reflections

Afghanistan Post Mortem: Fallen Soldier Ceremony

One late evening, my phone rang in the middle of the night. I answered it, expecting some emergency or another. It was the Operations Sergeant Major. A soldier in the command had been killed and he was being flown from our airfield to another, en route home. I needed to get the platoon together, he said, for a fallen soldier ceremony.

My commander had just flown in a few hours earlier, and when the platoon sergeant started rounding everyone up for a very strange midnight formation, they all figured it was the CO, pissed about something he had observed.

Once everyone was together, we briefed them on what we knew (very little) and moved to the flight line.

In other years, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem to rally the hundred or so soldiers it takes to form an unbroken chain of troops to create a corridor between the aircraft and the hospital. But in 2014, it took a lot of phone calls and maybe even some personal favors.

We all stood there in the dark on the asphalt, not really knowing what was going on. Nearby crew chiefs conducted final preparations for the flight. It was dark, quiet, humid, and groggy.

Eventually, we all started forming the corridor in an orderly, military fashion, without ever having anyone tell us what to do. It all kind of just happened.

Time passed, and the door of the non-descript building that served as the mortuary affairs office opened up. Large men carried the flag-draped casket inbetween the two ranks of soldiers forming the hundred meter or so corridor to the waiting Blackhawk.

Someone called us to present arms, and we did.

soldiering

Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

transition

Afghanistan Post Mortem: Readjustment takes time

Stress over time: Fantasy

Stress over time: Fantasy

About three-quarters through the deployment, I could physically feel that my patience, or rather, my ability to be patient, had severely diminished. I found myself getting easily frustrated with things that I would have been able to manage much better earlier in the deployment. My patience had been eroded, but I was cognizant of it, and because I was aware of it, I was able to manage my own impatience (eh, some of the time).

Speaking with other leaders about this, they reported a similar phenomenon. The challenges of leadership coupled with the stress of deployment had chipped away at their mental stores.

And the deployment went on, and then we went home.

Despite the constant drum-beat during re-integration training that war has a significant effect on the psyche, the thought that “everything will be better when we get home” still lingers. While it’s true that the immediate danger is gone, the phsyiological changes that occured and led to our being easily frustrated probably takes time to reset. It’s hard to imagine that the cumulative effect of nine months of deployed life (coupled with the tough training that preceded it) is wiped away simply by crossing enough time-zones and setting feet down on American soil.

Stress over time: Reality

Stress over time: Reality

update

Afghanistan Post-Mortem: The End of War

Well, that’s it.

Having arrived safely in America a few days ago, my deployment to Afghanistan is officially over.

I didn’t really spend much time or energy writing about Afghanistan or the experience of leading a platoon through the end of war for a bunch of reasons I’ll get to in a minute. Still, coming home from war is significant and it feels appropriate to try to try to wrap it up here with some kind of reflection.

For all the fun I had throwing around the ‘end of war’ adage in the lead up to the deployment, the war has not ended and goes on (and on). I suppose I had a slight expectation of learning something unique or new in the same way that I did through participating in the actual physical invasion of Iraq in 2003. That is, learning something about War or the nature of war.

Well, so far, I’ve got nothing.

Without question I learned plenty – being at work for nine months straight has its advantages. I learned about leadership, discipline, morale, personnel management, training, and mission command. I’ve also exponentially increased my technical skills at things like battle tracking, reporting, and building PowerPoint slides – not joking, I’ve gotten pretty good.

I was also fortunate to see how the way we fight has changed, especially when compared to how we did it just ten years ago. For a time, I led a fleet of MRAPs, the final evolutionary form of the doorless humvees we used to zoom around Baghdad in 2003. Getting out the gate in 2014/2015 requires a whole lot more than just sending a head count to the CP before SP.

Seeing things from an officer’s perspective gave me a deeper appreciation for the planning process, and the pressures that come from higher. What would have made me grumble and grunt as a young sergeant was now more fully understood as a lieutenant. I was able to see myself in both sets of shoes, as the leader with the information and the soldier without. I tried my best to close the distance between the two, with mixed results.

I was able to observe the absolute infestation of technology in the way we do work. Afghanistan is often derided as being backwards or “in the stone age,” but one of the first things new leaders do in country is get a cell phone. If so inclined, you can pop a local SIM card into your smartphone and sign up for a data plan, with pretty reliable 3G coverage. Not a day needs to go by without checking Facebook from your mobile device.

And the absurdity of war, in all of its colors, was still there.

This was quite possibly my longest stretch of time in the military where I’ve gone without eating a single MRE out of necessity. As best as I can remember, I ate only one MRE during the entire deployment, and it was for the novelty of it (it was a cold-weather MRE).

Yes, I learned a lot. And I came out of the experience better for it.

But to say that I’ve learned something deeper, some universal truth, would be a lie. It was war, as it was before.

This was my first deployment to Afghanistan, and having only deployed to Iraq before, this felt something akin to adopting a teenager just before he graduates high school. I cared, and wanted to help, but my individual contribution to the overall effort felt mostly insignificant – the hard work was done by others before me.

Some of the NCOs in my unit who had been to Afghanistan before commented on how much quieter the FOBs seemed. Where they were once bustling micro-cities, today they seemed more like ghost towns, Walmart parking lots on an early Sunday morning.

Frustratingly, success at the platoon level was extremely hard to measure. I’m remiss to say that it was a success because everyone came back safely, as many do, because while that’s a good thing, if going to war only to protect yourself is the goal, then maybe we need a better reason to go in the first place.

So far, the best I’ve come up with in describing success is through the metaphor of a relay race: we ran for nine months without ever really knowing if we should be sprinting or pacing ourselves, and then handed off the baton to the next guy before jogging off the track, panting. We have no idea how long the race is or if we’re winning, but we hope that it will eventually end, and at a minimum, we hope that our single lap around the track will not be looked back on as the lap that cost us the race.

As to why I didn’t write more about the deployment – I’ve never really used this blog as a journal or a kind of record of what I’m doing, with the exception of the occasional significant update. Honestly, it would probably have been a lot more interesting if I did keep a day-by-day blog. I know I would have enjoyed reading about what the end of the Afghanistan war looked like from the point of view of a small unit leader on the ground.

That kind of writng contains too many pitfalls, though. As other young lieutenant’s have learned, beyond OPSEC concerns, there are challenges to writing about the current goings-on in your unit, and those challenges are heightened when deployed, as a friend of mine learned when he was chided by his command for writing a gentle piece for the New York Times’ At War blog while still deployed.

I posted a couple of cryptic pieces through the deployment to try to cast a shade as to what was going on, but they went mostly unnoticed. I did keep a log of things that I thought would be interesting to write about eventually, and now that I’m home, I’ll get to them.

Having done this before, and being very aware of the way that war doesn’t end neatly or conveniently at the very point that the soldier returns home, I’m mindful that in time, some greater meaning or idea may come to me. I’m still very much in the honeymoon phase of redeployment, teetering between the joy of reliable hot water and plentiful alcohol and the bitter understanding that the strangers around me don’t know or care about what I have just done.

Walking into a coffee shop I frequent over the weekend, the owner greeted me by name and took my order, indifferent to the fact that he had not seen me for nine months and this was the first time I had stepped into his shop since last summer. He acted normal, and in kind, I acted normal. I bought my coffee and left like I had dozens of times before. Nothing changed. No excited “welcome home” or probing questions.

Honestly, it was refreshing, in a way. I just wanted my coffee, and I didn’t really want to stand around and try to wrap up “what it was like” in a sentence or two.

I drove home, confused. Did he not realize I had been gone? He knew I was deploying – I even had my wife send me coffee beans from that very shop. Maybe, I thought as I pulled into my driveway, he was doing me a favor, helping me along to get “back to normal.”

The episode reminded of the ending of American Psycho (the movie), where Patrick Bateman, having just admitted his crimes to his lawyer who dismisses them as a joke, sits in front of a sign that reads “This Is Not An Exit” and stares blankly, understanding that his confession has meant nothing, he has achieved no catharsis from his crimes.

It has been a long and short nine months. In a strange way, the whole thing kind of feels like I just stepped through a portal at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones and came out at the other end just in time for season 5.

I’m looking forward to leave.