31 March 2010

Two More Lessons from 'Three Cups of Tea'

This Red Bull Rising post is the third of three regarding Greg Mortenson's book, "Three Cups of Tea." Page-numbers, again, are from the 2006 Penguin trade-paperback edition.

Two more lessons I derived from reading Mortenson's book, which regards the power of building non-religious coeducational schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, regard observations about how we fight. In one case, I'm talking about "We, the American people" and our allies. In another, I'm talking about "We, the American military."

Bonus "Three Cups" Lesson No. 1:
The bad guys are in it for the long haul--are we?

Mortenson describes his despair at finding schools that teach Wahhabism--an extremist forms of Islam--sprouting up like weeds, potentially choking out his grassroots school-building efforts of his privately funded Central Asia Institute.
"Thinking about the Wahhabi strategy made my head spin," Mortenson says. "This wasn't just a few Arab sheikhs getting off Gulf Air flights with bags of cash. They were bringing the brightest madrassa students back to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for a decade of indoctrination, then encouraging them to take four wives when they came home and breed like rabbits."

Apo calling Wahhabi madressas beehives is exactly right. They're churning out generation after generations of brainwashed students and thinking twenty, forty, even sixty years ahead to a time when there armies of extremism will have the numbers to swarm over Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world." (p. 244-245)
Americans tend to the go for the quick-fix and the big payoff. We barely have enough institutional or collective memory to remember last year, much less last decade. We are very easily distracted from our long-term strategic objectives by shiny objects and populist squirrels. The people and the leaders we elect are talking about military, political, and economic commitments in terms of years. We should be talking decades. Rome wasn't built in a day, after all, and the Romans probably had more to work with.

Bonus "Three Cups" Lesson No. 2:
Beware the laptop Army.

In his book, Mortenson (a former Army medic) describes walking the halls of the Pentagon:
"What I remember most is that the people we passed didn't make eye contact," Mortenson says. "They walked quickly, most of them clutching laptops under there arms, speeding toward their next task like missles, like there wasn't time to look at me. And I remember thinking that this didn't have anything to do with the military I knew. This was a laptop army." (p. 293)

[W]alking toward a room where Mortenson was scheduled to brief top military planners, he wondered how the distance that he felt in the Pentagon affected the decisions make in the building. How would his feelings about the conduct the war change if everything he'd just seen, the boys who ahd lost there potato salesman father, the girls with the blowing-over blackboard, and all the wounded attempting to walk the streets of Kabul with the pieces of limbs the land mines and cluster-bombs had left them, were just numbers on a laptop screen? (p. 294)
It's a counterinsurgency (COIN) rule-of-thumb that you've got to get out of your uparmored Humvee, take off your sunglasses, and engage people face-to-face. You can't win hearts-and-minds through a windshield, any more than you can do so from a aircraft cockpit, or through a video-game back in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC).

Earlier this week, my buddies and I completed a very basic put-the-TOC-together classes and practical exercises. Our heads and eyes are still spinning, after attempting to wrap our heads around "Battle Command System of Systems," which includes computers and tents and generators and viewscreens. Our circus-like Big Top tents are like build-it-yourself spaceships: They're air-conditioned and heated, and the florescent lights erase the arc of the sun. If you didn't have to leave for the occasional latrine break, you might lose all sense of time and place.

And that's the danger I see for us as soldiers, and for our commanders. That we'll begin to think that having all these push-button video loops and data feeds actually means something more than the dirty reality on the ground. Rather than being replaced by tactical teleconferencing and virtual meetings, so-called "battlefield circulation" of commanders and command sergeants major is going to be key to mission success. My combat Engineer buddies have a saying: "Sometimes, you gotta get out of the Buffalo"--a reference to the heavily armored vehicles they use to hunt and clear Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).

I think I'm going to have to come up with a TOC-rat equivalent: "Sometimes, you gotta walk out of the TOC."

30 March 2010

Three Cups, Three Lessons

This Red Bull Rising post is the second of three regarding Greg Mortenson's book, "Three Cups of Tea."

Gen. David Petraeus says the main points of this book are:
Number one, we need to listen more.
Number two, we need to have respect.
Number three, we have to build relationships.
I know a couple of my buddies have been struggling both to find the time to read "Three Cups of Tea," but also to make sense of it. Not that it's a confusing book, mind you, it's just slow to reveal itself and its quiet truths. That's probably part of the message: Slow down, soldier. Not everything can happen in a New York Minute. Or even an Iowa one.

I thought I'd offer a few citations here, so that my buddies might be able to trace how Petraeus got what he got from the book. I still recommend reading the entire book, of course. But, after doing so, I hope that they might return to a few pages before and after those cited below, to reflect a little more on Petraeus's bullets. The page numbers are from the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

No. 1: Listen More
"Perhaps he had been too harsh with these people. The economic disparity between them was simply too great. Could it be that even a partially employed American who lived out of a storage locker could seem like little more than a flashing neon dollar sign to people in the poorest region of one of the world's poorest countries? He resolved that, should the people of Korphe engage in another tug of war for his wealth, such as it was, he would be more patient. He would hear them all out, eat as many meals as necessary, before insisting that the school should benefit all, rather than enrich the headman Haji Ali, or anything." (p. 95)

"Doctor Greg, [...] enough talking. How can you know what the people need if you don't ask them?" (p. 219)
No. 2: Have respect.
"The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die [...] Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time." (p. 150)
No. 3: Build relationships.
"You went alone! [...] You didn't seek the hospitality of a village chief! If you learn only on thing from me, learn this lesson well: Never go anywhere in Pakistan alone." (p. 177)

"Ever since then, with all the schools I've built, I've remember Haji Ali's advice and expanded slowly, from village to village and valley to valley, going where we'd already built relationships, instead of trying to hopscotch to places I had no contacts, like Wasiristan." (p. 177)
Tomorrow, I'll discuss one or two of Mortenson's themes that go beyond Petraeus's points ...

29 March 2010

Review: 'Three Cups of Tea'

Review: "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

When I started the Red Bull Rising blog, I thought I'd be able to keep up with a battle rhythm that included reviewing an Afghanistan-related book every other week or so. Unfortunately, the amount of reading required as my unit prepares for deployment has exceeded both my expectations and abilities.

I did, however, recently complete a long, meandering journey with Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea." This book regularly shows up in public library and neighborhood book club recommendations, as well as counterinsurgency (COIN) reading lists issued by think-tanks and military leaders. My experience with the book paralleled that with Rory Stewart's "The Places In Between"--it was a long, meandering road between points, and the points were simple and subtle and easily missed.

Mortenson's book apparently echoes his personal and professional journey. He started out as a U.S. Army medic, became a civilian trauma nurse to fund his passion for mountain-climbing, and then fell off a mountain. While he recovered, he came upon a life's passion and purpose in the remote mountains in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His privately funded Central Asia Institute now helps villagers build schools for girls. The insitute also sponsors a "Pennies for Peace" program, in which U.S. students collect donate money toward the institute's construction efforts.

Mortenson's work is tangible and achievable change you can believe in. It goes beyond providing "beans and bullets" to our political and military allies, and instead provides our potential friends the grassroots tools of education. It is American can-do at its best: Private, personal, and leading the world by quiet example.

My personal opinion? We don't do enough of that these days.

To a group of Fort Drum, N.Y., military spouses earlier this month, Mortenson described Gen. David Petraeus's take on the book:
[Petraeus] said there were three important points from the book that he wanted to impart from the troops. Now being a military general, he summarized them in three bullet points. He said, number one, we need to listen more, number two, we need to have respect, and number three, we have to build relationships. You don’t have to like people. You don’t even have to get along, but you do need to build relationships and start listening to people.
What strikes me is how closely Petraeus's bullets apply to my own experiences as a sometime community activist. It seems to me that, instead of pushing our unit's soldiers through hour upon hour of pre-deployment counterinsurgency (COIN) and cultural awareness training, we should rotate through my neighborhood's homeowners association meetings: "You don't have to like everybody, but you do need to build relationships and start listening ..."

Come to think of it, that's probably good advice for relating our fellow soldiers, too. My fellow Red Bull TOC-rats and I are all getting a little tired and grouchy, and our heads are getting too big to retain much of the training we're going through, much less the thousands of details that are going unanswered while we're away from our civilian jobs, our new Army offices, and, most of all, our families.

We don't have to like each other right now, but we are building relationships.

I'll try to expand and expound on a few more of Mortenson's points in the next couple of Red Bull Rising posts ...

27 March 2010

My Unit has a Facebook Page?!

Here's a story I've told so many times it must be true: A couple of months ago, a battalion commander in our brigade allegedly received a phone call from a municipal police department here in Iowa. "Did you know that one of your soldiers, SGT X, has a picture on her Facebook page that shows her drinking an alcoholic beverage while in uniform?"

The story goes that the commander had three immediate responses to the call:
1) "Why is the police department checking out Facebook photos of females in my unit?"
2) "Why is my soldier apparently not aware of the policy against drinking alcohol while in uniform?"
3) "My unit has a Facebook page?!"
One of the reasons I started experimenting with a mil-blog, a Facebook page, and other Internet-based tools was to know what I was talking about, when the boss and the boss's boss turned to ask for an informed opinion. I'm probably about as old as they are, and just about as set in my ways. In terms of a catch-phrase currently popular in our unit, we older folks are "digital immigrants," while our younger soldiers are "digital natives."

In other words, Young Joe and Joan Soldier may have grown up with text-messaging, and MySpace, and Facebook, and Twitter. They may think very little of living every minute of their lives publicly posted to the Internet. Those of us who remember before there was an Internet, however, barely speak the language.

Not to get too touchy-feely on you, but there's probably merit to both perspectives. There have been some knock-down, drag-out religious conversations within Big Army about whether or not social media tools are good. They certainly are useful when you're trying to tell people about what's going on in an organization, or how successful a mission was downrange. On the other hand, they're dangerous tools for the very same reasons: Loose Facebook pages sink ships.

Quick rules of thumb for the digital soldier: Treat every weapon as if it is loaded, every camera as if it's recording, every microphone as if it's "hot," and every computer as if it's directly connected to the front page of the New York Freakin' Times.

During a recent meeting of all headquarters company soldiers, our brigade commander mentioned that he'd asked his public affairs soldiers to prototype a unit Facebook page for communicating non-secret information to soldiers, friends, family, and employers. They'll apparently still do a web page, and a hardcopy newsletter called "The Ryder Dispatch" (a PDF copy of the first one is posted on the unit web page).

It was funny how younger soldiers in that meeting just shrugged, like they would've expected any organization these days to have a Facebook page. It was also notable how at least one old soldier--not Sherpa, but definitely someone who thinks like me--point-blank asked the commander about the recent case of an Israeli soldier violating "operational security" (OPSEC) via Facebook.

As of this week, my unit has a Facebook page. Based on nothing more than word of Internet-mouths, it's gained more than 1,000 fans in less than two weeks.

Guess it's time to "go native?"

26 March 2010

Notes on Blog-maintenance

A couple of notes regarding recent editorial tweaks to the Red Bull Rising blog-experience:

Under "Herd Around the Net," I've added links to my unit's web and Facebook pages. I'm using the non-doctrinal and downright incorrect abbreviation "2nd/34th BCT" to help non-military types better understand how to read the "second of the thirty-fourth." Otherwise, most civilians seem to read "2/34" as a fraction.

To optimize download speeds, and to better delineate among downrange-in-Afghanistan, here-on-the-home-front, and how-to-support-your-troops topics, I've broken the blog-rolls into three groups of three (OK, in one case it's four). Among these three categories, there are admittedly some "interlocking fields of fire," as we say in the military. Still, I've selected each of these blogs from my 300 daily must-reads, because I think they offer unique news, well-presented views, and informed perspectives.

I'm particularly proud of my punny "Loyal Jirga" category. According to some cultural awareness training I've just completed, "jirga" is a Pashto word for "tribal assembly." A "loya jurga" is a "grand assembly."

For my purposes, my "loyal jirga" category lists three fellow bloggers who quickly befriended me after I launched Red Bull Rising in December 2009. Ky Woman, Kanani Fong, and Jeff Courter have been equal parts confidantes, consiglieri, consultants. I think of them as my editorial board, my circle of blog-trust, my board of mis-directors. Read their stuff--you'll learn something. I know I always do.

Finally, note that I've tweaked the "mission statement" that runs at the bottom of each Red Bull Rising page. Now that the word's out a little more publicly regarding my unit's potential deployment, and the "Red Bull" Division headquarters has successfully returned from Iraq, I've changed the mission statement to specifically read "2nd/34th Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry Division." Still, if you know anyone from the 1st/34th BCT, they're more than welcome, too.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have other suggestions on how to make Red Bull Rising more readable or useful!

25 March 2010

A CAU by any other name ...

The Crew Access Units (CAU, pronounced "cow") that network into the Command Post Platform (C.P.P.) vehicles I mentioned yesterday are touch-screen machines that sit on our desks in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC, pronounced "talk"). They feature noise-cancelling headphones, through which one can listen to various radio networks, phone conversations, and intercom chatter. Using a CAU, you can call people on a radio that's physically located many tents away from you. You can call people on the phone. You can even text-message them, albeit using an ungainly and agonizingly slow user-interface.

Hey, kids--could you show Sherpa how 2 abbreviate "incoming artillery" on this here ding-dang iPhone contraption?

Since we live here in hog heaven and cow county, Iowa, and since our unit patch is a red bull, I found myself incapable of fighting the urge to udder every bovine pun I could come up with during CAU training:
Of course, my absolute favorite in this bull run of punnery was the visual one captured above, with a CAU laying on its side ...


24 March 2010

Pimp my Ryder TOC

It might not look like much to you, but this picture of my unit's latest equipment makes this old Army communications soldier get all misty and tingly. Maybe he's just not grounded properly ... More likely, however, it's just feelings of good old nostalgia setting in. After all, the names and equipment may have changed from 20 years ago, but a van-based commo van on the back of a two-seater Humvee is pretty much the spitting image of my first tactical ride.

So, this picture makes me happy. To me, it's the Army version of a 1970-something conversion van featuring a purple shag-carpet on all interior surfaces--including the dashboard--with an scene airbrushed on its exterior involving an armored-yet-bikini-wearing young lass and a dragon ... or, better yet, a robot ... or, even better, a robot dragon ... the overall artistic impression of this adolescent piece of work being akin to the worldly pin-up girl on the nose of Grandpa's bomber in World War II. Yes, I said that all in one breath.

Oh, and that van would have a name--something like "Cap'n America" ... or "Mister E Machine" ... or "Thor's Hammock."

This new equipment is called a "Command Post Platform," or "C.P.P." There are four of them that "boot in" (connect to) our brigade's Tactical Operations Center (TOC, pronounced "talk). (By the way, if I haven't mentioned it before, our brigade radio callsign is "Ryder"--a reference to Maj. Gen. Charles W. Ryder. I hope that explains the "Pimp my ..." title of this post a little more.) It's chockfull of radios and computer routers and other communications equipment, evidenced by the many antennas bristling on top of its Rigid Wall Shelter (R.W.S.).

When I first joined the Iowa Army National Guard, we had a whole battalion of similar Humvee-shelter combinations. Radio and telephone operators used to sit in the little air-conditioned "vans"--the cool air was for the maintenance of equipment, not the comfort of the soldiers--but it was still one of the best jobs in the Army.

These CPPs are pretty much set-up-and-forget. They don't require a soldier to sit inside them to act as an operator, in the old telephone-switchboard sense of the word. Users throughout the TOC can use radios, text-message, and communicate via the intercoms provided by the CPP, using desktop devices called Crew Access Units (CAU, pronounced--I am not making this up--"cows."). The CAU headphones are noise-cancelling, and you can actually set them up to monitor a different radio conversation in each ear. I'm in multi-tasking TOC-rat heaven.

That's why, although it's not exactly my baby anymore, this picture makes me happy. All it needs is a little up-armor. And some fuzzy dice. And some nose art.

"If the commo van's a rockin', don't come a'knockin'."

23 March 2010

More Tactical Fortune-Cookies

Regular readers will recognize my practice of adding the words "on the deployment" to the phrases found on my family's (and buddies') fortune cookies. (Click for the first and second installments.)

Less-mature consumers of popular Asian-American cuisine (what--you think you can get fortune cookies anywhere but in the U.S. of A.?)--myself included--may further recognize that this practice stems from a similar high-school joke about adding the words "in bed," in order to spice up one's fortunes--if not one's love life.

The Family Sherpa must've gone to a pretty high-falutin' Chop Suey joint this past weekend, because my fortunes of war turned out to be a little wordy and high-concept:
  • "Others appreciate your creativity ... on the deployment."
  • "Someone is interested in you. Keep your eyes open ... on the deployment."
  • "You will have good luck in your personal affairs ... on the deployment."
  • "You have the ability to make quick decisions and take a firm stand when necessary ... on the deployment."

20 March 2010

Three Ways to Remember Capt. Dan Whitten

West-Pointer Capt. Dan Whitten, a 1999 Johnston (Iowa) High School graduate and active-duty soldier who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year, was recently inducted into the Johnston Community School District Hall of Fame. From what I've read, Whitten enjoyed writing for the school newspaper when he was a student there. Given time--unfortunately, that probably means "after my deployment"--I'd like to follow up on that. Maybe there's a way to celebrate Whitten's life as more than just a plaque on the wall? Like a journalism scholarship. Or a writing program.

In the still-under-construction no-man's-land between the northern Des Moines suburbs of Grimes and Johnston, Iowa--you know, where they're building the new Wal-Mart--I recently noticed the installation of street-pole banners bearing Whitten's name. While he may have been a Johnston schools graduate, Whitten was also a Grimes resident--so the location is particularly appropriate. The banners are a simple and immediate way to celebrate his life--and I think it's great that someone in local government acted so quickly (when does that ever happen?) to remember him in this way. The one I saw (I hope there are more) is perfectly placed to be seen by those traveling from the Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston, to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry Division's headquarters in Boone.

In the same week that Capt. Whitten's death was reported over Iowa airwaves, came also the news that the 2nd/34th BCT had lost a chaplain to an industrial accident at his civilian employment. Chaplain (Capt.) Eric Simpson also had local ties--he had been a pastor in a small town north of Johnston. He was planning to go with us to Afghanistan later this year.

Both stories were near misses--they were local, but I didn't know them personally--but pre-deployment life also provides a lot of distractions. It's just too easy to not find the time, to not breathe deep, to not momentarily reflect and pray. We're not even out the door, and we're too busy to mourn. Granted, you can drive yourself (and your family) crazy with too many "what-ifs" and "but for the graces of God." My own practice has been to try to remember to turn off the radio for a few minutes while driving to Boone, to clear the head and the airwaves, to listen for the still, small voice. Carney, Whitten, Simpson ... I realize there may be other names someday, names that hit even closer to home.

I was grateful to belatedly come across these words from writer Ann Marlowe, who had met Capt. Whitten while embedded with his unit in late 2009. She was also apparently able to attend Whitten's funeral at West Point. Here's an excerpt from her Feb. 14, 2010, New York Post commentary:
Dan was special, even among the high caliber of officers I knew from the 82nd Airborne, almost all of whom are Army Rangers. Tall, big-boned and handsome, he had the West Pointer's confidence and the ideal American officer's ability to put others first. He had already earned two Bronze Stars for his efforts. Yet when it came time to edit my article, I realized I had far more material on Dan's subordinates than him. That was as he'd intended.

Dan was kind and witty and socially at ease, and remembered everything I told him. We'd talked about my writing on Afghan archeology, and so, in the helicopter that took us back from Faisabad, he drew my attention to a mysterious large tower he had passed on previous trips. I could tell at once that it was very old. This tower isn't known to Afghan archeologists: Dan?s sharp eyes and intellectual curiousity may have made a discovery.

According to Capt. Derrick B. Hernandez of the 1-508, Dan and his men had finished a three-day operation on the Ghazni Province border when his Humvee struck an IED that wounded one of his men.

Dan then jumped into another vehicle and recovered his original vehicle. Seven kilometers later, his truck again struck another IED, this one instantly killing Dan and Pfc. Zachary Lovejoy and seriously wounding three others.

Dan died doing work that had meaning to him. As Derrick pointed out in a speech he gave at Dan's memorial in Zabul, Dan could have had any assignment he wanted. He chose to return with 1-508 to one of the most remote and insecure places in Afghanistan.
I particularly like that Capt. Whitten may have used his knowledge of newspapering in order to shine attention onto his men, and not himself. I also like that he had an eye for art and archeology, in a land that many people consider only rubble.

19 March 2010

Friday Reset & Recovery

Miscellaneous bullets today, as I reset my personal Brain-Housing Group (BHG) after about 10 days of training on tents and related technologies. (Yes, I just used "tents" and "technologies" in the same sentence.) I also need to do laundry. And taxes.

Three-shot group follows:

Regular readers will recognize that I'm often interested in measures of mission success. This goes beyond rhetorical definitions of "victory" and "winning," and drills down into the concrete details of how troops are making a difference. I think that former Embedded Training Team (ETT) member, author, and mil-blogger Sgt. First Class Jeff Courter was doing a little bit of both, when he recently posted a couple of quick insights on assessing mission success in Afghanistan. It's worth checking out, particularly for a link to a 5-part video blog focusing on Afghan tribes. I'll let him introduce and explain more over at his blog. He continues to fight the good fight, even though he's back here in the states.

Given my ongoing rants both for and against social media tools such as Facebook, I've been meaning to point out a 5-part Slate.com series on how coalition forces used social-network analysis to locate Saddam Hussein: "I'll explain how a handful of innovative American soldiers used the same theories that underpin Facebook to hunt down Saddam Hussein," writes Chris Wilson. "I'll also look at how this hunt was a departure in strategy for the military, why its techniques aren't deployed more often, and why social-networking theory hasn't helped us nab Osama Bin Laden." Trust me, you might never look at Facebook the same way--or Mafia Wars. You'll also keep your family photo album in a safer place.

Earlier this week, I watched the first episode in HBO's "The Pacific" mini-series. Because it's a blend of multiple marine memoirs, it may not be as easily tied-together as a narrative as 2001's "Band of Brothers," but we'll see. I do think I need to view future episodes on bigger screens, in darker rooms. In my cozy little family room, I lost too much detail in the nighttime scenes--all I could see was black. Of course, when the enemy finally opened up from across the swamp, I jumped 5 feet out of my seat. (And not in a manly way, either.)

18 March 2010

Have Six-Shooter, Will Travel Mug

My recent Army-travel to Pennsylvania forced me to reach beyond my usual coffee horizons. Unlike other "deployments," I couldn't pack my small drip coffee maker that's seen duty during floods and blizzards. I couldn't guarantee sufficient access to boiling water for my REI-brand French press, which makes great coffee--but also a bit of a mess. After some recon-by-Internet, I knew that the nearest Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, or other equivalent chain was going to require driving 30 minutes or more off-post.

What to do?

In a fit of desperately innovative consumption, I opted to purchase a specially designed "VIA Ready Brew" stainless steel mug from the local Starbucks. This device is designed to both store and promote the use of small, strangely cigarillo-like pouches of microground instant coffee. The pouches are visible through clear plastic chambers encircling the lower half of the metal mug.

Since the mug holds six pouches, I call it my "six-shooter."

(Safety note, however: I no longer call it my "six-shooter" while conversing with members of the Transportation Security Administration.)

Depending on how many you purchase as a time, the price-point per pouch ranges from about $1 to $1.33. VIA Ready Brew is available in three "flavors": Columbian (Medium); Italian Roast (Extra Bold); and Decaf Italian Roast (Extra Bold). I've tried both the Columbian and Italian Roast, and, while both are OK, I'd more generally recommend the Italian Roast. Click here for a funky-but-non-informative video that includes lines such as, "Then we take an extra step: Using a super-secret technology that we developed ..." Uh, yeah. Thanks for not telling me anything.

The coffee isn't going to knock your Army wool socks off, but it's a heckuva step up from nothing. It's also better than chewing Folgers straight out of the MRE accessory packs. What I'm trying to say is, you know those Army-issued spring-loaded atropine injectors? They don't provide an antidote for nerve agent exposure, either, but they sure as heck increase your chances of survival.

That's right, folks, you heard it here first: Starbucks VIA Ready Brew is like Atropine. Mmmmm, good.

More notes: The mug fits nicely into the side "water-bottle" pouch of my new tactical man-purse. It's self-contained--no zipper-lock plastic baggies of ground-at-home coffee to either spill or get the drug-dogs all crazy. Given sufficient travel-survival savvy, a VIA user can poach hot water from airport and hotel bistros that cater to tea-drinkers. Or, pack a microwaveable Nalgene bottle.

There are a few design-flaws, but nothing fatal. For example, I noticed--or rather, I didn't notice but others did--that the design of the lid occasionally deposited coffee across the bridge of my nose. This resulted in some hilarity and name-calling. Also, the paint used to emblazon the "VIA" mini-brand on the mug turns viscous when heated. This condition may occur when the container is filled with--I'm just using this as an example--hot coffee, or hot water on its way to becoming coffee. Eventually, this paint will wear off, I suppose, and the flaw will correct itself.

To review: Starbucks microground Via instant coffee is an acceptable solution for traveling Sherpas. The "six-shooter" stainless-steel travel mug is equal parts fun and functional. I plan to use it as a back-up weapon as necessary, and to add it to my basic combat load.

17 March 2010

Reading the Uniform, Part 2: Flags

While taking a tour of our nation's airports while wearing the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) recently, I was asked by one probably-just-friendly gentleman, "Where are you all going?" I was in Atlanta at the time, but the "you all" wasn't properly contracted. That made it sound a little accusatory.

After I got over being defensive, I realized the man was wondering about the handful of soldiers that had just deplaned, myself included. None of us had been seated together, but the man might not have realized that.

If each of the soldiers had been wearing the same unit patch--that's the patch on the left shoulder--there would have been more reason to deduce that we were from the same unit. That's kind of an advanced "how to read a uniform" technique, however--and hard to do with multiple soldiers from a distance.

My own guess was that the other soldiers were coming home from or heading back to Iraq or Afghanistan, while I was only heading home after training. It wasn't until later, however, that I figured out why I'd made that assumption: They'd been wearing a different flag than I.

My right-shoulder American flag patch was full-color--red, white, and blue with amber piping--while the others had been wearing the "subdued" version. (They were probably also wearing an infrared-readable version that is visible using night-vision gear, but that's another topic.) To better match the camouflage, unit and other patches are rendered in black and green (and sometimes brown) for use on the ACU. That's why the "Red Bull" patch of the 34th Infantry Division appears to be a "Green Bull," when it's camouflaged.

Which reminds me: Happy St. Patrick's Day!

16 March 2010

Sherpa's Got a Brand New Bag

In my version of the 1980s, when men were men and women wore shoulder-pads, so-called "portable computers" still measured 14 by 10 by 11 inches, and weighed 17 pounds. (I still have mine--and just double-checked the dimensions. We've come a long way, HAL.)

Back then, Banana Republic was a catalog-brand specializing in clothes and gear for world-travel adventurers, and I was a big fan. I didn't get much further than the borderlands of Iowa in those days, but I still wore a multi-pocketed "Correspondent's Jacket," and carried my books and pens in an "Israeli Paratrooper's Briefcase." The latter was probably some sort of military-surplus buy for the company, a messenger-style bag with a single-strap by which to sling it across one's back. It was khaki, with a red winged-parachute emblem on its flap.

Come to think of it, that bag is probably one of the things that the Army recruiter first used to chat me up. "Hey, you've already got the bag ... why not join?" Kids, let that be a lesson to you: Choose your teenage totems and trinkets carefully. Just look where that bag got me today.

My relatively conservative navy-and-black Targus-brand computer bag recently succumbed to the Midwestern winter--the aged plastic latches cracked after just minutes of sub-zero temperatures. Messenger-style bags do not work unless they can buckle your computer safely inside--they just disgorge your precious tech into the cruel and gritty snow.

I also needed a bag for use while in uniform, but wanted to avoid purchasing Yet Another Black Bag. I also wanted to avoid using camouflage as a fashion statement, although many colleagues are very happy with their Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.) Code Alpha-brand bags. It's a functional, affordable choice. It's just not me. And, you know, the military is all about making a personal statement of individuality.

What, you thought "Army of One" was just a slogan?

Bottom line: I wanted to kill two birds with one purse. The bag should not be black. It should be messenger- or courier-style. Beyond that, I was willing to consider any and all options.

I ended up going with a Blackhawk! Advanced Tactical Briefcase. It turned out to be more bag than I'd anticipated. It features a nifty external access for a laptop, which solves the one thing I hadn't liked about previous bags--the fact that I had to open the entire bag to get to the computer. The laptop compartment is protected by a waterproof zipper. The bag itself is constructed of waterproof Nylon. There is even a weather-resistant map pocket on the obverse of the flap. This bag is so protected against the elements, you might be convinced to take your laptop scuba diving with you.

There's a lot of nifty hook-and-loop fasteners, making it a suitable companion to a DRASH tent. There's room, but not too much of it. I'm packing a well-worn 15-inch MacBook Pro, a portable hard-drive, a Wi-Fi node, and sufficient office supplies to be combat-effective while I'm a Sherpa on the go.

There's even a ShamWow!-like video demonstration of the bag's other features here.

My color options were "foliage" green and "coyote" brown. The grayish-green matched the Army Combat Uniform more closely than the latter color, which was closer to some Marine camouflage patterns. Coyote is also a color similar to some Bucket Boss-brand gear I use on construction sites.

I chose "foliage." It's an interesting color that goes "green" in uniform, and "gray" in civilian settings.

As anyone who's been reading Red Bull Rising during the past couple of weeks will know, I guessed wrong. A week after my new bag arrived, there were news reports that my unit will be one of those fielding MultiCam uniforms and equipment when we ship out to Afghanistan later this year. Our accessories, for lack of a better term, will likely go from sage-green to coyote-brown.

A designer-friend of mine once commented one my carrying a woodland-pattern portfolio while wearing the digital-style ACU. "You look like a 'fashion-don't,'" she told me. I guess I'm going to carry on the tradition, as I walk down the runway. Or tarmac. Or whatever.

By the way, it's a "courier-bag," or a "satchel." Yes, in more humorous moments, I have been known to call it a "tactical man-purse." I avoid, however, the derogatory term "fag bag." That term was big in the '80s, but seems to gone out of style, along with parachute pants and sequined gloves.

15 March 2010

I'm a Fan of the J-bad FabLab

Given my musings about making (manufacturing?) organizational change the past couple of days, I thought I'd take a moment to mention an interesting experiment in fabrication and communication happening in Jalalabad, Afghanistan (aka "J-bad," at least according to some buddies who have been there). The whole FabLab movement involves a loosely connected worldwide network of small manufacturing shops to custom-build needed technology and design solutions at a local level.

Wow. That was a mouthful of jargon. Let me try again: FabLabs design and build cool stuff cheap, in order to effect change at a local level. Here in the American Midwest, there are examples at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, as well as one up in Wisconsin.

But, like I said above, it's also reaching all the way to Afghanistan.

Blogger Kanani Fong, who writes variously on military and mil-spouse issues, the writer's craft, and the art and business of fashion--along with her armed-and-dangerous-civilian buddies at Free Range International--has been relaying the story of how a couple of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty and students have been, among other things, installing a Wi-Fi network in Jalalabad. Apparently, these "FabFi" types have been beating the technological pants off of better-funded efforts by more-established agencies.

As an architectural geek, I've always daydreamed about hooking up with a multidisciplinary, purposeful design effort--like Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio, Stanley Tigerman's Archeworks, or Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr's Architecture for Humanity.

As a technology and communications guy for the U.S. Army, I'm also really digging the technological character of the J-bad project.

And, of course, there's the appeal of a hands-on, do-it-yourself, be-the-change, think-global-act-local approach to solving the world's problems.

In other words, I think I'm an Afghan FabLab and FabFi Fan.

Go to Fong's blog to see how you might be able to help the Afghan FabLab by donating books via Amazon.

14 March 2010

The Shapes of Things to Come

Archer and I have big plans, if only we could each figure out what we want to be when we grow up. Both of us are do-it-yourselfers, although he's probably got more tools and toys than I do. He's a mover and a maker, and just bought a bunch of high-tech fabrication tools that allegedly fell off someone's truck. Hopefully, they'll still be there in his garage, patiently waiting for him to get home from the deployment. Hopefully, his more-than-tolerant spouse will be, too.

When he's in uniform, Archer is a member of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB)--the unit that includes the transportation, maintenance, medical, and other functions the brigade requires to fight and keep fighting. It's not always the sexiest, most-glamorous mission, but it's good and challenging work. Archer often quotes some dead white general as saying, "Amateurs talk strategy, but professionals talk logistics."

If he doesn't already have one, Archer probably needs to get a Master of Business Administration (MBA), with a minor in Making Science-Fiction Fact. He reads a lot of organizational change-management books, and often talks about emerging trends like 3-D printing and automated agriculture. Archer, for one, welcomes our future farm-robot overlords, while I don't even know what a 3-D printer is. I can barely get mine to work in two dimensions.

I tend more toward the home-remodeling part of the brain trust, although here's where I probably should also own up to attending a few semesters at a local architectural college. While there, I was absolutely amazed by what younger, more-tech-savvy students could do. They thought nothing of virtually flying-through computer models of their designs. Or building structural models using laser-cutters. Or building objects using the school's 3-D printer.

Me? I could use a hammer. And a pencil.

I stopped by the BSB earlier this week, only to find a Transatlantic-cable's worth of Smurf-colored Ethernet cables spewing out of the unit's drop ceilings. This thing looks like a blue anaconda, stretching down out of the ceiling and onto the floor below. Archer and a couple of other soldiers were knocking down walls and pulling computer wiring into an old locker room. It looks like an episode of This Old House. Or a meth lab. "This is the new 'Battle Sustainment Laboratory,'" Archer says proudly, brandishing a 12-volt cordless drill. It's probably pearl-handled, like Patton's.

They're building a hardstand version of what I'm learning to do this week, except with tents and generators and stuff. It's very likely that some of our Red Bull units, particularly those like Archer's battalion and the brigade headquarters, may arrive in Afghanistan to occupy previously built structures. So the BSB commander has decided to learn by doing. "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us," goes one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes. Knock a few walls, knock a few heads, and thereby change the organization's culture, communications, and capabilities.

Interestingly, Archer and I each find ourselves working in experimental environments, exploring the applications of Churchill's remark in concrete terms.

Change is in the making.

13 March 2010

Carney Posthumously Awarded Infantry Badge

I mentioned in an earlier post that my unit, the Headquarters Company of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division, lost a soldier while he was deployed to Afghanistan as an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member in Aug. 2007. Sgt. First Class Scott Carney was killed in a non-combat Humvee accident in Herat Province.

Carney, 37, was survived by his wife Jeni and twin sons Jacob and Justin. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Master Sergeant. I've previously tried to describe how his family continues to be present in the life of my unit. Words may fail, but memory lives.

In a ceremony earlier this week, Carney's family was presented with his Combat Infantryman Badge, or "C.I.B.") The CIB is awarded to soldiers the rank of colonel or below, who hold an Infantry Military Occupational Specialty (M.O.S.), and who actively engage a hostile force in combat. There are those--myself included--who regard the CIB to be one of the highest awards available, because is celebrates the role of the Infantry soldier as the single-most important person in the Army. Without him, we could not close with and destroy our country's enemies. Without him, every other kind of soldier would just have to pack up and go home.

Carney was involved in combat operations qualifying him for the CIB on June 18, 2007, when he provided suppressive machine-gun fires as a vehicular gunner in Farah Province, allowing the extraction of Afghan National Police (A.N.P.) and U.S. military personnel who had come under fire.

He died in a Humvee rollover on Aug. 24, 2007. Although Carney was buried in his green Class A service uniform displaying the CIB--mortuary affairs had documented that he would be posthumously awarded the badge--the official paperwork back here in the states was subsequently twice rejected, delayed by a higher, non-Iowa headquarters' confusion of the two incidents. After more than 2 years of waiting, that was finally and memorably corrected at last week's ceremony, during which Carney's sons were each presented CIB certificates and badges.

The CIB design is rectangular, with a musket imposed on a field of blue, the Infantry branch color. Behind the rectangle is a laurel wreath. The badge is similar but expressly different than the Expert Infantryman Badge (E.I.B.), which is awarded after a grueling proficiency test. The EIB does not feature the laurel wreath.

For a 10-minute YouTube video of the presentation of the award to Carney's family, including remarks made by Col. Tom Staton, current commander of the 2/34th BCT, click here.

12 March 2010

Ezekiel Saw the System within the System ...

I'm pleased to report that, perhaps in part due to my earlier safety-related tantrums, the trainers on the our unit's Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter (DRASH) systems--comprising tents, generators, and Environmental Control Units (E.C.U.)--led off smartly into the new module of instruction this morning. Everything was by the book, with no silly remarks about the manual being somehow wrong when it came to eye- or ear-protection.

We're into learning about yet another building block of the Standard Integrated Command Post System (SICUPS--pronounced "sick-ups"). SICUPS comprises the DRASH system, a multi-mode communications device called a Crew Access Unit (CAU--pronouned "cow"), some video-projection screens, and other techy stuff. Once you establish your digital Tactical Operations Center (TOC--pronounced "talk") using SICUPS, each section installs its respective machines in the Army Battle Command System (ABCS)--which is itself a "system of systems." I know I've generally described these in an earlier post, but I thought I'd list some of them here, in all of their acronymal glory. Here are just some of the usual suspects:
And, the granddaddy acronym of them all: F.B.C.B.2., which stands for "Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade & Below." The particular flavor of FBCB2 our unit is fielding is called "Blue Force Tracker" (B.F.T.). Also related to ABCS is the Command Post of the Future (CPOF--pronounced "see-pauf").

In less than two weeks, our brigade staff sections will go from having only pieces and parts of this primordial acronymn soup, this uber-system of systems, to being expected to do everything from set up the tents, plug all the black boxes together, turn them on, and make them talk to each other. We may even be expected to crawl through some of our basic staff "battle drills"--checklists of coordinated actions to executed following a specified event.

I'd compare this effort to starting a new football season while facing the following complications:
  • First: Learn how to build a stadium. One that you can take down and put up in another city, for when you're traveling.
  • Next, picking your team members from any from most any group but the varsity football squad (one from soccer, one from gymnastics, one from the debate team, and so on).
  • Next, have them learn Microsoft Vista, LINUX, or some other suitably foreign computer system in order to do the same jobs they already know how to do from years of physical practice.
  • Declare that, by the end of the season, you will field a championship team, one offering of an explosive offense and an imposing defense; capable not only of playing the game but teaching the junior varsity how to play it as well; and featuring special teams that can easily take the the opposing quarterback out with one shot from a robotic aircraft.

11 March 2010

DRASH-talking about Safety

My fellow TOC-rats and I are learning how to set up, tear down, heat and cool, install lights and wire for sound our spiffy new tent system. I still haven't found a price tag on the equipment, but we all assume it's in the hundreds of thousands per tent. Each tent comes with its own electrical power generator and Environmental Control Unit (E.C.U.).

The tents are "DRASH" brand. The company's website boasts that its products are "used in the harshest environments by the toughest warfighters." One of my buddies in supply says, however, "You realize, we'll never use this stuff downrange. It's just a big circus tent for an infantry fashion show."

Spring is coming, but before the gardens, must come the fighting--and the hook-and-loop fastener strips. We're working in a sandy, relatively flat motorpool area, and the saturated ground is both the color and consistency of gritty nougat, so tent stakes and grounding rods are easy to sink. The tents expand and contract like those toy Hoberman Spheres.

Unfortunately, in just three rainy, cold, and miserable days, I've pretty much been able to completely alienate three contract instructors--as well as a couple of my classmates. Not by questioning the DRASH product, but by trying to understand the trainers' creative approach to safety.

My first clue should've been when early in the class, when one instructor said something like, "Of course, all these metal tent stakes are new and painted, so they'll probably be flaking off a lot when you hammer them. Everybody brought eye-protection, right?" No one responded affirmatively. "Well, I guess the guys who already wear glasses can use the sledgehammers."

On behalf of tough-but-myopic "warfighters" everywhere ... wrong answer.

I used to sell lawn mowers in high school. Every year, we'd read between the lines of the owner's manuals, to figure out who had gotten sued for customers' acts of stupidity. One of my personal favorites? "Warning: Do not pick up lawnmower for use as a hedge trimmer." Back when automatic engine-shutoffs were coming into the lawnmower market, salespeople got in trouble for even suggesting to customers how to override the safety features.

I learned my lesson: Never, ever, ever tell the customer NOT to follow the manual. That gets people hurt. And sued.

Needless to say, I'm already ears-up after the casual "I just said that you should use eye-protection, but now I'm going to look the other way" moment. That's when another instructor is going through the "standard warning labels" and what they mean: "Danger," "Warning," "Caution" and "Note" all have defined levels of urgency. Who knew?

Somehow, the subject of hearing-protection comes up, and I hear another instructor interrupt the one giving the class. He says something like, "These warnings are standard, but they really don't apply to the equipment you'll be using." So, I ask the question: The labels and the manuals that you've just given us are wrong? Yes, he says, and we're going to request a change to the manual, but the government never listens to us. The hearing-protection requirement, he says, is only for people who are going to be around the equipment for extended periods of time.

From about that point forward, I go into active-pinging mode as "Sergeant Safety." Something is rotten in DRASH-land. The instructors label me as a problem child, and single me out from the herd.

The generators used with the system are Tactical Quiet Generators (T.Q.G.). That means they've been sound-proofed down to 70 decibel. When the panels are all closed, you can actually hear someone else talk to you over the sound of the generator. They're great stuff, but they still require hearing protection to be used--particularly when you're opening and closing the sound-proofed doors.

The manuals we've been issued for the tent class even say:
WARNING: To prevent noise-induced hearing loss, always wear hearing protection when within 10 feet of the TMSS control panel while the generator is running.
That's "always," Tex. Not "only when you're going to be around the generator for extended periods of time." Oh, and don't try to tell me that I don't understand TQGs, that they're "new." They've been around in the Army since 1989. My old Iowa Army National Guard unit first fielded them in 1995.

Later, I notice two signs on the generators themselves:
CAUTION: While performing maintenances with engine running wear approved hearing protection.

WARNING: Do not remove [panels] during operation.
Just prior to the practical exercise, all the soundproofed panels are removed from each of the generators, in order to show off their inner workings. Then, during the "test" itself, two student-groups out of three (or four) actually start their generators up, with instructor assistance and supervision.

No one is wearing hearing protection. (Not even the instructors, so at least they practice what they unwisely teach.) Without the panels in place, the generator is a lot louder than 70 decibels.

Can they hear me now?

10 March 2010

Now I Know My ABCS

In late February, I pulled two weeks in snowy Pennsylvania, where I learned the ins-and-outs (and inputs-and-outputs) among Army Battle Command Systems (A.B.C.S.)--the "system of systems" that today's Army uses to command and control its specialty functions.

In our new digital Tactical Operations Centers (TOC), soldiers like me no longer track the battle using radios and maps and pushpin flags. Instead, we practically play video games. There's a computer system for controlling artillery fires, and one for monitoring logistics and personnel statuses. There's one for drawing maps and overlays. There's one for analyzing terrain, and another for filtering through reports of enemy activity. There's even one for updating the weather forecast, and one for tracking aircraft moving through the area.

There are related systems, too, including "Blue Force Tracker" (B.F.T.)--which shows the pretty-close-to-current locations of friendly vehicles--and "Command Post of the Future" (CPOF), which commanders use to "visualize the battlefield." The latter acronym is pronounced "see-poff," and invites the question: "If we have a 'Command Post of the Future' in our possession, isn't it really more like a 'Command Post of the Present?'")

All of these TOC systems talk with each other in different ways, so that everyone on the battlefield is reacting to the same events at relatively the same times. That "Fog of War" you always hear about? We're throwing a lot of money, mental power, and technology to see through those clouds of uncertainty.

Near as I can tell, we're still years away from the Army network achieving self-awareness. That's more the stuff of science fiction, like Skynet from "The Terminator," or Colossus from "The Forbin Project." The ABCS suite seems to be a kludged-together constellation of separately developed machines, which is now expected to work as one. I'm not an expert troubleshooter yet, but I bet it's going to be like trying to get a humidifier and a dehumidifier to work in the same room together. Oh, and both of them are armed. With mops. And lasers.

Still, whenever you can paint a more accurate picture for commanders--where our troops are, where the enemy is likely to be, how we can best achieve the mission--we fight better, more efficiently, and more safely. Computers can help with that, as long as we lowly humans recognize their limitations. We created them, after all, in our own limited frames of reference.

Even the best computer system--or system of systems--can still fall prey to user-input error. Garbage in, garbage out.

What's my job? It's either to sort through the garbage, or to make sure that the compactor works really, really well.

09 March 2010

The Whale in the Room

Call me "Sherpa."

I've been meaning to take a "tactical pause," in which to bring new readers up to speed, and to reiterate the known-knowns and the known-unknowns for those who have been reading longer than that. There's no time like the present, particularly given the weirdness that was my March drill weekend. To tell you about that, however, I'm going to have to reveal a little more of my reality.

My psuedo-name is Charlie Sherpa. I use a pseudonym because I'm waiting for my unit, my state, and my Army to make up their minds about what is appropriate for soldiers to do, Internet-wise. 'Nuff said on that for now, for fear of getting up on my iSoapbox.

I've been an Iowa Army National Guard soldier for nearly 20 years, and wore a uniform a few years before that. I'm Army-trained in communications, which, even back in my pre-Internet past, included operated everything from radios to computers to photocopiers. I've served my community in times of flood and tornado and blizzard, and served my country by deploying to southwestern Asia.

I currently drill with the Headquarters Company of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, located in Boone, Iowa, pop. 13,000. Since August 2010, the entire brigade--some 3,500 soldiers--has been alerted for a late-summer-2010 deployment to Afghanistan. Other units that don't wear the Red Bull patch have also been alerted, but that's another post.

Fair warning: Just because I'm in the same unit as the Brassy Big Wigs doesn't mean that I've got some sort of inside track or scoop or angle. I usually just try to keep my head down and focus on doing my job. In future posts, as I begin to tell you more about that job, it would become painfully obvious that I was working in a headquarters organization of some sort. All I'd have to do is describe some of the computer systems that we use, for example, or talk about our topsy-top-heavy officer-to-soldier ratio, or complain about being tasked to fix the broken espresso machine in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), and you'd be on to me.

Some soldiers and veterans, upon learning that I word in a headquarters, might automatically label me a "FOBbit," a "REMF" (that's "rear-echelon mother f-----"), or a "TOC-rat." These are derogatory, demeaning terms, meant to demoralize those of us with the stamina, mental focus, and bladder discipline required to give the warfighter our full attention, the instant he calls for artillery fire, Close Air Support (CAS), or more ammunition. We are ... the Help Desk of the Apocalypse.

I told you that story so that I could tell you this one:

The brigade commander pulled the entire Headquarters Company into a room last weekend, and did a great job of pushing out information about what he knows and doesn't know, and even what his best-guesses are, regarding our pending deployment. And, even though he told people it would be OK to repeat anything discussed in that meeting, I think that, given my recent musing and ranting on OPSEC topics, I'll summarize and even sanitize it a little more here:
  • Our brigade will probably get a mobilization order within weeks or months, which will set a relatively concrete "mobilization day." At "M-day," a unit goes from state to federal control. The "12-months boots on ground" maximum-time for National Guard deployment actually begins on M-day. The brigade commander said that, since the rule was put in place, not one unit has been extended beyond that cap. (That's a big deal, particular for those "Red Bull" soldiers and families that deployed with 1st BCT, 34th Infantry Division in 2005-07: 16 months in country; 22 months total.)
  • Following M-day, our brigade would spend between 30 to 60 days at a "mobilization station"--an active-Army or larger National-Guard/Reserve post. During this time, soldiers who had not yet been tested on their "common skills"--the ones that each soldier must know how to perform, regardless of rank or function--would be tested. We'd also train collectively--each of us in our specialty functions, working together as a team.
  • The brigade would move from mobilization station to a national-level training center, at which all our units would participate in a large-scale exercise simulating some of the missions we'd expect to perform downrange.
  • The brigade would then move downrange, perform its mission, and return home not later than 12 months from M-day.
A couple of buddies were joking that the deployment has seemingly already begun, given the number of weekends we've been working. (A lot of us are now on temporary active-duty, and are in uniform 7-days-a-week.) That same joke wasn't quite as funny when Household-6 observed the same: I won't have had any time off from mid-February to April 1, and she's both worried about me and feeling a little stretched herself. Last weekend, the brigade commander said that we should all focus on our families right now, and focus on getting ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually ready for deployment.

If only we had the time.

08 March 2010

Don't Ask, We Won't Tell

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been trying to figure out why I reacted negatively to some well-intended questions during my extended airport delays last week, but more positively to others. I started a list of questions I personally hoped wouldn't be asked of me--at least until I could think up some better answers. Some other citizen-soldiers might be better able to apply verbal-judo to deflect some of these, but I'm not one of them. I've heard some of these first-hand, others through news and buddy-reports.

Questions Not to Ask a Soldier You've Just Met:
  • "Where are you all traveling?"
  • "Do you want to be deployed?"
  • "When is your unit deploying?"
  • "To where is your unit deploying?"
  • "How long will you be gone?"
  • "Do you believe we should be over there?"
  • "Have you ever killed someone?"
  • "Have you ever been hit by an IED?"
  • "What do you think about Bush/Obama?"
That last question is a favorite ice-breaker of nosy taxi drivers around the world. (It's either "Bush good!" or "Bush very bad--but I love Amrika!") Here, in my own country, the question is still way above my pay-grade. Besides, the president is in my chain-of-command, and I'm wearing the American flag. I don't bad-mouth the boss, no matter who he is and what his politics are.

So don't ask me to.

07 March 2010

OPSEC and the 'Dear-in-the-Headlights' Look

In terms of Operational Security (OPSEC), my kids' daycare leaks like a sieve. Back in November 2008--that's what, 18 months ago--then 4-year-old Lena and the Sherpa family were seated for Thanksgiving-themed lunch at her daycare. Other kids had brought their families. Since I was then on "temporary stateside active-duty," I was in Army uniform. So was the mother seated across from us. It turned out I worked with her husband--he was also a soldier--on my National Guard drill weekends.

She, herself, wore a different unit patch than I. Instead of being part of Iowa's "Red Bull" brigade, she worked with the state's National Guard medical clinic, the people who make sure that soldiers have all their shots (and hundreds of other medical benefits) prior to deployment.

"I was hired to help out with the brigade's deployment," she says, while introducing herself to my spouse.

It is November 2008. At the time, my unit had just been "nominated" for deployment, the first of many steps down the road of calling a National Guard unit to federal service. At the time, there wasn't even an "alert." I hadn't even told Household-6 about the possibility of a deployment--such notifications are practically routine, and very subject to change. Why worry the family?

It was a quiet drive home after lunch.

Since then, my unit hasn't apparently dropped off the nomination list. In fact, there's a more-official-but-still-not-the-real-deal "alert," telling us to get ready for a possible deployment in late summer 2010. Not too many details there.

The Army takes OPSEC seriously, so I take OPSEC seriously. Remember those World War II "Loose Lips Sink Ships" posters that hung on the wall of your high-school history teacher's room? The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Since my family's first experience with security breaches at daycare, we've encountered any number of similar circumstances. Household-6 first heard about the alert from the uniformed father--he's a buddy--of one of Lena's classmates. "Is your husband ready to go?" she was asked.

At Lena's fifth birthday party, another father with a short haircut starts talking about various personnel comings and goings in my unit. He tells me my unit's deployment date. I ask what outfit he's with. "Oh, I'm not in the military," he says. "I just like military stuff."

It's all very well-intended, I'm sure--and definitely NOT in keeping with good OPSEC practice.

Friends and family and people on the street don't get why citizen-soldiers like me--who have had it beaten into them that you don't give out details about the who, what, when, where, and why of military missions--sometimes get the deer-in-the-headlights (at home, I guess that would be "DEAR-in-the-headlights"?) when they're just trying to be friendly.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. Last week, when I was repeatedly stuck in airports and hotels while wearing my Army uniform, I found myself reacting more positively to some strangers' questions than others. Apparently, my internal fight-or-flight instincts are less likely to be engaged by questions such as "where are you from" and "how are you doing," rather than "what do you do in the Army" and "where are all you soldiers headed?" The latter just automatically puts me on the defensive, even when I don't want to be. It's not you, it's me. It's OPSEC.

This past week, the Israeli military had to cancel an operation after one of its soldiers posted details via Facebook. The soldier revealed the time and place of a raid on a Palestinian village. This AFTER the Israeli military had launched a "Facebook isn't necessarily your friend" awareness campaign:
In military bases, posters show a mock Facebook page with images of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Below their pictures and a Facebook friend request, the slogan reads, "You think that everyone is your friend?"
I need one of those for my kids' daycare ...

I'd put it right next to the "Don't Talk to Strangers" poster.

06 March 2010

The Strength Behind the Strong

Friend-of-friends, mil-spouse, and former-Iowan Christine Hoffman-Bourque recently launched a blog that illuminates simple ways people can celebrate and support the troops. In her Valentine's Day inaugural post (nice touch, no?), she admits her "The Strength Behind the Strong" is a bit of a tongue-twister, but I'd rather learn to enunciate "TSBTS" than a whole pallet-full of less-useful military acronyms. Here's how she describes her reasoning, and her purpose:
Yes, the name of this website is a mouthful. I blame the military for that: I’m just worn out from being bombarded with — and perpetually befuddled by — military acronyms. So I went in the opposite direction: wordy and long, but clear in purpose.

The Strength Behind the Strong will spotlight imaginative and useful ideas for Americans who have loved ones in the military. We’ll tackle everything from the practical (tips on mailing care packages) and the patriotic (how to dispose of worn-out flags) to the celebratory (welcome-home party ideas).
Good luck and Godspeed, TSBTS. I look forward to lending you my voice and artillery fires as required.

05 March 2010

These Boots are Made for Climbing

Water-cooler conversations in the Red Bull armory this week are all about the prospects of fielding the "new" MultCam uniform. The Army has announced it will be issued to units heading to Afghanistan later this year. (That's us.) Also, the unit was specifically mentioned in news reports regarding MultiCam. Still, nobody working in Supply has seen anything official. Too early for that.

There are those of us who like the new pattern. There are those of us who hate the idea of yet another set of subdued patches (probably tan and brown, like those on the Desert Camouflage Uniform--the "DCU"), and of mixing-and-matching uniforms downrange. (When you're halfway between home and the other end of the world, what will you do with your "old" Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) uniforms when the Army issues you 100-percent "new" equipment? Just how many duffel bags does each soldier get?)

Still, it's fun to talk about. Sure beats trying to make sense of the latest military-political news, whether from Over There or Over Here. The latest tempest in a canteen cup here in Iowa? The Republicans and Democrats arguing about who is politicizing the troops more, following the governor's recent trip to visit Iowans in Iraq. 'Nuff said.

The MultiCam news just keeps giving and giving. News today was that there's a new "mountain combat boot," too. Of course, this is one week after I bought a new set of comfy, warm desert boots. (Early this year, I bought a new sage-green computer bag that will be the wrong color in the new MultiCam-verse.) Maybe I should threaten to buy a new car, in hopes that Uncle Sam will announce that every soldier gets a new tank for driving around town?

04 March 2010

Back on the Net

Sorry about that. Fell off the writing wagon for a few days. Apparently, the intellectual obstacle course that I'd been on for about 14 days had taken more of a toll that I'd thought. When I finally got home to Iowa, after two-extra-days-and-a-wake-up getting connections out of Pennsylvania, I proceeded to celebrate a late President's Day holiday by sleeping about 14 hours straight.

That's not normal. Gotta recharge the old batteries.

I haven't had a good and true weekend for about a month. I haven't even gotten around to a handful of posts started following last drill weekend, and it's already time for another one. The type of orders I'm on now--Active Duty for Operational Support (ADOS, pronounced "ay-doss")--requires that I work Monday through Friday, plus the regular monthly drill weekends, plus any other time necessary to complete the mission. In short, Uncle Sam owns me and my little brain 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Household-6 tells me the cabinets that I've been trying to get right for about a year have been delivered to the local Home Depot. I need to find time to get that done, along with countless other little things.

I've got a lot to tell you about. Things like practicing how to rollover in a Humvee, and the nifty Army computer stuff I learned in Pennsylvania, and how it's a toss-up what presents a threat to my unit's Operational Security (OPSEC)--Facebook or daycare. I also want to continue my musings on the Red Bull Film Festival project, and to tell you about finishing the book "Three Cups of Tea." I'm play-testing some new "camping" equipment, too.

All in good time, of course.

01 March 2010

Pennsylvania State of Mind

Those readers who also monitor this blog's "Facebook net" already know that I spent most of the weekend attempting to get on a plane that would take me home to Iowa. I was stuck in Harrisburg, Penn., starting Friday afternoon. I was booked and rebooked five times, was bumped into tomorrow twice, and achieved first-name relations with any number of friendly faces at the airport, and the hotel, and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) security desk, and the hotel shuttle service, and so on.

Of course, I was in uniform, and that helped break the ice. No matter your brand of camouflage, there's no hiding when you're dressed like a digital tree in the middle of the airport. I normally try to avoid traveling in uniform for that reason alone. That, and I'm always self-conscious about wearing the flag on my right shoulder. You wear the uniform, you represent your country. That means putting on a happy and professional face at all times. And post-September-11 airline travel makes me feel anything but happy and professional.

I'm old enough to remember when flying was fun, regardless of your age. Flying was romantic, almost an escape. There were peanuts. There were little meals, fit for hungry astronauts. There were even planes available, when and where the airline scheduled planes to be available.

By comparison, this past weekend was potentially a grudging, trudging, uncomfortable affair--an exercise as much in futility as potential family practice for the upcoming deployment. Lena, 5, and Rain, 3, are having trouble understanding why Daddy keeps promising that he's coming home, and then doesn't deliver the goods. Household-6 is re-learning that the Army's "hurry up and wait" includes frustrations akin to "naming the dog 'Stay.'" ("C'mere, Stay, c'mere!") She was counting on me being home Friday, so that I could take care of the kids during a few social and church obligations. She had to adapt, improvise, and overcome, and lived to tell about it.

On my end, I was generally tired of people after two weeks of intellectually intense Army training. I was wearing a 4-day-old uniform, hadn't had much more than 4 hours of sleep when I showed up to the airport the first time. I hadn't changed into civilian clothes, because the uniform was the cleanest and warmest thing that I had available. In short, I was on the edge of feeling pretty grumpy and lonely, but ... Pennsylvanians wouldn't have any of that. Instead, wthout my asking, Pennsylvanians brought out their best on my behalf. In doing so, they brought out the best in me.

I can't tell you how many small kindnesses were committed on my behalf during my unplanned 48-hour-stay in Harrisburg, Penn. Delta Airlines gate agent Stephanie had me automatically rebooked at the first cancellation Friday night. "I always look out for Iowans," she told me. (A day or so later, while booking attempt No. 5, she let me know that she was originally from Spirit Lake, Iowa.) Later, she would ask whether I was heading home or heading downrange. ("If you're heading home," she said. "We try even harder--that's your family's time.")

Ticket and gate agent Steve troubleshot his way through an arcane mix of airline codes and military travel-agent nonsense, "transferring" and "associating" and "opening" my ticket three or four times over.

I literally saw Stephanie physically toss the rulebook aside. One delta employee, who identified himself only as "a vet," then ran from one airline desk to another, trying to find me a seat on any other carrier. He came back empty-handed, but, by then, that didn't matter--I was surprised, grateful, and impressed.

Pat, the woman driving the Courtyard Marriott shuttle, greeted me warmly on my first bag-drag back to the hotel, and not only told me which restaurants were within walking distance to the hotel, but which ones were worth the walk. She greeted me with sympathy when she saw me waiting at her stop the second day.

There was the nameless blue-shirted TSA employee, who advised me that I didn't need to unlace and remove my boots every time I went through security screening. Service members are apparently exempt, as long as their footgear doesn't contain metal. (Like the old jungle boots did--or the steel-toed desert boots.)

Eric, the front desk at the hotel, tried to book me right back into the room I'd had my first night in town. When it wasn't available, he booked me on the first floor--right next to guest laundry. Then he gave me some laundry detergent, so I could arrive at home later-but-cleaner than originally planned.

The countless airport employees and fellow passengers who said "thanks for your service." I get choked up just thinking about all of it.

I briefly visited the 28th Infantry Division Memorial on Fort Indiantown Gap during my recent training there. The oldest divisional organization in the U.S. Army, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 28th Infantry Division is the "Keystone Division," and they wear a bright-red patch that's nicknamed the "bloody bucket." The division's motto since World War II is "roll on."

The celebrated last words heard from the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, before it crashed into Stoneycreek Township, Penn., were "Let's Roll."

So, where am I headed with all this, other than home? A handful of Pennsylvanians earned my ever-living gratitude for their kindness, hospitality, and quiet patriotism. They're in it to win, and they don't make a big deal of it. That's just how they roll.