23 December 2010

Lessons-Learned after a Year of Mil-blogging

I started writing the Red Bull Rising blog on Dec. 20, 2009. Coincidentally, over the course of this rough-and-tumble roller-coaster year of now-you're-deploying-to-Afghanistan-and-now-you're-not (with bonus rounds!), Dec. 20, 2010 turned out to be my mandatory retirement date from the Iowa Army National Guard.

I'm officially a civilian next month, although I'll continue Red Bull Rising as an unofficial historian of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, as well as the larger division community. (Call it ... "Red Bull Nation?")

We have lots to talk about in 2011.

For now, however, I'd like to share these reflections as I prepare for another productive year of writing and reporting ...

*****

Your high-school English teacher was right: Write what you know. The trouble is, if you don't end up hiking across Asia, or running with the bulls, or doing something obviously notable and sexy in your life, it can be a trick to figure out what it is, exactly, that you "know."

After 20 years in uniform at least one weekend a month, and working my day job as a newspaper and magazine journalist, I realized what I knew:
  • I knew about being a citizen-soldier in the National Guard.
  • I knew that it was difficult to translate experiences between military and civilian friends and family.
  • I knew how to communicate within, without, and about an organization.
So, 12 months ago, I started this blog.

I started writing the Red Bull Rising blog as an experiment. My military job potentially involved both internal and external blogging, and I wanted to learn not only some of technological tricks and tools--setting up and maintaining a blog, interacting via social media such as Facebook--but also how to gather an audience from the ground up.

(Before I go any further: If you're reading this, thanks for being a member of that audience.)

One of the things I wasn't expecting to learn? How great people can be. Even as a faceless, semi-anonymous blogger, I've "met" any number of people who have offered insight and advice, kept me honest and on my toes, and introduced me to still more people and opportunities. I cannot say this enough: I am honored and humbled.

I'm certainly not an expert in military blogging, or "mil-blogging," but I offer here a few personal lessons-learned, best-practices and rules-of-engagement (R.O.E.):

Write ONLY what you know. Do not speculate above your pay-grade, or outside your right-and-left limits of fire. Avoid chasing, spinning, or regurgitating rumors. Nobody likes a know-it-all.

Write only what you are SUPPOSED to know. Realize that if you're the only one who knows something, there may be plenty of reasons to keep it that way.

Don't over-correct. You may know more than the guy spouting off on Facebook about "Fobbits" and "POGS" (you may even wish to sarcastically educate him on how to spell "pogue" correctly), but you don't need to correct him at every turn. All of us is smarter than one of us, and the social network is self-correcting. Stay in your lane. That said, everybody on the Internet range has the right and responsibility to call "cease fire" on any unsafe act, OPSEC violation, or general dumb-a--ery. Just be careful when you take the safety off.

State the mission. Write a "who, what, where, when, why and how" statement about you're about, then stick to it. At the same time, give yourself some room to explore, grow, revise and revisit your purpose. In Red Bull Rising, I write about "ways to remember, celebrate, and support citizen-soldiers, particularly those of the 2nd Brigade, 34th Infantry division." If a potential topic doesn't fit that description, I force myself to ask whether the blog is really the right place to write about it.

If you wouldn't want it on the front page of the New York Times, don't write it. This useful rule works in a variety of ways: Don't write jokes into official memos, assuming that they'll edited out before distribution. Don't write hateful or slanderous words. Don't write about friends, family, and colleagues without care. Don't write about military details that pertain to dates, plans, strategies, or capabilities.

Take a breath. Do not aspire to be the first draft of military history. If there's big news, wait for perspective and official release of information. You don't need to always hold the official Army line, but you do need to wait for information to be vetted, processed, and released. The Army supports those who tell the Army story honestly and openly--and who demonstrate discretion. Particularly where the physical and emotional lives of other soldiers are involved. 'Nuff said.

Avoid talking about politics or religion. This was a good rule both when I was dating and living in a dormitory, and it seems like a good rule for blogging as well. Many of my friends, both long-standing and on Facebook, are staunch liberals or starched conservatives. I prefer not to take sides. I prefer to think of all of us as "Americans"--or (shout out to Canada and Australia) better yet: "allies." We are ALL on the same team. We are all New Yorkers now.

Be respectful. Whether you choose to talk about logistics and tactics, or about politics and religion, argue the merits of your case and avoid personal attacks. Play nice, and realize that too many problems in this world are caused by tribes who can't agree to get along--or even to talk--for the greater good.

If you begin to think it's about you, you're wrong. There have been many times in my life (and my blog) that I've come off like a know-it-all. (See above.) There's a fine line between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, and I've probably crossed it too many times to mention. I've seen too many of my creative heroes, however, cross into self-deception and self-destruction. Keep it real. Keep focused on your mission, not on yourself. It's not about you, even if you're writing about your personal experiences.

It's not about you--it's about the troops. And their families.

It's about the Red Bull.

"Attack!"

21 December 2010

5 Books to Read About Afghanistan

Don't call this a Gift Guide, or even a "Best Books of Pre-Deployment" review. Reading these titles won't make you an expert on Afghanistan, or What We're Trying to Do There. That said, as a citizen-soldier, I've found each of these helpful in piecing together What We're Doing in Afghanistan.

Best of all, each of these is accessible to non-military audience. In other words, you don't have to be a military historian fluent in Army acronyms to get a lot of bang from these books:

"War" by Sebastian Junger

This book covers much of the same ground as the 2010 documentary "Restrepo," which author Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm") co-produced with Tim Hetherington after continually embedding with a U.S. infantry company in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007-08. I saw Restrepo first, and even been lucky enough to have seen it a couple of times. The book enriched my understanding not only of how the soldiers of Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team fought the fight, but how they came to the fight in the first place--and where it left them afterward.
  • First impression on reading the book: "Wow! That was ... Wow!"
  • Second impression: "I can't wait to read that again!"
  • Third impression: "I can't wait to see 'Restrepo' again!"
I've decided to start describing Junger's book as one facet of a larger multimedia work, one that needs to be visited and re-visited, turned over and reflected upon. Yes, each of the components--"Restrepo," Junger's "War," and Hetherington's "Infidel" (reviewed below)--is independently worthy of much praise and consideration. They add up to something even greater, however.

For his part, Junger makes writing about war look almost too easy. One can spend hours unpacking his simple prose, as if the sentences were written by Confucian fortune-cookie makers. Here are some personal favorites or mine:
Every time you drove down the road you were engaged in a twisted existential exercise where each moment was the only proof you'd ever have that you hadn't been blown upon the moment before. [p. 142]

Rear-base limbo: an ill blend of apprehension and boredom that is only relieved by going forward where things are even worse. [p. 199]

When I asked the men about their allegiance to one another, they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but that the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to the brigade level--three or four thousand men--any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical. [p. 242]
*****

"Infidel" by Tim Hetherington

Packaged to resemble the type of black Moleskine sketchbook favored by some artists and writers, this collection is a jumble of Hetherington's photographs, words from soldiers and Sebastian Junger, and other mental ephemera.

Hetherington's photographic view extends to a more-artistic, less-journalistic treatment of some of his subjects. Sometimes, rather than a straight-forward newshound's pictorial account of soldierly toil, Hetherington gives the grime and squalor a near-transcendent treatment--combat as still-life. Trust me: After reflecting on these images, you will never look at fly-strips, Army cots, and cheesecake centerfolds the same way.

The book takes its title from one of the tattoos shared by the Battle Company soldiers. (One of the soldiers packed a tattoo gun up to the remote outpost.) Hetherington documents the body art in both photographs and drawings. Each soldier has his own designs, his own scars, and his own brand--variations on a theme.

If "Restrepo" allows us to witness the conditions that Battle Company endured, and "War" illuminates how fighting men are bound together, then "Infidel" allows us to see each of these men again as individuals: flawed, young, and innocent.

As Junger writes in Infidel:
Creeping through the outpost came Tim, camera in hand, grabbing photographs of the soldiers as they slept "You never see them like this," he said to me later. "They always look so tough, but when they're asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them." [p. 15]

Having seen the war through Hetherington's eyes, you will not look at your sleeping sons and daughters the same way, either.

*****

"Where Men With Glory" by Jon Krakauer

I'm not sure I would've liked Pat Tillman. That's probably saying more about me than it is him, but more on that in a second. In the mid-1990s, Tillman played college football for Arizona State University, and eventually ended up playing professionally for the Arizona Cardinals. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, he and his brother enlisted in the Army--he gave up millions of dollars to serve his country--and later deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I tend to be biased against jocks and meatheads, and pictures of Tillman as the square-jawed Army Ranger or the long-haired gridiron gladiator tend to play into my worst high-school instincts.

The problem is, Tillman doesn't fit anybody's stereotype. And he was anything but a meathead.

As he was an everyday free-thinker, iconoclast, and patriot, I probably would've ended up liking Tillman, if I had been given a chance. Unfortunately, too many of us were never given the chance. He was killed in Khost Province, Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident April 22, 2004.

In the United States, political and Army leaders at the highest levels sought to celebrate Tillman as a martyr in the "Global War on Terror," a position at odds not only with the circumstances of his death, but with his increasingly articulated views against the invasion of Iraq.

The events leading up to Tillman's death were largely driven by bad calls made by unthinking leaders who were back in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), rather than out on the ground. Army leaders failed to investigate and accurately report those events. Tillman's death was used for cheap political gain.

Ask any soldier: Accidents can happen--even fatal ones--but cover-ups are made. Cover-ups are more insidious than friendly fire. Cover-ups chip away at trust and honor within an organization. If we don't have trust and honor, what are soldiers left with? And what good is an Army?

*****

"Afghan Journal" by Jeff Courter

I reviewed this book in June, and had the pleasure of working with the author when he guest-blogged for Red Bull Rising in November.

Illinois Army National Guard Sgt. First Class Jeff Courter weathered a 2007 deployment to Afghanistan with plain-spoken good humor, quiet faith, and a passion for trying to put it all together. A former Marine cook and Navy Reservist, he deployed to Afghanistan as as an Army ETT tasked with training Afghan Border Police (A.B.P.). While there, he blogged about his experiences, and later self-published this book. His blog-posts are presented here chronologically, which creates a conversational, easy-to-read pace.

When a National Guard mother or father asks me about what the Afghan mission is like and for, I often start by putting Courter's book in their hands.

*****

"Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo" by Benjamin Tupper

Reviewing this book was one of the first good things I did shortly after launching the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009.

New York Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper had worked in Afghanistan as a civilian in 2004 before deploying as an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) member in 2006. An ETT is a small group of U.S. soldiers who train and mentor Afghan police and army counterparts. As such, they're really the less-celebrated core of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. You can kick down as many doors and kill as many bad guys as you want, but until the Afghan government can keep its own people safe and secure, it's all just tactical cats-and-mice.

As Tupper writes:
Sending an additional 30,000 soldiers may seem like a rational approach to fighting and defeating the growing Taliban insurgency, but it misses a simple truth. As the Afghans like to say: "You Americans have all the watches, but we Afghans have all the time."

15 December 2010

Cooking Up Some Red Bull Love

Sometimes, particularly during the holidays, it's too easy to focus on sending deployed troops stuff they really don't need, and too hard to focus on the daily challenges their families face here at home.

"I don't think you understand," Household-6 says to me one night. "When you were away, I felt like I never had any time. It was always onto the next thing. I'd get dinner made, and then it was time to get the kids ready for bed. I'd get the kids to bed, and then it was time to get the kids clothes ready for the next day ..."

Yeah, I know--"food isn't love." Sometimes, however, it can come in a close second. For a couple of years, off and on, Household-6 has leveraged her love of cooking into her way of helping others. She got the idea a couple of years back, when we were a member a church that had a "Ministry through Meals" committee. If there was a birth, death, or sickness in a family, for example--whenever people didn't have time to take care of themselves because they were focused on bigger, more important things--this group would help out by preparing and delivering meals.

With the deployment of my buddies in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, Household-6 decided to again pick up the spatula. She's cooking one meal a week for one or two other Red Bull families.

The way she sees it, she's not providing food to these families--she's providing time. Time they don't have to worry about grocery shopping. Time they don't have to cook. Time to think. Time they can spend focused on their kids.

It's good food, but not nothing too gourmet. Household-6 works it into her busy schedule by preparing extra servings of whatever is on the Sherpa family menu that day. The menu rotates, but it's usually the same day every week. "It's what I'd want someone to offer to do for me, if you had been deployed," she tells me.

People often struggle to find ways to help National Guard families. They even struggle to find ways to inquire if and how and when to help--nobody wants to be nosy or invasive, after all, particularly at the holidays.

I want to ask you to give into your better impulses. Take a chance, and ask someone if you can help.

Before you tell yourself you have nothing to bring to the proverbial table, however, consider these words from Natalie, a self-described "homefront warrior," Red Bull spouse and occasional blogger, and mother of two small children:
It’s [...] not my nature to ask for help, even when I should, and I suspect that is a quality shared by many of my fellow homefront warriors.

That said, please do something for me--if you know any military families (besides me, obviously) with a deployed service member, please find out how you can help, and then follow through. Just saying, “Call me if you need anything,” doesn’t usually cut it, because that leaves the ball in her (or his) court, and she’s already juggling too many of them in the first place. Find out what needs are there and do something, even something small, to help meet them.

In general, there is too little of this type of service to neighbors in the world right now, and sometimes those who are doing their best to seem together on the outside are the ones that need help the most.
(Be sure to read all of her thoughts on the subject here.)

Sherpa says: Be persistent, be insistent, be consistent. Ask what you can do. Commit to it. And make sure you deliver.

Have fun with it, too!

Consider this wonderfully funny story from Red Bull spouse and blogger Emily, who describes how two friends recently helped prepare her house for the holidays:
At a few minutes after 10 AM, just out of the shower, towel wrapped around my head and in my bathrobe, I came downstairs to check on Asher ... and there is a knock at my door ...

My dear friend Erin was standing on my front porch ... and as I opened the door, it was too late.

I had been ambushed.

Erin & Jodi were standing on my porch. With cleaning buckets and supplies. And boxes of decorations and ornaments. And wine. And Velveeta Magic dip.
SERIOUSLY. Ambushed.

The dog was barking, the kid was running around screaming, and I was not wearing any underwear. WHAT were my friends thinking?

I was certain we were still shopping. "I'm not ready to go shopping! You said 10:30!" I protested.

"We're not shopping. YOU can go shopping. We're putting up your Christmas tree & cleaning your house," they said.
(Read the full story--with pictures--here.)

It doesn't have to be food, but it does have to be love. Done right, it might take only a little effort, and result in a whole lot of fun. Do the Red Bull a favor this holiday season--and throughout the coming new year--and see what you can cook up.

*****

What are some ways in which you've helped Red Bull families, or had others help you? Share your ideas in the comments section below!

14 December 2010

Overheard in the TOC ... or at Your Kids' Daycare?

There are any number of comments that seem to have equal application, whether spoken in a military unit's Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") or in a children's daycare setting. In other words ...

"At the TOC or Daycare? You Make the Call!"
  • “Who told you do that?”
  • “Why didn’t you do what I told you to do?”
  • "Was that a good decision or a poor decision?"
  • "How many can YOU count?"
  • "If I take away this many, how many do you have left?"
  • “Where did you last see it when you lost it?”
  • "How do you draw a ..."
  • "Time to take a nap!"
  • "Where were you when you saw the bad stranger?"
  • "Hey, that's mine!"
  • "Stay on your side!"
  • "Clean up your things."
  • "Everybody--QUIET!”
A quick shout-out to Saber2th for the inspiration for this. I should note that, despite what people think, he really does play well with others.

Got more suggestions? Bring it in the comments section below!

13 December 2010

Remembering Gander, for Different Reasons

Yesterday, Dec. 12, 2010, marked the 25th anniversary of the Gander Air Disaster, the U.S. military's single-most deadly peacetime loss of life. Some 248 U.S. soldiers, most returning home from a 6-month peacekeeping rotation on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, were killed when their charter DC-8 crashed Dec. 12, 1985, just after take-off from a refueling stop at Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada.

The troops were from the 101st Airborne Division--the "Screaming Eagles"--currently deployed to Eastern Afghanistan. The Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) is also deployed there, and under the control of the 101st Airborne Division.

Approximately 18 years and 22 days after the Gander Air Disaster, a plane crashed into the Rea Sea, just 3 miles from the back door to my U.S. Army "hootch."

Few of us remembered hearing the explosion as the charter 737 filled with French tourists hit the Red Sea, although we'd hear later that some of our guard towers might have observed the impact, and called it into our Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"). One-hundred forty-eight souls were on board.

As part of the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.), my buddies and I were stationed on the Sinai Peninsula in 2003-04, fulfilling the same temporary little multinational peacekeeping mission as had been the 101st Airborne soldiers killed at Gander.

Like them, we were all days or weeks from returning home to our families. The Gander memorial service in which we'd participated shortly before Christmas was still fresh in our minds.

Even without the memorial service, Gander was never very far away from the Sinai. Our outdoor "O'Deuce Theater" had been named to memorialize the soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment (3/502nd Inf.), the 101st Airborne unit most affected by the 1985 crash. When we watched whatever movies or U.S.O. shows that rotated through our peaceful patch in the desert, we looked out over the same Red Sea we now looked to now, standing in our boxer shorts and sandals. Instead of the usual maritime traffic--dive boats and party craft servicing the resort customers of Sharm el-Sheik--we saw our white U.S. UH-1 Huey's circling over the crash site, looking for survivors.

There were no survivors--only debris.

Debris that washed up on the shores of Herb's Beach, a stretch of recreational sand maintained full-time by U.S. soldiers. Some of our infantry guys got combat patches to play lifeguard for six months, but that's another story.

There was a patio built off the back of our sleeping trailer, which we Iowans had rechristened "The Bull Pen" when we arrived in the Sinai. Following our battalion commander's directions, we'd painted the "Red Bull" patch of our beloved 34th Infantry Division a couple hundred different places in the desert. Our favorite place was the Bull Pen.

There was no prohibition against drinking alcohol on our mission, so we'd sit outside at night, drinking beer and watching U.S. football on Armed Forces Television, with the moon-drenched Red Sea as our backdrop.

After the Red Sea crash, we'd hang out in the Bull Pen during daylight hours, one eye on CNN International, the other on the horizon. More often than not, the pictures didn't add up. For days, they'd show the same video over and over, talking about rescue and recovery efforts in the Red Sea. All we had to do was refocus our eyes to the distance, to see that wasn't true. The show had long since gone home. Nothing more to see here.

Herb's Beach closed for the season, due to the biological hazards presented by human remains. It was too cool to swim anyway, and had our minds elsewhere: on a warm homecoming in an even colder Iowa winter.

We were in the middle of planning our own return home. Yes, Gander had happened around the holidays. Yes, it was on a charter aircraft. Yes, we'd just memorialized one air crash, and witnessed another. Our replacements were beginning to show up, and we were mentally checking out. We were easily distracted, and probably spooked. If the U.S. Army would've issued rabbit's feet and lucky horseshoes, we would've taken them gladly.

A couple of months later, I'm back at home, and transferred back to my old communications unit. They're just back from Iraq, and going through some touchy-feely group counseling sessions. We're all in civilian clothes, and broken out into small groups by pay-grade. As we sit in a circle, we all go around and tell stories about our worst days, while social workers and psychologists listen and hold our hands if we go to the restroom.

I've got nothing to say, I tell them, because I wasn't with you guys. I was on a peacekeeping mission. Probably the worst thing that happened on my deployment was watching what happens when a hundred and fifty people drop off the radar.

That's when I lost it. Lost my voice. Choked up. The flush of sudden emotion surprised me--Whoa! Where the h--- did that come from?! It continues to surprise me to this day.

I deployed to a low-stress job in a low-stress environment. People weren't trying to kill me and my buddies. I wasn't directly involved in the Red Sea recovery effort. I didn't observe any of the debris. I'm a pretty straight-forward, level-headed, tightened-down kind of guy. All that, and I still came back with a few tricky memories.

That's why I remember Gander.

That's why I don't take any military trip for granted, whether in peace or war.

And that's why I worry about my Red Bull buddies, who are currently in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne: No matter where they are, and no matter what they do.

Until they come home.

10 December 2010

Shooting the Pass: The Wrap-up

This week's Red Bull Rising narrative of a Combined Live-Fire Exercise ("CALFEX") conducted by Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (A/1/133rd Inf.) in late September while the unit was at National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., was a bit of an experiment.

First off, it was serialized--distributed across a couple of days. I did this both to help digest a blog post that was originally 2,500 words long, but also to give readers the sense of how much time the soldiers spent focused on this one event. A 3-day training event turned into three days' worth of blog-posts.

Second, there were supplemental videos, which were intended to help illustrate some of the scenes described in the text. Some of these were, I'll admit, kind of quirky. Then again, so was the training.

I'd look forward to comments about what readers thought worked and didn't work in this coverage specifically, as I make plans for 2011 coverage of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

To assist readers who may have been confused by the episodic presentation of the story, I have taken the liberty of presenting links below:
As always, thank you for your continued support and attention to the Red Bull Rising blog.

"Attack!"

09 December 2010

Shooting the Pass: Video 4

"No Chalkboard? Use the Windshield!"
video
FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 30--Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (A/1/133rd Inf.) commander Capt. Jason Merchant and 1st Lt. John Dundee discuss plans for a live-fire assault exercise while drawing on a dusty windshield at the National Training Center (N.T.C.). The 1/133rd Inf. is a part of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, which is now deployed to Eastern Afghanistan.

This video is the fourth of four illustrating a series of blog-posts titled, "Shooting the Pass."

08 December 2010

Shooting the Pass: Video 3

"Test-fire with Live Ammunition"
video
FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 30--Soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.) conduct a vehicle-mounted test-fire with live ammunition prior to the culmination of a three-day Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise ("CALFEX") at the National Training Center.

This video is the third of four illustrating a series of blog-posts titled, "Shooting the Pass."

Shooting the Pass, Part 3 of 3

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 30--At approximately 1115 hours on Day Three of Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise ("CALFEX") for Alpha Company, 1/133rd Inf., a high-winds advisory comes across the real-world radio net: Potential winds in excess of 40 knots. The helicopter crews—who minutes before were smoking and joking and waiting around with the ground troops—start spinning their blades almost immediately, in an effort to return to their hangars before the winds hit.

Company Fire Support Officer (F.S.O.) 2nd Lt. Bill Stratford would later liken the experience to prom night, when you’re hoping to get lucky, and your date up and leaves with the limo driver.

Alpha Company has just lost its rotary-wing air support, minutes before the big dance. Rather than ride into battle in a helicopter, Alpha’s 1st Platoon will now travel to the objective riding in the back of a 5-ton truck.

“That’s all a Blackhawk really is, I guess,” says Capt. Jason Merchant, commander of Alpha Company. “An [Army truck] with wings.”

*****

While the company mortars section of 60 mm tubes, augmented by the battalion-level 120 mm guns, positions to support the attack, Alpha Company sits in a staging are with engines idling. On command, soldiers test their vehicle-mounted weapons, including .50-cal. machine guns, by firing into the side of a mountain.

Third platoon, led by 2nd Lt. Rob Labios of Sacramento, Calif., assaults the first objective—a target that the Apaches would have softened up first. Labios quickly loses radio communications with his commander, Capt. Merchant, who is waiting to order shifting the directions of his mortars and to launch the 1st and 2nd Platoons’ assaults.

Despite two days of preparations and planning, of dry-fire followed by blank-fire run-throughs, of repeated rehearsals and refinements, Alpha Company is now living the maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Asked for the position of the 3rd Platoon soldiers, a fire-support soldier calls first the coordinates of his own position, then the position of FOB Reno itself. Merchant catches the error easily. Given the confusion and lack of communications, Merchant calmly but repeatedly calls to his mortars, reminding them that they are not to fire without his OK. He realizes too late that his previously tested communications workaround—-asking the helicopters to relay messages over the hills—blew away with his rotary-wing air-support.

Merchant directs 2nd Platoon to start moving toward their objective, and his driver follows. At the designated fork in the road, Bone breaks away to speed up a 30-degree slope to the crest of a hill overlooking the 2nd Platoon objective. The Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC, pronounced "jay-tacks") follow in their own vehicle, a two-and-a-half seat Humvee laden with radio gear.

Below, in the valley, the platoon comes on line, and engages targets as they pop up. Just behind them, 1st Platoon arrives in its notional aircraft, dismounts and assaults into the compound.

Now dismounted and on higher ground, FSO Stratford talks to the battalion mortars via radio. The JTACs establish communications with a U.S. Marine AV-A8 “Hawker” aircraft. The bad news comes first: Rather than about an hour of on-station time, the pilot says he has only 15 minutes. The good news comes next: Rather than the 500-pound bombs for which the JTACs had hoped, “Dwarf-46”—a U.S. Marine is packing two 1,000-pounders.

Dwarf-46 suddenly has everyone’s full attention.

There’s a catch, however. Rather than more-than-60-minutes of on-station aircraft time for which they’d planned, they have Dwarf-46 for only 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes to mark the target with mortar fire, and get bombs dropped. On a good day, each of the mortars should be able to drop one or two rounds per minute. Today, due to bad communications and delays caused by exercise controllers on the mortars' hilltop location, it’s taking more like 10 minutes.

Stratford, the artillery officer, talks to the battalion mortars. The first call-for-fire lands way off target. Along with Fire Support NCO Clint Shannon of Waterloo, Iowa, Stratford calls in a second fire-mission. One nearby Air Force exercise observer-controller says the pilot should be able to adjust off the dust cloud, but a second says that's not good enough, that the marking round has to hit within 200 meters of the intended target.

Three days of Alpha Company’s CALFEX preparation and rehearsal comes down to 5 minutes of remaining aircraft time, and two 1,000-pound bombs. Each mortar strike and aircraft pass is an adrenalin-fueled roller coaster of anticipation. Finally, Dwarf-46 drops a bomb, which wobbles out of the clouds to take out the intended target.

He has loitered on station well beyond his 15-minute mark, but sticks around to drop his second bomb. "F---ing pilots," says one of the JTACs, as the plane positions for a second pass. "They never tell you the truth about how much fuel they have."

The second 1,000-pound bomb thuds into the desert floor, and fails to detonate. It’s a dud.

“I guess someone just closed the Granite Mountain Pass,” says a nearby exercise observer-controller. “There’s no way that EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] is coming out tonight.”

Low on fuel and long on tired, Alpha Company will have to take the long way home to FOB Seattle.

07 December 2010

Shooting the Pass: Video 2

"Air-Assault Rehearsal"
video
FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 29--Soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.) rehearse boarding and egressing a helicopter during the second of a three-day Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise ("CALFEX") at the National Training Center.

This video is the second of four illustrating a series of blog-posts titled, "Shooting the Pass."

Shooting the Pass, Part 2 of 3

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 29--It is mid-morning on Day Two of "Combined Arms Live Fire" ("CALFEX") for Alpha Company, 1/133rd Inf., and both heat and anticipation are building. Under Staff Sgt. Ricky Ayala’s direction, Alpha Company’s 1st Squad, 1st Platoon races in a line toward two parallel cots set out in the middle of FOB Reno. The squad splits and sits facing inward, just like the previous night’s games of poker and grab-ass. Ayala counts down, both by calling out and holding up fingers. Squad members echo the calls and copy the gestures: “5 minutes.” Then “2 minutes.” Then “1 minute.”

At the end of the count, the squad explodes out of the cots, arranging itself prone on the ground with M4 rifles pointing outward in a circle. The soldiers are providing “360-degree security” as their imaginary helicopter takes off and leaves them behind.

Ayala’s squad is one of two that will conduct an “air assault”—movement via UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopters onto an objective. Transport by helicopter is faster than by ground, and surprise is a key tool in Afghanistan. During the live-fire exercise, two Blackhawks will land to drop 1st Platoon outside a small compound, through which it will then assault. The other platoons will arrive by truck. “It’s pretty much a reward for how well we’ve been doing,” Ayala says, not too boastfully.

After repeated rehearsals, the squad expresses its eagerness to move on to from Fort Irwin to the real war in Afghanistan.

“Living conditions aren’t the greatest, but the training has been really great,” says Ayala. Afghanistan will be the 9-year veteran’s third deployment, and his second to Afghanistan.

Spc. Robert “Combat Bob” Kimler, who seems to have as many nicknames as he does opinions, put it into perspective: “We’ve been training for this for two years.”

Spc. Adam Eilers of Gutenburg says, “If there a plane tomorrow, I’d be on it.”

That’s not to say they’re not also looking forward to more-immediate gratifications of CALFEX. In the afternoon, they’ll go through the motions twice. Once, as a “dry-fire” exercise without ammunition. The second time, with “blank” ammunition: All the bang, but none of the bite.

Finally, tomorrow, it will be the real deal. “This will be the first time I’ve ever seen stuff explode,” says Pvt. Nathan Smith of Ida Grove.

*****

Any time soldiers use live ammunition is an opportunity for caution, hence the care and repetition with which the company practices the live-fire scenario. Capt. Merchant gathers all participants around a scale-model terrain map constructed out of rocks, cardboard, spray paint, and more rocks. White "engineer" tape marks out phase and grid lines, corresponding to soldiers' maps.

Using green “hundred-mile-an-hour” tape and some cardboard boxes, some artistic soldier has even created two model helicopters to help illustrate the air assault. Chief Warrant Officer Jenice “Widowmaker-34” Skelly, the tobacco-chewing pilot AH-64 “Apache” attack helicopter, enthusiastically declares the helicopters “cute.”

“Now you’ve done it,” says one of her fellow aviators of 4th Combat Aviation Brigade (“CAB”), 101st Airborne Division. “You’ve gone and used the ‘C’ word!”

*****

To help coordinate its Close Air Support (“CAS”), Alpha Company is joined by two Air National Guard Joint Tactical Air Controllers (“JTAC,” pronounced "jay-tack"). Staff Sgt. Jake Torgerson is from the Washington Air National Guard’s 116th Air Support Operations Squadron, or “ASOS” (pronounced “ay-sauce”). Tech Sgt. Damon Girot is from the Indiana Air National Guard’s 113th ASOS. Each will travel to Afghanistan of different rotations during the next 12 months, and will likely support the 2-34th BCT operations there.

“I’m a moderately proficient Infantryman, but I’m a subject-matter expert in my JTAC stuff,” says Torgerson, who was a Marine mortarman before he joined the Air Guard. “I get to do all the fun infantry stuff—shoot rifles, get dirty—but I don’t have to put up with any of the bull----.”

“No pun intended, but we’re the red-headed step children of the U.S. Air Force,” says Torgerson. (Both he and Girot have red hair.) “The Air Force loves the capability we bring to the effort, but hates dealing with us. Mostly, we try to avoid each other.”

Girot stops by the JTACs’ two-seater Humvee, the one that’s filled with radio-communications equipment. He offers Torgerson a bottle of sunscreen. “Ginger sauce?” he asks.

*****

Company commander Capt. Jason Merchant knows that the months to come could get a little gritty. He doesn’t talk about specifics, but drops hints like mortar shells around the perimeter of truth. “There are probably 75 villages in our future Area of Operations,” he says, using the Army’s usual color-coding system for describing loyalty to the Afghan national government. “One is ‘green,’ two are ‘amber,’ and the rest are ‘red.'” He jokes that, at the end of his company’s deployment, all they’ll have to do is turn one village “green,” and they’ll be able to claim a 100-percent improvement.

His driver, Sgt. David "Bone" Tielbur, describes how older soldiers with combat deployments are talking more about upcoming realities. “That’s gotten the attention of some of the younger guys, but you can’t always lead a horse to water …” he says. “Besides, you don’t want to scare people unnecessarily.”

First Sgt. Chris Harrison of Cedar Rapids is the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in Alpha Company, and is responsible for the safety and care of soldiers. He’s proud of the fighting spirit and skills that Alpha Company has already demonstrated at the National Training Center. “When we did a [Combat Outpost, or “COP”] exercise, we had 300 people come at us. The [exercise observer-controllers] said that most units last 15 minutes,” he says. “We lasted an hour.”

Merchant puts his soldiers to bed early, and gives them an unusually late 0800 wake-up order for the final day of the exercise. There will be a leisurely final walk-through briefing at the terrain model, and the exercise will begin at 1300 hours.

Nearly nothing will go as planned.

06 December 2010

Shooting the Pass: Video 1

"Occupying Forward Operating Base (FOB) Reno"
video
FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 28--Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.) occupies Forward Operating Base ("FOB") Reno on the first of a three-day Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise ("CALFEX"). Soldiers slept on cots in order to avoid Kangaroo rats and other animals found in the Mojave Desert. The 1/133rd Inf. is a part of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, which is currently deployed to Eastern Afghanistan.

This video is the first of four illustrating a series of blog-posts titled, "Shooting the Pass."

Shooting the Pass, Part 1 of 3

Fort Irwin, Calif., Sept. 28--The soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (A/1/133rd Inf.) are preparing for more than three days of “CALFEX”—“Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise.” In many ways, the training event is the culmination of months of both pre-and post-mobilization training, first at Camp Ripley, Minn.; then at Camp Shelby, Miss.; and now here at the National Training Center in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Alpha Company will assault multiple objectives simultaneously, coordinating mortar fires, movements by ground and helicopter, and even overhead Close Air Support (CAS, which soldiers pronounce “kaz”).

In two days, the bullets and bombs will be real. So, too, will the helicopters and jet planes. In preparations for its deployment to Afghanistan along with the rest of the Iowa Army National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT), Alpha Company’s training time is almost over.

First, however, the company must travel a couple of hours from the battalion’s headquarters at Forward Operating Base (“FOB”) Seattle, to the even more remote location of FOB Reno. Conditions at FOB Reno will be Spartan at best. Company commander Capt. Jason Merchant orders each soldier to bring a folding Army cot. Sleeping on the vehicles is bad business, he says, and other units have returned from CALFEX with stories about rats and snakes. No sleeping on the ground this time around.

Merchant’s driver is Sgt. David “Bone” Tielbur of Guttenberg, Iowa. A 20-year veteran of the Iowa National Guard, Afghanistan will be his fourth deployment with the unit. First, there was Kuwait, then Egypt, then Iraq. Now, it’s Afghanistan. “I prayed on it a lot. My wife told me, ‘If you don’t go, you won’t be worth a crap to me, because you’ll be worried about the guys,’” the baritone-voiced Tielbur says gently, smiling and shaking his head. “That’s Mamma-Bone for you!”

Tielbur takes great pleasure in quietly staying ahead of his commander: Trouble-shooting his radios, getting him water, setting up his cot. Merchant describes Tielbur as his “driver, RTO, and confidante,” and they joke about their working relationship often. “Let’s see if the Vulcan mind-meld is working,” Merchant tells Tielbur at one point, while the armored Humvee is in motion. “Guess where I want to park.”

Today is Bone’s 40th birthday. And he already knows what’s coming.

*****

Alpha Company is fighting the clock. ““Inshallah, that the Granite Mountain Pass will be open,” says Merchant. “If not, we’ll have to take 'Highway 7' all the way around Fort Irwin.”

Almost immediately, however, the convoy encounters obstacles to staying on schedule. A stop for fuel mid-way at FOB King has come up empty. The battalion logistics officer had earlier promised that there was a retail-fuel oasis at FOB King—the logistical hub for the entire brigade—but the fuel trucks are out on other missions. Alpha Company wastes precious time idling, waiting for the word.

Merchant sends one lieutenant to see if he can make a face-to-face deal for fuel, while also text-messaging his battalion's Tactical Operations Center (“TOC”) via Blue Force Tracker (B.F.T.). After an hour, Merchant orders the convoy to leave FOB King and continue movement toward FOB Reno. “Here’s the lesson-learned,” says the 38-year-old commander from Dysart, Iowa. “Operations never fail because of operations—they fail because of logistics.”

The sun is now lower in the desert sky, and the company pushes on toward the Granite Mountain Pass. National Training Center personnel will close the pass because of the next day’s live-fire exercise. (“But we ARE the live-fire exercise,” one soldier mock-complains. “How can they close the door on us?!”) If his trucks don’t move along the direct route, Merchant will have to divert the long way around. He’s still got plenty of fuel for the outbound trip, but doesn’t want to waste any more time. “We’ve got to shoot the pass,” he says.

The motley mix of Humvees, simulated Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP, and pronounced “Em-rap”) vehicles, and other trucks creeps northward to the gate to the pass, which is monitored and controlled by Fort Irwin soldiers. Using crossing-arm barriers, the active-duty soldiers shut down the pass just as Alpha Company squeaks past.

FOB Reno turns out to be a wide spot in the desert, a rocky parking lot surrounded by 8-foot walls of mounded sand. Creature comforts? A line of chemical toilets—the Army calls them “latrines”—located a stone’s throw from the convoy’s vehicles, which are now parked side-by-side in a single row, three platoons in sequence. Ankle-twisting rocks are positioned every few steps. Making one’s way to the latrine feels like walking on the moon.

Alpha Company is in high spirits. Awaiting further instructions, a couple of soldiers start passing a football. “Hey,” yells one soldier, and the ball is thrown to him as well. He tosses it back as an underhand pass: “This is how a real man throws a football.” Apparently, he plays rugby. Bone shuffles past, and suddenly, someone calls out that it is his birthday. There’s a scrum. The soldiers tackle him and hold him to the ground. One by one, they lift his shirt to deliver an open-handed smack across his belly. “Red-belly! Red-belly!” The blows are hard enough to leave images of individual fingers.

Even Merchant takes a turn.

The soldiers are told to place their cots on the rocky terrain immediately behind their vehicles. The sky flares orange-and-blue as the sun falls below the mountain ridge, and the dusty ground turns purple-gray in the dusky light. Many troops break out lamps attached to headbands, and the red- and white-lights bob and bounce in the growing darkness. Some read, some eat Army rations, some play cards. Often, five or six soldiers will face each other in little groups, sitting on two cots, playing card games or telling stories infused with exaggeration and profanity. The antics are straight from high-school gym class.

“Hey, smell this,” says one solider to another, holding up a tan combat boot. “Doesn’t this smell like Doritos? Nacho-cheese Doritos?”

“I can beat that,” says the other, taking off his boots ...

04 December 2010

President Obama Visits Red Bull Country

In the days surrounding a number of Transfer of Authority ("TOA," pronounced "tow-ah") ceremonies marking the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division assumption of missions in Afghanistan, the U.S. commander-in-chief dropped in to say hello at the base at which "Task Force Red Bulls" is now headquartered.

In a unpublicized overnight trip to at Bagram Airfield ("BAF"), U.S. President Barack Obama traveled via Air Force One to visit with troops for a few hours. The president was on the ground for only a few hours, and reportedly met with approximately 4,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen. A meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scrapped, with White House officials citing weather concerns.

While Red Bull soldiers were no doubt heavily involved in planning and executing the presidential surprise, some Iowa soldiers in attendance reported the identity of the incoming Very Important Person (V.I.P.) was revealed to them only when the U.S. presidential seal was placed on the podium.

Many of the 2-34th BCT's more than 3,000 soldiers were on duty elsewhere on the base and throughout Afghanistan. Because the "Red Bull" is one of few units currently issued the new, Afghan-specific MultiCam combat uniform, however, it's not too hard to pick them out in photos of the crowds in pressing in on the president. Nor is it hard to watch for the left-shoulder patch.

In his remarks, the president repeatedly thanked soldiers and families for their service, spoke to the mission at hand in 2011, evoked the memories of 101st Airborne Division (2-34 BCT's higher headquarters) soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and mentioned the recent words of Medal of Honor recipient Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Guinta of Hiawatha, Iowa.

Excerpts of the president's remarks follow:
Now, I’m not here to give a long speech. I want to shake as many hands as I can. (Hooah!) But let me say that at this time of year, Americans are giving thanks for all the blessings that we have. And as we begin this holiday season, there is no place that I’d rather be than be here with you.

I know it’s not easy for all of you to be away from home, especially during the holidays. And I know it’s hard on your families. They’ve got an empty seat at the dinner table. Sometimes during the holiday season that’s when you feel the absence of somebody you love most acutely.

But here’s what I want you to know. As President of the United States, I have no greater responsibility than keeping the American people secure. I could not meet that responsibility, we could not protect the American people, we could not enjoy the blessings of our liberty without the extraordinary service that each and every one of you perform each and every day. [...]
*****

This year alone nearly 100 members of 101st have given their last full measure of devotion. There are few days when I don’t sign a letter to a military family expressing our nation’s gratitude and grief at their profound sacrifice. And this holiday season our thoughts and prayers are with those who’ve lost a loved one -- the father and mother, the son or daughter, the brother or sister or friend who’s not coming home. And we know that their memories will never be forgotten and that their life has added to the life of our nation.

And because of the service of the men and women of the United States military, because of the progress you’re making, we look forward to a new phase next year, the beginning of a transition to Afghan responsibility.

As we do, we continue to forge a partnership with the Afghan people for the long term. And we will never let this country serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America again. That will never happen. (Hooah!) [...]

*****

[Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta] is right. Each of you has your own story. Each of you is writing your own chapter in the story of America and the story of American armed forces. Each of you have some losses. Each of you have made sacrifices. You come from every conceivable background -- from big cities and small towns, from every race and faith and station. You’ve come together to serve a greater cause, one that matters to the citizens of your country back home and to strangers who live a world away.

So make no mistake, through your service, you demonstrate the content of the American character. Sal is right -- every single one of you is a hero. [...]
Elements of Iowa's 2-34th BCT Iowa relieved elements of the Vermont's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (86th IBCT).

These ceremonies included:
  • On Dec. 4, the 2-34th BCT's "Task Force Red Bulls" relieves 86th IBCT's "Task Force Wolverine." Article here.
  • On Dec. 3, 334th Brigade Support Battalion (B.S.B.) relieves 86th Brigade Special Troops Battalion (B.S.T.B) of Bagram Airfield base operations mission.
  • On Nov. 30, Task Force Red Horse (1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment) relieves Task Force Morgan (1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment) of BAF and Parwan Province security missions. Article here.
For photos from the 101st Airborne Division public affairs office click here.

For a copy of the president's remarks to troops in their entirety, click here.

Coincidentally, Capt. Sean Taylor, the 334th BSB unit public affairs representative mentioned in last Thursday's Red Bull Rising blog-post, is also featured in one of the White House photos. (By the way, as official government photos, these images are in the public-domain.) You can play Where's Waldo in the picture below:

03 December 2010

Red Bull Film Festival: The Short List

Despite the upcoming holiday season, what follows really isn't really a gift-guide. No matter how socially redeeming, I attempt to avoid mixing "blood and guts" with my "peace on earth." So, although I know that many soldiers strangely seem to gravitate toward war movies while they are themselves deployed, I'm not including any of these in this year's Red Bull care packages.

But, while this isn't a gift-guide, I do need to mention that "Restrepo" is on sale for 40-percent off at National Geographic until Dec. 6. Available in both DVD and Blu-Ray. 'Nuff said.

Here are six movies, all readily available on DVD and most on Blu-Ray, that will potentially educate and entertain viewers regarding Afghanistan. You might learn a little or a lot, but it certainly won't be dull ...

*****

"Restrepo" (2010)

This Sundance-winning documentary tells the story of a company of 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team soldiers to an isolated valley in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan. Producers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington repeatedly embedded with the soldiers during the course of the deployment. The result is gritty, raw, and without editorialization. This is the real deal.

When a limited number of Red Bull soldiers screened the movie before its theatrical release, some expressed concerns regarding the soldierly discipline, constant combat, and rustic living conditions depicted at Combat Outpost Restrepo. Be forewarned but hopeful: Your soldier's Afghanistan will likely be very different--Inshallah.

Bonus factoids:
*****


A morality tale involving a lost Soviet tank crew penned into a no-win situation in an Afghan valley. The characters are drawn broadly: the Captain Queeg-like tank commander; the sensitive and bespectacled independent-thinker; the university-educated Afghan doing his part for Mother Russia; the young, uncertain tribal Khan and his scavenger-for-profit-and-Allah cousin.

And Stephen Baldwin.

The vehicle itself becomes something of a white whale in all this, sort of "Moby Tank." The movie turns on a basic explanation of Pashtunwali, the unwritten code of ethics followed by some Afghan-Pakastani tribes. The code includes some nine principles, although the film only really focuses on Nanawatai (asylum, even for one's enemies) and Badal (justice, although the film calls it "revenge").

Red Bull cavalry troopers may love this movie, because it attempts to use U.S. armor procedures in dialogue. Or they may hate it, because it attempts to use U.S. armor procedures and fails so miserably at it that even an Army radio guy can see through it.

*****

"The Kite Runner" (2007)

Another morality tale, but with fewer philosophical resolutions delivered by rocket attack. This movie tells the fictional story of two boys growing up in pre-Soviet Kabul. The movie illustrates that there was an Westernized Afghan society, at least in Kabul, before the Taliban. It also depicts conditions under the Taliban rule, including public stonings and human trafficking.

The mountain scenery is also notable--definitely not Iowa or Nebraska.

Still, because the narrative deals with the sexual assault of a young boy early in the film, an unscientific survey indicates that most manly Red Bull soldiers would rather rent "Steel Magnolias" (1989) and give foot massages than deal with this story.

*****

"Full Battle Rattle" (2008)

Another documentary, this film tells the story of a soon-to-deploy U.S. Army battalion as it attempts to win the local population's hearts and minds within the simulated environment of the National Training Center (N.T.C.), Fort Irwin, Calif. The cameras follow both soldiers and role-players--the latter, the immigrants and citizens who populate and "work" in 13 simulated villages.

In addition to showing your U.S. tax dollars hard at work in providing the best Army training anywhere, the film also accurately captures the frustrations units face in conducting counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Soldiers learn that the best intentions often do not translate, and promises are considered only worth the posters they are printed on.

Although the battalion featured in the film eventually heads to Iraq, the documentary notes that NTC would soon upgrade to simulate either Iraq or Afghanistan.

*****

"Charlie Wilson's War" (2007)

Tom Hanks as a hard-drinking, womanizing, cocaine-using U.S. Representative from 1980-something Texas? Check. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grumpy, disgruntled Central Intelligence Agency analyst? Check. Julia Roberts playing a Rich Mistress of the Universe? Check. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin? Based on a true story? No Stephen Baldwin? Check, check, and check.

Tell me, what is not to like about this quirky little political-thriller-meets-intelligence-tragicomedy, which tells the true-life story of how one party-boy Democrat managed to maneuver the D.C. machinery into funding the Mujahideen against the Soviets?

Yes, admittedly, the movie does end with a kind of "morning after" mood, which contributes to some viewer unease about how the mujahideen might use those weapons in the decades to come. Or about how U.S. actions or inactions in post-Soviet Afghanistan might have contributed to the rise of the Taliban.

Cocktail, anyone?

*****

"9th Company" (2005), also known as "9th Rota"

Recently re-released on a U.S.-format DVD, this Russian-language film is a high-production-value retelling of the 1988 Battle for Hill 3234. During this battle, a Soviet force of 39 men withstood an assault of 200 to 400 Mujahideen, while defending high ground overlooking a section of road between Gardez and Khost.

In history, the Soviets sustained 34 casualties, including 6 killed. In this movie version, admittedly, they seem lose far more soldiers than that. Even the sensitive and bespectacled independent-thinker buys the farm. On the plus side? No Stephen Baldwin.

All in all, think "Platoon" (1986) with cyrillic letters and vodka. As a bonus, if you're not into captions, the English-language soundtrack seems accented just enough for flavor.

02 December 2010

The Assistant Deputy Mayor, Press Agent, and Poet-Laureate of FOB King

Capt. Sean Taylor of the 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.) has been filing short dispatches with the Ames (Iowa) Tribune starting prior to the July mobilization of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. His newsprint missives are often nearly poetic in nature, providing first a snapshot of soldierly life, then unfolding to reveal a deeper emotional truth.

"It's pretty neat," he says, grinning a low-key grin. "The kids look for my picture in the paper every day. Sometimes, they get out the Silly Putty."

Taylor is a professor of psychology and sociology at the Des Moines Area Community College's Boone, Iowa, campus. He joined the Iowa Army National Guard two days prior to his thirty-sixth birthday, inspired to serve by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He and his wife Shannon have five children, ranging in ages from 9 to 15. (For a July 13, 2010 Ames Tribune feature profiling the Taylor family, click here.)

Taylor is now an Army medical services officer--a hospital administrator of sorts--and performs the additional duty of unit public affairs representative ("UPAR," pronounced "yoo-pawr"). Because embedded media hitchhiked around the National Training Center battlefield via logistical convoys last September--and because the 334th BSB was located at the brigade's logistical hub of Forward Operating Base ("FOB") King--it often became Taylor's responsibility to arrange overnight accommodations. In other words, add "concierge," "tour guide," and "inn-keeper" to the list of Taylor's many responsibilities.

"People don't understand that we're looking forward to going to Afghanistan," a sleep-deprived Taylor told one group of visiting media in late September, before shuffling and shuttling us off to other UPARs, on other FOBs. "In Afghanistan, I'll have regular hours. I'll be able to work out every day. I might even have Internet in my own room."

It was from that perspective that Taylor wrote in mid-October:
Many of you have been following the Iowa National Guard as we train at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. The embedded reporters have scrambled to find that one story that will strike a nerve or tug at your heartstrings.

I watched as the news crews prepared stories about the intense desert heat, the inedible food rations, the lack of sleep, the mothers and fathers longing for their kids back home, the simulated combat and the basic overall struggles associated with one of the most demanding training environments the U.S. Army has to offer. And, of course, the loneliness of the families back home unable to talk to their soldiers over the phone or Internet.

I will not lie, this training takes its toll. You function on little to no sleep. You are constantly challenged to go beyond your perceived capabilities. You get frustrated, nervous and angry. You hate the heat, the dust and the wind. And with all the focus on the negative, you tend to ignore the beauty hidden in the desert’s desolation. But if you take a moment to open your eyes, take a breath and just stand still, the desert’s majesty engulfs you.
See what I mean? Good stuff!

Here's a list of Taylor's past essays in the Ames Tribune. Keep an eye out for his future observations. And the Silly Putty? Fun for the whole family!

Nov. 26, 2010: "Happy Thanksgiving from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan"

Nov. 9, 2010: "Four-day pass provides special moments for soldiers"

Nov. 2, 2010: "Anxiously awaiting deployment and the needle"

Oct. 12, 2010: "My Mojave: Finding peace, comfort in a scenic desert"


Sept. 15, 2010: "Trucking the Guard across America’s train tracks"

*****

Here are some other recent Iowa media reports regarding the 2-34th BCT deployment to Afghanistan:

Ames (Iowa) Tribune, Nov. 24, 2010: "Holidays highlight absence of deployed military parents"

KCRG-TV9/Cedar Rapids Gazette, Nov. 26, 2010: "Families, soldiers feel separation at holidays" (Expanded text profile of Seydel and Reilly families)

KCRG-TV9/Cedar Rapids Gazette, Nov. 26, 2010: "Away from Home for the Holidays: The Seydel Family" (Video and text)

KCRG-TV9/Cedar Rapids Gazette, Nov. 24, 2010: "Student Soldiers Earn Degrees While Deployed" (Video and text)

01 December 2010

Trucking and Rucking to FOB Seattle

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 28--Hitching a ride on a logistical package ("LOGPAC") is one-part hitch-hiking, and one-part Transportation Security Agency (T.S.A.) airport security rules, without the potential promise of a happy-goodtime pat-down.

If a convoy is slated to depart at 1000 hours, you have to be present for safety, intelligence, and mission briefings at least 60 minutes prior. Remember to bring all your gear and baggage. There are also rehearsals--practicing how to egress the vehicle if hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.), how to egress the vehicle if it rolls over, how to egress the vehicle in the unlikely event of a water landing. (In the Army, we like to egress stuff. Except we don't call it that.)

And inspections--checking to see if you're wearing the proper personal protective gear, such as eye-protection, gloves, and helmet.

Of course, it pays to show up at least 60 minutes prior to all that, because you need to find out who you're hitching with, introduce yourself, and apologize for carrying so much gear. Bottom line: It's the standard Army hurry-up-and-wait, but with a huge side-helping of you're-doing-me-a-huge-favor-but-please-don't-make-me-beg.

This morning, I've packed up my contraband computer kit and my small rucksack. I have a scalding cup of hot coffee from the caterer's Big Milkshake Truck. I am kicking back watching the sunrise with my feet pointed uphill and toward the sun. This particular LOGPAC is first going to travel northeast to Forward Operating Base ("FOB") Seattle, temporary home of my alma mater, the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.).

After dropping off supplies at FOB Seattle, the convoy will return here to the FOB King logistics base. Then, it will travel southeast to FOB Dallas, temporary home to the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1/168th Inf.). To cover more ground, our little embedded media circus is going to split up, half of us going with each of the infantry units.

A grumpy platoon sergeant comes over and tells me to put my cover on--I am not properly wearing my proper Army hat. "It's bugging my troops and it's bugging me," he tells me. I am in too good a mood to protest.

In the game of convoy roulette, I luck out by getting placed into an armored vehicle with a bunch of fellow merry jokesters. "I'm Brigadier Specialist Edwards," says one Spc. Matt Edwards, by way of introduction. He's traveling in the right-hand front seat of this four-seater Humvee. "The Department of Defense has designated this as a non-smoking Humvee. Please return your tray tables to the full upright position, and enjoy the crash." Obviously, these are my kind of soldiers.

The rest of the crew introduces themselves. In addition to the field marshal, there's Sgt. Aaron Phelps and there's Pfc. Kodi Robinson. They're weapons maintainers from Bravo Company, 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.). "We're in armaments," says Phelps. "People give their broken weapons to the unit armorers, who usually f--- it up even more. Then, they give it to us."

Usually, the broken equipment is evacuated to the BSB, but the maintainers can also travel along with the LOGPAC as a "maintenance contact team," capable of performing some checks and services on site. Today, however, they're going along for the ride. Or, rather, they're going along in order to give the media a ride. (And it's much appreciated, thank you. Sure beats walking.)

"It's hard to stay awake sometimes, says Robinson. "It's the bumpiness of the road, the dust, the slow speed. I was slamming coffee last time, trying to stay awake."

Also along for the ride elsewhere in the convoy is Spc. Brian Willis, who is returning for duty with the 1/133rd Inf. following a medical appointment. When we get to FOB Seattle, he's got all his gear--ruck sack, assault pack, Army cot--strapped to his back. He good-naturedly refuses all offers of assistance or transportation, and trudges down the hill toward the camp to report in.

It's good to be home.