“Someday this war’s going to end…”

“Someday this war’s going to end…”

The majority of my peers at IBOLC are younger than me, hovering around the age of 23. Many of them were just finishing elementary school on 9/11. They grew up with The War as a constant, something that began when they were barely cognizant of what was happening outside of their neighborhood. We fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and there was little reason to think that it would ever stop. At some point, they decided that the military was right for them. They waited patiently until they were old enough to enlist, and then chose to delay a few more years in order to go to school and join as an officer.

Before even arriving at IBOLC, they signed on for additional years of service or swapped assignments at great units or duty stations in order to get to a unit that is deploying shortly.

Iraq is over (for us) and Afghanistan seems to be not too far behind. It was only a few years ago that joining the Army meant a guaranteed deployment. It was not a matter of if but when. Training was tailored to the operating environment. COIN was the name of the game.

Although a deployment to Afghanistan is still possible for many of us, if things fall the way they are planned, this might be the first crop of new infantry lieutenants who miss the show. This has sparked an anxiety among many of my peers that they are going to lack combat experience and that void might stunt them, professionally or personally.

As someone who has already deployed, I don’t feel that same urge to chase deployments. I’ve got my stuff, and make no mistake, getting the stuff is one of the incentives of going. I’d be happy to deploy and would do so with enthusiasm. But clawing my way to the tip of the spear just to see it one, more, time, before it packs up and leaves for who knows how long seems foolish. Go where the Army tells you and do the best job that you can, whether it is forward or in the rear. To me, that seems like the best course of action.

In Nate Fick’s book, One Bullet Away, he talks about the difference between “golden memories and ghosts.” Serve in the military and do good things, and you’ll be rewarded with golden memories. Chase that deployment, and you’ll be cursed with the ghosts. I thought that was a pretty apt description.

I also remember reading a quote somewhere by a French military officer (I think) that went something like “War ruins a perfectly good Army.”

Yet, I completely understand why a brand new lieutenant would do whatever it takes to get to a deploying unit right now. The window feels like it is closing fast. There’s a fear of being that guy who just missed it, and who has to walk around with a bare right shoulder until he gets another opportunity, which may be never.

What advice can I give to someone who wants to deploy? Once you’ve been there, you know it’s not worth chasing – even though there is that urge to go back and try to experience it again. Time and distance atrophies all of the bad memories and raises the good ones to the top. But if I sit and think for a minute I can clearly remember how much a deployment can suck. I’m sure it doesn’t help when everyone who has deployed sit around and swap stories with one another, like pirates at the pub after a round of plundering.

The advice I want to give is “Don’t chase it. If it happens, great. Go fight.” But the infantryman wants to be near the gunfire, and I understand that. I understand where they are coming from. I know how I grinned from ear to ear when my Company Commander told our company of paratroopers that we were deploying. I remember the mix of fear and excitement and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Usually, I just nod in agreement when someone expresses their desire to deploy, fully knowing that they’ll never really leave once they’ve been there.

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Keeping the fire burning

“Are we done yet?”

I’m a little over half-way done with IBOLC. After that will come a short “break” and then more specialized training and before heading to my first duty assignment. So, at this point I’ve been at Fort Benning for about six months, and I’m staring down another five or six before I actually get to the operating force. Talking with a lot of my peers from OCS, many of us are experiencing a degree of burnout.

For them it’s probably worse – they started with nine weeks of basic training before getting to OCS. For our peers from ROTC and USMA, this is there first run in the “real” Army, so they’re riding strong. A lot of the classes we get at IBOLC are the same classes (with exactly the same PowerPoint slides) that we got at OCS. Training environments can be mind-numbing, all the more so when the courses are exactly the same.

Unlike OCS, though, we’re not really competing for anything. At OCS, scoring well and doing your best directly affected where a candidate ranked in the course and their ability to choose their preferred branch. Everyone wants to do well in an Army course, but the rewards for being in the top x % at IBOLC are bragging rights only. I think the Honor Graduate gets a special school slot. The guys who ranks number two? Well, he was number two.

Being stuck in the training vortex can get people down. I remember feeling that same way when I went to Infantry OSUT and Airborne School. It felt like I was going to be in training forever. Like all things, it eventually ended and I moved on to the real Army, and from that vantage point, Fort Benning seemed insignificant and distant. I try to remind my peers that in the scheme of an Army career, this is a blip. In a year’s time we’ll look back and scoff at it all. Things that seem challenging or annoying now will be a joke compared the real problems that we’ll face on the line. That, and the fact that as junior LTs in a training environment we’re essentially responsible for ourselves only (no easy task, mind you). Once we get to a unit, we’re responsible for our entire platoon. This, then, should be easy. “Take care of your three-feet of space” like my old BN CDR used to say, “and the rest will work itself out.”

So how do you keep the fire burning? I remember being in graduate school last year, fantasizing about what it would be like to be back in the Army – to wake up and go to formation, do PT, and be around a bunch of people who all at some point in their lives decided they wanted to do something bigger than themselves, and in seeking that were willing to put it all on the line to do it. I remember thinking about how great it would feel to be able to experience that again – so many of my peers who have gotten out and veterans who I’ve met on the outside can never come back in. I try to remind myself of how much I wanted this when I’m faced with some of the inconvenient realities of these actual situations (standing in PT formation 45 minutes before PT starts in a summer uniform during the freezing winter, ¬†or no coffee for the first six weeks of OCS, for example).

Essentially, to keep the fire burning you have to have a deeper reason to be doing this in the first place. Because it’s “cool” won’t last a week. “Dig deep” is what they say when a guy is sucking on a foot march or a run. If you do this right, there should be a whole lot of mental tumbling going on when a person decides this is what they want to do as a profession. This is a serious business, and it deserves serious thought. Being burned out will happen from time to time. The physical exhaustion of military service, the stress of leadership and the mission, and balancing these with social and family obligations will eventually pile up to a point that overwhelms a person. If we’ve done the mental gymnastics that answer the question “why” beforehand though, then “digging deep” will never be necessary – the answer will always be right there.

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Resisting the urge…

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A couple of months ago I wrote about the challenge of resisting the urge to buy unnecessary tactical gear. I’m of the belief that everything a soldier needs to do his/her job can be done with issued gear. There are some times when it is worth spending a little money on gear, but for the most part, good soldiering comes from the intangibles: physical fitness, tactical proficiency, intelligence, etc. Cool gear is a very small piece of this.

Today I won in resisting the urge. I went out looking for new gloves (we have to wear gloves out in the field at IBOLC). Anything worth buying cost anywhere between $20 -$40. Whatever I wear will most likely get destroyed over the next couple of months, and it is hard for me to shell out money for something I don’t really “need.” Light weight, cool gloves would be nice, but I’ve got plenty of gloves left over from my time in the 82nd.

So, I sewed up the holes in my NOMEX gloves, purchased sometime in 2001 and brought them back to life. These gloves have two deployments under them and work just fine.

In the fight to resist the urge, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Chalk one up for the good guys.

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Reading the professional soldier

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks reading about the professional soldier and some of the issues faced by the US Army in managing the professional force. The number of articles on the topic suggests there is an issue that needs to be addressed.

These are three good articles to read for junior leaders in the force. They raise hard questions.

Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace (The American Scholar) – a journalist’s take on traveling with US soldiers. Is this just bravado or a toxic culture?

Lost in Translation: How the Army has Garbled the Message about the Nature of Its Profession (Military Review) – Are we soldiers or warriors? Does it matter?

Honor, not law (Armed Forces Journal) – especially relevant in light of the Afghanistan massacre. The author argues that it is honor and values that shape battlefield behavior, not law.

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The melancholy before going to the field

Sundays before a week in the field never really get any easier. There’s a strange thing in the air; the anticipation of being away, the forethought of separation.

I’ve been in the same relationship the entire time I was enlisted, through college afterwards, and now again in the Army this second time. Knowing that I’ll be away for a few days casts a heavy blanket of sadness over the day – especially the final hours before going to sleep.

We’ve recently found a way to fight it – we go out to the movies on Sunday evenings, instead of the usual Friday or Saturday evening we used to. We find that it’s better to go to a movie and escape into something else for the last few hours, rather than sit on the couch, shifting our eyes between the television and the clock, counting down the minutes before we go to sleep and say goodbye.

Worse, of course, is that same feeling before a deployment. It’s similar, but it starts earlier. Instead of the hours before the end of the weekend, it starts weeks earlier and only intensifies as the day gets closer. Moments are magnified and take on unnatural significance. There’s a sudden urge to be sentimental.

It’s not all that different, I imagine, to what regular couples experience when one goes on a business trip. Yet, there’s something more intense about it when the goodbye is coupled to military service. Even if it’s just to slip away into the woods for a week.

Having something to look forward to at the end helps – a trip, a romantic night out, or a party. Something special and unusual to make the time away feel like it was worth it.

I’ve read somewhere, on some blog or maybe I saw it in a movie, that this feeling is something that’s best shed as soon as possible. That the feeling is poisonous and might make you soft. Maybe.

I’m not sure that this is a bad or unnatural feeling to have, though. Leaving is unnatural. Feeling a little sad or depressed before going away is natural. Worse, I think, would be to completely look forward to getting away. Getting away to escape whatever is at home. That would be saddest of all.

And truthfully, it’s really not that bad. I’ve always had a knack for reminding myself that things can always be worse. And I look forward to going out and doing Army things – the things I signed up to do, whether it is in the field or forward. But I know that typically if I’m thinking or feeling something, then others are too. Talking about it and writing about it helps to address it. And that, after all, is the point of this blog anyway.

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Injury Management

Soldiers – infantrymen especially – are going to collect injuries throughout their career. Human bodies are fragile, and the nature of the job means that those fragile bodies are going to come crashing against a world of hurt. As I get older, I’m discovering that part of a good physical fitness regimen is having an injury management plan. At any given time, I’ve usually got one to three injuries that I’m dealing with. These aren’t show stoppers -nothing that I’d need to go to sick call for and take a profile. Rather, these are nagging injuries that could develop into something worse if not addressed.

I’ve always had a nasty habit of ignoring my small injuries and training through them or around them. While I was out of the Army and just going to college, this didn’t matter much, because I completely controlled my personal training. Now that I’m back in, I don’t always have control over my physical fitness regimen – I’ve got to do what the Army asks me to do. If I hurt my ankle or shoulder, I can’t just stop training until it gets better. Instead, I have to find ways to continue to train while doing the best to 1) prevent further injury, and 2) heal and rehabilitate the injury.

The biggest problem I’ve faced in trying to manage my injuries is remembering which injuries I need to manage. I need a constant reminder of what I’m working on. My solution was to buy a wooden doll from the local hobby shop. These are used as models for artists. I keep it on my desk and I attach little slips of paper onto the doll with a note on the injury. I see this thing everyday, and it serves as a reminder to go easy on those areas.

Reminding myself that I am carrying injuries isn’t enough though. As part of a weekly review (if you’re not GTDing, you’re missing out) I ask myself “what are my injuries and what have I done to mitigate them?” I should be able to answer that question with concrete responses. The goal, is that over time, I will be able to remove the slips of paper from the injury doll.

Injuries are a part of training. Managing injuries is just as important as following a good workout routine and eating a healthy diet. Unfortunately, too often we only address the injury when it reaches a point where it hinders performance.

All that said, if you’re hurt, go to a doctor and get fixed. But if you have a manageable injury, do everything you can to manage it. Research it. Talk to buddies. Actively do the things that will make it better. Otherwise, that injury will nag and grow and eventually win. Don’t let it win.

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