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, June 26, 2011

On Hallowed Ground

"I fell forward and lay unconscious with my face in my cap; and it would
seem that I might have been smothered by the blood running into my cap from this
last wound but for the act of some Yankee, who, as if to save my life, had at a
previous hour during the battle, shot a hole through the cap, which let the
blood out."
- Colonel (C.S.A.) John B. Gordon

Unlike previous Army professional development schools I've attended, Army War College does not focus on operations or tactics. There is no dissertation of all the famous battles we've come to know over our years of study. Instead, students of the War College are taught the strategic levels of thought for all the instruments of national power - not just military. The theories of Clausewitz, Jomini, Sun Tzu and others are often referenced. Graduates of the Army War College are expected to understand a much larger picture of planning and decision making. Senior military leadership is as much about successful policy as it is about winning wars. But this doesn't mean that students of AWC don't ever get an opportunity to discuss famous battles or visit scenes of long-past combat. During my resident phase we had such an opportunity and it was to visit one of our Nation's most hallowed battlefields - Antietam.

If I were to ask most Americans what the bloodiest day in our history was it is almost assured that the vast majority would answer incorrectly. Antietam is almost lost in obscurity in our history books. But it was on the fields along Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg, MD that the ferocity of modern combat almost tore the heart out of the two armies that grappled there. September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day our Nation has ever known. Along the lines of that terrible battlefield, 22,719 men fell dead or wounded fighting over Miller's cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnsides's Bridge. Soldiers of both the North and South who survived the war would always refer to Antietam as the most ferocious, terrible fighting they had ever experienced. While Gettysburg, which happened almost a year later, was the largest battle fought during the war, Antietam was the day that the Civil War lost its romantic glamour. On that hot September day, the first invasion of the North by the Army of Northern Virginia was stopped. It was considered a tactical victory for the South but it came at such a considerable loss that it was impossible for General Lee to continue operations in Maryland. Soon after the battle President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery and assured that no European power would come to the aid of the Confederacy.

I won't go into a battle summary at this point. If I've stimulated your interest to find out more from about the battle then I've done my part. I suggest you read first-hand accounts. Start with the account of Colonel John B. Gordon, C.S.A. He was one of the commanders of the Confederate lines along the Bloody Lane (known as Sunken Lane prior to the battle). Colonel Gordon was wounded five times that day (see quote above). Later promoted to Major General, he was at the head of the column of Confederate troops who surrendered at Appomattox and later became Governor of Georgia. He was one of the most fearless, gallant, and eloquent leaders of the war on either side. His account will put you right at the battlefield at the moment of the clash of arms. It is that riveting. After you've read all about the battle I'd highly recommend you visit the battlefield. It looks almost identical to how it appeared that tumultuous day.

During our visit to the battlefield we visited every major phase of the fighting. The air is supercharged. There are a lot of souls still fighting on that battlefield. I was often overcome with the feeling of a presence. At every location of the battlefield I felt these Soldiers of Blue and Gray, locked in time, forming their lines, fixing bayonets, tending to their wounded, paying their respects to their dead. Our Country will never again know gallantry that could surpass that which took place on the fields of Antietam. I thank God that is so. Such a terrible day can never come again for our great Nation.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Off to Army War College!

"War is a profane thing" - General Norman Schwartzkopf
In spite of the rapid pace of our OPTEMPO, the time had come for me to leave Iraq to attend my first resident phase of Army War College. This would require me finding my way down to Kuwait and then taking the "rotator" or "R&R" flight back to the U.S. I had travel orders that would cover my two weeks in the States. That was good news, as it meant my attendance at AWC wouldn't be considered R&R leave (which it isn't supposed to). It isn't easy to be the Battalion Commander in a war zone and have to leave for two weeks (actually three when including travel). For the entire week leading up to my departure I drilled my staff in every aspect of the "battle drills" and other requirements they would need to attend to in my absence. Once I was completely satisfied they were ready I started plotting my travel south to Kuwait. Around here, though, there is no such thing as just zipping down to Kuwait. Besides, being as I would be traveling TDY it meant I was not considered a priority traveler. With that in mind, my departure from COB Speicher needed to be at least six days prior to my report date at Carlisle Barracks. It seems crazy but that's just the way it works here. Traveling also includes a lot of "hurry up and wait" but that's no problem for Army types.

On the day I departed things got hectic. It didn't look like I would make it out on a flight so I planned to ride a convoy later in the day that was headed to Balad. My plan was to catch a fixed-wing flight to Kuwait from there. I went back to my CHU around lunch time to pack. That's when my CSM came knocking on my door to tell me a rotary flight was leaving from Division Main and I could get on it. The flight was headed to Balad and would have me there long before any convoy. I was skeptical of making it on such short notice but gave it my best effort. Sure enough, when we got to D-Main the Blackhawks were on the pad waiting for me. I handed off my weapon to CSM and we hustled out to the waiting helicopters. As I strapped in CSM handed my ruck to the crew chief. Over the roar of the engines and rotor blades he yelled, "You better drink a beer for me Sir!" We shook hands and then I was off to Balad. We touched down there about 45 minutes later. Fortunately, my stay there wasn't long. About four hours later I was on my way to Ali Al Salem in Kuwait. By nightfall I was in the armpit of CENTCOM. That's where the waiting began.

As I mentioned earlier, TDY folks are not considered priority travelers. For me to fly on the R&R flight meant being on a waiting list. Waiting is exactly what I did for the next three days. Ali Al Salem is a dusty, hot and boring place to wait for a flight. It's also a Disney World that infuriates hard core old timers. Standards are strange, civilian clothes are authorized, and, apparently, PDA is as well. There are foodcourts with everything from McDonalds to Pizza Hut. Most of the population consists of transients waiting for flights to either the U.S. or back to Iraq or Afghanistan. The billeting is a series of tents that have been up for several years. They are in bad shape and offer little relief from the relentless Kuwaiti summer heat. Every day I had to attend a meeting of the "stand-by" personnel. The Airman would take roll call and then let us know if any flight was available. For two straight days I had to endure the torture of hearing that there were no seats. Then I'd idle my day in Kuwait, which was by sleeping, eating and working out. Day three brought good news and I was manifested on the next flight. That didn't end the waiting though. It was another twelve hours before I was climbing on the Omni Air International Boeing 777 for the flight back to Atlanta.

Upon touching down in Atlanta I made my way to the next leg of my journey. I had a direct flight to Harrisburg, PA. Fortunately, I was right on time to report to Army War College. For the next two weeks I would be with some of the best and brightest. The alumni of AWC reads like an A-list of the most distinguished leaders of the 20th Century. Battalion Command gameface came off, strategic thinker gameface went on... And, I might add, Carlisle Barracks, PA is a far cry from COB Speicher, Iraq.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bronco bustin' at the HQ

"History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

First let me get something straight - I am not a Denver Broncos fan. I could care less for the "Orange Crush." I root for the Broncos when they are playing the Steelers or anyone who they can help the Titans or Patriots with by beating. That being said, we were paid a visit by the Denver Broncos Cheerleaders the other day. It was a Sunday and I was at the HQ catching up on a few things in my office. There had been a rumor they were coming but it had been squashed earlier in the day by news that they had cancelled. Well that changed. About an hour after I was told they weren't coming by I had a surprise visit by the MWR coordinator for COB Speicher. He announced that the ladies were at my HQ and standing by in an adjacent conference room. Would I like to say a few words to them before they had their "meet and greet" with my Soldiers? Honestly, I was a bit skeptical of the whole idea. I'm a big fan of celebrity USO visits but I just have never been certain of what we could expect from professional cheerleaders. Their visits seem to run contrary to our strict adherence to a no sexual harassment policy. Aren't cheerleaders best known for their sex appeal? So with a conflict in my heart, I walked over to the conference room to meet the ladies.

When I walked into the conference room it sounded like the chatter of coeds. But it immediately got quiet and I was greeted by wonderful smiles. That put me slightly at ease. I then introduced myself to them as the Battalion Commander and told them about the Soldiers in the unit. I let them know where they were from, what type of work we did in the Battalion, and a generic overview of our mission. Then I thanked them sincerely for visiting us and taking time to cheer the morale of our team. These young ladies then stood and one by one came to me, firmly shook my hand, looked me in the eye and thanked me for allowing them to be there. It struck me then that these cheerleaders were very professional, well-spoken, and sincerely grateful of all of my Soldiers. They were here for us, not the other way around. We then moved outside where many of my Soldiers were waiting. The cheerleaders immediately mingled, sang "Happy Birthday" to one of my truck drivers, and took group photos. When it was time to go back inside to sign autographs (it was blistering hot outside) they asked if I would give them their "rally cry" to move out. So I used my best command voice and popped off with "Cowgirl up!" They then made a whooping noise and moved single file back to the conference room for autographs. Then they took the time to sign autographs for every single one of my Soldiers who came to see them. When they were done, they once again filed past me and thanked me again. They then presented me with an autographed Denver Broncos Cheerleaders calendar made out specially for me. It now adorns the wall in my office. I was skeptical of this whole visit but my attitude was completely changed. On behalf of the entire Battalion, I want to thank the Denver Broncos organization and, especially, the cheerleaders for sacrificing of your time to be with us. You brought smiles to my Soldiers, laughter to my HQ, and put all of us in a mindset that helped us forget about our daily stresses for a few minutes. For that we are eternally grateful. I'm still not a fan of the Broncos but I am a fan of the cheerleaders. You may come back to see us anytime you'd like.

The day after the cheerleaders brought smiles to all of us our hearts were saddened at news that came from the south. A rocket attack slammed into FOB Loyalty on the outskirts of Baghdad during the night and killed five of our fellow Warriors. Five others were seriously wounded in the attack. It was a sobering reminder that this is a war zone and hostile forces are still at work. Our prayers and thoughts go out to the families and Comrades of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and those who were injured. When one bleeds we all bleed. We will NEVER leave a fallen Comrade.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Not even Generals outrank the weather here

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great
goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend.
Grant us fair weather for battle. Graciously hearken to us as Soldiers who call
upon Thee that, armed with thy power, we may advance from victory to victory,
and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice
among men and nations."
- excerpt from General George S. Patton's "Weather
Prayer" at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge.
The weather we contend with here is at the opposite end of the spectrum than the winter cold, snow and icy rain General Patton's Third Army had to contend with back in December 1944. However, the summer months in Iraq provide a stark reminder to everyone that weather plays a critical role in military planning. Every day is blisteringly hot, which makes even touching bare metal a hazardous event. The heat we can work around. It's the sandstorms that cause the serious problems. They come and go frequently. Sometimes they are only here for a few hours. Other times they can linger for days. Their winds are like a blast furnace that scorches everything. The blowing sand carries contaminates and, if you fail to wear protection, can scratch the corneas of your eyes. For our planning purposes, the decrease in visibility can bring military operations to a standstill. Helicopters simply do not fly in them. Depending on how bad the storms are even fixed wing aircraft can be grounded. Convoys carrying high priority cargo end up cancelling due to no overhead protection from air assets. Bottom line? The weather here in the summer is unforgiving, hostile, and oppressive. It even outranks General Officers.

Our Battalion had back-to-back GO visits scheduled on successive days. I was looking forward to seeing our first scheduled visitor. He is our peacetime Commanding General and he had traveled to Iraq for a few days to visit deployed units that normally belong to him. General Sandstorm came to us first. Visibility dropped to less than fifty yards. The temperature soared to almost 120 degrees. Sand choked out the sun, engines and our lungs. The visit was cancelled. Instead, we bunkered down for the day and tried our best to stay indoors. The storm was so bad that most of us assumed the second General Officer visit, scheduled the following day, would cancel as well. I told my staff to continue planning as though it was still on. There was no way I would allow us to make a bad assumption. It was a good call. Late that night the weather began to clear. As I bedded down for the night I heard aircraft taking off from the nearby airfield.

The next day dawned bright and clear. Sure enough, our second GO visit was on. He arrived right on time with an entourage. They loaded up in our vehicles and we whisked them over to our HQ. I met with the General (a Brigadier General who is my current higher Commander) for a few minutes in private to discuss the morning's events. Then he stepped outside to recognize some of my deserving Soldiers by presenting them with his personal coin. The heat was already beginning to burn down with normal intensity as we loaded up and headed over to our conference room for a briefing. No matter what a General plans to do it is a guarantee a briefing will be required at some point. We were ready. His timeline was very tight, so we hurried through as much as we could. Just as we were about four slides short, his aide, a giant adonis of a Captain, whispered in his ear that it was time for his next appointment. We cut our brief short and hurried his entourage over to the USD-N HQ so he could meet with another General. Very ominous signs in the weather had started appearing. The previously bright and clear day had degraded into blowing sand and rapidly decreasing visibility. It was not surprising to learn his flight for later that day was delayed by several hours. Lucky us! Now we were stuck with the General for a lot more hours than we had planned for. After his meeting at D-Main, we now had plenty of time for lunch so to the DFAC we went. The briefing we cut short earlier in the day? No problem! Now there was plenty of time to finish (and we did and then some). But we also filled in time by letting the BG recognize a few more of our Soldiers for their hard work. Fortunately, the weather began to clear. Almost seven hours later than originally planned, we watched the BG and his entourage load back up and fly back to their home FOB. It was a long day that reminded us of two things - First, Iraqi weather outranks Generals; Second, Generals outrank us so when the weather pulls rank on a General you better have a plan. Fortunately, we did.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

For Virginia and Country!

"Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die
here today and we will conquer. Rally 'round the Virginians!"
- Bernard Bee,
Brigadier General, CSA
Virginia has a rich history and has always been an integral part of our Nation. One of the first enduring colonies established on our shores was at Jamestown. During the Revolutionary War, the crowning victory over Lord Cornwallis and his British army was at Yorktown. Most of the major battles of the Civil War were waged on Virginia soil. The National D-Day Memorial is in Virginia because of the sacrifice of life and limb endured at Omaha Beach by the 116th Infantry Regiment - a Virginia Army National Guard unit. Our Battalion is based out of Fort Lee, VA, which is situated adjacent to the Petersburg National Battlefield. I can walk from my office at Fort Lee to the Petersburg trenches in less than five minutes at a leisurely pace. When we mobilized for our current deployment, our Family Readiness Group presented us with the Flag of the Commonwealth. It was not only a gift from the FRG, but also from the citizens of Virginia. We promised that we would proudly raise the flag over our headquarters in Iraq. That promise now stands fulfilled.

It wasn't as easy as it sounds though. When we first departed Fort Lee we didn't travel straight to Iraq. Instead we went to training at Fort Bliss, TX. Because of that, we left the flag with our unit Rear Detachment back at Fort Lee to be mailed to us once we reached Iraq. Upon arriving at COB Speicher, we discovered that there was no flagpole at the HQ. Therefore, we set about the task of erecting a sturdy pole on top of hescos. We even arranged for lights to shine on the pole in the evening. This all took longer than we anticipated but, finally, on June 1, 2011 we raised the flags - exactly 55 days after arriving in country. CSM Legra and I held a small ceremony and proudly hoisted the American Flag and our Virginia Flag. There they will remain until our mission is complete. Although we aren't all from Virginia, we will all do our part to make the citizens of Virginia and the United States proud. Our HQ is now complete.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Math classes in the latrine

"A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main
- Albert Einstein
Joe's canvas is the wide open space of a port-o-jon or a latrine stall. Give Joe a few minutes on the throne and he'll give you philosophy, politics, religion, psychology, artwork, love advice, Chuck Norris and unit pride. I've fondly chronicled the latrine wall talents of Joe for years. During my last deployment it was an almost passionate search. For some reason the walls and port-o-jons have been strangely devoid on this deployment. There are less of the portable variety and the latrine trailers are cleaned diligently by the TCNs at least twice a day. I was beginning to believe my quest for Joe wisdom would be in vain this time around. Then, by chance, I happened to be in the vicinity of a different LSA and had to answer a nature call. Ah to my wondering eyes did appear the gold for which I had searched. The stall I selected was a masterpiece. Joe has evolved to something practical (perhaps in recognition the end in Iraq is near?). The latrine has become more than just a muse or sounding board for Joe. It has now become the classroom for complex algebra and beginning calculus. My degree in Aerospace Engineering was put to the test as I took care of business. Joe is now the mathmatician and his lessons have developed a healthy debate. Is it possible that a young Einstein also developed his passion for math while performing a number two in a water closet sometime back in the late nineteenth century? I'll leave that question for Joe next time I'm visiting this particular latrine.

What struck me as curious about all this is that although there was some of the usual Joe artwork, the stalls seemed devoted to math. I have seen Joe's handiwork in latrines from east to west coast, Germany, Italy, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, and other places. This is the first time I've seen math graffiti. The math was challenging enough for me to actually pull out my notepad and copy some of it down. We all need to dust off our math hats every now and then. Joe challenged me enough to put mine back on. One of these days Joe is going to walk back into that latrine to find himself challenged by a new complex problem. Let's see if Joe can solve the heat equation! Oh who am I kidding? Of course he can. Joe knows all.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And the convoys rolled on...

"We have to go in places nobody would ever think of going into were it not
for the necessities of war."
- Joshua Chamberlain

Joshua Chamberlain is one of the noblest warriors our Country ever produced. A professor at Bowdoin College, he offered his services to the Governor of Maine in 1862. Although he possessed no formal military training, he rose to command his regiment, the 20th Maine. During the course of the war he was wounded four times and earned the Medal of Honor. His leadership of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg is still studied today in military schools worldwide. At Appomattox he was personally chosen by General Grant to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate Brigadier General John B. Gordon, himself wounded five times during the war, led the proud army of Robert E. Lee to the courthouse at the center of the town. Joshua Chamberlain, now also a Brigadier General, ordered his Union Soldiers to line the road at the position of attention and honor their former adversaries with a silent salute. When General Gordon, astride his horse, reached the courthouse where Chamberlain waited he stopped and faced his former adversary. General Chamberlain proudly snapped to attention and rendered a precise salute. In one motion, General Gordon accepted the salute by lightly spurring his horse, which caused it to rear slightly as the proud Confederate gracefully lowered his sword in a sweeping return salute. Chamberlain's gallant acceptance of the surrender was the moment in which the Nation, scarred by four brutal years of civil war, began the healing process. The Soldiers from both armies met that day as adversaries but left as Americans. Joshua Chamberlain had truly been through hell and back to preserve the Union and survived with his honor untarnished.

Honor is never tarnished when it comes to the performance of my Soldiers. The convoys keep rolling on. Everyone has a role to play. On Memorial Day it was business as usual. We had a large convoy head out to haul Stryker armored vehicles for our good friends from the Infantry. I watched the symphony unfold from every angle. Individual truck crews checked every system of their vehicle to ensure they functioned properly. Squad leaders and convoy commanders circulated to check on their Soldiers, weapons and equipment. The convoy escorts stood by performing their pre-combat checks and occasionally tossing a football back and forth. Staff members from the Battalion inspected cargo to see that their planning was accurate. Company Commanders and First Sergeants made their presence known and reassured their Soldiers. About thirty minutes prior to convoy launch everyone gathered for the convoy briefing. Then one of the First Sergeants led his Soldiers in prayer. It was an incredibly moving sight. My pride for these Soldiers swelled.

When the First Sergeant asked me if I had any words for the NCO's I couldn't resist the opportunity to let them know how proud I am of them. I also reminded them that the team that wins on Sundays is the one that executes the basics to perfection on every play. That's what we do towards mission success every day. The Soldiers expect perfection and it starts with our examples as leaders. To that end I have almost limitless faith in my NCO's. They are the best of the best. The perfection started shortly afterward as everyone "geared up" and the trucks began to roll. One by one they moved out. The procession of heavy trucks hauling the Strykers formed the lead. The trail was smaller trucks hauling MILVANs. I waved at every single truck and they honked back a reply. Any kid would have been thrilled. Then I noticed my Command Sergeant Major standing on his own at a distance. He stood and watched until every truck was out of sight and the dust settled. Then he turned and walked to me and said, "That's what it's all about, Sir." Nothing more needed to be said.

Joshua Chamberlain would be as proud of the Soldiers of today just as he was of those that fought in the Civil War. Honorable service is a constant that stands the test of time.