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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