15 June 2011

Chasing the Red Bull

The U.S. National Guard and Reserves claim lineage dating even earlier than the Minutemen (and women, too) of the American Revolution. It's the image of an Average Joe in a tri-cornered hat, however, that sticks first in the hearts and minds of our countrymen.

No longer do we immediately drop our plows to pick up muskets, however. As part of an operational reserve to our nation's defense, our individual paths to war are often much longer than a moment's notice.

In late 2008, for example, some 3,000 Iowa National Guard soldiers and I were nominated for duty in Iraq. In 2009, our units were alerted--one official step up from "nomination for deployment"--instead for Afghanistan. In January 2010, I was put onto stateside active-duty in preparation for mobilization. Our unit wouldn't be "mobilized"--placed into service of the federal government, rather than that of the state--until July.

My role in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) had been a new job position: "Battle Command Knowledge Officer." Also known as the "Knowledge Management Officer" (K.M.O.). As the KMO, My assigned tasks included integrating and optimizing Army computer systems, archiving organizational records, as well documenting and disseminating "lessons-learned." Lucky for me, I'd previously worked as a lessons-learned integrator within the Iowa National Guard.

What's "lessons-learned integration"? I'm glad you asked:
  • A "lesson" is knowledge gained through experience. ("The oven is hot.")
  • A "lesson-learned" is knowledge gained through experience that results in a change in individual or organizational behavior. ("Next time, I should really use an oven mitt to protect myself when working with the hot oven.")
  • A lesson-learned is considered "integrated" when it is shared with others. ("I recommend that everyone start using oven mitts. Don't have one? Here's how to make your own!")
An additional, implied task for an Army lessons-learned guy? Unit historian.

Two weeks before "M-day," my name dropped off the deployment list. I saw my buddies get on a bus, then found myself still on temporary active-duty, but in a support role--one that wouldn't take me overseas. I followed them first to Camp Shelby, Miss., for 45 days of post-mobilization training. Then we moved to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. for a couple of weeks of realistic combat training exercises. Guess what? Southern California looks an awful lot like Eastern Afghanistan.

In November 2010, the Red Bull finally took over the mission in Afghanistan. The 2-34th BCT is the second National Guard unit ever to "own battle-space" in Afghanistan. That means that "Task Force Red Bulls" (they prefer the plural, because they're a team) is responsible for everything that does and does not happen in the Afghan provinces of Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman. (Parts of much-contested Nuristan, too!)

In addition to other missions around Parwan, the 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment (1-113th Cav.) is also responsible for security around Bagram Airfield ("BAF"), the largest coalition military installation in Afghanistan. It's not a sexy mission, but it's an important one. Imagine a military base comprising 30,000 souls--the population of Ottumwa, Iowa. Now, imagine doing everything possible to prevent bad guys from strafing Ottumwa with nightly rocket attacks.

Most of the "town" is run by a smaller Red Bull task force, "Task Force Archer," which combines elements of 334th Brigade Support Battalion (334th B.S.B.) and the 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion (2/34th B.S.T.B.).

Laghman is "Task Force Ironman" territory, the overseas home of 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.).

Outside of Task Force Red Bulls turf, an additional Red Bull battalion--the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.)--serves in Paktiya Province. And an attached unit of Nebraska Army National Guard cavalry troopers--the 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment (1-34th Cav.)--trains Afghan security forces in Kabul.

Members of Iowa's 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery (1-194th FA) have been dispersed throughout the brigade.

Task Force Red Bulls is responsible for helping Afghan national military and police improve security in its area of operation. Sometimes, that means fighting. Sometimes, that means teaching and mentoring. Always, it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan allies.

I retired from the Iowa Army National Guard last December, and returned to my civilian career as a freelance magazine writer and editor. I kept up with the war in the news, and with my buddies via e-mail and Facebook.

Last month, I went to Afghanistan to visit my former unit. Not as a citizen-soldier, but as a citizen-journalist. I embedded as civilian media, with an eye toward writing a larger history of the Red Bull. (I prefer the singular, because that's the 34th Infantry Division's official nickname.)

Having trained for the deployment myself, I thought I knew what to expect. Turns out, I was in for multiple surprises.

Granted, I was already a Red Bull fan when I landed in Afghanistan. And--journalism and philosophy students take note of this thesis--the embed process itself skews the reportorial view toward the perspective of U.S. soldiers, rather than Afghan power brokers, or the people they allegedly represent.

That said, here's a sampling of what I witnessed:
  • In Parwan Province, I talked to a platoon of young men that had spent more than 4 hours defending against a complex attack focused on a downed U.S. Army helicopter. After just completing a long night of patrolling by ground vehicle, they responded as a helicopter-borne Quick Reaction Force to Kapisa, a nearby province. Upon landing, they found themselves pinned down, but drawing fire away from Air Force rescue teams. Staff Sgt. James A. Justice was killed during that firefight. Some of the guys shared their stories with me, not because they were boastful or proud--although they have every reason to be--but because they wanted to remember Justice, and the sacrifice he and his family made. They also wanted to celebrate Spc. Zachary Durham, who was injured after deliberately exposing himself to fire while seeking out enemy fighting positions.
  • In Parwan, I saw other Cavalry troopers working to defeat the local network of insurgents that threatens Bagram Airfield ("BAF"). Attacks are down. Morale and motivation are up. They're still seeking out the bad guys around Bagram. 'Nuff said.
  • In Laghman Province, I saw Iowans engaged with a deadly enemy now often unwilling to show their faces in direct attacks. Iowa soldiers there routinely face machine gun and mortar attack, as well as Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.). At the same time, they partner with their Afghan army and police counterparts, U.S. Air Force-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.), and joint U.S. Air and Army National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.). The latter specialty are comprised of citizen-soldiers and -airmen deployed as much for their farming-related talents as for their soldier skills. It is a unique mission to the U.S. National Guard. Together, these teams quickly flooded a newly created government district with development projects, after Task Force Red Bulls completed "Operation Bull Whip," the largest helicopter-borne "air assault" in Afghanistan in recent memory.
  • In mountainous but relatively peaceful Panjshir Province, I attended a conference in which local and national officials engaged with adventure-tourism experts and investors. The hard but beautiful land may soon appeal to weekenders from Kabul, which is only 2 hours away by car. Some experts thought the area nearly ripe for international tours focused on climbing, caving, hiking, and even kayaking. Panjshir is a vision for what other Afghan provinces might also one day be.
That's great stuff, but the Red Bull ain't done yet.

These Red Bull soldiers--as well as those in Paktiya and Kabul--have achieved plenty and sacrificed much. There's a National Guard saying that "deployment doesn't end with a homecoming parade." After they return from Afghanistan, many of our citizen-soldiers will be challenged to successfully reintegrate with their families and friends, to find employment (more than 21 percent of the deployed Iowa soldiers indicate they will not have civilian jobs waiting for them), and to overcome physical, emotional and mental obstacles stemming from their service.

We should give these modern Minutemen more than our momentary notice. They have answered our country's call, and we should stand ready to hear theirs. Their stories, too.



  1. God Bless the Red Bulls - and send them all safely home again


  2. If you think that morale and motivation in the Cav are up, you must be smoking something strong... As someone in a line platoon, I would say that there is a general consensus that the BSZ has been an incredible waste of our time, and everything the Cav has achieved has been in spite of the SQDN leadership.

  3. Yeah, I encountered--at all levels--some grumbling about the grind of the security mission. Throughout the 1-113th Cavalry, however, I also encountered troopers who put the Bagram Security Zone mission in the context of the traditional Cav. mission: Look for bad guys, protect the brigade's flanks, move up and down the roads. Stetsons optional.

    Most importantly, the Iowa troopers--while decidedly ready to go home--seemed well-focused on the mission at hand. While dogged determination at the end of a deployment isn't exactly the same as jump-up-and-down enthusiasm, it was still great to see.

    Make sure to zap me an e-mail when you get back to the world, when we can each be a little more open with the other.

    Until then, be well!

    "We Maintain!"


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