16 November 2012

Back on the net

I am back on the net.  New unit.  New deployment coming up, this time to the other place.

All is not well -- serious concerns about everything to come.  More to follow.

23 October 2010

4 June 2009

Due to a DOD directive banning military personnel from accessing Wikileaks, I cannot post or link to the site.  However, viewing any of the reports will give you the gist of what they look like.  Take that into consideration, then juxtapose it with an account from someone who has served in Iraq.

Here is the email I sent to friends and family following the events of that day.  I am not saying that the U.S. military has never done anything wrong or bad during the 6 years of conflict in Iraq.  But to think that these Wikileaks reports mean anything when isolated from their surrounding context is naive and stupid.  I mean that: stupid.  If you have not served in Iraq or Afghanistan, then you have no idea what happens on a daily basis there.  Not even the kinetic fighting.  Just the whole experience.


5 JUN 09: Red Dragon soldier killed in action
1 message
XXXXXXXXXXX Fri, Jun 5, 2009 at 2:18 PM

To: (((OMITTED)))

Will probably be another 24 to 48 hours before this hits the tiny blurbs these types of things are typically relegated to in the papers, but I figured I'd beat 'em to the punch.
Obviously, I'm okay (since I'm writing this email to y'all).  Yesterday, 4 JUN 09, our battalion lost another soldier in the line of duty.  I'll refrain from putting the name out until I see it in the papers.  The soldier was not in my battery, but was in another battery in our battalion.
The soldier had been injured about a month ago in an attack (I did the investigation on it), and had just been awarded the Purple Heart for those injuries by the battalion commander during an awards ceremony last Friday.
I'll wait a bit before I put out the play-by-play, but it basically boils down to this: my platoon was in the north when Golf Company's platoon was hit.  We responded, took command and control of the scene (basically my platoon, plus two other platoons from different batteries), and ended up conducting massive searches around the attack area.
Managing a mixed-unit cordon, while battling equipment failures, namely a dead radio and a dead Blueforce Tracker (the screen with icons overlayed on a map which shows you where all of your friendly units are at), while searching for people who just killed an American soldier in four different parts of the city (up to 5 houses in each search area) was definitely a challenge.
What would've been a routine 6-hour patrol turned into a 12-and-a-half hour marathon, but in the end, my soldiers performed magnificently.  They were able to react and respond to an unknown, rapidly changing situation, and facilitated the capture of insurgents who killed one of our brothers in arms.  They did everything I asked of them, even when shit got chaotic, and I could not be more proud to be their platoon leader.
In the end, despite the outstanding effort put out by the battalion yesterday, nothing changes the fact that another soldier is dead.  When we heard the radio transmission, "Soldier died of wounds," I found myself not paralyzed by fear, sadness or even anger.  I don't think any of us did.  Maybe it's because we already experienced tragedy closer to home -- maybe because it was a soldier from another unit.  I don't know.  I don't know if those are the "right" feelings to feel or not.  Maybe SSG Webster's death drained me (emotionally) so completely that my platoon and I were able to drive on while units around us were running around in circles.
What I do know is that we all did feel a sense of determination, and all understood the fact that each passing moment gave the enemy an opportunity to get further away.  Everyone pulled together at exactly the right moment, and got the mission done, even in the face of tragedy.
Ultimately, it's been a crazy 24 hours.  I've received a couple of packages and letters, and I will write some individual responses once I get a moment to breathe!!
As always, love and miss you all.

I don't say this to sound superior.  It's a reality check for anyone that wants to judge me or my soldiers based on internet documents released by a company who has chased sensationalism and their own political agenda.  Before you judge me or anyone else, you better answer the following questions.  Then judge all you want.

Do you know what it's like to walk down a crowded market with less than eight dismounted soldiers, days after the same market saw IEDs and VBIEDs?  Do you know what it's like to have that godawful feeling in your stomach, that something is going to happen today?  Do you know what it's like to step out of your humvee and feel that blast of 120-degree heat, and the rivulets of sweat instantly breaking out and dripping down the small of your back underneath your body armor?  Do you know what it's like to smell the remains of human beings hours after they were blown up a suicide-vest bomber -- do you know what chunks of people smells like after they've baked in the sun for several hours?  Do you know what a person looks like after he has been killed by a VBIED and his entire body is charred black except for the intermittent streaks of red and yellow (fat)?  Do you know what it's like to wonder if this time that you leave the FOB will be the last?  Will this be the last time you brush your thumb against the selector switch on your M4 before a sniper takes you out?  Will this be the last time you key the hand-mic on your radio before your truck is destroyed by a deep-buried IED or EFP?  Will last night's phone call be the last time you hear the voice on the other end before your MRAP rolls over on some shitty mud road, killing you and everyone else inside?  Do you know?

25 April 2009

Due to a DOD directive banning military personnel from accessing Wikileaks, I cannot post or link to the site.  However, viewing any of the reports will give you the gist of what they look like.  Take that into consideration, then juxtapose it with an account from someone who has served in Iraq.

Below is the email I sent to my friends and family regarding the events of that day.  I challenge you tell me how the Wikileaks document tells the full story.


26 APRIL 2009

XXXXX Sat, May 2, 2009 at 4:54 PM

To: (((OMITTED)))

I originally drafted this email on the 26th, but couldn't send it due to the communications blackout (no emails/calls in or out until next of kin notified...)  The blackout was lifted on the 27th, but we've been busy here, and I haven't had a chance to mail y'all until now...  I want to thank you all for the words of sympathy and encouragement I have received. 
It would have been easier for me to simply not write this email...to hide the raw emotions from y'all.  But the whole point of these emails was to let you in to see what it was like.  I promised you a genuine look at our side of the fight, and here it is.
I kept trying to figure out how I was going to phrase my opening remarks to this email...but nothing eloquent comes to mind.
On 25 April 2009, Thunder Battery lost a member of our family.  SGT Leroy O. Webster was killed in the line of duty.  He was a TC (truck commander) for 3rd Platoon (my sister platoon).  Both 3rd and 4th Platoons (my platoon) were part of the same artillery platoon back at Hood.  SGT Webster was one of my gun chiefs, and I consider myself blessed to have served with him.
It's been more than 24 hours since he died, but I think everyone is still in a state of shock, myself included.
It was late afternoon, and my platoon had just returned to the FOB after completing our patrol.  After refueling the trucks, we headed to the chow hall.  On our way in, we monitored radio traffic from 3rd Platoon: they had a WIA (wounded in action), and were rushing back to the FOB.
My platoon immediately staged the trucks in the parking lot to the chow hall -- not bothering to return to the CP because the FOB gate is closer to the chow hall.  "Send two guys per truck to grab to-go plates, then everyone back here and prepare to roll out."
I called up to battery, and told them that I was standing my platoon up to serve as a QRF (quick reaction force) if necessary.  As we sat there, more details came in over the radio.  SGT Webster had been hit in the shoulder by a sniper shot.  We had no other information.
My initial reactions were anger that someone out there had hurt one of our own.  None of us thought the worst.  We figured SGT Webster would quickly recover, and within a few days, be wandering around mouthing off with his usual wisecracks.
As our guys finished eating, I briefed them on what little information we had: a grid coordinate of where the sniper attack occurred, and a couple of suspect vehicle descriptions.  In the trucks, we have this thing called blueforce tracker (BFT): it's basically a map with icons showing where friendly units are.  Battalion had dropped a green icon at the scene of the attack, and I found myself sitting in my truck, door open, headset on, listening to the radio and staring at the green cone on the screen...waiting for the words "Thunder 46, you are clear to SP FOB and move to following grid..."
Those words never came.  As I was waiting for permission to take my platoon out there, my medic came up to my door.  He was sliding his cellphone into his pocket.  I turned to look at him, pulling one earpiece of my headset away from my head.  I was expecting an update.
"Webster's dead."
I didn't believe him.  I looked at Doc, and said, "You're shitting me."  He shook his head and continued to look at me through his sunglasses.  I looked forward, and put my head in my hand, in shock.
Then, Doc did something that I will always thank him for.  He leaned in, and said, "The guys don't know.  Keep it together, sir."  That was all I needed.
We were still in QRF, and there was still a possibility that we would have to roll out into sector.  I spoke to my platoon sergeant, and we agreed we would not tell the guys until we were fully stood down.  The next hour and a half was perhaps the hardest I've ever experienced: forcing myself to control my emotions, to not let them show.  Trying to focus on the possible mission at hand.  Convincing myself that keeping the knowledge of SGT Webster's death from the guys for the time being was the right decision...
The call to send my platoon out never came.  We parked the trucks back on line, and then I rounded up my platoon so that the commander and first sergeant could talk to them.  At this point, some of the guys (the veterans of previous tours) probably had an idea of what was coming.
The news hit them like a ton of bricks.  The older guys who deployed with Webster last time around broke down and sobbed openly.  All I could do was grit my teeth and clench my jaw.  All I wanted to do was drop to my knees, put my arms around each of them, and cry with them.  But I couldn't.  I had to wait.  The battle NCO (who I work with on a daily basis) came up to me later when we were alone and said, "Sir, I know this is hitting you hard.  As hard as its hitting me.  But everyone here, from the lowest joe on up sees you as the rock of the battery -- they need you to be strong.  At least right now."  Just his words nearly broke me down.  I took advantage of the private moment between both of us to let some of it out before recomposing myself and going back to be with the soldiers.
The entire battery assembled at the CP.  Soldiers were sitting on the ground out front, heads in their hands.  Others were staring off into space, trying to comprehend the loss of one of the battery's largest personalities.  Others sat against the building, heads back, looking up into the night sky, tears rolling down their cheeks.
Late that evening was the ramp ceremony.  The entire battalion, and elements from the brigade as well as the Air Force folks showed up at the airfield to say our final goodbye to SGT Webster in person.  We all assembled in a neat formation.  The guidons and flags were flapping in the wind, and we stood and watched and wept as SGT Webster's flag-draped casket was carefully walked down the aisle between formations and placed in the back of a cargo plane.  It had been hours since I learned of SGT Webster's death, and I couldn't hold it in anymore.  I let the tears flow as we stood there at attention, holding our slow salutes as he passed us and got on the bird to go home back to his family.
Later on, I sat down with my roommate and fellow platoon leader, and we talked about it.  As much as I was hurt, he was hurting even worse.  It was HIS soldier.  It was OUR soldier.  We promised we would look out for each other, watch each other, and make sure that we come out of this mended and healed.
It was 0430 by the time I went to bed.  I slept like a rock, but only for a few hours.
The next day was just as hard.  First Sergeant and I volunteered ourselves to go to the humvee that SGT Webster rode in back to the FOB.  We couldn't bring ourselves to put other soldiers on this work detail.  We cleaned it out the best we could.  Pulled out all of the personal effects of the truck crew -- the body armor, the helmets, the gloves.  We scoured everything, pulling out the items that had blood on them so that they could be cleaned before being returned to the soldiers.  When it was done, Top and I stood at the door, staring at the floor plate between the two back seats where the gunner typically stands.  Despite our best efforts, dried blood could still be seen along some of the edges.  You could still see where undoubtedly the medic worked on SGT Webster while the humvee was speeding back to the FOB.  It was heartbreaking.
My worst fear in coming here had been realized.  There was likely nothing I or anyone else could have done that would've changed anything that day.  But it doesn't change the emotions that wash through you.  I wish I had stayed out in-sector for a little bit longer.  I wish I had the opportunity to find the escaping vehicles by happenstance.  I wish I had the opportunity to be with my brothers in 3rd during their darkest time.
It's a week later, and the healing process has begun.  The mission continues.  The last six days have been the hardest my platoon has ever worked.  Physically, mentally, emotionally...we're drained.  Maybe it's because of what happened last week.  Maybe it's the toll of a non-stop OPTEMPO finally catching up to us.  Regardless, we're going to continue doing what we do.  We have to.
The guys still get edgy a little bit in-sector, but it's not as bad as I feared it would be.  I still dread the prospect of the worst happening...losing one of my guys.  Every day, when my guys assemble for the patrol brief, I look around at them.  I see their faces: from the older, seasoned veterans to the fresh-faced young kids, and I pray that I am able to keep them safe and bring them back today.  And tomorrow.  These soldiers are my life out here: they make me laugh, they put their utmost efforts into the job and the mission at hand.  I am so truly blessed to be a platoon leader for these 23 guys, and blessed to have 107 other Thunder brothers-in-arms who will do anything for each other.
We're hurting (I'm hurting).  But we're healing.  SGT Webster died doing what he loved.  It's not fair (it never is): they always seem to take the best from us.  But we will endure.
Again, I appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers for SGT Webster's family.  Love and miss you all.  Talk to y'all soon.

Wikileaks madness, Part Deux

They're at it again.  This time, a data-dump of intel reports from Operation Iraqi Freedom, from 2004 to the end of the 2009.

Al-Jazeera TV's British syndicate is running a video that "proves" that U.S. military forces ignored instances of torture committed by Iraqi Security Forces.  Their proof is references to certain FRAGOs (fragmentary orders).  What they don't tell you is that a FRAGO is a modifying order that can be put out at any echelon.  FRAGO 214 or 232 or whatever-the-fuck can be a company FRAGO or a division FRAGO or anything in between.  The takeaway is that without the context (who issued the FRAGO?  To which subordinate units?  What was the content of the remainder of the FRAGO?  What as the base OPORD the FRAGO modifies?), information can be easily spun to be sensationalist and fill whatever political agenda you choose.  A FRAGO put out by one idiot staff officer can easily be rescinded or superceded by the next day's FRAGO.

So, here is what I'm going to do: I am going to demonstrate and prove how these intel reports, taken in isolation outside of the context of what happens on the ground, don't mean anything unless you were there or know the surrounding circumstances.

I'm going to prove it to you.  I know that sounds bold, but audacity is a principle of offensive operations, so let's do this.

I did what undoubtedly a number of fellow officers did: I went to the Wikileaks website and searched for my own unit's actions.  And lo and behold, I found some.  Specifically, the reports documenting the deaths of two soldiers in my battalion.

(Due to a DOD directive banning military personnel from accessing Wikileaks, I cannot post or link to the site.  Which is fine: I understand the OPSEC considerations -- which is why all of us are so enraged by the data-dump.

However, if you, the non-military audience views any of the reports, you will get the gist of what they look like.  Take that into consideration, then juxtapose it with an account from someone who has served in Iraq.

If you are a military reader, do not visit the Wikileaks site.  It is not worth it to be fried for an OPSEC violation.  You will have to consult local directives put out by your chain of command, but better to err on the side of caution.  Just remember you are always subject to UCMJ, both on- or off-duty.)

I want you to read my next two posts: they are verbatim emails that I sent home to friends and family following two incidents.  By the time you have finished reading those emails, you will see how I just proved to you that these Wikileaks extracts mean nothing when viewed isolated from their surrounding context.  I proved it to you because I was there.  And Julian Assange was not.

Once again, I will stress: I have no problems with calling for transparency in our government.  That's a good thing.  That's how we avoid the deathtrap of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.  But there are more responsible ways to call for change than just data-dumping sensitive information.  Even despite Wikileaks' attempt to sanitize their reports (I will admit they did a better job this time around than with their Afghanistan data-dump), they missed plenty of info in just the small sample of leaks that I read that can provide the enemy valuable information on how to refine their TTPs to continue to kill Iraqi civilians and American soldiers.

11 October 2010

Women in the military

The CGSC (Command and General Staff College) Student Blog over at the CAC Blog (CAC = Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a nerve-center for senior-level Army professional education) has a post up about the role of women in the military, specifically the current prohibition against allowing women to serve in combat arms roles.

The documentary Lioness that he refers to is a film that follows a handful of female Marines in Iraq who were attached to Army units to assist during presence patrols, particularly in the sensitive area of female searches: for conservative Muslims, it is strictly taboo for a woman to be touched by a male that is not their husband.  The assembly of "Lioness teams" and attachment of these teams to combat patrols allowed units to carefully avoid inciting cultural/religious rage during search operations.  Incidentally, I met Colonel Mike Cabrey (one of the senior Army leaders featured heavily in the documentary) when he visited Fordham University's Army ROTC back in 2007.  He was in town to sit during a Q&A panel following one of the screenings of the film at the Angelika, and took the time to speak to our cadets.  I was pleased to run into him again at a formal event at Fort Sill, and he is currently in command of the 214th Fires Brigade.

During my time in Iraq, women were consistently serving in "combat" roles.  The current distinction as set forth by Congress follows the lines the Army has drawn between combat arms jobs and combat support or combat service support.  Combat arms branches are those that historically involved close or heavy combat with the enemy: infantry, tanks, artillery, etc.

The problem is that war has changed significantly, and the anachronistic view that women are incapable of serving in forward combat roles is just plain outdated.  Now, even combat support branches like MPs, engineers, etc., are all doing the same jobs as the combat arms guys: patrolling on the streets in Iraq.  Some were very capable, others were not: nothing different than what we see on the male side of the house.  I can say without a doubt that there are plenty of women in uniform that can outperform (physically and academically) plenty of male soldiers.

The Army is in a transition period (whether it likes it or not).  I believe we will see DADT repealed fairly soon in the future (the next few years), and the prohibition against women in combat arms may soon follow.  Just as with DADT, there is always going to be x percentage of the American population at-large and y percentage of the military population that will oppose change.  And that's fine.  But when Congress makes a change, the military needs to bring feet and knees together, render a smart salute, move out sharply and execute: leaders at all levels are going to have be flexible and adaptive.

04 October 2010

Pointing to the pink elephant in the room...and talking about it

This story of some 2ID soldiers out of Fort Lewis committing atrocities in Afghanistan has been floating in the news for a while now.  This is one of those instances where one would hope that in today's professional, all-volunteer force Army, that wretched acts such as those that are being related in this particular case would never happen.  One would hope that they couldn't happen.

There is absolutely no doubt that these acts committed by these soldiers are disgusting in nature.  Absolutely no doubt at all.  Even the most stubborn-headed, ignorant, prejudiced servicemember you can find in the military would have to concede that these men were wrong.

I have absolutely no doubt that these soldiers will be dealt with swiftly and extremely.  They must be punished if the Army as an institution is to retain credibility with the American people.  But the real question here is not whether the guys were guilty or how long they need to be put in jail for.

The question is, where does the Army go from here?  More importantly, how do we prevent this from happening?

This band of criminals committed acts that are far and away orders of magnitude worse than anything previously documented since 2001.  The uniqueness and singularity of this case speaks well for the professionalism of our soldiers.

But it happened.  And although we may never be able to fully eliminate the chances of this kind of thing happening again, we as an institution must do everything we can to mitigate those chances as much as possible.  The solution is not to be found in a popular Big Army course of action (have soldiers sit through a PowerPoint briefing on the Law of Land Warfare (LLW) or the Army core values).  Those lessons can be communicated to the soldier level by units on their own -- hell, LLW is mandatory pre-deployment training.

What we need is dialogue among leaders at every level: between two NCOs at chow, between lieutenants at the bar on the weekend, between colonels at the Officer Club, etc.  It is very easy to turn our heads away from this because it is so horrible and disgusting: no one wants to acknowledge that people who wear the same uniform would commit these acts.

But we need to talk about it.  Captains in the Career Course need to be talking about this.  Majors in ILE need to be talking about this.  Leaders need to discuss not necessarily the polar black-and-white issues of right or wrong (in this case, it's pretty black and white), but the mushy gray: how do we prevent this from happening?  How do we take the lessons from a dry, boring PowerPoint, and make them tangible and salient to our young soldiers?  How do we shape and foster a command climate that prevents this kind of shit from happening?  What are the warning signs that soldiers might be breaking (psychologically), or wandering off of azimuth?

Trying to look into what allowed this unit and its soldiers to sink to the depravity they did would take forever, but with all of the media attention recently being given to the American military's increasing isolation away from the remainder of society (SECDEF Gate's commencement speech, etc.), it is safe to say that nearly a decade of continuous combat operations is taking its toll on our military, and not just in the very obvious PTSD-at-the-individual-soldier level, but at the institutional levels.  Even if the campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan literally ended tomorrow, the wounds in the Army's skin will take years if not decades to heal or scar over.  Leaders need to see this coming: they need to be aware it's coming, and they need to have a plan for dealing with it.

25 September 2010

Renee Ellmers = f***ing idiot

Renee Ellmers is a GOP candidate running for a Congressional seat in North Carolina. I just watched her get pwned by Anderson Cooper on CNN: she essentially said that all Muslims were terrorists and that the "Ground Zero mosque" was equivalent to al-Qaeda building a victory shrine on hallowed ground. When Cooper retorted with examples from history of religious factions building shrines on conquered territory, Ellmers retreated into some of the most nonsensical, circuitous speak I've ever heard (which means a lot, coming from a guy that went to law school).

This is going to sound harsh, but guess what: she is a dumb, ignorant bitch.

Yeah, I said it. And yeah, I know it's a mean thing to say. I don't care.

She is a woman that has somehow, in her mind, twisted the entire Muslim community (which is several billion-strong on this planet) into a clan of evil: she essentially generalized every Muslim as a radical Muslim and therefore a terrorist. Moments later, of course, when asked if she wanted Muslims' votes, she responded "Well sure, I'd like everyone's votes."

Well, NO SHIT!

I mean, if she's going to be prejudiced, can't she at least be consistent? And to watch her evade Cooper's questions about religious factions in history building shrines on conquered territories, to include Christians (a retort to her argument that the "Ground Zero mosque" is a "victory mosque" for al Qaeda) is nothing short of entertaining: much like watching a small, young child engaged in a debate with Stephen Hawking with regards to the nature of gravity or the Grand Unification Theory of Everything.

I'll tell you what: I have seen and heard some dumb shit during my short three decades of existence on this planet...but damn, this woman managed to surprise me tonight.

She knows absolutely nothing about my city or 9/11 or what is happening in Iraq or Afghanistan. How dare she try to exploit September 11th and this "Ground Zero mosque" hooplah for her own political gain. How dare she. YouTube the interview: it's quite entertaining.