despite the unknowns I might be left with. The Army always says to leave a place better than you found it. I know that my team was replaced by a team that was sent in to build on what we had done, and that they were replaced by yet another team. Having been part of something that’s bigger than little old me, I continue to put my faith in the Army to get the job done, even if I’m not personally part of it any more.
Every soldier probably wonders what it was all about, after the mission, after the deployment, and after well-meaning friends and family ask for their soldiers' opinions about What We're Doing Over There. Ross offers a plain-spoken, nuanced, and generally positive way to answer some of those questions.
Ross recently left the Army Reserves to focus on being a parent to her 3-year-old daughter. Given the opportunity, I'd thank her both for her service and for her words. 'Nuff said.

Go Minnesota!

As I was going through the shift-change reports this morning, I stumbled upon the pleasant fact that Red Bull Rising is now listed as a soldier blog by the Minnesota National Guard press room website. Here are a couple of shooting-from-the-hip-while-still-drinking-my-coffee reactions:
  1. Those Minnesota Bulls are GOOD. Their state not only has a great-looking, great-working website, but they acknowledge that blogging may have actually have a constructive military purpose. AND (ahem) they detected my presence on the battlefield of ideas in less than, what, 30 days? That's lightning-quick for a military bureaucracy.
  2. Guess I'd better read up on Minnesota's official blog policy, while I'm at it.
  3. There is no such thing as cover on the Internet, only concealment.

05 January 2010

Double Double Vision Vision

As I've just mentioned in the comments section to a book review posted earlier, writer and fellow Midwestern citizen-soldier Jeff Courter was kind enough to post the very first comment (!) to Red Bull Rising. Jeff is author of "Afghan Journal: A Soldier's Year in Afghanistan," which recounts his 2007 experiences as an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member, training Afghan Border Police (ABP) in Paktika Province.

Jeff also continues to write at his "Life, Love and Truth" blog, which I've added to the Red Bull Rising blog-roll, at right. He seems both willing and able to take on the Big Questions and Changes of Perspective that soldiers seem to encounter during and after a deployment, and I look forward not only to finishing his book (I'll post a review at Red Bull Rising later), but also to keeping up with his blog.

He's a Midwesterner, and a National Guard guy, and a veteran. Basically, he had me at "hello."

Jeff's use of the comment feature caught me with my blog-administrator's trousers down, however. For reasons related to: (1) a potential deployment in my immediate family, and (2) Uncle Sam's bipolar orientation toward blogging, I've chosen, for now, to publicly identify myself only by callsign (aka "handle," "nickname," or "alias").

I was in the middle of sanitizing Red Bull Rising of all personal data when Jeff knocked on my blog-door. In replacing and reposting everything with an almost-exact but now-anonymous duplicate, I unfortunately had to delete his original comment. (The Internet giveth, the Internet taketh away.) I did figure a way to copy-and-paste his remarks under my own identity, but, admittedly, that's not quite the same. The bottom line? The first Red Bull Rising lesson-learned on blogging:

"Never change the identities of your horse midstream."

04 January 2010

Worst. Callsigns. Ever.

In one of his "Welcome to Afghanistan" essays, Benjamin Tupper mentions the tradition of military callsigns, a topic both near and dear to my ever-bloggin' heart. Here's a snippet:
"A military nickname is normally forged through some act of performed in the line of duty. Rarely is this act complimentary or positive. Usually the nickname is a result of misfortune, accident, or sheer stupidity."
Any Gen-Xers who may have been motivated into joining the military by, say, one too many viewings of "Top Gun," might not have been aware that "Goose," "Maverick," and "Ice Man" might have been monikers bestowed more in the spirit of "Animal House." Consider:
Bluto: "Kroger, your Delta Tau Chi name is 'Pinto.'"
Pinto: "Why 'Pinto'?"
Bluto: "Why NOT?!"
Bonus quote from Top Gun follows:
Maverick: "That's right, Ice ... Man, I am dangerous ..."
(And then, if I recall correctly, they kiss.)
Anyway, I probably have too many callsign war-stories to effectively share here. (Like the time that that the new Brigade Support Battalion commander decided--correctly, I might add--that her organization's callsign should NOT be "Beaver," for reasons that would be obvious to any foul-mouthed and chauvinistic high schooler with limited sexual experience or potential. We immediately changed the Signal Operating Instructions, or SOI.)

Still, something in today's e-mail, together with Tupper's book, caused me to come across this Film Junk post about the "Top 10 Lamest G.I. Joe Action Figures." It's worth clicking on, just for the vaguely Village People line-up pictured at the top of the blog, but consider their nominees for Worst Callsign Ever:
  • Chuckles
  • Raptor
  • The Fridge
  • Big Boa
  • Ozone
  • Gristle
  • Scoop
  • Hardball
  • Colonel Courage
  • Ice Cream Soldier
Yeah, I'll take "Sherpa" any day, particularly over "Scoop" and "Maverick." (Ironically, two nicknames that people have also tried to stick on me.) The day I became Sherpa wasn't the exactly the proudest of my life, but, in retrospect, it kinda sums up my military career. You know, nothing much.

Buy me a beer sometime and I'll tell you about it.

03 January 2010

Review: 'Greetings From Afghanistan'

Greetings From Afghanistan, Send More Ammo: Dispatches from Taliban Country

UPDATE 11 JAN 2010: The author advises that his originally self-published book will be reprinted by a large publishing house as an expanded hardcover in June 2010, with a slightly different title. In the meantime, you may be lucky enough to find the earlier paperback edition as "Welcome to Afghanistan: Send More Ammo." The cover features crossed RPGs.

New York Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper had worked in Afghanistan as a civilian in 2004 before deploying as an Embedded Training Team (ETT, and pronounced "ee-tee-tee") member in 2006. For the past number of years, the Army National Guard has been doing some heavy lifting in the ETT fight, deploying as 8- or 16-soldier teams that advise Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) organizations. Other U.S. branches have also been fulfilling the ETT mission, as have allies, although the latter are called Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLT, and pronounced--I am not making this up--"omelette." You know what they say: "Ya gotta break some eggs if you want to, I don't know ... support a friendly but corrupt foreign government to avoid a regional strategic power vacuum with nuclear implications"? But I digress ...)

Tupper blogged throughout his deployment, and his resulting 2009 book of essays, "Welcome to Afghanistan: Send More Ammo" is a punchy collection of well-observed, straight-talking insights on the topsy-turvy world of the ETT. (Full disclosure: While I have not myself served as an ETT member, I have interviewed a number of them for "after action" reports. 'Nuff said.)

In recounting a series of anecdotes (pay attention throughout and you'll begin to pick up the larger threads), Tupper manages to conversationally pick off a few targets--the times that the bad guys that got away; the times that the good guys didn't; the times that the bad guys turned out not to be the bad guys at all. He's occasionally self-mocking. He's occasionally brutally self-revealing. Surprisingly, particularly in that he is a soldier relating war stories, he is never smug or self-agrandizing. Any G.I. will tell you, the "no-B.S." medal is hardest merit-badge to get.

Most importantly, he avoids reaching conclusions beyond the range, if you will, of his weapons. He's a company-grade officer doing an Army job that was admittedly relatively unheard-of in the conventional Army until just a few years ago. (I've got a theory that U.S. National Guard and Reserve soldiers are perhaps better mentally equipped for the ETT mission, given that they likely have applicable civilian skills that they've developed in parallel to their military training, but that's a warhorse for another day.)

He reports on his experiences matter-of-factly, to include the tactical and the personal and even the seemingly trivial. But aren't the devils always in the trivial details, however? Those who have been there--and those who haven't yet--will really appreciate his observations on, say, the hot barber shop scenes to seek out on the major installations, or how ANA soldiers bring the sexy back on a weekly basis, or how the U.S. Army thinks that wearing high-visibility reflective safety belts makes troops safer in nearly all environments.)

That's not to say that he doesn't occasionally call fire-for-effect. Consider this steely cold assessment, written and published before the latest U.S. strategery (you heard me) is/was in place:
"Sending an additional 30,000 soldiers may seem like a rational approach to fighting and defeating the growing Taliban insurgency, but it misses a simple truth. As the Afghans like to say: "You Americans have all the watches, but we Afghans have all the time."
In coming weeks, I'll plan to review a couple of other books that have been about ETTs using the collect-my-blog method of authorship, including: Jeff Courter's "Afghan Journal" and Mark Bromwich's "Captain's Blog." (Full disclosure: The latter is a buddy of mine.) I'd also appreciate suggestions on other books that accurately depict or describe conditions on the ground in and around Afghanistan, whether or not they specifically regard the ETT mission.

01 January 2010

Re: Establishing the Net

SHERPA SENDS: Back in the day, when men were real men, and U.S. Army uniforms were a hardy coffee-stain-resistant green, and tactical radios were Vietnam-era VHF hot-boxes, you had to wait at least a half-second after pushing the radio-handset to talk, then limit your message in 3 to 5 seconds in order to avoid Radio-Direction Finding (RDF). In the latter, extremely constrained conversational environment, radio-telephone operators (RTO) were real RTOs, and they rode herd daily on the radio by formally opening and closing the "nets."

Radiio-frequencies were then dictated by printed sets of "Signal Operating Instructions," or "SOI": Spreadsheets assigning the daily frequencies, callsigns, and identification codes for each organization on the battlefield. The documents were allegedly randomly generated by magic black boxes located at the National Security Agency. The SOI was designed to confound any enemy's attempt to listen in our conversations, figure out who was where and doing what to whom, and to otherwise crack our battle plans. Oftentimes, however, it ended up confusing our own soldiers.

Keep in mind that, at the time, most voice-radio traffic was "in the clear" and unencrypted. Any 12-year-old with a Ruskie-knockoff of a Radio Shack Bearcat scanner probably could have intercepted our radio conversations. Then again, 12-year-olds back then were real 12-year-olds.

Following the SOI, every organization changed to a different frequency each day; if someone was listening in on 72.50 yesterday, they'd find someone else there today, or no one at all. And every organization used a different callsign, too. If you were "Victor-Two-Zero" yesterday, you might be "Yankee-One-Six" (or anything else) the next.

No sexy "Hollywood" or "Clint Eastwood" or "John Wayne" callsigns were allowed--made up names and numbers that users would want to keep from day to day. No "Red Bull Six." No "Stonewall Niner." That way lay not only chaos, but also massive leaks in your organization's operational security (OPSEC), and almost certain death by radio-detecting artillery shells. No, Hollywood callsigns would be authorized later, after the Army fielded the next generations of frequency-hopping tactical radios.

The RTOs sitting in the battalion (or company, or brigade) Tactical Operations Center (TOC) would, if operating a "closed net," require each party wishing to use a particular frequency to, in order: formally call them, request for permission to enter the net, authenticate that they were actually who they said they were using some special codes in the back of the SOI, then, finally, "request permission to use "abbreviated" callsigns--three-character shorthand forms of the five-character alphanumeric callsigns listed in the SOI. After successfully running this procedural gauntlet, the RTO would probably instruct the calling station that they were to monitor this frequency at all times, and that they would be expected to quickly reply to any radio-checks conducted by RTO.

(Sometime, I'll relate some old RTO war stories here. Like when an RTO buddy of mine attempted to kick the battalion operations officer off his own net for not using the correct procedure: "Son, I OWN this net!" Classic. Echoes of Ronald Reagan's "I paid for this microphone ...")

All this formal RTO procedure was all very time-consuming, but it kept the TOC-rats at both ends busy and half-awake, if not exactly happy. Today, however, soldiers have frequency-hopping radios, which jump around the radio-dial thousands of times a second, preventing RDF. If someone wants to listen in on your radio conversation, they'd need to have a radio in sync with the same frequency-hopping sequence as you. And, even then, they'd also need the same encryption key--otherwise, all they'd hear was a scrambled set of sounds. There is simply less need for formal RTO procedure. Kids these days have no radio manners.

That's assuming, of course, that you're even talking via terrestrial radios. Like much of the civilian world, Uncle Sam has invested big in satellite-based communications systems: "Hitting the bird" from wherever you're at, particularly in a mountainous land, is much easy than trying to broadcast an FM signal from a high enough point with power sufficient to be heard. And there's probably people, not always unfriendly people either, trying to jam your signals to boot.

What's with all this radio-headed reverie? No. 1, I'm probably feeling yet another Happy New Year older, and realizing that I've become that soldier I didn't quite understand when I first put on the uniform more than two decades ago: I'm now officially the guy who probably has more useless knowledge about "How We Used to Do Things" than he does "The Way We Do Things Now." That's not to say that I'm ready to go to that big Bullpen in the Sky, of course, or even just to fade away. I'm living proof that you can teach an Old Bull new tricks. That doesn't prevent me from feeling more Old than Bullish sometimes.

No. 2, I think I'm done kicking the tires of this ding-dang Internet thing, and am now ready to buy. The first rule of troubleshooting a radio is: "Check to see if it's plugged in." The second rule is: "Hit it with a hammer." I've plugged the 1.0 version of this blog in, hit it with a few hammers (uploaded images, validated different ways to post) to check functionality. I'm ready to rock--or, probably more accurately, as ready to rock as I ever was. (Note to self: I probably need to put that on a T-shirt.) More details and changes to come, I'm sure.

In developing this site, I've also been tweaking my "tasks-and-purposes." You'll find them listed at the bottom of the page. So, finally, let me celebrate this first day of 2010, by welcoming you to Red Bull Rising net. Hollywood callsigns are (obviously) authorized. Have an Army day.