Sunday, March 23, 2008

Out Processing Up The Chain

When you leave a theater of operations, you have to "out process." Out processing means filling out paperwork, clearing hand receipts* and making sure that you don't have any open issues, like legal issues or investigations. Here at Camp Phoenix, the headquarters of Task Force Phoenix (the people who I've supposedly been working for this year,) we are out processing for the third time. Each subordinate command has its own out processing, because each subordinate command has had some responsibility for us (at least on paper,) and some have actually given us equipment to use that they need returned.

Some of this has been purely ceremonial. We belonged in name only, gaining no support from that organization whatsoever. At least nothing that was visible at my level; dirt level.

We have been called heroes by some senior officers. I know a couple of guys who are in for hero-type awards, but for the rest of us it's just a verbal pat on the ass. The guys that I know who are in for hero-type awards deserve them; O and his old boss, MAJ Stone Cold. O saved an ANP's life under fire when the RPG he was firing exploded as he fired it, and MAJ Cold gathered up a bunch of ANP during an ambush and attacked up a mountain towards his attackers, breaking the ambush. Ferocious.

Ferocious is not what would come to mind if you met him in person without knowing what he has done. It's funny, but it's true. He is one of the finest officers that I have ever known. He does his job to the best of his ability with seemingly limitless energy and an underlying sense of humor about what he is wrapped up in. He's not a superman, but the heroes that I know are not supermen. The only thing that separates them from anyone else is what they do when the chips are down. There are no visual clues, and while O could be described as very confident in his abilities, he's not the cockiest man I know.

Actually, the cockiest man that I know is a demonstrated coward. He can't get enough of telling others how great he is, and he can't take cover and stop doing his job fast enough when a shot is fired.

MAJ Cold looks like the contract manager that he was before he came here. He carries no air of cockiness whatsoever. He carries an air of capability, but he carries no air of ferocity. But when he and his ANP were getting shot at, he dismounted his nicely armored humvee, grabbed his ANP by the shoulder, and said, "We're going up there," and he went.

And they followed him.

Soldiers tend to be cocky. Elitism is something to be admired, and the right to wear some badge or tab is a sought-after thing. But I'm here to tell you that the badges and tabs and patches and swagger don't make anyone a hero. You can't pick the real ones out of a crowd, and the only ones that you can know of are the ones who have actually had the situation thrust upon them and did more than many would. Not that doing one's job under fire isn't admirable; it is. There are many who do that; but that's the job. It's what's expected. We are soldiers. There aren't many who get out of the vehicle while bullets are flying around and they don't have to and they do more... not to be showy, but because there is something that they know needs to be done, and they do it. Nobody would have faulted O or MAJ Cold for staying inside their vehicles and continuing the mission from right there; nobody except them.

But the rest of us have been called heroes... it should have been accompanied by a clown horn noise.

There were some interesting things from the General's little out-brief today, though. You would expect him to have the statistics, the big picture. Apparently we made a big difference with the ANP. Ten times more of them were dying before we picked up the mission to work with them. District centers were being lost on occasion. Where we are working with them, they have lost no district centers, and their death rate has decreased to a tenth of what it was.

They still die ten times more often than ANA soldiers, but that's the nature of the beast. They are the softer target. They operate in much smaller numbers and they don't have the heavy weapons of the ANA.

There are stages of insurgency, and last year... the bloodiest year since we entered Afghanistan... the Taliban tried to take it to the next stage. They tried to take on government forces head to head conventionally. It didn't work out so well for them. The government of Afghanistan is operating in more places now than it was a year ago. I've seen it with my own eyes. Valleys that were contested a year ago are relatively peaceful, and valleys where there was no IRoA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) presence are now in the process of becoming governed. The boundaries of ungoverned Afghanistan are shrinking.

The Taliban isn't on the run, but they are being squeezed. Of course, the Taliban aren't the only ones out there. There are warlords and criminal gangs and some of the same players who helped push Afghanistan into chaos when the Soviets left. There are corrupt government officials, and there are corrupt Army officers and ANP officers. There are drug lords and there are villagers who will grow opium until someone forces them to stop.

Afghanistan looks like a kaleidoscope of problems, and it is. There is no quick or simple cure for all of this, and it is frustrating and confusing. I'd say that many of us feel frustrated and beaten down by this past year. Some of my brethren don't see any hope for Afghanistan. They come by it honestly, but I disagree. I see hope. I have seen progress. I have seen change; small, slow, but it is there.

The easiest answer is, "Nope; we're wasting our time here. This country will never amount to anything."

I can tell people at home that we are making a difference, we have made a difference here... but it is enormously taxing on the soldiers who are out there in little teams here and there all over the country. This is like doing occupational therapy with a severely brain damaged drug addict who suffers from delusions of normalcy and harbors resentments against the therapist. Oh, and the patient's evil cousin, who shares a love-hate relationship, keeps smuggling drugs into the ward.

Good old Cousin Pakistan. The Pakistani involvement is as plain as day to us. Most of us have seen Pakistani's here. They were employed, and they weren't on vacation.

I saw a sign today in, of all places, the JAG office. It struck me. It was a picture of two guys wearing body armor, weapons present, sitting on a crumbling khalat wall... it could have been anywhere in the country, and they could have been any of us. The sign said, "What have you done for the ETT's today?"

What indeed. Who made this sign, and why did they hide it in the JAG office among the Dilbert cartoons and all of the other stuff all over the wall? It struck me that this was the only original thought that I'd seen at Camp Phoenix. What should be the driving philosophy behind the whole organization is an anomaly on a lawyer's wall.

There is not a single one of us who were out there in the teams who feels like we were well-supported. There's a lot more that could be said about that, but that's the short story. We felt like we were truly "out there." We felt like this place was on another planet. If someone said, "Oh, they've got those at Phoenix," when we needed something, our reaction wasn't, "Oh, thank God! We're saved!" It was, "Crap. We'll never see it."

Being here brings feelings of resentment from ETT's and PMT's. We universally hate this place. It is a symbol to us of being out there, at the mercy of whatever unit was closest to us (a lot of that was a good experience... the 82nd and 173rd did good things for us a lot... but sometimes not,) and feeling like this place was a self-contained puzzle palace with no direct bearing on our success.

They sure as hell wanted us to wear their patch, though. None of us really want it. We aren't wearing it now. It was bragged to us today about how some staff guys had busted their hump to get us special antennas that we had to pull teeth from chickens to get ahold of. We never did see enough of them. We borrowed from the 82nd. We still didn't have what we needed. Nope, this place is a self-contained Peyton Place of social intrigue and we hate being here. Any place where soldiers have enough time on their hands to form a prostitution ring is a place where they are not connected to the war. Nobody goes out of their way to spend the night at Phoenix.

Where we were, saluting was basically your way of telling an officer that you wished someone would shoot him. Around here you can wear your arm out saluting. Officers are plentiful and salute-hungry.

Nope, this place is just another waypoint to do paperwork and justify their existence. O and MAJ Cold's awards have had to pass through here on their way to CSTC-A** for approval, and they still can't tell anyone with any degree of veracity where those awards are right this minute. They were submitted months ago, and I don't mean two. Actually, both of their awards have been downgraded once already. Nobody will stand up for these guys and really push to have them recognized as much as possible. O got a pat on the ass today, and his accomplishment was trivialized by calling all of us heroes. Yeah, yeah, talk is cheap and so are ARCOM's.

Every one of the senior officers who have spent all of their time here on this camp will go home with a Bronze Star, minimum. Every one.

So, that's irritating.

There is a feeling of accomplishment, and there is a feeling of wanting to grab the wily Afghan speckle-throated bull fobbit by the neck and shake it like a terrier with your favorite slippers, and there is a feeling of simmering tolerance for any amount of bullshit that they want to put us through so that we can go home and be with the people who truly matter to each of us.

*hand receipt: a way that the government has of giving you equipment that you need to do your job and keeping track of it so that you can return it when you are finished using it... but in the meantime, you are responsible for it.

**CSTC-A: Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan; they are Task Force Phoenix's higher headquarters.


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/24/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  2. OUTSTANDING! I see that nothing has changed since I retired over 25 years ago..line does the word and staff wants the credit and usually gets it.

    My thanks to you for a job well done.I hope you are joining your family soon.

  3. I got out of the Air Force with a chest full of medals--but I was a cold-war warrior who spent my entire career facing down the Soviets. I never could take them them all that seriously for that very reason--real heros are seldom recognized as they should be, and people in the right places get them when they haven't really done all that much.

    That and thinking about my father's uniform from WWII. He was on an LST at Tarawa and Iwo Jima, was in kamikazi attacks, went through typhoons and who knows what all else because he doesn't say. How many medals did he get after 4 years of hell? Three.


  4. Darn, late to the party. Tho I think I've read exerpts on the Dawn Patrol before.

    Thanks for your service there and for sharing. You've certainly got a way with words and stories to share that help this civilian understand what's going on and how things work... or not. Glad you can still see some progress anyway.

    God bless and Godspeed

  5. 1. Nothing changes.
    2. Comments on heroism virtually identical to ones expressed 38 years ago.
    2. Ditto downgrading awards.
    3. Ditto Remfs. They have their own little world and you are frequently an unwelcome intrusion.
    4. Two differences:
    5. They are more tight-assed on awards than they were.
    6. You are much better trained and are better troops than we were. What professionalism we attained was OJT, varied a lot, too.
    7. On the whole you are better off now than we were, IMO.
    Congratulations on completing your tour.
    V/R JW

  6. Sounds like a good time to be "a single digit midget", eh?

  7. You guys work your arse out but cannot make out the real issue is the POLITICAL LEADERSHIP IN YOUR COUNTRY and not your BRASS.
    Today Nawaz Sheriif has revealed that it is Musharaff who was responsible for making the TALIBAN'S JALALBAD BASE. Musharaff was also responsible for creating the MMA in FATA
    But Negroponte and Boucher have landed uninvited into Islamabad to cry for the continuation of Musharaff presidency.
    What a shame?

  8. I was in country on an ETT from June '08 to April '09. NOTHING has changed. This is sad but true.


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