soldiering

In the Army, you can’t call in sick

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I’m feeling a bit under the weather, which inspired the writing of this.

One of the stranger features of military life is the fact that, unlike most civilian jobs, you can’t call in sick. You can be sick, and you can even be excused from work for a few days after being put on “quarters,” but you cannot wake up in the morning, decide you are too sick to go to work, call your supervisor, and ipso facto, enjoy your sick day.

“Calling in sick,” for most Americans, is one of those fantastic little benefits where it is generally understood that if a person is sick, getting to work is too much of an ordeal, and if the person is in fact sick, coming to work would be a bad idea, as others might also get sick. And of course, after a day of partying, it is a wonderful tool to be used in the event of a terrible hangover. “Just call in sick,” your friends will say, which sounds like a great idea late the night prior, but an awful idea when you actually have to make that call to your boss in the morning.

But, the fact is, if you call in sick, and you don’t abuse it too often, your supervisor will likely take you for your word, wish you well, and then hang up.

This is what the conversation is like if you call in sick in the Army:

*ring* 

“What’s up, it’s 0545 in the morning.”

“Ugh, Sergeant, I’m sick.”

“Ok, get your ass in here and go to sick call.”

“…but I’m sick, I don’t think it is safe for me to….”

“GET YOUR ASS IN HERE AND GO TO SICK CALL!”

*click*

You see, in the Army, you’re not sick until the medics say you’re sick. And you’re not staying in your room drinking hot cocoa and playing video games until you get put on quarters (as mentioned earlier, a very rare event).

Perhaps the worst thing about being sick in the Army is that if you are legitimately sick, sick call hours are usually around 0600 in the morning. And you can’t just show up wearing your sweat pants and Ugg boots. You need to be in a proper uniform (albeit the physical fitness uniform) which means you also have to shave. The idea of looking at your gross face in the mirror at 0500 in the morning and shaving while nauseous and pukey is probably enough reason to keep most people from ever considering enlisting.

Most soldiers would never even consider attempting to call in sick, because they know they will be told to come in and go to sick call. Still, I’ve seen it attempted, always with the same result.

“GET YOUR ASS IN HERE AND GO TO SICK CALL!”

Interestingly, in all the years I’ve been in the Army, I’ve never been “sick” enough to even warrant calling in sick in the way I might out in the civilian world. I’ve been sick, sure, with colds and headaches and maybe even minor nausea, but never the level of sick that would actually make me consider calling my boss and trying to call in sick. Probably a result of having an immunization sheet that never ends and the Army’s zeal for preventative medicine.

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reflections

The Nostalgia of Old Places

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A couple of weeks ago I found myself on a camp somewhere in Afghanistan for a few days. This was the camp where my deployment began. For the two weeks I was there back in July, the camp was busy, hot, and active. We did a lot of good training and then I left and went to another part of Afghanistan. Being back on that camp, the weather cooler and far fewer people around, an old nostalgia kicked in the way it seems to whenever I revisit a familiar place after a long absence.

It’s something I experienced powerfully when I passed through Kuwait en route to the United States on mid-tour leave from Iraq in 2003. I spent over a month at TAA Champion in Kuwait as the US was gearing up for the invasion. Thousands of soldiers busily milled about, preparing for war. When I returned on my way home, the tents were gone and it resembled an empty lot, the way the amusement park looks in the movie Big near the end of the movie when Tom Hanks returns to Zoltar.

It’s a nostalgia that I’ve experienced a lot in video games, too. At the end of Mass Effect 1 when Commander Shepard uses the conduit to get back to the Citadel - where the journey began – I felt that pang of nostalgia. I felt that same nostalgia when Cloud and team re-entered Midgar – where their journey began.

I think part of the nostalgia isn’t just the old place, but the way it is different when your return, in these examples, emptier and less active. There is something about the change in dynamic and the passage of time that pulls the nostalgia right up. The place is different now.

video games

This guy mashes up Wu-Tang Clan with Final Fantasy VI, and it works

 

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This past week, when I came across this post in Kotaku (This Final Fantasy VI Wu-Tang Clan Mash-Up Is Weird and Wonderful), I really didn’t know what to think. I’m a fan of video game music and having grown up in Queens, NYC in the 1990s, I’m a fan of Wu-Tang. I really never thought about what it would sound like together. When I listened to the embedded song, Figaro Kids, I wasn’t feeling it. I’ve heard both the video game music and Wu-Tang tracks hundreds of times, and when there is any deviation, it feels strange.

I went to the website and clicked around, listening to some of the other tracks. I was about to leave the site and forget about it when I decided to listen to Shimmy Shimmy Strago. And then it clicked – this actually works.

In this really weird way, the whole thing flows nicely. The album is told like a story. It’s fun. Here’s how the artist, 2 Mello, describes the album (which you can download for free):

The Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary kings of rap, espers buried deep within their 36th chamber of skill, come forth into a land on the brink of destruction. The evil magic-abusing warlord Kefka holds legions of rappers and producers under his iron grip, using his Slave Crowns to make us work for him. The Wu-Tang are able to free me, but I still have to prove my skills in remixing if I am to join them in battle. Come with me on an audio journey chronicling my love for the Wu-Tang Clan’s music and culture and the story and themes of one of my favorite video games of all time. Happy 20th birthday, Final Fantasy 3-6. You’ve aged extremely well.

I hope this epic conclusion to my mashup trilogy will satisfy both newcomers and fans who have stayed with me throughout all three of the albums. Whether you are a Wu fan, a classic RPG gamer or both, I hope you find plenty to amuse and entertain you here. I love you all dearly, and I thank you so much for your voracious appetite for my music and constant attention towards my new releases, no matter what they are. I hope you keep listening with me in the future.

He also did a mash-up album of Chrono Trigger and Jay-Z called Chrono Jigga which is just as good.

memorial

There will be no memorial

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As our truck passed a memorial commemorating Iraqi martyrs who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, I asked another soldier sitting across from me, “Do you think they’ll ever build a monument to the American soldiers who died here?”

“No,” he said flatly.

Our truck bounced along and our bodies rocked with the rhythm as I watched the wall disappear around a corner.

blogging

Going on R&R in Good ‘Ol Qatar

End of the night photo.

End of the night photo.

While I am completely partial to WordPress as a blog publishing platform, I’ve always liked the simplicity and beauty in pieces posted on Medium. When I was writing my Iraq: Ten Years Later posts, I really wanted to do it right for my 4-day R&R trip to Qatar. That post, for its length, fell mostly flat.

I did some editing on it and posted it on Medium. It’s not perfect, but I think it flows better there than it did here.

Check it out.

books

Taliban Selfie: Taliban Commanders have to send up storyboards, too

mullah2_wideweb__470x382,0I recently finished reading No Good Men Among the Living, which is a good read for anyone trying to get a better understanding of what the war in Afghanistan looks like through Afghan eyes.

I have no intention of doing a full on review/reaction. Incidentally, there is a review of the book by Rory Stewart in the latest New York Review of Books. Most of it is behind a paywall, so I didn’t get to it all, but you can see where it is going.

I did pull a couple of quotes though, towards the end of the book, that I thought were interesting.

One Talib explaining to another the motivations behind the American invasion:

The Americans, he explained, invaded because they hated the Afghan way of life.

Sound familiar?

A Talib’s description of American soldiers on patrol:

The soldiers were swaddled in gear – helmets, vests, wires poking out of various pockets. They walked uncomfortably, as if in great pain.

This is my favorite, about a low-level Taliban commander snapping photos of himself after a successful mission with captured gear to send to his superiors in Pakistan. Photos of his exploits will result in being given more money and resources for future operations. This transaction will be instantly recognizable to modern American commanders who routinely send “storyboards” to their higher headquarters of their missions and training. As the modern saying goes, pics or it didn’t happen:

Using his cell phone, Akbar Gul snapped a photo of himself standing triumphantly amid the weapons and sent it Mufti Latif. This was how Taliban commanders now proved their worth; the movement that had once shunned moving images and photography could no longer operate without them. The photographs wound up in the possession of Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and Akbar Gul was soon rewarded with a few thousand dollars.

Somewhat related, there’s a really great article making the rounds by Jen Percy on “Commander Pigeon,” the only known female warlord in Afghanistan.

life lesson

Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completionPatrol Base

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.

 

 

top search of the week

Women at USMC School of Infantry

Female Marine Infantry

Week ending October 12, 2014

It was a good week for the blog. My post 7 Underrated Military Blogs that Can’t Get No Respect got a lot of attention, which in turn pushed a lot of people to those blogs that don’t get enough love. Hopefully with the influx of new readers, they’ll start posting more.

For whatever reason, though, the top search term was ‘women at usmc school infantry.’  In the world of ‘women in the infantry,’ the recent news that would have people looking for stuff is the recent story of the three women who passed the first day of the Marine Corps Infantry School – the much vaunted Endurance Test.

Last year, when this story was hot, I posted an image gallery titled the Faceless Women of the United States Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course. I’ve always found it interesting – and a little weird – that the the images that accompany the stories always have faceless women. It’s done for privacy, and there is an agreement between the USMC and the media to not show their faces. It creates an odd effect though, of a faceless, personality-stripped female trainee. The pictures in that gallery often features a female Marine alone, or with another female, in a gloomy, cold physical trial. It’s especially weird when viewed in contrast with the Marines’ “Infantrywomen of Instagram,” having just finished the enlisted infantry course, with big bright smiles.

The picture accompanying the Washington Post article also features faceless women infantry trainees, in contrast to the exposed faces of the male trainees.

art

The Army is Developing ‘Exosuits’

Before deploying I loaded up my laptop with movies and television shows, determined to build up an arsenal that would keep boredom away, at all costs. My experiences during my first two deployments have made me rabidly boredom-averse in a way someone who experienced the Great Depression might be more likely to be a hoarder. As it turns out, work keeps me pretty busy and I haven’t been able to rip through all of the entertainment that I brought in the way I thought I would.

One of the television series I brought with me was the old cartoon Exo-Squad. I remember waking up early on weekdays and watching the 30 minute episodes and being impressed with the gravity and depth of the content, despite the fact that the cartoon was a 22 minute commercial for a toy-line.

I finally got an opportunity to watch the first season after some twenty years, and while the animation is dated and some of the dialogue is overly cheesy, the series holds up pretty well.

The story goes something like this: in the not so distant future, humans create a genetically superior species of humanoids called “Neo-Sapiens.” They are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and live longer than humans. Humans use them for slave labor, mostly. The Neo-Sapiens rise up against the humans thrusting the solar system into war (Venus and Mars have been terraformed and colonized). The first season chronicles the Neo-Sapien revolt and the capture of Venus, Mars, and Earth by the Neo-Sapiens.

What’s great about the series is the gray area in war it examines. Nothing is black and white. While the show follows “Able Squad,” a special ops-like team who pilot “E-Frames,” the war they are fighting in is not clearly one pitting good against evil. Throughout the first season there are numerous scenes where humans display open racism (er, species-ism?) against the Neo-Sapiens, often using the derogative “sapes” to describe them. While you are rooting for the humans because Able Squad is likable, it’s hard not to sympathize with the Neo-Sapiens after the way they’ve been treated.

The writers display a pretty advanced understanding of the military, depicting air-to-ground coordination, a court-martial trial, insurgent tactics (fake-surrender), combat panic, the disparities and frustrations of a garrison military versus a wartime military, the importance of pre-combat inspections, and the moral and ethical dilemmas leaders and individual soldiers face in war. There’s even a great scene where two deck officers are arguing over whether to deploy Able Squad, to which one officer yells to the other “Don’t give me a lesson in tactics!”

Additionally, I couldn’t help but “connect the dots looking backward” and make some interesting connections between Exo-Squad and Mass Effect. After an early battle, the show’s protagonist, Lieutenant J.T. Marsh is hounded by an aggressive news reporter who is accompanied by a floating camera robot. The reporter peppers Marsh with questions on his actions in the battle and whether he regrets those decisions, given the consequences. Marsh reacts aggressively and storms away. That scene happens over and over in Mass Effect.

Honestly, the show didn’t hold my attention the way it did when I was a kid, or the way I thought it would. I recently read a review of a video game that I loved when I was a kid that just got ported to iOS. He wrapped up his thoughts on it like this, and I think the description fits how I feel about watching Exo-Squad now:

For me, though, this was a bit like trying on my beloved jacket I wore in high school. It smells familiar and it brings back so many memories to look at it, but putting it on makes me realize how many years have gone by between then and now, and it just doesn’t really fit me anymore.

Anyway, the real point of this article was to point out that the Army is developing Exosuits, not so much like the ones in Exo-Squad but more akin to what we saw the Full Metal Bitch wear in Edge of Tomorrow / Live. Die. Repeat. / All You Need Is Kill.