30 November 2010

Playing Combat Doctor on TV

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 27--The media circus has successfully hopped from Forward Operating Base ("FOB") Denver to FOB King, where tomorrow morning we'll split up and hitchhike to opposite ends of the battlefield. The visiting TV crews have milked the remaining desert daylight to record their first video postcards home, and now we're stumbling around the logistical hub of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) in search of some more stories before bedtime.

FOB King is the temporary National Training Center home to the 334th Brigade Support Battalion, a unit comprising the brigade's transporters, maintainers, and medical professionals in its respective "Alpha," "Bravo," and "Charlie" companies.

The medical company, affectionately known as "Charlie-Med," is one level of care up from the "aid stations" found in the warfighting battalions. Out there, the medical mission is to patch 'em up good enough to get them here. There's a pharmacy here, and an X-ray machine. In addition to trauma specialists, Charlie-Med also has behavioral-health and physical-therapy professionals on staff. If they can't fix you here, they stabilize you and get you as fast as they can to an even higher-care hospital.

We roll into Charlie-Med's emergency room to find nothing but bright lights, clean floors, and a crew ready to go off-shift. The medics are game, however, to run through an impromptu full-speed training event while on camera. "It'll be hard to go back to 'real world,'" one of the journalists says later. "There's a story every step out here. Back home, we have to chase them."

Staff Sgt. Laura Schlitz of Osceola volunteers to be the patient, a simulated lower leg amputation. Looking on as the cameras are rolling, Staff Sgt. Jessica Beswick winces and chuckles with every needle stick that's attempted on her colleague. "She's so small, they're having a hard time finding a vein," the Iowa City soldier explains. "It's good training, particularly for working on Afghan patients."

After the simulation, one of the journalists asks a hard question, one about the possibility of losing patients.

"We tell people we do everything we can do," says Capt. Sean Bigler, a physician's assistant from McCook Lake, S.D. Bigler is in charge of the team receiving this evening's simulated patient. "We try to give them hope, we try to give them the faith that we will do everything that we can do to help them." It is a moment of realism and reflection, but one that quickly evaporates with a cheerful, confident smile.

That smile persists, by the way, even after Bigler realizes that his cherished University of Nebraska flag--he's a graduate--has been reversed by some Charlie-Med pranksters. Someone observes that Husker handwriting looks an awful lot like prescription pad scribbles.

For the record, Bigler says that, for show purposes, he would've chosen a different patient. "We should have gotten one of those big, beefy Midwestern Guys. We could've rolled him around the dirt and gotten him messy," says the doc. He nods toward the cameras, eyes gleaming. "Of course, what I really want to do is direct ... Doesn't everyone?"


Want to see more of this training event? Check out print and video stories from KCRG-TV9/The Cedar Rapids Gazette here, and from WHO-TV13 here.

29 November 2010

Afghan Trainer: Values More Important than Tactics

Editor’s note: In 2007, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Courter and 15 other Illinois National Guard soldiers deployed to an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) mission in the Wor Mamay district, Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Along with three other ETT members, he helped mentor a company of 35 Afghan Border Police (A.B.P.).

Since his deployment, Courter, now an Illinois National Guard recruiter and part-time seminary student, Courter has continued to wrestle with questions and insights he gathered in Afghanistan.

In 2008, he self-published his “Afghan Journal” notes as a book (available as paperback and in Amazon Kindle format), and continues to blog at: www.lifeloveandtruth.com.

Red Bull Rising invited Courter to share his thoughts with the recently deployed soldiers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division. Some Red Bull soldiers will directly mentor Afghan police and army units. Others will fight alongside and support them.


By Jeff Courter
To be effective at “how” we fight, we should begin with “why.” Some warriors emphasize tactics, and ignore the reasons we’re on the battlefield in the first place--as if they’re independent variables. They’re not. The right values can be the greatest tactical advantage of all, especially in Afghanistan. That’s because soldiers--whether U.S. or Afghan--will fight harder and longer when motivated for the right reasons.

Young soldiers may roll their eyes when old warhorse NCOs trot out the seven Army Values--“Loyalty. Duty. Respect. Selfless Service. Honor. Integrity. Personal Courage.” But face it: Values work. They work for individuals, as well as entire armies.

Sharing these principles with our Afghan colleagues is mission-critical.

Granted, progress may not be swift. It may even span generations. Whether you frame this conflict as multiple small wars--or a single very long one--the road to constructive, sustainable change won’t be straight, and can’t be hurried. Our enemies are patient, committed and ruthless. We must be patient, committed, and valorous.

Not all of your new Afghan colleagues may share your values or professionalism, but that shouldn’t deter you. Let your actions do the talking, no matter your assignment or situation. To paraphrase General Petraeus:
“Regular training teams can’t be everywhere, so units must help enforce local military standards, enable performance, and monitor for abuses and inefficiencies. Any coalition unit working with local security forces will be studied, emulated and copied--for better or worse. Therefore, we must always set the example. Any coalition unit operating alongside local security forces is performing a mentoring, training, and example-setting role.”
Think of Afghanistan as the Wild West. Think of the Taliban as a bunch of outlaws. And recognize that most Afghans are innocent townspeople, who just want to stay out of the line of fire.

During my tour, our larger mission was to secure the area from Taliban activities. We conducted hundreds of “presence patrols” among local villages. The ABP always joined us, to “put an Afghan face” on our operations. They were also there to learn first-hand how persistent police visibility can disrupt insurgent activities.

When our convoys rolled in and our ABP colleagues offered food, clothing, school supplies and medical assistance, villagers often greeted us warmly. But cautious tribal elders sometimes tempered their response, for fear of Taliban reprisals. Chieftains explained that Taliban fighters would steal into their villages at night and threaten them with violence. Some elders even spoke in hushed tones, fearful of being overheard.

Once, we circled back to a village that we had visited only days before. Surprisingly, we found a ghost town. While there, our unit repelled an ambush from an overlooking hill.
Later, we learned that Taliban fighters had stormed the village after our initial visit, demanding payment from the chieftain. When he refused, they threatened to kill him on the spot--until he placed a Quran on the ground and claimed that their actions violated Islam.

The thugs backed off, but promised to kill him if he and his family remained. That night, he packed his belongings and led his entire village to a distant hamlet. The Taliban simply waited for our return to the village, assuming we would investigate reports of its abandonment.

In many ways, the real enemy in Afghanistan is fear. The Taliban feed on it. But by demonstrating our values, by protecting people, and by “closing with and destroying” the bad guys, we deny our enemies an environment where fear can grow. It all begins with a spirit of trust.

When a seasoned U.S. law enforcement officer visited our Forward Operating Base ("FOB"), he emphasized the importance of gaining trust from the local community. Here’s his two-pronged approach:
  • Give local Afghans a reason to believe that, whenever they share intelligence, you’ll respond as quickly and decisively as possible. It’s not about arriving immediately every time you’re called. That’s unrealistic. Rather, it’s about proving, over time, that you’ll strive to do your best when needed.
  • Police can’t fight crime everywhere, simultaneously. So, when your resources are assigned to a specific area, stay focused on that area. Take control of territory you hold, and deny the enemy an opportunity to move freely in that space. It’s less about eliminating the Taliban altogether, and more about stopping them from operating in your local environment. Eventually, they’ll move on.
Bottom line: It’s not rocket science. It’s about walking a beat. It’s about making people feel safe, because you’re there when it matters.

Let me tell you about one day when it mattered:

Early one morning at our FOB, there was a commotion at the front gate, as a young man sought medical assistance for his very pregnant wife. Their young son had accidentally shot his mother with an AK-47. The bullet had ripped a hole through her abdomen, and intestines were spilling from her side.

Our medic was in his early 20s. Although he’d been trained to treat combat wounds when emotions are running high, he wasn’t prepared for this. As we waited for a MEDEVAC helicopter to airlift the woman to a hospital, “Doc” did his best to stabilize his patient. Language and cultural norms were a huge problem. Whenever Doc uncovered part of the woman's body, her husband rapidly covered it back up. Eventually, Doc blindly bandaged the wound from beneath a blanket.

The clock was ticking. Time was running out. The woman was nine months pregnant, and both she and her baby were in critical condition. Family members began to argue about whether she should be left to die at home, rather than being evacuated. Our ABP trainees stood-by throughout, ensuring crowd control and helping to maintain calm.

An hour later, the chopper swooped down and left in a cloud of dust, lifting its precious cargo along with our hopes and prayers. Later that afternoon, we received a radio update – mother and child were fine. We rejoiced along with the ABP. Their commander thanked us, insisting that our actions proved to local villagers that “America is good!”

That day, values mattered. That day, we scored a victory, without firing a single shot. We beat the devil at his own game. And we helped a woman and her baby cheat death.

Along the way, we forged a new level of trust.

It was glorious.

26 November 2010

Transitions, Transitions

Benjamin Franklin once famously said, "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."

The same thing goes for replacement troops.

When the new guys come to town to take over a mission, the Army calls it a "RIP-TOA" (pronounced "rip-towah"). The conjoined-acronym stands for a "Relief in Place" and "Transfer of Authority."

In theory, there's supposed to be plenty of time scheduled for a "left-seat, right-seat" ride, when the old guys show the new guys around. They drive their successors around for a few days, introducing them to the people with whom they'll be working. Then, they take the proverbial right-hand seat, answering any remaining questions, and let the new guy drive.

In practice, however, there's not always time enough for a good transition. The Army Transportation Fairy is a fickle beast, for example. There are plenty of war stories about replacements shaking hands with their predecessors while passing on the tarmac. One gets off the aircraft, the other gets on. Sometimes, they don't meet at all.

Of course, you can have too much togetherness, too.

"It's like having family over for an extended holiday dinner," brigade commander Col. Ben Corell warned his staff back in August, while his 2nd Brigade Command Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division had not even yet left for Afghanistan. "They're going to be looking at us thinking we're all dorked up and never going to get it right, and we're going to be looking at them wishing they would just leave so that we can get on with doing this mission."

Iowa National Guard spokespeople have said the Red Bull would be in place not later than Thanksgiving. Recently, Vermont National Guard officials announced that most members of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team would be home before Christmas. The transition is obviously well under way. In some places, it may even be complete: Task Force Lethal--made up of Red Bull soldiers from 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168th Inf.) and others--recently conducted a Transfer of Authority ceremony at Forward Operating Base Gardez, Paktya Province.

Back in August, Corell's objectives were simple: No degradation of capability during the hand-offs between units, with a seamless transition apparent to both outside and inside observers.

Here's hoping that your Thanksgiving holiday went just as smoothly ...


Here's yet another Red Bull blog! Titled "From the Home Front to the Front Line," the blog is co-written by a deployed Red Bull soldier Jake and his wife Emily. This is their second deployment, and they are full of good words and good humor.

As Emily wrote, back in 2000: "Childbirth and skydiving seem like cake to this relationship!"

The picture of a Kevlar-cradled baby is alone worth the price of admission, and I have shamelessly borrowed it here. Emily and Jake invite others to remember our fellow Red Bull families with the words of Psalm 91.

I've listed the blog temporarily under "Love, Honor & Support" until I revise my blog-roll categories in the next few weeks. Perhaps we'll find more Red Bull bloggers?


Speaking of which, if you are a Red Bull soldier or family member who would also like to publicly share a deployment-related blog, please let me know at: sherpa [at] redbullrising.com.

If you are a Red Bull soldier or family member interested in sharing your written thoughts or words about the deployment in the form of a guest blog-post, please let me know at the same address.

Along those lines, I am pleased to announce that former Afghan trainer Jeff Courter, author of the book "Afghan Journal" and the blog "Life, Love & Truth," will present a guest-post on Red Bull Rising next Monday. Courter isn't a Red Bull soldier. After this, however, we might have to make him an honorary one.

He's going to write about the value of the Army values in pursuing the Afghan mission.

Think of it as our own "left-seat, right-seat" ride ...

25 November 2010

My Other Car is a Plymouth Rock

SHERPA FAMILY DRIVEWAY, sometime last week--I'm looking in the review mirror while backing up Das Sherpawagon, ready to launch the family on its respective morning commutes to daycare, to grade school, and to the Iowa National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters. These are all places, I must note, of institutional learning differing only in the level of adult supervision provided therein.

"Daddy, thank you for keeping our country safe," 5-year-old Lena says from the backseat. Her kindergarten class recently focused on the topic of heroes, and she's become hyperaware of the uniform again.

"Thank you, Lena, but I think that some of my friends do more than I do."

"Like who? Like Elam's dad?"

"Like Elam's dad."

"Elam's dad is gone for a long time. Is he in another country?"

"Yes, he is."

"When you talk to your friends, could you tell them thanks for keeping our country safe?"

"I will. And I'll thank their families, too. And we'll continue to remember them all every night when we say prayers, OK?"

Thanks, guys. Your families, too.

24 November 2010

More Notes from a Logistical Battlefield

Continued from yesterday's blog post ...

FORT IRWIN, Calif., late September--As the desert home of 334th Brigade Support Battalion (B.S.B.), Forward Operating Base ("FOB") King is the logistical hub of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's operations. In addition to a headquarters company, 334th BSB comprises:
  • Alpha Company (Transportation), which provides transportation and distribution of food and fuel.
  • Bravo Company (Maintenance), which provides higher-level repair of vehicles and equipment.
  • Charlie Company (Medical), which provides preventive and emergent medical care, including behavioral and dental health, and physical therapy services. Known informally as "Charlie-Med," this unit provides care for soldiers who can be fixed within approximately 72 hours. Soldiers requiring care in excess of 72 hours are typically evacuated to higher levels.
  • Echo, Foxtrot, and Golf Companies of 334th BSB are "Forward Support Companies" (F.S.C.), and are each directly attached to maneuver units--infantry and cavalry--where they provide transportation, maintenance, and other support.
Logistics soldiers at FOB King say they're being delayed in moving food around the battlefield. Rations aren't arriving broken out into components, and in the headcount numbers required for each FOB. That means the BSB soldiers are resorting and repacking, rather than simply transferring goods between trucks. Meanwhile, their warfighter brothers continually complain that dinner isn't always on the table right when they get home. The loyal loggies take their very jobs seriously, and think the grumbling a little hard to stomach.

The motto of the 334th BSB is "Support the Attack"--a reference to the 34th Division's motto of "Attack! Attack! Attack!" In an unscientific survey, I find soldiers across FOB King armed with a new joke-of-the-day. Apparently, they volunteer, someone put out a memo that the new Red Bull motto is to be "Attack the Support!"


Staff Sgt. Daniel Bitner is the leader of gun platoon, Alpha Company (Transportation), 334th BSB. It's only training, and they're already so constantly on the move that he's concerned about the potential pace in Afghanistan. "We got eight gun trucks, four trucks in each convoy," he says. "Talking with the 86th [the Vermont BCT they're replacing], they're doing two convoys per a day--one day, one night. If we do that, no one will get a day off."

Back in Iowa, Bitner helps run the Camp Dodge facility that refuels military vehicles. He's familiar with how logistics soldiers can cop an attitude when confronted with unappreciative customers. "If you need fuel at the last minute, I'll do stunts for you," he says. "But if you come in with attitude, I don't need you."

"You see it at [Annual Trainings] and stuff," he says. "Guys in the Cav or the Infantry will roll through with the attitude of 'you're just a fueler,'" says Bitner. "Hey, if you piss me off as a fueler, I'll just tell you to move out. I don't know whether you're topped off or not. Hope you've got a Jerrycan!"


Command Sgt. Maj. Willie Adams is an infantry soldier thrown into the logistics pool earlier this year, when he took the job as top-ranking non-commissioned officer in the 334th BSB. He's proud of his soldiers' professionalism and attitude, and tells them not to allow themselves to be maneuvered into bad moods.

"When I came into this battalion, I flat-out told soldiers that I didn't know logistics. I don't know their operation, and I didn't know their equipment," he says. "I told them not to be surprised when the old sergeant major pulled an E-5 [a junior sergeant] over to ask, 'What does this piece of equipment do?'"

"At the same time, I told them not to listen to the infantry guys about how hooah an 11-Bravo [the occupational code for infantryman] is: 'I could make any one of you 11-Bravo, but I couldn't teach just any 11-Bravo how to run an [Load Handling System], or a fuel truck, or any of those things. Those things take skills.'"


I promised you a pirate story from the desert. Here it is:

Fast-forward to around the beginning of the second week in The Box. An infantry battalion had repeatedly called for more Meals, Ready to Eat (M.R.E.), finding that it had burned through three days of rations in one day. The shortage apparently occurred when the unit changed to three-MRE-a-day ration cycle, rather than MRE at lunch only, with a "hot" at breakfast and dinner.

It wanted more, and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.

The 334th BSB repeatedly told them the MRE cupboard was bare. There was no magic stockpile of MRE. And there is no "fast food" in the desert--supplies take days to order, and more to distribute. An Army marches on its stomach, which is why it pays to think ahead.

The story goes that the infantry battalion dispatched a field-grade officer along with a small convoy--a raiding party, if you will--to FOB King for the purpose of liberating rations. "It was as if they pulled alongside our FOB, raised the Jolly Roger, and demanded our booty," says Lt. Col. John Perkins, 334th BSB commander. He laughs about it now, but he uses the story to reiterate that logistics is deadly serious business.

Still, you've got to admit, "M.R.E." is a lot of fun to say in pirate-brogue. Put the emphasis on the "Arrr" ...

23 November 2010

Notes from a Logistical Battlefield

FORT IRWIN, Calif., late September--An Army fights on its stomach. Amateurs talk tactics, and professionals talk logistics. The first three rules of success at the National Training Center are: "Logistics, Logistics, Logistics."

All that is why, in a few days, Forward Operating Base ("FOB") King will be attacked by pirates. Pirates seeking Meals, Ready-to-Eat (M.R.E.). I am not making this up.

Back at FOB Denver, the current headquarters for the 2-34th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), Warrant Officer Shawn Kiene has one of the few legal cellphones out here in "The Box." As the acting contract officer for the brigade, he uses the lifeline to coordinate real-world essentials like scheduling service of hundreds of portable chemical toilets that dot the our part of the Mojave desert.

A former U.S. Navy sailor and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.), Kiene was executive chef at a couple of hotels before going to work in the wholesale food distribution business.

"After I got to corporate, I thought I'd come back to the military and teach some cooks," he says. "'Even if it's sh--,' I thought, 'I can teach people to make it into something great.'"

"Instead, I show up and get put in charge of sh--ters," he laughs. "I was supposed to be at the other end of this business!"

As a food service expert, Kiene volunteered to go back to the rear to help out the active-duty unit responsible for bringing supplies from Fort Irwin (called "FOB Warrior" in scenario play) into The Box. "They've got some lieutenant there who's a good rigger, knows how to move stuff, but doesn't know food service. Rations breaks aren't going out quite right."


Hanging out in rear rows of the 2-34th BCT's Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), 1st Lt. Michael Wagner is holding court with some loggies. He's a quartermaster officer, but currently assigned from his infantry battalion as a liaison to the brigade. Wagner lives, breathes, and eats logistics. He tells this anecdote, which sounds like a routine from "Abbott and Costello meet the Frankenstein Logistics Monster":

"My unit wanted to establish this radio retrans site," he says. "Fifty guys are protecting this site--my unit did not want this site overrun. I asked them how they were going to supply the site."

"'LOGPAC,' they said." The term "LOGPAC" stands for "Logistics Package"--a supply convoy.

"'How are you going to get water,' I asked."

"'LOGPAC,' they said."

"I could see they weren't getting it. 'OK,' I said, 'let's break that down: What're you going to transport water in?'" Their answer: 5-gallon Jerrycans. "OK, one soldier in an arid environment consumes 4 to 5 liters of water per day. That means you'll need about 1.5 gallons of water per soldier, per day. If LOGPAC happens every other day, that means you'll need two jerry cans per soldier, one to keep and one to exchange. That means 100 Jerrycans. Now, how are you going to supply the site?"

They try again: "Water buffalo?" A water buffalo is a tank-trailer that holds more than 500 gallons of water.

"'OK, how are you going to re-fill the water buffalo?'"


"'You're going to refill a water buffalo with a 100 Jerrycans, requiring a team of two or three guys to lift each can up to the tank to pour it in, and then you've got to worry about sanitizing the water because how many people have come into contact with it?!'"

At this point, I don't know whether to laugh or cry: Who's on first? What's on second?


To be continued in tomorrow's Red Bull Rising post ...

22 November 2010

Sherpa Joins the Circus

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 27--The brigade public affairs officer (P.A.O.) has just made me an offer I can't refuse. Besides himself, he's got only three other troops, and they're trying to fulfill their mission requirements within the scenario-based play at the National Training Center (N.T.C.).

Don't confuse public affairs with "psychological operations" or "propaganda"--those are functions provided by other 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) soldiers. Rather, the public affairs section is made up of Army-trained journalists, reporters who provide timely, truthful, factual accounts of what's happening on the battlefield.

"Be the first with the truth," is Army public-affairs mantra.

I am not Army-trained journalist, but, given how short-handed Team Red Bull is right now, I'm good enough for government work.

The Red Bull public affairs soldiers are being pulled six different directions. After commanders successfully introduce themselves to the Afghan leaders in their new areas of operation, for example, they will be expected to tag-along on subsequent Key Leader Engagements (K.L.E.) in order to create mini-media events. "Media have to be invited by the local authority," says a civilian adviser to the brigade, "but leaders love to have their pictures taken." It also publicly demonstrates who is supporting the Afghan-U.S. effort, and who isn't.

Public affairs soldiers also keep an eye on local media reports, for indications of how Afghan-U.S. efforts are portrayed and perceived. The National Training Center produces an multilingual "newspaper" ever few days. Only a portion of the publication is in English, so public affairs has to find someone to translate the Dari or Pashto pages. An NTC-supplied closed-circuit television channel plays a mix of notional "International News Network" reports interspersed with real-world commercials and programs. There's one such television set up in each of the battalion Tactical Operations Centers ("TOC"), plus the brigade public affairs office.

On top of all this, the PAO has two waves of real-world media in-bound from the Middle West--one this week, and one the next. The PAO asks me, "Would you be interested in acting as media escort? It would get you off the FOB."

Up until now, I've been hanging out on Forward Operating Base ("FOB") Denver, temporary home of the brigade headquarters, and the headquarters of the 2/34th Brigade Special Troops Battalion (B.S.T.B). Lots of meetings, lots of big wigs, lots of gee-whiz machines--but, admittedly, not a lot of action.

One of the reasons I volunteered to visit the 2-34th BCT during its NTC rotation was to see the Red Bull in action, however, one last time before it deployed to Afghanistan. While terms like "front" and "rear" may not readily apply to today's battlefield environment, you can't write about the Red Bull while only hanging out around the tail.

As a media escort, I'll help the visiting reporters with their technology and transportation requirements, as well as help find stories, visuals, and sources. I'll be an interpreter, a press agent, a facilitator, a fixer ... you know--a Sherpa!

Around noon, over a Meal-Ready-to-Eat lunch, I'm introduced to teams from KCRG-TV9 (Cedar Rapids), WHO-TV13 (Des Moines), and a freelance print journalist.

We've got three hours to kill prior to wheels-up in a ground convoy to nearby FOB King, where we'll spend some time with the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.), the logistical muscle behind the brigade. The following day, we'll split into two groups. One will head north and west to cover my alma mater of 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry "Ironman" Regiment (1/133rd Inf.); the other will head south and east to cover Iowa's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168th Inf.) and Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134th Cav.).

I teach some of them "MRE 101," which includes tips on how to cook an MRE using the water-activated chemical heater, how to field-strip it down to the more-packable good stuff, and how to combine components for tactical taste treats. (For example: You can make a passable quesadilla using the shelf-stable tortillas, jalapeno cheese spread, and green Tobasco sauce. Heat in the sun or use a chem heater.)

Heading outside into the heat, I play tour-guide G.I. Barbie on a spontaneous walking tour of FOB Denver. Here's where the latrines are, here's what the sinks and showers are like, here's where the "water buffalo" roams--where to re-fill your canteens, water bottles, and CamelBaks.

On our walk around the FOB, we encounter the Military Police troops from the 2/34th BSTB readying for our convoy. In the box, as in country, nothing happens fast. If you're leaving at 3:30 p.m. civilian-time, your convoy had should be assembled, briefed, and waiting at the gate not later than 2:30 p.m. No matter how routine or short the mission, first-line supervisors have to check whether their soldiers have the right equipment and information: Are they wearing protective goggles and gloves? Are they topped off with water? Do they have emergency rations? Do they know the mission?

In that spirit, I continually remind the reporters to drink water. I also regularly ask them if they need to use the latrine--an indicator of whether or not they are hydrating. I begin to realize how much Army troop leading procedures translate into parenting skills: "Are you thirsty? Did you eat your lunch? Do you need to use the restroom before we leave?"

An impromptu press event breaks out, as reporters start taking pictures and quotes from the guys who will transport us. The vibe is hot but happy. Rather than regard the media as a nuisance, soldiers are likely to welcome the attention and distraction. The media circus has come to town!

We end up completing a lap of FOB Denver on foot, circling our desert outpost during the hottest part of a 110-plus-degrees-Farhenheit day. As we're picking up our gear to load up the trucks, one reporter goes down with an apparent heat injury. We lay him down in an air-conditioned tent, get the medics to him, and we look at the clock. In 20 minutes, we need to be sitting at the gate.

The PAO makes the call, tells me that they'll either get the reporter directly to 1/133rd Inf. the next day, or evacuate him to a hospital. Later, we'll find out he was soon transported back to Fort Irwin for medical evaluation. Nothing serious, apparently, but he ends up going home from there a day or two later.

Right now, however, we don't know that. We just know that our convoy is leaving, and that our show must go on.

19 November 2010

Bringing CEXC Back to Afghanistan

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 27--Staff Sgt. Jacob Pries is a fast-talking, hard-talking man who--after talking about how much he loves his wife--loves nothing more than talking guns, talking cops, and talking about being a U.S. Army combat engineer. Most days, he's a man on a mission moving at a high rate of speed, tossing cuss words like stun grenades.

He is a veteran of Task Force 168th's 2004-2005 deployment to Afghanistan. That unit was organized around the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168th Inf.), but the 700 troops who went on that deployment were broken up into platoons and companies across Afghanistan. They provided security for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.).

This time, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division is traveling in even larger numbers, and sticking together in larger herds. This time, Pries is working as part of the unit's Counter-I.E.D. Support Element (C.S.E.). Improvised Explosive Devices (IED)--roadside bombs, makeshift mines, and booby-traps--are the bad guys' most-dangerous weapon. Sometimes, they're detonated by remote-control. Other times, they're designed to go off when a vehicle or solider applies pressure to them.

Experts talk about the counter-IED fight in three components: "Attack the network. Defeat the device. Train the force." In other words: Disrupt the bomb-makers' organization. Figure out what makes their devices tick and how to stop them from going off. And, as soon as you have something concrete, tell soldiers what they need to know about the latest bad guy tools and tactics.

Part of the CSE is a Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell (CEXC)--a group of military and civilian experts who work to analyze IED attacks. Pries jokes that it's a little like working with "CSI: Fort Irwin."

The acronym, by the way, is pronounced "sexy."

Before mobilization, Pries had his days of hating headquarters life. Too much paperwork, not enough action. Now that he's in The Box and working with people like his CEXC new counterparts, however, he's back to his old self. He squeezes off insights in easy bursts of simple, practical examples.

"It's like attacking a gang," Pries says of his job. "I know how to attack a gang. That's what I do, as a cop back home." The CEXC looks for clues as to the who, what, where, when and how of bomb-making. They investigate what the bad guys are doing and using, identify who may be working with whom. Then they get the word out to troops regarding any trends they're seeing. Remember that old cop show, Adam-12? "Be on the look out for ..."

The CEXC includes civilian law enforcement professionals ("LEP," rhymes with "pep")--U.S. police who wear a modified Army uniform. "They're experts in tactical questioning," says Pries. "They go out to IED sites, look at the crowds, work with [interpreters]. I'm a cop, and that's what we do at a crime scene. We respond to the scene, and while we're working the details, we're also keeping an eye out for things that are out of place."

For example: "Everybody's wearing red, orange, and green, and that guy in the crowd is wearing black? C'mere, you! Everybody has a beard, and that guy doesn't? C'mere!"

"What I like about all this? Everything we do--every product we produce, every assumption we make, every suggestion we make, has a guy at the end of a rifle," says Pries. "Not just U.S. guys--Afghans, too."

"Say that [radio-controlled IED] are being used more against host-nation troops, because host-nation doesn't have [electronic warfare] systems. OK, put us up front," he says. "And, if they start going pressure-plate, we've got the armor. Let us take the blast."

"Operations on the objective? Kicking doors and searching houses? That needs to be Afghans--it's their country."

The Red Bull is here to help.

Red Bull, 10-23.

18 November 2010

World Leader Pretend

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 27--A U.S. Army brigade is like a corporation. It has a Chief Executive Officer (C.E.O.), a couple of senior vice presidents, and a whole herd of junior vice presidents. Each of the junior vice presidents is responsible for one function throughout the organization: Human Resources, Market Analysis, Operations, Supply and Maintenance, Information Technology. There are also senior-level specialists, who may be equal to junior vice presidents: the Corporate Attorney is one. So are the Environmental Safety Director and the Media Spokesperson.

When a business doesn't have the expertise it requires to be competitive, it may hire consultants from outside the organization, or it may partner with other businesses that share similar goals. In mil-speak, these are "enablers." These are mostly civilian personnel, and include civil engineers, anthropologists, law enforcement practitioners, and diplomats. Some wear uniforms, but most don't.

Part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) experience at National Training Center (N.T.C.) is to learn to work with these new team members.

"I just got a tip from the [Human Terrain Team]," the executive officer tells the brigade staff during this morning's first meeting. The H.T.T. is made up of anthropologists and other academics, who can do research into local cultures and attitudes. "When you go into these Key Leader Engagement meetings with Afghan leaders, you always count heads. Then, go in with one less. It's subtle, but that way, you're not outnumbering them at their meeting, in their country."

Today is the third day in The Box for the brigade, and the first day of a 3-day "targeting cycle." In the business world, targeting might be considered "strategic planning"--identifying objectives, and allocating resources to meet those objectives. Through a series of expert subcommittee and committee meetings, a list of possible goals is developed, a consensus reached, and a set of proposals is made to the CEO.

Yeah, I know: Sounds sexy. And dramatic.

For purposes of the training exercise, the targeting cycle at National Training Center (N.T.C.) has been abbreviated to three days. Normally, a cycle might last a week or two--maybe even a month. Each day at NTC, however, there are meetings and more meetings. Then, there are meetings assessing the results of the last three days' efforts. Then, the cycle repeats. Some soldiers quip: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again." Others liken every day to "Groundhog Day."

One of the topics of today's targeting meeting--the meeting after the first meeting--is a regionally influential strongman, with his own troops, the local peasants in his pocket, and a sizable income coming in from the poppy fields. The question is whether he can be influenced to support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ("GIRoA"), and how. Give him money or jobs? Give him a political position?

"He's looking for validation of his position," says the HTT leader. "He's either going to get support from the Taliban, or he's going to get it from us."

There are other options, of course, but the participants in this particular meeting attempt to focus on the kinder, gentler, and less-lethal side of counterinsurgency (COIN). You know: "Speak softly, and carry a big carrot."

Diana, one of the U.S. State Department personnel, reminds those in attendance that the devil you know may be better than a power vacuum, particularly when the bad guy is the only source of jobs in the region. "When your kids are hungry and you don't have anything to eat, the bad guy is better than no guy at all."

"Besides," she says, "we need to find out why he doesn't want to play. It might be something very simple--maybe we killed a member of his family and never apologized. Or, it may be very complex--but we need to ask."

After the meeting, the brigade lawyer shakes his head bemusedly, "I wonder how many [business] people back home in Iowa would be comfortable in sitting around a conference table trying to decide whether or not to whack the guy."

He is only half-joking. This isn't personal. It's business.

17 November 2010

The 'Leaning on the Butterfly' Effect

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 26--It's the second full day in the National Training Center (N.T.C.), and a majority of the battalions comprising 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division has reported at least one negligent discharge of a weapon each.

In other words, in just two-plus days in the desert, a handful of friendly weapons have gone off when they weren't supposed to. A couple have been M4 carbines, the smaller, not-too-distant cousin of the M16 rifle. At least one was an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon ("SAW"), which fires the same pinkie-finger-sized ammunition as used in the M4. Rather than shooting one or three rounds at a time, however, the SAW is a light machine gun. It belches belt-fulls of the stuff.

All that pales, however, to the damage potentailly caused by the hot-dog-sized round launched by a vehicle-mounted .50-cal. M2 Browning machine gun. The "ma-deuce" fires is classic killer, a design mostly untouched and unrefined since its invention in the 1920s. The machine gun is fired by depressing with two thumbs a wing-shaped switch at the rear of the weapon. The switch is called the "butterfly."

Because the Red Bull units are only using blank ammunition at NTC, no one has yet been injured. That doesn't offer much relief to soldiers and their leaders, however, who treat every incident like the real deal. "Train like you fight, fight like you train."

The Army doesn't talk about "accidents." Rather, it speaks of "incidents." The circumstances surrounding the unplanned or unintentional firing of any weapon are formally investigated by an officer, and reported through safety representatives, to determine the what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future. Safety is deadly serious business.

The brigade commander--"Ryder-6"--has called in his staff to attend the evening's teleconference with his battalion commanders. Red Bull staff are typically supposed to be seen and not heard, but such sessions are one of the only ways a brigade staffer can hear directly from their customers out in the field. Logistics guys listen out for logistics problems, communications guys listen out for communications problems, and so on. If you hear the same things from more than one commander, you know you've got a problem that potentially affects more than 3,000 of your fellow soldiers.

The brigade has been in the field for three days and nine meals, and battalions are only now beginning to feed on hot "Class-A" rations. There have been problems throughout the supply chain, pushing goods from unit to unit, breaking them down into smaller amounts along the way. The NTC, after all, is a realistic simulation of real-world challenges. "Time and distance is going to be a factor," observes the brigade commander, "and it's going to be that way."

In some cases, however, the lack of hot chow may have been self-inflicted. One unit, recognizing that it required live ammunition in order to conduct live-fire exercises the next day, reprioritized and requested the next supply convoy deliver less food than ammo. With limited cargo space, it's either "guns or butter." This time, the guns won.

Of course, the same listening technique of "three times briefed makes a trend" also works for those in command. And tonight, the brigade commander is hearing the continuation of a couple of trends that date all the way back to June, when the unit was conducting pre-mobilization training at Camp Ripley, Minn.

It's routine and it's basic stuff, but that doesn't make any of it acceptable to the commander: Soldiers are losing stuff, they're getting careless, and they're needlessly getting hurt.

In a few cases, soldiers are losing track of what the Army calls "sensitive items"--high-dollar and low-level-classified equipments. Things like the M68 Close Combat Optic (C.C.O.), an aiming device that attaches to a rail on a soldier's M4 carbine. The device isn't considered "secret," but is supposed to be accounted for on the twice-daily sensitive-item inventories. Once installed, there's little reason to take it off. Soldiers were instructed to safety-wire such equipment to their rifles, months ago.

"What did we say back at Camp Ripley? 'Dummy-cord your stuff,'" says Ryder-6. "Tie your s--- down. No excuses. That's the order." The commander keeps his anger in reserve, but his frustration still heats up the room a little.

He urges his commanders to emphasize the fundamentals--"mission first, but safety always"--and tries to keep the messages positive. One commander reports a soldier has twisted an ankle while walking around in the darkness on a Forward Operating Base ("FOB"). "We're doing some great training out here, and I realize that soldiers are going to get hurt," says Ryder-6. "But walking out of a TOC and into a water drainage ditch? That one hurts."

"Heat injuries are going to be next," he observes, noting the lack of hot meals and the daily desert highs in the 100-plus-degrees Fahrenheit. Troops have to eat, as well as drink, in order to hydrate and stay healthy. Some troops don't like to eat in the heat, however, particularly when it's a never-ending menu of "Meals, Ready-to-Eat." They start skipping meals.

The most troubling trend for commanders, however--indeed, for anyone who works with or around a weapon--are negligent discharges. Each battalion commander takes his turn in the telephonic hot seat, and rattles off the high- and low-points of the day. Four out of six commanders has at least one negligent discharge on which to report.

The commander whose unit had the negligent discharge of the .50-cal. machine gun says that it occurred when a soldier accidentally "leaned on the butterfly." An awfully small action, resulting with in an awfully big mistake with an even bigger bullet.

The Army's own "butterfly effect."

Before walking onto any FOB, each soldier dismounts and points his or her weapon into a sand-filled "clearing barrel." (There are similar procedures for vehicle-mounted weapons, ones that don't use the barrel.) Soldiers pull the charging handles of their individual weapons, and have an observer confirm there is no ammunition present in the chamber. Then, the soldier pulls the trigger of the weapon while it's pointed into the clearing barrel. If the weapon goes off the clearing barrel will catch or direct the round. It still counts as a negligent discharge, but it's arguably safer than having a still-loaded weapon go off in a barracks or dining facility.

"Buddy-clear your weapons," Ryder-6 says, figuratively footstomping his point. "We have hired junior leaders--NCOs and platoon leaders--to make sure that happens. Make sure they do their jobs."

"It's easy," he says. "It's too easy ..."

16 November 2010

The Weather Rock

CAMP SHELBY, Miss., August 2010--The Weather Rock hangs in front of Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment (1/113th Cav.). It is bigger than your first, smaller than your head, and is suspended by olive-drab "550" cord used by Army parachutists. As such, it can withstand theoretical wind speeds far in excess of my ability to combine math and physics. Science, after all, is hard.

Saber2th is the one who introduced me to the Weather Rock. He and The Hamster, his sidekick and usual partner in crime. Part of their team's job involves reporting the weather, and its potential effects on military operations--if it's going to be too windy for aircraft operations, for example.

That's where the Weather Rock comes in.

Saber2th explains how it works:
"When the Weather Rock is warm to the touch, that means it's hot. When the Weather Rock is cool, that means it's cold. If it's wet, it's raining. If it's swinging back and forth, it's windy. If it's moist, it's humid. If it's jerking wildly about, there's been an earthquake."
He says this all straight-faced and deadpan and official-sounding, of course, as if he were briefing the time of day or the color of the sky. It is a beautiful thing to behold. He is in his element. He is rocking the TOC.

The Weather Rock: Get yours today! Results may vary. Void where prohibited.

15 November 2010

The View from Here

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 26--Regardless of size or type of unit, the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") is the nerve-center, the hub of activity, the reptilian brain of the organization. Working in "current operations," the staff tracks where people and equipment are, what they're doing, and to whom they're doing it.

Twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, working in the TOC is simultaneously thrilling, infuriating, and boring beyond belief. The TOC is like a casino, in that there are no windows. "The sun never sets in the TOC," the brigade executive officer likes to say.

Reports constantly go up, down, and sideways through the TOC. Calls and contacts go out seeking more information, more detail, more ground truth. "We're driving the war from this building," the S3 Operations officer reminds his crew. "But it's the battalions that own the battlespace."

It's like playing a party game of "telephone" while simultaneously assembling a jigsaw puzzle and juggling parrots.

And at least one parrot is always on fire.

Some people love this TOC stuff. Others hate it. The latter are the guys who would be out there doing it, taking it to the streets and to the bad guys, rather than working in the air-conditioned dome, sorting through problems and moving pins around on a map.

It takes all kinds to run an Army, of course. We're all pins, one way or another.

For the next 14 days, the operations staff of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) has set up shop on the first floor of the two-story "Igloo"--a newly constructed, dome-shaped permanent building at the National Training Center (N.T.C.). The layout resembles something like the bridge of Star Trek's Starship Enterprise. There are three or four video screens across the front, depicting maps and real-time video feeds and message traffic.

A battle "captain"--the position is rank-immaterial, and can be held by a captain, major, or seasoned non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.)--keeps an eye and ear on what's happening. Located up close to the video screens, multitasking "radio-telephone operators" (R.T.O.) send and receive communications via radio, telephone, e-mail, Blue Force Tracker (B.F.T.), instant- or text-messaging.

The battle captain sits on a raised platform one step up and back from the "battle desk," in order to be able to take it all in at once. Around and behind him, there is a constantly changing collection of people from other organizations and staff functions, a combination "peanut gallery" and "Greek chorus."

Even in a digital age, technology can't replace the value of embedding a knowledgeable inter-organizational liaison, someone who can answer quick questions about unit status, capability, and location. The same time, these liaisons listen in on TOC traffic, and call their respective organizations with the latest news and heads-ups.

Like a fisherman floating on a favorite lake, if you sit in the right place and watch the water, you can see the physical ripple and flow of communications throughout the TOC. The report comes in here, it should go there and there. Now, watch to see where--and if--it goes. Sitting in the back of the room is where I do most of my "knowledge management" mojo, eavesdropping on multiple conversations, making connections, putting the question over here together with the answers over there. People in the TOC ask themselves a never-ending question: "Who else needs to know what we know?"

Sometimes, I am hindered in my eavesdropping efforts. The operations sergeant major attempts to keep the TOC as quiet as a library, and periodically yells at everyone, regardless of rank, to shut the heck up and take all conversations outside of his TOC. Lucky for me, he is stymied by the igloo's poor acoustics and the staff's chatty good humor.

For example, a bulletin board on which "significant actions" ("SIGACTS") are to be listed goes missing. Spartacus starts asking loudly, "Where is the SIGACT board? Somebody took the SIGACT board!"

Pilz, for some reason, is hanging around the battle desk. "We'll need to log that as an incident on the SIGACT board," he tells Spart, "after we find it, of course."

In another corner of the room, one of the wargame referees is whining about the brigade's prohibition on civilian "gut-truck" food vendors in the training area. "That's kind of jacked-up," he says. "Because, No. 1, you're simulating being on a FOB, and you'll have that kind of stuff available in-country. And, No. 2, that's how these guys make their money. They come out every rotation."

Man up, sir. Embrace the suck. The 2-34th is an infantry brigade combat team, not a tasty stimulus package. We're the "Red Bull," not the "Red Burrito!"

There's real lessons-learned stuff to be had, trolling around the conversational airwaves. One battalion, for example, repeatedly calls in emergency medical-evacuation ("MEDEVAC," pronouced "med-evak") request, specifying "red smoke" will be used to mark the landing zone for the helicopter. The TOC staff repeatedly have to validate whether or not the mission is a real emergency, or one that's occurring within the NTC's wargame simulation. "Someone tell them that red smoke is for real-world emergencies only," says the Battle NCO.

Immediately below my perch, a young liaison officer (L.N.O.) from one of the infantry units is schooling the brigade S4 (Logistics) staff on how to use its computer systems to track supplies and equipment. Granted, the kid is some sort of quartermaster savant, but it's a little bit like having a 6th-grader fix daddy's computer. Daddy should keep up with the 21st century, if he doesn't want to get left in the dust.

Just then, the Army laser-tag sensing equipment worn by the brigade information officer starts beeping--indicating he's now a simulated casualty. It's an obvious malfunction--no one has fired a weapon in the TOC, but he looks around, bewildered. Maybe it's a simulated heart-attack. Or spontaneous human combustion.

Another wargame adminstrator walks over with a God-gun to reset the officer's system. "It's all these fluorescent lights," he says. "Working in the TOC will kill you."

12 November 2010

Making Connections: Events, Terrain, Media, Families

Next week, I plan to return to working through my notes from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's (2-34th BCT) pre-Afghan training rotation at Fort Irwin, Calif. In the present-day, however, there are a number of recent media reports worthy of note.

As many of you are aware, the Red Bull has been on the move. Some units launched directly into Afghanistan from California. Others returned temporarily to the mobilization station of Camp Shelby, Miss. According to previously published press reports, all 2-34th BCT units are expected to be in country by the upcoming U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.

According to the Nov. 11 Des Moines Register, the soldiers of Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry "Ironman" Regiment (1/133rd Inf.) have hit the ground running in Afghanistan's Laghman Province. During a recent patrol to meet a local Afghan leader, Ironman soldiers engaged insurgent forces and captured one Taliban leader. The engagement included use of mortar fire and close-air support ("CAS," pronounced "kaz"). Guess all that training in the Mojave paid off.

It's important to remember that political and military conditions can vary greatly even between one Afghan valley and the next, much less between one province and another. In other words, don't read too much into adjacencies.

However, Laghman does share a short border with Kunar Province--the location of Iowa's 734th Agribusiness Development Team (734th A.D.T.)--the "Dirt Warriors." Kunar is also the general location of the 2007 events depicted in the documentary "Restrepo," which is to be released on DVD next month, as well as the books "War" and "Infidel." If you're looking at pictures from any of these sources, MAYBE you're looking at similar conditions, peoples, and terrain to that of Laghman.

Not all the Red Bulls are heading straight into a fight, however. Supporting October comments by the commander of 101st Airborne Division, the commander of Vermont's 86th Brigade Combat Team (86th B.C.T.) indicated that conditions in three other eastern Afghan provinces--Parwan, Panjshir, and Bamiyan--are secure enough to potentially warrant transition to Afghan control.

The 86th BCT, "Task Force Wolverine," is currently transitioning these provinces to the 2-34th BCT, "Task Force Red Bull."

According to a National Guard Bureau press release earlier this week:
"In Panjshir, they just opened up a marble mine factory that is really providing a lot of revenue as well as jobs for the locals," [Col. William Roy, commander 86th BCT] said. Tourism signs are beginning to pop up in Bamyan, he added. The future of Afghanistan lies in small business, Roy said.

"When I was here in 2002, when you went from Kabul to Bagram, there was virtually nothing on the road," he told reporters. "Now, in about an hour-long drive, you get the development all the way along -- businesses growing up, gas stations on the side of the road."

Afghanistan's ability to self-govern is moving slowly, but steadily, Roy said, noting that Bamyan has Afghanistan's only female governor, representing the Hazara population. Panjshir's ministry of agriculture put together a budget, sent it to the central government and received the budget back to put in place in the province, he added. [...]

"The governors that we have in all three of our provinces understand what the requirements are to oversee the needs of the people," Roy said.

"It's the Afghans who are leading the way," he added. "And it's been that way for quite some time."
In related news, the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press reported Wednesday that Roy had indicated "security for two of the provinces under the responsibility of Task Force Wolverine — Panjshir and Bamyan — was turned over to Afghan forces in the past month, a sign of stability in the region. Parwan province, where Bagram Airfield is based, should follow suit soon."

Other connections to be made:

Cedar Rapids, Iowa's KCRG-TV9/The Gazette multimedia reporting team has added an RSS feed to its continued "Operation Enduring Freedom" blog coverage of the 2-34th BCT's mobilization and deployment. If you use a news reader, you know how useful this is for keeping up on the latest.

The KCRG-TV9 team also recently aired two additional reports regarding the Red Bull's training and subsequently deployment from California. Check them out here and here. Consider that your Fort Irwin fix for the day.

Des Moines-area WHO-TV13 has continued its coverage of the Red Bull homefront with its "Iowans at War" series, including stories regarding how families are coping with separations caused by the deployment.

While Steve Hartkopf has been deployed, his wife Sophie Hartkopf has given birth to their first child. (Both Steve and Sophie, by the way, are Iowa National Guard soldiers.) The baby now rocks to sleep to the recorded sounds of Steve's electric guitar.

In other recent "Iowans at War" story, Christine Refsland musters three kids everyday while husband Nik is deployed. The kids try to help each other out where they can, but it's controlled chaos. "My daughters are twelve, eight and four, all going on 16," Nik says in the report.

Text and video at links, above. The amount of helpful, insightful, and friendly media attention being focused on our Red Bull soldiers and families is gratifying. Please check it out when you get a chance.

11 November 2010

The Brotherhood of the Traveling Flat Minuteman

There's a 21st Century tradition in the Army National Guard of mounting life-sized photographic likenesses of deployed soldiers to cardboard, foamboard, or corrugated plastic. They're called "Flat Daddies" (yes, there are "Flat Mommies," too) and some of them really get around: Family reunions, vacations, dance recitals, birthday parties.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the following story, but they all center on what might be billed as the "Granddaddy of All Flat Daddies."

Danny Coggins is president of Gulf States Manufacturers, fabricators of metal buildings systems. When business slowed a year or two back, he challenged his employees to come up with a patriotic project to spruce up the exterior of their Starkville, Miss., plant.

"They told me, 'The only thing we know is steel.' And I said, 'Well, then, that's the language we'll use.'"

A couple of great stories result. First, the workers create a work of art outside the business, one that includes minutemen and the seals of each U.S. service branch. "It's pretty amazing," Coggins says. "For us to do this kind of detail work is a little bit like asking a framing carpenter to do your cabinets. Our guys figured it out."

Then, a little girl starts stopping by the plant to add some flowers to the display. Goggins zaps the girl's grade-school teacher an e-mail. "I thought Gracieann was pretty special, but even more special was a teacher who teaches patriotism," Coggins says. The e-mail travels around the Internet a couple of times, and, by the time that Coggins gets a chance to introduce himself, she's already fielding media inquiries.

Then, a general officer at Camp Shelby phoned, and asked if he could make the 3-hour drive up from the Hattiesburg area. "We're a 40-year-old business, and we're not a pretty place," says Coggins. "Suddenly, we've got a general coming to visit."

While preparing this summer for a deployment to Afghanistan, soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) first noticed the 6-foot-tall steel minuteman standing outside Paxton Hall at Camp Shelby, Miss. Turns out, that minuteman is only one of some 70 that were subsequently installed throughout the State of Mississippi. You know, after that general visited.

The 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division has a well-established history with Camp Shelby. In World War II, members of the celebrated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (R.C.T.) trained there. The unit would later fight alongside the Red Bull in the mountains of Italy.

While at Camp Shelby prior to a 2005 deployment to Iraq, members of the division's 1st Brigade Combat Team (1-34th BCT) re-created a "living patch" photograph that evoked the division's World War I origins at Camp Cody, N.M. The 1-34th BCT included two units that are now deployed with the 2-34th BCT: Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133 Inf.); and Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134th Cav.).

Although he's proud of his employees' efforts, Coggins repeatedly stresses that Gulf States Manufacturers is not in the business of making or selling 6-foot-tall flat minutemen. The "statues" don't have a brand or company name on them. Rather, they say "Made in the U.S.A." and "God Bless America." They're made out of 100-percent U.S. steel, by the way.

There are, however, 8-inch-tall steel replicas of the Gulf States minuteman for sale at the Mississippi Armed Services Museum, also on Camp Shelby. Gulf States Manufacturers donates them to the Mississippi Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, so that the chapter can raise a little money.

Gold Star Mothers have lost a child in service to his or her country. There's a conference room at Gulf States Manufacturers designated for Gold Star Mothers' use: For meetings, for counseling classes, for grief sessions--whatever they need, whenever they need it.

The bottom line to all this? Gulf States Manufacturers is a group of creative, patriotic people who have repeatedly gone the extra mile for troops and their families.

Now, I told you all that in order to tell you another one ...

In addition to many other fine attributes, Coggins is also a former combat engineer. He was once even a member of the Iowa National Guard's 224th Engineer Battalion--"Iowa's Engineers"--when he lived in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. When Coggins and his buddies found out the Red Bull was once again on the move through Mississippi, he saw another opportunity to deliver more Gulf States steel on target.

Retired Col. John "Jack" Wallace, chairman of the Mississippi Employer Support to the Guard and Reserve (E.S.G.R.), personally delivered to Camp Shelby one of the 6-foot steel minutemen to the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT). Iowa's Lt. Col. John Perkins, commander of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.), accepted the minuteman on behalf of the brigade. There's talk that the minuteman will eventually reside at Iowa's own Gold Star Museum, Camp Dodge, Iowa.

But the minuteman isn't coming home to Iowa--at least, not right away.

The 334th BSB includes soldiers who are logisticians and maintainers. You want to move or improve something, you go to the BSB. The battalion's motto? "Support the Attack!"

In less than a day, the metal-heads in the 334th BSB figured out how to mount the 100-pound minuteman statue on a portable stand. The Red Bull is shipping out to Afghanistan this month, and so is the steel minuteman.


There are a couple of lessons I take from all this:

If you are business owner, manager, or employee, you can help your organization to think beyond flag-displays, free lunches, and military-discounts. Look for unique ways that you put your own stamp on ways to celebrate, remember, and help people. Look for the low-cost, the meaningful, the win-win. (A "Gold Star Mothers" conference room? Genius!)

If you are a National Guard soldier or spouse employed by a business that supports you and your family's service, you can nominate that organization for recognition by the Department of Defense's ESGR program. Click here, fill out the form, and hit "send"--it takes less than 5 minutes!

And, if you are a Red Bull soldier serving in Afghanistan, and you come across a certain Flat Minuteman, tell him Danny, Jack, and Sherpa say "hi." We look forward to your stories.

CAMP SHELBY, Mississippi – Retired Col. Jack Wallace, chairman of the Mississippi Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), presents Lt. Col. John Perkins, commander of the 334 Brigade Support Battalion of the 2-34th Brigade Combat Team, with a 6-foot tall “Steel Minuteman.” The steel minuteman statue is a gift from Danny Coggins, president of Gulf State Manufacturers, Starkville, MS. Coggins is a former member of both the Iowa (224th Engineer Battalion) and Mississippi National Guard. The statue will accompany the 2-34th BCT during the year long deployment to Afghanistan. More than 3,200 Iowa and Nebraska National Guard soldiers from the 2-34th BCT will deploy later this fall to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo by Capt. Adrian Sean Taylor, HHC 334th BSB)

10 November 2010

Staff Meeting of the Living Dead

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 25. It is the first day of a 14-day operation. The regular crowd shuffles in. It is the first brigade staff meeting in The Box, and soldiers are already talking in monotone--deliberate and slow. One word ... in front ... of the other.

The "embedded historian" concept, along with my repeated now-you-see-him-now-you-don't appearances, has gotten me a figurative seat at the Red Bull table. Actual seats and tables, however, are at a premium. Competing rumors have it that either the unit forgot to request office furniture, or that the contract fell through. Regardless, for the first couple of days, it pays to B.Y.O.C.--"Bring Your Own Chair."

Someone notes that the Combat-Trainers (C.T.), the referees who administer the war games at NTC, seem to travel with their own folding stools. They've obviously seen this kind of thing before.

The mood in the room is a mix of the tiredly upbeat and the beat-down. The executive officer (X.O.) looks around the room, and fails to get a lot of eye contact. "I can see that the commander's guidance about working in a nap cycle is going to be key today," he says.

The staff is struggling for balance and rhythm. The National Training Center (N.T.C.), after all, is designed to distill the experience of deploying into a combat zone into two weeks. Since June or July, the brigade staff has been running at full tilt. You want to get punched in the arm? Quote that old war-chestnut about how "deployment is a marathon, not a sprint."

Compounding the stress, there have been precious few days off to fall back, regroup, and rethink the fundamentals.

The calendar for the next two weeks has filled up fast. First, there's a complicated 3-day cycle involving multiple committees and subcommittees, through which the sausage of Counterinsurgency (COIN) is made: "We should work with this guy, not this guy. We should help build a water treatment plant here, to win hearts and minds." That sort of thing.

There are sure to be plenty of pop-up targets, too: Meets-and-greets with local leaders, interviews with roleplaying press, the more-than-occasional simulated mortar attack.

Sleep management is a constant leadership problem. Everyone wants to be important, and to be there when things go down. A couple of die-hards, however, are already working way beyond their 8- or 12-hour shifts. It's a macho thing, good enough for two weeks of Annual Training, but not good for the long haul. In few days, in the middle of few garbled sentences, a couple of near-incoherent briefers will be told to leave and get some sleep. Fuzzy thinking in the TOC will get the wrong people killed.

The group-think this morning, however, is good-naturedly disjointed. In the absence of deliberate enemy actions this early in the "war," the exchange of information devolves into a series of pre-game platitudes. It's the Army equivalent of a football team reminding itself to "move the ball down the field", and "don't let the other guys get any points." Still, it's good to hear--gets the juices flowing. "Let's win this one."

Says the operations officer: "We've got to focus on our battle rhythm and our process."

Says the XO: "We need to make sure that everybody on staff, down to the lowest level, knows what's going on."

Says the communications officer, who has just noted the upcoming real-world visit of a real-world general officer: "Remember when they said that everything was right in front of you? How many times has the actual FORSCOM commander visited a rotation in The Box? I bet that's the day we get the personnel recovery mission!"

Everybody stops. The communications officer has just floated a particularly paranoid theory, that the three-star general in charge the U.S. Army's Forces Command would somehow be kidnapped as part of this field problem. People are tired enough that the wild idea starts to make sense. It's just crazy enough ... to be ... true?

The deputy brigade commander--a full-bird colonel--ducks his head in the door. The XO asks what he needs.

"Nothing," comes the reply. "I was wondering how long this meeting goes. Wrap it up."

09 November 2010

Slideshow: 10 Views of Life on the FOB

And now for something a little different! In order to further illustrate some of yesterday's descriptions, below are 10 photos of FOB Denver, depicting how many soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division spent some of their time in "The Box" at the National Training Center (N.T.C.). Captions appear below each photograph.

This is a close-up of a "sleep shade," each of which sleeps up to 150 soldiers. The rigid, sprayed-on foam-insulation looks like nougat. I love how the irregular patterns of the walls mimic the footprints surrounding the tents.

Civilian workers erect an additional tent for use as temporary office space for the brigade headquarters. The project took about a day, and was rumored to cost $17,000 U.S. in labor and tent-rental. (Thanks, U.S. taxpayers!) Where else would you use such a thing? A similar tent on another FOB had symbols from the Vancouver 2010 Olympics etched into its glass doors!

Soldiers were fed on an "A-MRE-A" ration-cycle. In other words, a hot "A-ration" breakfast, a "Meal, Ready-to-Eat" (M.R.E.) lunch, and another hot "A-ration" dinner. Contractors prepared and served the hot meals on the FOBs, and units came up with different "carry-out" strategies to serve hot meals at smaller sites. The pancakes weren't gray, by the way--they were blueberry!

This isn't FOB Denver, it's actually FOB King--home of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion, among others! A couple of the larger FOBs had these semi-trailers that dispensed hot and cold beverages. Just make your selection and pull the lever. (Watch out for the hot stuff, however--I managed to give myself second-degree burns while making my instant Starbucks Via coffee one morning!) As I traveled to some other FOBs, I personally helped start the rumor that this truck was actually an industrial-sized milkshake machine. Soldiers love complaining about how one FOB is so much better than another ...

"The approach will not be easy. You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is only two meters wide. It's a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit will set off a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes." These are either the secret plans to the Death Star, or the layout for the second-floor of the "Igloo"--the brigade Tactical Operations Center (TOC). You make the call!

The brigade "Igloo" exterior, during daylight hours. Back when I was an Army communications guy, we had 100-meter-tall antennas to get over the hill. In today's "work smarter, not harder" Army, we do all the work on the ground, then scissor-lift the antenna into position!

The terrain surrounding the FOB consisted of sand and more sand, punctuated with a little sagebrush.

Under generator-powered spotlights each morning, soldiers brushed their teeth and shaved in long trough-like sinks. Next to the sinks were semi-trailers full of shower facilities--locker rooms on wheels!

There were two semi-trailers full of washers and dryers on FOB Denver. Open 24 hours a day!

A typical bunk area inside the sleep shades. Troops gained a little elbow room by stashing their gear underneath their cots. It was cool enough at night (plus the tents were air-conditioned) that most soldiers would sleep either with a light sleeping bag or poncho liner. Check out my buddy's old-school pin-up calendar! All the comforts of home!

08 November 2010

Walking the TOC

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 24--The 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division headquarters stumbles into Forward Operating Base (FOB) Denver, and immediately starts unloading the vehicles and setting up the Tactical Operations Center (T.O.C.). The TOC itself--the nerve center for the more than 3,000 troops comprising seven battalions of mostly Iowa and Nebraska National Guard personnel--is located in the "igloo," a brand-new, two-story, circular building that looks like something straight out of Star Wars.

No, not the Death Star. Instead, you know the scene in which the young, restless, and whiney Luke Skywalker looks across the sands of Tatooine under two setting suns, while John Williams' orchestral score swells up? I'm pretty sure that FOB Denver is in the background.

"You know, that little droid is going to cause me a lot of trouble ..."

Moving into the FOB is chaos, but it is a familiar kind of chaos. In the darkness, soldiers try to figure where they're going to be sleeping later that night, provided anyone gets any sleep. The occasional spotlight lights the way to the tents.

From where we park the Humvee to the TOC is approximately 200 meters. Sleeping quarters for officers--majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels--are located nearby the TOC. The trailers, built for four people, sleep eight or nine majors each. Rank has its privileges, apparently, particularly if you like sleeping really, really close to your buddies. Sleeping quarters for everyone else are another 500 meters across the dunes, in massive foam-insulated tents capable of sleeping about 150 soldiers. There is plenty of elbow room, as well as room for other parts of one's body.

The brigade headquarters company and portions of the 2/34th Brigade Special Troops Battalion (B.S.T.B.) divvy up space in only one of these massive "sleep shades. The term is an apparent holdover from when conditions at the National Training Center (N.T.C.) were so rustic, the tents didn't even have walls.

There's some talk and movement toward keeping squad, section, or shift integrity--grouping together the soldiers that work together in the same places and times. That way, day-shifters won't wake up the night-shifters as much, and vice versa. In turns out not to matter much, however. The rushing sound of an industrial air-conditioner masks the usual snoring and banging around. Signs posted on the outside of the tents, warning that the facilities are for sleeping only and to take your business activities elsewhere, also help.

The smart soldiers quickly figure out that the electrical outlets are located on the support columns around the perimeter of the tents, so the layout of the cots develops more organically than the traditional "dress-right-dress" of traditional bivouac sites. When it comes to recharging cameras and bootleg iPods, it's strictly "first come, first served."

There are eight or nine other sleep tents, lined up in two neat rows. There's one for contractors and role players. One for female soldiers from our unit. One for the caterers who will serve the meals in our chow halls.

The dining facilities are another 200 meters past the sleep tent.

For those of you playing along at home, that means the total distance from Humvee to cot to hot meal is approximately one kilometer. Along the way, one passes clusters of portable toilets, hand wash stations, and 500-gallon trailers called "water buffaloes," from which soldiers will refill their canteens and CamelBaks. There are also some semi-trailers containing shower and laundry facilities.

Over the course of the next two weeks, soldiers will repeatedly observe that nothing on the FOB is convenient, but everything is certainly within walking distance.