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, July 31, 2011

Taking Time to Have Fun

"Have fun in your command. Don't always run at breakneck pace. Take leave
when you've earned it, spend time with your families."
- Colin Powell

It can be difficult to properly balance taking the time to have fun against the need to stay focused on mission. I've seen many a commander who couldn't balance the two at all. Normally, their command climate was terrible because everyone was on edge, exhausted, and stressed. Many a commander has aged well beyond their years because they simply could not grasp that being a workaholic does not equal success. Being a workaholic commander also makes life difficult for your subordinates and usually causes morale to sink. It's one thing to demand results, performance and high standards. However, it's another thing to force yourself and everyone around you to be consumed by work and nothing else. I internalized a simple philosophy a long time ago that serves me well - one that I advise my subordinates to also embrace. It simply states that in the Army it's just business, it's not personal. Working towards mission success is our business. Balance that against your personal time and don't stress about things outside your control. And, as Colin Powell advises, take time to have fun! I know I do and I ensure we make provisions for everyone in the battalion to do likewise. The results of our efforts? Our morale is high and our discipline problems are minimal. We work when it's time and we enjoy ourselves when we have time off. That's the way it should be.

Soldiers find ways to spend their off time. COB Speicher does not offer much in terms of venues. There is an MWR and two gyms. Personal fitness is a common theme and the gym is where most off-duty time is spent. The units field intramural teams that hold regular tournaments. The main gym offers spinning, P90X, and other classes. Best of all, the gyms are open 24-hours. The MWR has regular events too. This can vary from "Salsa Night" to "Karaoke Under the Stars" at the PX Food Court. All of this doesn't necessarily mean that every Soldier has an organized activity they routinely attend. A lot of them simply spend their off hours on the computer or watching movies back in their rooms. The "Purple Palace" Iraqi bazaar offers all the latest in movie releases via pirated DVD's that sell for dirt cheap prices. The Soldiers refer to these as "Haji Movies", although that is an inaccurate slang usage. Regardless, everyone seems to find their own niche when they aren't working. I like it that way. I want my Soldiers to be refreshed and happy when they report for duty.

CSM and I have analyzed our battle rhythm and programmed in regular battalion events that are open to everyone. Our HQ has an outstanding (by Iraq FOB standards) social area with firepit, chairs, and tables. We coordinated with one of the MWR DJ's and now every Friday night is the 275th CSSB "Karaoke Lounge and Cigar Night". It has quickly become DJ Jorge's biggest draw on Speicher. We have each staff section rotate responsibility for the setup and theme. That makes for every Friday night to be slightly different. It's amazing how many Soldiers of all ranks I have who love to sing. Everyone who knows me is aware that I like to belt out a tune or two as well. We just haven't cracked the code on getting CSM up to the mike. It's only a matter of time though. His music taste is vastly different than mine so I cringe at the thought of CSM belting out a rendition of "Hotel California" or some other dreadful miscarraige of musical creativity. Oh well, it's all in good fun.

In my microcosms of free time I like to pay particular attention to everything around me. I always carry my camera with me. I don't ever want to miss forever capturing the fascinating, humorous, sullen, dreary or other moments that I encounter. One of my favorite humorous encounters that I love is finding the wit of Joe on the wall of a latrine or port-o-jon. Our years in Iraq could literally be summed up in a compilation of Joe's latrine prose over the course of our time here. It is priceless and never predictable. One of my latest finds was a drawing of a "flux capacitor" (for everyone familiar with the Back to the Future movies) inside a latrine stall. The date on Joe's latrine time machine was set for June 14, 1775 - the birthday of the Army. At first I wondered what Joe was hoping to change by going back to that day. Then I became concerned for Joe. After all, the Army was not founded in Iraq. If this time-traveling Joe had actually activated his time machine he'd probably be in some Bedouin camp of 18th Century Persia. How could we get him back to the future? Then the engineer in me began wondering how he could have activated his time machine in the first place. Didn't the time machine need to travel at precisely 88mph? Ah! Joe thinks of everything. Mexican Night at the DFAC is a guaranteed trip to the latrine. That crafty Joe built a time machine based upon the speed of excremental expulsion. When the rate of Class I download hit 88mph it would trigger the flux capacitor, thereby sending Joe back in time to the date specified. I just hope that there is a toilet precisely at that same location when Joe gets there or it will be very messy. But I'm sure Joe thought of that too. He's a crafty sort.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Battlefield Circulation

"I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never
intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress"
Frederick Douglass
The Battalion I command is spread all across the IJOA (Iraqi Joint Operating Area). That means the only way I can keep myself "six inches above the battlefield" is to conduct battlefield circulation. In other words, I have to gear-up and go see my Soldiers. My latest excursion saw my command group taking a jaunt down to Camp Liberty to see my "Deuce Train" Soldiers from Fort Campbell. Some of my "Mad Dawgs" are there as well. CSM, my BN Chaplain, and I loaded up on Blackhawks at Speicher on a blistering hot Monday and left the rest to the flight crew. It wasn't a direct flight, as they rarely are. We made a stop at FOB Warhorse first and then flew on to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) - home of Sather Air Base. While flying from Warhorse to BIAP we were treated to a stunning aerial view of The Great Ziggurat of Agargoaf, which is a Babylonian ruin dating back thousands of years. Iraq isn't called the "Cradle of Civilization" for no reason. Along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers can be found remnants of many places known for their place in the Old Testament. The birthplace of Abraham can be found at Ur, near modern-day Tallil. Just look out the window of the Blackhawk your riding in next time you are conducting your own battlefield circulation and you are bound to see a ruin along the way.

Camp Liberty is no stranger to me. It is a subsidiary of Victory Base Compound, which is home of US Forces-Iraq Headquarters. The whole complex is sprawling around the runways of BIAP and the scenery changes from Saddam Hussein's palaces to row after row of CHU's and motorpools full of various military hardware. Camp Liberty is the latter. I spent a good many days during "The Surge" working out of Liberty. The place reminds me of Fort Hood, TX in that it seemingly has an unending number of motorpools, HQs, billets, and DFACs. It's a whole lot dirtier though. Everything at Camp Liberty is temporary. It is all a byproduct of the war in Iraq. When the war is over it will all get torn down or handed over to the Iraqis. Only the Soldiers and their equipment will go home. As with the majority of Soldiers based at VBC, my Soldiers are housed at Camp Liberty. It wasn't surprising at all to find that little had changed since 2008, when I last visited the place. Even the DeFleury DFAC and Scorpion Gym were exactly where I left them.

We didn't have much time to accomplish everything on our agenda. Therefore, we lost no time in getting to work. We visited Soldiers at several worksites and got a complete tour of our Battalion operations there. We walked through living areas, which included the exact same one where my CHU was located during the last deployment (one of many I had across the IJOA). I spent some time with the Deuce Train Company Commander and paid a visit to the company HQ. The entire time the temperatures soared above 130. That made for an exhausting day. At the end of it all, CSM and I sat down at the coffee shop adjacent to DeFleury Cafe for a cigar. Just to make the day complete, "Alarm Red" sounded and forced us to scurry into a bunker for a few minutes. I never heard any impact and the "All Clear" sounded soon afterward. We then returned to our cigars and our conversation.

The next day we arose early for breakfast, as we were flying back to Speicher. After some strong Army coffee, bacon, fried eggs, and seedless grapes, we were on our way back to BIAP. The pax terminal at Sather Air Base has been further refined. Now there is paved parking and the port-o-jons have been replaced by nice latrine trailers. It's almost comfortable to wait for your flight. We didn't have to wait long though. Soon we were back on Blackhawks and on our way. The flight pattern was almost identical except for an additional stop at Balad. When we landed at FOB Warhorse the helicopters shut down and the flight crews gave us over an hour to eat lunch. Warhorse is another place I got to know very well during the Surge. It hasn't changed much either. Unfortunately, the "Warhorse National Forest" is no more. It has been replaced by t-walls. The DFAC was practically unchanged though. It still begs to give you the feel of a sports bar back home. The beer is missing though. We spent the majority of our time inside the DFAC, since it was air conditioned. The heat radiating off of all of the concrete in the noontime Iraqi sun was unbearable. Fortunately, we were soon back in the air and on our way to Speicher. We'll return to Liberty soon. There is a lot more battlefield circulation for my command team and me coming up. That's the only way we can effectively lead this awesome Battalion of ours.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Snausages? You shouldn't have!

"Caution is the confidential agent of Selfishness" - Woodrow Wilson

Care packages are a morale booster and something that every Soldier looks forward to. I'd say that's been true since the Revolutionary War and earlier. The contents have changed with the years but, generally, they always bring a taste of home. Early during Operation Iraqi Freedom, care packages frequently came with generic personal care items like baby wipes, soaps, shampoo, etc. As our presence here became more fixed it brought the rise of the AAFES and the PX. This meant Soldiers didn't need the baby wipes anymore and started demanding things we couldn't get at the PX. Care packages gradually transitioned to things like phone cards, favorite coffees, regional food items, Mom's cookies, and other things that Soldiers really wanted and needed. The generic items still get sent but they normally end up on a "common" table where anyone can take whatever they want. Whenever I receive a care package I'm no different in that I keep the good stuff and throw all the other items on the share table. It's a normal routine around here. Bottom line is that we absolutely love getting packages. Just make certain you ask your Soldier what it is we actually want and need here before you pack a bunch of stuff that's just going to end up on the common table. I also recommend you pay attention to what you are packing to ensure it is actually meant for humans. Here's what I mean....

The other day I was walking by the share table in the Command Group and noticed a new package of some type of munchie. The package was yellow, resealable, and had the appearance it may be some type of beef jerky. Naturally, I reached for it. To my dismay and horror, I realized it was a package of Snausages. Really? Snausages? Dog snacks? Should I have been salivating because they were "beef and cheese flavor"? And does a dog care what beef and cheese really tastes like? After all, dogs are known to eat vomit and shit just as quickly as they'll eat a piece of bacon slipped under the table. But I digress. Snausages! WTF? I'm reminded of the urban legend often propogated by liberal, left-wing nut jobs in D.C. around election time that claims Seniors are eating pet food because they can't afford human food. Really? Last time I looked cans of tuna were cheaper than cans of 9-Lives. Damn, I digress once again. Who in the world thought that we are so hard up here that we'll even eat dog treats? You shouldn't have! Really, you shouldn't have. Further research on my part revealed that the "Scoobie Snacks" came in a generic care package from a church group (meaning a whole bunch of Snausages were mailed to Iraq and Afghanistan) and the box had not one, not two, but THREE packages. One just happened to end up in the Command Group. And let me dispel the theory that my mentioning of SFC Butch inspired this. We received the box of Fido bones about the exact same time I met Butch so I hadn't even written about him yet. Nope, this was either a cruel joke or a failure of the quality control back at the care package assembly line. Either way, pay attention to what you are sending. My Battalion HHC might call themselves the "Mad Dawgs" but that doesn't mean they eat dog treats.

We still love care packages. The end is near in Iraq. We'll be out of here by the end of the year. As we conduct our responsible retrograde the services available to us diminish. This includes the PX we've come so used to having nearby. With that in mind, your care packages will take on extra importance in the last few months. Just no dog treats ok? Next time you talk with your Soldier find out what you should be mailing. Don't get creative. Just get your Soldier's list and go check it off. I doubt very seriously Joe will ask for Snausages. Keep it simple, keep it in line with what we need, and keep us happy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

100 Days Down

"America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the
grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of
Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons."
- Nathanael Greene

Although it seemed like any other Friday, 15 July 2011 marked a milestone for our deployment. It was the 100th day since we had first arrived in Kuwait and, hence, began our "boots on the ground" count. There was no fanfare. A significant number of our Soldiers were on convoys delivering cargo all across northern Iraq. But it was an important day to reflect on what we'd accomplished since arriving and also focus on the work that still lay ahead. 100 days goes by rather quickly. In that time the Soldiers of our Battalion have driven hundreds of thousands of miles across some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq in order to deliver all classes of supply to our Comrades. At the same time, they've been carrying thousands of tons of cargo southward as part of our retrograde from the country. There have been IEDs and other hostile activities designed to disrupt our battle rhythm and bring harm to our Soldiers. However, the enemy has been unsuccessful. Our convoys march on without loss or incident. It is a testament to the young men and women who are so steadfast and loyal to our mission. They are the best. At the same time we've been a key neighbor at COB Speicher for the base closure plan. Actually, there are simply too many things to mention. I'm damn proud of the "Roadmasters" from Fort Eustis, VA, the "Border Bandits" from Brownsville, TX, and our very own "Mad Dawgs" from Fort Lee, VA. We've also gained some new responsibilities, new Soldiers, and expanding roles for the days ahead. We've a ways to go yet but we are ready. Our OPTEMPO is already at fever pitch.

Although we didn't really have time to celebrate the passing of our 100th day, CSM and I did give some of our Soldiers a chance to unwind around our firepit at the BN HQ. We had a DJ from MWR set up and he provided karaoke. While Soldiers sang and danced, we smoked cigars and drank fake beer around the fire. I joined in the fun as well, singing tunes like "Creep" by Radiohead, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" by Billy Joel, and "Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots. Yes, we had fun for a few hours. After all, day 101 was right around the corner.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Marez via Warrior via Balad via Taji

"War isn't a good life, but it's life." - Captain James T. Kirk
Given the fact that my Battalion is spread all over northern Iraq, it becomes necessary for me to travel. Otherwise I can't see first hand the good work all of my Soldiers perform. Not only are they out running convoys of every configuration over thousands of miles of hostile roads, they are also operating key logistical areas of various bases. In essence, they are the facilitators of sustainment and retrograde. It is amazing to see them work in concert. Every person has a role that, ultimately, contributes to the safe delivery of thousands of tons of equipment and supplies. But it isn't easy - especially now that temperatures are soaring above 120 every day. And no matter how simple it may sound, traveling from one FOB to another is never easy. My CSM and I were reminded of this on our latest travel. We had our Operations manifest us on a helicopter ride from COB Speicher up to FOB Marez. I was looking forward to the trip. Marez is a place I visited frequently on my previous deployment. Nestled in the primarily Kurdish city of Mosul, Marez is a popular FOB for those who live and work there. Getting there turned out to be no cakewalk.

On the day of the flight we checked in at the Speicher pax terminal. Our flight had changed from a direct flight to a multi-stop flight. However, we didn't notice that on the mission board. We had hoped to be at Marez by around 1400. That's what we were still expecting when we were called out to the flightline and our inbound Blackhawks. One of the passengers on our flight would be SFC "Butch" from the Speicher Behavioral Health clinic. Butch is a black labrador who wears a distinctive ACU vest that has his rank, name, and multiple patches from grateful units. His handler, a Specialist, had fitted him with earmuffs for hearing protection. Butch lifts morale for everyone and this super hot day was no exception. CSM and I both posed for photos and gave Butch a loving scritch in appreciation. He was quite the well-behaved and patient K-9. The Blackhawks swooped in and we loaded up. In just a few minutes we were watching Speicher from the air as we zoomed off on our trip. As the hot air blasted across my face I figured an hour ride won't be so bad. I should have paid attention to the mission board.

As we made our way I watched the terrain below and kept noticing that it appeared we were following the Tigris. That was confusing to me. Soon it added up. A FOB came into view - a very trashy one at that. I immediately recognized it as Camp Taji. How could that be? We were going in the wrong direction! Camp Taji is south of Speicher while Marez is north. We not only stopped at Taji, we made refuel visit at the FARP. With no shade to be found and temperatures over 130, we piled out of the Blackhawk and waited as the refueling took place. It had already been well over an hour after we departed Speicher and we were now farther away from Marez. We loaded back up after refuel ops and continued on our way. We weren't in the air long before I noticed another familiar FOB approaching - Joint Base Balad (aka LSA Anaconda). Fortunately there was no refuel stop this time and we weren't there long. The pilots then, thankfully, gained altitude to around 5,000 feet in an effort to find cooler air. It also afforded us a spectacular view of the Iraqi terrain below. I knew that we were now traveling north because the terrain was becoming more rugged and hilly. I also began to see the refineries that are abundant in the north. Yet, I still knew we weren't headed to Marez. My hunch proved correct. Another FOB came into view that I immediately recognized from memory. This time it was Warrior in Kirkuk. Once again, our stop included a trip to the FARP and the hot wait that it included. By now it was 1600. So much for our appointments in Marez. We were still headed there anyway.

At 1730 we touched down at FOB Marez. We had been in the Blackhawks for over four hours. SFC Butch made the entire trip and looked quite happy to exit the aircraft for the last time. CSM and I were just tired and very sweaty. I didn't recognize where we had landed. It wasn't the main pax terminal. There was no ride there to pick us up. But I knew for certain we were at Marez, as I began to recognize the landmarks. We started walking. Fortunately for us, an angel pulled up in the form of a SFC who just happened to see us walking in full gear and felt compassionate. She asked where we were headed and then happily gave us a ride. Thanks to her kind gesture, we finally found our Soldiers and began our visit with them at 1800 - a full four hours late. Travel is never easy here. This day had been an exceptional reminder of that fact. No matter how well you plan it is almost assured that getting from point A to point B will take much longer than expected (if the weather even allows it). Our actual work took less time than our travel. But, fortunately, we accomplished everything we came to do and still had time for a cigar out by the Marez Mart. For those who remember from my previous deployment, the "7-11" sign is still displayed but there are still no Slurpees - only "Haji" movies.

Once our work was completed we began the journey back to Speicher. Our original plan was rotary wing but weather at Speicher caused the flight to be cancelled. Fortunately, a C130 was headed to Speicher via Balad. There were seats available. We seized the moment. By 1130 on the day we departed we were landing in Balad, which was another old stomping ground of mine. That's when the waiting began once again. The weather in Tikrit was extremely low visibility due to sand storms. We waited on the plane, which continued to taxi around as though they were conducting driver training. I stretched out on the cargo netting after unstrapping my body armor. That was a good call, as we ended up in Balad for about three hours. Finally, the pilot announced they had been cleared to take off. We geared back up and strapped ourselves back to the cargo net seats. The weather held off just long enough to get back to Speicher. At 1600 a tired, sweaty, dirty and smelly Battalion Commander walked back into his office to check back in with the unit. I say it like that because by then I was so crusty I didn't even recognize myself. There are many more trips to take this summer. None of them will be easy. That's just life here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I'm too young to be called "The Old Man"

"Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something." -
Thomas A. Edison

Once upon a time I was a brand new Second Lieutenant. Straight away I learned that nicknames are in abundance in the Army. On any given day I might have been referred to as "Butterbar", "Shavetail", or simply "L.T." At the time I was barely 22. My Platoon Sergeant was a leatherfaced veteran of Vietnam who would always show up at PT formation smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee from his thermos. He would then proceed to smoke the shit out of all of us in whatever physical torture we were undergoing that morning. He was a battle-hardened Sergeant First Class who I affectionately referred to as "Sergeant Hulka" - he easily could have been the inspiration for the character from Stripes. I was in awe of the man. He never slept and was constantly in motion with the Soldiers and NCO's of my tank platoon. At first it was hard for me to accept that I was actually in charge of this platoon. But my Platoon Sergeant coached me and took genuine care in building my confidence in leadership of the Soldiers of the platoon. Soon the slang terms ended and were replaced by the sincere respect and camaraderie of everyone in the platoon. I thank SFC Bob Harrelson for instilling in me the respect for the NCO Corps and for teaching me the right way for an Officer to lead through personal example.

Another slang term I learned right away was "The Old Man". I never really used this term, as it just didn't resonate within me to refer to anyone as such. It isn't bad slang - to the contrary. The Old Man is the commander. When I was a Lieutenant, the Company Commander was The Old Man. Never mind that my Company Commander was only around 27. There were a lot of people in the company who were older. But, as traditions go, there has to be a special way to refer to the commander. In the Army it's just always been a simple fact that the commander is "The Old Man."

In spite of traditions, I've never embraced "The Old Man" when referring to my commander. I've always been very formal and used rank, title, or the appropriate greeting. That's just the way I am about this stuff. Besides, to me it just seems slightly disrespectful to refer to my commander as old. But I am the commander. It seems like just yesterday I was that "wet behind the ears" 2LT. Battalion Command is something I never thought of back then - except when the BC was in my platoon's AO snooping about. Could I really be "The Old Man"? This question was answered just the other day. I was walking into my HQ and overheard my Command Sergeant Major talking to someone in his office. It was something important and he invoked me to emphasize the point. But he didn't use my rank or title. He referred to me as "The Old Man"! Hold on a second, I'm too young to be called that. I'm definitely not the oldest person in our battalion. I had to put my personal objections to the term - objections I've had for as long as I can remember - and accept that this was actually a compliment. My CSM calling me "The Old Man" is a moment to savor. SFC Bob "SGT Hulka" Harrelson would be proud to know that all that time he invested in me long ago did not go to waste. Yes, now I am "The Old Man" but just don't call me that to my face.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cigars, firepits and fake beer

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I
contain multitudes."
- Walt Whitman
General Order #1 has often been a recipient of my ire. By that, I mean in my written muses - both here and on previous deployments. It's an extensive order that bans a number of things from use, sale, ownership or otherwise mentioning while we are here. Very few of us could actually quote the items listed in GO#1 that are off-limits. But all of us can name the one thing banned that we normally crave the most - alcoholic beverages. For the most part, I'm ok with GO#1. Living without real beer is difficult though. My refrigerator back home is almost always stocked with Yuengling Lager. When I'm out I always savor the fine crafted texture of a premium brew on draft. My taste can vary from domestic lager (Yuengling, Shiner Bock or other equivalent) to Belgian Ales (Leffe Blonde, Duval, Chimay in any color). Around here, though, our only options are two types of fake beer - O'Douls or Astra. Of the two, O'Douls tastes the most like a beer and with a lemon slice can almost pass as a Bud Light Lime (something I would NEVER drink back home unless there was no other option). Astra is a terrible "malt beverage" that, surprisingly enough, is made in Germany. My motto for this disgusting drink is, "If it tastes like ass it must be Astra!" With all that said, O'Douls is in high demand and frequently runs out at the DFAC. It is sad to admit that I would throw out my taste for the finer flavors of beer just to have a skunky Budweiser here in Iraq. It's not going to happen though so we'll make do with the fake stuff.

In spite of our lack of intoxicating spirits, we adapt and make the best of everything. My CSM had a makeshift firepit installed inside the T-walled compound that is our HQ. The FOB is closing down and there is an abundance of scrap lumber. Burning it in the firepit is a much more aesthetically soothing way to dispose of what would otherwise be considered trash. In that regard, we are doing our part in assisting the FOB initiative "Operation Clean Sweep." With our firepit built and supplied with a steady stream of wood, we now have the venue to let down our collars and blow a little steam from time to time. Cigar smokers come out of the woodwork on deployment. Personally, I enjoy a fine cigar but rarely smoke them back home. I never have any problem getting one here. It's a safe bet that I'm on at least a two cigar a week roll at this point. When time permits and OPTEMPO doesn't dictate otherwise, you can find my CSM and me out by the firepit in the evening. These firepit discussions over cigars are when my staff, company commanders and others truly air out their ideas. The combination of cigars, fake beer, and crackling firepit seems to bring out the true personalities of my cast of characters. We almost forget that the beer is fake - almost that is.

We've got many a firepit night to go around here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Workouts with Bridget Jones's Diary

"The benefits of education and of useful knowledge, generally diffused
through a community, are essential to the preservation of a free government."
Sam Houston
The passing of Independence Day Weekend came with little fanfare here. After our activities of July 2nd, the normal mission requirements once again assumed their usual place in our routines. That's a fancy way of me saying that our pause was brief and we immediately got back to work. As the temperature soars to midsummer Iraqi highs, our OPTEMPO only becomes more furious. At times it seems chaotic but it really isn't. There is sense, order, rhyme and reason to everything we do. Some of it may not make sense at the moment the order is dispensed but it all shakes out in the end. As leaders we move forward and always do our best to keep everyone in the Battalion completely informed. It is essential that all of our Soldiers know the who, what when, where and why of all we do. This also serves the purpose of keeping the rumors at bay. A rumor, such as "when we're going home" or "where we're moving to when Speicher closes" can really crush morale if it is allowed to go unchecked. I've got a standing policy that says "If I didn't say it then it ain't happening." Only verified information is allowed to be broadcast in my Battalion. Keeping everyone focused on our mission is critical to our success. We simply don't have time for rumors.

Although work occupies most of our time, we do find time for other endeavors. Our existence is pretty spartan but we do have a great gym and mess hall. It's safe to say that the normal activities of anyone here are to work, workout, eat and sleep. I make time for practicing banjo and, when requirements are due, Army War College. The gym is a must for the daily routine. A good workout is refreshing to the body, mind and spirit. The main gym here at Speicher has the unique quality of having been a gym all along. It's a brick facility with full court basketball including bleachers, cardio rooms, and a spacious weightlifting area. There are TV's in every room. The staff that keeps the gym clean and operational consists of TCN's (Third Country Nationals). In the case of the gym, the TCN's are primarily Pakistanis. They do a great job of keeping up the gym but I can never figure their strange choices for television programming. The majority of the time they keep the TVs on an AFN movie channel. This caused the gym to take on a surreal atmosphere on a recent workout. As I walked in I noticed the TV at the front desk was showing "Bridget Jones's Diary" - a movie I have never seen nor have any interest in whatsoever. The volume was turned up loud. The TCN's were riveted. I didn't think much of it until I continued into the gym and realized every single TV was set to this pukefest chickflick. As with the front desk, every TV's volume was up. What really struck me as odd at this point is that nobody seemed to mind. Burly Soldiers were pumping iron and pausing between sets to watch. I blotted out the image as best I could but it was impossible for the "Twilight Zone" moment to be missed entirely. I was reminded of a visit a few years ago to Randolph, MA and a restaurant I forever will refer to as "Twin Peaks Pizzeria." In a similar image of questionable testosterone, I walked in this place on a Monday night during football season to find all the "men" at the bar watching Lifetime Channel. Ugh, these strange images seem to follow me and pay visits at unexpected places and times. Somehow, over the sappy lines and bad acting of Hugh Grant and Rene Zellweger I was able to get my workout in. I then left the gym scratching my head in wonder.

And so it is with another day in the books here in the heat, dust and wind of a land of whimsical ironies. Through all this we press forward. I try to encourage everyone not to have blinders on. We're all going to want to swap stories about this stuff some day. I try to see it all, comprehend it, and keep it stored for future use. These various deployments of mine have been one far out, fantastical trip. There's no doubt about that.

Monday, July 4, 2011

First came the cheerleaders, then came the coaches

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the
protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our
Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor."
- the final sentence of the Declaration of

"Believe me dear Sir: there is not in the British Empire a man who more
cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But , by the God that made
me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the
British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of
- Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of
There is nothing that invokes a more patriotic feeling than being forward deployed in a combat zone with the men and women with whom I presently serve. I had barely recovered from my return travel from Carlisle Barracks when 4th of July weekend was upon us. It's actually funny to think of it as a weekend. We worked for the most part, as mission always comes first. The war does not wait for celebrations or recognition of our Nation's 235th birthday. We did find time to mark the significant moment and reflect on our reasons for serving. Saturday provided the most opportunity for us to come together as a Battalion. It started with a visit by four celebrated NFL coaches. Jim Mora Sr, Jim Mora Jr, Ken Whisenhunt, and Gary Kubiak stopped by our HQ and spent well over an hour with our Soldiers, climbing all over a Maxxpro MRAP, signing autographs, and asking all of us questions. They were like little kids playing on the equipment. Yet, they were very articulate and focused in their attention to detail. I had a few extra minutes with them in my office and rather than me asking them questions about football they were asking me questions about my Soldiers, our Battalion, and our Mission. They were completely honored to be among us. We were thankful they came. Of course, the most repeated question from all of us was whether or not there would be an NFL season this fall. Their answers were encouraging. Soldiers completely love NFL football and the excitement of the games gives an extra boost to morale. Eventually, the time came for them to move on to their next stop on COB Speicher. We gave them a ride in an MRAP. Upon learning we were giving them a ride in the MRAP, Jim Mora Jr exclaimed, "Really? SWEEEET!"

Later on July 2nd we held our Battalion Organizational Day. Essentially, it was a brief pause for all of our available Soldiers to get together and enjoy fun, food and fellowship. We served up a feast of BBQ ribs, fried chicken, hamburgers, and a dizzying array of fixin's. Despite having many out on mission, we had a huge turnout. At the start of it all I said a few words. Here it was Independence Day Weekend and we were celebrating on July 2nd. How could I make sense of that? I asked if anyone in the crowd was from Philadelphia. A couple of hands went up. I asked those Soldiers if it was hot this time of year in Philadelphia. Of course it's hot. That established, I asked for everyone to think back exactly 235 years and imagine a small, stuffy building in which the 56 delegates from the 13 Colonies had gathered. There was no air conditioning. The men had debated for several days in secrecy, for fear of being discovered - their actions were treason to the Crown. In that stifling, stuffy room these men came to an agreement and drafted one of the most eloquent documents in the history of mankind. It was on July 2, 1776 that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence. The wording of the declaration was approved on July 4th. Shifting gears, I had everyone adjust their imagination to 148 years ago to a place called Little Round Top. On July 2, 1863 this insignificant hill represented the exposed extreme left flank of the Union Army at Gettysburg. The 20th Maine, under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, had been ordered to secure the hill - even as Confederates of Robert E. Lee's army converged. Soon out of ammunition, outnumbered, and facing another onslaught from the tough Alabama troops advancing on them, Colonel Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets. They then executed the reverse of a maneuver known as "refuse the flank" and did so to perfection. The "swinging gate" of the Maine Regiment caught the Alabama troops advancing uphill completely by surprise. The left flank of the Union line was secured. It was practically a miracle pulled off by the audacity, initiative, and inspired leadership that symbolizes the traditions of our Army. And it all happened on July 2nd.

By the time I was finished I think everyone was ready to see me get wet in the dunking booth we had secured from MWR. Not only did many take a crack at me, they got my CSM wet as well. It was a fun night and, for many of us, a time to forget about where we were for just a little while. As the event wound down several us loitered over a few cigars around our makeshift firepit. It was midnite before I was back in my CHU. Cigars and near-beer had to suffice. Sunday morning we were right back at work. Convoys were on the road and I was reminded how resilient Soldiers really are. Yes, we miss our families but, then again, we are family. Our motto is "Mission First, Soldiers Always" and to that aim we remain true. To echo the words of those brave men who risked all 235 years ago, to each other we pledge "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." And to everyone back in the land that we love so dearly we wish you all a very happy 4th of July. Happy Birthday America!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Goodbye for now Carlisle, Hello again Speicher

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty
recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but
the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with
open eyes, to make it possible."
- T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia)

Two weeks at Carlisle Barracks flew past faster than an F16 on afterburners. That's not surprising though, as there was very little idle time. As a matter of fact, there was only one day "off" the entire time. Even that day included a class cookout at the golf clubhouse. The second week of the resident phase included more seminar discussion, but it also included a trip to Washington, D.C. My group paid a visit to the Congressional Appropriations for both the House and the Senate. It was a pretty fascinating visit that provided considerable insight into the discussions and debates that shape the future budgeting of the military. There is considerable agency interaction that, ultimately, makes or breaks individual requests for Department of Defense funding. I confirmed that my future is not in politics. The Capitol is a great place to visit but I'll leave the roles of elected officials to others.

At the conclusion of the resident phase, I began the long journey back to COB Speicher. My patience was tried from the start when my luggage was "lost" upon my arrival in Atlanta. Actually, it had been placed on a later aircraft. Fortunately, I loitered at the airport long enough to battle the line at baggage claim. Upon learning that my bag was arriving on a later flight I stuck around. It was long after midnight when the bag arrived. Thereupon I checked into the airport Marriott and immediately crashed. The next day would see me back at the airport to secure a seat on the R&R return flight back to Kuwait. I did not have high hopes because flying in a TDY status meant I had to fly stand-by. There were a lot of people returning from R&R. Wave after wave of Soldiers lined up and checked in while I waited. Eventually I was called forward. A seat was available. There would be no need to wait another night in Atlanta. By the end of the day I was on my way back to Kuwait on a capacity-filled Omni Air International flight.

The flight back to Kuwait was uneventful. We had a three hour layover for refueling in Shannon, Ireland. This is an ironic moment, as upon exiting the aircraft we walked through the duty free shop and exited into the concourse through a bar that touted several brands of Stout on tap. Alas, a tease! General Order #1 was back in effect. All we could do is look at the various Irish Whiskeys and try not to watch the other airport patrons savor their stout. It was torture but lessened by the fact that we had all just come off of two weeks in which we were not shackled by GO#1. Still, it was a test of will power and patience. Soon we were back on our flight. We arrived at Ali Al Salem at 0300. R&R returns were immediately manifested to their ultimate destinations. I had to sign up for space available (again, since I was TDY). I then checked into one of the infamous tents and laid down for a few hours of sleep. I was expecting an extended wait in Kuwait.

After about four hours of sleep I went back to the gateway tent to check the status of my flight north. The fixed-wing to Speicher had been cancelled. Damn! My next option was to sign up for a flight to Balad and hope that my friends at Catfish Air could get me on a helicopter from there to Speicher. There was plenty of room on the Balad flight, as several of those go out every day. Less than twelve hours after arriving in Kuwait I was on my way back to Iraq. My timing, it turns out, was impeccable. When I arrived in Balad I was able to hitch a ride over to Catfish Air. I was there for less than three minutes before heading out to the tarmac. Blackhawks were inbound and they only needed to swipe my card to get me on the flight. Sixteen hours after arriving in Kuwait I was already in Iraq and boarding a Blackhawk to Speicher. It was a gorgeous night and from my perch behind the door gunner I could see for miles. The lights below us were peaceful and could just as easily been the lights of sleepy towns back in the U.S. I enjoyed the view and the flight. By midnight I was touching down at Speicher. One of my TOC "battle captains" was there to pick me up. Welcome back to COB Speicher! Although it had been less than 48 hours past, Army War College was already a distant moment. Now it was quick sleep and get back into command mode. The war doesn't wait.