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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