update

Afghanistan Adventures

I imagine a time when this intersection was always busy.

With post-deployment leave over, I thought I’d wrap up the end of war with a single post, pulling in whatever was significant over the past year, and some thoughts that seem relevant.

Of course, the actual deployment started long before actually deploying. Once the word came down that we were going, there’s an instant gravitational pull to start reading and studying. I began the End of War Reading List as an attempt to get a grasp on what one might expect as the end of a war nears. Before deploying, I wrote about how strange it was to be preparing to deploy to a war that we knew was coming to and end, all while other officers were being handed pink slips and the writing on the wall told of a coming smaller force.

Pre-deployment musings generated this popular post on “why we fight.” The answer: force protection.

Keeping with the Game of Thrones theme, the Battle of Castle Black seemed remarkably familiar to what a deployment to a small outpost can feel like.

And then, the deployment actually began.

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to post while overseas. My last deployment was in 2005, and I quickly learned that things had changed significantly and war in 2014 comes with a 3G data plan for your smartphone (not really, you have to pay for it). I had my own room and I had nearly 100% reliable WiFi from my quarters. And if I didn’t, there was always a green line somewhere nearby. It became clear, rather quickly, that the standard model of soldier morale (chow, mail, pay) was changing.

I read a lot about Major Gant.

I also read about the careful balancing of humanity and iron discipline in maintaining a lethal force.

After almost 20 years, I finally finished Tactics Ogre, and continued to pull amazing lessons from it.

Working for 9 months straight confirmed to me why deployment experience actually matters, and why it is so valuable.

The M9 continues to serve as the Army’s vanity weapon (I’m not saying I didn’t have one, I’m just saying).

I published a longform version of the Battle of As Samawah after it was rejected somewhere else.

9/11 in Afghanistan was like any other day.

FOBs are kept running by an unseen, mysterious bevy of small green insect looking creatures.

I thought a lot about drones – and how they are our Magitek Armor.

I tracked down Richard Johnson while passing through Bagram, and he graciously drew a sketch of me, which was rapidly corrected.

I got seriously good at PowerPoint.

The absurdity of war continued to fascinate me. The axiom “pics or it didn’t happen” became ultra-apparent, and I was pleased to learn that the Taliban follow the same general guidelines.

Nostalgia floweth over.

I discovered my new favorite military force, and pondered the role of “hate” in war.

I got really, really sick and then the war ended (over and over again).

The platoon leader is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do. 

American Sniper came out. I still haven’t seen it.

We all feared the reaper.

As the deployment came to a close, the Universal Truths of Relief in Place were once again, confirmed.

We waited and waited. And waited.

And then we came home, and the adjustment period began.

Last week, the May-June issue of Military Review was released and a piece that I co-authored was published there highlighting some of the steps our platoon took in operating resiliency at the platoon level.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, our NTC experience and all of the troubles and gripes that accompanied it, was actually validated by the deployment. Of course, we were only at NTC for a month, but it did a good job at replicating a lot of the problems we would face in Afghanistan. In many ways, it was easier to accomplish some things in Afghanistan than it was at NTC – which is good.

I’m not sure it’s all over. There are no clean breaks.

Leave is over, work begins, and everyone is still adjusting.

 

 

update

Leave Update: We’re only on the third day of a seven day binge

Yeesh.

I’m fully aware that I’ve neglected updates for the past three weeks. I fully intended to keep things going, but post-deployment leave has a way of keeping you looking at the bottom of the glass. It’s important to get that space and distance though, and as “normal” life resumes, so will the blog.

I have managed to keep the Facebook page updated, though. And if you’ve missed the ISOF GOLD posts, I’ve mostly been commenting on my favorite special operations forces over there.

I managed to keep somewhat productive, though. Last week I was invited by the Center for the Advancement of Leadership and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) to participate in West Point’s Mission Command Conference. Essentially, myself and a few other junior lieutenants stood up in front of hundreds of cadets and told real-life stories from our recent deployments. The cadets then used the story as a tool to discuss leadership with officers and NCO mentors who were also attending the conference. It was great to visit West Point and explore the campus, and seeing first-hand that West Point life only added fuel to my argument on why we need West Point.

It was also great just to see the CALDOL team at work. They are the folks behind the Company Command and Platoon Leader forums, which I’ve written about before. Seeing it in person confirmed to me that like many great Army programs, they are hidden away and under-utilized. I’m working on a future post highlighting some of the things they do, as I think the more exposure they have the better, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

Additionally, I also had the opportunity to speak at the CUNY ROTC’s Second Annual Military Ball at City College. It was amazing to see CUNY ROTC Cadets running the show, when it was only a few years ago when the idea of brining ROTC back to CUNY was a pipe dream.

hqdefaultBy the way, when I hear the acronym “CALDOL” I can’t help but think of the dancing Calcobrena from Final Fantasy IV. Sorry.

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.

update

I went to Afghanistan and all I got was this fantastic sketch

War in 2014 is strange. Reliable internet, decent living conditions, and smartphones with data plans. Of course, there are always others who have it worse or better, and there is the ever-present danger of sudden death looming over everyone like a humid day.

Still, the defining characteristic of this deployment (so far) has been just how uncharacteristically similar it is to being back home, at least, in terms of connectivity and following trends.

Through the magic of the internet I learned about Richard Johnson, Senior Graphics Editor for the Washington Post. He is a sketch artist, and is currently traveling in Afghanistan, capturing war with a sketch pad and a ball point pen.

I caught some of his drawings being passed around on Twitter, clicked them, shared them, and moved on.

Days later, in one of those tweets being passed around, I caught the familiar face of my Regimental Command Sergeant Major.CSM Heinze

“‘My first morning in Forward Operating Base Lightning, Maj. Vance Trenkel, the Third Cavalry’s public affairs officer, asked me to create a little good feeling and sketch someone wearing the Third Cav’s Stetson. Of course I agreed, and made one plaintive request: it had to be some Clint Eastwood-looking crusty veteran of multiple conflicts. “I need to see the grit in the corners of his eyes,” I said.'”

I began following Mr. Johnson on Twitter and we began a short back and forth dialogue. As things would have it, our paths would cross for a few hours somewhere in Afghanistan. We agreed to meet for dinner.

I only had a couple of hours before I had to be on a C-130 and off to another location. Over not-too-bad food, we chatted about how strange it is to be able to arrange for a meeting in a war zone via Twitter, and then agreed that maybe it’s not that weird after all. I lamented the fact that I wasn’t doing anything cool or interesting at the time that was sketch-worthy, but he offered to draw me anyway.

We finished our dinner, grabbed some coffee and cookies and set out to look for a brightly-lit space. We walked to one MWR facility that was cleaning up after a sparsely-attended Air Force birthday party. There was no space available there, and someone pointed us to another MWR facility not too far away. Once there, we walked up a flight of stairs and into a recreation room. A group of soldiers played poker in the middle of the room while AFN news updates filled the silence. We moved past them and Mr. Johnson grabbed a folding seat and swung it in front of a worn out, dusty leather chair. He gestured for me to sit in the folding chair  and face over to the left while he sat to begin sketching. I sat down normally and he told me to hold that pose the best I could and he would start sketching.

Unfortunately, there was another soldier sitting about four feet in front of me, lounging in a chair and playing with his phone. The order to hold my position meant that I would be frozen, looking straight in that poor soldier’s direction. It was uncomfortable for me and I imagine it must have been worse for him, having some strange lieutenant stare directly at him unflinching. He lasted a good 20 or 25 minutes before finally getting up and walking away.

Mr. Johnson furiously sketched, aware that he was under a time limit. He finished the sketch with a total time of about 35 or 40 minutes. He showed it to me.

“Do you recognize him?”

I looked down and grinned widely, “Yeah, that’s great!”

We walked out of the MWR facility and spoke briefly about sketching and where we were both off to next. We shook hands and he promised to send me the sketch in a day or so, which he did.

sketch

sketch.jpgLeft: The fantastic sketch that Richard Johnson sent to me.

 

Right: After sharing it on Twitter, I was instantly corrected and put in the “correct” uniform.

update

Three Years of Carrying the Gun

Today marks the third anniversary of this blog. Here are the stats:

Most popular posts:
1. Last night’s Budweiser ad “A Hero’s Welcome” was exploitative and offensive
2. Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop.
3. How to Lead Infantrywomen in Combat

Top Search Terms:
1. troll
2. major league infidel
3. infidel patch

This past year the blog has seen exponential growth in terms of readership. I wrapped up the Iraq: Ten Years Later thing and have been slowing down with my writing since then, although I’ve been able to focus on longer, more thoughtful pieces.

I suspect that the rest of the year will be pretty quiet for the blog. I’ll write when I have time and it won’t interfere with my present duties.