July 26, 2009

The Call Me Coelacanth

You may draw a blank on “Coelacanth” but most folks know it as that dinosaur fish that was supposed to be extinct until somebody caught one.

Going through this pre-mobilization training with my younger troops make me feel like a dinosaur at times.

I’m not the oldest in the company. They guy who served in Vietnam holds that honor. (For the record and the umpteenth time: I was a VERY SMALL CHILD when that war ended!) I am old enough, though, that 18 and 19 year olds gauge the difference in age between me and them as around infinity.

And they’re not completely wrong.

During this phase of our pre-mobilization training, I’ve come to realize that I came up in a different era of the Army than my younger soldiers. I learned weapons in boot camp that are no longer in the inventory. They were trained to fire a rifle wearing body armor while I’ve only done it a few times and am still working on getting the hang of it.

Having something to learn from new soldiers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of them will grow into NCO’s charged with training troops yet to come. They might as well start with bringing this “codger” up to speed.

And the dinosaur fish analogy isn’t completely negative.

For all of their whiz-bang postmodern training, my youngsters still have the same issues new soldiers have had my entire career. Navigating with compass and map causes many of them fits. They take rumor as gospel. They have only begun to learn how to embrace the suck.

Plus, I was wearing this uniform for twenty years before they showed up and just may still be wearing it twenty years after some of them have left the Army.

July 5, 2009

On The Likely Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

President Obama reiterated his intent to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in his proclamation making June LGBT Pride Month.

Obviously, some think that allowing gays to serve openly is the worst military idea since the Maginot Line while others are disappointed that the President hasn’t already ended the policy.

I’m guessing the policy will go the way of the musket before too long.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have opinions on such matters, I just execute. At my level, there is no perfect policy. (Reference Murphy’s Law of Combat Number 16: “No plan survives initial contact with the enemy.”) Just about all policies are frayed at least a little once they grind up against reality.

A complete ban is undermined by the number of gays who have served not only honorably but exemplarily.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forces gays to serve in a very hypocritical manner. (Also, several of our coalition partners fighting along side us in Afghanistan and Iraq have no such ban.)

Allowing gays to serve openly means complications in billeting, homophobic tensions, etc.

Bottom line: No matter if it’s the current imperfect policy or a new and (un)improved version, me and mine will make it work.

Because we have to.

June 28, 2009

Retaining Good Leaders

A little while back, I ended up in a conversation with a former combat arms guy who had left active duty Army in a disgruntled fashion after eight years.

He did multiple deployments to include the invasion of Iraq and a trip to Afghanistan. Like anyone in the Army, he dealt with a plethora of nastiness, mismanagement, and inane bullshit. (E.g. he was selected for promotion to the senior NCO rank of Sergeant First Class AFTER he left the active Army.)

He said, though, that he wouldn’t have stayed even if the promotion had come in a timelier manner. So, what really got to him?

Not what he had to put up with.

Not what he did.

Not even having friends killed.

So, what couldn’t he hack? Having HIS soldiers die—especially when he couldn’t really grasp or justify what they had traded their lives for.

The irony: The guy had a great instinctual grasp of how we were doing counterinsurgency wrong and left about the time we started getting it right.

June 21, 2009

From Stop Loss to Mandatory Discharge

As of AUG 09, stop loss has ended in the Army Reserves.

Belay all that cheering for just a second.

When someone enlists in the Reserves, they incur an eight year obligation—six years of which they are expected to spend in a drilling (i.e. one weekend a month) unit. After which, they can transfer to the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR) where they are essentially a name on a list. This is commonly known as a 6 x2 contract.

Foolish me thought the new policy wasn’t going to impact our numbers significantly because only a couple of our Soldiers had contracts that would end during our deployment. Plus, stop MOVEMENT is still in effect so no one in a deploying unit can transfer to another one.

I figured that transferring to the IRR was just another such move. Turns out, those who wear the big, shiny brass are considering crossing that six year mark as a sort of termination point.

Those Soldiers can either volunteer to go on deployment OR be involuntarily transferred to the IRR with a bar to reenlisting.

To sum up: no deployment no more reserve career.

As always, the leaders push out the policy and we make it happen. I’m just at a loss how a policy ostensibly intended to reduce stress on troops, families, etc. ends up pushing experienced Soldiers out of the military.

June 7, 2009

An Interesting Find

I just found out that Baron Von Steuben’s first drill manual for the U.S. Army (“Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States” aka the “Blue Book”) also lays out duty descriptions for key positions.

Images152-154 show the original job description for first sergeants.

We no longer keep a company book but a lot of the duties remain the same today.

June 4, 2009

Glimpse of New CG in Afghanistan

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal appears to be likely confirmed as the new Commanding General (CG) in Afghanistan and receive his fourth star.

The firing of his predecessor General David McKiernan back on May 11th didn’t make the biggest media splash but it is significant news for me and mine.

The beltway blurbs have been fairly muted and consistent: General McKiernan is a capable commander but was replaced with someone better steeped in counter insurgency strategies.

Some of the love-to-hate-the-war bloggers, meanwhile, are stoking fears that General McChrystal’s Special Forces background (especially his time in Iraq) will mean more missile strikes from drones, secretive raids, even more shadowy prisons, etc.

I suspect the Cult of Galula is drooling en masse.

Comparing the confirmation testimonies of McKiernan and McChrystal, it’s easy to see why the counterinsurgency geeks are excited.

Plans and ground truth, though, rarely get along well.

Only troops, time, and the Afghan terrain will tell.

May 31, 2009

Back on the Net

Various and sundried personal and professional insanity has ensued since my last post; hence the silence. In the meantime, though, I’ve had the chance to see some of my newly cross-leveled soldiers in action.

I had to order two of them to go to sick call—one of which turned out to have Swine Flu. Another ran his two mile fitness test run even though his knee was bothering him. We later found out that he had a torn ligament.

I love that I’ve got some hard-chargers but they do need to learn that there is a fine line between hooah and stupid.

March 1, 2009

When Sisyphus Writes Your Training Calendar

This past weekend, my battalion completed Act I, Scene 2 of the epic tragicomedy known as SRP—Soldier Readiness Process.

An SRP consists of screening soldiers for pay issues, medical readiness, updates to admin info, etc. Yes, it is necessary. But so are a lot of other more kinetic tasks.

Devoting three out of twelve battle assemblies seems like overkill—or maybe underkill in this case. In the meantime, we have to train our soldier to (A) Do their jobs and (B) Survive. My troops will spend more time dragging their personnel files from one line to another than they will at the weapons range. It feels like I’m spending a third of our training year wearing an administrativia straightjacket.

And the denouement awaiting us in Act III? The entire battalion will repeat the process one last time when we arrive at the mobilization station.

February 16, 2009

ARFORGEN: Lousy acronym for a better mobilization

When my Battalion was mobilized in 2001, we had three days to drop everything and be at the reserve center ready to go. When I was mob’d in 2003, I had a whole week. We then spent about two weeks (as the follow-on element) preparing for Iraq. This included refresher training on reacting to chemical attacks (not so needed) and small unit tactics in a woodland environment (not so useful). 

Now, we’re under the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) process. (Yeah, it’s clunky but at least they resisted the urge to put a superfluous “warrior” in the title.) It certainly has helped our planning and prep. Most Reserve units get a year’s notice.  Instead of just dropping into some Active Component commander’s battlespace, we’re actually coordinating and scoping each other out. Not only are we getting soldiers cross-leveled to us from other units months prior to being activated, we even had the chance to train with a few of them this summer.

I’m curious to see how the training portion will work out. Back in 03, IED wasn’t in our vocabulary and we didn’t train on HUMVEE combat drills until we were in country.  Today, a good number of us have patches on our right shoulders. A few have Combat Action Badges. Only a couple of my troops have been to Afghanistan, though.

Being the Army, there will be any number of inane obstacles to clear. From my perspective, admin requirements are sucking up too much of our limited training time. And some of the canned training material would make you think that units deploy only to Iraq. (You see, the cultural awareness class on Arab society just isn’t very useful when you’re going to an area dominated by Pashtuns.)

A good number of us have patches on our right shoulders. A few have Combat Action Badges. We’re not prepped for everything but we at least have more of a clue. Even the time at Dix It wasn’t a total wash.  The UXO and mine clearing training was definitely eye opening and it still may come in useful—if not on this trip, then possibly another.

I understand that we can’t prep for everything.  At least on this go-around, we have a better grasp on what we don’t know.

All Stations, This Net: How Copy? Over.

This is the blog of an Army Reserve first sergeant in a unit headed to Afghanistan (AKA the Rock Pile.) It is intended to be a collection of my experiences, ruminations, and propaganda concerning the sturm und drang of a deployment. 

But first, a disclaimer to keep the lawyers from circling: The contents of this blog represent my views and my views alone. It is in no way intended to represent the Department of Defense (DOD) or any sub elements therein. Any gripes, complaints, or whining about the aforementioned policies are just that. Officially, I don’t have opinions on policy—me and mine just carry out those policies. (As some of us like to say: We don’t practice democracy in the Army; we just defend it.)

Also, it’s not my intent to be overly profane but you can expect adult languages and situations. There’s a reason there ain’t too many G-rated war movies.