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.

Monday, September 26, 2011

In Memory of Sergeant Andy C. Morales

Sergeant Andy C. Morales
196th Transportation Company
275th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion
November 2, 1978 - September 22, 2011

Today my Battalion gathered for a memorial service to honor one of our own. SGT Andy Morales, a truck commander from the 196th "Blue Devils" died at Camp Liberty, Baghdad on September 22, 2011. He was a prior-service Marine and a dedicated Army NCO who lived the Army Values. He is survived by his wife and children. It was my honor and privilege to serve as his Battalion Commander. These are the words I shared at the memorial today as we held final roll call for one of our Warriors.

"Today we gather to honor the life and service of one of our own - SGT Andy
Morales. In preparing my remarks, I was gripped by a lot of emotions. I felt
shock that such a bright and energetic young man could pass from us this
quickly. I felt sadness. Sadness for his friends, sadness for his section
and most importantly, sadness for his wife, his children and his mother.

What I want to talk about, what I want to tell SGT Morales's family, his
friends, and his unit-is Thank you. Thank you for serving. Thank you for
serving your nation and your countrymen. Thank you for serving the Soldiers
and Transporters of the 196th "Blue Devils".

Last week the newspaper carried a little reported statistic. It said that
95% of Americans under the age of 65 have never served in the Armed Forces,
in any capacity.95%. That makes SGT Morales extremely special in my book.
That fact makes all of you special. He served and you serve so the country
can sleep-safely, peacefully. Thank you SGT Morales.

In May of 1962, General Douglas MacArthur delivered his last speech-this one
to the Corps of Cadets at West Point. Now the speech is superb in its
entirety - in my opinion one of the greatest speeches ever made - and is
most famous for its theme, "Duty, Honor, Country." I'm partial, however to
an often overlooked portion of the speech, near the end, in which the old
soldier talks to the importance of our calling, of SGT Morales's chosen

"And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains
fixed, determined, inviolable-it is to win our wars. Everything else in your
professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other
public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or
small, will find others for their accomplishments, but you are the ones who
are trained to fight, yours is the profession of arms-the will to win the
sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you
lose, the nation will be destroyed.
This does not mean that you are war mongers. On the contrary, the soldier,
above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the
deepest wounds and scars of war."

Thank you SGT Morales, for your 9 and a half years of service to this great

The military is a family. Its bloodline is as old and honorable as
the republic itself. Its ancestors are its heroes. Recruits are told that to
wear the uniform is to inherit this great lineage. In every sense, it is a
brotherhood bought in blood, and surrounded by the greatest mystery of
all-why men fight. For under fire, men are not moved by the call of country
or the rhetoric of a cause. They fight for their comrades. This was the real
lesson of Yorktown, Gettysburg, Bastogne, Pusan, Ia Drang, and every other
battle our Nation has fought on every corner of the globe. Soldiers shared
rations, slept under the same wet ponchos, marched for months at each
other's side, or convoyed for countless hours on hot and dusty roads wrought
with Improvised Explosive Devices. Soldiers stand together as a team to face
these adversities without complaint. Under the harsh realities of combat it
does not take long for strangers to turn into comrades or for two men,
finding in one another a vein of humor or decency or raw courage-some moral
hand hold, to steady themselves on the uncertain field of battle.

Thank you SGT Morales. You are both a Marine and an Army NCO who not
only served your country, you served and tended to your fellow Marines and
Soldiers, your comrades-so we can carry out the nation's business. You
willingly chose the vocation of taking care of Soldiers - the profession of
arms. Thank you.

I'd saved this quote years ago, author unknown. I think it was from
an e-mail. One of those short verses passed around-more often by Soldier's
wives-which tells each other why we do it and "is it worth it?" A small bit
of thanks and subtle heroism. Likewise it also captures the sacrifice and
the unselfishness in our calling. It reads as follows:

"It is the Soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the
It is the Soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and
whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the
It is the Soldier. It has always been the Soldier."

SGT Andy Morales - Soldier and Marine. Semper Fidelis! Mission First,
Soldiers Always"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Gypsy Battalion

"Never quit. It is the easiest cop-out in the world. Set a goal and don't quit until you attain it. When you do attain it, set another goal, and don't quit until you reach it. Never quit." - Paul "Bear" Bryant

Moving the Tactical Operations Center of a Headquarters is referred to affectionately as "Jumping the TOC". The larger the unit, the more difficult a process this is. Back when I was a Mortar Platoon Leader (I won't divulge how many years ago that was), jumping the TOC was as easy as rolling up the tarp on our M577 and driving it to the new location. Not so with a Battalion of several hundred Soldiers that operates on a geographic area larger than the State of Georgia. The toughest aspect of making such a move is our extreme need for secure communications at more than one location while we are making the move. This is necessary so that we can continuously control the Battalion from the old and new locations while we make our move. Once we're in place at the new location, we pull the plug on the old location and "collapse the pocket" of our remaining personnel to the new HQ. It's an intricate and delicate sequence of steps that requires our full use of the Troop Leading Procedures (TLP's) and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). And now that I've shared all of that military jargon I'll sum it up by stating we successfully jumped our TOC with style, precision and grace. I'm proud to say we moved it over a hundred miles south in the middle of continuous combat and combat sustainment operations without skipping a single beat on our critical mission. I am very proud of my Command Team and Staff. We stayed fully engaged in the fight and accomplished our relocation on time, on target. Now we've been adjusting to our new digs, facilities, and neighboring units. Our containers and vehicles are here and they are being unpacked and registered respectively.

But wait! War is fluid. Situations change. Missions are adjusted. Timetables get shifted to the left or right. Rumors fly faster than speeding bullets and spread like fire on dry kindling wood. What's that I hear? We are being tasked to move again? But we just got here! Ok Staff, let's just continue to follow our last command from the tower. Remember, if I didn't say it then we ain't doing it. You got that? Here's a compromise - only unpack what you deem essential from the containers and leave the rest packed. I will concede that we need to start living like Gypsies because the rumors are flying so fast I have to move faster than Jackie Robinson to catch them all. Such is another responsibility of command and leadership - anticipate the rumors and squelch them at the highest level before they trickle down to the ranks. Soldiers need to stay focused on the mission - not their anticipated next mission. However, there is always some validity to rumors that start to triangulate from multiple directions. I piece together the evidence, keep my Staff and Company Commanders focused, and accept that we are, in fact, becoming the Gypsy Battalion. Our caravans are prepared to move at a moment's notice across the Iraqi Joint Operating Area (IJOA). Wherever our mission takes us, so shall we go.

And yet there is always time to find humor in the dusty, dreary, colorless existence we share at locations like Camp Liberty. I've noticed of late a new amusement. Normally, I can't get into the DFAC for supper until right before closing time every night because of my schedule. By the time I get my food and sit down the mess hall is closed. That's happy time for the Third Country Nationals (TCN's) who man the chow lines and keep the place clean. Closing time is when they can go through the lines and grab some chow. Boy do they flock to the food! I've discovered their muse and it humors me greatly. Once they get their plates they all congregate around one of the TV's tuned to AFN. Then they eat while absolutely hypnotized to WWF - wrestling! They are completely addicted to watching the theatrics that we are all familiar with. I'm not certain if they believe it's real or not. It is just funny to watch how they react to every jump off the top rope, DDT's, folding chair slams, and eye-gouging face rakes. Perhaps there is a little Redneck in everyone around the world? I think so.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jumping the TOC

"The mail service has been excellent out here, and in my opinion this is all that the
Air Force has accomplished during the war."
- Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller

If you pull out a map of Iraq and study it, you'll find it easy to make sense of our retrograde. All of our forces are leaving to Kuwait. In order to make this happen, we're closing bases from north to south. Although COB Speicher hasn't closed yet, my Battalion's mission extends beyond the life expectancy of Speicher. With that in mind, we've been gradually shifting our HQ south to another of my old stomping grounds from previous deployments - Camp Liberty. CSM and I held out at Speicher until we could hang on no more. Everything was shutting down so rapidly that we had to finally pop smoke and jump the TOC. It was made all the more easy by the fact that my staff was already functioning from Camp Liberty. All we had to do was load up our equipment and vehicles on a convoy, pack up our personal gear, and jump on a helicopter south. The day we left was melancholy though. Speicher has become our home. It represents the foundation of everything we've accomplished up to this point of the deployment. The "comfort zone" of our daily routines was also coming to an end. For days leading up to our departure the HQ was becoming a barren row of empty buildings. We toiled on in our Command Group building even as furniture, office automation, signs, and all other evidence of our purpose got packed into a container for shipment. On the day we left our computers hummed through one last "breeze" with our Brigade down at Balad. Then even the laptops and phones came out. I managed to squeeze one last workout from the North MWR Gym. Then after showering and changing, I ate my final meal at the DFAC. From there we headed over to the pax terminal to await our late night Blackhawk ride to BIAP.

The pax terminal was unusually crowded. As expected, everyone was flying south. Fortunately, CSM and I were manifested so there would be no sweating over space available. Although our Blackhawks were packed full, both our baggage and our bodies managed to find a space. This inclued my banjo, which I clutched between my legs with great care. Once airborne we gained altitude to cooler air above. The scene below could have just as easily been anywhere in the U.S. But then we'd fly over the occasional convoy of route clearance engineers - their MRAPs and specialized equipment unmistakeably lit up in every direction as they searched the roads for IED's. In spite of the cool air of the altitude and the serene scene below, the flight was one of the most uncomfortable rides I'd ever experienced. Even the helicopter seemed intent on being troublesome. It would shudder and buck from time to time as though a rotor was out of balance. Fortunately, it remained flightworthy long enough to get us to BIAP safely. After about an hour of flying time we arrived, unloaded our baggage, and met up with my HHC Commander. He gave us a ride to our awaiting CHU's. Welcome to Camp Liberty! A place that was my part-time home during the surge has become my home again. It all looks the same. We will return to visit Speicher again from time-to-time because we still have a lot going on there. But from now on, the place we will call home will be Camp Liberty.

I would say a new chapter begins but, actually, this is just part of the bigger story. You can call jumping the TOC a subplot embedded in the plot.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Collapsing the Pocket

“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.” - General John J. Pershing

If someone would have told me in 2008 that we would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 I would have laughed. I knew how much stuff we had and it was an astronomical amount. Leaving Iraq would be the most significant logistical event for our military since the end of World War II. Quite frankly, I didn't believe it could happen so quickly. When we arrived for this deployment I still had serious doubts. It didn't look that much different than during the surge. There was still equipment, vehicles, containers, and all other kinds of materials that announced our presence all over the country. The only thing readily noticeable was that there were fewer Soldiers. That was my mindset - even though my Battalion was a key player in moving everything out of the country. Quite frankly, I was a little intimidated that it was an impossible task. Just a few months later I am becoming a believer. The pocket is collapsing rapidly. My trucks are running day and night. Forward Operating Bases are right on schedule to close. COB Speicher is racing ahead with shutting down. The evidence is everywhere. T-walls are going up, temporary buildings torn down, facilities relocated or closed, and even the PX has gone "tactical". Meanwhile, our convoys keep hauling stuff south day and night. A miracle is really underway.

My Battalion is seeing its last days at Speicher. Soon we'll continue our operations from another location. That means we're packing up too. CSM and I had to move out of our original CHU's because the LSA closed for turnover to the Iraqis. That actually meant a product upgrade for us, as we were assigned billets in the Dyncorp LSA. For the first time on this deployment I had a TV in my room that actually worked. All that did was remind me why I'm glad I don't have a TV in my room. It only caused me to be unproductive and lose sleep. Army War College came knocking again and over a week's timeframe I had to submit a paper and participate in a graded online forum. That involved a lot of midnight oil as I stayed up late on successive nights reading and writing. During the daytime the many requirements and responsibilities of command remained the priority. We found time to promote one of our Soldiers to Sergeant. His comrades doused him with bottled water as soon as he had been pinned with the chevrons. It just showed that even under growing adversity and gradually more spartan conditions Soldiers always show me why they are the best of the best. Their morale continues to soar. They can see evidence all around them that their Battalion is making a difference and that the work they perform every day is the engine.

Yes, I now believe. We will be out of Iraq this year. My Soldiers have made me a believer. They live the Warrior Ethos. No task is too great in their eyes.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Ago

"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended" - George W. Bush

September 11, 2011 - Ten years ago to the day the United States suffered through its second "Day of Infamy" - a brutal attack upon our soil perpetrated by sadistic terrorists. I woke up this morning with a Led Zeppelin song on my mind entitled "Ten Years Gone" from the Physical Graffiti album. It really has been that long ago, yet the memories of that terrible day are still fresh. Everyone who was old enough to remember can tell you exactly what they were doing that day. I had just walked into my office at Bryant University to begin another day teaching Army ROTC. A professor from across the hall burst into my office to ask if my TV worked (it was an old set hanging from the ceiling). He wanted to know what I thought about the plane hitting the World Trade Center. My first thought was to recall that in 1945 a B25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. But that was a foggy day in which the pilot became disoriented. This was a crystal clear blue sky day. Before I could check the TV, the professor had already switched it on. In absolute horror we watched the second plane hit. There was no question - America was under attack. My office was the only one along the hallway that had a TV and it slowly began to fill with students and faculty. Nobody spoke. Some people were crying. We didn't know it at that moment but two recent Bryant graduates were one of the planes. When the Pentagon was hit, I had reached the point where I was alternating between shock and rage. By noon, the university president called a faculty meeting and cancelled classes for the day. Counseling services were set up for students and faculty in the rotunda of the Unistructure Building. I went home that night in a complete trance. I lit a candle and left it on my doorstep and pondered what I could do. Like everyone else, I literally remained glued to the TV for the next two days.

The vast majority of Americans were nowhere near New York City or the Pentagon on that day. Regardless, the events changed the lives of all of us in some way. I had never deployed to a combat zone up to that point and had reached the conclusion I never would. I had applied to the FBI and then got caught up in a hiring freeze that wan't lifted until after the attacks. By then I was too old (36.5 years old is the cut-off with no waiver). My military career was about to undergo a transformation. I didn't need to volunteer for an opportunity - within months I was already on my way. In the ten years since the attacks I have deployed to Iraq four times and spent another six months in Liberia. Even as I write this I am deployed. I am not a unique case. And the toll of the war, although necessary, has been immense. Over 4,000 of my comrades have paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many thousands more have endured grevious physical or psychological injuries. For many, these are wounds that may never heal. But the sacrifices continue to be made in order to keep the battle at the enemy's doorstep and off of our soil. Every American death that resulted from the attacks of September 11th has been exacted on the enemy tenfold or more. And the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, the punk bastard who ordered the attacks, is now dead from a 5.56mm bullet straight through his brainpan. However, the war goes on.

Many people think that just because OBL is dead that the Global War on Terrorism is over. They are wrong. Al Qaeda still exists. The Taliban are still out there. Many others want nothing more than to destroy America and everything we stand for. They hate our freedom, our prosperity, our generosity, our way of life, and anything else they can think of to hate. There are only two options for the terrorist thugs who are aligned against us - victory or death. Victory for them is NOT an option for us. Therefore, the fight must go on. For the United States to not emerge victorious in this war would be a terrible legacy to the memory of those who died on this day ten years ago. Whether everyone wants to accept this or not, our only options are also victory or death.

As we reflect on the attacks of September 11, 2001, remember the victims of that day, and ponder the past ten years, let us also keep our eyes focused on the future. Let us all continue forward with solidarity in defending freedom. God Bless the United States of America for eternity.

- In memory of all of the victims of September 11, 2001 and all of those who have died defending our Nation

Friday, September 9, 2011

Saying Goodbye, Saying Hello

“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.” – Winston Churchill
The first time I ever visited COB Speicher was in spring of 2007. The surge was just beginning and Speicher was home to almost 30,000 Soldiers. New units seemed to be arriving daily. New Life Support Areas (LSA), dining facilities, gyms, recreation buildings, and other construction were a constant way of life. At the time of my visit I never could have envisioned the place closing. Yet that’s where it’s come to. All of us here are witnessing the end. Facilities are closing, buildings being vacated, equipment turned in, and units departing for good. One of the units that has earned their “big iron bird” ride home belongs to me. The “Border Bandits” from Brownsville, TX have completed their mission. During the past week, we’ve been honoring them for the job they’ve performed while here. This included an awards ceremony, a “Hail and Farewell”, and the Transfer of Authority (TOA) ceremony. Their mission is now being assumed by our newest transportation company – the “Blue Devils” from Orlando, FL.

We started out with the Hail and Farewell. On a fine Saturday night we all gathered at the Battalion HQ recreation area. The 4th Infantry Division (Ivy Division) Band provided entertainment. We cooked over 300 steaks on several grills as the band serenaded us. Once everyone had their chow the CSM and I grabbed the mike and shared a few heartfelt comments. Most of our words were in praise of the Border Bandits. They will be missed. However, the Blue Devils are eager and ready. The beauty of the Army is how readily Soldiers will assume practically any task or mission. I have the utmost confidence that we won’t even skip a beat.

Later in the week we held the awards ceremony for the Border Bandits. It took well over an hour to hand out all of the medals these crazy Soldiers from Texas had earned. They have certainly accomplished a Texas-sized mission. During their time in Iraq, these Soldiers have driven over a million miles over some of the most dangerous roads in the world. Their trucks have hauled almost 100,000 short tons of cargo, which provided continued sustainment to combat operations over a geographic area larger than the State of Georgia. What’s most important is that they accomplished this monumental task without losing a single Soldier to enemy activity or accident. Their awards were well-earned. Over the course of the ceremony we presented multiple Bronze Stars, Meritorious Service Medals, and various other commendation awards.

Finally came the TOA ceremony. It didn’t last nearly as long as the awards ceremony. The Border Bandits cased their colors to signify completion of their mission. Then the Blue Devils unfurled their colors to represent the assumption of the mission. After both the Company Commanders spoke, I shared a few words. I am certain that the biggest party in Texas will be in Brownsville following the “Welcome Home Ceremony” for the Border Bandits. It is a guarantee that the local supply of premium tequila and beer will be depleted for several weeks afterward. But I cautioned them that their mission isn’t truly complete until every single one of their Soldiers has made it safely home and reported in following the party. That’s when the Company Commander can finally email me to let me know everyone is safe, accounted for, and mission accomplished. Border Bandits – I salute you now and forever. You are always a part of our family and I will serve with you any time, any place. Godspeed.

The Army is a small world. I know the Blue Devils from past experience. In March 2003, I was OIC of a Deployment Support Team at Fort Stewart, GA prior to deploying myself for OIF I. One of the units we assisted with deploying was the Blue Devils. Almost ten years of war, constant circulation around Iraq and other places, and I’d say I’ve come in contact with almost every Army unit that’s ever been to the birthplace of civilization. Welcome back to Iraq Blue Devils!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Back to War, Back to Blogging

"I want an Officer for a dangerous and secret mission. I want a West Point
football player"
- General George C. Marshall
Just to put everyone at ease, I've not been selected for a secret mission somewhere. I love the quote though. After all, I was a three-time varsity letterman on the 150's back during my West Point days. For the past three years I've even suited back up at the alumni reunion and scrimmaged the current Cadet team. I'm proud to say I'm still in good enough shape to still play running back. Heck, in the most recent game I toted the rock seven times for a respectable 35 yards and three first downs. I'll keep on suiting up every year until the day comes that my body says it's useless to keep thinking I'm as fast, agile, and strong as the Cadets. But, given that I'm Class of '87 and there are still members of the Class of '78 suiting up to play, I know I have several good years at the reunion to look forward to. During our latest reunion we weren't just playing the Cadets, we were playing the reigning National Champions. That's right. Last season the Army Sprint (150's) Football Team won the title - capped off with a thrilling victory over Navy at Annapolis. The "Old Grads" hung tough for 60 minutes. The Cadets won but the final was only 19-6. I made it through without any lingering injuries.

Ok, back to blogging. The days that immediately follow R&R can be some of the most desolate times of a deployment. It's a very difficult transition - more like shock treatment - to have popped out of the war for two weeks and then inserted straight back into the fight. Being the Commander only intensifies this, as the heavy burden of responsibility is happily placed back on your back by your Executive Officer. I think he had the biggest grin of anyone upon my return. That being said, I had no opportunity to get over the jet lag. It was straight back to work. We are getting into the "sprint to the finish line" phase of our deployment so there is a ton of stuff to get done. We're not quite at the sprint yet but we are definitely at the point at which we can see where we have to begin our final kick.

All this being said, I've struggled a bit the past few days. That, in itself, has made it difficult to get back on to sharing my thoughts and observations. It's hard to go home and then leave home again. I miss home. We all do. But none of us can allow that pain to cause us to lose focus. Yet, there are times when we let our guard down and reveal that Soldiers are human too. Fortunately for me, I have Joe to put things back together for me. I was having a moment the other day where my human side was overcoming my Commander side. Just then I stepped into a latrine to find that Einstein Joe had given me the answers I was struggling with. On display before my wandering eyes were the Laws of Thermodynamics. I don't quite know how Joe could have known that I needed a refresher from one of the most painful college courses I ever took. But he did and it put a smile on my face. That's when it occured to me that we never leave a fallen comrade. I walked back to my HQ and shared my newfound smile with my Command Group. The post-R&R pain is still acute but it will fade. Work dictates our priorities and our focus is mission success. We'll all be sprinting to the finish line very soon.

Hey! Football season is here!