04 November 2010

Fear and Clothing in the Mojave Desert

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 23--It is my first day on the ground at Fort Irwin, Calif., and, beyond getting picked up at the Las Vegas airport, nothing is going my way. The day had started back in Iowa with a conversationally uncomfortable taxi ride. Then, because I'd gotten caught in government travel-agent funding purgatory for a weeks--happy new federal fiscal year, by the way--my airline tickets were middle-seat all the way. Finally, humping 48 pounds of bulletproof ceramic plates as carry-on luggage also proved ... humbling.

Even though I'm not deploying with them to Afghanistan, I am attempting to accompany my unit--the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division--into the Mojave Desert. After that, I hope to embed with them in Afghanistan as civilian media, sometime in 2011.

There is definitely a National Training Center (N.T.C.) way of doing things, however, and the very idea that someone might volunteer to go "into The Box" is proving a little too out of the box for some. Even some of our own people aren't quite getting it.

My superiors back in Iowa hadn't liked the idea that I'd take a few weeks of vacation from the military in order to embed with the unit as a civilian reporter, so they issued me military orders to do just that.

At the time, we'd thought that there wouldn't any real-world reporters from Iowa visiting Fort Irwin, and the brigade Public Affairs Officer (P.A.O.) wanted to ensure his people had experience in scheduling transportation, meals, and lodging for visiting or embedded media. The solution? Bring your own "reporter," and move him around the battlefield like a chess piece or puppet. It's probably every public affairs professional's dream! Reporters that do what they're told!

(Looking back on it, of course, the unit ended up with plenty of real-world media visiting the Red Bull in The Box, resulting in great coverage such as this, this, this, and this.)

The NTC also supplies notional media--role players from "International News Network" that show up without warning to take pictures and broadcast stories about what U.S. troops are doing. Some of the stories are relatively neutral, and sound like CNN. Others pretty biased, and sound more like Al Jazeera. (One Red Bull example: Over pictures of a U.S. medic providing first-aid to a "villager," an INN reporter voiced-over a comment such as "U.S. troops attempted to cover up evidence of their botched attack.")

Why all the "media" attention? Part of the counterinsurgency (COIN) fight is waged not with bullets, but with information. Commanders and soldiers learn quickly that they not only must defeat the enemy on the battlefield, they also have to defeat media misinterpretation--and enemy propaganda. "Be the first with the truth," is an Army public affairs battle-cry.

So, into this already confusing media mix here at NTC, arrives little old Sherpa. Not quite real-world media, not quite make-believe. A little bit country, a little bit rock'n'roll. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right ...

Stop me if you've heard this before.

I've got some personal reasons for wanting to go into The Box, of course. The Army has a saying: "Train like you fight, fight like you train." There are particular rules one has to follow as an embedded reporter, the first of which seems to be: "Thou shalt not look like a combatant." That means no camouflage. You are supposed to stand out, away and apart from the guys and gals you are covering.

I've never had to "go to war" as a non-combatant. Mother Sam has always provided. What equipment will I need? What clothing will I prefer to wear? I'm planning on testing out some gear in The Box, finding out what works for me and what doesn't. That's one reason why I had my new bullet-proof vest sent to me via overnight delivery, so that I'd have it in time for this trip.

That and, c'mon--how many times does a guy get to call up someone and say, "I'll need that bulletproof vest by Wednesday"? I feel like James Bond.

I'm also interested in breaking down some potential walls of perception. Even my close Army buddies usually forget that I work as a freelance magazine writer and editor. I think it would be good to remind them, visually, that I might be more of an outsider the next time they see me. Ditching the uniform would be a start. I'd also like to observe how soldiers of all ranks react to my presence when I'm not wearing rank myself, the Red Bull patch, or the American flag. In short, I'm hoping to play "Sherpa" than "soldier." My deal with the government-paid travel devil (gnome?) still allows for that, but only as long as my military mission takes priority.

After hitting the ground, however, I'm picking up on a vibe that the whole deal is in danger of going south. That, if I say the wrong thing or trip over the wrong lines, somebody at NTC might decide that my accompanying the unit into The Box is a supremely wrong idea.

That includes this butterscotch-skinned warrant officer, who is technically wearing the same "Red Bull" patch as I am, but is actually a recent transfer from another state. She's an Army automation specialist and data analyst--very logical. She's also going to be one of the special few staying outside of The Box, helping out with the Distinguished Visitors Bureau (D.V.B.)--a brigade "Welcome Wagon" for visiting full-bird colonels and above. In theory, she's also going assist the brigade public affairs section in getting the corn-fed media in and out of Fort Irwin.

As she drives a colonel and me around the Army post, I witness first-hand the calming, soothing effects her dark eyes, butterfly lashes, and silky laugh have on field-grade officers. But me? The upstart irritation in the minivan's backseat, the one stupid enough to volunteer to grunt it out in the wilderness? I'm not getting a lot of love. Heck, I'm not even getting peace or understanding.

"You'll need to come with me to check out a flak-vest and Army cot," she tells me.

"Roger on the cot, but I've got my own vest. Civilian type, coyote brown, with SAPI plates," I tell her. "OK if I use that?"

"Why would you want to wear plates if you don't have to?" The older-style Individual Ballistics Vest (I.B.V.) is Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.), and will be issued to visiting media at NTC, without ceramic plates. Generally, a Kevlar lining in the vest will stop bullets shot from a handgun, while plates will stop bullets shot from an assault rifle. For the record, I've got the equivalent of a newer design, the "Improved Outer Tactical Vest."

I have just shepherded 48-pounds of bullet-proof plates through airport security and airline bureaucracy. That, in itself, was an education. "Because I wanted to validate how to travel with my equipment, and to test it out in the field? 'Train like you fight, fight like you train' and all that?"

"But that's not what you would use in Afghanistan!"

"I will if I embed as a civilian ..."

"But you're not civilian, you're military," she says.

Sherpa. Does. Not. Compute.

We go round and round. Either because she can't get her head around it, or because she's never worked with me before, my usual Sherpa-mojo ain't cutting it. She's just not that into me--or my special brand of Why Not.

I get a similar reception when the brigade PAO introduces me to the "combat-trainer" (C.T.) who coordinates with the simulated media. Coincidentally, the three of us figure out that we all went to the same school of journalism, back in the day. But, after we sing the alma mater, the idea that I would wear civilian clothes, and do a media-like job, is causing some pained and hard-thinking looks.

"You're going need to be in-play," the trainer says. That means wearing MILES gear--Army laser-tag system--to detect if I've been notionally wounded or killed. Gotta play the game.

"Not a problem--I was expecting to do so," I say.

"AND you'll need to be in uniform," he continues. It is then that I realize that I am wearing the only uniform I have--everything else is civilian gear--for two weeks in The Box.

I am not happy. I am discouraged and disgruntled. I have spent all day dragging my duffel bags halfway across the country, to a desert filled with hostiles who do not speak Iowan. My largest bag is now an olive-drab albatross. The sun is low in the sky, but still set on "simmer." The desert is so close, I can taste it. It tastes sour and dusty.

The Red Bull is moving into The Box tomorrow, and I want nothing more than to be on that convoy. I need to figure out my next move, pull another trick out of those bags over there. I'm running out of time, humor, and luck.

1 comment:

  1. I too had a run in with the "Visitor" you described. Much caution one must proceed with.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.