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.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Making memories on Memorial Day Weekend

"A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in
arms, is the best natural defense of a free country."
- James Madison

If only James Madison could see our Army now. He would beam with pride. It's almost impossible today to fathom the humble beginnings of our Army. We are rapidly closing in on the 236th birthday of the U.S. Army. The Army authorized by the Continental Congress in 1775 was a ragtag collection of local militia, random volunteers, and veterans of the French and Indian War organized to face down the most powerful and professional military in the world. We've come a long way since then. As we spent our Memorial Day weekend in Iraq we found time to reflect on those who served before us. We serve so that our Nation will always have a Memorial Day. Our Army has become the most powerful in the world and may it always be. Freedom is worth protecting at any cost.

Regardless of the occasion, we still had work to do. It was as busy a weekend as any other. On top of that we were administering PT tests. I had to tend to some disciplinary actions as well - not the highlight of being a commander. The heat and dust continued to be omnipresent. The machinery of our Battalion continued to hum at a steady pace. Sunday afternoon my Soldiers from Brownsville, TX held another cookout. My Executive Officer and I stopped by to share a few laughs along with steaks and chicken. There are Combat Engineers living next door and that reminded me of the importance of everyone's mission here. Though they may be very different in text, they all come together in the big picture. The Engineers have the responsibility to go out every night and clear the routes my Soldiers drive along in their convoys. Without the Combat Engineers, my convoys could not run safely up and down the highways of Iraq. At the same time, without my Soldiers the Engineers wouldn't be supplied. We completely depend upon one another. At the same time we're good neighbors on the FOB. As the Engineers prepared their vehicles, weapons and equipment for another night outside the wire they joined my Soldiers for food and drink. I met their Company Commander, who reminds me of Dennis Hopper. Friendships and mutual respect are common here. They have to be. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Inevitably we all turned to thoughts of home. Memorial Day Weekend is the official first weekend of summer. Friends and family back home are enjoying the long weekend. We'd rather be there. We are there in thought and in our hearts. Happy Memorial Day to everyone back home. Raise a drink to my Soldiers and buy them one when they return home. May God richly bless The United States of America - now and forever.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reflecting back 24 years ago today

"Duty-Honor-Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you
ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be. They are your rallying
points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when
there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes
- excerpt from General Douglas MacArthur's farewell speech to the United States Military Academy Corps of Cadets, May 12, 1962 Where has the time gone? It seems like just yesterday that around a thousand young men and women who comprised the West Point Class of '87 marched onto the field at Michie Stadium and graduated. Just four years prior to that I had reported to USMA as a mop-topped 17-year old. July 1, 1983 was "R" day for the Class of '87. We met the "man in the red sash" and the words "step up to my line new cadet" became forever burned into our memory banks. We were quite the motley looking bunch on that day. But over the next four years we became more than just friends and classmates. We became brothers and sisters for life. Our motto, "Our Country We Strengthen, '87," is proudly emblazened on our rings that we earned through sweat, tears, laughter, and teamwork. Today is the 24th anniversary of our graduation from West Point. I am proud to say with unflinching confidence that the Class of '87 has lived - and continues to live - its motto, which we forged as a promise to each other and our Nation so many years ago. Our Country We Strengthen, '87 - We will always fulfill that promise.

It was hot in Iraq today. My Soldiers were busy as always. Convoys were heading outside the wire. On top of it all we held a PT test. It's the same test the Army used when I reported to West Point so many years ago. The events are push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. Each Soldier has two minutes each for both push-ups and sit-ups and is then timed in the run. The raw scores for each event are converted into points using a conversion scale. There are a maximum of 100 points per event for a combined total of 300 possible points. I never have had to study for this test. I always score 300. My challenge is to have raw scores that beat the best my Soldiers can put up. It gives me great satisfaction to beat kids who weren't even born the day I graduated from West Point. The Soldiers take great pride in having a Battalion Commander who lets his performance do the talking. There are too often double-standards in this arena. It doesn't happen on my watch though.

Iraq is an unforgiving place to take a PT test. Even though we took the test during a cooler time of the day, there is still so much dust in the air it makes breathing difficult at times. The dust dries your throat and irritates your nostrils. It burns the eyes once mixed with sweat. I've been sneezing ever since we completed the test. It will probably be a restless night.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Are we heroes?

"Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth." - Will

Back home everyone calls us heroes. There's certainly nothing wrong with that at all. The irony is that we don't think of ourselves as heroes. I've never seen a single man or woman in uniform jump up and claim to be a hero. Must of us would just say we're doing our job, that's all. Some people believe that humility doesn't exist anymore. They are wrong - it exists in every Soldier. Quite frankly, I am made humble every day by the accomplishments of these men and women. They work without complaint in ungodly temperatures, unforgiving extremes, and incredibly spartan surroundings. At every turn they look out for one another and never exhibit selfishness. As time goes by here they become closer to one another than they are with their families back home. They roll outside the wire to stare death in the eye with broad grins on their faces. Then they come back and sleep like babies before doing it all over again. Yet none of them consider themselves heroes. But I can say without hesitation that the words of Henry V resonate with all of us -"And gentlemen now a-bed in England shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day." But if anyone asks me when I get home if I am a hero I will say no. As MAJ Dick Winters said, "I'm not a hero, but I served in the company of heroes."

Every day is getting hotter. May is winding down. Soon it will actually be summer and in Iraq that means temperatures that are practically unbearable. I'm not certain how to describe the heat to folks back home. If you'd like to get an idea of how hot it really does get here then the closest example can be created using your oven. Put it on broil. Give it about ten minutes so there's no question it is at maximum output. Open the door and put your head right next to the opening. That's a reasonable facsimile of Iraqi summer heat. Now imagine wearing about another 100 pounds of gear, a full load of ammunition, and your weapon. Before you start worrying about us just remember that we are trained for this. It doesn't make it any more comfortable though.

Oh one other thing, it isn't a dry heat either. It's a heavy, humid heat with no rain in sight. And into this summer my Soldiers will drive on and move mountains. I am confident of that. They are the best.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Without Joe nothing happens

"Leadership is intangible, and therefore no weapon ever designed can
replace it."
- Omar Bradley

Politicians make speeches and fight over policy. Generals plot strategies and plan the big picture. Eventually those policies and strategies will merge and filter down to form the backbone of what a unit in the field will be given as its mission. But nothing happens at all until the Soldiers at the point of the spear take action. That's when the execution phase of the mission overcomes the force of inertia and becomes a dynamic force that will overcome all. These young men and women, led by people barely older than they are, set forth and apply their individual skills in a medley of teamwork that is more finely tuned than Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. Every time these Soldiers strap on their gear, mount their machines, and move outside the wire they perform as though its their very own Super Bowl. The difference is that they play the Super Bowl every single day. They win every single day. Each game is one more step towards mission success. At the Soldier level mission success means one thing - accomplish all your assigned tasks and bring everyone home safely when you're done. To that aim they stay focused, ever diligent, and steadfast.

Another huge sandstorm was brewing as I drove out to the staging lanes to watch one of my convoys line up for a night push to a distant FOB. With visibility dropping down to about 150 yards, the Soldiers did all their pre-combat checks and inspections. One of the trucks had a class 2 leak spring in the hydraulics of its heavy trailer. I climbed under the trailer with the Soldiers to watch them work without complaint. With the professionalism of a NASCAR pit crew they stopped the leak. There was no way they were going to sit out this convoy and let their team down. As the sandstorm intensified they gathered around for the convoy briefing. I was honored when the convoy commander asked me to say a few words. I kept it very brief and focused on them. The team that wins is the one that executes the basics better than anyone else on every play. That's what these Soldiers do.

Just like clockwork - another convoy made SP. I stood and watched and waved at every single truck. The drivers honked their horns. Every so many vehicles one of the convoy security MRAPs would nestle in between the big trucks. To some people this would seem an easy thing to do. I'd like to see them try. I have an entire staff that plans every one of these convoys days in advance. There are so many moving pieces. I never worry though because when all is said and done I know these plucky, trusty teenagers and twenty-somethings will be on time and on target. The NCO's and junior Officers that lead them are confident and sure. Hell it's a Friday night! This convoy is where the party is tonight. No adrenaline rush back home can compare. Many years from now everyone will be glad they were a part of this. I know I am. We are making a difference. It may be a forgotten war back home but it is still at the forefront of our efforts. Iraq is a place where we are winning. We're keeping it that way on our watch.

And then came some time off. It was just for a few hours but it was well spent. I stopped by the HQ and billets of one of the truck companies. The "Border Bandits" from Brownsville, TX were playing basketball and grilling steaks. Latin beat filled the air. If I closed my eyes I could've sworn I was actually spending the late afternoon on the border in Brownsville. Then I opened my eyes and noticed there was no cerveza or tequila. The steaks were excellent. The basketball was bruising and entertaining. The Soldiers forgot about the war for a little while. Tomorrow they'll be back at it. I went back to my room and strummed my banjo for an hour or so. I'll be back at it tomorrow too.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Sir, I need your signature on this..."

"Americans are not a perfect people, but we are called to a perfect
- Andrew Jackson

For every bright, sunny day here there's a sandstorm. Some are worse than others, but they occur with predictable regularity. They really make things miserable. Although they can blot out the sun, they actually raise the temperature a few degrees. That way it helps the dust cling to your skin as you sweat profusely. The Tigris and Euphrates valleys are known to be the cradle of civilization. Knowing that makes me realize that our ancestors were some very hardy folks. Nowadays we just adapt. Fortunately, Soldiers are very good at adapting. It doesn't make a sandstorm any more enjoyable though. Quite frankly, they suck. They are also inevitable. There are many more to follow during the course of this deployment.

I've come to realize that the seven most frequently repeated words around me are "Sir, I need your signature on this." Every day I hear that phrase multiple times. Such is life being the Battalion Commander. My signature is needed on practically everything. It's needed for evaluations, leave requests, convoy manifests, risk management worksheets, policy memorandums, award certificates, special meal requests, and on and on and on and on... After our patch ceremony we created certificates for all of the Soldiers in the Battalion that authorize them wear of their combat service unit patches. This created a comical moment when a stack of several hundred certificates were piled on my desk. That's when I realized how much a signature stamp would help. As it is, I've been signing about a hundred of those a day until I get them completed. I've already gone through a couple of pens. They'll get completed though.

Safety is an ever present task of everyone here. Military equipment will hurt friendly users just as fast as it will hurt the enemy. If you don't respect the equipment and follow the proper procedures you will likely get hurt. In my time in the Army I've seen people lose fingers, break bones, and even lose their lives when they fail to heed the importance of safety. Even traffic accidents happen here when you don't pay attention. This morning on the way to work I passed an accident that had happened at a gravel road intersection. A van carrying TCN (Third Country Nationals) was on its side and a pickup truck was off the road on the other side. The MPs were on the scene taking photos and statements. Fortunately, it didn't appear anyone was hurt. However, it was a stern reminder that in order to successfully accomplish our mission we have to place safety first in everything we do.

And in doing so we live to fight another day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Spending time with Soto and Hesco the Cat

"A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough
to be given a square deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled, and
less than that no man shall have."
- Theodore Roosevelt

Words cannot describe what it is like to serve in the company of such amazing men and women. They come from all walks of life and varying backgrounds. They all have different reasons for serving sans one - they all love their country and volunteered to serve our Nation. Teddy Roosevelt got it right when he made his speech to Veterans back in 1903. His words are still true today. Over 100 years has passed since he made that speech. Yet what was fact then is still fact - the men and women of our Armed Forces are our Nation's best. I cringe every time I hear somebody who has never served nor spent time around our military try to claim that the only reason people serve is because they can't find work or that it was their only option. I invite any person reading this who believes that bullshit to come walk a mile in my shoes. Pick up a rucksack and a rifle and come man the parapets of Freedom with those whom I trust my life to. Only then will you know how wrong you are when you denigrate our military into a bunch of derelicts who were down to their last option. And even then we won't let you hang your head in shame or even expect you to apologize for being wrong. Your very right to feel one way or another is preserved by our sacrifice.

USO tours are a constant treat here. They represent an opportunity for the Soldiers to spend time up close with celebrities. And yet it is the celebrities who are always humbled to be around such amazing men and women. The night of our patch ceremony the Latino jazz group Soto came and put on a show at COB Speicher. My Battalion has a very large number of Soldiers of Hispanic heritage and they were out in force. After the show my CSM asked the group if they would be willing to pay us a visit the next day. They wholeheartedly agreed. The next day when they arrived we had an MRAP and a HETT on display with Soldiers ready to give them a tour. The members of Soto were like little children when they found out they could climb onto the vehicles. They were more excited to be around us than we were at having them visit. Later they sang several songs for us, signed autographs as long as anyone was still waiting for one, and took loads of photos. Even CSM and I were asked to pose with them on the back of a Maxpro MRAP. I figured that as long as we were having our photo taken I'd throw my camera in the mix as well. There were lots of handshakes, hugs and sincere tears when they left. Soto was genuinely touched by being around all of our Soldiers. Thank you again to all the members of Soto from the Soldiers of our Battalion!

As the sun was going down and I was leaving my HQ I heard a friendly greeting to my right. Out of the shadows emerged a cat. He approached me and chatted with me all the while. Cats always sense that I am their friend. After all, I am The Cat Whisperer. I chatted with my new friend for a few minutes and bestowed him the name "Hesco." He joins ranks with cats from all over the world who've befriended me. I'll look forward to talking with Hesco again soon. The presence of a friendly cat always makes everything better. Thank you Hesco for introducing yourself to me. You gave me one more thing to look forward in my days here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Marching to a steady drumbeat

"Applause waits on success." - Benjamin Franklin

Time goes by faster once you fall into a routine. My experiences with Iraq have proven that a routine is never guaranteed. It's dictated by your mission and the associated OPTEMPO. Fortunately, my Battalion's mission has provided a steady drumbeat of work. Everyone has been able to transition into a routine with relative ease. Sometimes the drum beats faster but it never pauses. Work is constant day and night. Our truck companies are constantly sending Soldiers on convoys while the HQ Soldiers continue to plan the future convoys. The typical work day consists of work, workout, eat and sleep. There aren't many distractions. Weekends are really just the same as weekdays. A calendar simply reminds you of the date. But next thing you know a week has gone by, then two, then three. Time marches to our OPTEMPO and that means it goes by relatively quickly.

Peripheral to the passing of time comes the transformation of our HQ. We inherited another Battalion's set of buildings. They had the character of our predecessors both inside and out. For the first couple of weeks, it felt as though we were working in someone else's space. That's now changed. Emblems from the previous Battalion are all gone. Offices have been rearranged. And, of course, the faces are all ours. Now the HQ is proudly adorned with the logos, emblems, and mottos of our Battalion. There's fresh paint on various walls. What's also changed is the manner of doing business. Right or wrong, we do business differently than our predecessors. It's not a strike against anyone. We just have the fresh, eager approach of finding ways to do things better. So far I think it's working.

Once a unit has been in a combat zone for 30 consecutive days they qualify to wear their wartime service insignia - commonly referred to as a combat patch. This patch is the Brigade-level and above patch they deploy with on their left shoulder, which can now also be displayed on the right shoulder. Once the combat patch is earned it is worn proudly for the rest of a Soldier's career. We've been at war for a number of years now so many of my Soldiers - including me - have already earned one or more combat patches. That's irrelevant once it's time to recognize the unit for earning a combat patch. Besides, many of the Soldiers in the Battalion had never deployed before and were earning their first one. To properly recognize this accomplishment we held a large ceremony. Our HHC and one of our truck companies stood in formation to be recognized - both units had reached the 30 day mark. With pomp and ceremony, we honored the Soldiers. Then CSM and I placed the combat patch on the right shoulder of every one of the Soldiers in formation. It was a great ceremony. A small milestone has been eclipsed. Now we can drive on with our Mission.

Our convoys continue to roll. The drumbeat goes on.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

There you are heat! We've been wondering about you

"I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more
sacrifices today than any of you to secure the peace."
- William Tecumseh

Perhaps the sacrifices we make aren't as measurable as those made in Sherman's day, but they are sacrifices nonetheless. Iraq is an unforgivingly hot place when the summer months draw near. Strangely though it's been reasonably pleasant since we arrived. Where is that notorious heat? One or two of my Soldiers on their first foray here have already asked, "Sir, where's that heat you kept telling us about?" I've been assuring them that it would be here soon enough. This year, thankfully, it has taken its sweet time in arriving. Well the first real taste is here. Temperatures in the past couple of days have pushed into the triple-digit range. Those temperatures are here to stay. Right now the daytime high is topping around 105 degrees. By the time July rolls around the normal high will be around 135. Most people back home think its a desert "dry" heat. They're wrong. Iraqi summers are extremely humid due to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers with their various tributaries. But unlike the deep South, this is a humid heat that lingers without rain. It's just unforgiving heat. The heat is now back and it's getting a little hotter every day. Soon just the simple act of walking outside for a few minutes will be a sacrifice unto itself. Hang on to your bootstraps my Soldiers - it's just getting started.

One of the beautiful resiliencies of Soldiers is that they continue to work through every adversity. With that in mind, my CSM and I headed down to the burning heat of one of our truck company motorpools. Joined by the Company Commander and Company First Sergeant, we gave recognition to several Soldiers who had continued to work with incredible fortitude, setting the example for all their fellow Soldiers. I presented them with certificates of appreciation and Battalion coins. Then shared a few words with the gathered crowd of the company maintenance section. Working on giant trucks in blistering heat is no joke. Yet these Soldiers do so without complaint. Their fleet of line haulers and lowboys stay at operational ready rates of almost 100%. The beat goes on. Mission success is what fuels us all. Do your worst Iraqi heat. You won't stop us. You may make it miserable but you won't even dent our resolve.

But I must admit that the hot days remind me that I'm now up to 86 days without a cold Yuengling. That's another sacrifice. And it's a sacrifice Sherman's army didn't have to make. They didn't have General Order #1.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Airmen surrendering their manhood in the DFAC

"Be courteous to all, and intimate with few, and let those few be well
tried before you give them your confidence."
- George Washington

People watching is one of my favorite activities. An excellent place to pursue that activity is the DFAC. Every tenant of this place comes together in the DFAC. It's the one place where you can see just about everyone who works here. There are a lot more than just Soldiers at Speicher. As with any FOB there are other services represented and also contractors. The contractors normally wear civilian clothes so they're easy to pick out. Many of them are retired or former military so they mix in well. On every deployment I've been on so far there is always at least one or two female contractors who are attractive. That's always a focal point for a sad phenomenom that I see happen with clockwork routine - forfeiture of manhood. Inevitably there are always several military guys who all take aim at the attractive contractor. Whether she wants the attention or not, they become her "DFAC posse." These supposedly hard-charging examples of killing machines become stumbling idiots around the object of their desire. What results is several different guys (always the same ones) sitting with the female contractor, carrying her tray, getting up to refill her drink, getting something for her from the dessert bar, or anything else they can do to one-up their competition. It's sad.

I've come to notice a gaggle of Airmen who've latched onto a pretty young blonde KBR contractor. Whenever she appears at the DFAC, they magically appear as well. They immediately surround her. She looks as though she's holding court at her table. Meanwhile, they all sit in uncomfortable ease as they vie for her favor. All of these Airmen were probably best friends when they deployed but they will most likely be mortal enemies by the time they leave. Once they are seated it becomes a Mexican standoff to ensure nobody is left alone with her. They finish their food and then wait for her to leave before they all rise as one and follow her out. The irony is that they don't come to the DFAC with her. They loiter until she arrives for the "coincidence" of meeting up at the DFAC. Then a silent battle of wits ensues to ensure that nobody scores but everyone looks like an idiot. Meanwhile, I just sit back and enjoy the free comedy with my meal.

Marshall Tucker Band was supposed to play a USO concert but cancelled. It's their 40-year anniversary tour. Are you kidding me? They did arrive at Speicher but were unable to play for an undisclosed reason. Age maybe? Instead they held a "meet and greet" for an hour and then called it a night. Some members of my Battalion were greatly disappointed. I was indifferent and avoided the scene altogether. Another day gone, another work day to follow.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sending Mother's Day Greetings from Iraq - Again...

"God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers" - Rudyard

And so, for the fourth time in the past eight years I send my love and thanks from Iraq to my Mother back home. Yet here in this spartan existence is where the true beauty of mothers everywhere shines through. I have served with the best people I've ever known. Every one of them had a mother who poured her own measure of love and values into her child. That child then went on to become a Soldier who serves our Nation, who lives the Army Values, and who abides by the Warrior Ethos. The foundation of my Soldiers' characters started at home. Each of my Soldiers found the time and place today to send love back to their moms back home. I send mine as well. But I also send my gratitude back to the many mothers of the Soldiers I have the privilege and honor to lead. Thank you Moms for raising children of such character. Every one of you should be very proud of your children who now proudly wear the uniform of an Army Soldier. They are the best of the best because of you. Thank you all. God bless each of you and grant you the most wonderful Mother's Day you can possibly have. To my Mother - thank you Mom for being the embodiment of the Godly woman, the angel who was there to wipe my tears and encourage me to always be the best. Happy Mother's Day from Iraq - again. The generations change but your love remains steadfast and true whether it for Dad in Vietnam or me when I'm here.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

They're tearing down the Hescos!

"When a thing is done, it's done. Don't look back. Look forward to your
next objective."
- George C. Marshall

Hesco... Did the word even exist before this war started? A last name perhaps? I never recall hearing, much less saying the word prior to deploying to Iraq a few years ago. Hesco is a word breathed to life during the course of the past few years. The image of a Hesco is seared into the memory banks of anybody who has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Hesco is a noun. A Hesco is a portable barrier foundation constructed of canvas and steel wires. When folded open, it is filled to the top with dirt and voila! Instant barrier! When Hescos are lined up and stacked they form walls that can shelter people from bullets, shrapnel and other instruments of death. If you give a platoon of Soldiers a pallet of Hescos and some shovels they can have a formidable patrol base built in one night. Hesco walls have been constructed everywhere in Iraq. Normally, they are the force protection barriers for tent cities or CHUs. Did I mention they are everywhere? Well the age of the Hesco is coming to a close. They're tearing down the Hescos. As the force reduction continues it leaves behind ghost towns of Hesco walls that form the remnant of former life-support areas (LSA). These ghost towns are now an endangered species. The earth moving equipment is on the march. The beauty of the Hesco is that once it's torn down and the dirt hauled away there is no evidence of what once stood. Every week another Hesco village disappears from COB Speicher. You better hurry if you want to get a picture.

Most of the more permanent facilities may have once been surrounded by Hescos. The Hescos have since been replaced by t-walls - giant reinforced concrete construction barriers. The t-walls will be gone eventually as well. The ubiquitous t-wall will also always be remembered by everyone who has spent time here. However, it's the Hesco that will always be synonomous with this war. Vietnam had the Huey. Iraq has the Hesco. They both start with the same letter but they are entirely different in definition. Another generation of Veterans with stories to share who may each have different experiences but will be linked by a common word - Hesco. I had the good fortune to see many of them erected and now I get to see them come down. My deployment experiences have come full circle.

Do I consider this closure? Absolutely not. I wasn't seeking closure. I always want these memories - the good and bad. The past eight years of my life have been an amazing journey. I have seen places and things I never thought I would ever bear witness to. Iraq has become etched into my subconciousness. I know I'm not alone.

Perhaps in a few years I'll find the creativity to put all this into music. What type you ask? Banjo of course. And how could I find inspiration for the type of sound that my banjo would fit best? I think I'd start with Sixteen Horsepower and work from there.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What ever became of Squeakers the OPSEC Hamster?

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance"
- Thomas Jefferson

Back in 2008 as I was wrapping up my last deployment I never thought I'd see signs like those now going up all around COB Speicher. The base really is being turned back over to the Iraqis. Their Air Force personnel now man the facilities many Soldiers became very familiar with. And it isn't just Speicher, this is happening all over the country. Base closure is the name of the game. Hand the facilities over to the Iraqis and let's make a safe departure. But it doesn't happen overnight. There is a whole lot of work ahead.

In many ways the routines, the scenery, and the daily existence are just as I remembered. The sunsets are still as spectacular as I remembered. DFAC food is pretty much the same as ever. Days are marked by the routine accomplishments - work requirements completed, exercise, and the little amount of personal time you can squeeze in. There is no lack of things to do. Every one of my Soldiers has a job to do and they are either doing it well or they are quickly learning how to do it well. They go about their day with the normal carefree attitude and high morale that always brings the utmost in admiration from me. Whether they be preparing to go out on a route clearance mission, driving a monster HET on a 40 vehicle convoy, turning wrenches at the maintenance bay, or data entry at the TOC, every Soldier takes their job seriously with smiles on their faces. Yep, they are the best of the best. They motivate me at every turn.

As the days start to become weeks, my Battalion is getting more comfortable in not only the daily routine but also the unexpected. Every day gives them another opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in one battle drill or another. I've been most impressed with the enthusiam with which my staff has vigorously looked at every process they inherited and analyzed it for ways to do it better, more efficiently and with improved responsiveness. They haven't gotten everything right but, then again, neither have I. But we are improving as a team and the front slope of the learning curve is where I want us to always be. At the same time, we've been making all of our various site visits, shaking hands, building relationships and solidifying our role as a responsible caretaker for all of the facilities we have ownership of here at Speicher. There are many. Our sustainment mission has many moving parts but they all have to move in sychronization. So far so good.

Yet there is a big void so far on this deployment. Where is Squeakers the OPSEC Hamster? Squeakers was a fixture on previous deployments. Squeakers continually foiled the evil cat by practicing good OPSEC whenever he was planning fun with his friend the rabbit. At the same time, Squeakers reminded us all the importance of practicing good OPSEC in everything we did. Commercials delivering the OPSEC message of Squeakers used to be everywhere on AFN (Armed Forces Network) programming. And every commercial ended with the famous words, "no animals were harmed in the making of this commercial." Where are you Squeakers? We need your OPSEC message! Please come back and show us how to foil that evil cat!

Seriously AFN, what happened to Squeakers?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The day we got Osama Bin Laden

"After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve
our enemies with legal papers"
- President George W. Bush

Osama Bin Laden found out that he couldn't hide forever. He didn't get served with legal papers. The end came for him courtesy of a bullet straight through his brain housing group. The last image he saw in his sad life was of U.S. Navy SEALs and the muzzle flashes of their weapons. He died on our terms, not his. Osama Bin Laden now burns in eternal hell with 72 abstinate sinners. America and the World are celebrating and rightfully so.

The news was welcomed here with calm professionalism. There were no parties in the streets. Besides, General Order #1 is in effect so we can't drink to OBL's death. Nobody took the day off. If anything, the talk of the demise of America's Most Wanted was muted. Were it not for the newscasts blaring on the televisions, the emails from friends back home, or the many postings on Facebook, most of us would have found out several hours after the fact. It's not that we aren't happy at this. To the contrary, we are the happiest of all. Many of us - me included - have deployed several times since the dark day of September 11, 2001. A lot of us were already serving that day and we knew instantly our futures would be filled with difficult tasks and separations from family and friends. That has borne out for certain. But we are professionals. Our mission is still our priority. The war didn't end just because OBL is now dead. The terrorists didn't suddenly lay down their weapons and become peaceniks now that their role model is gone. They want to harm us just as much as ever. With that in mind, life goes on here in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and everywhere else you'll find us deployed to take the fight to the enemy.

So the day we got Bin Laden was a very happy day here. But it was just another work day for us because our mission takes priority. Thank you to our Navy SEAL brothers. You made former President Bush's words above a reality for one of the most wicked, sick and twisted enemies our Nation has ever faced. Let it serve notice to the other bad guys out there. Don't even bother running or hiding. We'll find you. The end for you will come quickly and on our terms. Then we'll watch again from our distant outposts as the folks back home party in the streets. I just ask one thing - please keep some Yuenglings on ice for me. It's been 78 days and counting since my last one.

Oh and one last thing - GOD BLESS AMERICA!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mission, War College, Banjo and "Boot up your Ass"

"It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it" - General Douglas

Command is a lonely job. When something good happens you heap the praise on your subordinates. If something bad happens you take full responsibility and get to the bottom of what happened in a quiet fashion in the days that follow. You constantly fly "top cover" and do your best to keep external forces from keeping your Soldiers from staying focused on the mission. When the work for the day is done you relish in knowing your Soldiers are happy as you retire back to your own privacy for a few hours. No matter what you are feeling or what mood you are in personally, you give your subordinates the exact same leader every minute of every day - unwavering, unflinching. Command requires you to always see the big picture and continually place the needs of the mission above your own. Command is exhausting. Yet it is exhilirating and satisfying. The shaping, molding and emergence of a winning team is an accomplishment that few people truly master as an art. The pressures of command can be crushing at times. But the rewards of success, of mission accomplishment cannot be measured. I love command. There's really nothing else I'd rather do in the Army. When life gets too easy it's a surefire sign you took the wrong fork in the road. Command gives you no option but the harder right at every turn of events. At some point I'll take a vacation but not now - I'm the commander. We've got a mission to accomplish and it always comes first. Mission First, Soldier Always!

As soon as we took over responsibility from the previous weekend we had the opportunity to celebrate Easter. We held a cookout at the Battalion HQ. My staff and I served the Soldiers steaks, chicken and burgers fresh off the grill. It was a mellow afternoon. Slowly the Soldiers made their way back to their billets or off to their work shift. Our first week wouldn't be easy. The war didn't stop to give us a practice run. We had already been hit with a big FRAGO from our higher command. Extra convoys were already being planned. Welcome again to Iraq. Work here is every day and it isn't until you get home that you realize just how fast you were really going. My experience is that when you finally get home you physically screech from 95mph to 5mph. However, mentally you are still moving at lightspeed. None of us are thinking about that transition right now. We're speeding up. We'll slow down later.

On top of everything I had on my plate as commander, the first week of our post-TOA responsibilities would be shared by a graded, week-long online forum for Army War College. Thanks to the fact that Iraq is eight hours ahead of the East Coast, I couldn't even have a healthy interaction with my fellow students until around 2200 my time (10pm). So every day was spent working battalion command issues until complete, followed by a quick jaunt to the gym, and then back to the office to be war college student by night. Bed would follow around 0100. At around 0600 I was back up and would do it all over again. Banjo suffered. There was simply no time available. I took the banjo in the office one night and found it to be too distracting - making me stay up even later. My forum group was discussing U.S. National Interests and Security Strategies for Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. My desk reflected this, as it was covered with neatly stacked reading requirements for easy reference - not. I made it through the week. Best of all, nobody in the battalion had to be burdened with my nightly study forays. Unless they specifically asked me about the papers stewn on my desk they wouldn't even know I was moonlighting. That's the way it's supposed to be. Mission first.

Friday night of week one brought about an event all the Soldiers were looking for. "Boot up your Ass" (aka Toby Keith) was performing at the Speicher stadium on a USO tour. I'm all in favor of events like this but I'm really not a big "Boot up your Ass" fan. Given that my last night of the forum was the same Friday it was a given that I would not be at the concert. However, I encouraged all of my Soldiers to go. Many of them didn't even realize what I was referring to when I asked if they were going to see "Boot up your Ass." Saturday morning several Soldiers were quick to say, "Sir! Now I know what you were talking about!" Guess they all enjoyed Toby Keith. I'm glad. They deserve events like that. Thanks "Boot up your Ass"! I'm not really a fan but you truly are a Patriot and Soldiers love you for your support. If you come back I promise I'll be there. Well, so long as I don't have another Army War College forum. Or mission requirements...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Adjustment period

"Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals
of the world, is so formidable as the will and courage of free men and women. It
is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have."
- Ronald

The Army is not a constant. Policies, procedures, tactics, equipment, and, most importantly, people come and go. It's a fact that Soldiers of all ranks retire or leave the service upon completion of their term. Some make the military a career. Regardless, even this late in the game there are Soldiers who haven't deployed before. It almost seems impossible considering we've been a Nation at war for almost ten years now. But if you put in perspective, it isn't so hard to believe. Over 50% of the Soldiers in my Battalion had never deployed before. As much as we, as leaders, try to prepare them for life in Iraq, we can't duplicate what is here until they have their boots on the ground. Then, slowly but surely, reality kicks in. It can be a good or bad reality and leaders have to monitor closely the adjustment period that begins as soon as you hit the ground.

My Battalion is charged with a transportation mission. We have a whole lot of trucks - and I mean big trucks - that can carry oversized military cargo. When we arrived and took over for the previous battalion we inherited some Army truck companies that were already here. Our numbers quadrupled. Part of our adjustment would be the integration of all the Soldiers of the truck companies (and their extensive equipment) under the flag of our Battalion. Since their Soldiers had already been on the ground for weeks, or months, their adjustment period was already well underway. My task was to get my staff to work and implement my Command Philosophy to our new downtrace units. At the same time, there could be no drop-off whatsoever in the current efficiency of our OPTEMPO. The war didn't halt to give us a transition breather. It continued and our trucks and MRAPs continued to roll every day carrying all sorts of supplies and equipment necessary for the sustainment of combat operations.

But there was still a transition needed for many of my Soldiers. Heck, we all needed to make the adjustment. I've deployed several times and still need a few days to let the realization sink in that I'm back in Iraq. It is a land of no distractions. The elements are fierce - sandstorms one day, hailstorms the next, and the ominous, blistering heat of summer. The youngest Soldiers quickly learn what it really means to be away from home. Communication is limited to email, occasional phone calls, and Skype. Mom's cooking is a distant memory. Everyone lives in a CHU (Containerized Housing Unit). Most of the CHUs don't have a latrine. That comes in a separate trailer, which requires a walk in the elements to do your personal business. The CHU living area is maybe 10'x12' at best and, depending on your rank, you have to share that space with one or two other Soldiers. In-and-around transportation is normally boot powered. Lots of walking in the sand or mud ensues. We all eat in the DFAC (Mess Hall for the old-timers), we work at the same HQ, we exercise in the same gym, we share the same, small PX, and everything is close proximity. Deep in your gut, the big adjustment is the acceptance of total separation from your family and friends back home. It is absolute. You will not see them until such time that you leave for two weeks of R&R. Until then it's work. Every day you work. Mission comes before calendars. It doesn't take long to forget what day of the month, or even what day of the week, it is. Slowly but surely, everyone in the unit becomes a close-knit cog in the machinery of Mission success. But is a delicate transition in which we have to monitor our Soldiers to ensure they are making a successful adjustment. So far, so good.

Homesickness is common around here. Fortunately, the farther we drive into our mission the longer the time that elapses before the symptoms hit again. We stay busy because we have to. We stay busy because it keeps us from always thinking about home. We stay busy because other Soldiers are out there depending on us. We make the adjustment together.