soldiering

Antenna Discipline

RTO AntennaIf you’ve ever been an RTO and whipped around, smacking the face of your PSG or PL with the antenna of your radio, you’re likely familiar with term “antenna discipline.” It’s not a doctrinal term, but it’s one that I’ve heard used so often that it ought to be.

Antenna discipline is being aware that you have 3-foot long floppy stick poking out of your backpack, and that when you move around, it moves too. An RTO with good antenna discipline is generally aware of where his antenna is at all times. It’s like another appendage; his tail. He moves slowly and cautiously, and he’s aware of the people around him. When he moves, he moves in such a way that his antenna glides through the air. When it droops, he adjusts it as needed.

An RTO with poor antenna discipline moves wildly, his antenna flailing around with him, smacking everyone in the face.

@dongomezjr

soldiering

The Dichotomy of Black Humor and Memorialization

8657967805_c671651da9_o Likely, you’ve heard about how important black humor is for soldiers. The ability to make dark fun of whatever situation you may find youself in is super important for soldiers leaning off of the edge of the world. Cadences that ask to “bury me in the lean and rest” (the push-up position) or Blood Upon the Risers highlight the theme of black humor in the Army. And then, Animal Mother’s famous quip “Better you than me” when looking down at two dead Marines in Vietnam put the nail in the coffin. Troopers use black humor as a way to desensitize themselves to terirble situations. What’s interesting to me, is the way that the black humor  transitions to the way troops are memorialized. Military funerals are often very, very sad affairs. Whenever I find myself running in formation and a cadence comes around screaming “bury me in the lean and rest” I can’t help but think if anyone has ever actually requested that as part of their funeral. Blood Upon the Risers tells the story of a paratrooper who jumps to his death, his parachute never opening, and it’s sung in an upbeat, ‘hey-it-happens’ manner. I’ve always been struck by the strange dichotomy of the black humor of the military and the hardcore memorializing that happens when someone dies.

@dongomezjr

soldiering

Leadership through Group Text

Pissed-a-bunchOne of the first things I noticed upon re-joining the Army a few years ago, besides the proliferation of hand sanitizer, was how widespread smartphone use had become. For good or for ill, they are here. The ire of Commanders and NCOs everywhere is soldiers sitting around the company area, drumming away on their smartphones.

And like other industries, the fact that virtually everyone has a cell phone means that there is an expectation that you can be contacted at just about any time. Add to this the fact that in the Army “you’re a soldier 24 hours a day,” and there is now a built in expectation to be completely reachable through the marriage of duty and technology.

There is so much that can be written about smartphones, connectivity, and the expectations therein as they relate to the military, but I wanted to address the prevalence of the group text message as a means of putting out information.

In the pre-smartphone era, vital information would either be put out in a meeting and subsequently disseminated or there would be a final formation that would set the conditions for the next day. If a leader wanted to make changes to the plan after that time, it would have to be done through a phone chain, which was tedious and painful. Therefore, leaders were generally less likely to change things on the fly because of a late night good idea.

Today, you can check your weather app, see it’s going to be colder than you thought tomorrow and just send a group text out at 2045 and expect everyone to be wearing full winter PTs the next morning.

“I didn’t get the text.”

Leaders used to be extra sure everyone understood the expectations for the next day, which forced a deliberate thought process that allowed for contingencies. Now, the fact that we have the ability to instantaneously broadcast orders and intent allows us more flexibility – which is a good thing, kind of. We don’t have to go through that deliberate thought process – which frees us up to do other things, whatever those things may be.

The power to send group texts makes the rapid dissemination of information possible, where a face-to-face meeting was once required.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Didn’t you get my text?”

Simply sending a group text message, thought, does not guarentee the message was received. We’re still figuring it out, and etiquette and norms have yet to be developed. To me, it seems a good general rule to send an acknowledgement that you have read, digested, and will comply with a message, whether it comes over the radio, email, or group text.

The fact that the smartphone occupies the same space that look at memes and play games as well as put out “mission-type orders” makes the medium feel not as serious. This is why you might get a message like “where r u” from an NCO at a random time, and wonder what the hell is going on.

Smartphones aren’t going away, so it’s a matter of finding ways to better use them in a way that makes sense. But if you’ve ever had to suffer through an Army group text argument, usually late at night, on a weekend, likely fueled by alcohol, then you will question whether they are truly worth it.

@dongomezjr

soldiering

On Morale

EIB

Every year or so, an article appears sounding the alarm over morale in the military. This piece from World Affairs Journal is no different, analzying recent data and polling on the state of military morale.

I made a note to write about it, because it seemed alarmist and disingenuous.

Reading through the text, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that indicates morale is actually low. Most of the data comes from informal polls that don’t directly correspond to “morale” but instead touch on things like pay and job satisfaction.

Morale, as an idea, should to be defined before it can be analyzed.

morale |məˈral|
noun
the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time: their morale was high.

That’s a book definition, and it seems ok for a start. But I’ve been unable to find an agreed upon military definition of morale, which seems odd, since it is always touted as a chief concern. With no firm definition of morale, it’s hard to say if it is high or low.

This Stars & Stripes article from October 2003 (a time where I can personally attest to as a period of low morale) unpacks the discussion of morale and trying to define it. All soldiers know it’s important, but not everyone can agree on what it is, only, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Of course, there are the three pillars of morale: chow, mail, and pay. Mess with any of those and morale will sink. For today’s troops, I’d add in free time and connectivity, to a lesser degree. These are elements of “big tent” morale. These are things that depend on acts of Congress and the Department of Defense to deliver.

Polling as a means of measuring “big tent” morale is ineffective. Soldiers, since time immemorial, always gripe, no matter how good or bad the situation.

Instead of polling, recruiting and retention numbers serve as a better measure of “big tent” morale.

At a time when the military as a whole is downsizing, benefits are becoming more restrictive, and the operational tempo remains high – despite the wars “being over” – recruiting and retention numbers remain at one-hundred percent and above in a recovering economy. That is, there isn’t a rush to the exit. Servicemen and women continue to join and stay in the service.

Anecdotally, the grass is always greener on the other side. Troops today talk about wanting to deploy more, like we did in the mid-2000s. There’s also a post-COIN running discontent with trying to accomplish a myriad of seemingly distracting tasks while being told to always find and exploit opportunities to train.

Even some of the guys who served back then talk about those days with a tinge of nostalgia.

It’s easy to forget how tough those times were. Friends were being killed, deployments lasted 15(+) months, and the military enacted policies like “stop-loss” and Individual-Ready Reserve (IRR) call-ups to make numbers.

When the military has go to the small print in enlistment contracts to make numbers, that’s a sign of overall low morale.

Just like the APFT is simply a benchmark of physical fitness, recruiting and retention numbers only provide a snapshot of overall morale.

Still, individual units can have high morale when morale across the force is low, even (or, especially) down to the squad level. Plenty of units had high morale during the mid-2000s when things were tough. This morale is different from the “big tent” morale discussed earlier. This is the morale that comes from small-unit cohesion. The biggest factor in this is, of course, leadership. A good leader who can filter out the nonsense while still accomplishing the mission can (mostly) insulate his or her element from low morale. This is why you’ll often hear soldiers talking about how great “their last unit” was. What they’re really saying is that they liked it better with their previous leadership.

This type of morale might be better measured through polling, but not in the aggregrate. This morale is better measured through small unit sensing sessions, informal discussions, and listening to the remarks from soldiers as you pass them by – the things they say in your presence, just to see how you respond.

On the other hand, simple measures of low morale and discontent would be desertion rates and “fragging” incidents. Although there may be others, these two in high number, or beyond the infrequent lone episodes would be a good indicator that there is a true morale issue in the force.

Interestingly, new Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey is looking at troop morale through the prism of small, common sense changes that can be made, to include allowing headphones to be worn in fitness centers while wearing the phsyical fitness uniform (a source of much emotional heartache for this author). While small things like headphones and socks might seem inconsequential to troop morale, these micro-policies can have a stifling effect over time.

There are so many other places the morale discussion can go. Discipline and punishment in a unit has an effect on morale. A soldier who goes unpunished for an infraction only to see another soldier who commited the same infraction receive an Article 15 can be a blow to overall morale, as it reeks of favoritism and selective enforcement.

Admittedly, I didn’t do a ton of research for this post. I’d be curious to know if an actual military definition of morale exists (it doesn’t in Operational Terms and Graphics). It’s also an interesting discussion to have, even in terms of our allies. The Iraqi Army, as a whole, likely suffers from low morale, as indicated by the high rate of desertion in the face of the enemy. Individual units, though, like ISOF Gold, seem to have higher morale. What is the cause? Leadership? Pay? Equipment? Sense of purpose?

SKULL MASKS?

@dongomezjr

soldiering

In Defense of the APFT

One of the first topics of this blog was a discussion on how you can’t seriously discuss certain things with military folk. Physical training is one of them. The source of the problem – I think – is that since every single soldier does PT every day (a questionable assumption), every single soldier has developed some level of experiential expertise on the subject.

I’ve very rarely heard anyone say anything good about the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which consists of two minutes of push-up, two minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. The idea behind the event is to get a general idea of a soldier’s fitness through a maximum effort test.

From FM 7-22, Appendix A (Army Physical Fitness Test):

The APFT provides a measure of upper and lower body muscular endurance. It is a performance test that indicates a Soldier’s ability to perform physically and handle his or her body weight.

The problem, as has been written about at length, is that the test doesn’t accurately measure the types of fitness that will likely be required in combat. Typical jokes include “I’ve been on 3 deployments and not once did I ever have to run 2 miles.”

Back in February, Jim Gourley explored the current struggle with embracing different fitness programs in the military at The Best Defense. In it, he captures some of the issues with the current APFT:

Palkoska admits that some aspects of the “legacy doctrine” persist in the form of the Army Physical Fitness Test. “One of the problems of the old fitness model is that units trained to the test, and that resulted in overtraining to certain aspects of fitness.” More than generating injuries in a large population of individual soldiers, it created an unbalanced paradigm of fitness in the Army at large. Efforts to change the APFT to reflect the new model of fitness have been going on since General Peter Schoomaker’s tenure as Chief of Staff. Though the old APFT remains the standard, Palkoska says that new initiatives aim to update it in the next few years.

Without question, there is pressure to do well on the current APFT – not just as an individual, but as a unit. The quantifiable score that comes out of the APFT becomes the easiest measure of “success” for a young platoon leader trying to impress his Commander. Raising the platoon’s APFT average is a simple, quantifiable means of “doing well.” The problem, as the argument goes, is that this often results in physical training regimens that train to the test, emphasizing the ability to do 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and run 2 miles as fast as possible at the expense of other, more “combat focused” physical training.

And it is true, that just because a soldier can score a 300 on their APFT doesn’t mean they can perform their physical job better than someone who scores less.

When I was in basic training, I was the first in my platoon to score a 300 on the APFT. Nonetheless, I was one of the weakest foot marchers in the platoon. I only weighed 140lbs at the time, and my ability to do a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups and breeze through the run didn’t help me much when I was carrying a heavy rucksack, a weapon, and walking up and down Sand Hill.

It wasn’t until I started weight lifting and packing on some muscle that carrying a rucksack became less of a burden. Preliminary research from StrongSwiftDurable also correlates upper-body strength with rucking ability.

So I am in agreement that the APFT is not an absolute measure of physical ability. And I am sure there are a host of really fantastic fitness tests out there that could eek out a better way of identifying where individual soldiers stand when it comes to their physical ability to actually perform their jobs.

However, what those tests lack – and I’ve seen a number of the proposed tests – is practicality and feasibility.

Soldiers in the active duty Army are supposed to take two “record” APFTs a year. In all of the years I’ve been in the military, the only time I’ve ever seen that enforced was when I was in a TRADOC environment, and taking APFTs was part of the course. In the operating force, it is a miracle to get a whole platoon doing physical training on a regular basis, and usually takes signficant prioritizing to get everyone together for an APFT.

The beauty of the APFT is that it requires no special equipment or space and can be completed for most elements during normal PT hours (usually between 0630 and 0745). All of the proposed fitness tests either require a bunch of extra equipment or space, and in some cases need to be tested over multiple days.

Additionally, there is evidence that performing well on the APFT generally corresponds with success in physically demanding courses, such as Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The below is from USAREC’s notes on how to adequately prepare for and succeed at SFAS. In it, they make a direct correlation between APFT score and ability to pass the course.

Again, having a high APFT score does not mean you are in great physical shape for everything, but it does correspond to being in good shape generally.

Lastly, while it’s true that I’ve seen soldiers who could adequately do their jobs yet still perform average or even poorly on the APFT, I have never seen the opposite. That is, most soldiers I know who score well on the APFT generally are able to perform their jobs well and do not “suck” any more than other soldiers.

The APFT in its current form provides a good baseline measure of physical fitness while being relatively easy to administer. For those reasons, we should be very careful about discarding it altogether simply because it is not the perfect measure of combat fitness.

@dongomezjr