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, November 30, 2011

Goodbye November! Hello Camp Buehring!

"Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." - Stephen Decatur With Thanksgiving behind us we leaned forward in our saddles and scanned the horizon for where our path would lead next. COB Adder had become a ghost town. Very few units remained and even those were in the process of leaving. My Soldiers toiled on driving constant convoys southward or managing the flow of retrograde cargo as it flowed through the various temporary storage yards. Whereas just a month ago these yards were full to overflow capacity, now a person could hit a golf ball from end-to-end without hitting anything. Using that as our measuring guide, we could all see the light at the end of the tunnel. The responsible drawdown of forces from Iraq was rapidly nearing completion - largely on the backs of my Soldiers. Working day and night with focus, drive and determined professionalism, they had cleaned out various bases in Iraq as though a giant vacuum cleaner had descended and removed every trace of military equipment. Several months ago we were scratching our heads and wondering if, just maybe, clearing out of here by the end of the year was even possible. Now we know that it not only was possible to accomplish, it is a task we are ahead of schedule in completing. But we aren't done yet. Clearing out eight years' worth of homesteading is a daunting logistical thing to do. We still need a few weeks and then we'll revisit mission accomplishment.

The day after Thanksgiving we had yet another visit by a General Officer. As could be expected, he went straight to the Cargo Shipping and Receiving Point (CRSP), where he was speechless to find it empty. From there we stopped by the former Ammo Supply Point (ASP) and got there just as the final convoy was pulling in to close the site for good. And so it went with all the places the General asked to visit. They were all empty. It was just as if the Grinch had come in the middle of the night and "on the walls all was left were some hooks and some wire." Practically the only items remaining were odds and ends that were either headed to the dump or being turned over to the Iraqis. An unusual oddity in one of the collections of junk was a carved black bear reminiscent of one you'd see out on the porch of a country store adjacent to the rocking chairs. It was an example of how incredible an assortment of odds and ends have accumulated in this country since we first came. I'm certain they will remain as a legacy to our stay in this country - for better or for worse.

Some of the units that belong to my Battalion have already relocated to Camp Buehring, Kuwait, where they continue to run convoys to Iraq and back to retrieve more stuff. My commander had already notified me that my HQ would have to move their too. I stalled as long as I possibly could. Kuwait is a place I always want to keep in my rear view mirror. I pleaded my case that we complete our mission from COB Adder. However, events beyond our control were dictating otherwise. As the infrastructure of the base was dismantled we began to lose our communications network. It was becoming impossible to stay in touch with our units on a consistent basis. By the time the last few days of the month were scrolling by it was painfully obvious the Colors had to fly south. With November coming to a close my CSM and I climbed into a Blackhawk and ascended into the night sky on a southward flight out of Iraq. The Gypsy Battalion was jumping the TOC one final time. True to our fighting form, our move into Kuwait was not to catch a flight home. Our move was truly another operational relocation in order to continue on with our mission. But Camp Buehring will be the final foxhole for our Soldiers. From here, the place we first deployed to back at the end of March, we will close out Iraq and finish our mission. The last passage of the final chapter is now upon us. Goodbye November! Hello Camp Buehring! As December dawns bright with a Kuwaiti sun it will be the last month in which we'll be serving in this strange foreign land.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Very General Austin Thanksgiving

"Good morning, gentlemen. ACME pollution inspection. We're cleaning up the world, we thought this was a suitable starting point." - James Bond
Thanksgiving Day dawned bright and clear at COB Adder. On face value, it seemed as though it was any other day. Since the mess hall is closed, the meal prospects were flexibly limited to the variety within a case of MRE's. My choice selection for Thanksgiving dinner would be chicken and dumplings. There was no expectation that it would come close to my Mom's delicious dish of the same name so I knew I couldn't be disappointed. The big order of business for all of us was that General Austin, the 4-star Commander of United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) was paying us a visit. His intent was to recognize a few of our Soldiers for their hard work and effort and share a few words of praise with all of us. The backdrop for his visit was very appropriate - the convoy staging lanes. There were at least a dozen or more convoys lined up carrying massive quantities of retrograde cargo southward as part of the retrograde from Iraq. Many of the trucks came from my Battalion. Accordingly, several of the Soldiers GEN Austin would be recognizing came from my Transportation Companies. Around 1000 that morning, we assembled in a corner of the staging lanes adjacent to the Convoy Support Center (CSC) and waited for his arrival. A short time later the entourage arrived. There were MP vehicles with lights flashing followed by a motorcade of various SUV's. The 4-Star insignia was clearly posted on the windshield of his vehicle. GEN Austin is a mountain of a man who must've played offensive line back when he was a Cadet at West Point. He towers at least 6ft 5in or more and looks as though he could still suit up and play. Upon his arrival he wasted no time and proceeded through the rank of Soldiers, presenting each of them with his Commanding General coin and thanking each of them for their hard work. Once the last coin was presented he shared words with all of us. This was his sixth Thanksgiving away from home over the course of operations in Iraq. Being as this was only my third away from home, I didn't feel so bad anymore. GEN Austin's words put much into perspective in a manner that made it easy for all of us to relate. It was an excellent talk that void of bravado and fluff. Afterward, he shook hands and took photos with all of us before heading back to the airfield to move on to the next FOB. There were other Soldiers he would recognize and share words of praise with on this Thanksgiving day.

That night I did what just about everyone else did. I called home on Skype and wished everyone a happy Thanksgiving. At the same time they were sitting down for a traditional holiday meal, I was tearing into my chicken and dumplings MRE. To my surprise, it was actually pretty good. It wasn't nearly up to Mom's standards but heated and mixed with a little Tony Chachere's it was an enjoyable, memorable meal. Even though this wasn't my first Thanksgiving deployed, it was the first one where there was no mess hall to put out a lavish spread. It was a truly expeditionary Thanksgiving, which highlighted the approaching end of operations in Iraq. It will definitely be the last Thanksgiving any of us spend in Iraq. That, in itself, gave all of us much to be thankful for. I don't recommend having an MRE for any holiday meal if you have other options available. But when it is the only option you'll find the MRE isn't that bad at all. As I mentioned previously, you can also take comfort in knowing that MRE's are "fortified" - something else to be thankful for while spending an expeditionary Thanksgiving away from home while on deployment to Iraq.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

MRE - Montezuma's Revenge Eventually

"An idea is salvation by imagination" - Frank Lloyd Wright
We knew it was inevitable. Everyone knew it was coming. Now it has happened. The dining facility, our beloved mess hall, has officially closed. No visible sign of the approaching end to operations in Iraq has been more loud and clear to the remaining Soldiers. The date was clearly marked on our calendars for 20 November 2011. Not only did the mess hall close that day, it did so with style. The folks running the place put out a lavish early Thanksgiving spread that ran all day long. Everything from carved roast turkey to steamship round, pumpkin to pecan pie, and cornbread stuffing to candied yams was out for our consumption. Lavish decorations abounded to include ice carvings, decorative cakes, and festive displays. I personally ate my fill of traditional Thanksgiving goodies twice and would have gone again if the hours had been extended. We were very appreciative of the wonderful food, as evidenced by the great many people who came out to eat. It was the most crowded I have ever seen a DFAC on any deployment I've been on. This was most likely due to the fact that it was a holiday meal, albeit early, and that it was the last day for the mess hall. There were whispers floating around throughout the day that the decision had been made to extend the DFAC a few more days. That rumor was put to rest very quickly. As soon as the last Soldier went through the line the workers started tearing down everything, taking down displays, stacking chairs and tables, and moving out the various implements of food service. The end had arrived. From that moment forward our only available food supplement would be the infamous MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). This often maligned portable military ration has been in the inventory since the early eighties. It has been revamped often over the years but it has never overcome its stigma of delivering bad, tinfoil-tasting pre-package food of mystery meat quality.

Some people have a very hard time adjusting to MRE's because they clog up the bowels. That's never really been the case for me. It's the opposite. For me MRE stands for "Montezuma's Revenge Eventually". I always lose weight when I'm on a strictly MRE diet. At the same time, I always find humor in being relegated to these rations. Back when I was a kid I was completely fascinated by the old C-Rations (canned rations that were the predecessor to MRE's). Whenever my Marine Dad brought me C-Rations I would party like it was 1999. I've still got an old P38 can opener from a case of C-Rations. I would devour a "John Wayne" bar without blinking an eye and think it was better than any candy bar from the store. Oh how my attitude has changed. MRE's are actually better than the old C-Rations and have much greater variety than the old menu 1,2, and 3. But you still find the lineage inherent in military rations. The cheese spread tastes exactly the same, as do the crackers. Throughout the MRE you'll see "fortified" on the packages. I never knew what that meant when I'd see it on a C-Ration peanut butter and I'm still not sure what it means now. I have a theory though because the effect of MRE's on me is guaranteed. They are fortified with fiber laxative. It works too. I can attest.

So we who remain in Iraq mourn the loss of our beloved mess hall. MRE's are a poor substitute for our nutritional needs. But we can see the silver lining in all of this. The closure of the DFAC is one more giant step towards the eventual end of operations here. We won't eat MRE's for long. There are now only days remaining before we all can say the mission is complete. Then only a plane ride separates us from going home. MRE's is a very small sacrifice as we wait for the big prize of being with our families again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Head'em Up! Move'em Out!

"In the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation in every stage of its existence will be found at least equal to its resources." - Alexander Hamilton
It is crunch time around here. Just like Apollo Creed told Rocky Balboa - "There is no tomorrow!" The end of the year is fast approaching. With it comes the deadline to be out of Iraq. One by one the bases up north are closing for good. With each closure comes another waterfall of southbound equipment of all types. Now all of this stuff has got to move across the border into Kuwait. There is so much stuff everywhere it almost seems like an insurmountable task. Everything is priority to move but it can't all move at once. It is a good feeling to know that I am surrounded by highly skilled transporters and logisticians who all understand how to get this stuff moved. These are the Soldiers of my Battalion. While everyone around us panics that the retrograde out of Iraq can't be done by year's end, they just go about their business unfazed. It has become a common sight to all of them to see General Officers poking around and asking questions. I think my Soldiers actually relish that they are now high-visibility targets for the Generals. There is sincere worry on the part of many within our chain-of-command that the retrograde timetable is falling behind schedule. Then a General will come talk to one of my Soldiers, who will put the world back together and ensure that all is well, we are on target. I've observed many of these informal discussions taking place on the hood of a vehicle in the middle of cargo handling yards. My Soldiers aren't worried about this stuff so I'm not either. When the retrograde is complete and we are out of Iraq for good we'll all look back and tally up how monumental a task we've successfully completed.

In the middle of all the flurry of southbound activity is a change of seasons. Long gone are the hot days of summer. Lately we've had very cool nights accompanied by the soothing sounds of thunderstorms. But this, in itself, adds to our challenges. Iraqi mud is unforgiving. It is a thick muck that clings to everything like spackle. I've never known mud that is so stubborn and unremovable. While the rain keeps the dust down, it breathes life into an even greater adversary. With that being said, we're happy with the cooler temperatures and the sound of rain on our CHU's. But Iraqi mud is a worthy adversary that can truly clog the machinery of retrograde. It is an unwelcome foe. There is no mud on earth I've encountered that can compare. I certainly won't miss it.

In spite of the rain, the mud, and the seemingly overwhelming work remaining to be done we are all in very high spirits. The end is in sight. The work we are in the process of completing represents the final phase of operations in Iraq. When we get finished with what we are doing it is only a matter of turning out the lights and handing the keys to the Iraqis. The only thing left for us to do at that point will be to catch that "big iron bird" back home. Soon, but not just yet...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Iraq + Kuwait = Iwait

“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.” - John Wayne
Kuwait is the only place in the world that makes me miss Iraq. The best view of Kuwait is in the rear view mirror. That's a true statement coming and going. So now comes the catch-22 of my command - it now includes units working out of Kuwait and Iraq. I still hang my hat in Iraq with my HQ. However, there is now an ever-increasing amount of my time that must be spent focused on our operations in Kuwait. Due to the ongoing retrograde from Iraq my higher HQ has relocated to Kuwait as well. The end result of all this? I now have to travel to Kuwait periodically to attend meetings and see our operations there first hand. Unlike Iraq where time flies by at a moderate pace, days in Kuwait seem like months. Traveling from Iraq to Kuwait for a few days causes a distortion of the space time continuum that is the operational tempo of my mind. It causes a "start-stop" effect everything. The engineer in me came up with an accurate mathematical model to describe this effect - Iraq + Kuwait = Iwait (a complete disruption of the operational space-time continuum of commanding a battalion that includes units in both Iraq and Kuwait).

This past week started with good news. I learned that I've been selected for promotion to Colonel (O6). That definitely got my week off in a good way. Army War College reared its head too in the form of a graded online forum, which required me to log in daily and provide my input on the Joint Strategic Planning System. It was this stage that served as the backdrop for a foray down to Camp Buehring, Kuwait. I had been summoned to attend a Commanders' Conference. I used this as an opportunity to also visit with my Soldiers who now work out of Kuwait. I left COB Adder on a late night Blackhawk. The air was brisk and I was relieved to find the crew had put the plexiglass back on the doors. What I didn't realize was how many stops we would make prior to arriving at Camp Buehring. Over the next three hours we landed at Basra, Um Qasr, Ali Al Salem, Camp Virginia, and, finally, Camp Buehring. It was after midnight and I was surprised to find it colder in Kuwait than it had been in Iraq. Darkness obscured the changes to the place since my previous visit. Fortunately, it didn't take long to get situated in a CHU and hit the rack. An early morning awaited.

The next morning I was immediately struck by the amount of changes I saw. Camp Buehring was not the same place we had deployed through back in early April. New tents and structures had sprouted everywhere. The reason was the retrograde from Iraq. Many Soldiers had relocated from their homes up north to this sleepy camp in Kuwait. It was overcrowded. I did not recognize the place. It took me a full day to finally get oriented. In the meantime, I attended a meeting that did nothing but remind me why most staff officers are staff officers - they don't know how to command. It is frustrating as a commander to sit and listen to indecisive staff folks debate relatively mundane stuff and then never arrive at any conclusion or decision. After several hours of listening I realized I had gotten absolutely nothing out of attending that I didn't already know. I was very grateful when the meeting adjourned. At that point I went to visit with my Soldiers. They were living in open-bay tents and sleeping on cots. That's all that was available. But they still had excellent morale and the "can do" spirit I've come to admire. They are also aware that we are now hitting the final phase of our operations in Iraq. That means mission success for all of us is near. Going home is not long after that. That night I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the Deputy USF-I Commander, a roughneck Lieutenant General who freely dropped the f-bomb in his plain talk discussion of the way ahead. It was entertaining if nothing else.

The next morning I took advantage of one of the amenities found at bases in Kuwait - Starbucks. The line snaked all the way outside. Since I was there already I decided to wait. They had Christmas decorations up already. The house coffee was the "Christmas Blend". It was only Veterans Day. I share this so folks back home know that it isn't only the retailers in the U.S. who do this. I'm typically not a big fan of Starbucks, but, the cup of coffee I bought was excellent. They even had whole milk and raw sugar - my preferences. I took my time and enjoyed the cup while reading Stars and Stripes. As could be expected, I ran into an old acquaintance. He is now a Chief Warrant Officer, having made the jump from the Noncommissioned Officer ranks a few years back. We swapped a couple of deployment stories and caught up a bit then bid each other farewell. Then I headed out to visit more with my Soldiers. Although I was only in Kuwait for two days the time seemed to stand still. The sun never seemed to move. But it did. Eventually it became dark as evening fell. That was good because I was flying back to Iraq. Some people may not understand this but I was happy to be headed back to COB Adder. I wanted to be back in my own rack, in my own CHU. The Blackhawks were on time and made only one stop along the way. The flight was much shorter in duration than the flight down two nights previous. Much of the way we were basked in an eerie glow from the oil flash fires coming from the refineries north of Basra. At about midnight we touched down in Adder. Time quickly resumed at normal pace. Life returned to deployment normal again.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

War College? Banjo?

"We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way." - Buzz Aldrin
With all the constant work, jumping the TOC, and various other requirements we are faced with daily, it practically goes without saying that I am busy. Sometimes it feels like I am running at 130mph with my hair on fire twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It is almost impossible for me to plan out my activities for any given day. Everything is subject to change by the minute. Rare is the day in which I don't have some situation that demands my attention. Mission always comes first and when something mission-related demands my focus it trumps everything else I'm doing. The collateral effect of this is that personal endeavors of mine, such as this blog, frequently have to take a back seat. But I do still find time to do things on a personal level. Army War College assignments have to get done on time, which frequently means I can be found in my office "burning the midnight oil" to get my work done. I'm happy to say that I am still on time, on target for all of my assignments. As a matter of fact, at this point it appears I have turned in the last paper I'll have to write while on this deployment. That leaves the banjo. I haven't written much at all about my favorite instrument even though the blog refers to me as the Banjo Commander. Although I've made significant progress playing the banjo during this deployment, I'm not nearly as far along as I had hoped to be. Truth is I greatly overestimated the amount of time I would have to devote to practicing. It seems like every time I try to plan an hour or two of practice I end up getting back to my room much later than intended and completely exhausted. I'm still practicing though and have a few lessons remaining on the instructional DVD's I deployed with. The foundation is there so I'm optimistic.

And our deployment continues, our mission continues, our battalion keeps moving. At this stage of the game we are more critical than ever to the successful conclusion of operations in Iraq. As everything closes, people and equipment move south in an unending procession. The war has become purely logistical at this point and it's fought with trucks on convoys. That's where we come in. We have the largest intra-theater transportation responsibility in Iraq and we're the only battalion of our type remaining at this point. Needless to say, we are in a sprint to the finish line and will be among the last to leave. Four years ago when I was here during the surge I never would have believed we could be completely out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Now I do believe it and, what's more, I command a battalion that is part of the foudation to making our responsible retrograde a reality. It is a busy, historic time. Even while our trucks roll we find time to hold awards ceremonies, reenlistment ceremonies, promotion ceremonies, and even an evening to smoke cigars and forget about the war for a few minutes. Then it's back to work. Will we be home by Christmas? That's irrelevant. What's important is that we will complete our mission. That's our Christmas gift back to the Army - the safe, responsible completion of the retrograde of forces from Iraq. I'll drink to that when we get home.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Now Boarding - Embassy Air to Tallil

"Promises that you make to yourself are often like the Japanese plum tree - they bear no fruit." - Francis Marion

From time to time I get asked why I haven't been posting as frequently as I did during my last deployment. I can promise that it has nothing to do with whether or not I'm inspired to write. There isn't a day that goes by in which I don't encounter something that screams to be shared. And Soldiers are always a story unto themselves. I could wax eloquent about Joe for days on end. The real reason I have not been as prolific is more a matter of finding the time. During my last deployment I had a much more focused role and fewer responsibilities than this go-round. Although I was traveling constantly and living out of my rucksack, there was almost always time at the end of the day to download my thoughts. This deployment is quite different. Battalion Command, coupled with Army War College, is an exhausting endeavor. I write when I can and try to fill in the gaps. That being said, where did I leave off last time? Ah yes, we were up at Camp Liberty after a 10-hour MRAP trek. Let's see...

My first order of business upon arriving at Camp Liberty (after finding coffee of course) was a long overdue combat patch ceremony for my transporters of the "Blue Devils" from Orlando. We held this ceremony in their motor pool. I felt that was an appropriate venue for the ceremony, as the trucks surrounding the formation represented the very tools of their trade and symbolized the work yet to come on this deployment. After placing their patch on the right shoulder of both the Company Commander and First Sergeant, we then proceeded down the ranks of every platoon. I placed the patch on the shoulder of every Soldier, shook their hands and individually thanked each of them for the work they had performed so far. Then I shared a few words of praise with the entire company before we closed the ceremony. At the conclusion of the ceremony it was straight back to work. Many of the Soldiers were headed out that same day on a convoy. The cycle began anew. I left them to their duties and proceeded on with mine.

Around 1500 I made it back to my CHU, which I still have from our brief few weeks at Camp Liberty. Being as I was still hobbled and tired from the convoy ride up, I laid down and fell asleep. A short time later a knock came on my door. It was a Lieutenant from the Blue Devils. He was there to tell me that I was manifested to return to Adder later that night via convoy - the same one I came up on. After some quick thought I told him to take me and my driver off of the manifest. I still had work to do at Camp Liberty and needed to finish what I came to do. We would figure out another way to get back to Adder. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made in recent days. For one, it allowed me to do everything I sacrificed 10 uncomfortable hours in an MRAP to complete. But there was another reason this was a good decision - one which I had no idea of at the time. I'll explain in a moment.

Later that night I got together with all of the Officers and Senior NCO's from the Blue Devils and the other company I have at Camp Liberty - "Deuce Train" from Fort Campbell, KY. It was a rather chilly evening, which was a clear signal that the searing heat of an Iraqi summer is now behind us. We chatted for quite some time over cigars and near beer. Essentially, it was an informal professional development period in which we discussed the coming days of our mission and the various requirements it would entail. We also swapped stories about home and other subjects. Sometimes it is just a good thing to forget about the war for a few minutes. We did that and then got focused again as we called it a night.

The next morning my driver and I went to the only place remaining in Iraq where there's still a Green Beans Coffee - Sather AFB/BIAP. We each got a coffee and sat back for a few minutes to read "Stars and Stripes," which is a newspaper service members have been reading in combat zones for many decades. After a bit I suggested we walk over to the passenger terminal to see if there were any flights to Adder. It was a good call. There was a C130 headed that way around noon. But when we went to check-in space available we were sent to see the USF-I LNO as part of a new procedure being implemented. At first I was a bit disgruntled at this because it added more hassle to the process. But it turned out to be our blessing. The USF-I LNO was an Army Sergeant who asked to see our ID cards. He walked away for a few minutes and then came back and asked, "would you like to fly Embassy Air instead?" Embassy Air? Really? Do tell! So he walked us over to the civilian manning the EA desk. He said just to be back in about an hour with our bags and he'd get us on the flight. The aircraft was a Dash-8 (a common civilian "puddle-jumper" commuter plane). Seating was like in a normal airliner, which beats the cargo net seating of a C130 any day of the week. The best part was that all baggage - including body armor - would be checked below. My driver and I hurried back to our CHU's, retrieved all our gear, and made our way back just in time. In no time I was reclining in a comfortable seat as our aircraft took off for the forty minute flight to Tallil/Adder. Now this was more like it. Thirty-six hours earlier I was suffering 10 hours of extreme discomfort in an RG33. Now I was flying back in style and comfort. What an amazing contrast it was. We weren't complaining. By 1430 we were back on the ground at Adder. Our trip to Camp Liberty was complete. I had accomplished all of the tasks I set out to do.

And what of the return convoy I had been manifested for? It ended up taking 21 hours to get back to Adder. Along the way there were numerous maintenance halts, equipment failures, and even a hostile fire incident with small arms. What's worse is that my Chaplain and his assistant had elected to take the convoy back because they needed to be back to Adder in time to conduct Sunday services. My driver and I ended up beating both of them back by 8 hours. I told the Chaplain that in the future he should always trust his commander to get him back in time. I think he learned his lesson.