29 October 2010

Getting Embed

AUGUST 2010:

I am home from my boomerang trips between Camp Shelby, Miss. and Camp Dodge, Iowa.

In the months following news of my non-deployment, I've been on temporary active duty doing my small part to help the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT) hopscotch from Camp Ripley, Minn.; to Camp Shelby, Miss.; to Fort Irwin, Calif, to Afghanistan.

To my team leader, I float the idea of using some accrued vacation time to go out to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. I figure that, on my own time and my own dime, I can continue some of the work I've been doing on lessons-learned and unit history.

My supervisor asks, a little shocked: "Why would you do that?!"

I am surprised at his surprise. I stumble around for an answer that doesn't sound crazier than the idea itself. No one, apparently, has ever requested or volunteered to go to Fort Irwin.

"Well, I don't know ... Maybe I can help out the brigade Public Affairs Officer, by writing newsletter copy or role-playing as embedded media," I say. "And, while I'm at it, maybe I'll work on a biography the brigade commander." I am being more sincere than sarcastic.

He's quiet for a minute, then says that he'll work it up the chain of command. From his fazed and dazed reaction I'm pretty sure the idea isn't going anywhere.

A day later, my supervisor tells me that he's pitched the idea to the boss. "He doesn't think we can let you do what you were talking about," my supervisor says. My turn to be shocked. I didn't think the answer would be so quick. Or definitive.

"Why not? It's my own time, isn't it?"

"Yeah. It's just that he'd feel more comfortable, in terms of insurance and travel, if you were covered by official orders. Write up a budget justification for him, but you're being ordered to go to Fort Irwin."

Uncle Sam works in strange and mysterious ways. And, once again, I'm along for the ride.

28 October 2010

Have Vest, Will Travel

"Are you a U.S citizen?" (Yes.)

"Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" (No.)

"Do you treat your mother right?" (WHAT?!)

Steve at BulletProofME.com of Austin, Texas, gives me a second hanging on the phone before letting me off the hook. "Believe it or not," he says, "I once asked that of a customer, and he not only answered 'yes,' but put his mother on the line, just to prove it."

After giving Steve more-humbling body measurements than I'd have needed to rent a tuxedo, I have just spent a substantial portion of this year's contribution to the Sherpa kids' college fund. I have purchased a bulletproof vest. A decidedly non-camouflaged, coyote-brown vest. One featuring a Kevlar lining that will stop small-caliber rounds and shrapnel, and capable of carrying thick ceramic plates that will stop a 7.62mm rifle round.

These are, of course, features I hope only to read about, and never to test myself.

It's less of an investment, and more of a statement. It's a commitment, a financial declaration that I'm about to try something that is either the most inspired thing I've ever done, or the most insipid: I'm about to try to follow my Red Bull buddies to Afghanistan, not as a citizen-soldier, but as a 100-percent citizen.

My kid brother doesn't understand this impulse, and asks whether I'm doing it for my buddies, or doing it for myself. The honest answer, I have to tell him, is both.

I'm a Journalism-school-trained reporter, but I left the newsprint grind years ago. For many years, I've been more at home with cushier magazine jobs, discussing trendy house-paint colors, how to remodel your kitchen on a budget, and landscape lighting techniques. A J-school professor of mine once punned that such "service" journalism was more like "surface journalism," but hey--it's helped keep a well-maintained roof over my family's head.

Besides, not all journalists can write about bringing the heat and light of democracy to the world--or can we?

I started the Red Bull Rising blog to help my kids understand, in later years, why Daddy had to leave them for a year of their young lives.

But, after more than 20 years wearing a U.S. Army uniform, I also know the National Guard deserves a little service journalism of its own. After all, I also started the blog to help tell the National Guard story, to explain and illuminate how much we, as a nation, have asked of our friends and neighbors in uniform.

We have asked these citizen-soldiers to drop their plows and their play-dates, to pick up their muskets, and to run toward the sounds of distant guns. We have asked them to re-make a foreign nation in our own image, to train and support a national government where none exists. And, given the number of right-sleeve combat patches seen in the ranks of the Red Bull, we have asked them to do this repeatedly.

So ponying up a few bucks for some personal protection seems like the least I could do.

If not for my peace of mind, at least for my mother's.

27 October 2010

Chatting Up the Patch

This post was written earlier in September:

It was only after three people at the airport asked me whether I was "coming or going" that I realized what was going on. People just wanted to whether I was traveling in the direction of home or Afghanistan.

In an attempt to avoid too many questions about why I had body armor in my personal luggage, I was traveling in uniform. Tropical storms and tornadoes had socked Dallas/Fort Worth in the eye, and I was transferred between airlines. I believe the industry term is "walking the ticket," but from where I was, it looked a whole lot more like a full-on sprint.

Given that my ultimate destination was Camp Shelby, Miss., I decided my canned response to "coming or going" should be: "Going. But only halfway." I also reveled in the potential double-meaning, given this summer's news that I was off the deployment bus.

I can think pretty fast, you see, but that's only if I've thought ahead. Start pushing me toward a plane that isn't headed where I think I should be headed, and this particular Red Bull becomes a balky calf. As the aircraft door hit me in the backside, and I searched out the seat the gate agent swore was waiting for me, I'm sure I looked to my fellow passengers like the proverbial cow in the headlights.

Civilians in the Camp Shelby area now recognize the Red Bull patch we wear on our left shoulders, and will chat soldiers up about life back in Iowa. I've also had Red Bull veterans and families introduce themselves in airport coffee shops and gate areas.

It gets a little more problematic when people comment on the right-shoulder patch. Generally, a soldier who has deployed to a "combat zone" can wear the patch of the unit with which he or she "went to war." Even if the soldier transfers units, the right-shoulder patch will stay the same.

So, quick lesson-learned for making airport small-talk here: Look for the patch, ask about it, and you'll find a friend. Most soldiers take pride in their units, and where they've been deployed.

My own "combat patch"--I'm getting a little cheeky here, for reasons I'm about to tell you--is a little more problematic, conversationally. First, I was awarded the badge for a peacekeeping mission. You know how "military intelligence" is a contradiction in terms? Try wearing "a combat patch for peacekeeping duty."

(There's a related line from Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," about wearing a peace symbol on one's helmet: "I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man [...] The Jungian thing, sir.")

Second, I wear the patch of the XVIII Airborne Corps. Jokingly referred to as the "Gagging Dragon," it features the profile of a ferocious-looking, spear-spewing lizard. A separate "Airborne" tab tops the patch.

If I wore the same tab on my left shoulder, it would signal that I was in a unit that jumps out of perfectly good aircraft. If I wore a parachutist's badge over my "U.S. Army," it would indicate that I'd individually been trained to do just that, and, in the process, lived at least three times to tell the story.

At the airport, people sometimes see the "Airborne" tab on my right-shoulder and ask me about jumping out of perfectly good aircraft. I hope that I don't disappoint them--I'm not "Airborne," and I'm certainly not an "Airborne Ranger." (A "Ranger" tab is a Whole 'Nother Animal.") I'm a soldier, not a "death from above" paratrooper.

Recently, a buddy told me what the active-duty soldiers call someone who isn't Airborne-qualified, but still wears an Airborne tab as part of a unit or combat patch:

"You're a 'penguin,'" he informed me. "You're a flightless bird!"

26 October 2010

Building Character

I need to reveal a little more of my personal and professional history, to help put some upcoming Red Bull Rising posts in context.

First, however, I apologize that I continue to use a pseudonym. Given that both Army and unit policy toward blogging has become more clear and more concrete since I started Red Bull Rising, I maintain the pseudonym less now for privacy reasons, and more to help maintain a bright line between my civilian activities and my soldierly duties.

That, and some readers think it's sexy--I'll get to that in a minute.

Although I am no longer deploying with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division to Afghanistan, I continue to have an active uniformed role in its mobilization. It's not a big role, but I try to do my part--it is, after all, the life of a Sherpa.

Despite occasional bouts of doubt and despair, I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to keep current with my Red Bull buddies, even if it has only been for a few extra weeks following Mobilization-Day.

In the past couple of months, I've encountered readers who prefer not knowing exactly who or what Sherpa is. ("I'm really disappointed that you're not really a romance novelist," one blogger colleague told me, upon learning my true identity and occupation. "Either that, or a spy.") Despite my best intentions--that Red Bull Rising would finally fuse together my civilian and military lives, to explain 20 years of "citizen-soldier" duality to friends and family--Sherpa has become a character in his own play.

In this, I suppose, Sherpa finds himself in the cartoonish company of Willie and Joe, Sad Sack, and Beetle Bailey. Of Delta Bravo Sierra, Private Murphy, and the Red Rascal. He's in the wrong places at the right times, or the right places at the wrong times. He has enough rank to not get messed with too much, but not enough to be dangerous to himself or others. He's a student of history, but is mostly self-taught.

Obviously, he still writes about himself in the third-person.

Because he's retiring from the Iowa National Guard in December, Sherpa needs to find himself a new job. If he's going to continue to write the current history of the Red Bull, he needs a different role. In short, he needs a new perspective. So here goes:

My name is Charlie Sherpa. Not only am I a proud citizen-soldier, I'm also a journalist.

As such, I plan to do more writing on the Red Bull past and present, even as I transition out of uniformed service.

"Have pen, will travel."

25 October 2010

Who's Who in the Red Bull Zoo

Friends and family (and media) who are less familiar with military organizations are often puzzled as to how the various pieces and parts of the Red Bull fit together. With more than 3,000 soldiers, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) is a large, multi-faceted and multi-functional organization.

While I plan someday to discuss individual unit histories in more detail (to include the meanings behind all the pretty colored flags), what follows is a quick primer on each of the battalions comprising the brigade.

The 2-34th BCT is typically composed of three battalion-sized "maneuver" or "warfighting" units, and three supporting units. The maneuver units are:

1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.). Headquartered in Waterloo, Iowa, with subordinate units located throughout the eastern portions of the state.

1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168th Inf.). Headquartered in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with subordinate units located throughout the western portions of the state.

1st Squadron, 113 Cavalry Regiment (RSTA) (1/113th Cav.), Headquartered in Sioux City, Iowa, with company-level units in western and central portions of the state. Cavalry units, by the way, call their company-size units "troops," and their battalion-size units "squadrons."

In addition to its maneuver battalions normally assigned to the brigade, the Nebraska Army National Guard's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134 Cav.) has been attached to Task Force Red Bulls. This unit is headquartered in Hastings, Neb.

Under the modular brigade concept, a brigade combat team also controls units capable of providing the artillery, communications, logistics, and other functions required to keep maneuver units "shooting, moving, and communicating."

In the 2-34th B.C.T., these roles are fulfilled by:

1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery (1/194th F.A.), headquartered in Fort Dodge, Iowa. While the Field Artillery branch of the U.S. Army is considered a combat arms ("warfighting") function, its role on the battlefield is always in support. After all, one does not take and hold territory with artillery, one pulverizes it. Company-size artillery units are called "batteries," by the way.

While sufficient numbers of 1/194th FA soldiers are deploying to Afghanistan to consider much of the unit deployed, at least as far as Army historians are concerned, its officers and soldiers were spread throughout the remainder of the brigade task force.

2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 34th Infantry Division (2/34th B.S.T.B.). Headquartered in Cedar Rapids, this battalion is a collection of technically specialized companies, including engineering, intelligence, and communications. In a unique wrinkle, the 2-34th BCT headquarters company is also administratively and logistically supported by the 2/34th BSTB.

334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.). Headquartered in Johnston, Iowa, is a collection of units specializing in logistics, maintenance, and medical services.

BONUS ROUND: I often field questions from Red Bull families about how to "decode" their soldiers' mailing addresses. ("I thought my soldier was a member of X unit," for example, "what's all this other stuff mean?" Or "Is this the right Facebook page for Y unit? I thought my soldier was in the Red Bulls, but now I'm not sure.") Though multiple attempts at explanation, I've come across this as a helpful way of thinking out things:

A military organization is like a mailing address, starting with house number, and then on to street, town, state, country, etc.

Using this analogy, "A CO, 1/168 IN, 2-34 BCT" can be thought of (and decoded) as "Alpha Company [house], 1st Battalion [street], 168th Infantry Regiment [town], 2nd Brigade Combat Team [state], 34th Infantry Division [country]."

It also explains why saying "my soldier is in Charlie Company" might be a little like saying "I live at 123 Anystreet." People won't know where you live until they get more information--a more detailed "address."

All this military-address stuff might still look like gobbledegook, of course, but perhaps it makes it easier to understand?

22 October 2010

Omaha World-Herald Covers Fort Irwin, Calif.

Omaha World-Herald reporter Joseph Morton and photographer Alyssa Schukar embedded with soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division's (2-34th BCT) large-scale wargames at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. earlier this month.

The Nebraska National Guard's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134th Cav.) is deploying as part of the Iowa brigade, and the World-Herald's geographic coverage area also includes western Iowa, regional home of Iowa's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168th Inf.).

Morton's got a light, tongue-in-cheek touch with his pen (or word-processor), while Schukar's got an eye for less-formal, you-are-there shots. Both leave you wanting more; here's hoping that they can embed with the troops downrange, too.

Here are a couple of examples of the Omaha World-Herald's coverage of the Red Bull deployment:

Oct. 10: "Our Troops: Mission Ready" (I particularly like the North Platte Telegraph's alternate headline for this article. They called it, "It takes a village to train a warrior.")

Oct. 10: "Wounds are fake, but intensity is real"

Oct. 10: "Iowa guardsmen ‘own the roads’ so that comrades can get supplies"

Oct. 11: "Guard thinks outside box"

21 October 2010

Des Moines Register Covers Fort Irwin, Calif.

The Des Moines (Iowa) Register also embedded a reporter-photographer team with soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division earlier this month. More than 3,000 Iowa and Nebraska soldiers were participating in large-scale wargames at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. prior to moving out to Afghanistan.

Editorial comment: While I wasn't born here, I grew up and graduated high school in Iowa. (Full-disclosure: In my school daze, I technically once worked for the Gannett Corp., the newspaper's current owner.) I remember when The Des Moines Register ran an editorial cartoon on its front page, and printed its Sunday edition on peach-color newsprint, and featured homegrown and corn-fed wordsmiths such as Donald Kaul, Chuck Offenburger, John Carlson, and Ken Fuson.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, I've been extremely impressed with the quantity and quality of The Register's coverage of the Red Bull's upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. (In fact, I think the newspaper is generally improved, despite repeated budget- and staff-cuts in recent years.) No doubt that's due to someone higher-up in the newsroom--I'm sorry, that's now called an "information center"--committing precious Gannett dollars. But it's also due to hardworking craftspeople such as Register reporters Tony Leys and Reid Forgrave, and photographer Rodney White.

Look for their bylines, and buy their newspaper. Support the First Amendment by supporting the Fourth Estate. Do it, or I'll use this soapbox on you again.

As always, you can keep up with most of The Des Moines Register's coverage of the Red Bull via the newspaper's "Iowa National Guard" blog.

What follows is a quick summary The Register's coverage of the Red Bull at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. Meanwhile, a special shout-out in praise of White's photographic work (to see slide-show gallery, click here). I've taken the liberty of posting one example above. Even this mil-blogger has to admit: A professional shooter is worth a thousand blog posts.

20 October 2010

KCRG-TV9 Covers Fort Irwin, Calif.

A number of Midwestern media teams embedded during the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's (2-34th BCT) large-scale wargames at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. in late September and early October.

One of those teams was from KCRG-TV9, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Reporter Mark Geary, videographer Dane Firkus, and photographer Jim Slosiarek have been following the Red Bull story since June 2010, when they first visited the brigade during Annual Training at Camp Ripley, Minn. They've previously also visited Camp Shelby, Miss. They're becoming quite the deployment veterans themselves!

For those Red Bull soldiers who were under communications blackout, or who may already be downrange, here's a wrap-up of the KCRG team's coverage of Fort Irwin, Calif. As always, you can keep up with KCRG's coverage at:

(Personally, I've always been a fan of Geary's conversational and insightful "Reporter's notebooks." Be sure to check them out!)

Photo Gallery: 2-34 BCT training at Fort Irwin

Reporter's Notebook, Mon., Sept. 26: Arrival at Fort Irwin, Calif.

Reporter's Notebook., Tues., Sept. 28: Chow Halls and FOBs

Reporter's Notebook, Wed., Sept. 29: Combat Trainers and Conversations

Reporter's Notebook, Thurs., Sept. 30: Realistic Training with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment

Reporter's Notebook, Fri., Oct. 1: Embed's End

Video, Oct. 13, 2010: "Ready to Go"

Video, Oct 13, 2010: "Moon Dust"

Article, Video: "Iowa National Guard Looks Into Soldiers Pay Issues"

Article, Photo: "War is Hell: Intense Realistic Training for Iowa Troops"

Article, Video: "Guard Soldiers Have New Mission: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"

Article, Video: "Care Packages for Iowa National Guard Soldiers"

Video, Oct. 5: "Web Exclusive: Soldiers' Living Quarters"

Article, Video: "No Privacy in Close Quarters for National Guard Solders"

Article, Video: "Practice Eases Stress for National Guard Medics"

19 October 2010

WHO-TV Covers Fort Irwin, Calif.

As mentioned briefly in yesterday's Red Bull Rising post, WHO-TV (Channel 13) Des Moines reporter Sonya Heitshusen and photographer Brandon Bingham spent a couple of hot-hot-hot (!) desert days embedded with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT) earlier this month. The Red Bull soldiers were conducting wargames at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif.

Their reports were far-flung and extensive, ranging from combat convoy operations to unsung heroes such as our transportation and medical soldiers. The feature on reacting to an enemy ambush was particularly well done, in my opinion.

Because various news outlets are posting and collecting reports in different places--you'll find WHO-TV's coverage listed as a "special report" on the station's website--I've taken the liberty of linking to individual reports here:

Video: Fort Irwin, Day 1

Video: "Soldier Training" (The hazards of "moon dust")

Video: "Life on the Forward Operating Base"

Video: "Soldier Spouses, Deployed Together"

Video, article: "Battlefield angels: Iowa National Guard medics train for Afghanistan deployment"

Video: "Iowans at War: Convoy" (334th Brigade Support Battalion operations)

Video: "Iowans at War: Truck Drill" (Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment combat scenario)

Video: "Iowans train for combat"

Video, article: ""Female soldiers: Some female Iowa National Guard soldiers are heading to the front in Afghanistan, but their job isn't to fight the battle"

18 October 2010

'60 Minutes' Covers Eastern Afghanistan

While the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division were under a communications blackout while at Fort Irwin, Calif., the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" featured a story regarding tactical conditions in Eastern Afghanistan.

Titled "A Relentless Enemy," the 13-minute feature focuses on one company of the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division. (Symbols depicted in the report indicate the company is part of 3rd BCT "Rakkasans", 101st Airborne Division.) Operating approximately 15 miles from the Afghan-Pakistan border at Combat Outpost ("COP") Zerok, nearly half of the U.S. troops there have earned Purple Hearts since January.

For the video, click here.

For the transcript, click here.

Coincidentally, Capt. John Hintz, just happens to be from Iowa. His wife and children live in West Des Moines. That connection helped Des Moines Register reporter Tony Leys, who has been following the Red Bull deployment, localize the story. In the Sept. 26, 2010 Des Moines Register, Leys wrote:
Nearly 3,000 Iowa National Guard troops will soon travel to eastern Afghanistan, and some of them will man outposts similar to the one where Hintz and his troops are living. Guard leaders say the Iowa soldiers will be too busy training in California to watch “60 Minutes” tonight. [...]

But many Iowans probably will tune in, and they could see troubling images.

Several thousand civilians live in the 50-mile-by-30-mile region the company is assigned to cover, and most of them seem to support the insurgents, Hintz said. Much of that support probably stems more from fear than from loyalty, he added. The civilians might switch sides if U.S. and Afghan government forces could turn the tide and show they are going to beat the insurgents. But that’s a daunting challenge.

In the past three months, 254 insurgent rockets have hit Hintz’s outpost. The soldiers also face roadside bombs and rifle and machine-gun fire when they head out on foot patrols.

His company’s 110 soldiers have been awarded 40 Purple Hearts for combat injuries since arriving in January. Two of his soldiers died, and several were sent home with serious wounds.
Like my fellow mil-blogger Red-Bull-Six-Bravo, I think it's important that Red Bull friends and family recognize that conditions vary widely across Afghanistan. Expressing concerns about how family and friends will react to the "60 Minutes" report, Six-Bravo writes:
Now I know that none of you are idiots and you know that the media always tends to slant things. I also know that a lot of people are experiencing their first deployments; their first separation from husbands, wives, brothers, parents, etc. In that situation, it’s always easier to believe misrepresentative information, specifically if it’s bad.
I know that part of the reason my wife sent me that article [about the 60 Minutes feature] is because it made her worry even more than she already was. I don’t want that to turn into an epidemic. If you’re worried and don’t know where your soldier is going, ask. More than likely they already know.
I hear what Six-Bravo is saying, but, in this case, I think that the "60 Minutes" report, along with The Des Moines Register's follow-up print story, is relatively clear-eyed and responsible. (I find the coverage similar to the hefty-dose-of-reality "Restrepo," a documentary to be released on DVD in November.) After all, we're not exactly sending our friends and neighbors on a risk-free vacation.

Any military endeavor is inherently risky--that's why we spend so much time and effort focusing on safety, and wearing protective equipment, and training on life-saving skills. Our Red Bull troops will be as safe as possible, but they'll still be in harm's way.

Am I concerned about my Red Bull buddies? Sure. Am I worried? Not so much. Here's an example of why:

At approximately 7:30 to 9:30 minutes into the "60 Minutes" report, one of the Mine-Resistant Armor Protected (MRAP, pronounced "em-rap") vehicles bottoms-out on some rocks. While the troops are recovering the vehicle using a tow-bar, they're ambushed by insurgents who are using machine guns and rocket grenades.

Compare that scenario with a recent training event reported on by WHO-TV Channel 13's Sonya Heitshusen out at Fort Irwin. While recovering an MRAP vehicle, soldiers of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry (D/1/168th Inf.) reacted to an ambush, booby-traps, and taking casualties.

In the WHO-TV report, on-scene trainers described the scenario as "worst-case." Given media reports from downrange in Afghanistan, however, "worst-case" doesn't mean "can't happen." In the months to come in Afghanistan, some Red Bull soldiers may never hear a weapon fired in anger. Others may hear them all too often.

All of them, however, have trained with the right equipment, the right people, and under the right conditions to meet the challenges ahead. Friends and family should remember and take comfort in that, above all else.


17 October 2010

A Little Blog Housekeeping

As promised, the Red Bull Rising blog resumes regular posts tomorrow, Mon., Oct. 18. This follows a communications blackout caused by my participation in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's recent wargames at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif.

The Red Bull is deploying to Afghanistan later this autumn. Initial elements of some units have already deployed overseas directly from Fort Irwin. Others have returned to Camp Shelby, Miss., to await their planes. In the meantime, if they're lucky, they'll get some well-deserved rest and relaxation ("R&R").

This week, the Red Bull Rising blog will spotlight the extensive midwestern media coverage of the brigade's Fort Irwin experiences. Later this month, it will branch off into a more personal narrative. After all, there are lots of Red Bull stories to tell from the California desert, but first, I have to tell you how I got there ...

15 October 2010

Sherpa the Friendly Ghost

Written sometime in September 2010, Camp Shelby, Miss.: I know this violates Sherpa's Deployment Rules Nos. 1 and 2: "Never complain," and "Never Compare the Suck." But I'm tired of the Army, tired of Camp Shelby, tired of packing and unpacking. Tired of my hotel room that smells of stale tobacco smoke. Tired of these lumpy sheets. Tired of eating bad food, when I feel like eating at all. Tired of the Mississippi humidity, and the air-conditioning unit that is one step past the "denial" stage of mechanical failure.

Mostly, I'm tired of missing my wife and kids. Tired of imagining their voices, and then not being able to hear them clearly across the crackle and pop of a cell phone. Unlike a distant radio telephone operator (R.T.O.), you can't tell a kindergartner to "I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. SAY AGAIN, Honey, ALL AFTER 'Hamster.' Who got a hamster?!"

Household-6 reminds me not to look the proverbial Cavalry horse in mouth: Earlier this summer, suddenly learning that I would not deploy to Afghanistan was an emotional shock to the family, as well as a potential financial one. That my Iowa National Guard superiors asked me to help push the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division (2-34 BCT) out the door as a non-deploying soldier was both backhanded compliment and a blessing.

It hasn't all been honeymoon and roses, however.

I'm currently on my third trip to Mississippi. At first, I felt like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I'd suddenly appear in a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) or a chow hall, and my buddies would give me a familiar nod before I'd see a wider recognition pass across their eyes. "Waitaminut," I see them thinking, "Sherpa isn't supposed to be here."

It was fun the first couple of times. Now, it's just heartbreaking. Because instead of Casper, my now-you-see-me-now-you-don't existence is more like reruns of Quantum Leap. Or Beetlejuice. Or Quantum Leap. Every time I shake your hand and say good-bye, it might just be the last time I see you.

My buddies invited me over to the barracks to play dominoes one night. Most of them were getting ready to jump from the frying pan of Mississippi into the fire of the California desert. We stayed up too late, but, to me, it was worth it. I'll miss the boredom and I'll miss the action, but mostly, I'll miss my buddies.

Still, we'll always have Camp Shelby.