Dec 01

At the fear of generalizing, I’ll say this: men in war zones obsess, get fixated on some really happy thought. I did. My men did. For example, one of my Soldiers--every time we sat down at the computers in the computer room--would show me a picture of the motorcycle he was going to buy when he returned.

About half way through my Afghanistan deployment--after reading a National Geographic travel magazine on places in the sun--I got my obsession: the Banyan Tree Madivaru, a thousand dollar plus a night resort with your own beach and “tent” in the Maldives. I saved the pictures to my desktop and would think, “Man, that place is like a billion times better than Afghanistan.” I obsessed about taking my then girlfriend, soon to be fiance, currently wife, there on our honeymoon (though I knew the whole time it was financially impossible).

Last deployment, I didn’t have the same obsession. I guess too many of Maslow’s needs were satisfied for me to obsess about anything. There was less boredom too. In Afghanistan we spent countless hours bored on radio guard or sitting in trucks waiting for something to happen, a perfect setting for obsession. In Iraq there was boredom, but also the trappings of Western society like the Internet, video games and basketball.

These pictures were the images of my obsession.

Nov 17

We’re doing something a bit different today. Twitter friend and college professor @Trishlet asked her students to brainstorm questions for Soldiers, and today I’m going to answer some. Out of a whole bunch of war related questions, I selected the seven that inspired the most interesting responses. After I wrote my responses, I realized it would make a great On Violence post, so here we are.

(By the way, we had a reader ask for more personal experience articles in the comments section of Monday’s post. We agree. If you have any specific or general questions about my experience, contact us. Just answering these questions gave us several post ideas.)

1. How do you deal with everyday life and the uncomfortable questions people ask?
Humor mostly, especially with uncomfortable questions. My dad told me long ago that you should never ask a soldier if they have killed. Every parent should teach that to their children.

I would add, as a corollary, that if a veteran boasts about how many people they killed, or brings it up themselves, I would question either how they handled the war or if they are who they say they are. People who never left the wire love to tell war stories; veterans will usually only talk to other veterans or people they trust.

2. What is it like coming home from war for the first time? I imagine there would be a lot of culture shock.
Actually, for me, I was surprised how easy it was to pick up where I left off. I have this mode I go into, and once I leave the combat zone, I leave it behind. Coming back from Ranger School was actually a bigger shock for me than coming home from Afghanistan the first time. Little things will come up, but mostly down range is over there and civilian life is over here.

After a few days back from Afghanistan, it was like nothing had changed. You drive again on civilian roads, you drink again, and you have a level of freedom. At the same time, you sleep, go on the Internet, and work out just like you did downrange. Deployment is just replacing one home for another, and you always make a new home.
Of course, going to A*stan and Iraq wasn’t as big a culture shock as going to Europe the first time, but that’s another post altogether.

3. Do people feel a second disillusionment when they return from war?
For me, the disillusionment with war came when I lost two friends. No matter how good the cause, no matter how many good things I did over there, I don’t think anything can make up for that. Not just my lost friends, but the violence that happens everyday. Even if it wasn’t to my platoon, the effect of violence was everywhere.

Eric C is the pacifist who believes that hardly any war can justify its cost. I don’t go that far, but I have seen the cost of war, and that probably counts as disillusionment. It didn’t happen in Afghanistan, it happened before I went.

4. How are dreams useful in remembering things?
I have had very few dreams about Afghanistan after I got back, but I wrote about one I did have here. It wasn’t based on reality, but it says something about the emotions I associate with Afghanistan. The emotion of fear from the dream was incredibly real, just like before I left.

Another thing. Downrange soldiers take an anti-Malarial pill called Mefloquine. It causes you to have vivid dreams, and downrange I remember having very disturbing and very real dreams. Different topic, but interesting.

5. Do you think that reading about and trying to understand what past soldiers have experienced could help future soldiers from having the same problems?
I truly believe that the best way to deal with deployment-caused emotional problems, like PTSD, is by communicating. Reading, writing and talking in groups are all methods of coming to grips with what happened. Soldiers are solitary and individualistic creatures, though, and it prevents that communication.

I definitely think that blogging has helped me channel my frustration, if you will. Though I still complain an awful lot about the military, I think blogging mellows me a bit.

6. How did soldier’s jobs change directly after COIN was established then enacted while troops were already in theater?
I think this is a false dichotomy. There wasn’t ever a point where we decided, “Now counter-insurgency has started” and we changed what we did. Instead, it evolved over time.
For instance, I was in Afghanistan right when the surge was starting in Iraq. It hadn’t been proven effective yet, but the manual had been published. So we did plenty of engagement with local leaders and tried to fund local reconstruction projects. But my battalion also fought the Battle of Wanat, which was one of the most violent, traditional battles of the war yet.
And units in Iraq were conducting leader engagements since the beginning of the war, they just weren’t trained or prepared to do so. Rebuilding a society was mainly something unplanned, that troops figured out on the fly. I am a huge proponent of population-centric counter-insurgency, so I hope our military doesn’t forget the lessons of these wars next time.

7. What kind of war memorial do you think best honors soldiers?
This question provoked an altogether too complex response, that we will have to think about and write up in the future.

Nov 16

A big, big, big shout-out is in order for Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, “the first living American service member from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be honored with the U.S. military's highest decoration,” the Medal of Honor. We think two videos showcase his accomplishments best:

- The first is from the PBS Newshour, which has two interviews and footage from today’s ceremony.

- The second is from this weekend’s 60 Minutes, which has a good description of what happened.

Sgt. Giunta is a member of my former unit, 2-503rd “The ROCK,” part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the best battalion and best brigade in the military.

Nov 15

In a continuing quest to show pictures from my Afghanistan deployment, today we have two pictures of the Korengal OutPost, a hell-hole I have written about before.

This first photo was taken out of a Chinook helicopter as I was desperately trying to get back to Camp Joyce. I went all over the battlefield before I got there, and I realized as we landed here I was at the KOP. My camera came after we left so this is the only photo I have.

But this second photo I got from SGT Crivello, one of my guys from the platoon. It pretty much captures the mood of the valley, and a brand new platoon leader.

Oct 18

Way back in July, I said it would be a short deployment and it was, I was gone less than four months. I went to Iraq both to learn about my next job in the Army, and my next AO, so it was mission accomplished.

Though it was short, I learned more than I thought I could about Iraq and Baghdad--no matter how much you read in books or in the media--nothing replaces complete immersion in the day-to-day operations of units in Iraq. Below are some of my thoughts:

1A. I might be a Fobbit. Throughout the deployment I never flew on a helicopter, rode in an MRAP, or walked on the roads outside of the base. Frankly, my role as an intelligence analyst just didn’t call for it. The only threats that inconvenienced my life were the mosquitoes invading my room, or the days the Caesar salad bar wasn’t running in the DFAC. Yeah, I was a Fobbit.

Part 1B: I don’t think I deserved all the combat pay I got. I can admit that between getting hostile fire, family separation, hazardous duty, and combat zone tax exemption pay, I got paid too much. Now putting the money I earned to good use is up to me, but if I could be “King of the Army” for a day, I would find a way to equalize combat pay so people who spend their entire deployment behind cement T-walls in air conditioned TOCs don’t get the same pay as the grunts walking the line everyday in Konar, Kandahar, Marjah, Mosul or Baghdad.

2. Intelligence is hard. Predictive analysis--the bread and butter of military intelligence--is pretty darn hard. Reading the tea leaves for the future of an entire nation is near impossible, but that is what intelligence people do (or try to do). Doing it well is extremely hard. It requires patience, motivation and the critical thinking to judge everything your read, see or hear. I am both excited and nervous about my next deployment when I will have to make decisions and be the man when it comes to intelligence.

3. That doesn’t excuse bad intelligence. Yeah intelligence is hard, but how the US Army and the intelligence community (IC) as a whole can be so bad at it boggles my mind. I can--and will--write plenty of more posts on this topic, but the basic point is that good intelligence requires hard work on the right things; the IC is good at working hard, but not on the right things. That leads to a lot of incorrect analysis, poor targeting efforts and bad intel.

4. The future is murky for Iraq. I hope to publish this thought in a larger article, but I think the future of Iraq is very dark and murky. To be blunt, I am not optimistic. From sectarian militias to insurgent Sunni terrorists, from foreign actors from Iran (and possibly Syria and Saudi Arabia after we leave) to international criminal syndicates and the government of Iraq itself, (with its endemic corruption and an inability to form) the threats facing the people of Iraq are numerous and powerful. Whether the government lasts, falls apart, is taken over in a coup d’etat, or becomes a stooge for the Iran, everything is possible and nothing would surprise me. In short, talk of victory in Iraq is misplaced.

5. Combat operations are not over. When President Obama declared combat operations had ended, all he really did was just re-label the situation. Combat brigades are still operating in Iraq, just not in “strictly” combat roles, though they still conduct missions. Most importantly, the violence hasn’t stopped. It isn’t like it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but every day something explodes in Iraq. It is the kidnapping capital of the world. Two million refugees still refuse to return from other countries.

Oct 13

Back in April, I wrote a post about the Afghanistan National Army and the Afghanistan National Police facing off against each other in front of my convoy. The point of that post was that the success of our military adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether or not the ANP can enforce law and order. Defeating the Taliban will rely on Afghan initiative more than anything else, although the quality of US training and support can go a long way to making them competent.

The following story gives you an idea of how seriously NATO took training the ANP back in 2008:

In my little part of Afghanistan, the job of training the Afghanistan National Police fell to a platoon of Military Police (MP). They had a huge area to cover, an entire province. They may have been reserve or National Guard, I don’t remember. We were supposed to provide security to the police stations, but not training. MPs know police work; my guys knew how to move, shoot and communicate.

When we arrived in Destined Company’s AO, the other PLs and the CO told me about a possible ambush site on the road from FOB Fortress (our home base) to Asadabad (another FOB/city). It was still active for many of the convoys that went through it, but not for us. For the eight months I drove past the spot not once did the enemy shoot at us. We had a specific weapon system we always rolled out with--the TOW missile--and the insurgents didn’t want anything to do with it.

One day--we were about thirty minutes from rolling out--we heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. My men hadn’t been in a firefight in a while--they were itching for a fight-- and this sounded like the opportunity.

We hit the trucks, we rolled out, and the company relayed via the radios that the MP platoon was in contact. As we headed to the ambush site, my section sergeant pointed out that he hadn’t heard the unmistakable sounds of a fifty caliber machine gun. Then we saw the MP platoon flying past us. We figured out that they were going to the Fortress, but we headed to the ambush site to try to catch the insurgents.

By the time we got there, the insurgents were long gone. (Ambushes don’t last long unless they are wildly successful.) Even though we got there about 15 minutes after it started, there was nothing to be found.

So we returned to base to fing out what had happened, and to figure out why the MPs had barely shot back. The patrol leader told us that their fifty caliber machine gun had jammed. One of our Soldiers offered to check it out.

He quickly realized they were right, they had a jammed fifty caliber machine gun. But the reason it was jammed was...peculiar. A fifty caliber machine gun can be set up to load on either the left or right side. But if you set it up to fire from the left or right, the ammo can has to be set up on that side as well. The MP platoon had a right fed machine gun loaded from the left. That is a weapon that will never fire.

Why were improperly trained men even on the battlefield? Why were they training the police of Afghanistan? This is a good leadership lesson for all soldiers: like the Marine Corps “every Marine is a rifleman policy”, all Soldiers in the Army are Soldiers first. Basic Soldiering, like the ability to load and maintain a .50 Caliber machine gun, is something no unit should lack.

Sep 22

These pictures don’t need much explanation. One of my guys is in it, and sharing a copy of People magazine with two Afghan National Army guys. I am 90% certain this was taken at the former Korengal OutPost, which was closed. (We wrote about here.)

Sep 15

As Operation New Dawn spread it’s bright light of freedom across Iraq, everything changed: people stopped fighting in the streets, a government formed as the contentious political parties put aside their differences, and the economy of Iraq boomed as unemployment ended.

Well, none of that happened, but we changed the name. That has to count for something, right?

The only real thing I’ve learned in the last two weeks is that the media and politicians don’t understand our current wars. Why President Obama declared the end to major combat operations or, even worse, said that all combat troops have left the country, is beyond me--especially when his predecessor made the exact same mistake.

I continue to do what I have since I got here: military intelligenc-ize. In layman’s terms, that is a lot of reading and plenty of writing. Good military intelligence people (cue age old joke about oxymorons) aren’t just analysts, they are detectives, historians, and academics.

Since it looks like I will be coming back sometime next year, a lot of my work is studying up on Iraqi culture, politics and the threat groups threatening stability here, trying to combine the different skills of MI analysts. That, and dodging the ridiculous monster-bugs that scurry around this place. The camel spiders aren’t the half of it; they have these gigantic beetle things that could carry away a small child.

One final note: a few people have asked about how they can still support the troops over here. To be honest, we don’t need much--our chow hall has prime rib and steaks and shrimp and lobster and a Caesar salad bar--but plenty of other people do need help. So instead of sending me anything, please donate to a charity of your choice. I recommend my personal favorite PUSH America--Pi Kappa Phi’s charity that helps disabled people live full lives. Recently, some chapters have started helping disabled veterans. Follow this link to give through the UCLA chapter.

And since an update isn’t good enough, here is a picture from my last Afghanistan deployment:

I wish I had a better caption of what makes this interesting, but look at me--all small looking--against the evil looking Apache AH-64. This was one of the primary refueling points for helicopters along the Konar River valley. The AH-64’s primarily escorted Chinooks transporting supplies and men, but we loved if we could pull them off to help us out.