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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Road Trip Anyone?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Growing in Size, Growing in Mission

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Go to Zero!"

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

To The Ziggurat! Not!

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Living in the Shadow of Ur

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

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

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gypsy Battalion

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Awards, Evaluations, and Promotions

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Continue Mission

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

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

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

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