31 May 2010

Remember ...

"This division in World War II had the distinction of being not only the first to land in the European Theater, but also had more days in combat (over 600) than any other, and accredited with capturing more than 40,000 prisoners. The division had 16,401 battle casualties. The 34th ranked second to none and stands high on the scroll of honor among the greatest fighting units that ever carried the stars and stripes into battle."

34th Infantry Division Memorial
dedicated Sept. 12, 1987, Camp Dodge, Iowa

26 May 2010

The Counts Down

Summertime has slipped into Iowa early this year--one need only to look at the sultry morning mists over the duck pond to see evidence of it, or to feel the sweaty breath of humidity in the Midwestern wind.

Thank God for the wind. Without it, one could easily suffocate in the middle of an open field.

The Tactical Operation Center's air-conditioner, the one we had to break in order to save earlier this spring, now does little to fend off the sun oozing into our little brick medical shanty. The building was probably built before World War I, and was no doubt site of some influenza pandemic. As such, it was originally designed to invite in fresh air and breezes, but there's no more of that now. Now, the TOC seems more like a powder keg. Moods are more shortly fuzed.

"So am I deployed already or WHAT?!" The staff sergeant is pretty steamed. He's just added up the nights he has left at home. Here's how the math works: Number of days before Mobilization-Day ("M-day"), minus three weeks of Annual Training (A.T.--in a normal year, we'd only do two), minus "advance-party" scouting trips to various places and bases. If you're lucky, what you're left with is how many more nights you get to sleep in your own bed, with your own wife, to be awakened by your own dog.

More and more, maybe without even realizing it, the guys and I have been counting down the days.

I've caught myself counting in other ways, too: How many more times am I going to tuck my kids into bed? How many more stuffed-animal stories will I tell them? How many more times will I steal warmth by snuggling alongside my wife? How many more times will I mow the lawn, fix the sink, attempt to clean the garage? How many more times am I going to enjoy air-conditioning, or porcelain toilets, or privacy?

Household-6 said months ago: "You're pretty much deployed already." At the time, we'd been re-negotiating the daily routine: Who drops the kids at daycare, who picks them up, who shuttles and shuffles off to dance class--that sort of thing. I'd denied it at the time, but she was right.

In this stifling purgatory of neither citizen-nor-soldier, I have to regularly remind myself that I'm one of the lucky ones. When I came onto "temporary stateside pre-mobilization active-duty" orders--when I started wearing the uniform everyday, rather than once a month--my daily commute shifted all of three miles. I still live at home.

Compare that to my warrior-monk TOC buddies, who schlep in every Monday from the four corners of Iowa--Souix Falls and Council Bluffs, Dubuque and Burlington--returning to their families only on the weekends they're not otherwise on duty. During the week, they camp out in the barracks, or temporary bachelor-apartment digs off-post. They're already burning the midnight oil in the TOC, because there's little else for them to do. Sleep, wake, eat, work, go to gym, work some more, repeat ...

I can't remember how I came upon it, but I recently read a 2007 SpouseBUZZ post that really stuck with me. It discussed how it's not a good idea to compare who's going to have it worse--the soldier who's deployed downrange, or the spouse who's left managing everything else. In my recent conversations with Household-6, I've borrowed both the sentiment and a few words from comments made to that post, including: "Deployment sucks. Necessary, yes, but it sucks on both sides."

In other words, better not to dwell on who's got it worse. Instead, focus on sharing the load.

Or, with apologies to Earnest Hemingway and John Donne (but probably mostly to Donne, because I think Hemingway might've actually appreciated what I'm about to say):

"Do not ask for whom deployment sucks. It sucks for thee."

24 May 2010

What Every Soldier's Family Should Know About Facebook

When I started the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009, I was partly motivated to explore Internet-based tools such as blogging and Facebook, so that I could better inform and advise my citizen-soldier peers about their use. Like most soldiers of a certain age, I'm inherently distrustful of any communications technology that: (A) doesn't seem to serve an immediate purpose; (B) seems likely to leak operational secrets; and (C) is--now more than ever--designed to store and sell users' private information for marketing purposes.

Nearly 5 months later, I realize that Facebook presents a risk more to my family's security than to my unit's military security. In other words, it's more likely that my family will be hurt by information posted on Facebook while I'm deployed, than it is that my fellow soldiers and I might reveal military secrets on Facebook (although that apparently happens in the real-world, too).

And, no, it's not because some faceless marketing mogul might learn what kind of dog food we buy. Before I get to that, however, let me lead off with ...

SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 1: There's no law that you have to use Facebook. While many people won't follow this advice, the best way to protect information is not to participate at all. Don't even turn it on. Step away from the Internet.

Even Facebook's own vice president for public policy has said, "If you're not comfortable sharing, don't." That's good advice, even if you do opt to use Facebook. Just be vigilant to the idea that seemingly innocent information can be twisted and used against you.

Don't believe me? Read on ...

In April, family members of the Vermont Army National Guard's 86th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), a unit currently deployed to Afghanistan, received phone calls falsely indicating their loved ones had been killed or injured. Even when family members are likely to figure out that such a call is someone's sick, sick joke--the military does not notify next-of-kin by phone--such hoaxes cause nothing but distress, pain, and hurt. Just imagine receiving such a call in the middle of the night. It'd be horrifying.

Here's an excerpt of the April 22 National Guard Bureau news release about the Vermont hoaxes:
“Be careful of social media,” [Air National Guard Lt. Col Lloyd Goodrow, Vermont National Guard state public affairs officer] said. “There are people out there who read what you post, and not all of them are as kind and gentle, or as caring about your Soldier like you are.

“All of our families are deeply proud of what their Soldier is doing, but just be careful about what you put out there.”

Family members should get the phone number of the caller through *69 if they have that ability, he said. The second thing to do is for the family to notify a military organization like their family readiness group and the local police.

“Understand that if your Soldier is injured in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the world, you will not be notified by a phone call unless it is from your Soldier or a friend of the Soldier,” he said.
SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 2: Don't post anything that pranksters, hoaxters, and domestic terrorists--that's what Lt. Col. Goodrow called them, by the way--can use against you and your family.

It's not just terrorists, either. It could be the media.

Once, before the Internet, I wrote obituaries for a living. That was before you could just use Google to instantly pop-up answers to a hundred unasked questions about someone who had just died. If I were doing that job now, I wouldn't even have to call real people. I'd just check out their Facebook pages, write about what was posted there. Maybe I'd e-mail their friends, to see if I could get some easy comments.

SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 3: Don't make it so easy for my friends in the media. Guard private information. Keep it private, particularly for those painful moments you and your family might really need the privacy.

If you and your spouse have publicly accessible Facebook profiles, you may wish to remove all mentions of his or her deployment, unit, and military job. If you have not already limited access to your Facebook profiles to friends and family--and, yes, Facebook does NOT make using its privacy settings easy to use or understand--you may also wish to do that as well.

If you wouldn't be comfortable publishing something on the front pages of the New York Times, the Des Moines Register, and/or the Omaha World-Herald--your birthday, your wedding anniversary, your phone number, your address, the fact that your spouse is gone for 12 months, that your children go to this-and-that elementary school--don't post it on Facebook.

What's the big deal, particularly about kids? Well, if someone knows your name, and your kids' names, and their grandparents' names, and when they were born, and where they go to school--well, I betcha classroom bullies, strangers-with-candy, and other evil people would just love the opportunity to lure them into compromising positions, or to deal out some serious emotional harm. Just imagine: "Hey, Billy, is your dad dead yet?"

Don't think that can't happen. And don't think that doesn't happen, either.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but as a potential last act on this earth, I will also make darned sure that any photo that accompanies the news of my unfortunate death won't be one that's been grabbed from the Internet, especially one that shows me drinking a beer while wearing a tutu-based "unicorn-hunter" uniform at some random "Come as Your Favorite Constitutional Amendment" party. That's not particularly how I wish to be remembered, and the Internet never forgets.

SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 4: If you wouldn't want your Mom to see the pictures, or have them lovingly displayed at your funeral, don't post them on Facebook.



The June 2010 issue of Consumer Reports magazine suggests these "7 Things to Stop Doing Now on Facebook":
  1. Using a weak password.
  2. Leaving your full birth date in your profile.
  3. Overlooking useful privacy controls.
  4. Posting your child's name in a caption.
  5. Mentioning that you'll be away from home.
  6. Letting search engines find you.
  7. Permitting youngsters to use Facebook unsupervised.

21 May 2010

Three-Shot Burst of Red Bull News and Views

Earlier this week, my buddies and I got to play with all sorts of Army toys, including the Squad Automatic Weapon ("SAW"), the M-240B ("Em-two-forty-bravo"), and even a brand-spanking new tripod-mounted .50-cal M2 ("Ma-Duece") machine gun.

Reflecting the concept that one should conserve one's ammo by displaying a little trigger discipline, here's a short burst of Red Bull news and views:


According to this Associated Press article, some 2,700 soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division have been alerted for potential deployment to Iraq andKuwait sometime in summer 2011. In 2007, 4,000 "Red Bull" soldiers--including the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry "Ironman" Regiment from the Iowa Army National Guard--achieved the distinction of the longest deployment of any U.S. Army unit to Iraq.

The AP article offers interesting perspectives of a few our fellow Red Bull soldiers, many of whom have faced multiple deployments and separations from family:
In Rochester, Fire Battalion Chief Eric Kerska, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, announced the expected deployment at a news conference on the scene of a fire-training exercise. A house engulfed in flames crackled in the background as Kerska talked about the mission.

“Our soldiers are the best our great state has to offer, and we are committed to ensuring they are prepared for this likely call of duty,” he said.

This would be Kerska’s third deployment. He served during the first Gulf War and returned to the region in 2005.

“On the one hand, I really don’t care to go back a third time,” he said. “But on the other hand, it would be kind of nice to tie a bow on that thing and say, ‘OK, we’ve got it done right.’ ”


As part of the newspaper's evolving "A Soldier Writes" feature, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Mark Larson recently wrote a thoughtful description of the challenges faced in training and evaluating Afghan soldiers:
The Afghan soldier was giddy. Only seconds before he had spotted the improvised explosive device lying along the roadside. His sharp eye had ensured that the convoy was called to a halt before rolling through the blast zone. Yet his enthusiasm was such that he jogged up to the I.E.D. and triumphantly picked it up.

The U.S. trainers could only shake their heads. The Afghan National Army unit would be marked as having failed the “React to I.E.D.” validation exercise. Instruction would be given. But because of the strict training timeline, the unit would have to move on to the next validation exercise. If it passed the minimum number (and had fulfilled other minimum requirements), it would be given approval to deploy.
Larson and a couple of buddies are apparently launching a blog, called "A Handful of Dust," about their adventures and mis-adventures in Kabul. It's obviously still a rough work, and full of youthful hijinks and high-spirits. While Larson's words in the New York Times indicate some real depth and insight, his words at his blogs indicate a potential vibe along the lines of "Lawrence of Arabia meets amusement park ride."

In other words, keep an eye on it. And keep your hands inside the car at all times.


Once upon a few nights ago, just before Sherpa's bedtime, he was checking on the next day's Red Bull Rising post. Imagine his gobsmacked expression when he saw that Foreign Policy magazine blogger and former Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks had written about an RBR post titled "Semper Fi, Moon"! (The headline popped up in the Red Bull Rising blog-roll sidebar, where Ricks's blog regularly appears under the heading "Afghan Intel and Insight.")

Ricks, who grew up in Afghanistan, had used "Semper Fi, Moon" as a stepping-off point for a brief reflection of happier memories of Kabul. If you hadn't heard, Anti-Afghan Forces (A.A.F.) are on the move and the attack this week, as U.S. and Afghan forces prepare for a campaign in the southern region later this summer or fall. There have been suicide-bomber attacks on NATO convoys and U.S. bases in the capital of Kabul. Soldiers and civilians from many countries have been killed.

In light of such events, it's good to remember that love and innocence exist in the world, too. They're just harder to see.

20 May 2010

Lots of Alliteration, and the Hiss of 11 S's

To paraphrase Gregory "Pappy" Boyington of Black Sheep Squadron fame, "combat is hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror."

This week, I've been participating in some more "Warrior Task" training and testing. Our mornings have been filled with hours and hours of PowerPoint slides, while our afternoons have been punctuated with sheer fun. It's included some real why-we-joined-the-Army stuff, like driving gun trucks and throwing grenades and using radios. Yee-haw and hoorah!

On the other hand, despite the afternoon delights of running and gunning, the briefings have consistently proven more deadly than we have.

It's not the briefers faults, of course. Some of their material is pretty dry, and often rife with technical and specialized terms. Uncle Sam attempts to make these subjects more memorable by reducing them into acronyms and catch-phrases. By reducing and presenting everything at once, however, I'm afraid we our soldier-student brains were reduced to alphabet soup.

In the "Law of War" (abbreviated and pronounced "LOW") and "Rules of Engagement" (which our presenter pronounced as "ROE") briefings, for example, we discussed the tool of the "5 S's." In ascending order of reaction to a potential or perceived threat, these are:
  • "Shout" (a warning)
  • "Shove"
  • "Show" (your weapon)
  • "Shoot" (a warning shot)
  • "Shoot" (to disable the target)
Unfortunately, there were an additional "6 S's" in another class. This one covered how to handle detainees and enemy prisoners of war (E.P.W.):
  • "Search"
  • "Segregate"
  • "Silence"
  • "Separate"
  • "Safeguard"
  • "Speed" (to the rear)
I'm sorry, but that's simply a surfeit of S's. At the very least, the Army should have inserted the occasional non-S, just to keep things interesting. Take, for example, the text book for my high-school Psychology class (it was an elective--or at least, that's what they told me), which noted that the "4 F's" of existence are:
  • "Feeding"
  • "Fleeing"
  • "Fighting"
  • "Mating"
Now THAT class was memorable!

19 May 2010

Fortunes Favor the Red Bull

Regular Red Bull Rising readers may recall a semi-regular exercise in which my buddies and I chow-down on Chinese food at a local grocery store, then use our fortune-cookie papers as intelligence regarding our upcoming deployment.

Much like the old high-school gag of adding the words "in bed" to the end of a fortune, we add "on the deployment." Makes it more interesting.

Until today, we'd gotten away from the practice, maybe because we thought we'd found all the good ones. Recently, however, we decided that the West Coast fortune cookie factories must have delivered a new shipment to the shores of Iowa. Either that, or the grocery staff have taken to stuffing our Red Bull cookies with fortunes that are nearly too good to be true.

Check these beauties out:
  • "Others see you as lively, friendly and witty ... on the deployment."
  • "You will make a fortune with your friend ... on the deployment.
  • "Look for the dream that keeps coming back ... on the deployment."
  • "Your original ideas will get you well-deserved recognition ... on the deployment."
  • "You will soon be changing your present line of work ... on the deployment."
And, the ultimate one-fortune-to-rule-them-all:
  • "You will be promoted soon. Be Flexible. Opportunities are All Around You ..."

18 May 2010

The Combat Arms Fashion Show

The gearheads in Red Bull Land have nearly wet themselves in anticipation of being issued MultiCam uniforms prior to our Afghanistan deployment. Most of us wish that we could just be issued the goodies now, so that--individually and collectively--we wouldn't have to cart all our sage-green-and-beige gear halfway across the country.

The more-than-rumor, less-than-fact story is that Our Tactical Christmas, however, will most likely NOT come early, so all you elves can go pound sand.

Still, that's not to say there isn't plenty to talk about around Ye Olde Office Lyster Bag:

The "Kit Up!" blog, for example, reports that Uncle Sam has decided to call our new duds the "Operation Enduring Freedom Flame-Resistant Army Combat Uniform" (F.R.A.C.U.) Even it it turns out not to be true, I am determined to get my fellow Red Bull soldiers to start calling them "Frak-Yous."

(Yes, I watched Battlestar Galactica when I was a kid. And more recently, too. Why do you ask?)

Continuing the Combat Arms Fashion Show, fellow Red Bull soldier and mil-blogger Gabe Haugland recently featured some pictures of a MultiCam shirt that may be used under ballistic vests in country. Dig the zippered sleeve-pockets!

Fellow commo-colleague Signaleer has pointed to the possibility that the "All-purpose Lightweight Carrying Equipment" ("ALICE") might be resurrected for Afghanistan, too. Unfortunately, the photo he found is of a pack constructed with Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.), not MultiCam. Still, I hope he's right--I recently spent about 2 hours trying to assemble my newly issued "+2 Bag of Holding" UCP rucksack--or whatever it's officially called--and almost cried when a buddy jokingly pulled on an emergency-release snap. The whole thing came off in his hand! I had to pull it completely apart to get to the broken, unserviceable part. Then it was a long, sad shuffle off to the company supply sergeant.

Bring back the good old bags!

Finally, the May 10, 2010 Army Times reports that the Army is testing three lightweight prototype alternatives to the currently (almost?) issued Mountain Combat Boot (M.C.B.). Initial MCB testers reportedly observed that the boots were too heavy and hot for summer use. According to the article, however, any newer, lighter boots will probably be pushed into the Army's Rapid Fielding Initiative (R.F.I.) program early next year. That means that the Red Bull will get the current Mountain Combat Boot.

Still, it's gratifying that Army is still trying to get things right, after realizing that the current desert boot might not be the best option for steep and rugged terrain. (Caveat, however: I'm not sure that so-called Fobbits, REMFs, and TOC-roaches like me need to change out their footgear. Give my boots to a soldier who needs them, rather have me play Project Runway on some Afghan tarmac.)

17 May 2010

A Raspberry to the Beret

By reputation, the new non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) in charge of our brigade headquarters company tends toward the "immovable object" school of first-sergeantry, but darned if out of the starting blocks as more of an "irresistible force" type. It's always better to come off tough and gruff at first, I suppose, and then to lighten up as you want and need.

For some administrative reason, the first-sergeant of the brigade headquarters goes to a cavalry-scout soldier. It's a good tradition to have--throughout both Army and 2-34th BCT history, the Cavalry has always enjoyed a hard-charging, fast-moving, where-the-heck-are-they-now kind of reputation.

(You want a Cavalry-filled tale of surprise and disappointment? Just ask Robert E. Lee about J.E.B. Stuart.)

The first-formation of the morning goes off OK. The platoon sergeants and squad leaders are still a little skittish about the new guy, trying to read his drill-and-cermonial habits: How he calls for the attendance report, how he pushes out information, how he executes a hundred little details that every NCO does the same, but that everyone does different.

The formation is short. Before he starts calling names and having people fall out of formation, and into an empty dining facility to conduct a random drug-test, he puts out a "new" headgear policy. Wearing the duty uniform, U.S. soldiers always wear headgear or "cover" when outside--usually a black beret, a billed hat called a "patrol cap" (occasionally called a "duck hunter"), or a Kevlar helmet. The headgear comes off when you go inside--"under cover"--unless, I seem to recall, you're Military Police and armed.

In my experience, the black beret is one of the most reviled articles of clothing in the U.S. Army supply system. A recent Army Times recently featured a front-page exercise in habatrashery. The article says that soldiers want to "dump the beret" as much now as they did when it was first introduced nearly 10 years ago. Unfortunately, without any hard data--it was pointedly based on an unscientific e-mail survey--the article is about as functional as the hot-headed headgear itself.

The beret does not keep your eyes shielded from the sun. It provides little warmth in winter, and is too hot in summer. It requires two hands to successfully attach it to one's head. Its apparent vagaries have generated a multitude of mirrors to be installed near the exits of many military office-buildings. It is worn a hundred different ways, both because soldiers each have differently shaped heads, and because lowest-bid manufacturers fail to achieve a uniform cut. One beret makes you look like a French bread-seller. Another cuts off circulation to the top of your skull.

Back in the 1990s, my National Guard battalion established an affiliation with the 82nd Airborne, a ready-response outfit easily identified by its distinctive maroon beret. Our unit wanted to wear the red beret. The active-duty command wanted us to wear the beret. Our Iowa leaders, citing cost, declined to let us don the supposedly cool headgear.

Looking back on it, we should've thanked them for saying "no." A couple of years later, the whole Army put on the black beret.

My barber laughs when I call my beret the "Jiffy Pop hat"--on windy days, it tends to puff up like foil-packed popcorn. I also call it the "floor buffer." Others call it the "toilet seat cover."

There's a rule in the Iowa Army National Guard that you can't wear your patrol cap "off post"--outside the confines of the military base or field training area. You go outside the gate, and you're supposed to be wearing the beret. I've noticed that, more and more, soldiers are ignoring that rule. They opt for their patrol caps instead. Joe is voting with his head.

Last Saturday, the new first sergeant said headgear philoosphy was that the beret would not be worn when it was "impractical."

"We're all adults," he said in a bold, booming voice. "You can probably figure out when something is 'im-prac-ti-cal'"

In retrospect, I'm not sure Top's guidance all that practical. It fact, it sounds pretty 'subjective,' in an Army that's all about achieving 'objective."

Still, it sure sounded good at the time.

14 May 2010

The Long War and Long Good-byes

With the possible exception of unit homecomings, there are few Army traditions that seem to drag on as long as send-off ceremonies. There are always plenty of prayers, and speeches by military and political leaders of every stripe. Everybody wants to say good-bye, good luck, and godspeed.

Note to speech-makers: I can remember the words of exactly one person during my unit's formal homecoming. It was an area mayor, probably the third or fourth person to stand behind the podium. We soldiers were trying to stay focused and in formation, while distractedly searching out our loved ones in the stadium crowd. The mayor got up and said, "You don't want to hear me. You want to be with your families. Welcome home!"

Given the cheers, I'm certain he won re-election that year.

Like I was saying, send-off ceremonies can also drag along like a southbound river barge. If you want to get a feel for the high points, however, I'd recommend listening to this May 13, 2010 National Public Radio story that captured the Maj. Gen. John Campbell's sending remarks to members of his 101st Airborne Division--the "Screaming Eagles." The radio report offers everything an outgoing soldier needs to hear, packaged into less than 3 minutes:
"Twenty years from now, you're going to be sitting in a rocking chair someplace thinking about what you did in 2010 and 2011. You can puff up your chests and say, 'I was in Afghanistan. I was there when Afghanistan turned. I was there when it made a difference.' This is our nation's main effort now," [Campbell] said.

"You guys are part of a minority. One-half of 1 percent of our nation is doing what you're doing. You've got to feel pretty good about that," he said.
Additionally, a recent Army News Report indicated that 20,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division will soon be on the ground in Afghanistan, the first time that the division's four Brigade Combat Teams will have deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom within a given 12-month period. Given that there will be so many of the 101st downrange, I'm pretty sure that the Red Bull and the Screaming Eagles will cross paths somehow.
"We're working on campaign continuity ... we've built relationships with our Afghan counterparts, and we've trained for Afghanistan, we know the culture ... for training purposes, I think it's the right thing to do," Campbell said on why the entire [101st] division will be deploying.

The 101st will be largely responsible for training and assisting Afghan army forces, but instead of living separately from their counterparts, the division will be exercising a new training method called "combined action."

Combined action, a concept begun by the 82nd Airborne Division, is an integrated-troops approach, where battalions of U.S. Soldiers train, live and eat with their Afghan equivalents around the clock.

"That's going to make a huge difference in their credibility with the [Afghan] people ... it's the way of the future," Campbell said of combined action.
Speaking of air-assaults--the movement of ground-combat troops and equipment via helicopter--it looks like the Green Mountain boys have been hitching some helo-rides. You may remember that there are a couple of Red Bull alumni currently downrange with the Vermont Army National Guard's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.), so I try to keep an eye out for news mentions of their units.

According to a recent National Guard press release, soldiers of Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment (C/3/172 Infantry) have been busy (that's them in the photo above):
A shocked group of insurgents looked up from the grounds of their supposed "safe house" in Mangal Kheyl village, Zormat District in Afghanistan's Paktya province, to see a pair of twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopters bearing down on them, April 22.

Working as part of the first combat air assault mission in the history of the Vermont National Guard, Soldiers from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, alongside their Afghan partners watched from aboard the descending helicopters as the enemy dropped their weapons and fled.

"The enemy were completely surprised by our air assault," said [2nd Lt.] Mark Fazio, of the company. "As the aircraft landed we could see them drop their weapons and run away as fast as they could."
The soldiers captured the largest weapons cache to be found in the area in the past three years, as well as non-Afghan fighter. "The success of the mission showed the value of using air assaults in this area to gain surprise and catch the enemy when they aren't expecting us to be able to reach them," Fazio said.

13 May 2010

The Full Bull Happy Plate Club

The current pace of business around the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) is pretty hectic these days, as we try to catch up with the work of planning events that are still-but-only months away. When you're moving approximately 3,000 people and their equipment halfway around the world, months blur past as if they were minutes. Days tick by like seconds.

Through this background of mental fog and constant organizational distraction, I had a vision. While other believers may witness the Blessed Virgin appear in their breakfast corn flakes, I have begun to see a cartoony red cow over (or rather, under) a lunch of macaroni-and-cheese.

In a product line of animal-themed tableware for children, Hefty-brand Zoo Pals features more than 50 animal-faced paper plate designs. You put lunch on the face part, and condiments such as ketchup in the "ears." Each pack comes is a different assortment, but the Sherpa kids were lucky enough to encounter what can only be described as a Red Bull.

I don't think I'm just seeing things, either. The face-and-condiment-ears outline bears uncanny resemblance, I think, to the Mexican-water-jug shape of the 34th Infantry Division's "Red Bull" patch.

At this particular lunch hour, however, the character of the plate revealed itself slowly. "Kids look forward to eating all their food so they can see the entire animal face," the Zoo Pals website says. Let me tell you: That's not quickly enough, friend. I had to ask the kids to eat faster, because Daddy wanted to see the cartoon face beneath.

At the Zoo Pals website, you can even check out what each of the 50 animal characters is named. For example:
  • "Randy the Rooster."
  • "Sushi the Panda."
  • "Puddles the Duck."
  • "Baha the Black Sheep."
The Red Bull? His real name, according to the manufacturer, is "Bruiser the Bull." Not the butchest callsign in the animal-plate kingdom, I suppose, but at least they didn't try to name him "Terry."

(I'll wait for a moment while you consider that one ...)

I seem to recall that, in rodeo--or maybe in bar-room mechanical simulations of rodeos--riding the bull beyond a certain length of time is called a "full bull." (Sort of like how, in tractor-pulls, you can go a "full pull"? But, hey, I'm a city kid from Iowa. What do I know?)

In our house, despite our parental admonitions to eat only until they are full, the Sherpa kids consider a clean plate a "happy plate."

Put the two concepts together, and that, my friends, is how the Sherpa kids got themselves roped into the "Full Bull Happy Plate Club."

Heck of a brand, no?

12 May 2010

School Dazed

I've taken to calling them "ball-peen hammer" moments, these times when some sudden thought regarding overseas deployment smacks me right between the eyes, and leaves me smarting, blinking back tears.

Last week, it was "Kindergarten Roundup" for students in our school district. Parents and their soon-to-be-students visited the elementary school for about 45 minutes one afternoon. We got to meet teachers, check out the library and classrooms, and ask any last-minute questions. Oh, and there were cookies, too.

The principal is a former teacher of kindergarten. From across the room, you can feel the love she and her staff have for their jobs, as well as their young charges. She calls the students "kiddos," rather than students. I'll take that alone as evidence that she likes her job, likes kids, and is confident about both.

"You may think that they look too young and small right now," the principal says, a little randomly, "but you'll be amazed about how much older and more mature they'll seem by the end of the year."

Ouch. Hammer-time.

I'm stumbling around blinking for the next couple of minutes, particularly as I watch my little warrior-princess lead the charge toward the classrooms. Yes, I'd already registered the fact that I wouldn't be around for Lena's first day of school, but intellectual preparation apparently has little to do with emotional preparation. The principal's off-handed remark brought home the fact that I'd be missing much more than the first day: I'll be missing hundreds of days of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Hundreds of bedtime stories and school projects. Hundreds of lost moments and little victories.

I'll miss watching Lena grow up to be a first-grader.

Because of this elementary epiphany, I'm glad I took the opportunity to leave work for an hour, so that I could see where Lena will go to school. I even managed to snap a few quick pictures of Lena in her new classroom, as well as of her posing in front of her new school. I'll pack those pictures away in my rucksack for later, for when both of us face our big first days alone.

It's a big world, and there's lots to learn.

11 May 2010

What's the Password, Kenneth?

For years, I've been predicting that the Army was going to make computer networks so secure that regular soldiers would ultimately find the system completely unusable. Given my experience last week, when I was trying to request yet another user account for yet another military system--which required the creation of yet another 15-character-and-don't-use-any-dictionary-words-but-make-sure-to-include-two-special-characters password--I feared that our New Robot Overlords had finally succeeded.

In requesting my new account and password, I had to prove my identity by entering certain dates. Birth date? Check. Date of marriage? Check. What was the exact first day I wore the Army uniform? Uhhhhh ... let me get back you on that one.

Lucky for me, I could log into my personal records on the Army pay system, the repository for non-trivial trivia such as the answer to the "first day you wore the uniform question."

Apparently, however, I couldn't remember my user name or password for that pay system website. A couple of failed attempts, and the website automatically locked me out. A message on the screen told me to call a toll-free help line. Seven layers of phone menus later, and I'm finally talking to a real person.

She cannot tell me my user name, she tells me, but she can give me hints. No, not pre-established security questions. Just hints. Start guessing.

You have GOT to be kidding me: Uncle Sam reduced me to guessing my own name.

This is actually harder than it sounds. Because I have such a common name, the Army likes to add random numbers to my user names. Depending on the system, I am "Charlie.Sherpa20," "Charlie.M.Sherpa4," and "Charles.Sherpa6." On one new system, I log in as "Charlie.Sherpa20," in order to receive e-mail as "Charlie.Sherpa18." No, I am not making this up. Who I am depends on which computer I am trying to talk to.

After a couple of tries, I finally guess right. It turns out that I HAD been using the correct password, but the system now requires the user name to be in all-capital letters. When I hear this, I try to remain calm. Before the password-lockout, the phone menus, the guess-my-own-user-name game, I tell her, there was absolutely NOTHING on the screen indicating that my user name had to be in all-caps. I respectfully request that this observation be noted, and forwarded to whomever is responsible for customer service.

Yeah, like there's a Robot Overlord for THAT ...

Back when I was still running telephone wire in the Army, I once had the opportunity to tell a roomful of officers: "If your phone doesn't work, give me a call." I got out of there before they realized what I'd said.

Techno-karma that goes around comes around, however. Years later, my civilian employer's Information Technology (I.T.) "help desk" personnel--they label themselves the "call center"--stopped publishing their phone number.

I say again: The so-called "call center" stopped ... listing ... its phone number.

Does ... not ... compute.

Instead, they wanted people to log into their internal website, and create some sort of "ticket." OK, Mr. Call Center, what happens if my problem is that I can't log into my computer? They didn't have a good answer for that. Or rather, they wouldn't have had an answer, had anyone been able to contact them.

I wish I could say that such madness was limited to the civilian world--or, at least, the world of services-outsourced-to-civilian-contractor-robots. Just last year, however, I attended a meeting of both U.S. military and civilian governmental representatives, who were working on ways to cooperate during natural and man-made disasters--floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, oil spills, that sort of thing. When the civilians complained that they couldn't access a particular military website, an Air Force communications officer actually stood up and told people that, if they had log-in problems, the trouble-shooting guide was located on the website.

That's right: You first had to log-in to the website, in order to learn how to log in.

Open the web-portal, HAL.

10 May 2010

Mother's Day: The AAR

In the Army, no activity is complete until an After Action Review (A.A.R.) is conducted. These can be quick huddles, or long-drawn-out de-briefings, but the end result is always supposed to focus on what worked, and what could be done better next time. By capturing those concepts soon after an event, writing them down and filing them away for future reference, the theory is that you'll be more likely to be able to re-create success--and to pass your successful methods along to the next guy or gal.

Mother's Day around the Sherpa household is a bit of an obstacle course, due mostly to the fact that Household-6 has a birthday that falls on or near the same day. Adding to the chaos, I'm not very practiced in shaping the creative energies of a loving 3-, 5-, and 42-year-old into the right mix of fun-yet-functional gifts. Somehow, however, we made it happen. As my Air Force buddies say, "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing."

First, the functional:

Household-6 has been observing that we need new towels, not only for guests, but for ourselves. The kids and I parachuted into the local bath store to explore every colorway and thread count we could find. After leaving no potentially breakable bath-accessory unturned ("Lena, put down that loofah dish!"), we arrived at two towel-color options--"Pebble" and "Ornamental Green"--and purchased whole pallet-fuls of both.

Why so many? Easy: I do not intend to again shop for towels during the remainder of my lifetime.

While in the parking lot, I had to move some Army equipment around in my car (a.k.a. the "rolling footlocker") in order to make room for our haul of poofy, oversized shopping bags. That's when I noticed that my Army-issued Universal Camouflage Patterned (U.C.P.) equipment, including my allegedly manly ballistic vest, all seemed to coordinate very well with "Pebble" and "Ornamental Green."

At that moment, my caveman "towel-hunter and washcloth-gatherer" vibe flew right out the window. I fought the urge to go to the local hunting store to buy MultiCam bedsheets, right then and there.

Next, the fun stuff:

The kids and I had also stormed a toy store ("Lena, put down that toy gun NOW! Rain, put down that Barbie!") to purchase the "classic" version of Milton-Bradley's The Game of Life. Household-6 had been waxing nostalgic about the board game a few weeks ago, which had given us the idea.

You remember this game, don't you? You drive a little plastic car, into which you place little plastic pink and blue people (Marriage! Children!) as the notional years spin by. You buy stock and insurance, and pay taxes and tolls--you know, fun stuff like that.

After it was opened, the entire family played a round of Life. Lena immediately got into what I can only describe as the "show me the money" mode. Rain, for the most part, just wanted to drive the little plastic car back and forth across the Toll Bridge. All in all, it was a lot of fun, even if I did lose the inaugural game by only $1,000.

One thought did occur, however: Someone really needs to update the game to include membership National Guard. In the newer (non-classic?) versions, after all, you can apparently find occupations such as "police officer," "mechanic," "computer designer," and "doctor." What about a "citizen-soldier" track, too? Upon deployment, your little blue or pink person could drive a plastic Humvee for a year, on a completely different board from the rest of the little plastic family.

On second thought, that sounds a little too real.

Spin again.

07 May 2010

RE: the B.C.T.--Tell You What It Means to Me

Family and friends (not to mention the media) have recently demonstrated confusion over the pieces and parts comprising a Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.) The following attempt at a primer isn't exactly official Army doctrine (in actually, sizes of units vary greatly depending on function or specialty), but, as they say, it's close enough for government work.

When I say that, remember that government work always goes to the lowest bidder.

Also ... remember that you get what you pay for.

So here's some decidedly fuzzy Sherpa math: Each level of military unit fits into a larger one. A squad is about 8 soldiers. Four squads plus a small "headquarters" (platoon leader, platoon sergeant, radio-telephone operator, machine gun) comprise a platoon. Four platoons comprise a company. A company, then, is about 120 soldiers.

Three or four "line" companies plus a headquarters company equal a battalion--about 500 soldiers. It's at the battalion level that you first see the headquarters break out into specialized staff functions. The S1 is the Personnel officer and staff, the S2 is the Intelligence officer and staff, and so on ...

Three "line" or "maneuver" battalions--the warfighters that directly close with and destroy the enemy--make up the combat power of a brigade. In an Infantry brigade, there are two Infantry battalions and one Cavalry squadron. What's the difference? The Infantry walks to where it's going, while the Cavalry gallops around on four-wheeled horses.

In addition to the warfighters, a brigade is also augmented and supported by three specialty battalions. These are:
  • A field artillery battalion, which provides indirect fires. Artillery support is the "King of Battle." Don't leave the patrol base without it.
  • A Brigade Support Battalion (B.S.B.), comprising a company each of Transportation, Maintenance, and Medical, plus four "Forward Support Companies" (F.S.C.), which are each assigned to provide logistical support to an Infantry, Cavalry, or Field Artillery battalion.
  • A Brigade Special Troops Battalion (B.S.T.B.), which is a collection of disparate (and sometimes desperate--I can say that, having once been one of them) soldiers: A company each of Military Intelligence (M.I.), Signal (aka "communications"), and combat engineer soldiers. Technically, the brigade headquarters also is supported by the BSTB. (See the little blue box under the BSTB in the organizational chart above? That's the brigade headquarters. Hi, Mom!)
Additionally, there's a brigade headquarters company consisting of up to 200 soldiers, each fulfilling extremely specialized staff functions. In addition to the usual staff-suspects, there are all sorts of Army aviators, U.S. Air Force weather prediction personnel, knowledge managers, civil affairs liaisons, human intelligence gatherers--the works!

I'll stop the count here, but a division is typically made up of three or more brigades. In the past 10 years or so, the Army has been "transforming" into a more flexible, more modular force structure. As part of this program, where once they resided only at the division level and above, lots of gee-whiz specialties and equipment were pushed down to the brigade level. In short, brigades became independent, modular, self-supporting warfighting machines--that's where the term "combat team" comes from.

To review and restate my awkward mathematics:
  • Squad: 8 soldiers, commanded by a sergeant.
  • Platoon: 35 soldiers, commanded by a lieutenant along with a platoon sergeant.
  • Company: 140 soldiers, commanded by a captain with a first sergeant.
  • Battalion: 500 soldiers, commanded by a lieutenant colonel with a command sergeant major.
  • Brigade: 3,500 soldiers, commanded by a colonel with a command sergeant major.
I hope this helps. There's more tradition and confusion to throw into the pot, of course. Like why field artillery companies are called "batteries," and cavalry battalions are called "squadrons." (And, best of all: "what the heck is a 'regiment?!'") I'll leave mucking all that up to a later post.

In the meantime, if you're looking for second or third opinions regarding unit sizes and descriptions--not to mention, a little more detail--you might start here.

06 May 2010

Four More Things I Learned from My Uncle Sam

Continuing yesterday's musings about things I've learned during more than 20 years in uniform ...


Here's a confession: I gave up trying to lose the habit of speaking in radio-telephone lingo a long time ago. Instead of "bye-bye," I close my telephone conversations with "OUT." When I call someone--even a good friend, I'm likely to identify myself like I would on the radio: "Friend? THIS IS ..." For the record, Scout, they're called "procedure words" or "pro-words."

Years later, I knew I'd married well when Household-6 was about to give me some information over the telephone. When she told me to "PREPARE TO COPY," I fell in love all over again.

ROGER, honey!

I realize it all sounds a little silly, of course, but there's some family tradition here, too. Maybe that's really why I keep doing it. For the longest time, for example, my parents would talk over little Sherpa's head by using the same international phonetic alphabet the Army would eventually teach me. Example: "Time to give Sherpa a Bravo-Alpha-Tango-Hotel."

Take the first letter in each word. Get it now? I sure didn't.

Even if a kid can spell, the phonetic alphabet adds another layer of encryption. Used in short bursts, it's a parental Enigma machine.

In another example, I remember listening to my mother talk to my overseas Air Force father via some sort of telephone-to-radio link. It was a Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) call, that reached all the way into our kitchen telephone. I remember that Mom had to say "over" at the end of each thought, to let my father know it was his turn to talk. I also remember wondering how, exactly, my father was on Mars.

"I love you, OVER ..."


Whether you're on guard duty, or standing in some hours-long formation while 16 bloviating general officers wish you luck and give you advice, it's a good idea never to lock your knees. People pass out that way.

You can stand for hours with your knees bent slightly. Think of it as skiing, without the hills, the scenery, or the fun.


Some of my basic Army training took place at Fort Lewis, Wash. That's when I learned that parts of Washington state qualify as sub-tropical rain forest. It rained and drizzled constantly.

We had meager rain gear in those days--a rubberized poncho was about it. The worst part of the experience was when you were still a little dry, and you started to feel the soggy, creepy cold crawl up your skin: Your boots got wet, your socks got wet, your pants got wet--you got wet. After that, it warn't nothing but a thing. You still had to watch yourself for trench foot or hypothermia, of course, but the worst thing about getting wet wasn't the water, it was getting wet. Everything after that was just more of the same.


I remember seeing a squad of infantry introduce themselves, one by one, to an audience of us new recruits. Each one sounded off with name, rank, and their function on the team: "Grenadier," "rifleman," "radio-telephone operator," and the like. After naming their position, they'd rattle off their responsibilities: "I am responsible for ..."

The squad leader stepped forward last. "I am responsible for everything my squad does, or fails to do."

I can't tell you how many times I've waited to hear a political or business leader say something like that. Step up, say your name, take ownership of what happened. Tell people what you'll make happen, and let yourself be judged on performance.

Be responsible.

05 May 2010

Four Things I Learned from My Uncle Sam

I've recently begun listing off all the lessons I've learned while wearing my country's uniform for more than 20 years. Here's a start:


I wish I'd maintained the clarity and perspective I had after I first deployed. Everything was simple, especially when you applied the criteria used for declaring an "significant event" in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Downrange, if a soldier or civilian was at risk of losing life, limb, or eyesight, you had yourself an emergency. It was time to coordinate medevac, move people and equipment, and wake the commander up. Otherwise, it wasn't something to get all spun up about.

It works for parenting, too. Especially after some sort of spill.


Here's how backwards planning works: Identify the deadline by which something must happen, then identify in reverse each step required to get there. I once thought this was obvious--until I found myself working on a church committee. The group was headed up by fellow congregant who was a professional "process manager." He was very good at identifying "inputs" and "outputs," and not so very good at setting deadlines. Drove me insane.

The Army teaches you how to avoid the trap of analysis paralysis. State the mission--the who, what, where, when--then, plan to make things happen. Then, make it happen.


Also known as the "one-thirds, two-thirds" rule: To optimize their chances of success, your teammates need twice as much time as you will in making the plan. Take one-third of the remaining time for yourself, and allow them two-thirds of the available time for preparation and rehearsal. Give people as much information as you can as early as you can. That way, even if your plans change, they'll be further down the proverbial road than if you had horded information until the last possible moment.

The best plan at the last minute will likely fail, because people need time to make it their own.


When we were dating, Household-6 took me on a reunion trip with some former backpacking camp counselors. Given my Army training, I spent whole days freaking out about wearing bright colors, banging metal, and traveling in non-tactical formation. After I figured out that we were more likely to be attacked by a bear than with hand grenades, I was able to lighten up a bit. (Get it? "Lighten"? I crack me up.)

In uniform, however, I still try to minimize noise and light while out in the field--even though I'm probably standing right next to the biggest inflatable structure in the forest, along with enough loud-humming power generators to power a small building. Even given these conditions, I trust that my red-lens flashlight will keep me safe, unheard and unseen.

I am like a ninja that way. A ninja who lives in a circus tent.

More tomorrow!

04 May 2010

A Patchwork of Memories

Household-6 and I spent much of the past weekend attempting to liberate the garage, which has been a cache of clothes, computers, and other clutter for longer than we'd care to admit. On this mission, we intended to donate, recycle, or trash everything that lay in our path.

I encountered a couple foot-lockers-full of old Battle Dress Uniform (B.D.U.) clothes, including some decidedly unsexy Army-brown boxers and briefs. (For the record, this was their original color.) I also found a bunch of long-lost canteens, tent parts, and other stuff that wasn't even worth taking down to the local military surplus store. They were too old to be useful, not old enough to be museum pieces.

Before donating the uniform shirts to the Salvation Army, I spent an hour or so stripping them of name, rank, branch of service, as well as any unit or American flag patches. In my opinion, it's a uniform if there's a flag or "U.S. Army" on it. Taking them off renders it just another set of old fatigues. Maybe it's a little like spiking a cannon, or pouring concrete down the barrel. "De-militarized." Rendered inert.

It was repetitive work. My mind wandered a bit. It struck me that sound of the pocket knife ripping through the stitches was similar to that of distant small-arms fire.

I started focusing attention on the sizes of collars, the locations of buttons, the placement of patches. By comparing and contrasting each uniform, I could re-create exactly when and where each version had been issued and worn. The exercise turned out to be a road-march down memory lane.

I kept one or two uniforms to add to the future Charlie Sherpa Memorial Military Museum. Hanging in my closest, I've got at least one representative sample of each of the Army duty uniforms worn since the late 1980s: the BDU, the Desert Battle Dress Uniform (D.B.D.U.), the Desert Camouflage Uniform (D.C.U.), and the currently worn Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) When our unit deploys to Afghanistan later this year, we'll be issued a new "MultiCam" camouflage pattern. Just one more for the collection, I suppose.

Of course, I'll never have to engage in such nostalgic seamstering again. The name tapes and patches on the newer army uniforms are all attached with hook-and-loop fastener (the rest of the world calls it "Velcro"). Sanitizing uniforms of name and rank is now as easy as pulling off an adhesive bandage ("Band-aid").

After the operation, I found myself holding a pile of name tapes, Red Bull and Hawkeye patches. Little fragments of olive-drab thread danced across the room, covering the family room carpet. Household-6 ordered an immediate "sweep of the area."

Go, Army.

03 May 2010

Present ... or Accounted For

A couple of years ago, when Household-6 and I were considering having another child, I was having a hard time getting out of my own head. For a while, I couldn't see or hear a kid--any kid, including my own precious little girl--without somehow also instantly adding up all the potential money, effort, and parental heartache that child represented--past, present, and future. I tied myself into mental knots, worrying about everything from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to paying for school. I was ... well, let's just say I wasn't exactly the happiest Sherpa around.

Jeff W. has been a good and constant friend for years. I'd go so far as to call him my best friend, especially since he went and married my other best friend.

Together, Jeff and I have heard the chimes at midnight. He's the guy with whom I discovered the joys of single-barrel bourbon, and dark-roasted Kenya AA coffee bean, and blasting loud music out of open windows on cool spring days. Well into our forties, we still play video games together. The retirement home we end up in had better have a jumbo TV and an X-box.

Jeff's advice has steadily gotten more sage (and less mixed with alcohol) over the years, perhaps due to the charcoal-filtered good influence of his wife. They're good people, and--although they'd probably balk at me saying this--good role models.

One weekend visit--we don't live in the same city anymore--Jeff offered these simple words of advice:

"Remember to be present for your family."

Somehow, that line allowed me to short-circuit the psychological loopback I'd worked myself into. "Be present." In other words, if you're with your kids, be with your kids. If you're with your wife, be with your wife. Don't dwell upon the unknowable, and steadfastly and straight-forwardly regard the knowable. Deal with facts, not speculations. Forget what you don't know, and be in the now.

Mindfulness and presence are constant themes in military life. At unit formations, our platoon sergeants report "all present or accounted for"--everyone is is his or her place. Nearly every briefing includes a discussion of safety--how to be mindful of the risks that have been identified. As soldiers, we are constantly reminded to look out for our buddies; to pay attention to how we are executing our assigned tasks; to react to conditions on the ground as we find them, not as we assume them to be.

Household-6 and I are struggling to keep things moving as we prepare our family for deployment. There are so many distractions: Kids, wife, household maintenance, Army training, writing a blog, legal matters and finances. Household-6's mom and dad took the kids this weekend, so we could focus on getting some Spring Cleaning done around the house. The gift of their time also allowed us a rare opportunity to be present just for each other--hanging out (kids-free!) at the local diner; talking about hopes, fears, and plans; reading the Sunday paper. It was just like old times, like it was before the (usually happy) chaos and confusions and constant distractions of parenthood.

If I cannot achieve constant balance in life, at least I am learning to point myself in the right direction. I can be "present." Or, at least, "accounted for."

Jeff's a Protestant Christian by faith, but I've come to think of him as a little bit Buddhist as well. The funny thing is, Buddha Jeff may not even realize how he changed my life with the gift of a few friendly words. He may not even remember it.

Still, it was quite the present.