27 September 2010

Radio Silence

If you're reading this, it is likely that I have succeeded in joining the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division on training maneuvers at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif.

This training event requires a communications blackout. While "in the box," soldiers are barred from possessing cell phones, personal computers, and even MP3 players.

I look forward to resuming regular Red Bull Rising posts not later than October 18.

Until then,

"Attack!"

24 September 2010

Theories of Time and Space

If you are open-minded and observant, you can sometimes detect the presence of angels--even if you don't particularly believe in them.

Long-time friends will recognize that I tend to get both faithful and fatalistic when it comes to big life decisions: Whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen. Some people might call that living in the present, or being mindful. As a good Lutheran boy, however, I choose to ascribe it to a powerful and loving God--a being supreme enough that he probably thinks it's funny that I give him so much credit.

Life is a journey, but it's more like steering a canoe than it is driving a car. You can shift it this way or that way a little, but you're always moving forward, and you'd better anticipate the occasional rapids.

When Household-6 and I found out that I was going to deploy to Afghanistan, we put ourselves in God's hands. When we found out, dramatically and suddenly, that I would not be deploying to Afghanistan--that, in fact, I would be retired by the end of the year--we tried the same tack:

"Maybe we have learned what we were supposed to learn, just from the experience of making preparations," we told ourselves. Little did we know.

A few days later, I was back in uniform. This time, I was assigned to help my Red Bull buddies get to Afghanistan. Traveling back and forth to Camp Shelby, Miss., has turned out to be a strange blessing, because it's kept me in touch with my buddies and my unit, far longer than I would have otherwise.

I can't predict where my family's new path may lead, but I know that am occasionally visited by angels of coincidence. Today, on Iowa Public Radio, Garrison Keillor read a poem by Natasha Tretheway on his daily "Writer's Alamanac" program. Titled "Theories of Time and Space," the poem begins, "You can get there from here, though there's no going home. Everywhere you go will be somewhere you've never been."

There are too many coincidences happening to me right now. Almost daily, obstacles are removed, opportunities are presented, and happy coincidences flash by like roadsigns. Here's one such example: Tretheway's poem moves on to explore a drive along Highway 49, the very road I've traveled repeatedly between Gulfport and Camp Shelby. I have walked this ground; I am walking this ground.

The title of the poem?

"Native Guard."

***

(Here's an Amazon link to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, in case you are as inspired as I am to explore Tretheway's work.)

23 September 2010

Update on Vermont's Green Mountain Boys

Earlier this week, Red Bull Rising presented remarks from Maj. Gen. John Campbell ("Eagle-6"), commander of the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division, currently deployed to Regional Command-East (RC-East), Afghanistan. These comments were part of a regular series of publicly disseminated messages from the commander.

In his message, Campbell specifically mentioned Vermont's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.), a National Guard unit currently under his command that is operating in the Parwan, Panjshir, and Bamiyan Provinces.

Here are excerpts of a recent National Guard Bureau (N.G.B.) news release, which describes the 86th IBCT commander's impressions at the "third quarter" mark of his unit's mission.

On current conditions in his unit's Area of Operations (A.O.):
"Across the board we are seeing a lot of success in separating the insurgents from the population, a lot of success in building infrastructure and a lot of success in helping the Afghans build institutions of government, so they can help their people,” said Army Col. Will Roy, commander of Vermont’s 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

“We are continuing to see improvement day-by day. Certainly there are some days where you take three steps forward and four backwards. For those days, you have others where you take four steps forward and you stay there.”

In some areas of the country, you can walk through the bazaars with no body armor, Roy said.
On working with Afghan National Security Forces (A.N.S.F.):
By working with their Afghan partners on a daily basis, they have a better understanding of “who we are and why we are here,” Roy said.

He added that the Afghans believe that without the coalition forces there would be “utter chaos.” They are creating a “buffer zone” for the Vermont troops, who are training the Afghan Security Forces to take over the mission.

“(They) are almost there,” Roy said. The new Afghan battalions need their greatest attention, because “we have to show them what right looks like."
On losing Vermont soldiers:
Two Soldiers from the brigade were killed on Aug. 22: Sgt. Tristan Southworth of Walden, Vt., and Sgt. Steven Deluzio of Glastonbury, Conn.

“Losing ... our Soldiers is one of the most difficult things,” Roy said. “We believe the best way to pay tribute to them is to carry on with this mission of helping the Afghans build a government that will provide safety and security for its population, so that it can never be used again to attack our nation or any other nation.

“And that their children have the same opportunities that our children do -- that is to grow up safe and secure, have a chance for to education, have access to health care, clean water and a just a brighter future.”
On the deployment so far:
“It’s really one of those missions that keeps you on your toes,” he said. “When you wake in the morning, you don’t know what to expect. And by the time you go to back to bed, you look back and think wow that was a long day. The days are really long, but the weeks go by very fast.”

[...]

“We know our replacements are at their mobilization stations. We see the light at the end of the tunnel and know that we can turn around and look the other way and see the accomplishments in the time that we have been here.”

22 September 2010

'Screaming Eagles 101,' Part 2

Excerpt of Afghan political map (above) from www.understandingwar.org.

Continuing the format of yesterday's Red Bull Rising blog post, the following presents annotated and excerpted comments from Maj. Gen. John Campbell ("Eagle-6"), commander of the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division. The division is currently deployed to Regional Command-East (RC-East), Afghanistan. Dated earlier this month, these comments were part of a regular series of publicly disseminated messages from the commander.

These remarks are of potential interest to Red Bull Rising readers, given the likelihood that all or part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division will, upon arrival to Afghanistan, work under Campbell's command. In short, it provides a "Screaming Eagles 101" primer on the Red Bull's future operational environment.

Red Bull Rising notes on acronyms used in this message:
  • "C.A.B." (pronounced "kab") stands for "Combat Aviation Brigade." Because of its historical role in fulfilling helicopter-borne missions, The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) is the only U.S. Army division to include two aviation brigades.
  • "FOB" (pronounced "faub") stands for "Forward Operating Base."
  • "GiROA" stands for "Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."
  • "ANSF" (sometimes pronounced "an-sif") stands for "Afghan National Security Forces," and includes both army and police units.
Eagle-6 sends:
The Currahees are now in charge of their battlespace, the Paktika Province. They assumed their battlespace on 8 September. They are the final piece of the "surge", I have mentioned continuity in previous updates, and how we are trying to maintain as much continuity with units as we can, and the Currahees are a prime example. 1-506 is back in Sharana ... where they were on their last deployment, and 2-506 is back at FOB Orgun-E ... also where they were before. About 60% of the battalions were on the last deployment, and have rekindled relationships with Afghans they met on the last deployment. The Currahees complete the deployment of Force Package 3, the last of President Obama’s surge announced earlier this year.

We now have the 101st Division Headquarters, Bastogne (1BCT, 101st), Strike (2BCT, 101st), Rakkasan (3BCT, 101st), Currahee (4BCT, 101st), and Destiny (101st CAB) in Afghanistan. The Sustainment Brigade Headquarters will join us here later this fall, and 159th CAB will replace the 101st CAB in the JAN/FEB timeframe. This makes the first time that an entire US Division is deployed to Afghanistan.

Bastogne (1BCT, 101st) has received 1-61 Cavalry Squadron from the Currahees, and has conducted operations in Laghman Province and Nangarhar Province to set conditions for TF Panther. They continue to face a determined insurgent force in their area with increased IEDs on southern routes and attacks on COPs and FOBs in Kunar Province.

Strike (2BCT, 101st) continues to improve security in the Maiwand, Zharey, and Arghandab Districts of RC-South. They recently bid farewell to 2-508th Infantry who redeployed to Fort Bragg, and recently welcomed the 1-66 Armor from the 1st “Raider” Brigade of 4th ID.

Rakkasans (3BCT, 101st) continue to face a determined enemy who, as mentioned above, is suffering from a failed attack. Rakkasans have relinquished Paktika to the Currahees, and now focus on Paktiya and Khowst Provinces. 3-187 has moved to East Ghazni, and will work for Task Force White Eagle, the Polish Brigade. 1-187 will go down to RC-South to assist in operations there.

Bayonet (173rd Airborne) focuses on Logar and Wardak provinces. They have helped GIRoA respond to the flooding in their area of operations. Recently, 60 farmers in Wardak attended agriculture training designed to improve their farming methods. Like the rest of CJTF-101, they are preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Lafayette (the French Brigade) remains focused on conducting operations to disrupt the insurgents’ ability to impact Highway 7. In the Kapisa Province, they have conducted operations in Alasay, Bedraou, and Tag Ab valleys. Tracing the roots of the French working with the 101st back to World War II, they are very proud to be working with us again, and can frequently be heard saying, “Air Assault!”

White Eagle (the Polish Brigade) has received 3-187 Infantry from Rakkasans, and is conducting operations along Highway 1 to disrupt insurgent IED cells. They are also preparing to transition in the next contingent of Polish forces who begin arriving later this month.

Wolverine (86th IBCT- Vermont NG) continues to conduct operations in Parwan, Panjshir, and Bamyan. Partnered with governors and ANSF leaders, their civilian led Provincial Reconstruction Teams continue to make positive progress in the most stable provinces of RC-East.

Falcon (3rd CAB) and Destiny (101st CAB) both continue outstanding support to conventional and special operations forces [S.O.F.] in both RC-East and RC-South respectively. They routinely coordinate for nightly contingency operations while maintaining the flexibility for time-sensitive targets as required. SOF missions account for 52% of 479 missions flown over the past nine months by 3rd CAB in RC-East and 69% of 216 missions flown in five months by 101st CAB in RC-South. They manage to do this while providing lift and attack helicopters to support the rest of the Coalition Forces in RC-East, RC-Capital, and RC-South.

Back at Fort Campbell, the Lifeliners (101st Sustainment Brigade) and Eagle Thunder (159th CAB) continue their preparations for their upcoming deployments. Lifeliners just completed their Command Post Exercise, and are in their final preparations for deployment as they prepare their colors casing and block leave in October. Thunder is conducting off-post training events in preparation for an air training exercise in December. They have a little more time to train, and will deploy after the New Year. [...]

21 September 2010

'Screaming Eagles 101,' Part 1

The following post presents annotated and excerpted comments from Maj. Gen. John Campbell ("Eagle-6"), commander of the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division, currently deployed to Regional Command-East (RC-East), Afghanistan. Dated earlier this month, these comments were part of a regular series of publicly disseminated messages from the commander.

These remarks are of potential interest to Red Bull Rising readers, given the likelihood that all or part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT) will, upon arrival to Afghanistan later this year, work under Campbell's command. In short, it provides a "Screaming Eagles 101" primer on the Red Bull's future operational environment.

Notes on acronyms used in this message:
  • "C.A.B." (pronounced "kab") stands for "Combat Aviation Brigade." Because of its historical role in helicopter-borne missions, The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) is the only U.S. Army division to include two aviation brigades.
  • "FOB" (pronounced "faub") stands for "Forward Operating Base."
  • "GiROA" stands for "Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."
Eagle-6 on "Why We Fight":
[...] The specific reasons we continue to fight in Afghanistan are more complex. We are here to disrupt Al Qaida and other transnational extremist organizations. We are here to prevent extremists from having a safe haven for training camps where they can plan future attacks. We are here to strengthen and enhance the government and security forces of a country attempting to re-establish some sense of normalcy in a war-ravaged country.

For the people of Afghanistan this is important because it provides them hope for the future after nearly 30 years of war. For Americans and many other countries around the world, we are here to provide for safer environments for our Families, free from fear that terrorists will once again kill thousands of innocent people.
Eagle-6 on recent insurgent attacks:
You may have heard about insurgents attacking Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno and FOB Chapman on 28 August. An estimated 50-60 insurgents near simultaneously massed to attack both of these FOBs that are a couple miles apart. During the attacks, we suffered four Soldiers wounded in action, three of whom were quickly returned to duty. The enemy, however, suffered a disruptive blow against his ability to conduct an effective attack against the FOBs in the near future.

In addition to the 41 insurgents killed, we captured 13 suicide vests, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), and various other weapons. This attack failed as did an attack in June on FOB Fenty in Jalalabad and a third attack on Bagram in May. The Haqqani network leadership orchestrated these attacks from relative safety in Pakistan hoping for a spectacular display. All three of these attacks were quickly defeated and the cowardly leadership continues to hide in Pakistan while sending ill-equipped and ill-trained insurgents to fight against a strong coalition of well-equipped, trained, and disciplined Soldiers.
Eagle-6 on Afghan civilian casualties:
Another thing we do not do a good job of explaining is the primary cause for civilian casualties (CIVCAS) here in Afghanistan. A few months ago, if you were to watch the news, you might think that coalition forces were responsible for all the CIVCAS here in Afghanistan. That incorrect perception is beginning to change, and the true picture is beginning to emerge.

The facts show that only 10% of CIVCAS is caused by coalition forces, 4% ANSF, and 86% by the insurgents. Even one civilian casualty is a tragedy, and our forces put a lot of effort into training and planning to minimize the potential to cause civilian casualties. We have seen the insurgents target the civilian population to intimidate and spread fear. The insurgents have no qualms about killing innocent women and children, or dressing as women in burkhas and then blowing themselves up to cause as much harm to civilians as they can. Again almost 90% of CIVCAS is caused by the insurgents...that ought to speak for itself. [...]
Eagle-6 on losses to coalition forces:
The last 10 days [this was posted on Sept. 12, 2010] have been difficult for our forces. We have lost 8 Soldiers since my last update on 1 September. Our coalition units (all attached other than 101st) have now lost 27 Soldiers, and we have lost 49 101st Soldiers. I ask that you keep all of our Coalition Forces in your thoughts and prayers. Also, please pray for all of our Families, they sacrifice so much and rarely receive the recognition they deserve. We should never forget the sacrifices they endure to enable us and our coalition members to serve our respective countries.
To be continued in tomorrow's Red Bull Rising post ...

20 September 2010

Girding the Blog for War

Regular readers of Red Bull Rising may have noticed a few changes, particularly in the right-hand "blog-roll" columns.

These changes are intended to better reflect and recommend resources for tracking the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry Division on its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

Blog-roll categories now include:
  • "Herd Around the Net": Media blogs covering the 2-34 BCT and related units.
  • "Dirt from Downrange": Blogs directly and indirectly related to the 2-34 BCT's pending deployment.
  • "Intel & Insights": National and international perspectives to help place the Red Bull deployment into larger context.
  • "My Loyal Jirga": Blogs of friends, colleagues, and advisors to Red Bull Rising. This blog wouldn't be where it is today without the assistance of each of these good people.
  • "Love, Honor & Support: How to celebrate, commemorate, and support our citizen-soldiers and their families.
As always, I encourage readers to watch and read these resources in the months to come. Afghanistan is a confusing and complex topic area, and we're all in this together.

Also, as I occasionally must remind myself to do, I'd like to personally invite you to "follow" (the blog), "subscribe" (via RSS reader), or "like" (via Facebook) the Red Bull Rising blog. (Here's a quick "how-to" primer from a previous Red Bull Rising post.)

Become a regular Red Bull reader! Recommend it to friends and family! It's free, it's fun, and it's even occasionally full of "it"--whatever "it" is!

17 September 2010

Wearing the 'Steak Sandwich'

Here's another installment from Red Bull Rising's series titled, "How to Read a Uniform." On the U.S. Army uniform, the unit patch is worn on the left sleeve. As we discussed earlier this week, most of the soldiers currently assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT) wear the red bull patch designed by artist Marvin Cone in 1917.

The exception is the Nebraska Army National Guard's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134 Cavalry). They wear the "Pike"--a pole arm similar to a spear, once used by medieval troops--of the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade (Bf.S.B.). If I were more clever, I'd make some joke about bullfighting and Picadors, but then I'd also be forced to observe that the bull never seems to do very well in those types of sporting events. Secret memo to self: "Pikes always beat bulls."

Olé!

All 2-34 BCT soldiers, regardless of whether they have the Pike or the Red Bull on their sleeves, will wear Red Bull insignia on their Advanced Combat Helmets (A.C.H.). (See photo, above, for what that looks like.)

U.S. soldiers who have deployed to a combat area are allowed to wear a "Shoulder Sleeve Insignia" patch on their right sleeve, a tradition that goes back to World War I. Rules regarding these "combat patches" have changed a little in recent years, but generally the soldier wears the patch of the lowest-level deployable headquarters to which the soldier was assigned combat duty.

Only the U.S. Army wears combat patches, although recent practice allowed select Army units to wear the insignia of U.S. Marine units under which they had served.

Veterans of the following recent deployments may wear the Red Bull patch on both the left and right sleeves:
  • Operation Enduring Freedom (O.E.F.), 2004-2005: Task Force 168 (1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment).
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom (O.I.F.), 2005-2007: 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (1-34 BCT).
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2007-2008: 34th Infantry Division Headquarters.
Occasionally, you'll hear the double-bull patch referred to by soldiers as a "steak sandwich." (Get it?! A bull on each side!) I've also heard it called a "doub-bull," and pronounced like those old Saturday Night Live skits about Chicago's Michael Jordan: "DA-bulls!"

(Remember the Iowa National Guard's 734th Agri-business Development Team? They wear Iowa National Guard's "Hawkeye" patch on their left, and now the "Screaming Eagle" of the 101st Airborne Division on their right. Does this qualify as a "chicken sandwich"? Only if you want to start a fight!)

16 September 2010

The Dirt Warriors from Iowa

Monday's Red Bull Rising post weeded through some Army acronymns related to the "advise-and-assist" mission in Afghanistan. Today, I'd like to drill down into one of these missions, the Agriculture Development Team (A.D.T.), also sometimes called "Agri-business Development Teams."

According to Army literature, ADTs work with the provincial authorities to provide agriculture-specific training on:
  • Water and soil conservation and management.
  • Animal husbandry (goats, sheep, cattle, donkeys, and horses).
  • Orchard management (apples, peaches, almonds, apricots, etc.).
  • Alfalfa and wheat production.
  • Vegetable production.
  • Agriculture marketing.
  • Extension programs and education.
  • Irrigation techniques and efficiency.
There are currently nine ADTs in Afghanistan, including a group of Iowa National Guard soldiers and airmen deployed to Kunar Province in Eastern Afghanistan. The 734th Agri-business Development Team takes its formal name from the 734th Regional Support Group (R.S.G.), but has quickly re-branded itself the "Dirt-Warriors."

The ADT is keeping people back home well-informed via Facebook and other means. It's also had plenty of adventures already, including:
On their left shoulders, 734th RSG personnel wear the same "Hawkeye" patch worn by all Iowa Army National Guard soldiers not assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" division. Recently, however, the Dirt-Warriors put on their right-shoulder "combat patches"--the "Screaming Eagle" of the 101st Airborne Division!

15 September 2010

The Bull, the Hawk, and the Pike

A quick and visual history lesson today ... File this knowledge under "Know your patches"!

The Red Bull patch was designed by American regionalist painter Marvin Cone. Cone was a National Guard soldier stationed at Camp Cody, N.M. with the 34th Infantry Division (not yet nicknamed the "Red Bull") during World War I. What's a "regionalist" painter? Cone was a friend and colleague of Grant Wood, the latter the artist of such revered works as "American Gothic," "Arbor Day," and "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Think "guy with pitchfork standing next to his sister in front of house with a church-shaped window," and you'll be close.

The "Hawkeye" patch, which is currently worn by members of the Iowa Army National Guard not otherwise assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, mirrors the "olla" jug shape in somewhat larger form. The patch was originally designed as the unit crest for the 34th Infantry Division headquarters and separate units of the division, including the 67th Infantry Brigade.

The patch features the profile of a hawk, and blue and gold laurels. The latter evokes the French influence on the state, which was part of the Louisiana Purchase. The former is symbolic of Iowa as the "Hawkeye" state.

Why the Hawkeye? The state's official nickname was partly due to the efforts of two boosters shortly after statehood: Judge David Rorer or Burlington and newspaper publisher James G. Edwards of Fort Madision, and later of Burlington.

Rorer was apparently an enthusiast of James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote "The Last of the Mohicans." In that book, the nickname "Hawkeye" is affixed to the scout Natty Bumppo. Edwards was a friend of Chief Blackhawk, and saw an opportunity to commemorate the Native American in the term "Hawkeye." He re-named his newspaper the "Burlington Hawk-eye and Iowa Patriot." The newspaper continues publication to this day.

The Nebraska National Guard's 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade (B.f.S.B.) is a possible successor to the 67th Infantry Brigade, although the Iowa National Guard's administrative 67th Troop Command is perhaps just as likely to be related. Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134th Cavalry), as well as other soldiers of the 67th BfSB, are currently deploying with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34 BCT).

The Nebraskans wear the left-shoulder unit patch depicting a "pike," a heavy pole-arm once wielded by medieval troops. Pikes are like spears on crack: There's the pointy end for skewering your enemies, there's a hook for tripping your enemies, and a smaller pointy bit for bashing your enemies. All it needs is a can opener or a corkscrew attachment.

The 67th BfSB is often referred to as the "Pike" brigade. One should avoid calling Nebraskans "pikers," however, because in some places in the world, that word is defined as "one who does not participate, or who stops participating."

Trust me--they're more than participating.

14 September 2010

Advice and Assistance on Army Acronyms

There are four inter-related acronyms you need to know in order to understand U.S. strategy and tactics in Afghanistan. Each of these regards methods of advising and assisting Afghans in how to govern, administer, defend, and police their country. Notably, they also relate to some of the unique strengths and capabilities to be found in the U.S. National Guard.

The acronyms are:
Embedded Training Teams are 8- to 16-soldier teams tasked with mentoring Afghan military, police, border guards, and civilian counterparts. A number of Red Bull soldiers deploying with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division have previous deployment experiences as ETT members.

In Iraq, the U.S. military call such organizations “MiTTs” (pronounced like the baseball equipment), which stands for “Military Transition Teams.” You could always tell whether a U.S. soldier was talking Iraq or Afghanistan by which acronym they used.

In Afghanistan, NATO allies call their ETTs “Omelettes,” which stands for “Operational Mentor Liaison Teams (OMLT).” As a U.S. soldier, you could find yourself working as part of an OMLT or an ETT, depending on which country was in charge of the mission. Insert "It's a Small World" or "Tower of Babel" joke here.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.) assist the provincial governor and his (or her) staff on building civilian infrastructure and governance. The teams range in size from 60 to more than 100 civilian and military personnel. The military members of these teams are "joint"--made up of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. Not all PRTs are U.S.-led. Currently in Eastern Afghanistan, for example, there are PRTs from South Korea, New Zealand, Turkey, and the Czech Republic.

In 2005-06, Task Force 1-168 comprised approximately 700 soldiers assigned to the Iowa Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168 Infantry). These Red Bull soldiers provided security at PRT sites across Afghanistan.

Agriculture Development Teams (A.D.T.)-–also called “Agri-business Development Teams”—are teams of Army and Air National Guard soldiers who have civilian experiences working in agriculture and business. Partnered with U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) employees, U.S. colleges and university extension experts, and Afghan agriculture authorities, these teams work in northern and eastern Afghanistan to help improve crop quality, livestock productivity, and ag-business practices.

Operations Coordination Center-Provincial (pronounced "O.C.C.P.", but spelled "OCC-P.") are teams that work with Afghan police and civil authorities regarding response to natural disasters, crime reduction, and other issues. Given their experiences supporting local and state civil authorities during natural and man-made disasters, National Guard soldiers are very familiar with this type of working relationship and mission.

Ready to put some of this together?
According to one Vermont National Guard soldier currently downrange, his ETT’s duties in Bamiyan Province include:

13 September 2010

Scenes from a Football Game

Prior to Saturday's Iowa-Iowa State game, soldiers of Alpha Troop, First Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment (A/1/113 Cavalry) had tastefully mounted Hawkeye and Cyclone flags on what appeared to be the tall, thin radio antennas of their headquarters building.

Not to be outdone, solders from the Headquarters Company, 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334 B.S.B) hung their battling banners off the big honking cranes of two HEMTT (pronounced "hemmet") trucks.

There was just enough of a hot breeze to catch the fabric, but getting both flags to appear simultaneously was a little difficult. Passersby would try their luck at capturing the perfect flag photo, then move on to the party.

Nearby, the BSB chaplain had instigated a tailgate in one of the Camp Shelby dayrooms--buildings with comfy chairs and foosball tables, which serve as government-issue rec rooms. A BSB soldier had hooked into the game feed using some combination of satellite TV, wireless Internet, and black magic. Given the technical know-how and sheer gumption, I'm pretty sure that means he or she went to ISU. But I'm a little biased.

Outside, the battalion's command sergeant major fired up a platoon-sized formation of charcoal grills. "I put on the training schedule that were 'conducting smoke operations,'" he said, carrying a pan of hamburgers into the building.

Inside, troops hungrily circled the serving tables. As a sort of pre-game show, someone was projecting a stream of stupid Internet videos on the big screen. One of the BSB's medical company officers was mixing and serving virgin Bloody Marys. "Basically," she said, "it tastes like really salty tomato juice." One of her customers strolled by, crunching a celery stick that was the size of a Camp Shelby pine tree.

Over at the Camp Shelby theater, soldiers hung out in the air-conditioning, dazedly watching the halftime analysis. The score was 28-0, Iowa, at the half. It never got any better for the Cyclones. In fact, it got 35-to-7 worse. Never before had I heard a sports commentator preface his comments with, "You have to feel sorry for ..."

Ouch.

So, it wasn't much of a game, even for those of us who don't normally watch sports. Still, it was dark, it was cool. Even the worst game in the world still beats the 100-degree heat index outside, and the hot breeze, and the hurry-up-and-wait.

"You know what's going on here?" Archer says to me. "People are hungry for normal."

Only a few hundred soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division may have been lucky enough to watch a little of the game. As the Hawkeyes battled the Cyclones Saturday afternoon, most of Red Bulls were out in the training areas of Camp Shelby, training on detainee operations, unexploded ordnance, and other "go to war" topics.

The brigade has been on federal active duty for more than 30 days, and things are beginning to feel routine. No longer does everything have to simultaneously suck equally for everyone. Sometimes, you get to watch the game. Sometimes, you're out in the suck.

Soldiers seem ready to move on--"I can't wait to leave Camp Shelby" is a commonly heard comment--to the next phase of training and testing. That would be the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., the ultimate in Army away games.

It's almost time to take this team on the road.

10 September 2010

Scrapbooks, Flat Daddies, and Can-Can Dances

Last week, I asked Red Bull Rising readers about methods they're using to record their friends' and families' deployment histories. I'm pleased to report a number of thoughtful responses ...

Anonymous said:
"Even though I don't scrapbook, my son and I are making a scrapbook. On each full layout - one side is what Daddy did that month (or where he was that month or whatever he could take pictures of and send electronically!) and the other side will be some highlights of what we did that month. I thought it would be a nice way to look back and see what life was like for both parts of the family :)"
I could see doing this with my own kids. Because it gives the family something to work on together, soldiers can send photos and notes electronically, or little souvenir items via postal mail.

Tami C. echoed the scrapbook tactic:
"I too am making a scrapbook for my son Jacob. I will include newspaper articles, printouts from blogs and links from here and his computer conversations with us. Also family photos of events and holidays. Also pics of support participation we do and much more!! Would love ideas from others!"
Kevin T. described how his family preserved instant-messenger "chats" with his deployed son:
"When my son was deployed last year we used Messenger for chat throughout our family. With everyone on the same platform there weren't any issues. At the end of each session I would copy and paste the text into an email and mail it to myself. Later this winter I will compile all the conversations and have one document that holds everything. We didn't use the voice option just the video and typing because the quarters he had were for soldiers on many different shifts and someone was always sleeping."
Crystal L. talked about using a "Flat Daddy"--a large-format photograph of a soldier mounted on corrugated plastic, foam board, or other stiff backing--and documenting "his" adventures with a photo-blog:
"We are using 'Flat Daddy' and taking pictures of various places Flat Daddy has been through out the deployment. I really should setup a blog to tell about Flat Daddy's adventures. This weekend he went with his parents and our children to visit Great Grandpa!"
I know of another soldier whose friends have mounted a life-sized facial photo on a stick--it looks like something one might fan oneself with at the Iowa State Fair. Somehow, even though he's deployed, "Larry" keeps popping up in photos like "Where's Waldo?" He even has his own Facebook group!

Finally, in one of my favorite responses, Mary B. sent a great picture that illustrates exactly the kind of whimsical and heartfelt activity that might otherwise be lost to more-official, less-personal histories:
"Just wanted to let you know that the 'Floozy Susies' of the Golden Slipper Saloon [a venue at the annual Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mount Pleasant] sold RWB garters to raise money to help support the 832nd Engineers down there in Camp Shelby. Can any other NG unit there say THAT!!!!"
Isn't history fun?

03 September 2010

5 Ways to Record Your Deployment History

Earlier this week, I asked for ideas to help capture our collective "Red Bull" deployment history. Everyone has a potential piece of this: The soldiers going overseas; the soldiers and veterans staying at home; the parents and co-workers and spouses and children working to keep everyday life as normal as possible.

I'm pleased to say that I've heard from a few people, but I'd like to hear from more. (You can comment to this post, message me on Facebook, or send me e-mail at sherpa [AT] redbullrising.com.) In the meantime, I thought I'd throw out some ideas.

Here are five ways you could help record your "Red Bull" soldier's (or family's) deployment history:

1. Write Letters. Not enough people do this anymore--just ask the U.S. Postal Service. E-mail and texting and Facebook and Twitter are all OK, but they're here-and-gone. They are less-than-ephemeral. Ink and paper are also ephemeral--having watched a few episodes of Antiques Roadshow, I believe they are the very definition of "ephemera"--but at least one can touch and feel and hold them.

On the distant end, soldiers value mail as a break from the monotony. The first sergeant says "mail call" and we all come running like puppies. Letters are also more likely to be kept as keepsakes, mementos, and family history.

If you're up for a challenge, write a letter telling your soldier how proud you are of what they're doing. Soldiers, if you're up for a challenge, write a letter telling your family not only about the daily grinds and grunts of life in uniform, but the big reasons that you're doing what you're doing. Your kids may not understand now--heck, you may not understand now--but it may help them understand someday, what you were going through.

If you don't want to write a lot of words, send postcards. Send those silly postcards with the tractor-crushing ears of corn, or the serious postcards of local landmarks. Or make your own. Just let soldiers know that you "wish they were here."

2. Make video or audio recordings. Before the deployment, one soldier-friend of mine made video recordings of himself reading his kids' favorite bedtimes stories. That's pretty darn clever. Downrange, he might also be able to use a small recorder or digital camera to record short video messages to his family. Families can reply in the same ways. They don't have to be long: Just say what's going on, show some scenery, tell them how you feel.

Although they're one-sided conversations, exchanging such recordings avoids some downrange-bandwidth challenges, and is more private than videoconferencing into crowded rooms. (A couple of years ago, a buddy deployed to Iraq had to remind his wife that some Army Internet cafes are about as private as prison visitation booths, and to avoid--and here I will be as diplomatic as possible--"showing off a little too much cleavage.")

Recordings are great to look and listen back on, particularly when the kids get older. When my dad was deployed overseas to Asia back in the early 1970s, my parents had identical 3-inch reel-to-reel tape recorders. In a day when International telephone service was expensive and unreliable, they'd send the little plastic wheels of audiotape back and forth in the mail. Mom would get me to talk and sing songs, so that Dad would hear how fast I was growing up.

3. Take and send pictures. One Red Bull spouse has challenged herself to take one picture a day, depicting and recording her family's deployment experience. It might be a picture of the cookies she made, or the guilty-looking dog, or the new colors she's just painted the living room, but it will help both her and her soldier maintain a connection, and a currency in each other's lives. She could make a collage, or make them into postcards (see what I did just there?). She could send them via e-mail, or post them to a blog.

4. Keep a journal. Memory is fleeting. Don't say that you'll remember everything that happened, because life and memory don't work that way. Write it down, even if it's just a quick note about what happened that day. That way, you and your soldier can compare notes. One Red Bull couple is logging the high- and low-points of their respective days. They've promised to share the highs, and not talk about the lows.

Another Red Bull soldier is posting thoughts and happenings on a private blog, which he's made available to immediate friends and family. At the end of his deployment, he'll have a record of everything he's done and thought.

5. Make something. A grandmother or aunt might make a "deployment quilt" while a loved one is deployed. I've known soldiers who knit articles of clothing for nieces and nephews while they were away. I once met an active-duty Army wife, who was proudly showing off her house to some of us visiting National Guard soldiers.

As something of a Renaissance woman--I was smitten for days--the red-haired international business major had made her family's government-issued quarters feel comfortable and homey. In a bright, conversational voice, she suddenly asked us, "Do you want to see the gun cabinet I made while Jack was deployed?" She'd never worked with wood before, she said, but she'd had plenty of time to learn new skills.

It was like meeting Martha Stewart at an NRA convention.

What are your ideas for recording, commemorating, or celebrating your soldier's or family's deployment experience?

02 September 2010

Review: 'Rock and Roll Soldier: A Memoir'

"Rock and Roll Soldier: A Memoir" by Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan Vanhecke

When I was in grade school in the 1970s, I went through a stage in which I read a lot of books about the military. In second grade, for example, I routinely checked out from the school library a series of glorified picture books authored by C.B. Colby. There were titles such as "Leatherneck" and "Frogmen" and, yes, even "The Signal Corps Today."

Each page illuminated various weapons systems and aspects of military life in glorious black and white. It wasn't exactly high art and literature; basically, it was a Department of Defense stock photo and large caption on each page. It would've made a good blog.

Later in grade school, I started reading World War II histories. I may not be able to remember specific titles, but I can recall some of the topics even today:
I mention this all as evidence that putting history in the hands of a young person can have long-term influence. Don't get me wrong, I read my share of pulpy fictions when I was younger, too--wizards and werewolves and space creatures, oh my--but meat-and-potatoes history probably got me further than did consuming all that literary junk food.

All this personal past, however, is prologue to this review. I recently discovered Dean Ellis Kohler's Vietnam War memoir on the new acquisitions racks at my local library. I picked it up because it seemed like an easier read. I liked how the chapters were short, and the language was accessible, plain-spoken, and matter-of-fact.

It was only later that I discovered the book had been published by the HarperTeen young adult imprint of Harper-Collins. I had picked up a juvenile title!

(In my defense, I guess the lack of sparkling teen vampires on the cover had thrown me off. I thought all Young Adult books today had to feature such blood-thirsty creatures.)

I am pleased to report, however, that the book was everything that I'd hoped it would be: A straight-forward account of how one young man went to war and came back, and the people he met along the way.

As a guitarist, Ellis nearly had a record deal when his draft number came up. He shipped off to Vietnam as a military policeman. His unit found conditions rustic, but improved with hard work. After his quirky captain learns about Ellis' musical talents, he's tasked with starting a rock band.

Enter the (ahem) "Swinging Banana," later renamed "The Electrical Banana," in hopes of avoiding doubling too much entendre.

The Electrical Banana turns out to be good--good enough to get picked up by Army Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (M.W.R.) services, and good enough to warrant a few gigs closer to the front lines.

They get to carry guitars. Sometimes, they get to carry weapons, too.

Parents of all stripes will enjoy the apolitical tone of the book, as well as little flourishes like the forward by Graham Nash. Young people will probably enjoy that their parents could once go to war with rock'n'roll in their hearts, too.

Discovering Ellis' book was reason enough for me to violate my own "only books applicable to Afghanistan" book-reviewing rule, if for no other reason than it's opened a new area of potential literary exploration for me. Up until now--my kids and I are still on Dr. Seuss and Dora the Explorer--I was unaware of how Young Adult (Y.A.) publishers might be serving readers interested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I'll look forward to seeking out Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom memoirs targeted toward the YA market, such as Ryan Smithson's "Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old G.I.".

There are YA fiction titles also on Iraq or Afghanistan themes, such as Walter Dean Myers' "Sunrise Over Fallujah" and Patricia McCormick's "Purple Heart."

Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions of memoirs and historical novels young people might helpful in exploring a loved one's past or present deployment, please let me know. You can e-mail me at Sherpa [AT] redbullrising.com, or add a comment to this post!

01 September 2010

Red Bull Meets the Red Ball Express

On a hot and dry Mississippi afternoon, shortly before closing time, a sudden gust of trumpets added some much-needed swing to my step. The Big Band fusillade helped transport me not only to the front doors of the African American Military History Museum, Hattiesburg, Miss., but also back to what the place must've sounded like back in the day.

Motion-sensors in the otherwise deserted parking lot must've triggered the music. It was startling, but in a groovy sort of way.

The City of Hattiesburg, Miss., boasts not one but two military-themed museums. The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum on Camp Shelby, discussed in yesterday's post, is one. The other is the African American Military History Museum, located in the city's downtown Mobile-Bouie neighborhood, and operated and managed by the Hattiesburg Convention Commission.

The museum is housed in a former United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) club, where troops stationed at nearby Camp Shelby once met with Hattiesburg locals for fun and recreation. Built by volunteers in 1942, the now-historic landmark is the only existing USO facility built for African Americans still in public use. Having served as a library and community center in the 1950s and '60s, the building was fully restored and placed into operation as a museum in 2009.

The front doors open into a small lobby, which could serve as a place to read or talk. A soda fountain flanks the space, and there is also an adjacent reading room. Because the facility has ties to the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, the space can also be rented for small receptions and presentations.

The exhibits take up most of the original dance floor, winding and twisting from story to story, from American Revolution to Civil War to Vietnam to present day, and culminating at a 20-minute video presentation that takes place in a small theater carved from the cool darkness behind the USO's stage curtain.

In addition to Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers and the Triple Nickel, two Hattiesburg notables get much-deserved spotlights: Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy's first black aviator; and Ruth Bailey Earl, one of 500 black U.S. Army nurses to serve in World War II. The latter's defiant and steadfast silhouette serves as part of the museum's dog-tag logo. I would've liked to have met Lt. Earl, and I'm very proud to serve in the Army she helped build.

Another personal favorite: A open-cab "Red Ball Express" Army transport truck, in which visitors can sit and take an interactive history quiz. (Correct answers generate happy honks; incorrect answers get screeches and crash-noises.)

The term "red ball" is a railroad code for "express shipping," and the Red Ball Express was an emergency long-haul trucking effort established in support of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. There was a 1952 movie about the units, which is one of my long-standing gotta-watch-it-when-it's-on-TV discoveries. "From beachhead to battlefront, they carry the ammo for Patton's tanks!"

Like Archer likes to say, "Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics."

The African American Military History Museum is located at 305 E. Sixth Street, Hattiesburg, Miss. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays. For more information, visit www.hattiesburguso.com, or call 601.450.1942.