31 January 2011

Strangers in Strange Lands

Somewhere in the Sherpa family video vault, there's a Vietnam-era film introduced by John Wayne, in which a younger version of my dad briefly appears. No, it's not "The Green Berets." Rather, the film depicts the life of C-130 Hercules crews flying tactical airlift missions. "Klong Hopper Airlines," they called themselves.

Dad appears toward the tail end of the program, just after a shot of someone apparently ringing last call at an unidentified drinking establishment. Mugging for the camera, he smiles and says something sarcastic like: "Vietnam? Beautiful country! Sure, I'd come back ... in 20 or 30 years!"

Regular readers of Red Bull Rising blog have already heard the story about how I got a combat patch for peacekeeping duty. Along with 500 other Iowa National Guard troops of the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry "Ironman" Regiment (1/133rd Inf.), I deployed to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula as a member of the Multinational Force and Observers (M.F.O.).

Our mission was to "observe and report" on military aircraft, vehicles, and vessels in the border areas between Egypt and Israel, in accordance with the Camp David Accords of 1978. At any time, a significant portion of the unit were located in squad- or platoon-sized observation posts, scattered across the desert.

Our contact with the local bedouin was minimal. Our contact with the people of the Egyptian "mainland," for lack of a better term, was even less. Still, we met repair technicians and cafeteria workers when they came to our bases, and met shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and tour guides when during our time off. Part of our mission, our U.S. task force commander told us, was to see the world and meet the people.

I'm sure we spent plenty of our paychecks, too, out on the economy. That was part of the mission, too.

Out in the desert, we weren't allowed to use any technology not in existence when the treaty was written--no frequency-hopping radios, no night-vision goggles, totally old-school. And our live ammunition was locked up where we could get to it, but only if we really, really, really needed it. That level of need was characterized as "only if you want to start (or react to) an international incident." At one observation post, some classical wag had spray-painted the red ammo container with the label "Pandora's Box."

I think of Egypt often, particularly when I hear hometown talk of pulling U.S. troops out of this country or that. After all, by the time of our rotation, our little low-key peacekeeping force had been performing a seemingly "temporary" mission for 25 years and counting. U.S. troops--mostly National Guard--are still routinely deployed there.

While most of our military buildings were portable trailers, however, ritzy Red Sea hotels had sprung up on the sands just outside the ranges of our machine guns. The peace and stability created by our presence--not just U.S. troops, but soldiers from Canada and Colombia, France and Fiji--created an opportunity for economic development.

Opportunity for whom? That's another question, one way above the pay-grade of this former citizen-soldier. Still, how much corruption and control can the average Joe or Jaan tolerate before he takes to the streets?

Egypt boasts the second-largest Arabian economy; only Saudi Arabia's is larger. Bringing in more than $10 billion (U.S.) annually, some 11 percent of the Egyptian Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P.) is based on tourism. Whenever terrorists have wanted to hurt the Egyptian national government, they have targeted tourists with guns, bombs, and kidnapping attempts. I wonder how tourism will fare with a full-blown popular uprising in the streets. Already, air-travel into Egypt has been curtailed. The pyramids have been cordoned off. The streets of Cairo, always surging with people, are now flooded with them.

My 6-year-old daughter Lena often asks me about my short time in Egypt, and regularly checks out library books about pyramids and mummies. She's particularly taken with one photo book, which depicts the daily life of a little girl in modern Egypt. She'd like to visit someday, she says. I'd like to take you there, I tell her. It is a fascinating place, rich with history, and full of friendly, creative, and hard-working people. The people don't always think or act like we do, I say, but living and working with them was certainly never boring.

Given the current unrest in Egypt, I hope that my handful of former colleagues are OK, and that their families are OK, and that tomorrow brings them a better world. Inshallah.

Last December, a member of the Iowa National Guard's 734th Agri-business Development Team (A.D.T.), currently deployed to Afghanistan, quoted a provincial subgovernor named Mahmood: “I hope you provide us enough help so you can leave here and return to your country ... Then, you can come back here in a few years as tourists.”

I like the optimistic logic of that statement: Help us, but only just enough. Go home to your own country, but come back as tourists.

Sometimes we Americans saddle up like John Wayne, other times we just sidle up to the bar. Any casual conversations with Egyptians regarding their president Hosni Mubarak would seemingly always include the observation that, "Egypt has always been ruled by Pharaohs ..." I'm sure I'm not the first U.S. veteran to fondly remember the people with whom he worked, but who always felt uneasy about whether his presence as a soldier somehow contributed to indigenous corruption, drug-trafficking, or political oppression.

I hadn't realized it until this past week, but, having been there, I became emotionally invested in the people of Egypt. Whatever happens, I hope they come out all right in all this. Maybe that was part of the mission, too.

Egypt? Beautiful country. Sure, I'd come back.

28 January 2011

You Might Be a Red Bull If ...

With apologies and obvious credit to Jeff Foxworthy, "You might be a Red Bull if ..."
  • You have ever declared "all collaborators should be shot" while working in an allegedly collaborative staff environment.
  • You have ever uttered the words "blowed up real good" in a military briefing.
  • You think a "good year" toward retirement requires least one deployment for natural disaster, national emergency, or presidential inauguration.
  • You have ever "gone mudding" while driving a camouflaged vehicle.
  • You think the success of any "Air Assault" is determined by whether or not you can walk away from the landing site.
  • You have a Facebook-SIPR account.
  • You have "high score" on any unauthorized video game installed on a tactical computer system.
  • You have ever consumed two or more of the following in one 60-minute period: chew, cigarettes, energy drinks, coffee.
  • You know what your "combat load" and "maintenance dosage" are for any of the previously mentioned products.
  • You have gotten a "combat patch" tattoo prior to being authorized to wear that particular insignia on your uniform.
  • You have ever used "inshallah mañana" as a course of action.
  • You have named your rifle after a prize-winning animal at the Iowa State Fair.
  • You have ever fantasized about choking someone with a reflective safety belt.

Got more ideas? Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section of this post!

26 January 2011

'Restrepo,' the Red Bull, and Oscar

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's film "Restrepo" has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Starting in 2007, the two producers repeatedly embedded with an active-duty platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, in Kunar Province.

The film is a gritty companion to Hethertington's book "Infidel," a thoughtful collection of photos and images, and Junger's "War," an insightful exploration of what makes men fight, and what fighting does to men. The books were previously reviewed on the Red Bull Rising blog here.

In June 2010, the producers graciously provided a limited number of soldiers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) an exclusive opportunity to screen the film before its theatrical release, while the unit was preparing for deployment to Eastern Afghanistan.

Some Red Bull soldiers have since found themselves walking mountainous terrain similar to that depicted in Restrepo. And, although not part of the Red Bull deployment, members of the Iowa National Guard's 734th Agribusiness Development Team (A.D.T.) are currently based in Kunar Province.

In yet another Iowa connection, recent Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was featured in Hetherington and Junger's coverage. Giunta was born in Clinton, Iowa, and grew up in Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha.

Following yesterday's Academy Awards nominations, the Restrepo producers made this statement via the movie's Facebook page.
While the nomination is a recognition of the movie, we hope it's a fitting tribute to those who have fought and died in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. We made this movie because we wanted to bring the war into people's living rooms back home. We hope the nomination will continue to promote an open and constructive dialogue about the war. Thanks again for all your continued support in making the movie a success.
The film will be rebroadcast on the National Geographic channel on Feb. 2, 2011.

According to news reports, Hetherington and Junger plan to return to Afghanistan on assignment in April.

24 January 2011

Coming Home on a Bungee Cord

The polka band knows approximately five songs, running the gamut from "In Heaven There is No Beer" to a tuba-heavy version of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train."

I have to shout over the beat and blat of the music. "How long have you been here?"

Saber2th looks at his watch. "At least three 'Crazy Trains,'" he shouts back.

There's a quirky protocol when it comes to buddies who are back on military leave.

First off, you don't call them--they call you. They only have a few precious days here to spend, after all, and wives, kids, dogs, and home repairs are all higher on the food chain than Army buddies. If and when they call, however, you make sure to go. It's like a getting served a subpoena or notice of a "command performance," even if they don't outrank you.

Call it a "drunken muster."

A decidedly unshaven Saber2th is back from Afghanistan for two weeks, and has decided to hold court at the Central Iowa's only authentic German bier hall. "I made sure to have shaving cream for him when he got home," Saber2th-6 says, shaking her head. "What was I thinking?" I ask her how long he's been home, and how long it took for the novelty to wear off. She smiles a tolerant smile. I've seen that expression before, in my own home.

She tells me later: "I would've wanted this leave to happen in March, when we'd have only a few months left," As it stands right now, however, they're only halfway through the deployment. The Saber2ths have two younger kids, the same ages as my own. Managing the kids solo has been a little rough, she says, but having her husband back has been a good reminder of how it's supposed to be.

Every deployed family has a different strategy for taking mid-tour military leave.

One soldier friend recently chose to meet up with his wife in New York City, then absconded with her to some tropical island somewhere. Another says he'll similarly meet up with his wife and kids at a neutral location, rather than traveling all the way home. That way, he hopes, the kids won't feel like he's ripping the emotional stitches off regarding his year-long absence. One stay-at-home (this time) soldier says his pre-teen kids say they don't want to see his wife at all during her deployment--only when she gets to come home to stay for good. Or, more realistically, until one of their parents has to deploy again.

Someone hands me a beer in a tall but not entirely unmanly glass. I don't catch the description of what I'm about to drink. The beer names here are longer than Wagner's Ring Cycle, and I don't speak German, other than a little conversational Def Leppard. Setting my buddy up for a war story, I jokingly ask if the beer is called "schutzenschnur."

"Hey, that's German for learning how to shoot some NATO weapons and not hurting yourself," says Saber2th. "They give you a badge for it and everything!" God love him and the U.S. Cavalry--he's not entirely joking.

I'm introduced to some others present as "that guy with the blog." Later, I realize that I have perhaps missed my one opportunity in life to be addressed as "Meisterblogger Bloggermeister."

Saber2th and I do get to talk a little shop, although spousal proximity prohibits too many details. That's another unwritten rule about mid-tour leave: Don't talk about Fight Club. At least, not with family present.

Still, he reports our Red Bull cohorts are both doing well and doing good, although a few soldiers have tripped up on the details. "Counterinsurgency is pretty easy. Rule No. 1 of Counterinsurgency is 'Don't be a douche-bag,'" he says. "Rule No. 2: 'Don't drive 80 miles an hour throwing your piss bottles at people.' but it's been kind of surprising that we've got guys who can't even get those two things right."

Our group ends up sharing a large booth with a bunch of brunettes--endo-, meso-, and ectomorphic Barbies--so the single guys in our posse swivel their turrets to start winning hearts and minds and telephone numbers. Instead of shots fired, or shots heard round the world, the night devolves into shots bought round the table.

Meanwhile, a hipster wearing a bright orange T-shirt and a beige blazer somehow starts chatting up the Saber2ths. Turns out, their group is from the local metropolitan opera. "It's our first night off in 2-and-a-half weeks," the guy complains. Saber2th rolls his eyes instead of punching the guy. They don't get weekends off in Afghanistan.

In just a week or two, he'll be right back at it, and so will his wife and kids here at home.

Tonight, however, it's a few stolen moments of beers and buddies and brass instruments, of not getting too caught up in the details, and avoiding fisticuffs with opera singers and shield maidens.

In Bagram, there is no beer. That's why we drink it here ...

Going off the rails on a crazy train.

20 January 2011

DIY History: Write Yourself (or Us) a Letter

From Africa to Afghanistan, from Italy to Iraq, the roads traveled by the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are many. Infinitely more interesting than dusty records and faded ribbons, however, are the individual stories that make up Red Bull history.

You can help write that history. It's as easy as writing a letter to yourself, your wife or husband, or your kids. It's as easy as writing a church youth group, or a high-school English class.

You don't have to be a war hero. You don't have to be the biggest, baddest mother-f'er in the 'Stan, and you don't have to be the home front supermom who keeps it all together--job, house, kids, family--while also keeping a constant eye downrange. You don't have to wait until you're long retired or returned, but you also shouldn't worry that you've already forgotten too much for your words and thoughts to be of value.

All you have to do is write a letter. (And, if you don't like to write, consider making an audio recording, or at least sitting down with the grandkids and having a conversation.) Maybe it's a page or two, maybe it's 20. You don't even need to send it, or share it with anyone right away.

Instead, put it in a safe place, along with your mortgage documents, or your wedding photos, or your collection of prized military souvenirs. Trust me: When you, your family, or your friends encounter this letter in later years, you'll be blown away by who you were, and what you did.

Maybe then you'll even send the letter to a museum, or your now-grown-up kids.

Start off by putting a date at the top of the page. You'll want to remember when and where you started this project. Then, move on to introduce yourself: Where you're from, what you do for a living, where you went to school, where you go to church.

If you are or were a soldier, explain your military job in terms civilians might understand. Avoid using Army slang or acronyms without somehow defining them. How and why did you find yourself in military service? How long were in you uniform?

Describe what your unit's mission is or was, again in civilian-friendly terms.

If you're a spouse or child or friend who experienced a soldier's deployment from the homefront, you can address similar questions: How did you find yourself connected to someone in military service? What were your thoughts and reactions to it before--during and after? What events, large and small--floods and family baptisms--occurred while your soldier was away?

Don't set out to write the great American autobiography. You don't need to cover every detail. In fact, it might be easier--and potentially more educational or entertaining--to focus on specific stories.

Everybody has "war stories." Even the those who never heard a shot in anger.

Here are some starter questions to help get you writing. Any one of these might be sufficient to document a significant slice of your experience. Keep in mind, these seemingly informal questions are proven to work. I've successfully used similar tactics while conducting journalistic interviews and recording oral histories:
  • What was your proudest day during your/your soldier's deployment?
  • What was the funniest thing that happened during your/your soldier's deployment?
  • What was your happiest day during your/your soldier's deployment?
  • What was your saddest day during your/your soldier's deployment?


Here on the Red Bull Rising blog, I've recently created a channel through which Red Bull soldiers--past and present--might share their deployment stories. While most of my current effort focuses on the current deployment of the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.) to Afghanistan, I am increasingly interested in stories from the the division's other units. Regardless of when, where, and how you served, I invite you to help tell the Red Bull story.

Click here for more details!

18 January 2011

Making Connections

When I was an Alexandria, Va.-based newspaper intern with USA Today/Apple Computer’s College Information Network, my copydesk colleagues at Gannett News Service contacted me with this stumper of a question: “What is a carbine?”

This was 1989, mind you--before the Internet and before Google. This was when the “Gannett New Media” division was only in the business of delivering USAToday in Español, on the radio, and on T-shirts. (Remember the popularity of Coke-brand clothing? We were going to sell purple “Life” and green “Money” sweatshirts--just like the section fronts in the newspaper!) We also re-broadcasted Gannett news copy to college newspapers via Apple-supplied computers and 1200-baud modems. That's where we interns came in.

(Note: This was before the word "intern" became a Washington punchline, but you can giggle anyway.)

The copy desk was working on a mention of an M1 carbine. Neither the AP Stylebook nor the dictionary definitions had helped. As a last-ditch effort, they went to the guy in the newsroom with the shortest haircut—-an ROTC cadet from Drake University.

Go Bulldogs!

I learned two things that day:
  • A “carbine” is a shortened rifle.
  • There are precious few journalists who "speak military," who are even familiar with the basics of military language and life.
This was 1989, after all. It was before Desert Storm, before September 11, and before 10 years-and-counting of two-wars-and-counting.


I’m now a recently retired member of the Iowa Army National Guard. In my civilian life, I’m a freelance magazine editor and writer, with specialties in architectural history, community planning, and “how-to” home remodeling topics.

In my part-time military career, I regularly found myself working as an internal communicator—-not as an Army journalist, but as a lessons-learned analyst and “knowledge manager.”

I always said a J-degree provided a good liberal arts education coupled with a proven ability to communicate. It has served me well.

Since December 2009, I’ve been blogging about what was to have been my family’s second deployment, this one to Afghanistan with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT).

The “Red Bull Rising” (www.redbullrising.com) blog started as a personal project, an attempt to translate to non-military readers what being a citizen-soldier is all about. I’ve found the work rewarding, the response gratifying, and the need to learn new J-tricks constant. I’ve grown a daily audience of a couple hundred readers, and have found my words featured on Doonesbury’s “The Sandbox” on Slate.com, and mentioned on Tom Ricks’ “Best Defense” blog at Foreign Policy magazine.

I’m not the most military guy in the world. I’m not the most charismatic, or most physically fit, or the most tactically savvy. But I ask good questions, and I occasionally manage to put people and pieces together in unique ways. In 2010, for example, I arranged through my mil-blogging contacts the only National Guard unit screening of the Sundance-winning documentary “Restrepo.”

So, based on such successes, I've decided to take Red Bull Rising to the next level.

One of the great things about freelance life is having the freedom to follow where the work is leading you. In addition to continuing to write about the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, I've been brainstorming ways I could help create opportunities collecting, sharing, and archiving the stories of soldiers, veterans, and their families.

Here's what I've come with:
  • I'm applying to embed with my old unit as civilian media later this year.
  • I'm composing an organizational history specific to the 2-34th BCT's Afghan deployment, while also expanding my focus on Red Bull history to include World War I to present.
  • I'm reaching out to local journalism education programs to engage student journalists, to explore how they might help document, preserve, and distribute the stories of Red Bull veterans and their families.
As always, I appreciate your attention to the Red Bull Rising blog. I wouldn't have gotten this far without your support and readership!


12 January 2011

Polly's Dad Got Shooted

"Polly's Dad was in the Army, and he got shooted," Lena says casually from the backseat. I've just picked the kids up from school. Household-6 is going out with a friend tonight, and I'm in charge of pick-up and dinner. It is a bitterly cold and windy day, the roads are still slick from a day-and-a-half of snowfall, and the last of the day's light hangs in the air like icicles.

Lena's words are sometimes like that, too--just solid enough to grab and hold. Touch them wrong, however, and they'll shatter. I move the car forward, cautiously.

First rule of working in the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"): "The first report is always wrong. Except when it isn't."

My family lives in a small suburb of what the local TV anchors like to call the Des Moines "metro." (By the way, it's locally pronounced "duh-MOY-en." The "s" is silent. So is the other one.) More than 550,000 people live in the 5-county area.

There are more than 3,000 National Guard soldiers--most from the Midwest, and most from Iowa--currently deployed to Afghanistan with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. If they were all put together in the same place, they'd rival the size of some towns that still dot the agri-industrialized landscape of 21st century Iowa, enclaves of good people and simpler times.

There is no active-duty Army post in the state of Iowa, however, and there is no single geographic concentration of units, families, and training areas that the Red Bull calls home. There is no commissary, or daycare, or post exchange (P.X.) to which everyone goes. There are no dry cleaners, tattoo parlors, package liquor and pay-day loan shops located just outside the main gate.

The largest single military activity in the state is Camp Dodge, in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

The state of Iowa is itself like a small town, however. If you don't know somebody, you might know somebody who does. Even if we don't all wear the same uniform, or live and work in the same places.

So when my kindergartner starts casually talking about soldiers and shooting, I go into a parental form of tactical questioning: "Really, when did this happen? ... Why did she tell you that? ... Was she laughing or crying when she said that? ... What is Polly's last name?"

Driving home, trying to figure out what my 6-year-old is thinking or saying, other potential connections are also simultaneously popping up on my mental dashboard. Some of it is signal, most of it is noise:
  • Lena has recently been invited to a "military" themed birthday party at a local museum. The birthday boy chose the theme in honor of his Navy veteran dad, who last year committed suicide with a gun. I don't know whether his actions were service-related, and it really doesn't matter. I do know that, while picking up my kids in warmer times, I experienced this boy's little sister announcing to me, to her playground friends, to anyone she encountered: "My daddy shot himself. He's with Jesus now." Is there a connection?
I'm not just spinning my mental wheels for kicks-and-giggles, of course. I'm attempting to figure out if my daughter is upset, or making unwanted or unnecessary associations. After all, I know she still thinks of Daddy as "being in the Army," we obviously have family friends currently in harm's way, and she seems to me overly attentive to TV pictures of tanks and soldiers on those rare occasions they infiltrate our family room. "Daddy, is that show about death?"

Naturally, I also want to know if Polly and her family is somehow in distress.

Of course, it could all be fairy tales and pixie dust. I remember the story-telling games of my own youth, with each kid one-upping each other until we were each descended from astronauts, famous inventors, and Presidents of the United States. And I remember the illogical results of any game of "telephone," in which a given narrative melts and mutates over the course of many re-tellings. It's fun at parties, but maddening to unravel as a parent.

All this is on my mind as I drive down the road, maintaining speed and distance. If there is something to the story, I don't want to react or overreact. I don't want to telegraph my background concerns about the health and welfare of 3,000 of my fellow Midwesterners into spooking the kids. I don't want to drive into a ditch, and I don't want to break the icicle.

Because the first report is always wrong. Except when it isn't.

11 January 2011

Red Bull Haiku Headline Contest

Regular visitors to the Red Bull Rising blog will note a couple of design changes, made partly in response to letters recently received by the Anti-Fine-Print Action Squad of the National Guard's Crackpot Bifocal Brigade, of which I am apparently soon to be a card-carrying member.

Featuring white type on gray background, the blog's previous design was a little hard to read. While we (the editorial "we") experimented with some new cool tools and photographic templates now offered by Google's Blogger--the free service on which Red Bull Rising is hosted--we ended up taking a few retro directions:
We made it bigger. The main column is now wider. The typeface is now larger. We're experimenting with Trebuchet, a sans-serif font. All this is intended to make the blog more accessible and legible. Let us know what you think!

We made some static pages. This was the new Blogger template feature we most desired. It allowed us to move the pseudo-legal mumbo-jumbo such as "contacts" and "copyrights" into a tool bar. In the future, this will also allow us to establish more formal connections to other projects and publications. Watch this space for details!

We put it in black-and-white. Our professors in journalism school taught that the most easily read color contrast is black on light yellow. With the new design, we went with black-on-pure-white. In the vote on legibility--between the "new" combo and the "old" white-on-gray--we're pretty sure the ayes ("eyes?") will have it.
Yes, the banner is now officially big enough to seem 3D. "Objects in blog may be closer than they appear." This opens up the possibility, however, of adding a "tag-line" to better define and describe the purpose of Red Bull Rising. That's where you come in:

In two lines, approximately 30 characters each (including spaces), describe as much as possible the purpose of Red Bull Rising. Bonus points for evoking concepts such as "family," "34th Infantry Division," "Afghanistan," "WWII history," etc.

If you need to review the blog's mission statement for more ideas, click here.

Here are three examples, just to get the juices flowing:
  • "On the tail of the 34th Infantry" / "at home and abroad"
  • "Home fronts and battle lines" / "Africa * Italy * Iraq * Afghanistan"
  • "From the Heartland of America" / "to the Global War on Terror"
It's not haiku, but it's close! Make your suggestions in the comments section below, or on our Facebook page! And thanks for reading Red Bull Rising!

07 January 2011

TBI/PTSD Study Involving Red Bull Soldiers Published

The American Forces Press Service reports that the January 2011 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry--a journal of the American Medical Association (A.M.A.)--presents a study of Traumatic Brain Injury (T.B.I.) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.). Participants included more than 900 soldiers of 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (1-34th BCT), which deployed to Iraq in 2005-2007.

That deployment included Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.) and Nebraska's 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1/134th Cav.). Both units are currently deployed to Afghanistan along with the 34th Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2-34th BCT).

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Soldiers were questioned approximately one month prior to leaving Iraq (part of the Iraq "surge" strategy, the 1-34th BCT deployment was extended to an Army-record-breaking 16-months in-country), and again via written questionnaire one year after returning to the United States.

To the surprise of those conducting the study, the research indicated little long-term effect from "mild" TBI--injuries that cause a person to be momentarily dazed or unconscious for less than 20 minutes, and that cause no physical injury to brain or skull. Such injuries can result from roadside bombs and other attacks.

"There's been a lot of attention paid to PTSD and mild TBI and even suicide risk, but the prevalence of problem drinking appears to be much higher among returning service members than any of these other problems," said Melissa A. Polusny, a clinical psychologist at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The brigade surgeon Col. (Dr.) Michael Rath also collaborated in the research.

For Polusny, the study points to a need to carefully screen for PTSD, so that that soldiers and healthcare providers correctly match treatment and injury. "If a veteran is having irritability and memory problems, and assumes he had a concussion when maybe he is suffering from PTSD symptoms ... " she said, "we need to make sure we are treating veterans for the right problems."

The study did not address long-term effects from repeated head trauma, which other studies may have linked to PTSD. The study did not investigate the causes of PTSD, or whether TBI is the trigger for PTSD.

Other findings:
  • More soldiers reported PTSD symptoms at home (14 percent) than in Iraq (9 percent).
  • More soldiers reported concussions or TBI at home (22 percent) than in Iraq (9 percent).
  • Many citizen-soldiers who answered they did not have mild TBI or PTSD symptoms actually did, with 64 percent reporting distractibility and irritability; 60 percent reporting memory problems; 57 percent reporting ringing in the ears; and 23 percent reporting balance problems.

05 January 2011

You Can Always Tell a Soldier

There are certain phrases and words that nearly always indicate that someone either is or has served in the U.S. military. Or grown up in a military family.

There are boot camp truisms, for example, burned forever in our brains--sayings such as "Don't call me 'sir'--I work for a living" and "This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine."

Sometimes, because they're so engrained and automatic, they slip out into civil conversation. If you listen to people carefully, it can be as telling as a too-short haircut or a American Legion lapel pin. We are what we talk, as well as what we wear.

Sometimes, you can identify when someone was in the service, but this isn't always a logical pursuit. In the late 1980s, for example, our drill sergeants would often tell us "it looks like you've polished your shoes with a Hershey bar." They thought the phrase hilarious.

That never made sense to me, until I figured out--years later--that the phrase probably originated in the World War II "brown boot" Army. In the 1980s, we wore shiny black boots, but our jokes were threadbare. My drill sergeants were too young to remember Vietnam, much less WWII or Korea, but they still spoke of Hershey Bars.

Sometimes, you can identify in which branch of service an individual served, by the words he or she chooses: Is a helicopter a "helo" (Navy/Marine) or a "chopper" (Army)? Is someone who flies a plane a "pilot" (Air Force) or an "aviator" (Navy/Marine/Air Force)? Does someone visibly flinch when you call a ship a "boat"? They're probably Navy. Does someone react when they hear the words "ex-Marine"? They're probably a Marine. "Ex-Marine"? There's no such animal. The Corps is eternal.

"No such animal"? I also learned that one from drill sergeants White and Brown, back in the day. "Ain't nothing but a thing." I wonder if they knew they were providing more wisdom, words, and culture than I'd retain from any other single formal educational experience. I don't remember high school algebra, but I do remember my three general orders.

My two favorite linguistic markers of military service involve mispronunciations:

One is "orientate," as used in the sentence "let me orientate you to my map." The correct word is "orient," of course. The mistake is extremely common in the military, however, and made more noticeable because of the frequency with which the word is used in military circles. We must've all had the same teachers, instructing us to utilize the language in such a way.

("Utilize" vs. "use"? That's another good and frequent mis-utilized militarism!)

My all-time favorite government-issued mispronunciation, however, is the word "cache." It means a collection of provisions stored in a hidden location: "Upon searching the house, we found a large cache of weapons."

Unfortunately, the word "cache" isn't pronounced the way it looks--it's pronounced "kash." Soldiers nearly always pronounce it like the word "cachet" ("kashay"), which means "a mark or quality of distinction and individuality."

Pronounce "cache" correctly in your next military briefing, and you'll generate a certain cachet yourself. You can bet cash-money on it.

The next time you catch a mil-familiar phrase or word in a stranger's speech, you might politely inquire if they ever served in the military. If it turns out they were, further take the opportunity to thank them for their service.

Because, even if they're not always perfectly utilized, words matter.

03 January 2011

Army Stuff I Will/Will Not Miss Now That I'm Retired

Army Stuff I Will Miss, Now that I am Retired:
  • Grits for breakfast. Even the Army can't mess up grits.
  • Weapons-qualification weekends. "This is my rifle: There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without it, weapons-qual weekend would be much, much harder ..."
  • Foot lockers. And being able to fit everything I own into one.
  • Never worrying about what to wear. Army uniforms are like Garanimals for adults. Everything matches. "These boots go with these trousers, which goes with this belt." You can even get dressed in the dark.
  • Working in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"). Twelve-hour shifts of either pure boredom or high-grade adrenalin that all comes down to getting the right resources to the right people at the right time. "Who else needs to know what I know?"
  • Sergeants major. The useless ones will keep soldiers "safe" by enforcing silly rules. The good ones will save soldiers' lives. Soldiers will not always be able to tell the difference. That's because they are not sergeants major themselves.
  • Annual Training: Two weeks of mandatory lessons on country-western music appreciation, listening to NASCAR on the radio, and secondhand-smoking while being and becoming all that I can be.
  • Leaving my combat boots by the door. This always made me feel like a Minuteman, and didn't scare the neighbors as much as did leaving my musket propped up in a corner.
  • Buddies. You don't go to war for God or country, you go for the guys in the foxholes next to you. Even if the "foxholes" are actually comfy briefing-room chairs.
  • Briefing-room chairs. Get there early to get yours.

Army Stuff I Will NOT Miss:
  • Berets--aka "floor buffers" aka "toilet seat covers" aka "Most-useless. Headgear. Ever." Here's a suggestion: If there is no conceivable way in which a piece of Army equipment can be used to improve my effectiveness, my survivability, or my lethality, then don't issue it.
  • Changing passwords on Army Knowledge Online (A.K.O.). I'm a National Guard soldier. I do not have a Common Access Card ("CAC," pronounced "kack"--which is also allegedly the sound of choking on a beret) smart-card reader at home. If you want me to have a CAC-reader at home, you'd better issue me one. And one that works, too. And issue me a computer while you're at it, because you can't require soldiers to supply their own must-have Army tools. Otherwise, congratulations: You have made the Army's "primary communications system with soldiers" so secure and obtuse that no one can use it. Send the supposedly classified unit-newsletter to my Hotmail account instead.
  • Suicide-prevention briefings (Yes, it's an important topic, but distill the hour-after-hour "death by Powerpoint" training down to this: "Look out for your buddy. Ask him/her if they're OK. If they aren't, don't leave them and escort them to get help. Here's who to call and where to go ...")
  • Accident-avoidance briefings ("Don't drive stupid or drunk, or any combination thereof. Don't let your buddy drive stupid or drunk. Always wear your safety belt.")
  • Intelligence-oversight briefings ("Don't spy on U.S. persons. You ain't law enforcement, you ain't the National Security Agency, and you ain't Facebook.")
  • Changing passwords on Army Knowledge Online (A.K.O.). Why is it asking me my favorite color again? And my high-school girlfriend's most-annoying habit?
  • Washing Army Combat Uniforms (A.C.U.) on "delicate" to prevent hook-and-loop fastener failure.
  • Leaving the family to fend for themselves in the middle of tornadoes, floods, snowstorms, and floods during snowstorms. And the occasional overseas deployment, too.
  • Four-day drill weekends. Train to standard, not to time.
  • Changing passwords on Army Knowledge Online (A.K.O.). Again ? So soon?