31 August 2010

Museum Lays Out the Red Bull Carpet

The sudden sounds of machine gun fire so close to my position was, to put it mildly, a little alarming. Here I was, after all, thinking I'd found a cool and quiet spot to spend my lunch hour. I turned a dark corner, and found myself walking along the depths of a World War I trench. Another corner, and then another, and I found myself in No Man's Land.

Being downrange of a machine gun just feels wrong, even if it's being crewed by dummies. And, by "dummies," of course, I mean mannequins.

The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum located on Camp Shelby, Miss., is a 26,000-square-foot building featuring multimedia depictions of military life, equipment, and history. The museum recently laid out the proverbial red carpet for the Red Bull: A banner featuring the unit patch currently flies over the museum's entrance.

The museum is well worth a few hours' visit, although parents should prepare younger children for the occasional loud noise and other surprises driven by motion sensors. There are machine gun noises, and a tank that comes at you with its headlights. Upon entering a ship's bridge, klaxons sound while planes dive past the portholes. It's not quite "interactive," but it all is certainly is fun and educational.

More than 100,000 U.S. soldiers (and a few thousand Canadians) have mobilized through Camp Shelby since June 2004, including in the 2005 deployment to Iraq of the 1st Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (1-34 BCT). Two battalion-sized elements from that 2005 are here with the 2-34 BCT, preparing for Afghanistan. These are: Iowa's 1st "Ironman" Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133 Infantry), and Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry (1-134 Cavalry).

A variety of ground and air vehicles are displayed on the grounds surrounding the museum, as well as stone monuments to units that have ties to Camp Shelby. One of those units is the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (R.C.T.)--a celebrated unit of Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II Italy as part of the 34th "Red Bull" Division.

The Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby, Miss., (near Hattiesburg on Highway 49) is open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays. It is closed Sundays, Mondays, and state and federal holidays. It is, however, open on Memorial Day, Independence Day (July 4th), and Veteran's Day.

30 August 2010

Together, We Could Write History

Some people don't think they can write, but I disagree. If you can write enough to fill a postcard or Facebook status update, you can write.

Or, if you don't necessarily enjoy writing, maybe you take photos, compose songs, or make scrapbooks.

A couple of Red Bull Rising readers recently proposed some sort of collective effort, in which we could share our thoughts and words about the current deployment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT).

I've since been playing around with various ideas, but nothing has really stuck. I just realized, however, that I don't have to be the one to do all the thinking. After all, y'all are a heck of a lot smarter than I am. Or maybe I should say, we're all a lot smarter together than we are individually.

I'm going to throw a couple of things out there, just to get the conversation started:

This project would potentially involve:
  • Red Bull spouses, as well as other family and friends
  • Red Bull employers
  • Red Bull soldiers who are currently deployed
  • Red Bull veterans and alumni
This project would focus on capturing words and pictures related to the 2-34 BCT deployment to Afghanistan. As part of this effort, we might potentially:
  • Share tips on collecting family deployment histories, or keeping in touch with soldiers downrange.
  • Workshop on writing, photography, art and/or crafting techniques focused on the deployment.
  • Submit our project(s) in whole or in part for archiving in the Gold Star Museum, Camp Dodge, Iowa.
Other factors related to this project include:
  • A potential need to keep some names and places temporarily obscured for security and privacy purposes, both home and downrange.
  • A format that allows any level of participation--one-time, weekly, monthly, etc.
What are your ideas? What form(s) should this take? Is it a blog? A website? A Facebook discussion group?

There are probably a hundred reasons why you shouldn't participate, but a single reason why: You and your loved ones are making Red Bull history. It would be a shame to let those experiences slip away into fuzzy memories and forgotten Facebook posts, and I'd love to help put people and stuff together.

Let me know what you think! Put your ideas in the comments section to this post, or on the Red Bull Rising Facebook page!

27 August 2010

Mississippi MultiCam Media Madness

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division has sure been in the news a lot recently--and all it took was a change of clothes.

The Iowa Army National Guard unit was the first-ever to receive the full-issue of MultiCam uniforms and equipment. Astute observers of the Afghan theater of operations will have already noted the camouflage pattern in limited use downrange. There were test fieldings and other experiments. During a special screening of "Restrepo" earlier this year, Red Bull soldiers noted that the 173rd Airborne BCT was sporting the mud-colors back in 2007.

The news was big enough to warrant a personal visit to Camp Shelby from Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth Preston.

While the commercial/civilian market still calls the textile MultiCam, the Army is calling it the "Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern" (O.C.P.) That's opposed to "Universal Camouflage Pattern" (U.C.P.), which apparently isn't as universal as first thought.

The uniform itself is called "Flame-Resistant Army Combat Pattern" (or "Frak-You"). No, I am not making this up.

The 7-color camouflage pattern tends to look like yellowish mud against the pine-green forests of Mississippi. (Parents of young children might be reminded of something else.) On the subdued "Red Bull" patch, the beloved bovine skull is now yellow-brown, rather than sage green. "How now, yellow-brown cow?"

The uniforms are flame-resistant and insect-repellant. Hook-and-loop fastener tape (aka "Velcro") has been replaced with old-school buttons. Collars and crotches have been reinforced. And the infrared tab has been hidden away in a better place.

Related equipment includes lower-rise mountain boots, and a "plate-carrier" harness that will allow soldiers to ditch some of their armor while still protecting vital organs from the big 7.62 mm bullets. That means that, as mission dictates, soldiers can drop 15 pounds of equipment weight. A "Tactical Assault Pack" ("TAP") distributes more magazines more evenly than the old gut-buster ammo pouches.

The new uniforms won't be worn until after the Red Bull rotate through a major training exercise in California later this year. Soldiers will be allowed to break in their new mountain boots, however.

The Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) isn't going anywhere. The Red Bull soldiers will return and exchange the OCP equipment for their standard sage-greens when they return from Afghanistan in 2011. The Army says it may continue evaluating camouflage patterns. Meanwhile, so that its personnel on the ground can continue to blend with their Army counterparts, the U.S. Air Force appears to be moving toward MultiCam in Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see what the "blue-suiters" deploying with the Red Bull end up being issued.

Here's a list of recent MultiCam Media Madness, featuring Red Bull soldiers:
Army News Service:"New uniform for OEF protects soldiers, hides them better"
Army Times:"Soldiers receive new MultiCam ACUs, gear"
Des Moines Register:"Iowa troops get new uniforms, but pack them away for now" (text; photo comparing OCP and UCP)

KCRG-TV9:"Iowa soldiers will be the first to wear new uniforms in Afghanistan" (text and video)
USA Today:"Military sees it's time for change in camouflage" (text, photo, infographic)

26 August 2010

Dressing Right for the Fight

If you haven't gotten the idea yet--remember "floppy socks"?--the commander and command sergeant major of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are each sticklers for uniform standards.

"I get a little emotional about it," the decidedly unemotional commander told his staff recently here in Camp Shelby, Miss. "It will save lives. It shows discipline in our unit. If we show [the bad guys] any weakness, we're going to get it."

I remember hearing that, after Operation Desert Storm, the Army determined units that slung their M16 rifles over a shoulder were 80 percent more likely to be engaged by the enemy than units who kept their weapons in front of them at all times. And that was with the old slings--with newer "combat" slings, shorter M4 rifles, and collapsible butt stocks, the Army has made it much easier for soldiers to keep their weapons handy.

Last week, a Cavalry trooper friend of mine was driving his up-armored Humvee out to Camp Shelby training areas. "I was headed out the gate," he says, "and guess who's there, checking uniforms?" It was the brigade commander. My friend suddenly realized he wasn't wearing his gloves, or his ballistic eye-protection--goggles that will stop bits of gravel and shrapnel.

Since he was the first vehicle in line, my buddy got busted. To his credit, however, he also had the right equipment with him, and quickly made the correction.

"Soldiers know what 'right' looks like," I had overheard the brigade commander say later that same day. "If you see something that isn't right, correct it."

It might sound a little silly to civilians, but enforcing what and how uniforms are to be worn is Army Leadership 101. At Basic Training drill sergeants often put out small, arbitrary changes in the day's uniform. It can range from "tomorrow, wear only your helmet liner" to "tomorrow, lace your boots left-over-right."

Why? To see if individual soldiers display enough attention-to-detail to properly execute even the smallest change. To see if buddies look out for other buddies--"hey, dude, your uniform is wrong." And to see if peer-leaders get the word out throughout their respective fire teams, squads, and platoons.

See, soldier? There is a method to the Army madness. Your drill sergeant wasn't as crazy as you thought she was.

A couple of other random notes on uniformity:

When Red Bull soldiers are in the Camp Shelby barracks areas--an environment variously described as "in garrison," "on cantonment," and "on the FOB"--they're either to be dressed in Army fatigues or the Army Physical Fitness Uniform (A.P.F.U.). If they're in APFU, they're also supposed to wear a reflective belt for visibility--even in daylight hours.

Wearing the APFU also standardizes off-duty appearance across genders, as much as the Army can. While still more revealing than the Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.), no one would ever describe the APFU as provocative or alluring. The Army simply doesn't want soldiers ogling other soldiers.

Civilian clothes are not authorized. You're supposed to pack at least one set of civvies for going on pass--but that's about it. Oh, and civilian clothes have to be nice enough for your chaplain to see you in. No tube-tops and Daisy Mae shorts, or "F--- the Army" T-shirts.

Finally, of course, there's the issue of the new MultiCam fatigues. The 2-34 BCT was the first Army unit to receive the Afghanistan-specific uniforms and equipment. Red Bull soldiers have been instructed to wear the new mountain boots enough to break them in, but to pack the MultiCam uniforms away until after their National Training Center rotation. After all, we wouldn't want soldiers to get the mud-colored uniforms dirty.

In the meantime, the Public Affairs team has been working on a poster that depicts "what 'Right' looks like" while wearing the new uniforms. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand uniform corrections.

More on MultiCam madness tomorrow!

25 August 2010

Happy 93rd Birthday, Red Bull!

On Aug. 25, 1917, the 34th Infantry "Sandstorm" Division was organized at Camp Cody, New Mexico. While the distinctive unit patch was also created by Iowa National Guard soldier and regionalist artist Marvin Cone in that same year, the division did not take on the nickname "Red Bull" until World War II.

The division's birthday is specified as the official "unit day" of the 34th Infantry Division by the U.S. Army's Center of Military History. As such, this day is to be commemorated with stories, displays, and ceremonies of the unit's past accomplishments.

According to Army Regulation 870-5 (Chapter 6, Section 2, Paragraph C): "Each organization should observe its Unit Day as a training holiday and commemorate its history in ceremonies that stress unit lineage, honors, heritage, and traditions, as well as personal accomplishments of former and current unit members. The Unit Day program may also feature such activities as parades, concerts, sports, and other competitive events."

Given that the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division (2-34 BCT) is currently preparing for deployment to Afghanistan at Camp Shelby, Miss., its soldiers are unlikely to enjoy any special events today.

Unless, of course, one can sweat competitively. Or hold a roach parade.

I'll keep you posted.

24 August 2010

Taking a Pass on Taking a Pass

There's been a lot of Family Readiness Group (F.R.G.) talk on Facebook about the times 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division soldiers might be allowed a 4-day pass from their pre-deployment training.

Not all soldiers will take their passes at the same times--or in the same places--making it an administrative nightmare and a potential gold mine for travel agents. Soldiers are restricted to travel within 300 miles of their duty station, which means they'll not be able to return to Iowa.

Not to be too contrary, but passes, in my opinion, can be a mixed blessing. Sure, it sounds great, getting together with your soldier for a few "extra" days before they leave for Afghanistan. Please remember, however, that not everyone--especially lower-ranking soldiers and their families--has the resources to spend money and time on travel, lodging, daycare, and whatever else it takes to get from Iowa to Mississippi for four days.

That doesn't mean they don't love their soldiers. That doesn't mean they don't want to see them. That does mean, however, that you should watch what you say. You may think you're only asking about someone's plans to visit their soldier ("aren't you SO EXCITED about SEEING YOUR SOLDIER?!"), but what they may be hearing is "if you don't visit your soldier, something is wrong with you and your family."

All of this is only one soldier's opinion, of course. Here are some other tips to consider regarding pre-deployment passes:

Talk honestly and directly with other family members about your expectations. One Red Bull spouse reports getting pressure from a not-so-passive-aggressive mother-in-law. Mother-in-law wants to visit her baby boy during pass-time. Meanwhile, Mrs. Red Bull wants a romantic stress-and-kids-free interlude before her husband disappears for 12 months. Please do not put your Red Bull soldier in such a crossfire.

Don't talk about times, dates, and places on public venues such as Facebook. I say again: Don't do it. It confuses other people, and causes them stress. Your soldier may have different opportunities than my soldier. What you've heard about Joe's unit doesn't necessarily apply to Joan's. Focus on your own family.

There's also something the Army calls "Operational Security" or "OPSEC." Basically, OPSEC means "keep Army stuff out of public view." If you were going on a family vacation, you'd lock your doors, put the lights on timers, and stop your mail and newspaper deliveries, right? Now, if you're careful enough to hide your departure in those common-sense ways, why would you announce publicly the dates of your upcoming visit with your Red Bull soldier?

Think about the trip home, too. Not all families may want to re-visit the pain of having to say good-bye. Only recently did my wife tell me how painful it was to leave after we said goodbye after a 4-day pass at my 2003 mobilization station. It was a long, long way home, and she kept bursting into tears. People kept asking if she was all right, and all she wanted was to be left alone. Knowing that story now, I wouldn't ask her to visit me this time--particularly if she were traveling with our two kids.

Other soldiers and their families, of course, might choose differently. And that's really my point, no matter how grinchy I may sound today: We need to give each other's families the spaces to make those decisions.

Godspeed the Red Bull families, and their soldiers.

23 August 2010

Red Bull on a Stick

"You know, Camp Shelby is an awful lot like the Iowa State Fair," says one Red Bull soldier. Back home, the Iowa State Fair is going on, and we're talking over a lunch of greasy food here in Mississippi. "We've got the food trailers, the stifling heat coming off the pavement, and," he sniffs at himself, "we certainly have the smell of livestock about us."

"Yeah," says Saber2th, "and we've got the 'freak show' thing down, too."

You want Midway rides? There's even a vehicle-rollover simulator that spins you around.

It's another 100-plus-degree-heat-index day, and the Mississippi sun feels hot enough to strip paint off a barn. We're hanging out under the tin roof the "tactical food court," where a collection of food-vendor trailers sits in a gravel parking lot alongside a 100-foot-long temporary picnic shelter. You can take the Red Bull out of Iowa, but not the Iowa out or the Red Bull.

"We could really use some of those cattle-misters they use at the fair," says Hamster, referring to a piece of farm equipment that sprays a fine mist of water. Agricultural-equipment vendors sell them at the state fair, and they're also used to cool crowds of people. "If we had one of those, we could make a fortune here."

Many troops seem to avoid eating the "Meals Read to Eat" (M.R.E.) rations that are provided them for lunchtime chow, in favor of eating at their own expenses. There's a trailer that sells Domino's Pizza--"delivered to you in 30 minutes or more," quips one soldier. "Lucky for me, food can never get cold here," says another. "The whole state of Mississippi is one big heat lamp."

Another vendor sells burritos. There's a trailer that offers catfish (the Army should really come up with a "dehydrated fried-catfish patty MRE," says one soldier), and another barbecue sandwiches and pork fritters.

In Iowa, we'd call a fritter a "pork tenderloin."

In the spirit of Iowa State Fair experimental food-fads (aka "foods that should probably be eaten only on a dare"), that last place also sells what they call "horseshoes" and "ponyshoes." Here's how a menu sign describes a horseshoe: "Take a hamburger, chicken or pork fritter. Put it on Texas Toast, put fries on top and smother it with a rich white delicious cheese sauce."

And the "ponyshoe"? That's the same thing, but half the size. You know, in case you're watching your diet.

There's a rumor that some congressman from Iowa is going to bring down some Iowa sweet corn down to Camp Shelby sometime before the unit moves out to the California desert. If the troops are lucky, maybe some Iowa pork producers or cattlemen's association will jump on that wagon, too, and throw some corn-fed protein on that menu, too.

At the very least, maybe somebody could FedEx the troops a bunch of freeze-dried corn dogs--because nothing says "home" to a Red Bull like meat on a stick.

20 August 2010

Lost in Translations

When it comes to tobacco, I really don't know what I'm talking about. I don't smoke or chew, and lack both experience and vocabulary--which means that the locals don't know what I'm talking about, either. Here I am, traveling from one Mississippi gas station to another, trying to score some "mint-flavor long-cut Skoal" for a buddy who's currently based at Camp Shelby.

"Do y'all have chew?" I ask. I get blank looks. "Tobacco? Chewing tobacco?"

Eventually, I get the point across. I'm still trying to figure out what Mississippians call the stuff. "Snuff? Dip? Skoal?"

Like most of the soldiers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34the Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT), my buddy Pilz is restricted to Camp Shelby. If the Post Exchange--a sort of a military version of a five-and-dime or drug store--runs out of your favorite extracurricular supplies, you're out of luck until the next truck. With access to a rental car, however, I can go out on the economy. Or, rather, I can try.

Pilz wants Mint Skoal. Not Wintergreen or Spearmint. Not Cherry or Berry or Vanilla or Peach.

And it's got to be "long-cut." Not "pouches" or "bandits."

I take a wrong turn, and find myself lost on the backroads of Mississippi for a few minutes before I re-locate the highway. Winding through the pines on tightly turned blacktop, my mind wanders upon this thought:

The deploying Iowa soldiers currently confined to Camp Shelby are experiencing about as much of Mississippi as some may eventually experience of Afghanistan. They're behind the wall, and behind the wire. They're not necessarily meeting the locals, or learning how to speak the local language.

How do y'all say "chew" in Dari or Pashto?

19 August 2010

Caption Contest No. 5: 'Unsafe at Any Bandwidth'

  • "Warning: Satellite dishes on roof are closer than they appear."
  • "You've heard of a 'Home Theater in a Box'? How about a 'Home Theater on Wheels!'"
  • "Honey, turn to the left. 'Pimp My Ride' is coming in a little fuzzy."
  • "Admittedly, 'Mediacom Prime' was one of the least-powerful Transformers ..."
  • "Estimated 512 kbps highway, 256 kbps city. Your mileage may vary."
Make your suggestions and additions in the comments section of this post!

18 August 2010

5 Ways to Display Your Patriotic Flair

Many people demonstrate their support for deployed citizen-soldiers by displaying flags, ribbons, and yard signs. Such symbols can be important--and even inspiring--but they don't do much to engage people on a personal level.

After all, when's the last time a stranger asked you about a bumper sticker on your car?

There's also the matter of security. Let me ask you this: Do you stop your mail and newspaper delivery when you leave home for long periods of time? Do you arrange for the neighbor kid to mow the lawn? Why, then, would you put a yellow ribbon or blue-star service flag on your door, advertising that the soldier of the house might not be home for a long, long time?

So, Sherpa, what's an outgoing but security-conscious patriot to do?

That's easy, rhetorical voice in my head! How about wearing one or more pieces of patriotic flair?

By incorporating your show of support into your wardrobe, you can encourage the people you meet to personally recognize and remember your soldier's service. Best of all, you can engage them in conversation. You can educate and evangelize what life with (and without) a citizen-soldier is all about!

Here are 5 ideas how:

Photo buttons. Ever since I can remember, proud Midwestern parents and grandparents have displayed pinback buttons featuring photos of their favorite sports stars and cheerleaders. In recent years, the tradition has grown to include pictures of soldiers, marines, and airmen. Many print shops and on-line photo processors offer button and jewelry products. You can also find do-it-yourself products suitable for making single photo buttons at local craft shops. Wearing a photo button says, "Ask me about my soldier!"

Lapel pins. Because they're smaller than buttons, lapel pins can be worn with both casual and formal business attire. Yellow ribbons indicate that someone is missing a loved one, while a blue-star service flag is more specific to having a service member deployed overseas. Veterans have even more options: They can, for example, choose to wear small versions of campaign ribbons to indicate their theaters of service. If members, they can also wear the emblems of such organizations as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).

T-shirts. Many unit Family Readiness Groups (F.R.G) and other organizations sell custom T-shirts as fund-raisers. The division patch is often the most recognized symbol--in the case of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT), that would be the ubiquitous "bovine skull on water jug" emblem. Both the brigade and battalions have individual "crests," symbol-rich emblems that remind many people of heraldic "coats of arms." Make the T-shirts red, and you can also help celebrate ...

Red clothing. The origins of the practice may be a little hard to pin down, but many organizations and groups have adopted "Remember Everyone Deployed" Fridays--"R.E.D. Fridays." Anything goes: Hats, coats, T-shirts. It's a fun and visible way to celebrate our troops. Best of all, if you can scrounge up something red out of the closet, you don't necessarily have to buy anything else.

Purses, bags, and wallets. A fellow 234th Signal Battalion alumna brought this idea to my attention. She's a self-described "S.A.H.M."--you can apparently take the girl out of the Army, but not take the Army's love of acronyms out of the girl--a mother of three, and psychology student to boot. She's also joined up with "Hero on my Arm," a mil-spouse-owned business that re-makes old uniforms into fun and functional purses, bags, and other items. Click here to learn more!

17 August 2010

Breathing Easier

I'm traveling today, so I only have a moment to tell this recent story on myself:

I broke my nose in high school. I took a knee to the face in gym class. My knee to my face. I was tucking and rolling after diving after a ball in what I can only describe now as the most beautiful, slow-motion maneuver I have ever executed--before or since--on the court of volleyball.

The acrobatics ended with a crunching pain and me sitting there, nose in my hands, trying very hard not to bleed on my new white gym shoes.

The gym teacher was of little help--she said that if I'd broken my nose, I'd be screaming in pain. Later that day, I convinced my parents to take me to the doctor. Didn't seem right that I could shift my nose back and forth, I told them. Later, the doctor agreed with me.

Not that there was anything to do about it, of course. My nose had shifted to a stable position--the doc called it a "green-stick fracture"--and only I could see the difference.

Fast-forward 28 years or so to last weekend. I was playing with 3-year-old Rain in his room. We haven't moved a lot of furniture into his room, so there's lots of floor to roll around on. We were playing "airplane," which involves me supporting his torso with my arms, and his legs between my knees. I swing him up over my head by rolling backward, using his weight to counter my backward motion.

Sometimes, he shouts "Mayday! Mayday!" like Orville or Wilbur from one of the Disney "Rescuers" animated movies. Bonus points if you know what I'm talking about.

On this particular day, Rain begged for just one more airplane ride. We'd done about nine such moves, and I must've been a little tired. Because, on the next go, I dropped 35 pounds of 3-year-old onto my nose.

Crunch and blood.

Mostly, I was worried about getting blood on the carpet. Then I was worried that Rain would think he'd done something wrong. Finally, I was struck by this thought: Here I am. I've gone through months of pre-mobilization--to include Army hand-to-hand "combatives" training. And I end up getting my face rearranged by a 3-year-old. A 3-year-old pretending to be a cartoon albatross.

I've had a headache ever since. I wince and get teary if I put my glasses on wrong. I can shift my nose slightly, back and forth. I've obviously broken it again. But the strange thing?

I can breathe more easily than I have in years.

16 August 2010

Red Bull on the March, in the News

Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division (2-34th BCT)--as well as their National Guard counterparts already downrange--have been in the news a lot recently. The send-off ceremonies in Iowa are over, and the units that comprise the 2-34th BCT are now mobilized and training at Camp Shelby, Miss.

Des Moines Register writer Reid Forgrave is consistently delivering insightful, well-crafted narratives about the deployment. Yesterday's newspaper featured the story of some Red Bull soldiers on their 2004 deployment to Afghanistan. Not all of them came back.

It's pulse-pounding, heart-breaking stuff.

Take, for example, these words from a father of a soldier killed on the mission:
"Every one of those well-wishers, whether they knew it or not, were sharing that little piece of the Almighty that rests within. When everybody is sharing just that much of the Almighty with somebody else ... you can't hold it in. You gotta give it back."
Last Friday, Col. Ben Corell and Chaplain (1st Lt.) Martha Kester were interviewed at length on Iowa Public Radio's "The Exchange." Corell is the commander of the 2-34 BCT. Kester is the chaplain of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (B.S.B.), and the first female chaplain in the Iowa Army National Guard. For a time, the 46-minute interview is available as a free download and streaming-audio: Click here.

The radio interviews feature good info on conditions at Camp Shelby, how the unit was the first to be issued the Afghan-specific "MultiCam" uniform, and how soldiers and families are dealing with the first days of separation.

(Click here for a slide show from the Hattiesburg American depicting the new camouflage gear. And here's an official National Guard news release about the same.)

Lastly, Spencer Ackerman of Wired's "Danger Room" blog tells how Vermont National Guard soldiers are using their technology skills to help maintain a computer lab in Tokchi, Parwan Province. I don't just find this interesting because I'm also a communications guy: Previous news reports in Iowa have indicated that at least some of the Red Bulls will eventually relieve the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont.

Ackerman's article (click here) is a good snapshot of how soldiers attempt to build bridges with small, concrete projects. Dealing with people through an interpreter can be frustrating, as can be trying to untangle the local political webs. At least one commo crew on one day, however, reduced all the confusion down to providing tech support to the locals:
[Capt. Cristian] Balan, true to form, thinks it was a good day. He’s got big plans for the computer lab. He wants to network the computers so they can print to a single printer – maybe add some speakers, too; oh, and he’ll need printer cartridges – so he says he’ll write home to solicit donated equipment. After the platoon rolls back to Bagram, he hangs out in front of its office on some picnic benches and talks about the new software he wants to install. Maybe something about learning English. [...]

Balan’s eyes indicate that he’s already musing about all the cool stuff he can introduce to the Tokchi computer lab. Whether his tech upgrades will be useful as a counterinsurgency tool may require some more imagination.

12 August 2010

Water, Water Everywhere

The heat at Camp Shelby, Miss., is a gut-punch, and the back-and-forth between allegedly air-conditioned buildings is a forced march along molten blacktop. If there's any breeze at all, it smells of pine and asphalt, skunk and sweat--his sweat, her sweat, your sweat. After even a short walk between buildings, your uniform will be soaked. The trick to survival is to learn how to not mind being sweaty. Or sticky. Or smelly.

The brigade commander has issued a uniform policy that includes the wear of a "hydration system" wherever you go(canteens went out with the 20th century Army). The need to drink water is constant, and everyone reminds everyone else to "drink water!" There are even official Army posters about how to self-diagnose the color of one's urine.

I remember working Washington, D.C., and sweating the walk between pools of cool. I'd pop out of a dark Metro tunnel, and trudge and sludge my way to an office kennel. The Nature Channel is right: There are good reasons why desert animals are nocturnal--and my younger self was living proof of it.

Camp Shelby forces the same kind of avoid-the-sun survival techniques, except in a rural setting. If you're lucky enough to work in a air-conditioned office or tent, you tend to optimize business there, particularly in the afternoons. Recently in Mississippi, it's been highs in the mid- to high-90 degrees Fahrenheit, with nightly lows in the mid-70s. Factoring in humidity, the heat index has been up to a feels-like-110-degrees-F.

Sure, it's hot, but it at least it's a wet heat. With 100 percent chance of perspiration, everyday.

The equipment of choice is the Camelbak-brand hydration system. I carry a non-Army issue piece of Camelbak merchandise, one with pockets enough for some sunglasses, hand-cleanser, and a broken-down Meal Ready to Eat (M.R.E.) It's pretty girly, I'll admit--probably the equivalent of those little why-bother-sized backpacks worn by teenyboppers and mallrats. But it gets the job done.

I've taken to the practice of putting ice from an ice machine--Army chow halls usually have them--into the bladder of my Camelbak. It keeps my liter of water reasonably cool for a couple of hours, although too much ice ends up creating a pool of condensation at the bottom of the bag. Since water flows to the path of least resistance, the condensation occasionally begins to drips through, and I end up with a soggy butt.

War is heck.

11 August 2010

Welcome to Shelbistan!

The last time I was in Camp Shelby, Miss., I was brand-spanking new to the Iowa Army National Guard. I was part of an entire battalion of communications soldiers who had descended up on this place like locusts, wave after wave after wave.

There wasn't much physical damage that was left to be done to the post, of course, because Hurricane Andrew had recently blown through the American South, and the post was being used as emergency housing. Many of the cinder-block buildings were so moldy and wet, soldiers asked whether the hurricane had actually passed over this part of Mississippi. We preferred living and working in our tents.

In those days, units still got a 24-hour pass during their 2-week Annual Training periods. One "Retention-Day" busload went to Gulfport, Miss. The other went to New Orleans.

You haven't lived until you spend an all-nighter on Bourbon Street, trying to keep your company commander from chasing the wrong kind of women ("Uh, sir? I think she's a man
!"), and almost getting kicked out of a country karaoke bar with your first sergeant, because he wanted to sing "All My Exes Live in Texas" once too many times.

I had to carry one of my buddies into a taxi cab--held his head out the window like a drunken puppy--in order to get him back to the hotel. Just recently, I was interviewed for his pre-deployment security clearance. What goes on in the Big Easy, stays in the Big Easy.

There's a beauty and charm to the American South that's easy for a flat-lander like me to forget. To appreciate it, you have to not mind getting sticky. And developed a tolerance for exotic and pungent smells. To this day, I can still remember the full-on nasal assault of a New Orleans dumpster. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

You gotta take the bad, after all, if you want the good. You can't have Mardi Gras, if you don't have Lent. You can't have the deployment, without the mobilization station.

Camp Shelby is the largest state-owned training site in the United States, comprising more than 525 square kilometers. and has served as a training and mobilization station for units in World War II, Vietnam, and Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF), as well as others. A series of stones on the grounds of the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum memorializes some of the units that have gone before.

The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (1-34th B.C.T.) came through here at least once before, prior to deploying to Iraq in 2005. The 2-34th BCT's own 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133 INF)--the "Ironman" Battalion--was one of those units.

There's apparently been a lot of construction on Camp Shelby in the past 20 years. The Post Exchange (P.X.)--a military equivalent of a truck stop store, or a convenience mart on steroids--is undergoing an expansion and renovation.

At the PX, soldiers can buy snacks and DVDs and pocket knives. They're not allowed to purchase or consume alcohol at any time, even the the PX has some of that, too. There are some food vendors parked in trailers outside the PX, allowing soldiers to replace (at their own expenses) their M.R.E. lunches with pizza and pork fritters and burritos and catfish. Ah, life on the FOB!

I haven't yet gotten a chance to visit the on-post museum, but I note that, in World War II, German prisoners-of-war (P.O.W.) from the North African campaign were housed at Camp Shelby. I seem to recall that POWs were required to be housed in environmental conditions similar to that of their points of capture. In matching the misery and heat of the North African desert, Camp Shelby apparently fit the bill.

Welcome to Shelbistan!

10 August 2010

The Second-hand Minuteman

Yesterday, I told you that I wasn't going to deploy to Afghanistan. Today, as I am writing this, I am on a plane headed toward Camp Shelby, Miss. I'm calling this boomerang turn-of-events "Operation Bad Penny."

Confused? Imagine how I feel!

National Guard life can be fast-changing and full of surprises. The latin motto of the Army National Guard should be "Semper Gumby," for "always green, always flexible."

I received less-than-24-hour notice that I'd be headed to Shelby, where I'll help out in getting my buddies in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (2-34 B.C.T.) get from Mississippi, to California, back to Mississippi, and on to Afghanistan.

While packing my bags, I considered my Minuteman ancestors: Citizen-soldiers who kept a musket at the ready, who could run toward the sound of the guns, at moment's notice.

Me? I can be spontaneous--I just have to plan ahead to get that way. Apparently, so does today's National Guard: It took me about 12 hours, getting travel orders published and airline tickets purchased. It was like a red tape scavenger hunt, with me doing laps around the state headquarters building.

But here I am. In Mississippi. Where I'll see friends and colleagues to whom I said good-bye just last week. (I imagine plenty of double-takes and handshakes in the TOC.) We'll catch up on current operations, and wait a few weeks say our good-byes again. Meanwhile, I can help get them a little further down the road to Afghanistan.

Another day, another change, another mission.


09 August 2010

Getting Off the Bus

It's time I tell you something ...

After months of mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and fiscal preparation for deployment to Afghanistan, I didn't get on the bus.

I will not be deploying to Afghanistan with 2-34th Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division. Today marks the last unit send-off from Iowa, and I'm not going with them.

A rule regarding my pending 20-year-mark and subsequent retirement was reinterpreted by Big Army, and I'll most likely be leaving uniformed service in December. I will continue to be a member of the Iowa Army National Guard until then.

Yes, I was surprised by this turn of events. So was my family. And we're all a little conflicted about it. It quite literally came down to the hour I was to throw my duffel bags on the truck. "Everybody get your bags on the truck--hold on there, Sherpa, not so fast!"

It's hard to change family focus and plans so quickly. Hard to see one's buddies go off to war. Hard not to feel left behind.

At the same time, it's hard not to feel like I've suddenly have been given my life back. I can re-focus on my civilian career. I can witness my daughter's first days of kindergarten. I can watch my 3-year-old son grow inch by inch, day by day, and word by word. My wife says that my not leaving is blessing to our family, but she is kind enough not to say it around me.

This deployment has been an emotional bungie jump for me and my family. We have fallen and bounced and twisted with a hundred unexpected jolts. A number of you have asked how I ended up telling my kids that I would be leaving them for a year. The truth is, my procrastination now seems like genius--my children need not know that Daddy was once going away, until they are old enough to read and understand this blog.

I plan to continue writing the Red Bull Rising blog, partly to help collect and capture this latest chapter in 34th Infantry Division history. It is a wonderfully storied unit, and my friends and colleagues will be writing history. I can only hope to help them write it all down.

In the coming months, I should also have expanded opportunities to share ideas on how we can all help "remember, support, and celebrate" our citizen-soldiers, veterans, and their families. I'll also continue to explain and illuminate how our National Guard soldiers are pursuing their Afghan missions.

Thank you for reading Red Bull Rising. I hope you'll continue this journey with me. I hope that you will continue to think good thoughts, and pray for the safe return of the Red Bull.

In the meantime, tomorrow is another day, and, well ...

Let's just say I haven't told you everything yet.

05 August 2010

Keep on Trucking

Knowing Archer, he's not counting sheep when he racks out for sleep these days--he's counting trucks.

Archer has been living a logistician's dream this week: There's been a constant convoy of civilian semi-trailer trucks loading up our Army equipment for the move to Mississippi.

"A lot of people in the country don't even know there's a war on," Archer says, "but the American Trucker does."

Iowans know, too. Our highways have been thick with commercial buses packed with troops, and semi-trailers pregnant with Humvees and Hemmets. The Red Bull is on the move again.

The load-out is a family affair, with an Alabama mom-and-pop team directing traffic and driving vehicles off the loading ramps. One of the employees looks to be barely driving age, but is fearless driving a wide Humvee onto a semi-trailer. "I've never been this far away from Alabama before," he says. "Can you find arrowheads around here?"

Archer chats up the truckmaster, and starts talking low-boys and short-tons and turnarounds and travel times. Patting his pockets, the truckmaster doesn't have any business cards left. "I just handed my card out to 120 truck drivers," he smiles.

One trucker, a Vietnam-era Marine, says it's too bad we can't just use the equipment that's already over there. He's just talking as a taxpayer now. If he were going, he admits, he'd want everything he could get his hands on. Lord knows he couldn't get enough of anything in Vietnam, he says.

I tell him not to worry, that a lot of the stuff we're hauling won't make it to Afghanistan. The Army makes sure soldiers get the latest-and-greatest equipment, and unarmored Humvees--to name just one example--aren't much in military style anymore. We'll send only what we need overseas--stuff that isn't already over there--and send the rest back home to Iowa when the time comes.

If you're at a truckstop or rest area sometime, and come across a commercial driver who's hauling military equipment, tell him or her thanks: They've got patriotism by the mile. And the truckload.

04 August 2010

Convoy Communications 2.0

The bus ride from the middle of Iowa to Camp Shelby apparently takes about 16 hours, judging by this week's "radio traffic" on Facebook. The brigade has been moving out, piece by piece, unit by unit, on a nearly daily schedule.

Watching the Facebook news feeds has been a little like eavesdropping on the radio, with my fellow soldiers conversing between buses. Sometimes, they're even on the same bus.

Messages such as "I'm so glad that dog-and-pony send-off ceremony is over" to "Welcome to Camp Shelby, where there is no gravity, but everything sucks," clued me in to where people are on the map. Time between "dog-and-pony" to "Camp Shelby" message? Approximately 16 hours.

When I first learned how to do stateside convoy operations, we maintained communications via our FM radios. We were lucky to get a few miles out of them, from front of our first serial (or "stick) of vehicles, to the middle of our convoy. To talk from the front to the rear of our entire battalion, we'd have to relay messages, like a big game of tactical "telephone."

"Bravo-Tree-Six, THIS IS Bravo-Four-One. I have contact with Bravo-Two-Four. I will relay your message, OVER."

"ROGER, Bravo-Four-One, THIS Bravo-Tree-Six. What is Bravo-Two-Four's location and rate-of-march, OVER?"

And so on.

It helped pass the time, I guess. And the miles.

Some 20 years ago, on my first convoy move, our battalion had three sticks moving eastbound through my old stomping grounds in Eastern Iowa. There is/was a confusing split between Interstates 74 and 80. The unit was supposed to stay on Interstate 80.

Suddenly, some convoy-leading lieutenant--yes, I still remember his name; no, I'm not going to tell it right now--gets on the horn. His message over the radio sounds like something out of an old M.A.S.H. TV episode: "My location is ... I am passing a Red Lobster ... right ... NOW!"

As most of the radio net was laughing at the young officer's inappropriate choice of landmarks--identifying a mile marker or intersection would have been more useful--I realized something else. For many years, I lived in this particularly part of Eastern Iowa, and I knew this:

There is no Red Lobster located on Interstate 80.

The lieutenant, in other words, was mis-oriented and headed south, both figuratively and literally.

I tell that story not only because is sounds like Maj. Frank Burns fiasco, but because those days are pretty much over. During our travel up to Camp Ripley, Minn., for this year's Annual Training, most of our vehicles did not have FM radios installed. Instead, our company commander and his lieutenants tried to communicate via civilian civilian cell phones, because that's all they had. The problem was, no phone is loud enough to hear or talk over the noise of a Humvee engine. And putting your phone on "vibrate" doesn't work, either, because--believe me--the Humvee vibrates way more than your phone.

Downrange and in country, most of our vehicles will have Blue Force Tracker (B.F.T.) devices installed. We use a dismounted BFT device in the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") in order to track the whereabouts of each vehicle in near-real-time. The position of each BFT-capable vehicle updates via Global Positioning System (G.P.S.) refreshes every few minutes, and is displayed on a map as a little blue dot or square. In Army terms, "Blue Force" is friendly; "Red Force" is bad guys.

We can also use BFT to text-message among vehicles and the TOC. It's great technology: Great for putting your finger on nearly everyone's location on the battlefield. Great for reaching out and touching people: "Hey, you're turning your convoy the wrong way!"

Then again, troops using Blue Force Tracker will never land a war story like the "Great Red Lobster Turnaround."

03 August 2010

Traveling Light

On my very first Annual Training with Iowa National Guard, back in 1992, our Army communications battalion drove Humvees for two-and-a-half days--stopping to rest at two "overnight halts"--all the way to Camp Shelby, Miss.

As a new soldier, I didn't realize that such a large-scale, long-haul mission was so unique. Subsequent Annual Training missions were more likely to take us only a long-day's-drive away.

For example, when I joined a combat Engineer unit that used tracked Armored Personnel Carriers (A.P.C.), we'd either have our APCs hauled by other National Guard units specializing in Transportation--Army semi-truck drivers--or we'd borrow equipment from a motorpool at Fort McCoy, Wis. Think of the latter as an Avis or Budget rental service run by Uncle Sam: "Sir, will you be returning that M113 with a full tank of gas, or will you want us to fuel it for you?"

Just because our tracked equipment couldn't be driven on the highways, however, didn't mean that we couldn't be. We packed into our remaining Humvees and drove ourselves to where we needed to go.

When I was transferred to a "light" Infantry unit, however, we didn't even have enough organic Humvees and trucks to transport all our personnel and equipment. (In Army terms, "light" means that you're capable of walking everywhere.) That meant that most of our soldiers bussed back and forth to Annual Training.

So at least the Infantry guys in our brigade are trained up on how to cram themselves and their backpacks into a can, so that they can be bussed cross-country. To mash together an Army training rule-of-thumb with an old Greyhound slogan: "Fight like you train, train like you fight. And leave the driving to us."

Still, I'm not looking forward to the bus trip to Afghanistan ...

02 August 2010

Scenes from a Send-Off Ceremony

The vibe at a unit send-off ceremony is like a funeral, a graduation, and a wedding all rolled into one, except that there isn't as much beer involved.

Don't believe me? Consider this: There are bagpipes, there is marching, and the National Anthem is played. From where I come from, that's halfway to a party right there.

Here's how it went down for me:

First, there was freakish line in the sky immediately preceding our brigade headquarters' official send-off ceremony last Friday. It seriously went from black to blacker in 60 seconds flat, and dumped Biblical amounts of water on Boone, Iowa: Flash-flood, dogs-and-cats, use-your-seat-as-a-floatation-device while you hydroplane-at-highway-speeds weather.

I'd like to report that it got sunnier after that, but it would be more accurate to say that the rain stopped. It was misty and cloudy and almost muggy. Perfect weather to match my overall mood.

The ceremony took place indoors, thank goodness. A volunteer group of Iowa bagpipers marched the Headquarters Company troops into the auditorium. Greetings were offered. The National Anthem was played. Salutes were rendered. Words were said, and prayers offered. Most of all, past-tense was used.

I've become increasingly convinced that that send-offs aren't as much for the people who are being sent-off, as they are for the people doing the sending. It's important for mom and dad, spouse and kids, friends and family to mark the time and place of their loved one's departure.

The ceremony was over in about 30 minutes, even with the 7-minute standing ovation the troops received as they marched in. The troops grabbed their rucksacks and duffel bags as they left the building, and started stuffing the gear into the bellies of the buses.

There was plenty of time to say good-bye. Almost too much.

Since I didn't have family there, I played my usual part of court jester, cracking jokes and shaking hands and chatting with anybody who seemed to want to chat. I also took some pictures for folks, so the whole family could get into frame.

Later, I realized it had felt a little like emotional triage site. You couldn't focus on people too long or deeply, because you might end up crying yourself.

There were the girlfriends and boyfriends saying good-bye with death-grip hugs and kisses. Forehead to forehead, couples tuned out world for as long as they could.

There were the geographic bachelors, the guys and gals who just reported into the unit. "Yeah, I just introduced myself to the commander," one soldier muttered to me, shaking his head. Imagine parachuting into the deployment to become the one guy on the bus who doesn't know anyone else.

One buddy of mine was getting on the bus. He'd injured his back, and the Army wanted to evaluate him medically when he gets to Camp Shelby, Miss. Another buddy of mine wasn't getting on the bus. He'd also injured his back, but the Army had told him that they wanted all medical evaluations be complete prior to travel to Camp Shelby. He'd told his parents not to come to the send-off, because he wouldn't be getting on the bus that day. They came anyway.

There were new fathers, huge with pride, cradling tiny babies.

There was a family of four in a prayer huddle, facing inward and toward each other, standing two steps from the door of the bus. It was like an island of calm in a sea of T-shirts and duffel bags.

I saw one mother struggle to keep her three kids focused on looking for Dad through the windows of the bus, while the kids struggled not to focus on the fact that Dad was leaving for a year. I thought about what the walk to the car would be like for her. Or the drive home.

The send-off ceremony is part of a mental and emotional transition from civilian to soldier. After all the standing in line, hearing the pipes, loading the bus, and saying good-byes? At some point, troops just want to get on the bus:

Let's do this thing. Let's get this deployment over, so I can come back. Let's roll.