Welcome to my random muses of being an aspiring banjo player, a Battalion Commander, a student of Army War College, and my admiring observations of Soldiers. It's all to the tune of yet another deployment to this country called Iraq.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Chairman's Homework Assignment

“A really great man is known by three signs: generosity in the design, humanity in the execution, moderation in success” - Otto von Bismark Later the same day as our final convoy we had a distinguished visitor pay Camp Buehring a visit. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, came to hold an informal meeting with Battalion and Brigade Command Teams of various United States Forces Iraq (USF-I) units. As expected, my CSM and I were summoned. Although the meeting was held at the DFAC around supper time, this was not a talk and eat event. The Chairman was on a tight schedule. Our conversation quickly turned to the logistics accomplishments of closing Iraq. GEN Dempsey was asking for feedback in a manner very similar to an After Action Review. With logistics under the spotlight, the bulk of the conversation was directed to the commander of the Theater Sustainment Brigade and me. I found the Chairman to be very intelligent, direct, and sincere. He seemed particularly interested in my battalion, its diverse composition, the dynamic mission we were assigned, and the multiple times we jumped TOC over the course of our deployment. He stopped me in the middle of one of my answers to his questions and said, “Well I’ve got one word for you to pass on to your Soldiers – HOOAH! And I better see an article written by you to tell everyone about this.” When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says something like that it is etched in stone. Moments later, his aide handed me a business card with scribble on the back. It was the suspense date for me to have the article written and into the CJS’s office. Unbelievable! I was the only commander to walk into that meeting only to leave with a homework assignment.

The following day, December 15, 2011, the official ceremony was held in Baghdad to signify the end of operations. The USF-I Colors were cased to close out over eight years of continuous combat operations. I was here for three of those years. I saw the beginning and was now here to not only see the end but be an active participant in the logistical effort that made it come about on time. At the same time the ceremony was taking place CSM and I were with yet another VIP. This time it was the Secretary of the Army, The Honorable John McHugh. Numerous General Officers accompanied Secretary McHugh. Unlike the meeting of the night before, this was simply an informal luncheon. There were no group discussions, no question and answer sessions, and no homework assignments thrown my way. We simply ate lunch and shook hands. I forgot my camera so we were unable to capture the moment. The ceremony in Baghdad was televised and many of us watched in somber silence. It is a very surreal time. I have been here so many times now that it is difficult to sink in that this is really the end. There are so many memories – both good and bad.

Although USF-I had cased colors and the war declared over, operations continued to get the last Soldiers out of Iraq. Our battalion still had a handful of Warriors at COB Adder performing the bulk fuel mission and running the cargo receiving and shipping point. They would be there until the base closed. Early on the morning of December 18, 2011 the last Soldiers of my battalion still serving in Iraq boarded helicopters and flew south to Kuwait. That same day the final convoy departed Adder and made its way out of Iraq. Although none of my Soldiers were on the last convoy across the border, equipment belonging to us was included and made the news in the various videos filmed of the last vehicles crossing Khubari in to Kuwait. The heavy material handling equipment (MHE) from the CRSP was loaded onto the final convoy out of Iraq. Even to the very end we had a presence. Then the waiting game started. Now we waited for our flight home.

The first of our remaining battalion to leave was the “Blue Devils” of 196th Transportation Company. They were quickly followed by the “Road Warriors” of 68th Transportation Company. In rapid succession, the “Road Masters” of 89th Transportation Company, “Deuce Train” of 372nd Inland Cargo Transportation Company, and “No Slack” of 305th Quartermaster Company all departed. Our higher command, 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, cased their colors and left. Then even USF-I popped smoke and went home. Our battalion was now the largest remaining unit of USF-I. Now it’s just my HHC and HQ staff waiting for our flight home. The time slowly ticks by. It is a tough wait. I won’t deny that it is frustrating. But it is comforting to know that we will be back in the United States in time for Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our Final Two Convoys

"I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq" - Stephen Colbert
Over the past nine months we have safely completed over 1,000 convoys in support of Operation New Dawn. Our transporters have driven everywhere from Habur Gate on the Turkish border in the north all the way south to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Our battalion came to close Iraq and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. It almost seemed as though the end of operations in Iraq was tied to our progress in closing all of the various bases from north to south as we continued to jump our TOC. It was no coincidence that our final two convoys completed in the last four days of the war. Both of the convoys crossed their starting points (SP) at COB Adder and reached their release points (RP) at Camp Buehring. The two convoys were a microcosm of the diversity of missions we were assigned throughout. One of the convoys was an “operational retrograde” that not only relocated our own transporters to Camp Buehring, it also assisted another unit in getting south for its eventual redeployment home. The other was a pure retrograde cargo mission, in which we were assigned cargo destined southward out of Iraq and we planned and dispatched a convoy to get it done. The first of our final two missions – the operational retrograde – would be conducted by our hard charging “Road Warriors” of 68th Transportation Company. One platoon from the Road Warriors had still been operating out of Adder but with the end of mission so close they were tasked to convoy south to Camp Buehring. Early on the morning of December 12, 2011, they loaded up cargo from another unit also on its way out and then crossed their SP. Back at Camp Buehring we kept a close watch on their progress. About an hour prior to their arrival we stopped what we were doing and headed out to the Entry Control Point to welcome them. Every available Soldier in our battalion came out with banners and Company Guidons. As the Road Warriors entered Camp Buehring they were met with a celebration of cheers. Our cordon of Soldiers led them all the way to their motor pool. CSM and I were there to shake the hands of every single Road Warrior as they completed their final mission. Now their only mission was to turn in their equipment and wait for their flight back to Fort Bliss, TX. Job well done Road Warriors!

Then came our final convoy. The mission was assigned to the 89th Transportation Company “Road Masters”. These transporters had been with us throughout our deployment. It was only appropriate they would have the last mission. As a matter of fact, they volunteered for the mission as soon as the tasking was given to us. As chance would have it, CSM and I were able to see them in action while they were conducting this final mission while we were at Adder for our final battlefield circulation. The same convoy we watched SP on December 13th headed south to Kuwait turned out to be the last one. The Road Masters hauled their retrograde cargo to Camp Arifjan and then returned to Camp Buehring on December 14th. Just as we had for the Road Warriors two days prior, we lined the road inside the ECP to welcome our heroes. It was a repeat of the previous celebration. Our Soldiers cheered, Company Guidons waved, banners were displayed, and the trucks honked their horns. Once the Road Masters parked their trucks there was nothing left for them to do except prepare for their trip back to Fort Eustis, VA. As a Battalion, we were still on mission but now it was a matter of counting down the hours. Job well done Road Masters!

There was electricity in the air. Every single Soldier in our battalion was energized. Not only were we at the doorstep of our end of mission, we were on the eve of the end of the war in Iraq. The announcement would come the next day in a ceremony held in Baghdad. Now the unrelenting momentum is the emotional rush of knowing we are headed home. Our historic mission – the largest combat retrograde of forces the United States has conducted since World War II – was hours from being complete.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Iraq In Everyone's Rearview Mirror

"Where we stand today is not only acceptable in my view, it is truly remarkable." - Tommy Franks The end is drawing near. Operations in Iraq are coming to a close. But there are still Soldiers laboring on in Iraq ensuring we stay on schedule. Many of them belong to my Battalion. With that in mind, my CSM and I took off on what will prove to be our final battlefield circulation and, ultimately, the last time I will set foot on Iraqi soil. Early on the morning of 13 December 2011 we reported to Udairi Airfield for our flight north. It was a bright, brisk and breezy day. Our destination would be Tallil, our former home prior to our last jump of our TOC to Camp Buehring. A good portion of our battalion remains there conducting various logistical functions - running the cargo shipping and receiving point (CRSP), manning the bulk and retail fuel farms, and keeping convoys supplied with food and water. At the same time our transportation companies continue to visit COB Adder (Tallil) almost daily in order to haul out the remaining retrograde cargo. As chance would have it, our battlefield circulation would coincide with one of our final convoys departure from the staging lanes at Adder. We cheered them on in person as they pulled out with another load of cargo. But back to the flight up... As we departed Udairi we were greeted with the endless view of Kuwaiti desert. Herds of camels were the only form of life visible in any direction. I realized how easy it can be for a pilot to lose the horizon and become disoriented when surrounded by such lifeless emptiness. But after about twenty minutes we came upon the Iraqi border, which is clearly marked by fences and security roads stretched from east to west as far as the eye can see. I was back in Iraq. I knew this would be the last time to visit this place. I remembered crossing the border back in 2003 at a place called NAVSTAR before screaming north in an unarmored suburban to Basrah and then on to Tallil. That was in the beginning. Now, eight years and seven months after my first time crossing the border, I was here in the end.

After about another thirty minutes of flight time we landed at Tallil. COB Adder looked exactly the same from the air. Soon we knew it was a ghost town. Hardly anyone remains. Our old HQ is empty. All of our old living areas are empty and locked up. The water is turned off. There are no services remaining. MRE's are still the cuisine of choice for those who remain. Iraqi military personnel are now taking possession of everything we once ruled. Our only purpose is to safely vacate all that remains. To that end, my Soldiers labor on. One of my Company Commanders and her First Sergeant picked us up at the pax terminal and hustled us over to the CRSP. It was completely empty. I could have hit a golf ball from end to end and not hit a thing but dirt or fences. We have moved every last piece of cargo out. I was astounded. When my battalion first arrived at Adder there wasn't enough room to store all of the cargo. Now there is nothing to store. Next we moved over to the fuel farm. I chatted with the Officer in Charge and some of the Soldiers - all of whom belong to our subordinate Quartermaster Company. The fuel farm was also down to its last few days of supply. There was no need to resupply the fuel. Once it runs out the place will be closed. My Soldiers would be the ones to close it for good. What the Iraqis do with it after we leave is of no concern to us. Our journey continued over to the convoy staging lanes. There we met another of our Company Commanders, who was in Adder with trucks from his transportation company as they conducted one of their final convoys. I walked the line of Heavy Equipment Transporter Trucks. Their massive M1000 trailers were loaded with giant wrecker trucks, which represented some of the last cargo to leave Adder before it closed. I wanted to give every single one of my Soldiers a Commander's Coin of Excellence but my pockets weren't large enough to hold that many coins. A select few did receive my coin and all of them received my praise and thanks. CSM and I positioned ourselves at the front of the line and then waved to and saluted each truck as they rolled. Their horns honked in reply. It was a surreal moment of proud glory to be present as witness to this and know that these were my Soldiers who are closing Iraq. We will be the ones who validate the historical accounts of this moment because we were here. Our final visit was to the Class I supply center. There I met with another of my Company Commanders and some of his Soldiers. Most of their company left already back to the states. Although their mission was direct support maintenance, a few of them volunteered to remain and run this facility to ensure convoys were properly supplied with food and water. After handing out a couple more coins we rolled back to the pax terminal for our return flight. Incredibly enough, we had already been at Adder for six hours. It was so electrifying to be back at the tip of our spear again that it seemed more like six minutes. I wanted to stay and, if it were up to me, would have stayed at Adder to the end. But alas, my HQ had already relocated to Camp Buehring at the bequest of our higher. So CSM and I accepted that at the end of the day we had to return to our flag.

It was around 1700 when we were summoned to our awaiting Blackhawks. The weather had been spectacular all day and the sun wouldn't disappoint us come sunset. As we lifted off we circled around the convoy staging lanes before turning south. There are 60 convoy lanes at this massive facility. But only two lanes had anything staged. The contrast of emptiness spoke volumes of all we've done to get to this point. Operations in Iraq are at their end. At that point I realized this was it for me and Iraq. I was watching this place for the last time. The glow of the flares at the oil wells near Basrah provided a matching patchwork of colors to the orange of the setting sun. Occassionally, the Blackhawks would pop flares to add to the fiery spectacle. Although I was very tired I stayed awake to take in all of this for the final time. Iraq, its contrasting visions of life and lifelessness, its stifling heat and oppressive humidity, its historical sites set against a backdrop of poverty and waste, it will always be seared in my mind, memory and conciousness. My final journey out seemed to provide one final tapestry of memories that will never be duplicated by any other place I have been or will ever go. Very few of my generation served here. I'm glad that I did - each and every deployment. The best came last. As my Battalion finalized the retrograde, with only two days remaining before operations were officially declared over, I got to be one of the last out. Even as we flew southward I found myself thinking of ways CSM and I could make one more circulation. But time is not on our side for that endeavor. This time would be the last time in Iraq forever. As if to add to the summation of everything, we stopped in Basrah to pick up some civilian contractors who were also leaving for good. One of them had tears in his eyes. I don't know if they were of joy or sorrow. But they were brought on by the end. Iraq - goodbye forever.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Army? It's Now 10 And Counting...

The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave... - Patrick Henry

56-49-7. That is where the all-time Army-Navy Football rivalry stands. As painful as it is for me to say this, Navy has a commanding lead of seven games. It has been ten long years since Army last beat Navy in football. I was at the game. At that time, Army led the series 49-46-7. Now it has reached the point where most people don’t believe Army has ever led the all-time rivalry in wins. Unfortunately, I am beginning to think the Brave Old Army Team doesn’t believe it can ever beat Navy again. The past two years the game has been Army’s to win. Instead, each of the games became Army’s to lose. Mistakes – penalties, turnovers, blown plays, missed reads, and ridiculous gaffes have taken momentum right away from Army and proven that their toughest opponent is themselves. The teams that took the field last year and this season have never been more evenly matched. That meant winning came down to the team that committed the fewest mistakes. As fate would have it, Navy executed better than Army in both games from start to finish. Just as predictably, Navy won. The streak of futility continues. There were stretches of this year’s game in which Army seemed dominant. Their offense ate up large chunks of yardage. The defense held Navy on their own side of the field. But too often a mistake would kill a drive, sink momentum, or give the ball to Navy with a short field. Army’s final drive of the game came down to a 4th and 7 play deep in Navy territory. The play they chose was basic triple-option wishbone football. Trent Steelman, who played a very good game, missed the most basic quarterback read of the triple-option. The first option is the fullback off center. If the defensive tackle crashes inside, the quarterback fakes to the fullback and continues down the line with the ball. If the defensive tackle plays straight on his lane, the quarterback should hand off to the fullback up the middle. On Army’s final play the Navy defensive tackle played straight. The basic read – the first read – should have been to handoff to the fullback, who had a big hole and open field ahead. Instead, Trent kept the ball and was forced to retreat into the backfield due to the very same Navy defensive tackle playing straight. The play ended with a loss of yards and a turnover on downs. Army never got the ball back as Navy ran out the last two minutes of the game. Enough is enough Army! Ten years of pain has got to end. Believe it! Do it! Make next year the game in which Army starts its own streak. Make Navy feel the pain of a loss while singing their Alma Mater first at the end of the game. Feel the boundless joy as you watch Navy choke back tears while you lead the Corps of Cadets in our own Alma Mater in a victorious harmony. The time is now. This pain has to end now.

For this year’s game, I watched the game with some of the Cavalry Troopers of Gary Owen. These hardcore 1st CAV guys have been providing escort to many of my convoys in the past nine months. They are truly awesome Soldiers and leaders. Several of their Officers are fellow USMA alumni. We cheered the Army Team on while drinking near-beer over a few burgers and hot dogs. But our mood became very somber as the final minutes ticked down to zero. We all shook hands and dispersed with sincere sorrow in our hearts. Losing to Navy is unfathomable. It is an abomination. It is unacceptable. Army the time has come to put a stop to this madness. I will be at next year’s game. We will all rejoice in raucous celebration as a new streak begins – Army over Navy. GO ARMY! BEAT NAVY!!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Double-Digit Days, Single-Digit Convoys

"When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find, peace of mind is waiting there." - George Harrison Looking at the calendar this morning I realized December is almost into double digits. At the same time, our remaining convoys is into the single digits. The advancing days of December are directly linked to our diminishing number of convoys until the end. I walked past the "mission board" that hangs on the wall in our TOC and I could see it - the end, the last convoy, the final passage of the last paragraph of our mission. The end isn't just near, it is a date on the big board. You'd never know it if you were a passing visitor. Everything is still moving like normal. Trucks are rolling north and south. Cargo continues to pour out of Iraq. Soldiers are everywhere busy with their tasks. But there is an easy release in the air, in everyone's eyes, and on all of our hearts. We know we are going home soon where we can be with family and friends that we have missed so dearly for so long. It has been teamwork at every level that has brought us this far - to the very last curve on the track with the finish line dead ahead. That finish line is the demarcation line that once crossed allows us to stop, look back, and finally see the phenomenal size of the mission we will have successfully accomplished. The momentum is with us, the wind at our backs, and we all caught our second wind long ago. I can't come close to conveying how historic a mission we have had the honor of being tasked. Our Battalion is now the final logistical unit operating in Iraq. Operation New Dawn owes in great part its successful conclusion to our Battalion and its logistics warriors. And now, with the end ever so near, our warriors can feel the prize they have so justly earned. Every single one of their families should be beaming with pride as they welcome our Soldiers home. Future generations of Soldiers who serve in our Battalion will look to the Campaign Streamers on the Unit Colors and reflect on what it must have taken to earn them. We won't have to reflect. We were here. We earned them. We earned them together, as a team fighting for a common purpose, and, most of all, we earned them for each other.

As the commander I must say that I could never have been blessed with a better organization. We are the "perfect storm" of logistics. There can never be a more perfect balance of the Total Army Concept than what has been placed at my disposal. My Soldiers come from the Active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard. They come from towns with names like Havre de Grace, Smyrna, Boonesville, Spear, and Enterprise. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the colors of the Great Barrier Reef. But put them in their digital camouflage and arm them with the tools of their trade and they fall in synch with precision that would make the best of German engineers envious. I can confidently state that after honing our skills over the past year accomplishing the largest combat retrograde of forces our military has conducted since World War II we are the best unit of our type in the Army today. We shut this place down for good. I personally believe that every single one of my Soldiers deserves to have a hometown parade in his or her honor upon arriving back to whatever village, town or city they call home.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sprinting to the Finish Line

"Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order." - John Adams
Jumping the TOC to Kuwait had a surrealistic quality. Over the course of this war, our minds have been programmed to view Kuwait as a forbidding temporary place to reside when either coming or going to Iraq or Afghanistan. Now we had to face the fact that we would live like transients in a hostile climate while we continued to work towards mission success. A good portion of our battalion remained at COB Adder to run various tasks until the base closes. Meanwhile, our convoys roll day and night all over southern Iraq in their quest to remove every remaining trace of our military presence. The headquarters personnel are now making all this coordination happen from tents in the middle of the barren Kuwaiti desert. Nights are cold and there are no terrain features or vegetation to give shelter from the wind. The days of CHUs are gone and at night our weary backs sleep on folding cots arranged 50 Soldiers to a tent. The showers run out of hot water almost instantly. The DFAC has long lines. But on the news reports we see the continual updates of our comrades successfully moving out of Iraq and catching flights home. We know that soon we too will reach end of mission and catch a flight home. Nearby Camp Virginia is a scene of constant arrivals and departures for units who are done and leaving. Occasionally, one of our own subordinate units is included in this mix. But at Camp Buehring the beat goes on. Retrograde is ongoing. It has to be completed by December 31st.

It is really a good thing that we are now on the sprint to the finish line. Kuwait is not a fun place to be for any length of time. It is a featureless desert that is seemingly devoid of any life. There are random camels, dogs, and birds. But for the Soldier who toils long hours it gives very little luxury to relieve stress. Kuwait is always best in the rear view mirror. Just a few more convoys, a couple more base closures, and a little patience over these last few days and we will all have this place in our collective rear view mirrors. Mission comes first and to that end we will dictate the successful end of our stay in this forbidding place.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Goodbye November! Hello Camp Buehring!

"Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." - Stephen Decatur With Thanksgiving behind us we leaned forward in our saddles and scanned the horizon for where our path would lead next. COB Adder had become a ghost town. Very few units remained and even those were in the process of leaving. My Soldiers toiled on driving constant convoys southward or managing the flow of retrograde cargo as it flowed through the various temporary storage yards. Whereas just a month ago these yards were full to overflow capacity, now a person could hit a golf ball from end-to-end without hitting anything. Using that as our measuring guide, we could all see the light at the end of the tunnel. The responsible drawdown of forces from Iraq was rapidly nearing completion - largely on the backs of my Soldiers. Working day and night with focus, drive and determined professionalism, they had cleaned out various bases in Iraq as though a giant vacuum cleaner had descended and removed every trace of military equipment. Several months ago we were scratching our heads and wondering if, just maybe, clearing out of here by the end of the year was even possible. Now we know that it not only was possible to accomplish, it is a task we are ahead of schedule in completing. But we aren't done yet. Clearing out eight years' worth of homesteading is a daunting logistical thing to do. We still need a few weeks and then we'll revisit mission accomplishment.

The day after Thanksgiving we had yet another visit by a General Officer. As could be expected, he went straight to the Cargo Shipping and Receiving Point (CRSP), where he was speechless to find it empty. From there we stopped by the former Ammo Supply Point (ASP) and got there just as the final convoy was pulling in to close the site for good. And so it went with all the places the General asked to visit. They were all empty. It was just as if the Grinch had come in the middle of the night and "on the walls all was left were some hooks and some wire." Practically the only items remaining were odds and ends that were either headed to the dump or being turned over to the Iraqis. An unusual oddity in one of the collections of junk was a carved black bear reminiscent of one you'd see out on the porch of a country store adjacent to the rocking chairs. It was an example of how incredible an assortment of odds and ends have accumulated in this country since we first came. I'm certain they will remain as a legacy to our stay in this country - for better or for worse.

Some of the units that belong to my Battalion have already relocated to Camp Buehring, Kuwait, where they continue to run convoys to Iraq and back to retrieve more stuff. My commander had already notified me that my HQ would have to move their too. I stalled as long as I possibly could. Kuwait is a place I always want to keep in my rear view mirror. I pleaded my case that we complete our mission from COB Adder. However, events beyond our control were dictating otherwise. As the infrastructure of the base was dismantled we began to lose our communications network. It was becoming impossible to stay in touch with our units on a consistent basis. By the time the last few days of the month were scrolling by it was painfully obvious the Colors had to fly south. With November coming to a close my CSM and I climbed into a Blackhawk and ascended into the night sky on a southward flight out of Iraq. The Gypsy Battalion was jumping the TOC one final time. True to our fighting form, our move into Kuwait was not to catch a flight home. Our move was truly another operational relocation in order to continue on with our mission. But Camp Buehring will be the final foxhole for our Soldiers. From here, the place we first deployed to back at the end of March, we will close out Iraq and finish our mission. The last passage of the final chapter is now upon us. Goodbye November! Hello Camp Buehring! As December dawns bright with a Kuwaiti sun it will be the last month in which we'll be serving in this strange foreign land.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Very General Austin Thanksgiving

"Good morning, gentlemen. ACME pollution inspection. We're cleaning up the world, we thought this was a suitable starting point." - James Bond
Thanksgiving Day dawned bright and clear at COB Adder. On face value, it seemed as though it was any other day. Since the mess hall is closed, the meal prospects were flexibly limited to the variety within a case of MRE's. My choice selection for Thanksgiving dinner would be chicken and dumplings. There was no expectation that it would come close to my Mom's delicious dish of the same name so I knew I couldn't be disappointed. The big order of business for all of us was that General Austin, the 4-star Commander of United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) was paying us a visit. His intent was to recognize a few of our Soldiers for their hard work and effort and share a few words of praise with all of us. The backdrop for his visit was very appropriate - the convoy staging lanes. There were at least a dozen or more convoys lined up carrying massive quantities of retrograde cargo southward as part of the retrograde from Iraq. Many of the trucks came from my Battalion. Accordingly, several of the Soldiers GEN Austin would be recognizing came from my Transportation Companies. Around 1000 that morning, we assembled in a corner of the staging lanes adjacent to the Convoy Support Center (CSC) and waited for his arrival. A short time later the entourage arrived. There were MP vehicles with lights flashing followed by a motorcade of various SUV's. The 4-Star insignia was clearly posted on the windshield of his vehicle. GEN Austin is a mountain of a man who must've played offensive line back when he was a Cadet at West Point. He towers at least 6ft 5in or more and looks as though he could still suit up and play. Upon his arrival he wasted no time and proceeded through the rank of Soldiers, presenting each of them with his Commanding General coin and thanking each of them for their hard work. Once the last coin was presented he shared words with all of us. This was his sixth Thanksgiving away from home over the course of operations in Iraq. Being as this was only my third away from home, I didn't feel so bad anymore. GEN Austin's words put much into perspective in a manner that made it easy for all of us to relate. It was an excellent talk that void of bravado and fluff. Afterward, he shook hands and took photos with all of us before heading back to the airfield to move on to the next FOB. There were other Soldiers he would recognize and share words of praise with on this Thanksgiving day.

That night I did what just about everyone else did. I called home on Skype and wished everyone a happy Thanksgiving. At the same time they were sitting down for a traditional holiday meal, I was tearing into my chicken and dumplings MRE. To my surprise, it was actually pretty good. It wasn't nearly up to Mom's standards but heated and mixed with a little Tony Chachere's it was an enjoyable, memorable meal. Even though this wasn't my first Thanksgiving deployed, it was the first one where there was no mess hall to put out a lavish spread. It was a truly expeditionary Thanksgiving, which highlighted the approaching end of operations in Iraq. It will definitely be the last Thanksgiving any of us spend in Iraq. That, in itself, gave all of us much to be thankful for. I don't recommend having an MRE for any holiday meal if you have other options available. But when it is the only option you'll find the MRE isn't that bad at all. As I mentioned previously, you can also take comfort in knowing that MRE's are "fortified" - something else to be thankful for while spending an expeditionary Thanksgiving away from home while on deployment to Iraq.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

MRE - Montezuma's Revenge Eventually

"An idea is salvation by imagination" - Frank Lloyd Wright
We knew it was inevitable. Everyone knew it was coming. Now it has happened. The dining facility, our beloved mess hall, has officially closed. No visible sign of the approaching end to operations in Iraq has been more loud and clear to the remaining Soldiers. The date was clearly marked on our calendars for 20 November 2011. Not only did the mess hall close that day, it did so with style. The folks running the place put out a lavish early Thanksgiving spread that ran all day long. Everything from carved roast turkey to steamship round, pumpkin to pecan pie, and cornbread stuffing to candied yams was out for our consumption. Lavish decorations abounded to include ice carvings, decorative cakes, and festive displays. I personally ate my fill of traditional Thanksgiving goodies twice and would have gone again if the hours had been extended. We were very appreciative of the wonderful food, as evidenced by the great many people who came out to eat. It was the most crowded I have ever seen a DFAC on any deployment I've been on. This was most likely due to the fact that it was a holiday meal, albeit early, and that it was the last day for the mess hall. There were whispers floating around throughout the day that the decision had been made to extend the DFAC a few more days. That rumor was put to rest very quickly. As soon as the last Soldier went through the line the workers started tearing down everything, taking down displays, stacking chairs and tables, and moving out the various implements of food service. The end had arrived. From that moment forward our only available food supplement would be the infamous MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). This often maligned portable military ration has been in the inventory since the early eighties. It has been revamped often over the years but it has never overcome its stigma of delivering bad, tinfoil-tasting pre-package food of mystery meat quality.

Some people have a very hard time adjusting to MRE's because they clog up the bowels. That's never really been the case for me. It's the opposite. For me MRE stands for "Montezuma's Revenge Eventually". I always lose weight when I'm on a strictly MRE diet. At the same time, I always find humor in being relegated to these rations. Back when I was a kid I was completely fascinated by the old C-Rations (canned rations that were the predecessor to MRE's). Whenever my Marine Dad brought me C-Rations I would party like it was 1999. I've still got an old P38 can opener from a case of C-Rations. I would devour a "John Wayne" bar without blinking an eye and think it was better than any candy bar from the store. Oh how my attitude has changed. MRE's are actually better than the old C-Rations and have much greater variety than the old menu 1,2, and 3. But you still find the lineage inherent in military rations. The cheese spread tastes exactly the same, as do the crackers. Throughout the MRE you'll see "fortified" on the packages. I never knew what that meant when I'd see it on a C-Ration peanut butter and I'm still not sure what it means now. I have a theory though because the effect of MRE's on me is guaranteed. They are fortified with fiber laxative. It works too. I can attest.

So we who remain in Iraq mourn the loss of our beloved mess hall. MRE's are a poor substitute for our nutritional needs. But we can see the silver lining in all of this. The closure of the DFAC is one more giant step towards the eventual end of operations here. We won't eat MRE's for long. There are now only days remaining before we all can say the mission is complete. Then only a plane ride separates us from going home. MRE's is a very small sacrifice as we wait for the big prize of being with our families again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Head'em Up! Move'em Out!

"In the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation in every stage of its existence will be found at least equal to its resources." - Alexander Hamilton
It is crunch time around here. Just like Apollo Creed told Rocky Balboa - "There is no tomorrow!" The end of the year is fast approaching. With it comes the deadline to be out of Iraq. One by one the bases up north are closing for good. With each closure comes another waterfall of southbound equipment of all types. Now all of this stuff has got to move across the border into Kuwait. There is so much stuff everywhere it almost seems like an insurmountable task. Everything is priority to move but it can't all move at once. It is a good feeling to know that I am surrounded by highly skilled transporters and logisticians who all understand how to get this stuff moved. These are the Soldiers of my Battalion. While everyone around us panics that the retrograde out of Iraq can't be done by year's end, they just go about their business unfazed. It has become a common sight to all of them to see General Officers poking around and asking questions. I think my Soldiers actually relish that they are now high-visibility targets for the Generals. There is sincere worry on the part of many within our chain-of-command that the retrograde timetable is falling behind schedule. Then a General will come talk to one of my Soldiers, who will put the world back together and ensure that all is well, we are on target. I've observed many of these informal discussions taking place on the hood of a vehicle in the middle of cargo handling yards. My Soldiers aren't worried about this stuff so I'm not either. When the retrograde is complete and we are out of Iraq for good we'll all look back and tally up how monumental a task we've successfully completed.

In the middle of all the flurry of southbound activity is a change of seasons. Long gone are the hot days of summer. Lately we've had very cool nights accompanied by the soothing sounds of thunderstorms. But this, in itself, adds to our challenges. Iraqi mud is unforgiving. It is a thick muck that clings to everything like spackle. I've never known mud that is so stubborn and unremovable. While the rain keeps the dust down, it breathes life into an even greater adversary. With that being said, we're happy with the cooler temperatures and the sound of rain on our CHU's. But Iraqi mud is a worthy adversary that can truly clog the machinery of retrograde. It is an unwelcome foe. There is no mud on earth I've encountered that can compare. I certainly won't miss it.

In spite of the rain, the mud, and the seemingly overwhelming work remaining to be done we are all in very high spirits. The end is in sight. The work we are in the process of completing represents the final phase of operations in Iraq. When we get finished with what we are doing it is only a matter of turning out the lights and handing the keys to the Iraqis. The only thing left for us to do at that point will be to catch that "big iron bird" back home. Soon, but not just yet...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Iraq + Kuwait = Iwait

“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.” - John Wayne
Kuwait is the only place in the world that makes me miss Iraq. The best view of Kuwait is in the rear view mirror. That's a true statement coming and going. So now comes the catch-22 of my command - it now includes units working out of Kuwait and Iraq. I still hang my hat in Iraq with my HQ. However, there is now an ever-increasing amount of my time that must be spent focused on our operations in Kuwait. Due to the ongoing retrograde from Iraq my higher HQ has relocated to Kuwait as well. The end result of all this? I now have to travel to Kuwait periodically to attend meetings and see our operations there first hand. Unlike Iraq where time flies by at a moderate pace, days in Kuwait seem like months. Traveling from Iraq to Kuwait for a few days causes a distortion of the space time continuum that is the operational tempo of my mind. It causes a "start-stop" effect everything. The engineer in me came up with an accurate mathematical model to describe this effect - Iraq + Kuwait = Iwait (a complete disruption of the operational space-time continuum of commanding a battalion that includes units in both Iraq and Kuwait).

This past week started with good news. I learned that I've been selected for promotion to Colonel (O6). That definitely got my week off in a good way. Army War College reared its head too in the form of a graded online forum, which required me to log in daily and provide my input on the Joint Strategic Planning System. It was this stage that served as the backdrop for a foray down to Camp Buehring, Kuwait. I had been summoned to attend a Commanders' Conference. I used this as an opportunity to also visit with my Soldiers who now work out of Kuwait. I left COB Adder on a late night Blackhawk. The air was brisk and I was relieved to find the crew had put the plexiglass back on the doors. What I didn't realize was how many stops we would make prior to arriving at Camp Buehring. Over the next three hours we landed at Basra, Um Qasr, Ali Al Salem, Camp Virginia, and, finally, Camp Buehring. It was after midnight and I was surprised to find it colder in Kuwait than it had been in Iraq. Darkness obscured the changes to the place since my previous visit. Fortunately, it didn't take long to get situated in a CHU and hit the rack. An early morning awaited.

The next morning I was immediately struck by the amount of changes I saw. Camp Buehring was not the same place we had deployed through back in early April. New tents and structures had sprouted everywhere. The reason was the retrograde from Iraq. Many Soldiers had relocated from their homes up north to this sleepy camp in Kuwait. It was overcrowded. I did not recognize the place. It took me a full day to finally get oriented. In the meantime, I attended a meeting that did nothing but remind me why most staff officers are staff officers - they don't know how to command. It is frustrating as a commander to sit and listen to indecisive staff folks debate relatively mundane stuff and then never arrive at any conclusion or decision. After several hours of listening I realized I had gotten absolutely nothing out of attending that I didn't already know. I was very grateful when the meeting adjourned. At that point I went to visit with my Soldiers. They were living in open-bay tents and sleeping on cots. That's all that was available. But they still had excellent morale and the "can do" spirit I've come to admire. They are also aware that we are now hitting the final phase of our operations in Iraq. That means mission success for all of us is near. Going home is not long after that. That night I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the Deputy USF-I Commander, a roughneck Lieutenant General who freely dropped the f-bomb in his plain talk discussion of the way ahead. It was entertaining if nothing else.

The next morning I took advantage of one of the amenities found at bases in Kuwait - Starbucks. The line snaked all the way outside. Since I was there already I decided to wait. They had Christmas decorations up already. The house coffee was the "Christmas Blend". It was only Veterans Day. I share this so folks back home know that it isn't only the retailers in the U.S. who do this. I'm typically not a big fan of Starbucks, but, the cup of coffee I bought was excellent. They even had whole milk and raw sugar - my preferences. I took my time and enjoyed the cup while reading Stars and Stripes. As could be expected, I ran into an old acquaintance. He is now a Chief Warrant Officer, having made the jump from the Noncommissioned Officer ranks a few years back. We swapped a couple of deployment stories and caught up a bit then bid each other farewell. Then I headed out to visit more with my Soldiers. Although I was only in Kuwait for two days the time seemed to stand still. The sun never seemed to move. But it did. Eventually it became dark as evening fell. That was good because I was flying back to Iraq. Some people may not understand this but I was happy to be headed back to COB Adder. I wanted to be back in my own rack, in my own CHU. The Blackhawks were on time and made only one stop along the way. The flight was much shorter in duration than the flight down two nights previous. Much of the way we were basked in an eerie glow from the oil flash fires coming from the refineries north of Basra. At about midnight we touched down in Adder. Time quickly resumed at normal pace. Life returned to deployment normal again.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

War College? Banjo?

"We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way." - Buzz Aldrin
With all the constant work, jumping the TOC, and various other requirements we are faced with daily, it practically goes without saying that I am busy. Sometimes it feels like I am running at 130mph with my hair on fire twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It is almost impossible for me to plan out my activities for any given day. Everything is subject to change by the minute. Rare is the day in which I don't have some situation that demands my attention. Mission always comes first and when something mission-related demands my focus it trumps everything else I'm doing. The collateral effect of this is that personal endeavors of mine, such as this blog, frequently have to take a back seat. But I do still find time to do things on a personal level. Army War College assignments have to get done on time, which frequently means I can be found in my office "burning the midnight oil" to get my work done. I'm happy to say that I am still on time, on target for all of my assignments. As a matter of fact, at this point it appears I have turned in the last paper I'll have to write while on this deployment. That leaves the banjo. I haven't written much at all about my favorite instrument even though the blog refers to me as the Banjo Commander. Although I've made significant progress playing the banjo during this deployment, I'm not nearly as far along as I had hoped to be. Truth is I greatly overestimated the amount of time I would have to devote to practicing. It seems like every time I try to plan an hour or two of practice I end up getting back to my room much later than intended and completely exhausted. I'm still practicing though and have a few lessons remaining on the instructional DVD's I deployed with. The foundation is there so I'm optimistic.

And our deployment continues, our mission continues, our battalion keeps moving. At this stage of the game we are more critical than ever to the successful conclusion of operations in Iraq. As everything closes, people and equipment move south in an unending procession. The war has become purely logistical at this point and it's fought with trucks on convoys. That's where we come in. We have the largest intra-theater transportation responsibility in Iraq and we're the only battalion of our type remaining at this point. Needless to say, we are in a sprint to the finish line and will be among the last to leave. Four years ago when I was here during the surge I never would have believed we could be completely out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Now I do believe it and, what's more, I command a battalion that is part of the foudation to making our responsible retrograde a reality. It is a busy, historic time. Even while our trucks roll we find time to hold awards ceremonies, reenlistment ceremonies, promotion ceremonies, and even an evening to smoke cigars and forget about the war for a few minutes. Then it's back to work. Will we be home by Christmas? That's irrelevant. What's important is that we will complete our mission. That's our Christmas gift back to the Army - the safe, responsible completion of the retrograde of forces from Iraq. I'll drink to that when we get home.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Now Boarding - Embassy Air to Tallil

"Promises that you make to yourself are often like the Japanese plum tree - they bear no fruit." - Francis Marion

From time to time I get asked why I haven't been posting as frequently as I did during my last deployment. I can promise that it has nothing to do with whether or not I'm inspired to write. There isn't a day that goes by in which I don't encounter something that screams to be shared. And Soldiers are always a story unto themselves. I could wax eloquent about Joe for days on end. The real reason I have not been as prolific is more a matter of finding the time. During my last deployment I had a much more focused role and fewer responsibilities than this go-round. Although I was traveling constantly and living out of my rucksack, there was almost always time at the end of the day to download my thoughts. This deployment is quite different. Battalion Command, coupled with Army War College, is an exhausting endeavor. I write when I can and try to fill in the gaps. That being said, where did I leave off last time? Ah yes, we were up at Camp Liberty after a 10-hour MRAP trek. Let's see...

My first order of business upon arriving at Camp Liberty (after finding coffee of course) was a long overdue combat patch ceremony for my transporters of the "Blue Devils" from Orlando. We held this ceremony in their motor pool. I felt that was an appropriate venue for the ceremony, as the trucks surrounding the formation represented the very tools of their trade and symbolized the work yet to come on this deployment. After placing their patch on the right shoulder of both the Company Commander and First Sergeant, we then proceeded down the ranks of every platoon. I placed the patch on the shoulder of every Soldier, shook their hands and individually thanked each of them for the work they had performed so far. Then I shared a few words of praise with the entire company before we closed the ceremony. At the conclusion of the ceremony it was straight back to work. Many of the Soldiers were headed out that same day on a convoy. The cycle began anew. I left them to their duties and proceeded on with mine.

Around 1500 I made it back to my CHU, which I still have from our brief few weeks at Camp Liberty. Being as I was still hobbled and tired from the convoy ride up, I laid down and fell asleep. A short time later a knock came on my door. It was a Lieutenant from the Blue Devils. He was there to tell me that I was manifested to return to Adder later that night via convoy - the same one I came up on. After some quick thought I told him to take me and my driver off of the manifest. I still had work to do at Camp Liberty and needed to finish what I came to do. We would figure out another way to get back to Adder. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made in recent days. For one, it allowed me to do everything I sacrificed 10 uncomfortable hours in an MRAP to complete. But there was another reason this was a good decision - one which I had no idea of at the time. I'll explain in a moment.

Later that night I got together with all of the Officers and Senior NCO's from the Blue Devils and the other company I have at Camp Liberty - "Deuce Train" from Fort Campbell, KY. It was a rather chilly evening, which was a clear signal that the searing heat of an Iraqi summer is now behind us. We chatted for quite some time over cigars and near beer. Essentially, it was an informal professional development period in which we discussed the coming days of our mission and the various requirements it would entail. We also swapped stories about home and other subjects. Sometimes it is just a good thing to forget about the war for a few minutes. We did that and then got focused again as we called it a night.

The next morning my driver and I went to the only place remaining in Iraq where there's still a Green Beans Coffee - Sather AFB/BIAP. We each got a coffee and sat back for a few minutes to read "Stars and Stripes," which is a newspaper service members have been reading in combat zones for many decades. After a bit I suggested we walk over to the passenger terminal to see if there were any flights to Adder. It was a good call. There was a C130 headed that way around noon. But when we went to check-in space available we were sent to see the USF-I LNO as part of a new procedure being implemented. At first I was a bit disgruntled at this because it added more hassle to the process. But it turned out to be our blessing. The USF-I LNO was an Army Sergeant who asked to see our ID cards. He walked away for a few minutes and then came back and asked, "would you like to fly Embassy Air instead?" Embassy Air? Really? Do tell! So he walked us over to the civilian manning the EA desk. He said just to be back in about an hour with our bags and he'd get us on the flight. The aircraft was a Dash-8 (a common civilian "puddle-jumper" commuter plane). Seating was like in a normal airliner, which beats the cargo net seating of a C130 any day of the week. The best part was that all baggage - including body armor - would be checked below. My driver and I hurried back to our CHU's, retrieved all our gear, and made our way back just in time. In no time I was reclining in a comfortable seat as our aircraft took off for the forty minute flight to Tallil/Adder. Now this was more like it. Thirty-six hours earlier I was suffering 10 hours of extreme discomfort in an RG33. Now I was flying back in style and comfort. What an amazing contrast it was. We weren't complaining. By 1430 we were back on the ground at Adder. Our trip to Camp Liberty was complete. I had accomplished all of the tasks I set out to do.

And what of the return convoy I had been manifested for? It ended up taking 21 hours to get back to Adder. Along the way there were numerous maintenance halts, equipment failures, and even a hostile fire incident with small arms. What's worse is that my Chaplain and his assistant had elected to take the convoy back because they needed to be back to Adder in time to conduct Sunday services. My driver and I ended up beating both of them back by 8 hours. I told the Chaplain that in the future he should always trust his commander to get him back in time. I think he learned his lesson.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Road Trip Anyone?

"The engine of a tank is a weapon just as the main gun" - Heinz Guderian
You can take the man out of the tank but you can't take the tank out of the man. I'm a tanker at heart. Long before I was a logistician I was a young Armor Officer and proud of being a member of the "Combat Arm of Decision". Even now I still fondly look upon the few remaining tanks in Iraq with loving affection. Ask me and I'll tell you - "The mission of Armor is to close with and destroy the enemy by firepower, maneuver and shock effect." At this closing stage of the war the only tanks remaining are the ones we're trying to ship home. In their place, the troopers of Armor and Armored Cavalry units roll around in poor substitues known as MRAP (typical military acronym that stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected). They come in various configurations and styles. We rely on them to escort our truck convoys and keep them safe in the event of trouble along the way. The most common versions are called MaxxPro, with a larger cousin known as the RG33. They are all basically armored trucks with V-shaped hulls and side armor skirts that can defeat shape charges and IED's. A .50 caliber M2 Heavy Barrel Machine Gun or a 7.62mm M240 MG represents the main weapon system and can be found in a small turret on top. Each of these are decked with a dizzying array of electronic counter warfare systems, radios, and tracking systems. While they are a far cry from tanks, they are a huge step up from the old field expedient gun trucks of a few years ago. Whenever I need to travel by convoy, I ride in one of the MRAP's. Such was the case a few days ago when I needed to travel from COB Adder north to Victory Base Compound. One of my transportation companies had a convoy headed up that way so I tagged along. It would be a night ride, as our SP was shortly before midnight. I was in for a long night.

One thing I did not say when describing the MRAP's was that they were a comfortable ride. The fact that they are new doesn't mean you can smell the leather of plush seats. Here is a fact - military vehicles are not made with fahrvergnugen in mind. This is especially true of armored vehicles. They are an indiscriminate killer of friend and foe alike. If you don't respect them and operate them correctly you will get hurt. In my day I've seen people lose fingers, break bones, and even worse when they didn't respect their equipment. The inside of an MRAP has ramrod straight seats for the passengers with harness seatbelts that strap you in like you're on a backboard gurney. The floors aren't flat due to the V-shaped hull. There are sharp edges everywhere, radio mounts, extra military gear, ammunition, and all other kinds of stuff everywhere. Worst of all, you are strapped into all this wearing your full combat gear of body armor, helmet, gloves, basic load of ammunition, personal weapon, protective eyewear, and the headphones of the vehicle intercom system. The MRAP I crawled into for the trip was an RG33, which is notorious for bouncing wildly in the back due to the tightly sprung suspension system. As chance would have it I was in the very back seat and directly over the rear wheels. The other hazard is the constant crescendo of noises - engine, radio, hydraulics, and other systems. This makes it necessary to wear earplugs the entire time. Triple-flanged earplugs become painful to wear after only a short time. Mine would be stuffed in my ears for the next ten hours straight. That's right, I said ten hours straight. Sometimes convoys encounter a few challenges along the way. Mine would be a case in point.

After our convoy briefing we mounted up, strapped in, and prepared to move out. Soon after we began to roll. An hour later we were still on COB Adder. There was another convoy ahead of us and they were having problems clearing the ECP (Entry Control Point). All the while I tried to get comfortable without success. My tactical vest was digging into my shoulders and pressing down at right angles into my thighs. This was making my legs tingle, which no amount of adjustment could correct. I tried not to focus on this by watching the crew members of the MRAP. They were a happy-go-lucky sort that I admire so much in Soldiers. I don't think any of them were over 24. They were joking on the intercom, offering me food and gatorade, and seemed completely at ease with jobs that would stress out others for the great risk required of each of them. The gunner was a big goofy Specialist who had scored a box of honeybuns somewhere and would offer me one practically on the hour, every hour (I never took one). He was also operating a mast-mounted infrared video monitor and let me watch the screen as he continually scanned the surrounding area. My strategy worked as soon I was dozing off in spite of my discomfort. But I woke up not long after when I realized we had stopped. We were on the MSR (Main Supply Route). One of the other MRAP's had broken down. For the next ninety minutes we waited as the recovery operation continued. Eventually we were rolling again. But it was a maddening start-stop brought on by various factors. There were other convoys on the road, Iraqi traffic also created traffic choke points, and there were the inevitable Iraqi Police checkpoints. I dozed when I could but every bump woke me back up with a violent jolt. My body became so stiff and numb I began to doubt I would be able to climb out of the RG33 without assistance. There were no "potty stops" either so if the urge hit a pee bottle would be necessary. The sun had been up for over two hours when we finally approached VBC. We had been on the road for over eight hours. It took another hour and a half to clear the ECP and roll on to the Convoy Support Center - where I would meet up with my POC and say so long to the convoy. I managed to crawl out on my own power and immediately grounded my gear. My shoulders were screaming and my legs were like jelly. A nearby port-o-jon gained about a gallon of my urine once I stumbled into the thing. I was just thankful to have arrived safe. Everyone was safe. We had trouble and delays but encountered no enemy action. But in head-to-head competition the convoy beat my ass.

I've been on many convoys during the course of multiple deployments. But they are never my preferred method of battlefield circulation. I had originally planned to return to Adder on the same convoy but decided right then I'd find a flight back. It turned out to be a very good call but that will have to be another story in another entry. My first priority upon arriving at VBC was to find coffee and then get to work. I had a ton of tasks that needed to happen. The lingering effects of the ten hour convoy ride up in the back of an RG33 would plague me for the rest of the day and into the evening. Maybe it's just because I'm getting older but I try not to believe such nonsense. I'm always a tanker at heart - always have been, always will be.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Growing in Size, Growing in Mission

“I was young and buoyant in spirit, my men were mounted and all eager for a chase as well as a fray.” - John Bell Hood

Everywhere around us things are rapidly shutting down. Even the President has given the official announcement to the American people. We will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. It would seem to most that an announcement like that would mean we could just start celebrating and simply roll south. It isn't that simple. Logistics operations are the key to any successful military campaign. History is wrought with the destruction of former empires who reached for more than they could handle. Napoleon's Grand Armee withered and starved deep in the winter wilderness of Russia, a premier fighting force rendered helpless without the ability to supply itself. Hitler's grand ambitions met a simliar fate 140 years later. But this has never been true of our Nation's military. Logistics are our unsung hallmark. The reason we are the most powerful military the world has ever known is not because of our sleek weapons. It's because the United States can project and support its military power anywhere around the globe for extended periods. The Iraq War has been a case in point. Now that the war is coming to a close it is accompanied by a retrograde of forces that is the largest of its type since the end of World War II. The heroes of this phase of the war are the logisticians who are working day and night to see men and material safely home. To that end, my Battalion tirelessly works day and night.

As we have continually moved our HQ south we've stayed in the fight. Our original home, COB Speicher, is now closed. So are all the other bases in the north we used to support. But as we've moved south we continue to grow in size and responsibility. Soon after we landed at COB Adder we held a TOA ceremony with another battalion whose time was up. Our Colors did not come to the ceremony cased because we are already hard at work and heavily engaged. We came to the ceremony with one baton already in our hands and then took another in the other hand. In the span of a thirty minute ceremony we became the largest battalion of our type in the history of the Iraq War. Not only that, we were entrusted with the honor of being the Combat Sustainment Support Battalion that will close out the logistical phase of this war. We will be the last unit of our type in the country as we sprint to the finish line. We were entrusted with this responsibility because of our proven track record of accomplishments. We are the Gypsy Battalion that can do it all. And now that is true like no other time during our deployment. Transporters, Quartermasters, Mechanics, Ordnance Personnel, and various other Soldiers of the logistical world all now call our Battalion home. Our Battalion is a true representation of the Total Army Concept that is comprised of Soldiers from the Active Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard. We are history in the making and we have entered the phase that will be in the textbooks for years to come. What we've already accomplished is phenomenal but it pales in comparison to what we will do in the next sixty days. When we leave there will be nobody left but the Iraqis and their country. I haven't decided if I'll leave the lights on or not. Probably not.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Go to Zero!"

"As long as you're going to be thinking anyway, think big." - Donald Trump
We have a new rallying cry - "Go to Zero!" The order has been given. There is no more mystery as to how this is going to end. The long-awaited decision has finally been made. Everyone is to be out of Iraq by year's end. We are definitely several pages into the final chapter of operations in Iraq. Some of us here now - including me - were here in the beginning. Now, over eight years after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we will also be here to witness the end as we bring Operation New Dawn to a close. However, there is a mountain of work to be completed between now and the end of the year. In order to go to zero we will have to move a lot of remaining equipment, vehicles, and personnel out of the country. As much as my Battalion has already accomplished up to this point of the deployment, it has all been practice for the big game. The best has been saved for last. We are going out with a full sprint to the finish line. Our Soldiers and their trucks will represent the enablers to make our rallying cry a reality. And the reality has also set in that we will have no rest between now and the end. Being the Gypsy Battalion has given us first hand knowledge of the amount of cargo we need to move south. But we are up for the challenge.

At the conclusion of World War II in Europe, the U.S. initiated Operation Magic Carpet. This was a monumental redeployment of forces from Europe back to the United States. It was a phenomenal logistic achievement that involved the transfer of over a million troops and hundreds of thousands of military vehicles of all types. Although the task ahead for our military in Iraq is nowhere near as big as the redeployment from Europe in 1945, it is still the largest single operation of its type since the conclusion of World War II. History is in the making. I remind my Soldiers of this every day. They respond. Our Battalion is very new, having just been formed a few years ago as the first of its type in the Army Reserve. Now we are earning the first ever campaign streamer for the Battalion Colors. Future generations of Soldiers who serve in this Battalion will look upon that streamer and wonder what it took to earn. We won't have to wonder. We earned it.

Upon the decks and flatbeds of our trucks we will execute the order as it has been given - "Go to Zero!"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

To The Ziggurat! Not!

"I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands!" - Herman "Babe" Ruth

Just when I thought the ancient city of Ur with its magnificent Ziggurat was off limits, the word came that we could make a trip. My Battalion Chaplain, along with his counterpart from the unit we're relieving here at Adder, worked out a drug deal to make it happen. They coordinated with the Iraqi curator of the grounds, a man who's been the curator since the Babylonians still occupied Ur. We manned a couple of MRAPs to provide force protection and acquired a bus. A lot of our Soldiers signed up and paid $20 each (the going price these days for a visit) and set their alarm clocks for a very early morning wakeup. The next morning, as the sun was creeping over the horizon, we gathered at the HQ. After a cultural briefing by the Chaplain we donned our body armor and loaded up to ride to Ur. I have to say that I was very excited to see the place again. The vast majority of our entourage had never been and I was thrilled for them too. With happy hearts and ready cameras we set off towards the Entry Control Point (ECP). To the Ziggurat!

Not so fast! The sad part of what happened next is that we could plainly see the Ziggurat from the ECP. It stared back at us in the rising morning sunlight, its bricks glowing with the radiance of the gathering sunlight. It beckoned us to climb its steps. An Army Specialist in "full battle-rattle" manning the ECP said otherwise. He and his comrades stopped our merry convoy. For about the next five tense minutes he talked over the radio with his higher command. Then he spilled the bad news - no more trips to Ur were authorized by order of the US Division-South Commanding General. Uh, say that again Specialist? Sir, I am very sorry but I can't let you proceed. What could we do? He and his comrades were just doing their job (and very well I might add). We were thwarted. I could see the sincere disappointment on the faces of several of our Soldiers. I'm certain that had a mirror been handy it would have reflected mine as well. In no time we were making a U-turn and driving back onto the base. The Ziggurat continued to call to us in the distance. All we could do is look back and imagine the "what ifs". I'm not giving up on this one just yet. I want to go back to Ur. I want my Soldiers to have that opportunity to walk in the steps of Abraham. I'm not certain I have enough heft to pull the strings necessary to make this happen before we are gone from Iraq forever. It just wasn't in the cards on this day.

Once back at the HQ we made certain to reimburse everyone for their entry fees. Then we went back to work as if it was any other day.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Living in the Shadow of Ur

"Conscience is the authentic voice of God to you." - Rutherford B. Hayes
COB Adder is a sprawling complex that is home to around 10,000 personnel. It is a place that sprouted up all around Tallil Air Base, which is near An-Nasiriyah on the Euphrates. I've been here before. But when I was here before there was no COB Adder. That was back in May 2003. The initial invasion had just ended. I stayed a couple nights at Tallil waiting for a sandstorm to blow over. Back then this place was dirty, dusty, broken down, with the debris of the Iraqi Army and Air Force everywhere. There were no CHU's, DFAC's, or even port-o-jons. It was a terrible place to be for more than a few days. Hell, this whole country was like that. But there was a common denominator that keeps this place familiar to me - the Ziggurat of Ur. The ancient Babylonian city of Ur is less than a couple of miles outside the perimeter of the base. This city dates back over 4,000 years. Somewhere within the ruins of this city is the birthplace of Abraham, who is the father of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. While most of the original city of Ur succumbed to the desert long ago, the Ziggurat remains. It is a large, brick pyramid with a long flight of stairs on one side. At one time, the pyramid that remains was just the base of a much taller structure. Time, weather, and wars have gradually cropped the top of the structure. However, it is still an impressive sight and it looms over the base from its distant perch. I had the good fortune of visiting the ruins at Ur during my short visit here back in 2003. A small group of us met the Iraqi curator who gave us a complete tour of the Ziggurat and the ruins that surround the structure. We were able to freely roam the grounds - unburdened by body armor or other equipment. Nowadays we aren't even allowed to visit the location. It just teases us in the distance. Command has ruled it too dangerous to venture outside the wire simply to visit such a historic place. I am saddened by this because I had hoped many of my Soldiers would have an opportunity to stand on top of the Ziggurat. I won't deny that I want desperately to visit the place again. It looks like the view from Adder will be as close as I will ever get to Ur again. We will see it every day for as long as we are at Adder.

And so, another chapter of our historic deployment begins - our mission will now encompass the entire country of Iraq with our HQ at Adder. It is truly fitting that we are making history in the shadow of history.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gypsy Battalion

"It is impossible to imagine a more complete fusion with nature than that of the Gypsy." -
Franz Liszt

It's official. We are the Gypsy Battalion. I can't say that anyone I command is necessarily nomadic in nature. Apparently, United States Forces - Iraq (USF-I) feels differently. Some may think that, perhaps, "Bedouin Battalion" would be more appropriate given that we are in the middle of the Arab Cradle of Civilization. I disagree though. Gypsy is the more appropriate term. None of us are native to this land. We are here on borrowed time. And, like the Gyspy, we are here today but gone tomorrow. We arrived in this country to serve at a place called Contingency Operating Base Speicher, which is adjacent to Saddam Hussein's birthplace - Tikrit. We did such a good job that the planners that be decided they had more work for us to do near Baghdad so they sent us south to Camp Liberty. No sooner than we had unpacked our rucksacks the winds of change began blowing again. The command came from the tower, "Further Southward you shall go!" And so, we struck the tents and moved. We moved with speed and efficiency that made me glow with pride. Not a complaint was heard. We didn't arrive here with the intent to be nomadic but we adapted the lifestyle with finesse. For the second time on this deployment, we jumped the TOC - all the while continuously engaged in the fight with full control over our subordinate units and our mission. Next stop? COB Adder near An-Nasiriyah.

Our mission here has proven to be so much different than anything we could have ever predicted. This is what happens when you do a good job - you keep getting handed even more responsibility and tougher assignments. By the time Operation New Dawn is all over we will be the only battalion of our type to have operated in the north, center and south while continuously supporting of all three regions. Just like the Gypsies of old, our caravans continue to grow as we gain more and more units under our care. At this point, we've also become the largest battalion of our type in terms of both geographic footprint and number of personnel. There is nowhere in Iraq where our Soldiers can't be found. Need us to jump the TOC again? No problem. We're the experts.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Awards, Evaluations, and Promotions

"Results are not for us to consider, and orders are received to be obeyed." - Nathaniel Banks
There comes a point in every deployment when individual accomplishments have to be analyzed, scrutinized and recognized. We do this in two ways - awards and evaluations. Awards are much more visible to the observer. These are the medals a Soldier wears proudly with accompanying certificates that hang on the wall for all to see. Meanwhile, performance evaluations go into a Soldier's file and are extremely critical for promotion and retention. As a deployment moves into the final stages, a considerable amount of midnight oil has to be burned on the part of the Command Team and Staff to ensure the awards and evaluations are completed - accurately, fairly, and on time. We owe this to our Soldiers. It is a "crunch time" that can create a hellacious few days of late nights. However, in pays off in the end because it ensures we properly recognize our Soldiers for their efforts and sacrifices throughout our continual pursuit of mission success. At the same time, we set the Soldiers up for success in the future - both for promotion and assignments. My Battalion has just completed this process. I am extremely proud of my Staff and Company Command Teams for facing down this grueling endeavor with pride, esprit, and professionalism. Within the span of two weeks we processed almost 600 awards of varying degree and met every suspense. All of our deserving Soldiers will get well-earned recognition prior to us leaving Iraq.

With regards to awards, there are many factors that must be considered. Soldiers could receive anywhere from an Army Achievement Medal to a Bronze Star Medal for their service to the Battalion during the deployment. The majority of them will recieve an Army Commendation Medal, which is a significant award for service. Several members of the unit will earn a Meritorious Service Medal, while a select few will receive its wartime equivalent - the Bronze Star Medal. To a casual observer who looks at only statistics it may appear that the awards are biased based upon rank. That is flawed logic because statistics don't bear out what a Soldier's assigned responsibilities or contributions may have entailed. Generally speaking, the more responsibility a person had, the more personnel they were responsible for, the higher the dollar value of equipment under their charge, or the amount of time spent on missions are all weighted factors when considering which award is appropriate. That being said, a Platoon Leader who led 50 Soldiers and commanded 100 combat logistics patrols is probably going to receive a higher award than a Specialist in his platoon who drove a truck on the same number of missions. I use that as just an example. There are always people who believe they are being slighted on awards or who are chasing a particular award. My Battalion is no different in that regard. However, I assured my subordinates that I would not quibble the awards they recommended to me so long as proper and quantifiable justification was provided for each. At the same time, the submitted award had to be completely accurate on administrative data with well-written narratives and citations. There were a couple of people who came to me to complain about their recommended award. My only response to them was to take up their grievance with the recommender of their award. That normally stopped complaints in their tracks. I am proud to say that through the course of reviewing and signing almost 600 awards I did not recommend a downgrade on a single one. Every Soldier in my Battalion will receive the award their respective units believe they earned.

Then come evaluations, which require a lot of patience and meticulous care. For me, this process is mainly writing Officer Evaluation Reports (OER) for either people that I directly rate (Company Commanders, Battalion Executive Officer, etc) or people that I Senior Rate (Platoon Leaders, Company Executive Officers, Battalion Staff). Everyone gets an evaluation for the deployment. Not everyone's performance is equal though. This fact makes how an evaluation is written critical to singling out the top performers from the middle of the pack. Little things such as physical fitness and height/weight standards can have a significant impact on an overall assessment. Regardless, the evaluation has to be based strictly on performance - never on personality. Playing favorites will get you nowhere in the military. The evaluations I write read relatively the same regardless of the Officer or NonCommissioned Officer. However, there will be subtle differences that makes the cream rise to the top. It is a delicate process that we all take very seriously. The evaluations must be written fairly, with great accuracy, without bias, and submitted on time. They will remain on a Soldier's record forever and will be viewed by many in consideration of future advancement and assignments. And, I am proud to say, we are staying the course in this mighty endeavor as well. My Battalion has never had a single OER or NCOER returned to us due to mistakes, inaccuracies, or for any other reason. We are a first-time go every time we rate one of our hard working leaders.

Getting all of the awards and the majority of the evaluations prepared made for an exhausting, sometimes frustrating, two weeks for all of us. But we got them done right and on time. As if to highlight the importance of all of this, the day after our awards were due to Brigade we held a promotion ceremony. Awards and promotions are the only two times we really get to recognize Soldiers. And both the awards and evaluations play a vital role in a Soldier's promotion. It all came together for everyone as we welcomed two Soldiers to the ranks of the NCO Corps. In a ceremony held at the Battalion HQ, two of our up and coming Specialists were promoted to Sergeant. It was a proud moment and a fitting end to "awards week". Job well done!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Continue Mission

"God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless." - Chester W. Nimitz

There are very few higher callings in life than serving our Nation. Within the fabric that makes our military great is something not readily apparent to those who've never served. To some it may not be apparent at all. But to those of us who do serve it is the very glue that holds our ranks together. For when one answers the call to serve the country, he discovers that it is really about serving each other. Soldiers love their country. But Soldiers serve for each other above all else. This is the answer to the mystery of why we serve. There is no greater camaraderie than what the men and women in our military find within their ranks. We all enter the military as strangers. But people who train together, sweat together, sacrifice together, work together, bleed together, rejoice together, and mourn together will become closer to one another than to even their own families. We are a team, we are will willing die for one another to see our mission succeed. Above all else, we trust each other. We do not ever sit around and discuss politics, debate the merits of our mission, or second-guess our orders. Instead we check our left and right limits, keep our machinery running in top condition, inspect ourselves and each other, and then move out with focused precision. When we have time to relax we laugh at ourselves, we talk of home, we workout, we swap notes on football, and anything else you might expect us to do. Then we strap on our gear without complaint and go out and do it all again - never, ever skipping a beat or taking a shortcut. And we do it for each other. Together we serve our Nation. But in doing so we become family. We will internalize our love for one another and our shared experiences for the rest of our lives. When we see each other again, many years from now, we will embrace with tears and with the vigor of our youth as the fire returns to our eyes. For we may all go on to accomplish great tasks and endeavors, but here on the fields of battle is where our hearts and minds will always recall our greatest moments of service. For the rest of my life and beyond I will always be thankful that when it was my time I answered my Nation's call. I serve in the company of heroes.

The past ten days have been a difficult period for many of the Warriors in my Battalion. We lost one of our own. I have watched these grown men and women openly weep and embrace one another. There is no shame in their eyes. Heroes know that tears for our comrades flow from the heart. We know there is a time to mourn and we do not pass on that opportunity. The window of time to mourn quickly closes for us. We have a mission to perform. So it was that within 24 hours of losing one of our own that our convoys were back on the road. God I could not be more proud of my Warriors. They range in ages from 18-58. They come from all backgrounds, races and religions. But they all bleed red for each other. And I trust them with any mission. We never left the fight in order to mourn. But if anyone thinks that they can have no doubt now that we are seeing to our business, watching out for each other, and moving mountains together.

I would proudly serve with these men and women any time, any place. Being a Commander is an easy experience with such Soldiers as I am blessed to lead. This past week has been the most trying collection of days I've ever had in my time of service. But it has also shown me once again the resiliency of Soldiers and reaffirmed everything that is dear to me about why I serve. I serve for them. Mission First! Soldiers Always!