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, December 21, 2011

The Chairman's Homework Assignment

“A really great man is known by three signs: generosity in the design, humanity in the execution, moderation in success” - Otto von Bismark Later the same day as our final convoy we had a distinguished visitor pay Camp Buehring a visit. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, came to hold an informal meeting with Battalion and Brigade Command Teams of various United States Forces Iraq (USF-I) units. As expected, my CSM and I were summoned. Although the meeting was held at the DFAC around supper time, this was not a talk and eat event. The Chairman was on a tight schedule. Our conversation quickly turned to the logistics accomplishments of closing Iraq. GEN Dempsey was asking for feedback in a manner very similar to an After Action Review. With logistics under the spotlight, the bulk of the conversation was directed to the commander of the Theater Sustainment Brigade and me. I found the Chairman to be very intelligent, direct, and sincere. He seemed particularly interested in my battalion, its diverse composition, the dynamic mission we were assigned, and the multiple times we jumped TOC over the course of our deployment. He stopped me in the middle of one of my answers to his questions and said, “Well I’ve got one word for you to pass on to your Soldiers – HOOAH! And I better see an article written by you to tell everyone about this.” When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says something like that it is etched in stone. Moments later, his aide handed me a business card with scribble on the back. It was the suspense date for me to have the article written and into the CJS’s office. Unbelievable! I was the only commander to walk into that meeting only to leave with a homework assignment.

The following day, December 15, 2011, the official ceremony was held in Baghdad to signify the end of operations. The USF-I Colors were cased to close out over eight years of continuous combat operations. I was here for three of those years. I saw the beginning and was now here to not only see the end but be an active participant in the logistical effort that made it come about on time. At the same time the ceremony was taking place CSM and I were with yet another VIP. This time it was the Secretary of the Army, The Honorable John McHugh. Numerous General Officers accompanied Secretary McHugh. Unlike the meeting of the night before, this was simply an informal luncheon. There were no group discussions, no question and answer sessions, and no homework assignments thrown my way. We simply ate lunch and shook hands. I forgot my camera so we were unable to capture the moment. The ceremony in Baghdad was televised and many of us watched in somber silence. It is a very surreal time. I have been here so many times now that it is difficult to sink in that this is really the end. There are so many memories – both good and bad.

Although USF-I had cased colors and the war declared over, operations continued to get the last Soldiers out of Iraq. Our battalion still had a handful of Warriors at COB Adder performing the bulk fuel mission and running the cargo receiving and shipping point. They would be there until the base closed. Early on the morning of December 18, 2011 the last Soldiers of my battalion still serving in Iraq boarded helicopters and flew south to Kuwait. That same day the final convoy departed Adder and made its way out of Iraq. Although none of my Soldiers were on the last convoy across the border, equipment belonging to us was included and made the news in the various videos filmed of the last vehicles crossing Khubari in to Kuwait. The heavy material handling equipment (MHE) from the CRSP was loaded onto the final convoy out of Iraq. Even to the very end we had a presence. Then the waiting game started. Now we waited for our flight home.

The first of our remaining battalion to leave was the “Blue Devils” of 196th Transportation Company. They were quickly followed by the “Road Warriors” of 68th Transportation Company. In rapid succession, the “Road Masters” of 89th Transportation Company, “Deuce Train” of 372nd Inland Cargo Transportation Company, and “No Slack” of 305th Quartermaster Company all departed. Our higher command, 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, cased their colors and left. Then even USF-I popped smoke and went home. Our battalion was now the largest remaining unit of USF-I. Now it’s just my HHC and HQ staff waiting for our flight home. The time slowly ticks by. It is a tough wait. I won’t deny that it is frustrating. But it is comforting to know that we will be back in the United States in time for Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our Final Two Convoys

"I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq" - Stephen Colbert
Over the past nine months we have safely completed over 1,000 convoys in support of Operation New Dawn. Our transporters have driven everywhere from Habur Gate on the Turkish border in the north all the way south to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Our battalion came to close Iraq and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. It almost seemed as though the end of operations in Iraq was tied to our progress in closing all of the various bases from north to south as we continued to jump our TOC. It was no coincidence that our final two convoys completed in the last four days of the war. Both of the convoys crossed their starting points (SP) at COB Adder and reached their release points (RP) at Camp Buehring. The two convoys were a microcosm of the diversity of missions we were assigned throughout. One of the convoys was an “operational retrograde” that not only relocated our own transporters to Camp Buehring, it also assisted another unit in getting south for its eventual redeployment home. The other was a pure retrograde cargo mission, in which we were assigned cargo destined southward out of Iraq and we planned and dispatched a convoy to get it done. The first of our final two missions – the operational retrograde – would be conducted by our hard charging “Road Warriors” of 68th Transportation Company. One platoon from the Road Warriors had still been operating out of Adder but with the end of mission so close they were tasked to convoy south to Camp Buehring. Early on the morning of December 12, 2011, they loaded up cargo from another unit also on its way out and then crossed their SP. Back at Camp Buehring we kept a close watch on their progress. About an hour prior to their arrival we stopped what we were doing and headed out to the Entry Control Point to welcome them. Every available Soldier in our battalion came out with banners and Company Guidons. As the Road Warriors entered Camp Buehring they were met with a celebration of cheers. Our cordon of Soldiers led them all the way to their motor pool. CSM and I were there to shake the hands of every single Road Warrior as they completed their final mission. Now their only mission was to turn in their equipment and wait for their flight back to Fort Bliss, TX. Job well done Road Warriors!

Then came our final convoy. The mission was assigned to the 89th Transportation Company “Road Masters”. These transporters had been with us throughout our deployment. It was only appropriate they would have the last mission. As a matter of fact, they volunteered for the mission as soon as the tasking was given to us. As chance would have it, CSM and I were able to see them in action while they were conducting this final mission while we were at Adder for our final battlefield circulation. The same convoy we watched SP on December 13th headed south to Kuwait turned out to be the last one. The Road Masters hauled their retrograde cargo to Camp Arifjan and then returned to Camp Buehring on December 14th. Just as we had for the Road Warriors two days prior, we lined the road inside the ECP to welcome our heroes. It was a repeat of the previous celebration. Our Soldiers cheered, Company Guidons waved, banners were displayed, and the trucks honked their horns. Once the Road Masters parked their trucks there was nothing left for them to do except prepare for their trip back to Fort Eustis, VA. As a Battalion, we were still on mission but now it was a matter of counting down the hours. Job well done Road Masters!

There was electricity in the air. Every single Soldier in our battalion was energized. Not only were we at the doorstep of our end of mission, we were on the eve of the end of the war in Iraq. The announcement would come the next day in a ceremony held in Baghdad. Now the unrelenting momentum is the emotional rush of knowing we are headed home. Our historic mission – the largest combat retrograde of forces the United States has conducted since World War II – was hours from being complete.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Iraq In Everyone's Rearview Mirror

"Where we stand today is not only acceptable in my view, it is truly remarkable." - Tommy Franks The end is drawing near. Operations in Iraq are coming to a close. But there are still Soldiers laboring on in Iraq ensuring we stay on schedule. Many of them belong to my Battalion. With that in mind, my CSM and I took off on what will prove to be our final battlefield circulation and, ultimately, the last time I will set foot on Iraqi soil. Early on the morning of 13 December 2011 we reported to Udairi Airfield for our flight north. It was a bright, brisk and breezy day. Our destination would be Tallil, our former home prior to our last jump of our TOC to Camp Buehring. A good portion of our battalion remains there conducting various logistical functions - running the cargo shipping and receiving point (CRSP), manning the bulk and retail fuel farms, and keeping convoys supplied with food and water. At the same time our transportation companies continue to visit COB Adder (Tallil) almost daily in order to haul out the remaining retrograde cargo. As chance would have it, our battlefield circulation would coincide with one of our final convoys departure from the staging lanes at Adder. We cheered them on in person as they pulled out with another load of cargo. But back to the flight up... As we departed Udairi we were greeted with the endless view of Kuwaiti desert. Herds of camels were the only form of life visible in any direction. I realized how easy it can be for a pilot to lose the horizon and become disoriented when surrounded by such lifeless emptiness. But after about twenty minutes we came upon the Iraqi border, which is clearly marked by fences and security roads stretched from east to west as far as the eye can see. I was back in Iraq. I knew this would be the last time to visit this place. I remembered crossing the border back in 2003 at a place called NAVSTAR before screaming north in an unarmored suburban to Basrah and then on to Tallil. That was in the beginning. Now, eight years and seven months after my first time crossing the border, I was here in the end.

After about another thirty minutes of flight time we landed at Tallil. COB Adder looked exactly the same from the air. Soon we knew it was a ghost town. Hardly anyone remains. Our old HQ is empty. All of our old living areas are empty and locked up. The water is turned off. There are no services remaining. MRE's are still the cuisine of choice for those who remain. Iraqi military personnel are now taking possession of everything we once ruled. Our only purpose is to safely vacate all that remains. To that end, my Soldiers labor on. One of my Company Commanders and her First Sergeant picked us up at the pax terminal and hustled us over to the CRSP. It was completely empty. I could have hit a golf ball from end to end and not hit a thing but dirt or fences. We have moved every last piece of cargo out. I was astounded. When my battalion first arrived at Adder there wasn't enough room to store all of the cargo. Now there is nothing to store. Next we moved over to the fuel farm. I chatted with the Officer in Charge and some of the Soldiers - all of whom belong to our subordinate Quartermaster Company. The fuel farm was also down to its last few days of supply. There was no need to resupply the fuel. Once it runs out the place will be closed. My Soldiers would be the ones to close it for good. What the Iraqis do with it after we leave is of no concern to us. Our journey continued over to the convoy staging lanes. There we met another of our Company Commanders, who was in Adder with trucks from his transportation company as they conducted one of their final convoys. I walked the line of Heavy Equipment Transporter Trucks. Their massive M1000 trailers were loaded with giant wrecker trucks, which represented some of the last cargo to leave Adder before it closed. I wanted to give every single one of my Soldiers a Commander's Coin of Excellence but my pockets weren't large enough to hold that many coins. A select few did receive my coin and all of them received my praise and thanks. CSM and I positioned ourselves at the front of the line and then waved to and saluted each truck as they rolled. Their horns honked in reply. It was a surreal moment of proud glory to be present as witness to this and know that these were my Soldiers who are closing Iraq. We will be the ones who validate the historical accounts of this moment because we were here. Our final visit was to the Class I supply center. There I met with another of my Company Commanders and some of his Soldiers. Most of their company left already back to the states. Although their mission was direct support maintenance, a few of them volunteered to remain and run this facility to ensure convoys were properly supplied with food and water. After handing out a couple more coins we rolled back to the pax terminal for our return flight. Incredibly enough, we had already been at Adder for six hours. It was so electrifying to be back at the tip of our spear again that it seemed more like six minutes. I wanted to stay and, if it were up to me, would have stayed at Adder to the end. But alas, my HQ had already relocated to Camp Buehring at the bequest of our higher. So CSM and I accepted that at the end of the day we had to return to our flag.

It was around 1700 when we were summoned to our awaiting Blackhawks. The weather had been spectacular all day and the sun wouldn't disappoint us come sunset. As we lifted off we circled around the convoy staging lanes before turning south. There are 60 convoy lanes at this massive facility. But only two lanes had anything staged. The contrast of emptiness spoke volumes of all we've done to get to this point. Operations in Iraq are at their end. At that point I realized this was it for me and Iraq. I was watching this place for the last time. The glow of the flares at the oil wells near Basrah provided a matching patchwork of colors to the orange of the setting sun. Occassionally, the Blackhawks would pop flares to add to the fiery spectacle. Although I was very tired I stayed awake to take in all of this for the final time. Iraq, its contrasting visions of life and lifelessness, its stifling heat and oppressive humidity, its historical sites set against a backdrop of poverty and waste, it will always be seared in my mind, memory and conciousness. My final journey out seemed to provide one final tapestry of memories that will never be duplicated by any other place I have been or will ever go. Very few of my generation served here. I'm glad that I did - each and every deployment. The best came last. As my Battalion finalized the retrograde, with only two days remaining before operations were officially declared over, I got to be one of the last out. Even as we flew southward I found myself thinking of ways CSM and I could make one more circulation. But time is not on our side for that endeavor. This time would be the last time in Iraq forever. As if to add to the summation of everything, we stopped in Basrah to pick up some civilian contractors who were also leaving for good. One of them had tears in his eyes. I don't know if they were of joy or sorrow. But they were brought on by the end. Iraq - goodbye forever.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Army? It's Now 10 And Counting...

The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave... - Patrick Henry

56-49-7. That is where the all-time Army-Navy Football rivalry stands. As painful as it is for me to say this, Navy has a commanding lead of seven games. It has been ten long years since Army last beat Navy in football. I was at the game. At that time, Army led the series 49-46-7. Now it has reached the point where most people don’t believe Army has ever led the all-time rivalry in wins. Unfortunately, I am beginning to think the Brave Old Army Team doesn’t believe it can ever beat Navy again. The past two years the game has been Army’s to win. Instead, each of the games became Army’s to lose. Mistakes – penalties, turnovers, blown plays, missed reads, and ridiculous gaffes have taken momentum right away from Army and proven that their toughest opponent is themselves. The teams that took the field last year and this season have never been more evenly matched. That meant winning came down to the team that committed the fewest mistakes. As fate would have it, Navy executed better than Army in both games from start to finish. Just as predictably, Navy won. The streak of futility continues. There were stretches of this year’s game in which Army seemed dominant. Their offense ate up large chunks of yardage. The defense held Navy on their own side of the field. But too often a mistake would kill a drive, sink momentum, or give the ball to Navy with a short field. Army’s final drive of the game came down to a 4th and 7 play deep in Navy territory. The play they chose was basic triple-option wishbone football. Trent Steelman, who played a very good game, missed the most basic quarterback read of the triple-option. The first option is the fullback off center. If the defensive tackle crashes inside, the quarterback fakes to the fullback and continues down the line with the ball. If the defensive tackle plays straight on his lane, the quarterback should hand off to the fullback up the middle. On Army’s final play the Navy defensive tackle played straight. The basic read – the first read – should have been to handoff to the fullback, who had a big hole and open field ahead. Instead, Trent kept the ball and was forced to retreat into the backfield due to the very same Navy defensive tackle playing straight. The play ended with a loss of yards and a turnover on downs. Army never got the ball back as Navy ran out the last two minutes of the game. Enough is enough Army! Ten years of pain has got to end. Believe it! Do it! Make next year the game in which Army starts its own streak. Make Navy feel the pain of a loss while singing their Alma Mater first at the end of the game. Feel the boundless joy as you watch Navy choke back tears while you lead the Corps of Cadets in our own Alma Mater in a victorious harmony. The time is now. This pain has to end now.

For this year’s game, I watched the game with some of the Cavalry Troopers of Gary Owen. These hardcore 1st CAV guys have been providing escort to many of my convoys in the past nine months. They are truly awesome Soldiers and leaders. Several of their Officers are fellow USMA alumni. We cheered the Army Team on while drinking near-beer over a few burgers and hot dogs. But our mood became very somber as the final minutes ticked down to zero. We all shook hands and dispersed with sincere sorrow in our hearts. Losing to Navy is unfathomable. It is an abomination. It is unacceptable. Army the time has come to put a stop to this madness. I will be at next year’s game. We will all rejoice in raucous celebration as a new streak begins – Army over Navy. GO ARMY! BEAT NAVY!!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Double-Digit Days, Single-Digit Convoys

"When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find, peace of mind is waiting there." - George Harrison Looking at the calendar this morning I realized December is almost into double digits. At the same time, our remaining convoys is into the single digits. The advancing days of December are directly linked to our diminishing number of convoys until the end. I walked past the "mission board" that hangs on the wall in our TOC and I could see it - the end, the last convoy, the final passage of the last paragraph of our mission. The end isn't just near, it is a date on the big board. You'd never know it if you were a passing visitor. Everything is still moving like normal. Trucks are rolling north and south. Cargo continues to pour out of Iraq. Soldiers are everywhere busy with their tasks. But there is an easy release in the air, in everyone's eyes, and on all of our hearts. We know we are going home soon where we can be with family and friends that we have missed so dearly for so long. It has been teamwork at every level that has brought us this far - to the very last curve on the track with the finish line dead ahead. That finish line is the demarcation line that once crossed allows us to stop, look back, and finally see the phenomenal size of the mission we will have successfully accomplished. The momentum is with us, the wind at our backs, and we all caught our second wind long ago. I can't come close to conveying how historic a mission we have had the honor of being tasked. Our Battalion is now the final logistical unit operating in Iraq. Operation New Dawn owes in great part its successful conclusion to our Battalion and its logistics warriors. And now, with the end ever so near, our warriors can feel the prize they have so justly earned. Every single one of their families should be beaming with pride as they welcome our Soldiers home. Future generations of Soldiers who serve in our Battalion will look to the Campaign Streamers on the Unit Colors and reflect on what it must have taken to earn them. We won't have to reflect. We were here. We earned them. We earned them together, as a team fighting for a common purpose, and, most of all, we earned them for each other.

As the commander I must say that I could never have been blessed with a better organization. We are the "perfect storm" of logistics. There can never be a more perfect balance of the Total Army Concept than what has been placed at my disposal. My Soldiers come from the Active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard. They come from towns with names like Havre de Grace, Smyrna, Boonesville, Spear, and Enterprise. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the colors of the Great Barrier Reef. But put them in their digital camouflage and arm them with the tools of their trade and they fall in synch with precision that would make the best of German engineers envious. I can confidently state that after honing our skills over the past year accomplishing the largest combat retrograde of forces our military has conducted since World War II we are the best unit of our type in the Army today. We shut this place down for good. I personally believe that every single one of my Soldiers deserves to have a hometown parade in his or her honor upon arriving back to whatever village, town or city they call home.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sprinting to the Finish Line

"Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order." - John Adams
Jumping the TOC to Kuwait had a surrealistic quality. Over the course of this war, our minds have been programmed to view Kuwait as a forbidding temporary place to reside when either coming or going to Iraq or Afghanistan. Now we had to face the fact that we would live like transients in a hostile climate while we continued to work towards mission success. A good portion of our battalion remained at COB Adder to run various tasks until the base closes. Meanwhile, our convoys roll day and night all over southern Iraq in their quest to remove every remaining trace of our military presence. The headquarters personnel are now making all this coordination happen from tents in the middle of the barren Kuwaiti desert. Nights are cold and there are no terrain features or vegetation to give shelter from the wind. The days of CHUs are gone and at night our weary backs sleep on folding cots arranged 50 Soldiers to a tent. The showers run out of hot water almost instantly. The DFAC has long lines. But on the news reports we see the continual updates of our comrades successfully moving out of Iraq and catching flights home. We know that soon we too will reach end of mission and catch a flight home. Nearby Camp Virginia is a scene of constant arrivals and departures for units who are done and leaving. Occasionally, one of our own subordinate units is included in this mix. But at Camp Buehring the beat goes on. Retrograde is ongoing. It has to be completed by December 31st.

It is really a good thing that we are now on the sprint to the finish line. Kuwait is not a fun place to be for any length of time. It is a featureless desert that is seemingly devoid of any life. There are random camels, dogs, and birds. But for the Soldier who toils long hours it gives very little luxury to relieve stress. Kuwait is always best in the rear view mirror. Just a few more convoys, a couple more base closures, and a little patience over these last few days and we will all have this place in our collective rear view mirrors. Mission comes first and to that end we will dictate the successful end of our stay in this forbidding place.