Sunday, January 21, 2007

Stitching Buttons

Never a day just like the other here yet. This week, really just the beginning of a two month long cycle, has entailed a lot of different things. "Combatives" training (the new Army term for hand-to-hand combat) which is juijitsu-based, with a lot of ground-fighting, a mock meeting with the 'mayor' and 'police chief' of an Afghan village... played by two real Afghans, speed-marching for a couple of miles at 6:00 am with 40 pounds of body armor on just for PT, zeroing in the gee-whiz sights on our weapons, and rifle qualification in the driving snow. All the while, the team dynamics evolve and gel.

The combatives training is a lot like the "Ultimate Fighter" type of stuff you might see on TV. It's not every day I get to put a Major on his back and work to keep him there. Of course, he gets to do the same back to me. It's a good workout, and it's fun... but it's deadly serious, too. If you are that close to your enemy, who has every intention of leaving you a lifeless mess on the ground and is willing to do it with his bare hands or a knife, you are not playing games or wrestling in a competition for a ribbon. The winner gets to keep breathing, gets to maybe see his kids again, gets to speak to his friends again, gets another chance at having the best day of his life ahead of him.

The loser gets to get buried.

The Afghans here are combination language teachers, role-playing mentors, and cultural ambassadors. I am so grateful for them and what they are doing here. They are also great guys, with what appears to be genuine affection for America, Americans, and particularly American soldiers. They are American citizens, but one of them has actually done a tour as an interpreter working with the Army in Afghanistan. Their friendly, open attitudes are wonderful. They are fun-loving, outgoing, and easy to get along with. They have a genuine love for their homeland, too. Lots of help there. They are one of the biggest single assets this place has.

The weapons qualification was one of the most brutal I've ever participated in. It was cold, and we were out in it for hours zeroing our sights to the weapons (so that the bullet goes where the sight points it) and then qualifying. You cannot deploy if you cannot qualify. The zeroing is a painstaking process involving shooting three round groups and then making sight adjustments, firing three more, refining, and confirming. It doesn't sound so hard, but when you've got 25 people doing it at a time, it has to be done in concert. You can only go as fast as the slowest firer. It takes time.

Army weapons qualification involves being shown a bunch of different target exposures at 50 meter intervals from 50 to 300 meters. The targets are human silhouettes, the 50 and 100 meter targets being from the chest up (to simulate someone in the prone, firing at you) and the 150 is from the waist up. The rest are knees up. The targets pop up on mechanical lifters in random order, sometimes two at a time, and stay up for periods ranging from 3 seconds for the 50 meter to 8 seconds for the 300 and up to 13 seconds for multiple exposures. You are given one bullet per target exposure, and you have to fire from three different positions; the "foxhole," where you can support your weapon on a sandbag, the "prone unsupported," which is laying on the ground using only your arms to support the weapon, and the "kneeling," which is self-explanatory. There are no excuses... if you miss it or don't fire, you missed it.

There are three levels of qualification; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Everyone wants to be an expert, but you can only miss ten percent of the targets and qualify as an expert.

Shooting is a warrior skill; a martial art. I pride myself on my ability to hit what I shoot at, it is a sense of pride, part of my skill as a soldier, part of my value. Part of my survival, and part of my respect and self-respect. It is also competitive.

Yesterday we qualified with our brand new M-4 carbines (short rifles with collapsible stocks.) There were over seventy people all zeroing and attempting to qualify in 20-some-odd degree temperatures and what developed into driving snow.

Only four qualified as expert in these conditions. To my immense satisfaction, I was one of them. I was "stitching buttons" on the targets, never missing the farthest targets. Stitching buttons on their shirts. It's hard to explain how that makes me feel as a soldier. It's more than pride, though. It is part of our professionalism, among many other things, to be deadly. If a warrior is not deadly, he is not to be taken seriously. He is a guy with a sling-mounted paperweight, funny clothes, and boots. He is not a warrior. A warrior is at his or her core deadly to the enemies of his or her people; a protector and servant of those who are not, for whatever reason, deadly.

This concept sounds sick to those who are not warriors. It is one of the things that is at the core of anyone who is, at heart, a warrior. Not all soldiers are warriors, and not all civilians are not. Most people are not warriors in their hearts, and to them it sounds sick as hell that anyone would take pride in being deadly to anyone, enemy or not.

There is so much more to being a soldier than just being deadly. We are teachers, we are coaches, we are more closely bonded friends than most you will find. We are politically aware, we are deeply committed to ideals. We are subject matter experts in whatever martial art we specialize in, whether it is weaponry and tactics, combat engineering, logistics (the art of keeping armies in the field supplied with everything they need,) communications, or a number of other fields. We are, to some extent or another, athletes... it takes a degree of fitness just to carry around forty to fifty pounds of stuff as if it were part of you wherever you may go. We are outdoorsmen, practiced to one extent or another in the art of living as well as possible in rough conditions. We are, on this mission, mentors, ambassadors, negotiators, evaluators and wide-eyed but wary tourists.

But in order to be effective at any of those things, we must be deadly. We are the same as our fellow citizens, but we are different and isolated from them, too. We are, in a sense, wierd. Many are uncomfortable with our differences, and I've had people who, after asking me, "Why are you doing this?" and hearing my response of "Somebody has to," disagree with that premise. We are who we are, and I feel needed, even in my wierdness. These other "sheepdogs" that I am bonded to here feel this as well.

We are different, almost like some kind of social elephant man... but we are needed; whether all of the beneficiaries agree or not.
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Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Litte Extra Time

One thing that I did not expect was for our first week here at Ft Riley to be a short work week. The Regular Army, being a Federal agency, takes Federal holidays pretty seriously. So we've got a few days off. Of course, most of us on the team are stranded here with no vehicles, so we just stay around and try to relax. I've got a dvd player here, and the LT's got a laptop. We watch movies, he plays games on his computer, and we pass the time. Tuesday, it's game-on again.

Tuesday we will be issued our weapons. We will each receive a carbine and a pistol. They may even be brand new... although the pistols will probably not be. We were issued leg holsters for the pistols. Very Buck Rogers... or something. Three-point slings for the rifles. Tres chic.

The extra time extends an opportunity to examine one's navel, as well. The thought of where we are going is always in the back of my mind. I have done a lot of work to prepare my mind for where we are going, for what we are going to see, for what we are going to do. What will happen Tuesday is a relatively simple exercise that we have all been through dozens of times; receiving a strange weapon and making it our own. These two will be different.

They will be our battle weapons. They will most assuredly be fired in anger towards our enemies. I have considered my weapons in the past, and have mostly concluded that they would not be fired in anger by my hand.

These will. Hopefully not the pistol, for that is a very bad sign. The rifle, on the other hand, will. That is a simple statement, not a wish nor a desire. It is a function of it's being with me where I go. For a soldier, the weapon is a tool of the trade in a simple sense. Marines are taught that it is their reason to exist, as if they serve the rifle. That may serve the purpose of the Marine Corps, but I know that the weapon exists to go with me where I go, and to do what I need for it to do. It is only as useful as I make it. It is inert without me, a visual symbol of lethality, and nothing more.

Weapons are more than simple tools, though. No, I'm not talking about some kind of Freudian male organ thing... that's just silly; I'm talking about the actions that are associated with them. The application of deadly force is not to be taken lightly, but it must be more automatic in the situation that demands it. In other words, if you are to consider it, consider it well beforehand and come to your conclusions. When the moment comes, the time for careful thought is over. It is time to act. These thoughts must cover numerous permutations. One's morals and ethics must be established beforehand. The guys who acted out in Haditha were obviously lacking in this regard.

Some things are just feelings... I've had the feeling several times that I am not going to return from this thing with a pulse. That is only a stray thought, not a premonition. The same with gazing at the weapon that will be my constant companion in Afghanistan. There are thoughts that are just thoughts, nothing more, considering the unknown. I cannot tell the future precisely.

But the weapon will be an extension of my hand. It is not only a part of me, but it represents my ability to defend myself, to defend others, to render evil men inert. Without it, I am defenseless and nothing but a man in a silly hat with his pants tucked into his boots.

My weapon will be used most often as a marking tool (using tracers) for the machine guns and RPG teams, so that they can engage targets more efficiently. It is a matter of soldierly pride that I most often hit what I aim at. I am a very good shot with both the rifle and the pistol.

I have never shot anyone before. It is not something that I look forward to with anticipation. The feeling is more of a sense of sadness that I will most likely not be able to say that a year from now, and the weapon I am about to receive will be the instrument of that loss of innocence. I don't believe that it is a good thing to be able to say that you have shot someone. It may be necessary, and in fact I believe that it will be. I'd be surprised if it is not.

The weapon I receive on Tuesday will be all of these things and more to me. It will also be a dead weight to add to all of the other weight to carry, and the ammunition to feed it will add more. So, Tuesday I will meet my ball and chain for the next fifteen months.

Somewhere in Afghanistan, the soldiers with whom I will work, train, mentor and bond are there, and our lives will cross in ways that will change us all. Somewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan there are men whose paths will cross mine in violent struggle. Some of us will not leave these encounters alive. They are there now, drinking chai, smoking cigarettes, living their lives, and I am here. In a couple of months I shall meet the former. The latter we will meet together over the course of the spring, summer, and fall.

None of us knows the other, and none of us can predict the myriad of events that will transpire this year. Those Afghans, good and bad, have no idea that I'm coming, and I have no idea who they are, but they are already there. They have families, mothers, some have wives and children. They are grown men who have lived childhoods, who have memories and dreams and worries and have lived there for decades. They are each the result of a life's work.

As am I. As are we all.

May my rifle and I be agents for the good of all of us.
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Friday, January 12, 2007

Off and Running... In Deep Sand

We arrived a few days ago at beautiful Fort Riley, Kansas and were assimilated into the meat processor that is this particular part of the Army. There is a unit here whose whole job seems to be welcoming, processing, and forwarding human beings through to the Tactical Trainer roles in the combat theaters. There are a whole bunch of people here who are going to Iraq, and where I am there are only a few going to Afghanistan. That will change shortly, and so it will go. The program is adaptable, and it bends either way by design. It is an atmosphere of constant change and uncertainty, but it is run by people who do seem to care about what they are doing. It somehow seems to work.

I just relax and let myself be carried by the stream. I just do the next thing that's put in front of me. So far, so good.

In the past few days we have done tons of paperwork (some for the third time) and have had our records gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Then there is the medical screening and the immunizations... what mirth! I received Hep B, Typhoid, and Smallpox. I also had a medic who apparently was in training to be a phlebotomist dig for veins in both arms and find nothing but a great way to create bruising in my elbows. Never had that happen before. They finally took the vial they needed from the vein on the back of my hand. It is disconcerting to see something being manipulated back and forth relatively vigorously while it is inserted a half inch into the crook of my arm. I was patient, though. He's got to learn somehow, I suppose. I survived the assault.

We've also been issued a lot of equipment; probably two hundred pounds worth. Some of it is new and cool, and some of it is stuff I could have brought from home. The body armor is the same as that I left at home, but the ballistic plates are heavy, and the whole rig weighs around 35 pounds. That is without water, ammunition, grenades, and the medical kit. Never mind the rucksack. It rides well, though. It makes one feel a delusion of invulnerability and a certain amount of inflexibility. Inflexibly invulnerable is not a feeling I want to feed. I shall endeavor to remain vulnerable and find ways around the flexibility issue.

The team that is coming together is a good one. We are all Guardsmen, from about 8 states of the Union so far, and all volunteers. Good guys, all of them, with great senses of humor. We will get along well. I am honored to be one of them. I am honored to be permitted to serve.

Early next week we will be issued our weapons and will head down the hill for training. That program will give us a project for about two months or so and then we will be putting our boots on the ground in Afghanistan. That's the real work part of this operation. That's what we're here to do. That's what matters now. It has to be, because the focus has to be consistent. There's too much at stake to be losing concentration. All of us have kids, I think. A lot at stake.

We are still in the honeymoon period, but I think it's going to be alright. Team dynamics are so important. People can be killed for not working well together. It's not a legal issue, it's a life in a combat zone issue. I think we'll be fine. It is amazing how the will of God works in our lives.
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Saturday, January 6, 2007

Ready, Set, GO!

Well, this will be the last until I know what the situation at Ft Riley will be for the next couple of months. I hope to buy a laptop there and have internet access sometimes. We'll see how it goes.

I've been on active duty since the 2nd, but I will arrive at Ft Riley on Sunday. That's when the fun begins. A couple of weeks of inprocessing, and then it's off to the races with the train-up.

I've been feeling every emotion that you can think of when it comes to this. Excitement, anxiety, sadness, determination, trepidation, hopefulness; the whole gamut.

I know that nobody has read this yet but me... but even if I'm the only one who will ever read it, this is my ride. If you've joined in, welcome aboard. I'm sure it will get more interesting.

Leaving Sunday afternoon... the kids and the rest of the family will be there. I think it will help them to "see me off to war." I hope it will give them a sense of completing the process of saying goodbye... a sort of closure.

Still not finished putting everything in storage and packing for the journey. I will, though. Tonight there is a lot of work to do, then tomorrow a little more, then time with the kids. This trusty computer will go to spend some time with my kids, and then it will be here for me when I return. In the meantime, they will get some use out of it.

So long for now... hopefully I will post again soon. Be well.
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