fieldcraft, reflections

Fieldcraft: Short wave crank radio (and the greatest mission that never happened)

I was in the field last week for a detail, but I was determined not to miss the first Presidential debate. I wouldn’t have access to a television, and streaming audio or video through my iPhone was no sure bet considering I didn’t know if I would have power to keep the phone charged or enough cellular service to make it happen. So I dug into my gear box and pulled out my old short wave crank radio. My dad had given it to me as a gift a number of years back and it came in great use. The radio is powered by batteries, or crank power. Crank the handle for a minute and it will provide 30-60 minutes of listening time (depending on volume, age and condition of the rechargeable batteries, and other factors that are beyond my understanding). The radio can pick up local AM and FM radio stations, and more importantly, short wave radio stations. I was able to sit in a concrete room with a bunch of other young second lieutenants and listen to the debate.

This wasn’t the first experience I had with a short wave crank radio. My platoon sergeant brought one with him for OIF I. He was a veteran of the Gulf War, and that experience informed him that having a short wave radio might be helpful. He would turn the radio on first thing in the morning as we woke up in Kuwait. On most days the news discussed the ongoing diplomatic battles raging between Iraq, the US, and the UN, and the buildup of forces in the Gulf. Once the war began, the information became much more relevant, discussing significant battles, casualties, and troop movements.

We had been in Kuwait for over a month, training daily for the greatest mission that never happened. For a whole week we felt like we were sitting on the sideline, waiting for the coach to put us in the game. The war was moving fast, and our greatest fear was that the whole thing might end without us ever leaving Kuwait. Then, a week after the war began, on March 26, I rolled out of my cot and sat up, rubbing the sleep and sand out of my eyes and adjusting to the bright lights which were hastily turned on at 0600. The platoon sergeant turned on the radio just in time to catch the opening of the BBC World Service. In a charming British accent, we heard:

“Paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into Northern Iraq today, seizing a military airfield and opening the northern front of the war.”

The tent erupted in groans and expletives. “BULLSHIT” was the most commonly heard word for a couple of minutes. Soldiers were flipping cots. We were angry, but mostly jealous.

A combat jump is the ultimate prize for a paratrooper, and as the greatest mission that never happened slowly faded away in likelihood, it was dawning on us that those paratroopers from the 173rd would be sporting mustard stains for what seemed to be a relatively safe operation. Adding to this is the spirit of competition between airborne units. Paratroopers in the 82nd like to think of themselves as the premier airborne unit, while paratroopers in the 173rd have an air of superiority about them because they’re a smaller unit and they’re in Vicenza, not Fayetteville.

Later, during the invasion in 2003, the unit I was with was moving rapidly north towards Baghdad, but we were behind the lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines. We were hopping from town to town working our way north, staying nowhere for longer than a couple of days. Starved for information with no one providing us any updates on the war, our platoon huddled around the platoon sergeant and his little radio whenever we had some down time. I remember the whole platoon slumming around on the cool floor in a school in Rumayhtah, listening to the BBC World Service describe the latest news on the war and the reaction back home. We’d listen to the descriptions of battles we had just fought and grumble at battles we missed out on. It was strange, and somewhat disconcerting to get the most accurate news about what we were doing from an international broadcast from thousands of miles away. But it was the reality of the time, and that cheap crank radio provided us with the information we desperately desired.

I wonder what a war in the image of Iraq would look like today. Many of the emerging technologies we have today did not exist back then. There’s a part of me that would like to think that we are so advanced now that you shouldn’t need to bring a short wave crank radio with you to war to get information. But I also thought that in 2003, the American Army wouldn’t run out of MREs during the push to Baghdad.

I’ll keep the radio in my rucksack.

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10 thoughts on “Fieldcraft: Short wave crank radio (and the greatest mission that never happened)

  1. Great story. It’s amazing what our logistics can (and can’t) do.

    When my unit was going into Albania in ’97, logistics COULD get us a book with photos, language info, etc.

    But they COULD NOT get us enough batteries, which you know, are kind of important for your NVGs and hand-held radios.

  2. Pingback: French paratroopers earn their mustard stains in Mali | Carrying the Gun

  3. Pingback: To the chagrin of the 82nd, the 173rd jumps into Iraq (Mar. 26, 2003) | Carrying the Gun

  4. This was my husband, he was in the 173rd, 508th and he jumped that day. He did get his Mustard Stain as well. I don’t remember what chalk he was on, but we saw and heard the news here in the US. So insane to imagine that many C-17’s dropping these guys into Northern Iraq. The pics taken are insane. They were originally coming from Turkey, but because of politics, things always change. Thanks for this post. He lived through complete hell for 11 months to then be relieved by the 4th ID. This is a whole other story to be told. However they cleared the airfield and lived in holes, old houses and schools for months. This doesn’t compare to other units who later came who were emailing and were using Skype. It was a totally different time of War in 2003 compared to later years. I imagine its like some of the remote units now in Afghanistan. There was not much contact for the first half of the year. The mail system was very slow and he stood in line for hours to make a phone call. Complete insanity. The first time I heard he was alive was when we received a piece of cardboard saying “I am alive, and I will write soon”. Seeing pictures later of places they lived in, I am sure you understand the stuff they lived through. Though he doesn’t discuss now, I know the Airborne pride lives in him. Thanks for posting your thoughts and ideas on here. Thanks for your service to our country. We can’t thank you enough!
    -Amanda

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