28 February 2010

The Kids are All Right

Just a quick anecdote today. Archer and I were talking over lunch one day, and I was sharing my concerns about potentially leaving 5-year-old Lena and nearly 3-year-old Rain for a year in Afghanistan. Archer and I are about the same age, but I started the family thing later in life than he. He's got a couple of teenage boys.

Archer tells me not to freak out too much, then hits me with some additional perspective. "The thing that gets me about teenagers," Archer says, "is that they've become their own people. I'll not only be leaving them as my kids, I'll be leaving them as my friends."

There's an oft-quoted war-chestnut that "soldiers don't go to war for their countries, they fight for their buddies." I don't envy Archer's dilemma, and I'm glad I don't yet have to walk in his boots.

27 February 2010

Another Red Bull on the Net!

Thanks to milblogging.com--as well as my fellow blogger Kentucky Woman--I recently found a mil-blog written by Capt. Mark Martin, Minnesota Army National Guard. Martin is apparently working as an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member in Northern Afghanistan, near the town of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Click here to find his "270 Days in Afghanistan" blog.

Apparently, he's teammates with a couple of Croatian soldiers, so he may be more rightly regarded as a member of an Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT). It always cracks me up to note that the European acronym is pronounced "omelette." I'm sure they're all a bunch of (cannot ... stop ... myself ...) "good eggs."

Notably, Martin is the first fellow wearer of the Red Bull patch (see the cow on his left shoulder, above) that I've found on the Internet. I don't know how often he's able to write--or how good his Internet connection is--but I hope he keeps it coming. It's good, informative, and plain-spoken--all things I aspire to be, too.

A quick note about how to "read" an Army uniform, by the way: The left-shoulder patch is your unit patch. The right-shoulder patch is your "combat" patch (technically, called "shoulder sleeve insignia" or "S.S.I."). While the newer Army Combat Uniform (ACU) offers fewer clues as to a soldier's past accomplishments and qualifications, it's common practice for soldiers to check out the new guy's (or gal's) right shoulder, to see if they've been "over there."

While you can't see his right side, Martin apparently commanded a company in Iraq 2006-2007. 'Nuff said on that.

While I'm sending out good vibes, please remember Capt. Martin and his family in thought and prayer, and wish them all godspeed. His profile indicates he's got teenage boys--which probably means he's already seen a different kind of "combat." Not only that, it reminds me of an Archer story I've been meaning to dust off and tell y'all ...

That, however, is a story for another day. Maybe tomorrow?

26 February 2010

Home Sweet Tank

As Household-6 will attest (and protest), I'm a chronic do-it-myselfer and home remodeler. For example, I've been working on finishing the basement for what seems to be nearly a decade now. I'd better get cracking if I want it done before I ship out.

I mentioned a few days ago that I've been attending some Army training here in Fort Indiantown Gap, Penn. It's a long way from push-to-talk radio stuff, but it's a lot about how the Army moves information around the battlefield these days. Lucky for me, it's as much hands-on as it is PowerPoint briefings, but I worry about retaining it all. We've been drinking from the proverbial firehose since we got here, and my brain was pretty much fried by the end of Tuesday's sessions.

Unfortunately, the Internet service to our barracks was equally fried much of Monday and Tuesday, and I couldn't e-mail friends and family. Just the first of many communications outages, I suppose, but it was frustrating.

With nothing to do on my computer--I didn't much feel like playing video games, because the modern Army makes video games seem like work--I tried watching TV in the barracks. I was pleased to find cable TV offerings such as Comedy Central, Speed, and the Military Channel, but would've really enjoyed kicking back with "This Old House" or some other home-improvement show.

Home-improvement shows are less about reality, I know, and more about fantasy: People always seem to get done in time and under budget. Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?

Anyway, tonight I found the Army's apparent answer to do-it-yourselfing: The Military Channel was airing back-to-back episodes of "Tank Overhaul," a 2007 and 2009 TV show that tracks the efforts of hobbyists who rehabilitate old military hardware.

I still prefer Home Depot to the Army Depot, but, hey, any part (you heard me) in a storm.

25 February 2010

Correction: MultiCam Camo, not UCP-D

In my revisiting the Ghosts of Army Camouflage Patterns Past earlier this week, I was apparently the partial victim of my own wishful thinking. While the Army is officially going to start issuing a new camouflage-pattern Army Combat Uniform (ACU) to soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, starting later in 2010, it's not going to be the four-color Universal Camouflage Pattern-Delta (UCP-D). Instead, it's going to be a less-"digital"-looking pattern called "MultiCam."

The "UCP-Delta" pattern option was a four-color version of the now-standard three-color Army camo pattern. I'd apparently been blinded by the idea that Uncle Sam was finally getting around to making me and my buddies look like were all part of the same organization. With so many different camo patterns floating around the past couple of years, we'd been looking like equal parts Mad Max and Garanimals on Crack. Nobody looked the same in the mix-and-match Army. We looked like "The Rat Patrol."

Old Sherpa had even gone so far as to purchase with his own lunch money a new tactical man-purse, one capable of carrying his computer and other stuff in the field. A full review of my new best luggage-friend will follow in a later post, but here's the teaser: I didn't want black, because I already have too many black bags. I didn't want UCP pattern, because I wanted to be able to use the bag in civilian-life, too. That left ACU-friendly "sage" gray-green, and a more Leatherneck-friendly "coyote" brown.

I went with the sage.

A couple of days later, the Army announces that soldiers like me might get MultiCam uniforms downrange.

Sigh. Uncle Sam makes it so hard to accessorize sometimes ...

24 February 2010

How to Measure Success(es) in Afghanistan

The Army is big on delivering measurable results. No personal performance review, no unit training activity, no combat exercise or operation can go without some sort of documentable evaluation of what we did, what we meant to do, and how we can do it better next time.

In a "traditional" war--not exactly the right word, but I'll try to define my terms for purposes of this conversation--the metrics of success are pretty straight-forward. You can measure how many bad guys you capture or kill, for example, and how many beans, bullets, and bandages you have left. In a counterinsurgency (the Army abbreviates this "COIN," and pronounces it "coy-en.") or low-intensity conflict (LIC) scenario, the metrics are harder to come by.

Our objectives might be to help establish a stable civil governance capable of delivering people's basic needs such as food and water and security, as well as infrastructural improvements such as roads and electrical power. How do we get there? How do we make sure that we're on the right path? In other words, how do we quantifiably measure progress toward making life "normal" for people?

These are key questions, not only for our political leaders and military commanders, but also for our taxpayers and our foot soldiers. If we can point to concrete ways our presence is (or is not) making a difference, we will not be as prone to emotional ploys for this or that strategery. "Fighting for freedom," however commendable an ideal, is not a quantifiable objective, just as "hope is not a course of action." At the end of my deployment, I'll want to be able to say that I made a difference, even if that difference was small in scale--down to a couple of names and neighborhoods in a country I may never see again.

I want to be able to tell my wife and kids exactly why I left them for a year.

I wasn't able to deliver that after my first deployment. I went to the sandbox--a different sandbox than most of my buddies, but the sandbox--and waited there, in the desert. There was no threat of direct fire, at least at the time that I was there, and only a vague sense of an IED threat. We were more danger to ourselves. We had some laughs. Saw some things. Even did some stupidly risky things, and lived to tell about it.

I want to learn my lesson by keeping my eyes open for the next lesson.

Foreign Policy blogger and Washington Post defense correspondent Tom Ricks recently posted a series briefly describing some metrics proposed by Australian COIN guru David Kilcullen, himself the author most recently of "The Accidental Guerilla." In the series--Ricks tongue-in-cheekily calls it "Kilcullenpalooza"--Kilcullen mentions bullet-point-by-bullet-point those factors by which commanders and soldiers (and We the People) can begin to measure operational successes:
Part 1: What NOT to measure in a COIN campaign.
Part 2: How to measure your effects on the Afghan population.
Part 3: How to take the measure of an Afghan official.
Part 4: How to measure Afghan army and police units.
Part 5: How to measure the enemy.

23 February 2010

Movie Review: 'The Kite Runner'

"The Kite Runner," 2007, DreamWorks.

Here's entry No. 1 in the virtual (?) Red Bull Bull Film Festival, in which we explore movies that may have something--anything--to teach citizen-soldiers deploying to Afghanistan: "The Kite Runner," released by DreamWorks in 2007.

Let me say right up front, I don't see Joe sitting still for this film. (Further disclosure: Having not read the book, I am directing my comments here solely to the movie.) It's too arty, and it's subtitled, and it's a fictional narrative that features neither big bullets or big breasts. Every since my high school honey tricked me into watching "The Crying Game," I've known the red-faced blustery embarrassment typical of the young soldier. Soldiers do not like watching stuff that depicts homosexual activity of any sort, nor stuff otherwise labeled as "gay" by their friends, nor stuff they think will somehow label them "gay" in the low-browed, locker-room eyes of their homo erectus buddies.

For good or ill, "The Kite Runner" is too easily lumped into all three of those categories. The story follows the estrangement of two boyhood friends in pre-Soviet Afghanistan: Amir, son of a well-to-do Pushtun intellectual; and Hassan, a member of the Hazara minority and son of Amir's family servant.

The boys fly kites as a team, competing against others in aerial combats in which the losers' kite string is cut. Amir is the pilot, while Hassan is the runner. After a loss, Hassan recovers their kite; after a victory, Hassan hunts and claims the losers' kite as a trophy.

Warning: One small spoiler follows. It's one that I knew prior to viewing, however, and discovered that the movie cannot and should not be reduced to one scene or fact.

A group of delinquents bullies the sensitive Amir and his protector Hassan. Later, they attack and sodomize Hassan, while Amir cowers outside of view. Amir wrestles with how he failed to defend Hassan, but lacks the emotional tools with which to reconcile the event. Instead, he pushes Hassan away, even though the latter remains loyal and committed to their friendship.

Cancel spoiler-alert.

Later in the movie, Amir encounters the Soviet invasion of his country, becomes a writer, and attempts to reconnect or make amends for his childhood treatment of Hassan.

Assuming Joe would squirm his way through some of the tough scenes, here's what soldiers could potentially takeaway from this film:
  • A sense of the big mountains and bigger sky of that part of the world. (In filming, the Chinese region of Xinjiang stood in for Afghanistan, as well as urban parts of Pakistan.)
  • The idea that pre-Soviet Kabul was a cosmopolitan, Westernized metropolis.
  • The connections between Iran and Dari-speaking parts of Aghanistan: "Iran and Afghanistan share a language," author Khaled Hosseini mentions on the DVD comments, "They call it Farsi in Iran and we call it Dari in Afghanistan--it's essentially the same language, but the accent is very different."
  • The idea that corrupt and hypocritical behaviors may exist as much in the Taliban as in other religious organizations. (Not trying to start a religious conversation here, I'm just saying ...)

22 February 2010

Minnesotans Help Afghans Help Themselves

After I posted some reactions last week to a Minnesota Public Radio multimedia package regarding the 34th Infantry Division Headquarters recent return from Iraq, one attentive Red Bull Rising reader pointed out the work of two Minneapolis Star-Tribune employees filing stories from Afghanistan.

Reporter Mark Brunswick and photographer Richard Sennott spent four weeks in country in late 2009, and filed a series of stories, photos, and videos from Northern Afghanistan earlier this month. The two focused on covering two units--Duluth's 114th Transportation Company, and a 12-solider Embedded Training Team (ETT) working in the Northern province of Samangan.

In Part 1 of the series, "Winning the battle of Ayabak," Brunswick describes the challenges faced down by the ETT: corruption, illiteracy, lack of hygiene, and lack of professionalism in the Afghan National Army. Upon their arrival, the Minnesotans found 100 Afghan soldiers living in filth, without adequate shelter or food service facilities.

It's the ETT's job to help train and professionalize Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), so that they can fight their own battles and police their own country.
The Afghan base commander was living in a room with heat, electricity and a TV that provided a snowy but passable picture while his soldiers suffered outside. [Maj. Robb] Mattila, of Sartell, decided to risk violating a fistful of military and cultural taboos. The no-nonsense onetime college ROTC instructor put his finger in the Afghan officer's chest and demanded action.

"I told him that I was going to take his heater away if he didn't get things right for his men," Mattila recalled.
Mattila's group of Minnesotans is paired with a group of Croatians, so the ETT apparently goes by the more-European moniker of "Operational Mentor and Liaison Team" (OMLT)--pronounced "omelette."

In Part 2 of the series, "Repeat tours take their toll," Brunswick discusses how soldiers work within a world of multiple deployments and risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That topic alone is worth more exploration and examination, which I'll hope to get to in future posts. For now, suffice to say that it's an extremely worthwhile read for soldiers, friends, and family facing a deployment.

In Part 3 of the series, "Whose war is it anyway," Brunswick tells the story of illiteracy and incompetency in the Afghan ranks. A country with an illiteracy rate of 70 percent, he notes, can't support an Army capable of operating and maintaining all the new materiel being pushed to them, much less read the manuals.

In addition to illiteracy, there are the barriers of corruption, and bigotry, and even history:
The Russian influence is evident everywhere. Many soldiers still wear Russian winter coats. Russian-provided Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles are the predominant weapon. Lower-ranking officers remain hesitant to issue an order unless it's handed down to them directly from their commander, reflecting the hierarchal nature of the Soviet military.

Ethnic and religious divides also split the Afghan army. A low-level soldier might bypass his chain of command and seek a leave from his top commander because both are from the same ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in some areas, with supplies stolen for resale. Soldier pay is being increased to $240 a month from $180, but the Afghan "cash men" assigned to handle payrolls pocket some of the cash or charge fees to hand out pay. Even when the pay comes through without a problem, it can pale against what the Taliban is offering for service on the other side of the firefights.


"When you start out, you usually ask yourself how many touchdowns are we going to score before we go home," said Maj. Robb Mattila of Sartell, the commander of the Guard unit. "With this assignment, we're hoping to move the ball ahead, maybe, five yards when we're done."
In short, Brunswick and Sennott's efforts are in the best vein of American journalism: They tell it like it is, without sugar-coating or spin-control, and without losing faith in the hometown boys and girls we've sent to do the job. That's not a bad investment--Minnesota Post commentator David Brauer estimated the Star-Trib only spent about $6,000 on the trip. (He also complimented the package as "gripping but not mawkish.")

Do yourself a favor, and click over to read the whole package.

Related article: Read a Feb. 20 New York Times assessment of Afghan forces based on recent Marine-supported operations in Marja, Helmand Province here. The title? "Marines do heavy lifting as Afghan Army lags in battle."

21 February 2010

Achieving and Maintaining Uniform-ity

Since I entered Army in 1988, I've worn approximately 4 different uniforms for my country. According to news reports this weekend, I might be issued yet one more version before I retire.

For my version of basic training, I was issued the nearly out-of-service "utility" uniform: plain olive-drab polyester and black boots. The undershirt was brown, the blouse was tucked into the trouser, the trouser was tucked into the top of the black boot. The "ballcap" was no longer available for issue, however, and we were given woodland-camouflage patrol caps--the same as would be worn with the Battle Dress Uniform.

The Battle Dress Uniform (B.D.U.) was woodland camouflage pattern. The front of the blouse featured four square-bottomed pockets, the bottom two of which were never used. (In the field, your Load Carrying Equipment, which included a wide nylon-mesh pistol belt--wouldn't have allowed bottom-pocket access anyway.) The top left pocket had a hold in it, allegedly for placing one pen or pencil--provided the pen could not be seen.

The sleeves of the BDU could be worn rolled up during warm months. When you fell into the first formation of the day, you needed to be the same as the first sergeant--sleeves-up or sleeves-down. Army soldiers rolled their sleeves so that the woodland pattern covered the rolled portion of the sleeve. The Marines rolled their sleeves so the solid-colored underside of the fabric showed was exposed. That, and the special cut of the Marine patrol cap, were the two major differences between the Army and Marine duty uniform.

In 1989-1990, my father's Air Force Reserve unit was called up for Operation Desert Shield. He was flying on a C-130, the same type of aircraft he rode around Vietnam. During this duty, he was issued a couple of Desert Battle Dress Uniform (D.B.D.U.)--the same "chocolate-chip cookie dough" camouflage pattern then used by the U.S. Army.

While I still one of Papa Sherpa's DBDUs, I was never issued them. Instead, when I deployed for the first time in 2003, my buddies and I were issued the "coffee stain" camouflage of the Desert Combat Uniform (D.C.U.). (The unit we were relieving, however, told us a bunch of hooey about laundry services downrange being substandard, and that we'd better request uniforms one or two sizes larger than usual, because they'd either shrink or be shrunk for us. That, however, is another war story ...) We were also issued the buff-colored no-polish-required (!) desert boots.

When we returned from our deployment, we turned in all but one of our DCUs, and went back to wearing woodland camouflage pattern BDUs and black boots.

The Army decided to transition to the Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) effective March, I think, of 2009. The ACU is a much lighter material than the winter-weight BDU, DBDU, and DCU. (Sometimes, there were "summer" or "tropical" weight uniforms available in those patterns, but they typically didn't wear as long, and weren't worth the effort.) Someone once read somewhere that the Army figures a set of ACU is only supposed to last about 6 months before wearing out. The Velcro (that's a trademark, I realize--the generic term would be "hook-and-loop fastener") certainly will wear out in that time.

There are lots of pockets in all the right places on the ACU, particularly if you're wearing body armor--which, face it, you should be, if you're downrange. The pockets are kept closed with more of that hook-and-loop tape--much easier to get in and out of than the button-flap BDU-style pockets. Instead of sewn-on rank, name tape, and patches, all the "who am I" stuff is also affixed to the ACU with hook-and-loop tape. I joke that, when the Army switched from BDU to ACU, you should've sold your stock in black boot polish (no longer used in the age of the buff-colored desert boot), and bought stock in the makers of hook-and-loop.

Oh, and, with the ACU, soldiers are no longer allowed to iron, press, or starch the duty uniform--rough and unpressed is part of the camouflage. And--get this--one must take extreme care to launder the ACU with non-brightening detergents. Otherwise, one can compromise the camouflage characteristics of the fabric. I kid you not, I have to take more care washing my uniforms than any other category of the family's laundry.

For all of its usual stress upon uniformity, however--that everyone should be dressed and equipped in the same way--the Army has been forced into a more casual attitude during the transition to ACU. Depending on their mission, their unit, and what was in stock at the time, guys and gals going downrange would be issued a mix of woodland camouflage, olive drab, desert tan, and ACU "sage green" or "digi-cam" pattern (the camouflage looks "digital," like the squarish pixels on a computer screen). No one looked uniform, because their were simply too many uniforms. In fact, at one point in the supply chain, wearing desert boots with the BDU was authorized, because one couldn't order black boots in the system any longer. While functional, it did NOT look cool.

Besides if you mix camouflage patterns, you probably aren't camouflaged any more. Any hunters out there can probably back me up on this.

That's all recently changed, of course, With my unit's preparations for deployment, we're getting a lot of "new" equipment and clothing. Most everything for which I've signed (more than $3,000 worth) and now stored in my wall locker at the unit armory (other than the basic uniform, soldiers aren't supposed to take their equipment home with them), is now the new camouflage pattern. I might still have a woodland helmet cover, but I expect to get a new digi-cam cover when I am issued a new-style helmet.

The official name for the ACU camouflage pattern, by the way, is "Universal Camouflage Pattern," or "U.C.P." Occasionally, you'll also hear it referred to as "ARPAT," for "Army Pattern." If you hear it called this, you'll also likely hear a conversation or argument about who went to "digi-cam" first, the Marines or the Army. The Marines and Army no longer share woodland camouflage pattern as a common thread. Instead, the Marines have "MARPAT" (for "Marine Pattern"), available in woodland, desert, and urban color schemes. If any Marine wants to dust up about who-had-it-first, have them tell it to the Canadians. (Our neighbors to the U.S. north had "Canadian Disruptive Pattern"--"CADPAT"--years before the Marines. I first encountered CADPAT when indirectly working for a Canadian general back in 2003.)

Soldiers are of mixed opinion when it comes to the three-color UCP of the ACU. (Acronyms!) It's lighter in color, so it becomes visibly soiled more easily. (With the woodland BDU, you could spill coffee on yourself without embarrassment.) It's a good pattern for in the sandy desert, urban environments, and the occasional mauve-and-mint upholstery from the 1980s. (Click here for the classic Internet photo of the latter, although I once personally witnessed the visual disappearance of a party of lunching combat engineers upon being seated at a particular diner in Fairfield, Iowa.)

So, why all this Operation Project Runway retrospective, you ask? Because Uncle Sam has apparently taken criticisms of the ACU from troops deployed to Afghanistan to heart, and will be issuing a new, MARPAT-like "MultiCam" version of the ACU to troops deploying to Afghanistan, starting late summer 2010. (The Army has been conducting a four-month test of the new pattern.) My unit is slated to deploy in a similar timeframe.

The change shouldn't be as dramatic or drastic as going from woodland to UCP. Instead, it will most likely involve the introduction of a fourth color ("coyote") to the three-color UCP. Click here for a comparison chart.

Personally, I'm hoping the troops who are Doing the Job, on the Front Line, at the proverbial Tip of the Spear get the "good" uniforms. After all, Sherpa's probably got himself an in-the-rear-with-the-gear job.

In other words, he'll blend in, regardless.

20 February 2010

The 'Mouth of the Dragon'

In a particularly powerful piece of reporting earlier this week, freelance journalist Michael Yon describes the death of U.S. Army Spc. Adam Ray, 23, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Ray was killed, and others injured, while checking culverts for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Here in the American Midwest, culverts are as common as cows and crops. The pipes crossing under our roads allow water to pass from one ditch, creek, or field to another. "In safe countries," writes Yon, "drivers pay as little attention to culverts as we would to telephone poles."
In the war zone that is Afghanistan, life and limb depend on noticing normally mundane things like culverts. They are a favorite hiding spot for the Taliban to plant bombs intended to kill Americans driving the roads. Hundreds, even thousands of pounds of explosives can be stuffed inside, launching our vehicles into the sky, flipping them over and over, sometimes killing all. And so, in some areas, soldiers on missions must stop dozens of times to check culverts for explosives. Since we do this every day in front of thousands of Afghans, they know our patterns. In addition to planting bombs in culverts, they plant mines and other bombs near culverts, to get men who stop to check.
Every year, my neighborhood's homeowners association has to pay someone to clear the branches and brambles away from our drains and culverts, in order to prevent flooding. That's about all the thought we give them. Think about worrying about every culvert you and your friends drive over every day, or sticking your face into one or a hundred such holes, in order to seek out explosives.

A recent Missouri National Guard news release described the efforts of U.S. veteran Mike Woodgerd, now working as a contractor in Afghanistan, helping to install "Solerno boxes" onto road culverts. "Every time our guys have to dismount and actually look into those culverts, they are staring into the mouth of the dragon," Woodgerd told Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty.
The metal devices help prevent emplacement of IEDs, which helps keep soldiers away from the mouth of the dragon. Recently, Woodgerd was working in Khost Province with a route-clearance unit from Missouri. The National Guard-approved news article describes the action:
[Army 1st Lt.] Miller's platoon took just four hours to deploy the first two boxes, an operation that immediately drew the attention--and concern--of local Afghans. Shortly after the combat engineers began working, an elder from a nearby village ventured out alone to check on the commotion. He was met by Miller and by Army Capt. Bryan Sayer, commander of the 1141st [Engineer Company, Missouri Army National Guard].

It seems he was primarily concerned that the devices would impede or cut off the flow of water through the culvert--water that is vital to farming in this arid environment. But the soldier-diplomats quickly assuaged the elder's concerns by explaining that the denial system would hinder insurgents but not hamper the flow of water.

Part of the plan to keep the boxes in place depends on the trust and support of the local people, who need to know they are being put there to help protect them as well as U.S. and NATO forces. Soon after, crowds that had gathered at the periphery began to close in on the American soldiers, the elder's acceptance serving as the icebreaker.
Please click over to Michael Yon's website, and read the rest of his article about Ray. His final, Ernie-Pyle-like paragraph is heartbreaking in its mundanity. It's also something that I wish I could've written, and hope I never have to. Yon works for himself, by the way--you can keep him in business by donating to the cause. We need more eyes on the ground like his.

19 February 2010

Acronym Soup

The military loves acronyms, and each branch of service has to have its own flavors of alphabet soup. Come Thanksgiving, the extended Sherpa family table welcomes Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army National Guard, all sitting together, making nice, giving thanks, and rarely understanding what the heck the other guy is going on about.

Mostly, that has to do with language. Or maybe it's dialect. Whatever you call it when someone has a different word for practically everything under the Government Issued sun.

If we can't understand each other, how can we possibly fight? The enemy, I mean.

Of course, we do it to ourselves, too. Each service has apparently run out of good acronymns, because now we're recycling them. Consider, for example, my surprise when called to a recent meeting about answering our unit's "RFI," or "Requests for Information." That's what the Army calls formal questions asked on behalf of an entire unit. There were about eight of us in the room, four of whom seemed to want to talk of nothing but uniforms, boots, coats, sweaters and the like. It turned out that the supply guys and gals had been the ones to call the meeting. They wanted to discuss the "Rapid Fielding Initiative."

Same planet, different worlds.

There are other instances, of course. Nearly every year, for example, U.S. National Guard soldiers go on two or three weeks of Active Duty for Training (ADT). In the National Guard, there are also any number of Agribusiness Development Teams (ADT) deploying to assist Afghans with agricultural production and marketing. The Iowa National Guard--both Army and Air--will deploy one such unit later this year.

So, pausing a moment to do some acronymal math: It is theoretically possible for "a deploying ADT to issue an RFI about RFI during ADT."

Got it?

In my current Army training course, a Kentucky Army National Guard officer described his deployment to Iraq with this anecdote. "When they said they needed someone to go as an FSO, I jumped at the opportunity." The gentleman is in the Field Artillery branch, in which "FSO" means "Fire Support Officer."

"It turns out they meant 'Food Service Officer,'" he laughed.

Ouch. Pass the salt?

18 February 2010

Red Bulls Returning, Part 3

Offering a potentially dark lining to the otherwise silvery cloud of Minnesota Public Radio's recent "The Red Bulls: Beyond Deployment" package was the last section of a story written to provide historical context. "Welcome home," read the headline, "... for now." (Italics mine.) Five paragraphs followed:
The latest Minnesota National Guard death came in October 2009, from Afghanistan. George Cauley, 24, of Walker, Minn., died from roadside bomb injuries.

The commander of the Minnesota National Guard, Adj. Gen. Larry Shellito, called Afghanistan a very dangerous place and said more Minnesota Guard troops will be deployed there.

During a recent appearance on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program, Shellito did not offer much concrete information about future deployments to Afghanistan.

"It will be relatively significant in size. We anticipate they'll be working in the key sectors in Afghanistan," Shelito said.

There have been few specifics about the role the Minnesota National Guard will play in Afghanistan. All that has been officially confirmed is that 12 Guard soldiers will head there this spring to train Afghan troops.
So ... what are you trying to say, MPR? Why try to spook the cattle?

Part 3 of 3

17 February 2010

Red Bulls Returning, Part 2

Back in the day, the officers and NCOs and radio-jockeys who worked in a unit's Tactical Operations Center (TOC, pronounced "talk) would track troop movements on the battlefield by moving little markers on big maps. Or, more accurately, we'd draw on clear sheets of acetate, which were layered over topographic maps. Each layer of acetate might depict a different set of data: One might show known minefields and other obstacles the enemy had put into place, while another might depict friendly supply routes.

A lot of times, it was only after one layer of acetate was placed over another that one came to understand what was happening out on the ground.

I'm not sure of any conclusions to make, but I was struck by the possible implications of two disparate and different maps presented in Minnesota Public Radio's recent "Red Bulls: Beyond Deployment" package I mentioned yesterday.

Specifically, I wonder if anyone smarter than I am regarding rural issues and mental healthcare has overlaid the infographic by MPR's Than Tibbets, which depicts the hometowns of the returning Red Bull soldiers, onto the Google-Maps-generated depiction of the current locations of veteran service clinics.

To paraphrase everyone's favorite Kevin Costner movie about Iowa (no, it wasn't "Dances with Hogs"): "Build it closer to where they live, and they may come."

Part 2 of 3

16 February 2010

2010 Condition of the Iowa National Guard

TimOrr.jpgIn his first "Condition of the National Guard" speech to Iowa state government officials Tues., Feb. 16, Brig. Gen. Tim Orr addressed the upcoming deployment of more than 3,500 soldiers, and preparations for disaster-readiness given the pending absence of so many Iowa personnel. As the state's adjutant general, Orr is the top-ranked military official in Iowa.

The deployment of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division will be the Hawkeye State's largest deployment since World War II.

"Almost every community in Iowa will be affected in some way by this deployment," said Orr. "The 2nd Brigade is full of veterans from previous deployments and the leadership team deploying forward is among the best in the Iowa National Guard. These leaders have proven themselves in previous deployments and challenging leadership assignments." Orr is himself a former commander of the brigade, and the current command team, Col. Tom Staton and Command Sgt. Major Craig Berte, were present at the speech.

Orr continued later, regarding the brigade's deployment ...
As the Adjutant General, I am personally responsible for certifying that all soldiers complete their required pre-mobilization warrior tasks and training before deploying to their mobilization station. This is a responsibility that I take very seriously. To properly accomplish this task to standard for all 2nd Brigade soldiers, the Iowa National Guard will conduct its first State Annual Training Exercise in more than 30 years at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, involving nearly all Iowa National Guard units to provide logistical and training support to assist the 2nd Brigade in their mobilization preparation. [...]
In addition to taking care of the troops, Orr addressed taking care of families as well:
In preparation for the brigade deployment, we have added three more Family Assistance Specialists, bringing the total to seven. These specialists assist individuals with family issues, helping them connect to military, community and veterans resources. They assist families when they experience financial problems, have military health insurance questions, or need identification cards.
During mobilizations, the Family Assistance Specialist regularly check in with the families of deployed service members, to ensure they are coping well and receiving needed services. We currently have Family Assistance Specialists located in Camp Dodge, Iowa City, Council Bluffs, and Waterloo, as well as new offices in Sioux City, Ft. Dodge and Davenport.
And, finally, the big picture:
It’s no small feat to prepare, train, equip and deploy more than 3,000 Soldiers while maintaining our organizational readiness, continue the efforts to prepare trained war fighters for future needs, take care of the needs of our Soldiers, Airmen and their families, while providing a robust domestic response capability for Iowa. Yet, despite these incredible challenges, I am confident that the Iowa National Guard will continue to set the example for all states; we will be there for Iowa when they call; and as a force, we will remain ―Mission Focused and Warrior Ready!

Red Bulls Returning, Part 1

Minnesota Public Radio has recently posted an in-depth, multi-layered, multi-media coverage of the return of the 34th Infantry Division. The U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division comprises both Minnesota and Iowa units, among others.

It's great and creative stuff, and I can't even begin to do it all justice here. Of particular note, however, are the creative touches such as superimposing the outline of Minnesota over the map of Iraq. What an easy-to-comprehend way to show people the distances involved!

For Red Bull soldiers such as me, who face a potential deployment later this year, the Minnesota Public Radio coverage offers a smorgasbord of insights. Do yourself and your family a favor, and go the overall link right here.

Major topics include:

"Family and War" including discussions of using technology to keep in touch with your family, and Blue Star Mothers (mothers of deployed soldiers) support programs.

"Who are the Red Bulls?" includes discussions of the deployment's effects on recruiting, and the missions pursued by the Minnesota National Guard soldiers.

"Adjusting to Civilian Life" includes two great articles--one on transitioning back to work, one on transitioning back to home. It also covers veterans helping veterans, and even a "VIP center" for soldiers at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.

"Mental Illness and Treatment" leads off with "new ways to diagnose Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," and makes the technical more personal with the story of one Minnesota veteran's post-2004-deployment experience. There's a great story on the (lack of?) availability of mental health resources for rural veterans.

"Living with Physical Injuries" includes some good perspective on the types of injuries most often suffered by our troops.

Finally, there's an "Interactive Guide to Coming Home by and for Veterans and Their Families."

Good stuff! I hope that some major news venue in Iowa--the Des Moines Register, perhaps, or Iowa Public Radio--manages to put similar thought and talent to my own unit's deployment. More thoughts to come ...

Part 1 of 3

15 February 2010

Show Them the Money

The 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's 2005 deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom is the stuff of legend, if for no other reasons than:
(1) Eventually clocking in at 22 months in country, it was the longest deployment of any U.S. Infantry unit--that's any unit, apparently, active-duty or National Guard--since World War II.

(2) The soldiers found out about the extension of their deployment after their families and the media did, moments captured by an hour-long 60 Minutes program titled "Fathers, Sons, and Brothers" that followed the soldiers of Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry throughout their lengthy tour.

(3) The soldiers were never fully compensated for the extension of their deployment. According to a 2008 Iowa National Guard press release, the unit returned to the states on July 2, 2007. While a program of paying bonuses for troops incurring extra-long deployments had been put into place in January 2007, the Army waffled as to whether the program was retroactive.
According to the Associated Press via the Army Times, the Pentagon today closed the loophole, potentially allowing some $10 million in back pay to be paid to 2,500 Minnesota National Guard troops. The 1st BCT, while headquartered in Minnesota, included the Iowa's 1/133rd Infantry.

The article notes, however, the Pentagon did not issue itself a deadline to actually start payment.

Jumping TOC to FIG

I'm either on my way or already present for duty at an Army school designed to sharpen my mad information-collection and -dissemination skilz. The two-week class is taking place at Fort Indiantown Gap, aka "The Gap" aka "Fig," at least to some people. I've never been there, but it's apparently up the road a piece from Harrisburg, Penn. I hear there's snow. And I understand that the National Guard post might have it's own unique character ...

"You goin' to FIG?!" one of my officers asked me last week. "I got a speeding ticket on that post once. I was driving a 1-1-3! In the training area! Crazy."

I have no idea what I'm in for, training-wise. Tactical Operations Centers (TOC, and pronounced "talk) have always been the nerve-centers for Army units, but I'm just an old radio guy. Today's TOC are probably more like "Guitar Hero" than "Classic Rock."

Ah, well, after I'm sufficiently trained, I guess I'll finally be able to ... wait for it ... "talk the TOC"?

Thank you! Thank you! I'm here all week! (And next.)

14 February 2010

Daddy's Little Sunshine Patriot

"Daddy?" Five-year-old Lena is in the backseat of a heater-less car, along with her little brother Rain. It has snowed another 5 inches overnight, and winds are expected to gust up to 22 mph later in the day. It is below zero, it is windy, and I am grumpy. I have forgotten my Gore-Tex parka, the topmost layer to my Army cold-weather personal clothing system. The wind is cutting through my "black-bear" fleece jacket. I want nothing more than to drop the kids at daycare, and to drop my 13-year-old frozen-brick of a station wagon one of two places: At the dealer, or off the side of a cliff. Whichever comes first.

"What, Lena?"

"Thank you for ... pro-tec-ting ... our country."

Her comment comes completely out of the blue, on this day that there is no sky. I instantly go from partly cloudy to 80-percent chance of precipitation. I feel weepy, and have to take a couple of breaths before I can reply with a halfway steady voice:

"Thank you, Lena. That was very nice."

I am searching for words. I'd like to give her a hug--right NOW--but we're both safely belted in and on the move. With my hands on the steering wheel, I can feel the teachable, reinforceable moment slipping out of my grasp ...

"Lena? Could you do me a favor? If you see Elam's dad or Sammy's mom at daycare, you should tell them that, too? In fact, if you ever see someone wearing a uniform--particularly one with an American flag on it--I don't care whether they're a soldier or a sailor, or an police officer or ambulance driver, could you tell them the same thing?"

"Yes, daddy."

That's my girl!

13 February 2010

Lost in Spaced-Out Mil-Translation

Make a Hole ....pngEarlier this week, at a time when I really needed something to distract me from the newspaper, one of my daily go-to web comics really brought the funny. Schlock Mercenary is a "comic space opera" drawn by Howard Tayler since June 2000. He's a great storyteller, a creative-businessman (and, note how the meaning changes with the deletion of the hyphen), a creative businessman.

A couple of years ago, I got hooked on Tayler's twisting narrative about "Tagon's Toughs," group of space mercenaries headed up by Capt. Kaff Tagon. (Surprisingly, given the attitudes and actions of his para-military characters, Tayler has apparently never served in uniform.) The title character, Sgt. Schlock, is a shape-changing alien that typically arms himself with a pair of ominously humming plasma cannons. Things get pretty strange after that. Think "Hammer's Slammers" meets "Red Dwarf."

Gee, Sherpa, when you tell a story ... have a point ...

Well, Thursday's three-panel Schlock comic depicted a high-speed foot-pursuit through a low-gravity shopping mall. One the mercenaries--a flightless bird-alien with a prehensile tongue--tries to the clear the crowd using a timeworn military catch-phase. (By "timeworn," I mean: I learned this one in my basic Army training experience.) Somebody shouts "Make a HOLE," and everybody automatically clears to each side of the hallway, or staircase, or whatever.

It works great when everyone speaks the same lingo. Got a crowd of civilians? Not so much. The comic ends with a collision, after which an exasperated woman asks the mercenary, "'Make a hole? What does that even MEAN?!"

(OK, if you haven't clicked over there yet, here's the link again. No, I didn't give away Tayler's punchline. I'm a class act that way.)

Reminds me of the time I was on leave from active-duty for a friend's wedding. I was in dress uniform. The reception crowd was a little too loud and chatty, and someone else wanted to make a toast. Did Sherpa clink a glass or loudly clear his throat? No ... he used the Voice of God and called the room to "at ease."

I still cringe at that one. What was I thinking?

Oh, that's right--I wasn't ...

So much of Army jargon and training and phrasing is based on repetition and repetition and repetition. (And ... it's repetitive, too.) It's like the crazy mix of call-and-response conditioning (almost said "brainwashing," but thought better of it) and tribal oral tradition. To this day, more than 20 years later, if someone were to yell "What's the spirit of the bayonet?"--I'd bet at least half the old soldiers in the room would instantly respond with the required "Kill! Kill! Kill!" once taught by our drill instructors. There might even be some muscle memory triggered, causing us to hunch into an aggressive ready-pose.

Another example: We were doing medical-skills testing last drill weekend, and the trainers brought out these nifty new tactical tourniquet kits. (Me? I'm old enough to remember when the Army gave you a "medical pouch" that contained little more than a single adhesive bandage and a prayer book.) Back in the day, we were trained to create a tourniquet by twisting a pressure bandage with a stick. Back in the day, we were taught to say, "I will turn my tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright-red blood," in a kind of sing-songy voice.

More than two decades later, presented with a high-tech one-size-fits-all tourniquet, the phrase comes to mind as easily as "hickory, dickory, dock ..." That's probably the point to drilling it into us when we're young: Immediate recollection, unthinking action, unhesitating response.

'At ease'? What does that even MEAN?!

12 February 2010

Send in the Blog-Engineers ...

What follows is more of what my drill sergeant would've called "constant site improvement." I think I remember the priorities of work: "First, dig the foxhole ... then add overhead cover ... then dig a grenade sump ... then carefully emplace a line of painted white rocks around your fighting position."

Or something like that.

I've added a "Networked Blogs" Facebook app widget on the Red Bull Rising sidebar, after realizing that it might help people find the blog. The "new, improved" Facebook does a good job of making even your pages and groups hard to find. In my opinion.

Let me know if it slows down your page-loading times too much, will you?

I'm finally getting around to adding some additional "useful tools for soldiers deploying to Afghanistan" links to the sidebar. Many of these come from the minds and blog-rolls of my friends, buddies, and mil-blogging mentors. As always, I'm trying to really focus my categories down to "tight shot groups": 3 to 5 items each. As a reader, I tend to get overwhelmed and easily distracted where there are too many options. ("SQUIRRELS!") I'm figuring my Red Bull buddies need the same kind of calm reading environment in which to ruminate. Pay no attention the matador behind the curtain ...

Before I forget, please note James Lee's photo blog from Eastern Afghanistan at the Ventura County Star. I don't know how long he's going to be in country, but I hope he continues for a long time. With his eye, even the most mundane scene becomes magical--and an opportunity for insight.

Also, I'm stepping up the hunt for more mil-bloggers from Red Bull units. I recently had one pop up on my e-mail net--a medic who may be deploying with us, who's been blogging since 2006 or 2007. If there are other Red Bull soldiers out there doing or thinking about doing, zap me an e-mail or contact me via Facebook. We're all in this together.

More generally, please feel free to post recommendations of other useful websites, blogs, or Facebook pages ... and thanks in advance for your help!


10 February 2010

A Death in Our Family

Iowa Army National Guard Chaplain Capt. Eric Simpson, 31, died Wed., Feb. 10, 2010, of burn injuries sustained in a Tuesday morning chemical accident at his civilian employer, Quality Surface Processing, Schofield, Wis. Two others were also injured in the incident, which apparently involved extremely hot paint-stripping chemicals reacting to metal.

In news reporting by WQOW-TV Eau Claire, Wis., Everest Metro Police Sgt. Mark Klemm characterized the accident this way: "Basically, it strips paint off the metal and they were immersing it in this hot salt bath which is approximately they said 800-900 degrees and somehow when the piece of metal being treated was immersed into the hot salt bath it reacted."

Simpson was assigned to the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), headquartered in Johnston, Iowa. Public messages from family members say that he had planned to report to active duty March 1, and to deploy overseas later this year with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry Division. The 334th BSB is one of 5 battalions comprising the 2/34th BCT. Approximately 500 people, a battalion typically has one chaplain and an assistant to minister to soldiers' spiritual and emotional needs, as well as to advise commanders on moral issues.

Simpson had been a pastor at Evangelical Free Church, Polk City, Iowa, before moving in 2009 with his family to Schoflield. Simpson was a 1997 graduate of Batesville (Ark.) Southside High School; a 2002 graduate of the College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Mo.; and a 2006 graduate of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill.

Simpson is survived by his wife Sarah, his son Micah Benjamin, 4, and his daughter Lydia Beth, 18 mos. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Respect the Marine, if Not His Politics

David Bellavia, OIF veteran and author of House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, posted as his Facebook status today this thought regarding the Feb. 8, 2010 death of U.S. Sen. John Murtha, D-Penn.:
"David Bellavia was disgusted by John Murtha in life, but in death, I am respectful of the father and husband he was ... politics should stop at the coroner's toe tag. Prayers and support for his family at this time."
Inspired by his punchy, pithy, provoking, and prayerful prose, I added my proverbial two cents' worth:
"Well said! May I also point out that the man was a Marine (that fact alone absolves a multitude of sins, IMHO), a vet, a Bronze-Star-with-V and twice-decorated Purple Heart recipient? I don't have to have agreed with his politics to have respected his service. Wilco on prayers."
Many are quick to say "good-riddance" to any politician, particularly one who was as staunchly pro-NRA, pro-life, and, yes, even pro-soldier, as Murtha.
Murtha was a former Marine drill instructor and officer. He was the first Vietnam War veteran elected to Congress. I wish there were more like him--veterans who answer the call to service beyond their years in uniform, and who try to do what they think is right, limited only by their own human frailties. (Remember the Alamo, but also remember Abscam!)

In today's hyperbolic media environment, we too often demonize and disparage our fellow citizens, just because they do not agree with us. We would do better to realize that our difference temper and hone the country we share. We'd do better to remember that we're all in this democracy thing together.

I could probably end there, but I'm not quite done waving the flag yet. I'm reminded of the time one of my soldiers pissed "hot" for cocaine during a random drug urinalysis. This was a more-than-likely career-stopper, regardless of whether I spoke up on his behalf. He'd likely be discharged from the National Guard. He'd also lose his military-related full-time employment. Uncle Sam and the American taxpayer would lose thousands of dollars invested in his years of training. You want to believe that he's honest, and that he can change his past behavior and make better decisions in the future. You also know that cocaine is serious business--hard to claim, for example, that you accidentally ate a Particularly Good Brownie at last week's high school reunion.

That's when I noticed that he was wearing the same flag I was.

That's when I came to the following, mixed-up, crazy "Starship Troopers"-sounding philosophy: I'll take the worst young soldier over the best civilian juvenile delinquent any day of the week.

You can be the biggest rag-bag, sad sack, ate-up-like-a-soup-sandwich soldier, and I'd still have to give you some credit. Credit for at one time walking in off the street, signing your name, and raising your hand, and becoming part of something bigger than yourself. Maybe you joined for the G.I. Bill, maybe you joined for God and country, maybe you joined because the judge suggested it, and maybe you joined for all the wrong reasons. You know what, though? You joined. And that's heckuva lot more than a lot of other people do.

That's not a "get out of jail free" card, but it is a token for a second chance ... or honest reassessment.

Shakespeare's "Henry V" was the one book I packed in my first six-week Army training camp. I regularly returned to this St. Crispin's Day speech. Most people remember the "... we happy few, we band of brothers ..." line, but it goes on:
"... [H]e to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition [...]"
I hereby consider Murtha's condition gentled. 'Nuff said.

09 February 2010

More Fortunes of War

Trooper was at school again last weekend, so Rhino, Sparts, and I couldn't re-create the greatness that was January's "Operation Fortune Cookie." During the January drill, the four of us went to a local grocery for cheap, hot, and immediate Chinese food. During the meal, we figured out how one should add the words "on the deployment" to the end of the phrase contained in your fortune cookie. A couple of us remembered playing a similar game, back in the day--a game in which one coyly adds the words "in bed." Tee hee.

Later that month, my kids Rain and Lena scored a haul of extra chocolate-dipped fortune cookies from Cafe Su, one of our family's favorite local bistros. I told them that Daddy Sherpa didn't need the cookies, but he did want the slips of paper within.

Thanks, Sherpets, for a "Fortunes of War" bonus-round! And the winners are ...
  • "Keep the promises you make ... on the deployment."
  • "Develop your critical edge ... on the deployment."
  • "You prefer to use your energy in cooperative ventures rather than alone ... on the deployment."
  • "Others admire your independence ... on the deployment."
  • "Others are drawn to your magnetic personality ... on the deployment."
  • "You will make your fortune with your friend ... on the deployment."
  • "Give a hug to someone who needs one more than you ... on the deployment." (?!)
  • "You will live a long time, long enough to open may, many fortune cookies ..." (To which I say: "Amen and roger that!")

08 February 2010

Review: 'The Places in Between'

"The Places in Between," by Rory Stewart

With the Afghan Taliban then-only-recently overthrown in late 2001, Rory Stewart proceeded to go on walkabout across Afghanistan in early 2002. A British foreign service and Army officer; Iraqi provincial administrator; later the director of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation (a Non-Governmental Organization working to preserve Afghan archeological heritage and arts); and now-Harvard professor, Stewart has written a couple of go-to books about the wars in Iraq ("The Prince of Marshes") and Afghanistan ("The Places in Between").

Given his experiences, Stewart has a unique ability to advocate and translate on behalf of the many peoples of Afghanistan. In The Places in Between, he describes a series of frustratingly random experiences gathered while walking a segment of an ancient Silk Road between Herat and Kabul.

On first read, his encounters with various personalities and populations seem arbitrary and inscrutable. Upon deeper reflection, however, readers may conclude that Stewart is merely depicting, rather than describing, the many complexities faced by those seeking to effect change in Afghanistan. He is showing, rather than telling.

Early in his journey, he writes (italics mine) ...
I lay down reflecting on my first full day of walking--the gravel underfoot, Qasim's lies, our host's dead son, the old man who had scrutinized Abdul Haq, the terrified boy. The abrupt episodes and half-understood conversations already suggested a society that was an unpredictable composite of etiquette, humor and extreme brutality. (p. 62)
Stewart's insights add up to an Afghanistan exponentially more complex than the easy black-and-white, us-versus-them distinctions sought by many soldiers. Given the seemingly endless red-state-versus-blue-state banter-and-battering here at home, I'm sure we'd like to be similarly spoon-fed downrange in Afghanistan. There's a new sheriff in town, cowboy, and you're either us or agin' us.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn't work that way--and Afghanistan, especially so. You can't reduce it to pro- or anti-government, Taliban or non-Taliban, religious or secular, radical or reactionary. There are too many variables, too many motivations, too many world-views. You have to deal with each group on its own terms, and those terms may not be readily apparent. Stewart writes:
Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamen understood political power in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a social order based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralized government because they associated with it subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week's walk I had encountered areas where the local Begs [fuedal lords] had been toppled by Iranian-funded social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villages had inflicted it on one another. These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. (p. 246)
There are other takeaways here, other lessons to be learned. Stewart's Afghanistan is as much in flux in time and history as it is in space and territory. Proud traditions that customarily protected all visitors and guests, for example, may have been undermined by outsiders, or rejected by younger generations. Years of conflict may have destroyed not only infrastructure, but also Afghans' knowledge of their own histories.

My buddies used to joke about bombing the Taliban back into the Stone Age. As more of us experienced the country and its challenges first-hand, however, such jokes became less frequent. After all, how do you turn a parking lot into a parking lot?

History has little meaning if people feel they have no future. Early in his Afghan journey, Stewart travels trips between caravanserai--small mud-walled fortifications, located a day's walk from each other, that once sheltered traders and transporters on the Silk Road. This history is lost, however, even on the current occupants. They need only shelter.
[M]styerious objects had moved down such trading routes: diamonds that could make you a king, Buddhist texts on birch-bark scrolls in characters that could no longer be deciphered, Chinese astrolabes to mystify the Vatican. But now I that I was walking, I found it more difficult to be interested in the Silk Road. Such things had little to do with modern Afghanistan and I doubted whether the people who lived in the building had a clear idea of its past. (p. 57)
One particularly heart-breaking scene described by Stewart involves the willful, ignorant plunder of intellectually priceless, pre-Islamic pottery shards and other items. Removed from their archeological context, such items can at best only be appreciated for their aesthetics--trinkets worth a few cents--rather than for their potentials to unlock untold segments of ancient history. But, to use a clumsy archaeological analogy, people can't eat a pyramid. People do what they can to survive.
"In my village," said the man from Beidon, "we have found weapons where my father said Genghis's first attack was defeated. He made his second attack at this very time of year, while the snow was still on the ground, sending one army up the old wooden causway from Kamenj."
"It was destroyed twice," Bushire added, "once by hailstones and once by Genghis."
"Three times," I said. "You're destroying what remained."
They all laughed. (p. 156)
Having now travelled vicariously with Stewart, I am left with a strange desire not only to help protect non-combatants, not only to help plant the seeds of a national Afghan identity, but to help preserve the various customs, traditions, and even historical birthrights of its peoples. These goals may be contradictory. They may not be realistic. I recognize that, as a soldier deployed in pursuit of these objectives, I may only help destroy what remained.

It is not a simple world, after all, and there are few absolutes. Yet if I talk the talk, I must walk the walk.


In an interesting parallel to Stewart's travels, two U.S. Air Force personnel deployed with NATO's International Security Assistance Force are blogging and vlogging their ways around Afghanistan, in a project imaginatively called "30 Days Through Afghanistan." It looks to be interesting, if only for the experimental form and format. Their walk starts today ...


And, speaking of walking, Indiana National Guard soldier Spc. Troy Yocum's is fund-raising to support his fellow veterans. Starting April 17, 2010, he's going to walk and drum 7,000 miles across the United States on behalf of USA Cares! Quick-step yourself over to drumhike.com for more details, or find him on Facebook.

05 February 2010

Taps and Reveille: Capt. Dan Whitten

CPT Whitten Pic.jpgI am speeding along my usual ribbon of morning highway, keeping a wary eye on the dashboard dials. The engine temperature isn't where it should be, not this long after dropping the kids after daycare. I can still see my breath inside the car. The sky is a uniform white-gray, nearly the color of the salt-stained concrete below, and I feel clouds hunching over me.

One of the recently rediscovered joys of having a longer commute is having quality time with my thoughts, my coffee, and Iowa Public Radio. Rather than its usual classical music, the FM station is still playing news at the time I'm up and moving. This means I get to avoid the low nighttime power of the AM band, which is further degraded by the power lines running alongside this county highway. I'm Army-trained to hear past the static, of course, but switching from AM to FM is like a switching from Speed Metal to Cool Jazz.

The local announcer hits just the right tone of concern and regret when she teases the upcoming top-of-the-hour news. It's what she says that throws me into an emotional skid:

"An Iowa soldier died in Afghanistan Tuesday ..."

I hate it when they do that. Yes, I hate it when anybody dies, and I realize that's the bigger-picture, larger-issue here. And, no, I don't take fault at those in the news media for doing their jobs. But I hate it when radio or TV broadcasters don't give enough of the who, what, where, and when to avoid causing unnecessary distress for those of us with buddies and loved ones downrange.

Now, I have to drive 10 long minutes to find out what the newscaster meant by "Iowa soldier." I start mentally tallying, by unit or individual, who the Iowa Army National Guard has downrange right now. The media often messes up the distinction between active-duty, reserve, and National Guard soldiers. We're all one Army, one Total Force, but we're also different organizations. It'd be like the news media teasing listeners with "A car manufacturer recalled thousands of dangerously flawed vehicles today ..." Think you could be a little more specific?

The newscaster could've spared me and the families of other soldiers minutes of agony this morning. She could have been more specific. She could have said "an active-duty Iowa soldier" or "An Iowa Army National Guard soldier ..." or "A U.S. Army Reserve soldier on active-duty ..." Editors and reporters don't often think about that, however. Not many of them are prior service anymore, or have direct experience reporting on the military. (On the record as both a soldier and a reader, however, I have to say that I think Bill Petroski at the Des Moines Register is doing a good job.)

Army Capt. Daniel P. Whitten, 28, of Grimes, Iowa, and Pvt. Zachary G. Lovejoy, 20, of Albuquerque, N.M., were killed Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, when their mounted patrol in the southern Afghan province of Zabul was attacked with an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) Whitten was a 1999 graduate of Johnston (Iowa) High School, where he played football and worked on the student newspaper. He was a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he double-majored in mathematics and English. He was a paratrooper and company commander, a soldier who wore the distinctive maroon beret of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was on his third deployment, his second to Afghanistan. He is survived by his wife, and his parents. News reports indicate that his family will bury his remains at West Point.

Here's a Des Moines Register excerpt:
"[Whitten] was the kid who was always doing the right thing. He always stood by his values, and was true to his family and himself. He was the kind of young man who you hoped your own kids would grow up to represent," said Stratton, who acknowledged he was struggling today to come to grips with Whitten's death.

"When I think about kids who are thinking about going into the military, the one thing about Dan is that I always trusted his character as a person who I would want representing our country," Stratton said.
Here's a WHO-TV excerpt:
Family friend and former Pastor Bob Solberg says Dan was a "real man amongst men." Even as a youngster at Zion Lutheran Church in Des Moines, he knew Dan was destined for great things and believes he found his calling at West Point. He says Dan "had the gift of leadership, the gift of humility, and the gift of honor." News of his death is still hard to believe. "I just really have a hard time believing that he's gone really at the prime of his life," says Solberg.
I didn't know Capt. Whitten, but I drive past his former high school and his hometown every day. I'll try to use those fleeting encounters for some radio-less reflection in the coming days, cold and dark as they are sure to be. Earlier today an on-line friend of mine, Aunty Brat, just happened to point me to a prayer that Eleanor Roosevelt was said to have carried with her at all times. I'd like to share that with you below. I like it because it's simple, and it's a quiet call to action. (I'd also invite you to see what Aunty Brat said about it here.)

Dear Lord,

Lest I continue
My complacent way,
Help me to remember that somewhere,
Somehow out there
A man died for me today.
As long as there be war,
I then must
Ask and answer
Am I worth dying for?

04 February 2010

The Red Bull Film Festival: Coming Attractions

A couple of weeks ago, I tongue-in-cheekily proposed a "Red Bull Film Festival," a series of movies through which Regular Joes might be educated while being entertained. The subjects, themes, and messages? The history, people, culture, and/or geography of Afghanistan and its neighbors. Not everybody reads books and magazines, I reason, and there's got to be some different ways to engage soldiers in conversations about the issues and situations they may face downrange. Movies seem like a good bet.

I'd soon grown frustrated, however, that movies explicitly about Afghanistan seemed few and far between. (Hollywood is only now getting around to getting Iraq right--Oscar-nomination kudos to The Hurt Locker, by the way--so maybe we can hope for more cameras focused on Afghanistan.)

As I've said before, however: God works in strange and mysterious ways. Sometimes, he works through my car radio. Other times, he works through my Facebook account.

In the first case, I was gingerly speeding along my new 45-minutes-of-wintery-county-road commute, when a National Public Radio story used a classic Jack Nicholson movie to help describe the challenges of governmental corruption and resource management in Afghanistan.

Here's an excerpt for context, but the line I'm particularly in love with is: "Kandahar is Chinatown":
In one case, the provincial council seized land in Kandahar belonging to the Afghan defense ministry; it was developed into a gated residential community.

In another case, the provincial council took over water rights on land in Kandahar from a local tribe.

"This matters because this is the desert," says Greentree. "Water is the most valuable resource after land. Kandahar is Chinatown," he says.

In that Jack Nicholson movie, set in 1930s Los Angeles, powerful figures try to secure water rights on land outside the city. That is akin to what's happening now in Kandahar, says Greentree.

"A political mafia gets control of the water resource and knows where it's going to distribute so they buy up and acquire all the land around it and then become fabulously wealthy and powerful as a result. ... That's the underlying story," he says.
Benjamin Tupper, author of the soon-to-be-republished "Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo" (Sherpa's review here), was the first to call my attention to "Restrepo," a documentary recently well-received at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. (It one the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary.) A shout out also to Facebook friend Jo L. for calling fire-for-effect on the recommendation. I'll keep y'all posted if/as the movie gets distribution.

My ever-growing Task Force Facebook also potentially hooked me up with Scott Kesterson, part of the freelance photojournalist/videographer/mil-blogger team that made a documentary called "At War." I'm hoping to score a copy that I can screen for 3,499 of my closest friends in uniform.

In the further spirit of "Coming Attractions," here are some the titles I plan to review here at Red Bull Rising, with an eye toward creating a non-traditional training opportunity for our Red Bull troops during these pre-deployment months. I'm seriously calling it "The Red Bull Film Festival," and think that I might be able to book that big stadium-seating interactive classroom they have at one of our armories. I might even have to sell popcorn and T-shirts ... Gotta make this Army gig pay off, you know?
Is this a good time to tell you that, in addition to fixing radios, one of Sherpa's previous mil-jobs was to run a U.S. Army movie theater in the middle of a foreign desert? It was a like a drive-through, but with more camels ... That, however, is another story.