“Cultural Cluelessness”

I read this article in Wired today about “Cultural Cluelessness.” The gist of it is that the recent Quran controversy indicates a deeper problem within the US military regarding sensitivity and understanding towards “other” cultures.

After my first deployment to Iraq, I thought the Army would stand to benefit from something more than cursory training on the contours of cultural awareness or sensitivity, or what I like to call the “Wikipedia class on Islam.” We talk about the “strategic corporal” as a central player on the battlefield, but as a senior officer recently pointed out to me, the strategic corporal concept only seems to work in the negative – when there is something detrimental done. There are no stories of the strategic corporal that did something that changed the war in the positive – or at least I haven’t heard that story. How then, do you arm the strategic corporal with the knowledge to make sure he or she doesn’t make that mistake?

After ten years of war, there have been a number of cultural blunders made, which were tactically insignificant but strategically important – generally in the negative. This was something I thought about a lot while attending college.

Part of the Truman Scholarship application requires a ‘policy proposal.’ The candidate is required to identify a problem in the world, recommend a proposal to remedy the problem, and discuss the major challenges to implementing the policy. I wrote my proposal on instituting a Peace Corps-like cultural immersion program for members of the military most likely to come into contact with “other” cultures.

I wrote this proposal in the ‘aspirational tense.’ That is, I’m not sure that something like this could ever really be implemented and scaled up to a level that would make it efficient or worthwhile to pursue. While immersion in another culture would certainly provide soldiers with a better understanding of that culture, I also believe that simply doing the right thing and showing respect to other people (and other cultures) would be just as good. Still, I’ll copy and paste the proposal below to put it out there as a thinking point. Also, I’m aware that there are major holes in the entire proposal. The application required the proposal to fit a prescribed word length, which meant getting down the idea without nailing everything down.

I’d be more than happy to talk about the proposal in the comments.

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To: Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Subject: Cultural and Linguistic training for the military

Problem:

Relations between the United States and the people of the Middle East are dangerously strained.  Despite massive military efforts, we have failed to adequately befriend the Middle Eastern people.  According to the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center, 83% of the Middle Eastern public holds an “unfavorable view” of the US, with 80% of these participants indicating that their attitudes towards the US are based on US policy, not American values (1).  Pew Global Attitude surveys in the Middle East show that opinions toward “American people” are significantly more favorable than opinions toward just “America” (2).  These statistics confirm that our efforts are misguided.  The impending shift in emphasis from “hard” power to “smart” power represents a major change in US foreign policy (3).  Still, our military presence in the Middle East will remain substantial for the foreseeable future.  The changing nature of warfare requires a military that is not just culturally sensitive, but views cultural understanding as essential to mission success (4).  The Officer Corps is receiving enhanced cultural training, but the NCO Corps — the backbone of our military — is not.  Our “strategic sergeants” need the cultural training that will empower them to make the tactical decisions that have strategic implications.

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Proposal:

The US already has the institutions necessary to prepare our military for close encounters with people from other cultures.  The Peace Corps prepares its volunteers for cultural integration through immersion using a combination of home-stay programs, in-class instruction, and language familiarization courses.  These programs are comprehensive and effective.  This model should be applied to the NCO Corps of the US military.  The huge cultural gap that exists between the US and the Muslim world requires intensive cultural exposure beyond familiarization and sensitivity training.  Ideally, every service member would have the opportunity to receive the type of in-depth cultural training required to achieve understanding. Realistically, having 1 or 2 soldiers per platoon (approx. 35 soldiers) receive this training would represent a major step forward.  A typical cultural training program lasts about 8 weeks — about the same time as US Army Ranger School.  Integrating this training into the NCO education system ensures that our small unit leaders on the ground will have the cultural knowledge required to make the hard decisions being asked of them now.  To test this, I propose we form a pilot program immediately with a unit scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the near-term.

Major Obstacles:

Implementing enhanced cultural training may see resistance from leaders in the Department of Defense who view cultural training as a distraction from the core mission of the military — winning wars.  On a practical level, military leaders may argue that sending off junior leaders to receive cultural training removes them from their traditional jobs, which may undermine unit readiness.  Additionally, the amount of time required to achieve adequate cultural training may seem extensive to some leaders. Despite these concerns, the US military stands to benefit from implementing this policy.

References:

  1. Telhami, Shibley.  “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll.”  Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.  14 Apr. 2008.  <http://www.brookings.edu/events/2008/0414_middle_east.aspx>
  2. “Global Unease with Major World Powers.” The Pew Global Attitudes Project. 27 Jun. 2007.  <http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/256.pdf>
  3. Clinton, Hilary.  “Statement of Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton Nominee for Secretary of State.”  Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  13 Jan. 2009.  <http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/ClintonTestimony090113a.pdf>
  4. “FM 3.24 Counterinsurgency.”  Department of the Army.  Dec. 2006. <http://www.usgcoin.org/library/doctrine/COIN-FM3-24.pdf>

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Turning 21 on deployment

Birthdays are good for reflection. Where am I coming from, where am I, and where am I going.

The last significant birthday I had was 21. People love to tell other people about the time they turned 21.

I turned 21 on Failaka Island, (جزيرة فيلكا) a small island off the coast of Kuwait. I was training there before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead of going out and drinking beer legally for the first time, some buddies gave me their Skittles from their MREs during lunch. Good friends, good friends.

Fast forward three or four months. I was sitting outside of our bay in our company firebase in Baghdad. My PL took a seat next to me and said with a grizzled voice for a young PL “SPC Gomez, you turned 21 in Kuwait, right?”

Me: “Yes, sir.”
PL: “Let me tell you what’s cool about turning 21.”
Me: “Ok.”
PL: “You know when you go to Texas Roadhouse with your boys and there’s a 30 minute wait because it’s payday, and you have to go sit in the waiting room with all those other joes, eating peanuts?”
Me: “Uh, yeah.”
PL: “Well now you just go to the bar and have a drink. The time goes by much faster.”

And you know what, he was right.

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Resisting the urge to spend money on dumb Army things (fear the Sirens)

Lo!

I’ve always had a hard time resisting the urge to spend money on more Army gear. In my experience, the Army provides you everything you need to complete any given task. But there are so many things that you can buy that make completing that task easier, more comfortable, or just look better.

During my first enlistment, I loved to go to the ‘tactical’ shops off post and buy cool packs or field equipment. It was all unnecessary stuff. Coming back into the Army, I thought that the urge to spend money on dumb gear had been kicked. I figured it was just part of being young and in the Army. I even wore the old, buggy-looking original Wiley X’s that I had been issued in 2003 as my eye protection during OCS, much to the amusement of my peers who had never seen them.

Now that I have been back in for a few months, that urge to buy additional gear to make things a little easier/comfortable/sexier is coming back, and needs to be suppressed!

I just bought a CAC card reader and I use a Mac. I tried for about 30 minutes to get it to work last night and couldn’t solve the problem. I know it is possible to do and will take just an hour or two of getting the right information and patiently plugging away, but instantly I thought of buying a cheap Windows-based Netbook to be my “Army computer.” A $15 investment in a CAC card reader almost turned into a $350 investment in a new computer. The advice I would give to myself is to save my money and put in the work to just figure out how to get the CAC card reader to work with my Mac.

One of the observations I have made since being back in: most of the prior service Lieutenants choose to wear their Army issue boots. Most of the new Lieutenants choose to wear after market boots (which we were never allowed to wear when I was in). I’m not sure if it’s a comfort thing or if it is, as I suspect, a hardened resistance to blowing money on unnecessary Army stuff. I hope it is the latter.

So far I’m doing good. But it’s getting tougher. And I really want to get some new eye protection.

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The ‘I Love Me’ Book

Originally published in 2012.

Now is a good time to talk about managing Army records. Coming back into the Army meant digging out my old paperwork so that I could properly update my personnel file. Graduating OCS meant getting a whole bunch of new paperwork that needs to be added to the pile. Then, I read this article from the Army Times (‘As drawdown looms, mind your personnel file, February 5, 2012).

It seems like the Army does a better job digitizing records than it did a few years ago. Most of the important paperwork I’ve received has already been uploaded to iPERMS – the Army’s digital file. That’s good, but sometimes paperwork doesn’t make it online and all you have is the physical paperwork.

That’s where the ‘I Love Me’ book comes in.

My first team leader in the Army told me that I needed to start putting together a book that has all of my important paperwork. He called it his ‘I Love Me’ book because it was his personal “paperwork shrine” to himself. All of his military accomplishments in one place. Basic training certificate, MOS orders, orders to report to Airborne School, Airborne School certificate, orders for the parachutist skill identifier, orders to report to the 82d Airborne Division, et cetera.

His binder was pretty elaborate. It was tough, and he had glued the 82d patch with a Ranger and Recon Tab on the side of it as decoration (we were in a Scout Platoon). I followed his lead and built an equally elaborate binder (which I’ve since lost track of – not the paperwork, just the binder). My current binder is pretty plain. It’s a floppy, blue binder with sheet protectors on the inside. I like the floppy binders better than the hard binders because they are easier to transport. They’re only as large as your important paperwork is thick.

Pretty much anything that authorizes the wear of any badges, tabs, or ribbons goes in the book. Orders to report anywhere goes in the book. Graduation certificates, ERBs/ORBs, NCOERs/OERs, they all go in the book. Any other paperwork I put in another folder and tuck it away in a closet. I’ve never had to retrieve that “other” folder for anything. If you do it right, you should only ever need to grab the ‘I Love Me’ book.

I like to organize it chronologically, from day one in the Army to the present. You can also put in other important documents that you might need, like college transcripts or civilian certifications.

Going Digital

Having an ‘I Love Me’ book is the first step in managing your own personnel file. The next step is digitizing it. Today, scanners are cheap. Scanning all of the documents in your ‘I Love Me’ book into PDFs ensures that in the event that the Army loses track of your paperwork and you can’t get ahold of your physical ‘I Love Me’ book for whatever reason, you still have the files stored digitally on your own computer. In the smart phone era, I can get access to a file I’ve stored digitally in a matter of seconds. And when people need your paperwork in the Army, they need it now. It’s pretty cool to be able to provide it just as fast.

So what?

Having all of your paperwork neatly tucked into a binder and stored on a computer is great, but it means nothing if the Army isn’t tracking that paperwork. It is a skill level one task to ensure your own personnel file is updated. Luckily, if you keep an ‘I Love Me’ book, you can grab it and head over to S1 to update your ERB/ORB with relative ease. Keeping records updated with Big Army ensures that when they look at you for promotions (or whatever else) they are looking at the most accurate reflection of your history and skills. Being a steward of your own file is going to be more important than it has been in recent years, and maintaining an ‘I Love Me’ book is the first step in making sure your records are straight.

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My new training ruck

Once I realized that I was going to rejoin the Army, I started reaching out to old Army buddies to help me develop my training program. Specifically, I wanted to concentrate on foot marching, something I had trouble with when I first joined (I’m going to write a longer post about foot marching soon). A friend of mine from the 82nd Airborne who went on to Special Forces recommended I ditch the giant North Carolina tick and instead attach a 45lb plate to a rucksack frame and go with that. True, it’s not the same as having a giant ball on your back that you can stuff the world into, but it is easier to pick up, put on, and go than the alternative.

When training, I’ve found that one of the easiest excuses to pick up and walk on an early morning is not having an adequately packed ruck. “Oh, man, I forgot to pack my ruck last night. Ah well, I’ll just ruck next week.” With this, there’s no excuse. I never have to pack it or unpack it. It’s always the same weight.

What do you think? Am I missing out by not being able to cram in more weight?

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Valentine’s Day Deployment

January 2003

Once upon a time on Ardennes Street…

Another morning like any other in the 82d Airborne Division. A company run at a nice, easy pace. A run designed to build esprit de corps and unit cohesion.

I had been in the Army for almost two years. The entire division had deployed to Afghanistan since 9/11 with the exception of the 325th AIR, the Falcons. War with Iraq seemed more likely with each passing day and each week brought news reports of units being tapped for deployment to Kuwait. At the time, the rumor was that we were being held back to serve as a strategic response to any worldwide contingencies. Paratroopers from the 504th and the 505th were cycling back to Bragg, chests puffed out at the Airborne PX, showing off their new CIBs. Our fear was that this whole thing would pass before we got our chance in the show.

As we beat feet, singing cadence, the company I was running in started rumbling loudly. I looked up and saw that we were passing a company from the 504th who had just returned from Afghanistan.

“Three Two Jive!” someone shouted from the passing formation.

“No war Oh-Four” someone responded from our formation.

“We got ours! You guys missed it” we heard.

A junior NCO from our formation got out the last word “They’re saving us for Iraq” which was said with more hope than fact.

We passed the formation and continued running, wondering if we would ever get our shot.

14 February 2003

Worst. Valentine’s. Ever.

Wearing my brand new desert uniform and maroon beret, I stood outside on a browning grass field, worn down from sweat and mountain climbers. Hundreds of paratroopers were busy all around me checking and double checking serial numbers, burning 550 cord, loading trucks, and making sure duffel bags and rucksacks were nicely lined up in formation. I called my girlfriend to tell her that I was leaving to deploy “somewhere” and that I didn’t know when I would talk to her again.

For weeks prior, we trained and prepared for a deployment to Iraq, although no one told us that is where we were actually going. We all suspected it was Iraq, and I am sure our command new that was where we were going, but that word didn’t filter down to my level. The war hadn’t started yet and everything was a secret.

Instead of finalizing romantic plans for the evening, I made sure she knew where she could find my will. I tried to sound as confident and reassuring as I could as I finished up the call like it was any other night. “All right, I’ll talk to you later. I love you. Bye!”

I powered down my phone and turned it over to my squad leader who placed a piece of white tape on it with my name and date. I let out a deep breath of air and turned my attention to the best Valentine I could get – my team, my squad, my platoon. We would spend the entire year together in a hot, exotic locale. Romantic for all the wrong reasons.

I wouldn’t hear her voice again for three months.

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I still don’t know what size boots I’m supposed to wear

One of the great advantages I supposedly have had at OCS as a prior service soldier is the depth of experience and domain knowledge I possess. Generally, this is true. But having been out of the game for five years, there are some things that I forget, and other things that I brush off as insignificant. As a former infantryman, I should know better than anyone how important properly sized, well broken-in boots are for foot marching. And I do know that. I came to OCS with a pair of 8 1/2 R Belleville’s that I was issued shortly before getting out of the Army in 2006. I broke them in during the two years prior to rejoining the Army on my occasional foot marches. So, the boots are at least six years old, but the heel was hardly worn and the boots were in decent condition, and most importantly, they were well broken-in and felt great on foot marches.

They were still six years old, though.

Just before we went on holiday leave, the sole on my right Belleville started to come undone. The glue that keeps the sole to the boot must have rotted away and my sole was flapping like a duck’s bill. This was during the last couple of days of our final field exercise, so I taped the sole to the boot and went with that until the end of the field problem. No big deal, I thought. I would just go down to Fort Bragg while home on leave and have the boots resoled and it would be good as new.

While home on leave, my rotting boots sat next to my open suitcase as a constant reminder that at some point during my vacation, I needed to drive down to Fort Bragg, drop them off, and then come back a few days later to pick them up. It would have taken a total of three hours of driving and maybe $60.

One day of leave melted into another, and eventually I decided that driving All The Way to Fort Bragg wasn’t worth it, and that surely I could repair the boot myself. I remember using Shoe Goo during my first enlistment to prepare a ghillie suit and that the stuff was pretty powerful (and made for shoe repair, anyway). I set out and bought some, quickly rinsed the dirt off of the boots and squeezed lumps of clear goo between the sole and the boot. Then, I taped the sole tightly and set it outside to dry overnight.

I felt proud that I did the repair myself and saved myself both time and money.

While home on leave, I also grabbed another pair of 8 1/2 R boots that were brand new and sitting in a duffel bag. I figured that I should break them in “just in case” the repair to the Bellevilles didn’t work out. I started to break those in over holiday leave, but remember thinking they felt a bit too tight. I figured once they were broken in, they would fit just fine.

3 months earlier, at the 30th AG…

I stepped onto the Army’s version of the catwalk, the fifteen foot long elevated platform that all soldiers walk across to reach the Army civilian that will measure their feet and fit them to the perfect sized boot. Most of the soldiers processing through 30th AG are new recruits who are quickly being cycled through a number of stations on their way to basic training. Most of them won’t know much about boots and will take whatever is given to them. As a prior service soldier en route to OCS, I knew how important the precious few moments spent with the boot guy could determine how comfortable the next few weeks, months, or years could be. As he began measuring my feet, I told him that I was prior service and always wore an 8 1/2 R boot. He looked down at the measuring device and then up at me. “You’re a 9.”

I looked down at the device and saw that my big toe just barely made contact with the line at 9.

“Yeah, but barely. I think I should probably still wear an 8 1/2 R.”

“No,” he said, “You’re definitely a 9.”

I shrugged. “Okay, I haven’t been measured for almost ten years, so I guess maybe my feet grew.”

So I went off to OCS with my size 9 boots and worked diligently to break them in. They were too loose. I tried buying inserts. I tried stepping on them and squashing them and breaking down the toe and heel cups as much as possible, to no avail. The boots were still too loose. Still, I wondered if maybe this was how boots were supposed to fit. There’s this little sign where the boot man does his job that shows pictures of see-through boots with the toes inside. The pictures show that there should be some space between the toes and the end of the boot. The boot people do their best to try to get you to figure out where your toes are. “Is the end of your toe HERE?” the boot man says as he makes a line with his fingernail in the suede of my boot. “Yes, I think so” I say as I try to touch the roof of the toe cup with my big toe.

The day of the ten mile foot march

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Sitting in the dark on the edge of my cot, I slipped on my six year old, rotting, self-repaired 8 1/2 R Bellevilles. I tightened them up, stood up, and looked down at my feet. Something didn’t feel quite right. My toes in the boot that I repaired were arching upwards. I tried squeezing my toes to go down, but it didn’t work. I examined the boot and found that my repair was faulty; I didn’t properly seal the sole to the boot, resulting in an arched toe.

It probably wouldn’t matter, I thought. I walked around a bit to get a feel for the boots. I definitely noticed the arching. It felt like my foot was sitting in a canoe. And I knew that anything I felt in one step, I’d have to feel for the thousands of steps during a ten mile foot march.

So I faced a dilemma. Wear the boots I have been foot marching in for the past two years without any foot problems and risk that the repair will result in some kind of annoyance or injury, or, wear the barely broken-in boots that I brought with me from back home.

I went with the latter. I sat back down and took off my Bellevilles and put them back in my ruck. I stuffed my feet into the new boots and before stepping off on the foot march, hoped for the best. The boots fit tightly, not snugly.

Like most foot marches, everything started okay. My feet felt fine and I put one in front of the other without much thought. About three miles in I started to notice a little bit of rubbing on the inside of my heels. I sighed, knowing that this was a boot-fit issue. “Maybe it won’t get any worse” I thought to myself, fully knowing that it would definitely get worse. This was one of those foot marches where we walk for three or so miles and then take a ten minute rest. While that sounds nice, when dealing with blisters or any kind of injury, stopping on a foot march can be the worst thing to do. Blisters and sores will go numb on a foot march after awhile. By stopping, that numbness goes away and you have to mentally fight through the pain when you start walking again until you once again reach that numbness.

We stopped three times during the ten mile foot march. It was clear to me that the skin on the insides of my heels were in pain. Each time my heel hit the ground, I imagined my heel sliding down to the bottom of the boot and my green sock scraping against an open red sore.

At the end of the foot march, I remember feeling frustrated because the bottoms of my feet felt fine. My feet were toughened for the march, but the improperly fitted boots resulted in unnecessary injuries to the insides of my heels.

After getting a quick accountability of personnel and equipment, we were released to change into dry uniforms and new socks. I eagerly pulled off my boots to see the damage. This moment could either be a morale booster or a complete downer. For the past couple of hours, I walked and felt pain in my heels on each step. My hope is that I would pull off my boots and blood and flesh would spill onto the floor. That would be a testament to the toughness required to complete the foot march. Pulling off a sock to reveal a barely-there blister or worse, nothing at all would make a soldier question his or her own mental toughness.

Peeling off my socks revealed nearly identical sores. The skin had been rubbed off of my inner heel revealing some raw layer of skin that’s not supposed to make contact with the air. I was happy with that result and smiled widely, inviting anyone who was nearby to see. They looked and acknowledged that it was bad before turning to their own injuries.

A few weeks later, back at the 30th AG…

Shortly before graduating from OCS, we went back to 30th AG to DX (exchange used equipment for new equipment) any old or damaged clothing. I excitedly bagged up my boots and when we got there, made a beeline for the catwalk. I explained to the boot man that I had been improperly measured for a size 9 boot, despite having always worn 8 1/2 R on my prior enlistment. He asked me to step back on the measuring device. I stepped into the device and seated my heel deep into the metal. I looked down at the device and shook my head.

“You’re not even an 8 1/2 – you’re more like an 8 1/4.”

So the first time I came into the Army, my feet measured 8 1/2. When I rejoined, I was measured to be a 9. Now I am more like an 8 1/4.

The boot man recommended that I try wearing a size 8. Completely bewildered and unsure of the right answer, I asked him to let me try on some 8 1/2 Rs (Army-ism: “go with what you know”). He agreed and I tried them on. They seemed to fit okay, and certainly better than the 9s. Happily, I exchanged my never worn size 9s for some new 8 1/2 Rs.

I’ve been breaking in the 8 1/2 Rs for a couple of weeks now.

They feel a little loose.

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The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship

I wrote a short OpEd that appeared in the Arizona Republic over the weekend about my experience as a Tillman Military Scholar.

I was able to study in Egypt because of a scholarship I received from the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2009. Studying in Egypt was the defining experience of my undergraduate education and prepared me well for what I would face in graduate school – especially in terms of field work for my dissertation. The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship will be taking applications for its next batch of scholars between February 13th and March 16. If you are a veteran, service member, or spouse of one and are interested in the scholarship, you should strongly consider applying.

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