contributor

R&R in Good ‘Ol Qatar, now with more Vice

My story on my 4 day pass to Qatar in 2003 was published in Vice this week, a much more suitable home than this blog. It is also is getting a little bit of love on the Military subreddit, which is cool.

Check it out: Going on R&R in Good Ol’ Qatar (Vice)

I particularly liked the way Vice decided to tag the post:

Going on R&R in Good Ol_ Qatar | VICE | United States

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army myths

Army Myths: Don’t Lock Your Knees

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Army has experienced the mind-numbing, painfully long formation where you are forced to stand at the position of parade rest (or attention) for long periods of time, often under the hot sun. Before the event, the phrase “don’t lock your knees” will be uttered over and over again by NCOs and the E4-Mafia like a meditative mantra. In these long formations, someone will invariably pass out, spilling over onto the floor in dramatic fashion. Then a soldier or two will drag the victim to the back of the formation where he can’t be seen and left to recover, while the rest of the formation snickers at his misfortune with whispers of “shouldn’t have locked his knees.”

As a young soldier, I had no reason to disobey the orders of my more experienced NCOs, so whenever I stood in a formation, I made a conscious effort not to lock my knees. “Locking my knees”, as I understood it, was standing in a manner in which my legs were completely straight, the knee joint “locking” back so the bones of my lower and upper legs support one another, requiring no “work” from the muscles of my body to maintain balance and position. Locking the knees somehow disturbs the blood flow process, resulting in the fainting solider phenomenon.

It turns out the medical science behind “don’t lock your knees” doesn’t exactly hold up. While the advice to avoid locking knees is widespread – even outside of military communities – the actual cause of fainting is usually loss of blood flow to the brain which can be brought on by any number of things, but the act of locking ones knees has nothing to do with passing out. While the act of locking ones knees and maintaining a rigid, completely unmoving position for a long period of time may interrupt proper blood flow, the act of locking the knees alone does not by itself cause fainting spells.

As this very scientific YouTube video demonstrates, locking your knees can interfere with proper blood flow from the legs, which in turn might result in less blood flow to the brain and ipso facto a soldier passes out.

I can remember foolishly standing in formation, trying my best to maintain a “knees slightly bent” position (as the position of attention calls for, after all) and feeling my knees “hover” inside of my pants as I awkwardly tried to maintain a good-enough but not-quite straight position. For sure, it kept me occupied, and maybe that mental occupation is what prevents fainting spells. I remember another occasion though, while deployed to Iraq, where I was standing in a change of command ceremony and started to feel nauseous and dizzy. I started having a cold sweat and I felt like I was going to pass out. I knew not to lock my knees and wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. Thankfully, the formation ended before I took an embarrassing spill, but thinking back on it, the likely cause was dehydration, as just about everyone had the shits at the time.

Like most Army myths, this one will continue to spread – and I have a feeling that some will aggressively defend it as fact, despite the lack of hard scientific evidence. While locking your knees might affect the flow of blood, there is no evidence that says that it actually does. Thankfully, I’ve spoken with a few NCOs who have privately confessed that they’ve been locking their knees in formation for years – because it’s easier – and they’ve yet to pass out.

soldiering

Going to the “Dark Place”: The Role of Hate in War

Commando Noir

I almost missed this post at Kings of War from last week on the role of “hate” in war. It starts off with a simple assertion from an officer:

When I was replacing the outgoing Infantry battalion in eastern Afghanistan in 2010, an outgoing staff officer and I were casually discussing life, combat, and the year ahead. He said something that stuck with me throughout my second deployment, “You know, if you want to be successful here (in Afghanistan), you have to keep hate in your heart.”

Shortly before this deployment to the same place, I remember sitting in on a briefing describing the conditions and the operational tempo of the unit we would be replacing. There were no frills; the unit we were replacing was getting into contact almost daily. I scribbled down notes and watched slide after slide go by with all kinds of ominous photos and statistics. As the lights came on and everyone stood to get up, I turned to an NCO and said “Well, looks like it’s time to go back to the dark place.” He grimaced, then took a deep breath and gave me a nod, and then we went to lunch.

As the deployment loomed, I remember tearing my garage apart, pulling out old gear from previous deployments that I never thought I’d have to use again. Knives and pouches. My workouts became a more aggressive.

I haven’t really given the concept of the “dark place” much thought other than the fact that it felt like the right thing to say at the time after that briefing. As the Kings of War piece points out, it’s very difficult to be appropriately aggressive in a mechanical way without turning on the hate. In the piece, the author points out the French Foreign Legion as an example of an aggressive but disciplined force.

This reminds me of another concept that might be easier to swallow. There are a number of physical fitness events in the Army that you can do well in (or barely pass) not through being in great shape, but through “digging deep” and “letting it all out” on the day of the event. The twelve mile foot march can be muscled through – with great pain – if the marcher is out of shape or hungover. You can also squeeze out a sub-thirteen minute two mile run even if you haven’t been training for awhile. You’ll pay for it at the finish line by throwing up, but if you have the intestinal fortitude, it can be done. Of course, you can just train regularly (which requires discipline) and be in great shape and manage these same feats with much less pain and suffering. In the same vein, one can be an effective soldier without harboring “hate” for the enemy if he takes pride in soldiering. Turning to hate as a mechanism for mission accomplishment is like turning to the bottle to deal with your problems – it will eventually backfire.

This whole discussion is related to the “why we fight” question I find so interesting. There’s not really a good answer right now, so any time there’s a piece of the puzzle floating around, I like to grab it and throw it in the pile for the future.

 

video games

Together Strong: Tackling PTSD and Suicide through the Mass Effect conversation wheel

IMG_4436

Honestly, when I first heard of the Together Strong App, it looked terribly boring and similar to the myriad of mandatory computer based trainings soldiers are forced to endure to meet mandatory training requirements. Still, given it sits at the intersection of the military world and gaming, I thought I should give it a fair shot before dismissing it.

I downloaded the App for iPhone (free) and launched it. It asked for some basic information; zip code, service status (active, veteran, etc.), gender (to include trans and other) and age. Then it launched into an introduction of the character you would be role playing as, a well-adjusted Marine who transitioned into the civilian world, not without his own transition issues though. After a brief introduction – which seemed a little long, actually, for the ADHD-induced norm of smartphone gaming – I began a conversation with ‘Hector,’ a veteran who is normally outgoing that suddenly stopped returning phone calls and text messages.

For a game whose chief action is conversation, it’s actually done pretty well. The characters speak in a manner you’d expect from veterans – often a little rough around the edges without being cheesy. You are given options on what to say next based on previous choices. Thankfully, there is no clear “right” answer, and unlike a lot of the similar mandatory training games soldiers go through, you are not fenced in to take a certain path. There are multiple “good” answers and often the best answers are the ones that don’t really accomplish anything but simply moves the conversation along, gets the characters talking.

The conversation system here is very similar to the conversation wheel used in Mass Effect – it’s never exactly clear what the reaction of the characters are going to be when you choose to say something – which makes the conversation actually exciting. There was a point in which I called out Hector for trying to solve his problems with booze, to which he reacted aggressively and defensively with me. Unlike Mass Effect, however, there are no quick-button triggers to go Renegade on poor Hector.

In this first conversation, it becomes apparent that Hector has been thinking of killing himself and you are presented with the option of asking the hard question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Army leaders who have participated in ASIST suicide intervention training will know that that question is one the most important steps in intervening in a potential suicide. Hector admits that he has, and then you are presented with more options on what to do next.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation – it’s worth exploring on your own. As a “player” you are awarded with stars throughout the conversation if you manage to steer it the right way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “lose” in a conversation – I only went through it once and managed to get all five stars.

The dialogue, for its part, seems pretty realistic. It’s not sugar coated or overly emotional. It sounds like two veterans talking, curses and all.

The first conversation, including setup and introduction took me about 20 minutes to get through. I actually felt pretty engaged while playing, but admittedly, this isn’t something I’d play on a subway train to work or for “fun” to blow off steam. It felt akin to learning a skill, something I was doing to better myself at handling these types of conversations, which I’ve faced in real life many times – often choosing the wrong things to say.

When the conversation ended, there was a dialogue box that asked me to check it if I’d like to be reminded in a week to do the next conversation. I thought that was a nice touch, because now I don’t feel forced to sit and continue more conversations, but would like to explore it more at a later time. When I get the reminder, I’ll do it.

The App is joint project between the NY/NJ Veterans Affairs Health Network and Kognito. There’s a bunch of research behind the software and the methodology which says its effective. You can read more about that here. Important to note is that the App is free until December 31, 2014, at which time it’s unclear how much it will cost (just download it now).

Obviously, this App isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are lots of folks that will immediately be turned off to it because no matter how much lip service it gets, there is still a stigma attached to seeking care for mental health. However, if you’re an Army leader, I urge you to at least download the App. Let it sit on your phone and when you get a quiet moment and nothing is going on, open it up and give it a few minutes of your time. That’s what I did and I was surprisingly impressed. You might even gain a valuable skill or two on handling these situations in the future, which you are sure to encounter.

top search of the week

Major, you are the most insubordinate officer I have ever met!

Week ending November 16, 2014

The headline here is the top search term of the week, which led the searcher(s) to my reaction to American Spartan, the book that chronicles the journey of retired Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. It’s odd, because I don’t use the phrase in the article and I’m not even sure it turns up in the book. The phrase also reminded me of something that may have been in Lawrence of Arabia, but a Google search turned up nothing on that.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the quote is actually from the 1996 movie SGT Bilko starring Steve Martin. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the movie, but considering I’ve written before about how movies of that genre – making fun of the military – have become less appropriate (which is a bad thing), it might be worth watching.