29 February 2012

Zen and the Art of Organizational Analysis

I'm just a city kid from Iowa, but even I know how to watch the corn. Find the space at which the tassels blur into amber waves of terrain, that middle distance where you can see the cornfield for the stalks, the forest for the trees, the ocean for the swells. It is a magic moment, and difficult to maintain. The land is not flat or static ...

It is sculpted ... It is inhabited ...

See the contours ... See the connections ...

See the structures ... See the spaces in between ...

I have sought out this figurative sweet spot on the landscape, again and again.

On my high school speech and debate team, I specialized in an competitive category variously called "student legislature" or "student congress." I learned how to maneuver parliamentary process, how to whip and count votes, and how to listen to the floor debate while also eavesdropping on caucuses and conversations. Find the sweet spot, and you can sense the mood of the room, predict how the vote is going to go, figure out where and when you need to be.

As a journalist, I pursued an expertise in architecture and design. I realized later that I was actually writing about people, rather than bricks and mortar. One of my favorite philosophical cornerstones comes from Winston Churchill, who, after World War II, observed at the dedication of a reconstructed parliament building: "We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us." Find the sweet spot, and you can see how organizations think of themselves: Flat organizations build flat buildings. Hierarchical organizations build skyscrapers. Those physical forms serve to reinforce the power structures and communications within.

Take a step back from the building-scale, and consider a larger area. You can see how organizations connect to their communities, and how those connections can be manipulated to create change. For example: A lima bean silo connects to a community's agricultural, transportation, and business networks in certain ways. Maybe the lima bean business goes south. Re-purpose that structure into a hotel, and it now connects its surroundings in different ways: retail, travel, and tourism.

As an U.S. Army communications soldier working in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), I learned to keep one ear on the radio and to listen for my callsign, to manage radio traffic according to proper procedure, and to keep track of the battle. It was like listening to a baseball game on the radio, mentally moving the players around the bases.

Later, working on the battle desk, I learned to watch how messages flowed in and out of the TOC. A radio message or phone call would arrive on one side of the U-shaped work area, and you could watch it ripple across the room. A sergeant major once posted this sign in the the Red Bull TOC: "Who else needs to know what I know?" Keep an eye on the battle-drill, and an ear on the TOC-talk. Find the sweet spot, and you can see the data flow, where the organization is headed, and where your boss needs to be involved to achieve his objectives.

I'm not trying to sound goofy or mystical, or like some science-fiction guru from "The Matrix" (1999). Sometimes, however, we don't know what we think until we write it down. Even as I'm writing this, I am beginning to recognize the threads and themes that run throughout my disparate experiences: I focus on process and procedure. I surf through conversations. I identify interconnections. I seek out the modes and nodes of influence toward specific outcomes.

I may be onto something. Then again, I may also be full of crap.

Maybe every practitioner—it doesn't matter of what—has a similar moment of transcendence. You do something long enough, and, suddenly, you know what you're doing. Even if you don't think about it. One day, you wake up and realize: You know Kung Fu.

I'm good at finding the sweet spots in some types of organizations. That doesn't make me a hero, but it occassionally makes me useful.

Similarly, there are infantry soldiers who can parachute onto a random piece of ground, and instantly describe what needs to happen to achieve tactical advantage: The high ground is here, start digging in here, put the machine gun here for optimal effectiveness.

There are military intelligence analysts who can look at a map and a chronology, and spit out a prediction about who is doing what to whom, and the most likely times and places they'll strike next.

There are combat engineers who can look at a road and tell you what's out of place, where the bad guys would be, how the bombs buried in the dirt would be triggered.

It's all about finding the sweet spot. Of doing something without thinking. Of becoming simultaneously aware of the details, while also seeing components in context. Of being an actor both within and upon a process.

There are seeds of genius available in such moments.

The trick is to know when to harvest the corn.

27 February 2012

Letters from the Gulf, Part II

Blog-editor's note: This is the second part of a 1990 essay, which summarized the pre-war correspondence of my father, who had deployed to Operation Desert Shield as a U.S. Air Force Reserve navigator on a C-130 aircrew.

For the first part of this essay, as well as additional historical background, click here.


'SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS' continued ...

Dad also took great delight in telling the family about the "hooch," as well as other places he had to call "home."

"Quarters are real spartan! We slept in a tent last night," he wrote. "The cots plus being tired made our evening's rest very adequate. In the UAE, we have a 'wood' box with a door for 12. I believe the term male bonding comes to mind" (Sept. 15)

Dad later wrote more about his hooch, which on the bad days and nights quartered two aircrews, about 12 personnel.

"Out house is a plywood 12 x 25 box with a door, two small windows, and two air conditioners," he wrote. "The Furniture is limited to 14 beds, 3 folding chairs, and 1 concrete block with board table. Finding a place to put the 'stuff' is tuff. The B-4 bags and A-3's [different types of Air Force-issue luggage] are pushed under the beds just to give a bit of walking space." (Sept. 18)

Still, one gets the feeling Dad wasn't complaining. At least, not too much.

"A Marine sgt. [on Bahrain] that he was ready and already tired of waiting," Dad wrote. "I should that add that even with our spartan conditions we living at the Holiday Inn compared to the Marines. They had basic tents with no sun shades. War is hell!" (Sept. 19).

I've seen pictures of the "Chi-town Sheik Shack" (Each hooch had its own name, apparently, if not its own Frisbee golf course.) The crews apparently got into constructing lampshades, shelves, even a working 'refrigerator' out of cardboard, red duct tape, and one of the air conditioners. If Necessity is the mother of invention, Boredom must be the father.


Dad usually opened his letters with some discussion of setting, the weather and what he was doing besides writing letters.

"The weather here on an island in the land of O is hot and clear during the day," he started in a typical letter. "The breeze starts coolking things off at sunset which makes sleeping great. The big part of the day is make passable by living in our air conditioned tent. Isn't that a dichotomy in terms?"

He started another, "It is 8 p.m. here and I am in front of our hooch enjoying the evening. There is a breeze and a bit of noise from a C-130 engine run about 50 yards away. I hope the place moves soon or my just move inside and forget the evening breeze." (Sept. 22)


One of Dad's more significant themes seems to have been the "all this stuff that's out here nowhere" motif. Rather than set it up myself, here it is in all its basic continuity:
I would tell you where I'm located, but it isn't on the maps. The same is true of the airports we're operating into. I wonder how some of these complexes got built in these locations—they are in the middle of nowhere and without roads, etc. (Sept. 19)

I am still amazed at the places we are operating into. They are large complexes with major runways and accessories. The fact they don't appear in the airfield directory and on our charts is also interesting. It would appear that our "hosts" are well prepared in some ways to defend themselves. (Sept. 26)

We flew into Jeddah, SA yesterday and I found it hard to believe. According to some ground personnel, the airport is built to handle up to 1 million people a day during the "Holy" days. From the size and numbers of facilities, I would think that handling that number is possible. What makes it hard to believe is that all this construction is at the middle of the desert and nowhere. (Sept. 29)

I'm still both impressed and depressed by this land. We fly for hours and view nothing but sand and rocks—miles + miles of wasteland. then in the middle of nowhere we'll find a four-lane divided highway that goes nowhere but runs for miles. The depressing part is the money that is spent on facilities that have no real purpose. (Sept. 30)
That's about as political as Dad got.


So what have I learned from reading my mother's mail? A little about the war, if one chooses to call it such, a little about Dad, and a little about the way I write. There's something in the phrasing, "ready and already," "impressed and depressed," that smacks familiar, not to mention the continual discovery of dichotomy and oxymoron. That's not where I want to end this, however. I've been saving that part until the end.


Dad's always had a particular sign-off, which I once regarded as dangerously close to affected, which I now find myself using in the appropriate settings. (We are doomed to become our fathers.) Through the years, he's said it enough that it seems natural enough, and it seems right that chose to close his many letters with "see you in my dreams."

"I'm sure glad I'm getting paid to do this because I would hate to pay for this tour. Got to go—see you in my dreams." (Sept. 30)

If his letters brought the war home, that phrase brought Dad home. Even before he got back.

24 February 2012

Letters from the Gulf, Part I

Blog-editor's note: The following essay was written in November 1990, when I was my last semester of journalism school. The assignment wasn't for journalism class, however. The class was an experimental one, an interdisciplinary exploration of American identity and family history. It was taught by Bob Woodward—the other Bob Woodward, the one who had worked at the Washington Star, rather than the Post.

Sorry, some inside jokes never get old.

I must've kept the paper as much for Woodward's red-ink marks as I did to in order to preserve my sentiments. I'm glad I did on both fronts. Who could've predicted that, more than 20 years later, I'd find myself writing about similar themes: citizen-soldiers, overseas deployments, family histories.

I've decided to share the essay with Red Bull Readers, inspired by the examples provided earlier this week by Kurt Greenbaum's "Well, Happy, and Safe" blog-project, as well as Daniel Gade's "In the Event of My Death" project. Here's the lesson-learned: Everyday letters or words can help family members understand not only where we've been as citizen-soldiers, but who we were when we went.

In November 1990, my father had just returned from a 30-day deployment to Operation Desert Shield as a member of the 928th Tactical Airlift Wing, a U.S. Air Force Reserve unit that flew out of O'Hare Air Reserve Station, near Chicago. I was approximately 30 days away from graduation, and about to receive a commission in the U.S. Army. My father would administer my oath of enlistment. Because Uncle Sam had paid for two years of my schooling, and because of ongoing preparations in the Persian Gulf, I anticipated I would be ordered to 4 years of active-duty service.

The United States was then ramping up toward Operation Desert Storm. The Air War launched on Jan. 17, 1991. The Ground War launched on Feb. 23, 1991. Despite the uncertainty of post-graduate life, I joked that I was in the safest place in the Army—I was an untrained officer, unlikely to be placed into a position of harming himself or others. I still had an basic specialty course to complete, which, depending on my assignment, could range from three to six months of additional military schooling. Army school would start sometime within 12 months of my civilian graduation.

I figured the war would be there when I got back. I was wrong.



Dad went off to war again in October.

It wasn't a "war" then, even if it later became one. It wasn't a "police action," or even a "conflict." If anything, it was a "deployment."

Dad's first war was Vietnam. That didn't start out as a "war," either, but during my own lifetime I've seen it grow into one.

Dad's second war was deployment to the Persian Gulf. It could have just as easily been a war, what with the press pandering to the public's worst fears of inevitable bloodshed in the Middle East. The perception was the reality, at least at that point.


Mom said she never expected to go through it again, which I took at the time to mean she never expected to have Dad to again go off for weeks or months. Later on, I suspected she was talking more about war, about the chance of losing Dad.

She also said something about how friends and family might somehow be more concerned about Dad than she was, the military experience being a bit foreign to most. Mom probably wasn't less concerned about Dad than the rest of the world, but she was used to it, as much as one can be.


As a young Air Force officer and navigator, Dad flew tactical airlift in Vietnam—a C-130 "Hercules", big four-prop camouflaged trash-haulers capable of flying in and out of just about anything, carrying just about anything. Dad's Vietnam experience was stereotypical Air Force—when he got close enough to the ground war, he didn't have to stay for long.

Almost 20 years later, Dad wore silver clusters instead of silver bars. He was back to flying C-130s, though, and he was back to flying in and around it.

His Air Force reserve unit supplied volunteers to Operation Desert Shield for 30-day rotations. Long enough to get the idea.


This fall, Ken Burns' 11-hour public television series brought home the human drama of the Civil War not only through the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, but through the letters and diaries of the more common soldier and spouse.

The series so possessed the public mind that Newsweek magazine put the Civil War on its cover.

More recently, Newsweek magazine devoted a cover article to "Letters in the Sand." Like the Civil War series, that article brought the military experience home to America in real, personal terms.

For 30 days, Dad's letters brought the war home to Mom, in real, personal terms.


Dad wrote about 10 letters to Mom during his 30 days, plus a couple to me at school and few to his folks. They were usually short, two pages at most, and on USO "Home Away From Home" stationery. He consistently stuck to four themes: the military mind, the "hooch," the weather, and how many things one could find in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout his writing, he managed to keep his sense of humor in play. He had to.

"The arrival was generally a mess," he wrote Sept. 15, having just gotten off a Tower Airlines jumbo jet. "Four hundred people with a pile of baggage can create a real disaster. Add to that—400 people leaving with a similar pile of baggage and I believe you've got the idea. [...]"

Dad continue to note examples of the ever-present, ever-oxymoronic "military intelligence." He wrote, "I might add the similarity between this 'Op' and 'Nam is the mentality of keeping 'military.' The edict yesterday was no sweatbands are to be worn with the uniform—unless working. Give me a break." (Sept. 21)

And on Sept. 22:
All is find as long as we keep finding things to do—fly and shop, etc. We are finding some of the precautions that are being observed are really "crowd control." I read that the Arabs are pleased to have our support but worry that we will influence their way of life. To reduce this "contact" our commanders are restricting our movements out side of our operational area. (compounds). What is amusing is that the UAE is currently 80% foreign nationals—I guess "they" don't influence the Arabs?
In a similar story, Dad grew fond of telling the about the safety briefing his crew received staying overnight in Cairo, which achieved record levels of contradiction. It went something like:
  • Don't go anywhere alone.
  • Don't go anywhere in groups.
  • Don't leave the hotel.
  • Don't be predictable in movement or routine. (The hotel bus to the airport left at the same time every day, however. Probably travelled by the same route, too.)
And one other favorite of mine, about one day's mission: "Just two stops but long legs with a rather interesting load—bomb parts made by Texas Instruments. Seems to be a dichotomy there somewhere."

[Editor's note: More than 20 years later, this last joke falls a little flat. Dad went to work for an avionics manufacturer for a few years after leaving the active-duty Air Force in 1979, so this might've been a jab against a former competitor. Operation Desert Storm also saw the first large-scale employment of smart-bomb technology by U.S. forces. He might have been making a wary reference to technologies the public was about to be seen on the nightly news for the first time. After all, since when did bombs drop where people actually wanted them?]

To be continued in the next Red Bull Rising blog-post ...

22 February 2012

The Letters We Carried

In the past, the Red Bull Rising blog has often encouraged readers to write, archive, or share letters related to their family's military service: To record their family's deployment experiences, for example, or to illuminate the life and times of a beloved family member.

Even in the ephemeral Age of the Internet, a letter is a practical chance of concrete immortality. After all, they represent our plans, our dreams, and the values we hope to pass on to new generations.

Daniel Gade, a 15-year U.S. Army officer, has started an effort titled "In the Event of My Death: Real Letters Home from Iraq and Afghanistan." He proposes to collect and publish 30 to 50 or letters that service members have written to their loved ones, to be opened in the event they don't come home.

As Gade recently explained at Garry Trudeau's/Dooonesbury's "The Sandbox" mil-blog digest:
Before I was deployed to Iraq in 2004, I wrote a letter to my wife, Wendy, to be opened only ‘In the Event of My Death’. In it, I expressed my love and admiration for her, my gratitude for our life together, and my fondest hopes for her future with our daughter. In the summer of 2011, while we were moving to West Point, I discovered the letter in a binder and allowed her to read it–her reaction to the letter is where this book idea came from.

I began to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of Soldiers, Marines, and other service members who have written this kind of letter to their families, and the sacrifices of all of those spouses and children during repeated long deployments. Whether the service member is wounded, killed, or comes home unscathed: he or she has sacrificed greatly, and his or her family has as well. Too often, these sacrifices are unsung.
Gade plans to donate any proceeds from the project to charities that benefit military families. Readers can submit their own letters to Gade via e-mail: daniel.m.gade AT gmail.com; or via postal mail: 3357 East Continental Road, West Point, New York 10996. Those making submissions can request anonymity.

For more information, visit the project's blog page here.

A personal story:

When I was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in 2010, the thought of writing an "in the event of" letter seemed self-involved and overly dramatic. I was deploying overseas, but my Army job overseas wasn't likely to bring me into contact with bombs or bad guys. Besides, unlike the "taking care of business" mentality surrounding our estate plans, I worried that my wife would find a sealed envelope unnecessarily morbid or maudlin.

Still, I'm a journalist. Among newspaper reporters, writing your own obituary or last opinion column is a long-standing and celebrated tradition. Journalists love getting in the last word, particularly in print.

So I cheated. I wrote my own version of the letter. I wrote it to my daughter, and tried to use language a 5-year-old would understand. The message, however, was really intended for my family sometime in the future–a time at which I might not be around to remind them why I went, and what we meant to each other.

Then, I hid it in plain sight—like that old Edgar Allen Poe mystery story about the "Purloined Letter." Rather than put it on the hearth, or in the family's safe-deposit box, I did what any 21st century, post-newspaper journalist would do:

I hid it on the Internet.

20 February 2012

WWII Red Bull blog: 'Well, Happy, and Safe'

Journalist Kurt Greenbaum of Chesterfield, Mo., is using a blog to explore and archive a series of letters penned by his family during World War II. U.S. Army radio operator Frank D. "Babe" Mauro of Mount Kisco, N.Y., was eventually assigned to the Anti-Tank Company, 168th Infantry Regiment (168th Inf.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (34th Inf. Div.).

Babe would serve in both North Africa and Italy, and promote to the WWII-era rank of "technician fifth grade," a non-command rating also called a "tech corporal."

To read the "Well, Happy and Safe" blog, click here. The blog also appears under that "Love, Honor & Support" blog-roll in the right-hand column of the Red Bull Rising blog.

Greenbaum never met his uncle, who would have been age 70 when the journalist first began the personal preservation project in the late 1980s. As Greenbaum wrote in a 1995 magazine article:
When my maternal grandmother died in 1988, and my mother finished going through her belongings, she found an old train case stuffed with letters. They were letters from my grandmother’s son Babe, letters he had written from basic training and from Italy as he served in the U.S. Army infantry during World War II.

At one point, I think during a visit to my parents for Christmas, I made photocopies of all the letters, indexed them, and read them. In part, I was inspired because my grandmother had always stared at me, shaking her head at what she believed was the walking ghost of her son. I never saw the resemblance, but she did.
The blog takes its name from a recurring phrase in Babe's letters. Greenbaum muses:
From [the] 45th letter on, nearly every letter [Babe] writes will begin with those words. 'I am well, happy and safe.' He has landed in Italy. He is in the Infantry. He is now in combat as a radio operator for an anti-tank company. He is well, happy and safe. [...]

I wonder if it’s a technique that he uses, just to get his pen on the paper and start writing something. Does he dash off that first line just to get the juices flowing, hoping that something else will follow?

Or is he really just that upbeat about his situation? Does he love being in the army so much that he really does feel well, happy and safe?

Is he just trying to set his parents’ minds at ease? Babe wrote that letter four days before his 19th birthday. Relax, Mom and Pop. I’m thousands of miles away on foreign soil wearing a uniform and carrying a firearm. You haven’t seen me in eight months, since I shipped out for basic training. Yes, I’m still only a teenager.
In World War I, the U.S. 34th Inf. Div.—then nicknamed the "Sandstorm" division—comprised U.S. National Guard troops from North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. The Midwestern connection continues to the present. The division headquarters is now part of the Minnesota National Guard, and is located Rosemount, Minn. Present-day units that notably continue to wear the "Red Bull" sleeve insignia include Minnesota's 1st Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Inf. Div. (1-34th BCT), and the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Inf. Div. (2-34th BCT).

The 168th Infantry Regiment's lineage is currently maintained by the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168th Inf.), headquartered in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and a subordinate unit to the 2-34th BCT.

In his letters, Babe took great pride in the 168th Infantry's connection to the 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division, a headquarters that still exists within today's New York National Guard. The division was named by Gen. Douglas McArthur in World War I, who noted the National Guard division would stretch like a rainbow across soldiers from 26 different home states. (See comments section here for more information about the origins of the Rainbow division.)

On Aug. 7, 1943, Babe wrote from North Africa: "The same old story; I changed my address again. At least, though, I finally got assigned to a regular outfit, and boy, what an outfit. It’s the best on this side and I don’t mean maybe. It’s got a history that dates way back to the Rainbow Division of the last struggle."

The distinctive unit insignia (D.U.I.) of the 1-168th Inf. incorporates a rainbow element to this day.

15 February 2012

Social Media First-Aid Kits for Mil-Families

Soldiers and families should be issued Social Media First-Aid Kits, along with checklists and battle-drills to execute when the Internet explodes in their faces.

After all:
  • We train soldiers basic life-saving procedures: Stop the bleeding, treat for shock, call for evacuation.
  • We train soldiers to engage newspaper, television, and radio journalists: Tell the truth; avoid operational or classified details; always assume that everything you say will appear in print, or on the air, or on the Internet.
  • We even teach our soldiers and families to prepare for the worst: Write last wills and testaments, document powers-of-attorneys, designate insurance beneficiaries.
No one, however, tells soldiers and families what to do if the Internet blows up in their directions. Take, for example, the recent experience of a young, pregnant, and geographically isolated military wife and blogger, who, along with her U.S. Army recruiter husband, published some controversial statements about the U.S. Army National Guard. (The incident was previously mentioned on the Red Bull Rising blog here.)

The couple's comments quickly went viral. Commenters to the blog post escalated from taking issue with her and her husband's opinions, to personal attacks and ridicule. Some went so far as to imply physical or emotional threat, by exposing the couple to potential exploitation, harassment, and assault. How? By making personal data and photos published on Facebook available to the Internet hordes.

The couple first locked down the comments section of the blog, and later removed all personal photos and previous entries on the blog. Finally, the blog was deleted altogether.

Notably, the soldier's local command team—a captain and a sergeant first class—took the heroic step of placing itself between the couple and the Internet. The leaders published a public response to the controversy, along with their own contact information, including telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. They probably took more than a little heat for that, both from their own command and the raging public, but it was the right thing to do at a time when there were no easy answers or Army battle-drills.

"I am responsible for everything my unit does and fails to do ... even on the Internet."


What goes for "Army wives gone wild" also goes for those who receive news of a loved one's death or injury. When bad news happens to private citizens, the last things on their minds should be updating their Facebook statuses.

That's why someone needs to do it for them.

While preparing for my own deployment as a citizen-soldier, it was part of my job to advise my commander on the advantages and disadvantages of online media. In my personal time, I also began experimenting with blogging and social media, including the Red Bulll Rising blog. Almost by accident, I found I could collect private details online about a fellow soldier's grieving family and friends, and the circumstance of his injury and death, even prior to the news becoming public.

That scared me silly. Back in the day, working in a pre-Internet newsroom, I would've at least had to pick up a telephone to write a death notice or obituary. Today, all I had to do was hear a rumor and check out the Internet.

Without telling people why at the time, I attempted to scare as many of my friends, family, and fellow-soldiers as I could with that insight, too.

Bottom line: We need to help our families prepare for the worst, and that includes how to care for our online identities if we're injured or killed.

Here a few tips and techniques for soldiers and families to consider:
  • Ensure that your online posts, comments, audio, photo, and video recordings do nothing to bring discredit on you, your family, your unit, or the branch of service in which you serve.
  • If and when the unthinkable happens—you're wounded, killed, or otherwise unable to defend yourself and your family online—the digital executor should disable, delete, memorialize, or otherwise make your accounts temporarily, permanently, or partially unavailable.

    Note that, if you do not give a trusted someone explicit instructions and full access privileges to your accounts, online services like Facebook and Twitter may require a death certificate, obituary, and proof of relationship to the deceased.

    Click here for how to deactivate, delete, or memorialize a Facebook account.

    Click here for how to report a deceased user to Twitter.
  • In addition to a digital executor, designate in writing a spokesperson, who, in the event of your injury or death, will represent the family to the media. Bonus tip: That person doesn't have to be a family member. They'll have enough to deal with if you get killed. Your unit's or installation's public affairs office may be able to provide guidance and assistance.
  • Discuss and document your/your family's wishes regarding media presence at your funeral.
  • Discuss and document with your family whether or not you feel a memorial online presence is appropriate.

13 February 2012

Dog Saves Veteran, and They Write a Book

Luis Carlos Montalván, author of "Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him" spoke to an audience of approximately 70 people and service animals at a Des Moines, Iowa fund-raiser Sunday afternoon. The 2011 bestseller is to be published in paperback later this week, and is being developed as a movie.

The book was earlier reviewed on the Red Bull Rising blog here.

Montalván served both in the Maryland Army National Guard soldier and in the active-duty Army, with 17 years of total service, and multiple deployments to Iraq starting in 2003. After physical and psychological injuries stemming from his time in uniform, he found himself back in the United States abusing alcohol, divorced and socially isolated, fighting to navigate the hard road "from warrior to broken warrior, from veteran to disabled veteran to person with disabilities."

The solution, for Montalván, came in the form of an imperfect and furry spirit named "Tuesday."

"Assistance dogs can help you keep your balance, physically and psychologically," Montalván explained to the Des Moines audience, with Tuesday parked by his chair on stage. "They can wake you up from nightmares. They can take you out of that fog of war. They can take you out of the past, and bring you to the now. And, in so doing, they can mitigate your symptoms."

Montalván's visit to Iowa was sponsored by Paws & Effect, a Des Moines-based non-profit that trains mobility and psychiatric service animals for Midwestern veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).

"Many times, it is difficult for a veteran who has just received a service dog to fully and articulately express their circumstances. In receiving a service dog, what was once invisible, becomes very publicly visible: They must explain both to themselves and to others why they have a service dog. They must express they have PTSD," says Nicole Shumate, executive director of Paws & Effect.

"Through public-service television campaigns and arts events, we try to educate our communities about the challenges and stigmas our recipients face," she says. "Having Luis and Tuesday visit us here in Iowa allows us to show both recipients and the public what's possible—how service animals can be a very real solution to some of our veterans' physical and psychological needs."

In his presentation, Montalván encouraged leaders and citizens to seek out ways to address the needs of veterans with psychological injuries. "There are 18 veterans a day committing suicide," he noted. "That's 18 warriors, 18 of our sons and daughters, 18 of our toughest men and women, the soldiers on your right and left flanks, people with whom you've served."

"Tuesday wasn't the most obedient dog or the most beautiful dog," said Montalván, "but what I latched onto was that here was a dog that was very emotionally intelligent. I was going to have to earn his trust. He wasn't going to do things just because I told him to. He's sort of like me in that."

"He's my best friend, he's my prosthetic. He's my psychological touchstone. He's my spiritual and physical guide," said Montalván. "If it weren't for Tuesday, I don't know where I'd be—but it wouldn't be here."

Editor's note: The Red Bull Rising blog is an occasional partner to Paws & Effect. Also, Paws & Effect is currently training a litter of service dogs in honor of the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. The dogs will be placed with veterans later this year.

10 February 2012

Army Wife: She's Just Not That Into Us

I hope never to become the type of writer who sees fit only to comment upon the works of others, or who attempts to increase readership by stirring up trouble, passions, and hurt feelings. Instead, I try to keep a tight shot-group, aiming my attentions to fall squarely within these oft-cited parameters:
  • To illuminate ways in which citizen-soldiers past and present—as well as their families—can be remembered, supported, and celebrated.
Since embedding last year with the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) in Eastern Afghanistan, and bearing witness to its comings and goings, I've been monitoring the actions of units related by lineage, action, and downrange geography:
  • Minnesota's 1-34th BCT (also a "Red Bull" division unit, deployed to Kuwait until later this summer.)
I've also been struggling, alongside my past and present Red Bull buddies, with issues of homecoming and service. I've found myself grappling with topics such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.); citizen-soldier unemployment and homelessness; and, most broadly, whether or not the sacrifices of our soldiers, families, and friends really amount to more than a hill of beans.

Despite my reservations regarding the evils of commenting on the news, three recent stories have provided examples around which to explore these topics:

U.S. Army Reserve Cpl. Jesse Thorsen, 28, who made the mistake of wearing an Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) and speaking at a nationally televised political rally in Iowa last month. Thorsen's actions offered an opportunity to reflect upon this dilemma: How does a citizen-soldier appropriately engage a political discourse that is often too-lacking in boots-on-the-ground experiences and insights?

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, 48, who decided to go directly to Congress with his opinions and analysis of conditions in Afghanistan. Davis' decision offered an opportunity to reflect upon this question: What are a soldier's responsibilities to reconcile what he has seen downrange with what political leaders and military generals are telling the public?

To this list, now add Army spouse and blogger "Catie," who, in a relatively short number of words on Feb. 8, managed this week to punch any number of emotional hot buttons regarding the U.S. National Guard. Catie is reportedly a relatively young wife of an active-duty U.S. Army recruiter stationed in Vermont, a state in which, as she observes and complains, there are no federal Army posts. Here's a quick sampling of her insights:
The Guard ACUs are almost exactly the same as [active-duty] Army, and many civilians (and myself) don't understand a lot of the differences in company patches. [...]

The National Guard spouses around here like to refer to themselves as 'Army Wives'. They aren't. They are wives of Guardsmen or "Guard Wife". I am the wife of an active duty, federal soldier. That being said, the Hubs is not a Marine, he is not a Sailor, he is not an Airman. Call a Marine's wife an Army wife and see what happens. They will correct you as quickly as I will correct you. A dog is not a cat, it'll never meow. [...]

He is not a regular army Soldier, you are not an Army wife. It's nothing to be ashamed of. [...]

I'm just trying to point out the blatant differences between a Vermont Guard member, and a United States Soldier. [...]

As I said before, Vermont Guard is a State Militia [...] [Note: This is in a state that has both a National Guard and a State Militia, and that saw the combat deployment of more than 1,500 citizen-soldiers to Afghanistan in 2009-2010.]
To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, "If your blood-pressure is up, having read any of Catie's words, you just might be a National Guard soldier. Or married to one."

This goes beyond good-natured inter-service or Big Army/Small Army rivalry. She doesn't seem to realize that some National Guard personnel—recruiters are one small example—go to work each day in uniform, full-time. She fails to acknowledge that National Guard personnel regularly attend Army drills, schools, and deployments in excess of the old "one weekend a month, two weeks a year" model. She gets a lot of jargon wrong. (Examples: It's an Army "post," not a "base." And there is no such item on an Army uniform as a "company patch.")

Perhaps Catie is purposefully "trolling," and trying to get a rise out of people to increase her readership. (In support of this theory: She notably labelled her post "Stirring the Pot ...") Perhaps she (and her soldier-husband, who defended her post in a now-removed comments section) really are out of step and tune with the U.S. National Guard.

Either way, Catie provides a good example of a continuing bad trend. Even with more than 10 years of repeated combat deployments; even with the cultural and technological transformation of the National Guard into an operational reserve, which at one time bore nearly 50 percent of the Army's combat deployments to Iraq; and despite the continued challenges of addressing the needs of decentralized populations of soldiers, families, wounded warriors, and veterans, some people just aren't that into us:
  • Active-duty soldiers who argue they don't need to salute National Guard officers.
  • Army wives who think there's more to be gained by focusing on differences than by supporting each other—and our soldiers, regardless of the patches we wear.


News update: "Command Apologies for Anti-Guard Comments" at SpouseBUZZ blog.

See also: Recruiting Station Burlington, Vt. command-team response regarding "Army Wife" blog post.

08 February 2012

Lessons-Learned and Evil Twins

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis caused something of an intellectual dustup earlier this week, when, in an February 2012 Armed Forces Journal article titled "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan," he alleged that senior military leaders are not accurately describing conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. He writes, for example:
Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.

Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.
Davis, an active-duty officer, has a history of engaging public and policy discourse. He's written other opinions and analyses (see his personal website for links to examples), and has personally visited with members of Congress regarding his concerns. He was recently profiled by the New York Times.

I'm as uncertain of Davis' motivations as I am of his methods. Does he consider himself a crusader? A whistle-blower? A fly on the wall? A gadfly?

Is his latest Armed Forces Journal article an act of self-promotion? Or has he merely guaranteed he will never see again see a promotion in rank?

I hope he knows what he's doing. Because I think he may be my evil twin. Or maybe a doppelganger from a mirror universe.

Certainly, for me personally, he represents a road not taken.

Davis' words don't bother me much. Many soldiers and veterans echo his anecdotes and criticisms. I am bothered, however, with his decision to personally lobby Congress as a current member of the U.S. military. Feb. 6 New York Times profile of Davis even goes so far as to picture him visiting Capitol Hill while dressed in Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) and patrol cap.

Keep in mind, it was only last month that I criticized the actions of U.S. Army Reserve Cpl. Jesse Thorsen of West Des Moines, who made the poor decision to speak at an post-caucus political rally while wearing that same uniform.

There's a right way and a wrong way to make your points, both in and out of uniform. In both regards, Davis may have made some poor decisions.

That's not to say that Davis' words are without value or validity, however. In an essay posted earlier this week, reporter and blogger Carl Prine ("Line of Departure") placed Davis in the historical context of other 21st century truth-telling soldiers. Other critics have been less forgiving of Davis, trotting out old warhorse arguments and digs on character that seem to range from "only top brass have the true big picture" to "low-ranking soldiers doing odd jobs for the Army aren't entitled an opinion."

In one attempted assault, one commenter on Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog dismissed Davis as a "traveling boot seller," an apparent reference to Davis' role with the U.S. Army's Rapid Fielding Force.

But I tell you, "Blessed be the boot-sellers."

In some ways, I think Davis and I have walked similar paths. I was a knowledge manager for a U.S. National Guard brigade preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, itself an odd job in the Army, one that involves internal organizational-level communications and lessons-learned collection. As part of that job, I got paid to walk around in uniform and talk to soldiers of all ranks, to see what was working and not working within the organization. Then, as a National Guard retiree and civilian journalist, I got to visit those same units, which were nearly at the end of their 9 months on Afghan ground.

There, our paths diverge. I'm not trying to insert myself into the current controversy, but I'd like to think I made some different choices than Davis. As both a soldier and as a journalist, I saw things downrange both good and bad, but I never saw it as my duty to call "shenanigans". Certainly, he provides a good counterpoint to the ways in which I've been personally and professionally wrestling with issues related to the deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

Since my buddies and I returned to Iowa, I've been trying to figure out not only why "we" went to Afghanistan, but what it means now that we're back. Here's the quick and dirty insight: "Why soldiers go to war" and "what soldiers think about why they went" are two fundamentally different questions.

In his own way, perhaps Davis is trying to raise related questions.


Here are some lessons-learned rules of thumb that Davis' critics might wish to consider:

The Army is designed to be a learning organization. "A lesson is knowledge based on experience. A lesson-learned is knowledge based on experience that results in a change in individual or organizational behavior." Lessons-learned culture is one of hidden strengths of the U.S. Army.

Instructors at the Center for Army Lessons Learned, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, often tell of an attempt to export "say anything" American culture to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Things went okay until a Japanese general walked into the room, the story goes. The lieutenants and captains in the class practically drowned in flop-sweat, afraid to make mistakes in front of their superiors.

Somehow, I doubt that type of organizational culture or environment would generate an independent thinker like Davis. That's to the Army's potential credit.

Everyone gets a chance to be heard at the after-action review (A.A.R.). After every military maneuver and deployment, a group of soldiers is mandated to review and discuss their actions, individually and collectively. What the private first class experienced and observed is as valuable and valid as what the brigade commander did and saw during the same mission. We talk through the process, identify how to improve next time, document those insights, and share that knowledge with others.

Everyone's perspective is potentially valid. Forget "Army of One": In the U.S. Army, everybody is a "sample of one" (also sometimes called an "N of 1.") The implications of such an egalitarian attitude can seem pretty radical: If a general says Davis' observations are just one man's opinion, for example, that's just his opinion.

Of course, it's up to both parties to back up their talk with facts and data.

To best know the terrain, you have to walk it. Civilians call it "management by walking around." Army leaders call it "battlefield circulation." It's not just to see and be seen. It's to observe conditions, hear opinions, and personally determine the difference between PowerPoint realities and ground truths. Not everyone can do it, and rank can be as much a limitation as it is an advantage. I'll get to that in a moment.

Two's a coincidence. Three's a trend. If you hear the same opinion or make the same observation in three different places, from three independent sources, at three different times, you have an actionable item. It works for commanders and command sergeants major. It works for lessons-learned guys and embedded journalists. It even works for traveling boot sellers.

Any soldier can call "cease fire." It was Toyota—a Japanese company—that was one of the first celebrated practitioners of Jidoka: After detecting a fault, anyone on the assembly line is empowered to stop production until the problem is fixed. Likewise, in the U.S. Army, any soldier on the firing line is empowered to call "cease fire."

Sometimes, rank gets in the way. Here's what I understand as to be the crux of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: "The act of observation changes the observed behavior." So does what you're wearing. Commanders and command sergeants major will hear different opinions from rank-and-file soldiers than will chaplains, contractors, embedded journalists, and itinerant shoesalesmen. Remember Henry V circulating incognito the night before the battle of Agincourt? Ever watch "Undercover Boss"? The technique worked for Shakespeare, works for reality TV, and might work for you.

Don't believe your own hype. Apple Computer co-creator Steve Jobs was celebrated for his ability to demand seemingly impossible changes to products and delivery times. People went as far to call it his "reality distortion field." Command is the art of imposing one's will upon an organization. In the right hands, it can seem like Jedi mind tricks. In the wrong hands, it can turn into magical thinking.

In other words, the objective of any leader is to create new realities, without losing a grip on the ones we've got now.


Here are some links regarding Lt. Col. Davis' "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan" essay, and reactions to it. Be sure to read the comments sections of each, too:

01 February 2012

Hometown News ... from Downrange

Love it or hate it, a deployment turns an overseas patch of dirt into something akin to a high school, or a hometown. You spend a lot of time on the same ground, with the same people, doing a job that no one understands, speaking jargon and language foreign to anyone who doesn't wear the same uniform. There are inside-jokes, pep rallies, and lots of rules to follow. Some bonds are made, some friends are lost. Then, one sudden day, you leave.

Everyone leaves it behind, but everyone deals with it differently. Some people want to forget it all. Some people can't help but remember. Some people want to relive the stories of glory and war, over and over again.

Still others try to hold on in a different way, and keep an ear tuned to what's happening back in the old neighborhood. If you've ever wondered whatever happened to the star quarterback, the class clown, or the prom queen, you know what I'm talking about.

So it is with me. In 2003, I deployed to Egypt as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. I saw a lot, learned a lot, made a lot of friends. I had experiences I would have never had unless I'd joined the Iowa National Guard. Ever since, I have had an interest in political and cultural happenings there. I didn't realize I was so transparent until my grade-school daughter started checking out library books on ancient Egypt, and the lives of children who live there today.

"Someday, Daddy, can we go to Egypt together?" she often asks me.

Inshallah, Sweet.

The National Guard is something of a small community, too. There are interstate rivalries, to be sure, and occasionally quirky differences in character and capabilities. Given that the National Guard is now considered part of an "operational" reserve—one routinely called upon to augment active-duty forces—rather than as a "strategic" one of last national resort, keeping track of which brigade is doing what mission has become a little like following hometown sports.

Readers of the Red Bull Rising blog, for example, will remember that the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th B.C.T) was the second U.S. National Guard brigade ever to deploy to Afghanistan as a "battlespace owner"—and the first to be configured for that mission from the start.

Following the Red Bull is one of the reasons I continue to take an interest in all things Afghanistan. And Iraq.

In 2009-2010, Vermont's 86th BCT had successfully transitioned from its role as the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix to become a battlespace owner.

Currently, Oklahoma's 45th Infantry "Thunderbird" BCT is in Eastern Afghanistan, operating on some of the same ground as their Vermont and Iowa predecessors.

In 2011, another Red Bull brigade—the Minnesota National Guard's 1-34th BCT—deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. At the last minute in 2011, some elements of Oklahoma's 45h BCT were diverted to Kuwait to serve alongside the Red Bull. After U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, the Red Bull remains in Kuwait to serve as part of a 15,000-soldier regional reserve.

Jonathan Raab is a New York National Guard soldier currently on his second deployment. In 2011, New York's 27th Brigade Combat Team had been preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. The brigade went as far as the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., before taking an unprecedented pause over the December holidays. Thousands of citizen-soldiers were caught in a limbo between mobilizing and deploying. As Raab wrote in a December 2011 essay published by Stars and Stripes:
They told us we were not going to Afghanistan, but that we might go elsewhere. The new rumored deployment date was far enough down the road that I’d run out of money well before then; I had just enough time to find a new job or a new place to live, to get settled back in with my friends, family and girlfriend, and to get on with life before having to let go of everything and everyone all over again.
Raab has since learned he will deploy not to Afghanistan, but to Iraq, in a mission similar to that currently performed by the Red Bull and Thunderbird soldiers there. Raab has a blog called "With a Bible in My Ruck," which I hope will continue. Consider this recent excerpt:
This is a non-combat mission. We'll be training and pulling guard duty for a year. Am I happy that my comrades won't be coming home killed or maimed? Yes, praise God for that. But as an infantryman and a soldier, I can't help but feel like I don't have utility in a peacetime mission. I feel unnecessary. I feel like I'll be in football practice for a year with no chance to get in on the game. That's irrational, I know. But there it is.

I wouldn't be honest with you if I told you that I wanted to go at this point. My article in the Stars and Stripes 'Ruptured Duck' Blog sums up how I feel about the situation and its uncertainty. Ever since we were cut loose in November, I used that time to find work and plan for my life. With this deployment, however, that's over. I'll be going overseas for a mission that I did not want or volunteer for, and I'll be returning to an even more difficult job market.
For more official detail on missions and units comprising the 27th BCT deployment click here.

In yet another sign that the National Guard fight is changing in Afghanistan, Arkansas' 39th BCT was recently notified that its pending deployment has been cancelled.

Deployed with the Ohio National Guard's 37th Infantry "Buckeye" Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.), "Old Blue" is a senior non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) with 29 years of experience. He's on his third deployment to Afghanistan, and his third military blog, "Afghan Blue III."

He's previously served as a trainer with Afghan National Police (A.N.P.) in Kapisa and Nuristan Provinces. He's also had eyes on Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan, where he worked with British soldiers.

Like Raab in Kuwait, Old Blue has found himself pursuing a different mission than the one for which he and his buddies had prepared. The brigade to which he is assigned will not be conducting "full-spectrum operations"—a term that includes everything from humanitarian assistance to finding and killing bad guys—but will instead be performing "security force assistance" (S.F.A.)—advising and resourcing their Afghan counterparts. (It could be worse/better: Some Buckeye soldiers were diverted to Bahrain.) Still, he is a believer in counterinsurgency ("COIN"), and sees his new role as part of a process. He writes:
My quest in Afghanistan parallels my nation’s quest; finding a new role in an increasingly globalized world. [...] [I]f the United States can assume the role of mentor, advisor and enabler of development, perhaps future conflicts can be avoided altogether. Insurgencies can be avoided and terrorism prevented from developing.

In the meantime, I will do what I can to help speed success in Afghanistan. I believe that success can best be accomplished through the adaptive and intelligent practice of population-centric counterinsurgency.

I am the father of four children; two girls and two boys. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. My intent is that someday my children will visit Afghanistan as tourists, not as soldiers.
Inshallah. And roger that.


Both the "With a Bible in My Ruck" and "Afghan Blue III" blogs have been added to a "News & Views from Downrange" blog-roll on the right-hand side of Red Bull Rising. Both writers have also been featured on Garry Trudeau's/Doonesbury's "The Sandbox." If you know of other blogs written by citizen-soldiers currently downrange, please recommend them to: sherpa AT redbullrising.com.