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.

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