26 July 2011

The Footlocker Time Machine

You don't get through more than 20 years in uniform without a little baggage.

Recently, during a much-needed, kid-free staycation here in the Midwestern tropics, Household-6 challenged me to reduce a couple of duffels-full of personal Army surplus into the confines of one military-size footlocker.

Technically, soldiers are issued everything they need: uniforms and boots, excavation tools and canteens, rucksacks and cold-weather ponchos. In past lives, I've been responsible for as much as $2,500 of such personal gear and equipment. When you transfer units, or leave uniformed service, much of this gear gets turned back into your supply sergeant, but there are exceptions. Anything that touches your skin, for example--T-shirts, long underwear, boots, to name a few--is kept by the soldier. As are some items that are obsolete and no longer listed in the U.S. Army inventory. Bottom line: Uncle Sam isn't going to re-issue anybody else your ratty brown boxer shorts or D.D.T.-infused sweaters.

There are also those extra items that soldiers accumulate over the course of repeated annual inventories. If a soldier can't produce a given item during one of those "show-down" inspections, they're financially responsible for its replacement. Personally, I now own a handful of easy-to-lose, 5-foot-long green nylon cargo straps, which are used for cinching and securing stuff. Come inspection day, they were always somewhere other than my wall locker. At a couple of dollars each, I purchased a number of them over time.

After a deployment, Uncle Sam occasionally lets soldiers keep a theater-specific set of uniforms. When the Infantry unit to which I was assigned returned from the Middle East in 2004, for example, we each kept one set of Desert Combat Uniforms (D.C.U.) and tan boots to wear in our homecoming ceremony. Returning to Iowa, Nebraska, and other states this month, the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are wearing their only-in-Afghanistan mountain combat boots and "MultiCam" uniforms.

Following my recent Midsummer Night's Cleaning, I now own a footlocker-sized time capsule that contains one set each of the "chocolate ship" Desert Battle Dress Uniform (D.B.D.U.)--worn by my U.S. Air Force father's from Operation Desert Shield--as well as my own woodland-green Battle Dress Uniform (B.D.U.), "coffee-stain" Desert Camouflage Uniform (D.C.U.), and "digicam" Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.), plus various boonie hats and patrol caps, boots and berets.

I'm still a little undecided, however, on what to do with some of my non-uniform military paraphernalia. The "Defender of Freedom" stuff that was handed out by the National Guard like sour candy after my 2003-04 peacekeeping deployment, for example, always left me with a bad taste. I was peacekeeping in an allied but authoritarian country, not "defending freedom" for anybody, whether at home or abroad.

Such schlock and less-than-awesomeness is unnecessary, in my humble opinion. Not everybody needs to get a medal, and we don't need to create clunky unofficial awards for doing one's job. Still, the closet historian in me argues that it's necessary to keep some of the bad and the ugly clutter, along with the good. Future generations will want to know how each of us was a special snowflake.

I've also got a bag of National Guard retirement swag that someone from my unit's rear-detachment left on my desk in the middle of the night. Nothing says "thank you for your service" like finding that someone has slipped you a genuine anodized aluminum mini-L.E.D. flashlight gift set under cover of darkness.

It's the thought that counts. Right?

I am also in possession of a couple of tri-folded flags, which generally tend to give me both the Heebies and the Jeebies. I tend to regard such items as being more appropriate to military funerals, rather than to retirements and recognitions. Just issue me another commemorative coffee mug, thank you, and I'll be fine. No need to evoke the words "on behalf of a grateful nation." I was just doing my job. Besides, I'm not dead yet.

This forced march down memory lane did deliver one unexpected find: An old talisman from my first days of Army leadership training, back in 1991. It was a Doonesbury comic strip dated Dec. 29, 1990. (You can also order a framed print of the comic here.) Back in the day, I had clipped it out of a newspaper, and waterproofed it with lamination. I carried it everywhere, whether in my briefcase or backpack. The joke's set-up has to do with a Vietnam-era combat veteran telling stories to his fellow soldiers then deployed to Desert Shield. The newbie lieutenant tells the sergeant to carry on. "Should inspire the men," he says.

After the butterbar leaves the barracks, the vet returns to his story-telling. A young troop starts him off by asking, "Really, you shot your own officers?"

For years, I carried that cartoon as a reminder not to get too full of myself as an Army leader. Sometimes, I even managed to follow the implied advice. The "not pridefully setting yourself up to get shot at" part, I mean.

Later on in my Army career, I rediscovered the need for humility. In fact, I'd like to think that was the kernel around which the whole Charlie Sherpa ethic developed: Keep your head and mind your tongue, don't worry about rank, identify solutions and celebrate others, work for the organization rather than yourself.

And, most of all, to paraphrase Wheaton's Law: Don't be a dork.

After that, I didn't go as far in the Army as I might have otherwise, but I ended up in a happier place for it. Given my comic-carrying past, the fact that Red Bull Rising blog is occasionally featured on "The Sandbox" portion of the Doonesbury website has been both a thrill and a full-circle affirmation.

In this month of Red Bull homecomings, I know I'm not the only one packing it up and away, trying to figure out what to share of my Afghanistan experience with friends and family, and what to keep to and for myself. Deployment doesn't end with a homecoming ceremony. Returning citizen-soldiers need not only to re-connect with family, friends, and jobs, but also with news, culture, and society. Along the way, they'll no doubt wrestle with what the deployment meant to them, their families, and their communities. Often times, they'll encounter big questions camouflaged as something seemingly mundane. Like when friends and family ask whether they'll ever deploy again, for example. That's a box of conversational trip-flares, if ever there was one.

Maybe they'll find their post-deployment answers as early as next week, or more slowly during the months to come. Maybe they'll only discover them years from now, like a box of G.I. trinkets and treasures, or long-remembered clipping of yellowed newsprint.

Remember: Homecoming is a journey, not a destination. Pack as light as you can.

18 July 2011

Updates on Iowa Soldier's Death, Funeral

The July 10 incident in Sgt. 1st Class Terryl L. Pasker, 39, of Cedar Rapids was shot and killed by a uniformed member of the Afghan intelligence police didn't immediately end with the death of his assailant.

Pasker and uniformed U.S. civilian law enforcement contractor Paul Protzenko of Enfield, Conn., were each killed the morning of July 12, when the Afghan officer stopped their armored pick-up truck at an impromptu traffic control point in Panjshir Province. The driver of another U.S. vehicle, Master Sgt. Todd Eipperle, 46, returned fire, killing the Afghan assailant.

The incident was far from over, however. In a July 14 article, soldiers on the ground told the Des Moines (Iowa) Register's Tony Leys that a mob soon gathered, threatening the U.S. soldiers as they attempted to medically evacuate their casualties:
[Lt. Col Tim Glynn] and a handful of other soldiers had been following in two vehicles a few minutes behind the first two trucks. By the time the second group arrived on the scene, outraged villagers had gathered and were yelling at the Americans. The gunman was from their village, and the villagers might not have understood that he had started the gun battle that led to his death, Glynn said. The villagers threatened to fetch guns and rocket-propelled grenades and attack the rest of the Americans.

Afghan police did little to help quell the crowd, and they urged the Iowa commander to move his soldiers out of the area. Glynn said he refused, and summoned medical evacuation helicopters to the scene. While two of his soldiers prepared a landing zone, Glynn and four others fended off a crowd of 150 to 200 screaming villagers for the 20 to 30 minutes it took for the helicopters to arrive.
Eipperle was himself shot during the incident, and, according to a July 18 update from the Des Moines Register, is back in the United States. Eipperle lives in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Funeral services for Pasker are to be held today, Mon., July 18, 10:30 a.m. at the River of Life Ministries, 3801 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A graveside service will immediately follow, Mount Calvary Cemetery, 375 32nd St. SE, Cedar Rapids.

The funeral takes place during a week in which the 3,200 soldiers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) continue to depart from Afghanistan, out-process from federal active-duty in Wisconsin, and arrive home to Iowa, Nebraska, and other states. All of Iowa's Red Bull troops are anticipated to arrive home not later than early August.

15 July 2011

Scenes from a Homecoming Ceremony

Approximately 2,800 soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's 2-34th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) are somewhere between Afghanistan and the Hawkeye State. They're "demobilizing" from active duty—going through final medical and administrative checks—at Fort McCoy, Wis. Coincidentally, members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1-34th BCT are currently mobilizing for Iraq at the same base. And there's also another brigade-sized element of Iowa soldiers conducting their annual two-weeks of active-duty for training.

That's a lot of Red Bull and Hawkeye patches in one place. Rumor is that Fort McCoy is so crowded that there's only one shower head for every 100 soldiers.

The Red Bull's return from active-duty is less like a stampede, and more like a cattle drive. Units are traveling to Iowa in company-sized elements--not more than about 100 soldiers at a time. Some 30 ceremonies are anticipated between mid-July and the first of August. Because of the unpredictability of transportation, Iowa National Guard officials are able to announce homecoming ceremonies with only about 48 hours notice.

The Headquarters and Headquarters Company (H.H.C.), 2-34th BCT is located in Boone, Iowa. The homecoming ceremony is held at Boone High School, home of the Toreadors. A "Toreador" is a Spanish word for most English-speakers would call a "Matador." Either way, it means "killer of bulls."

¡Olé!

People start arriving as early as an hour ahead of the scheduled early afternoon event. There's ample time to catch up with friends and spouses of friends. We talk about the deployment, and about the next one, and about how there's not going to be a next one for some soldiers. That is, not if the spouses have anything to say about it. Old citizen-soldiers just fade away, particularly when they lose the support of their households.

Some of the spouses get all dolled up, and get the kids all kitted out. Some families show up as full platoons, and are even dressed in uniforms of their own designs. One pack arrives in pink camouflage T-shirts with "Welcome Home Dave" printed in big black letters. Another wears navy blue T-shirts, with the family name written in athletic-team script across the front in camouflage pattern. Below the family name it reads: "Afghanistan."

One of the brigade Commo Dogs has been posting to Facebook since earlier in the morning: "Alrighty people, bags are loaded and we are on the bus about to leave. I haven't had butterflies like this for a LONG time! I can feel my heart skipping beats and I love, love, LOVE it! Next stop, Boone, IA!"

Later, at the "distant end" here in Boone, one of the spouses occasionally calls out by mile marker the location of the incoming charter bus. Her husband is texting her updates from the road.

There are delays. There are always delays. Some of the families, having been to this kind of rodeo before, have brought along books and other distractions. The gymnasium is not air-conditioned, and the coolish and overcast morning quickly breaks into a more familiar blaze of corn-growing sun. It's Iowa in July. (It's hot, but it's a wet heat.) The warmth creeps in through the open doors of the school.

The Family Readiness Group (F.R.G.) is giving red, white, and blue balloons to the kids. The kids run circles around the empty basketball court. Later on, it hits me: Every ballon floating over the crowd represents a little kid, waiting for a Red Bull mom or dad, aunt or uncle, sister or brother.

The bus finally arrives. Behind the bleachers, there's a lot of last-minute discussion about how the troops should march in. The Patriot Guard Riders (P.G.R.), motorcycle enthusiasts who volunteer their time and gas at every military send-off, funeral, and homecoming, carry in the colors. The Iowa chapter of the Mackenzie Highlanders pipes in the troops. The Red Bull soldiers are still wearing their only-in-Afghanistan MultCam uniforms. Some are wearing the desert boots, some are wearing the black-soled mountain ones.

The public affairs officer introduces the dignitaries—representatives of various military and elected offices. Nobody says anything too memorable, but that's doesn't mean it's not necessary or important. It's a ceremony. It's predictable, like church or the Cubs. It's something you do to mark the end of one time, and the beginning of another. It's a mile marker. Homecoming is a journey, not a destination.

After about 20 minutes, the company commander tells his unit to fall out of formation.

What happens next is sort of like the end of a championship basketball game. Some families rush down from the bleachers, while others break out big banners with their soldier's name. Somehow, people find each other in the scrum.

As with other ceremonies, if you're not part of the immediate family, there's a certain etiquette to be followed. Smile and be brief. Give buddy-hugs and hearty handshakes as appropriate. Say "welcome home." If possible, do not step between the bride and groom. If you're lucky, there may be time for a few quick introductions: "Honey, this is the guy who writes that blog." Or "Honey, this is the guy who saved my life." Or "Honey, this is the guy I've been sleeping with for the past 9 months."

You know what I mean.

Soldiers make their ways out to the curbside baggage drop, and each pick up one Jolly Green Giant-sized duffel bag. They'll get the rest of their stuff at their next regular drill. That won't be for a couple of months. Citizen-soldiers are technically still on federal active-duty as they burn their accrued military leave. And federal law states National Guard soldiers have a certain amount of time before they have to report back to their civilian employers, in order that their civilian job still be protected. In the meantime, there will be some mandatory "Yellow Ribbon" events, which are about everything from veterans benefits to family reintegration skills.

One buddy pulls me into his family scrum for a few minutes. His son announces in a voice loud and proud, "The house is clean, Daddy!" His wife laughs and admits, "My strategy was to wait to clean everything until the last minute: the truck, the car, the house. It worked. These last days went by quick—but I'm exhausted."

Within a few blurry and humid minutes, the gymnasium, the baggage-drop, the parking lot are all empty. Hitting the roads for their homes around the state, the troops have seeminlgy infiltrated into the Iowa soil like so many summer cicadae. It is suddenly a lazy and quiet summer day in Boone, Iowa, pop. 12,000.

Welcome home.

11 July 2011

Iowa Red Bull Soldier Killed in Panjshir

Just days or weeks away from his return from a yearlong deployment, Iowa Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Terryl L. Pasker, 39, of Cedar Rapids was killed approximately 9:30 a.m. Afghan time, Sat., July 9 when an Afghan National Directorate of Security (N.D.S.) trooper opened fire on Pasker's vehicle while it was stopped at a traffic control point. The incident took place in Darah District of Panjshir Province near a construction project site. An unidentified U.S. civilian law enforcement professional ("LEP") in Pasker's vehicle was also killed.

Iowa National Guard officials announced Pasker's death at a July 10 press conference at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

Master Sgt. Todd Eipperle of Marshalltown, Iowa, was also injured during the attack. As the driver of a vehicle that preceded Pasker's through the traffic control point, Eipperle reportedly stopped his vehicle when shots were fired, exited his vehicle to return fire and killed Pasker's assailant. The attack is under investigation.

The New York Times reported on the incident here.

Eipperle is receiving treatment at an Army medical facility in Afghanistan. He is a member of Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, which is headquartered in Boone.

Pasker is a member of Bravo Company, 334th Brigade Support Battalion, headquartered in Cedar Rapids. Assigned as an electronic maintenance supervisor, he was serving in Panjshir as part a small Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) that advises, mentors, and assists Afghan police. An Iowa National Guard spokesman said Sunday that Pasker owned a contracting business in Eastern Iowa, and brought a hardworking "construction mentality" to his work in Panjshir. Part of his military duties involved monitoring contractor performance on coalition-funded projects.

Pansjhir is traditionally celebrated as one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan, a place in which U.S. military personnel do not typically wear helmets and body armor. (Locals take great pride in the security of their region--neither the Soviets nor the Taliban were able to effectively penetrate the province--and are said to take offense at any suggestion that guests in their valley are not safe.) Also, U.S. personnel in Panjshir routinely travel in unarmed-but-armored pickup trucks or SUVs, rather than Mine-Resistant Ambushed-Protected (M-RAP, pronounced "em-rap") vehicles more familiar to other parts of the country.

Earlier this year, U.S. state department officials in Panjshir anticipated that the province would be wholly "transitioned" to Afghan responsibility as early as Fall 2011.

Pasker had previously deployed to Afghanistan in 2004-2005. He is survived by a wife, his mother and father, one brother, and two sisters. He and his wife reportedly planned to start a family following his pending 2012 retirement from the Iowa Army National Guard. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Eipperle, the senior enlisted officer for Task Force Red Bulls' training team in Panjshir, is in his civilian career the District Director of the Mid-Iowa Council of the Boy Scouts of America. In January, he connected via videoconference Cub Scout Pack 182 in Iowa with an Afghan National Police (A.N.P.) officer in Panjshir. The policeman shared some insights about Afghan life, and taught the scouts some words in the Dari language.

"When I thanked Captain [Sefat] Mire for doing this for our boys, he simply replied, 'It's something I will remember forever,'" Eipperle said at the time.