#JadeHelm

So no shit, there I was.

Driving between Dallas and Fort Hood, returning from a recon for a funeral detail.

There I was, at a nondescript rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In uniform.

I paid for my coffee and waited for a fellow soldier to pay for his Red Bull when an older man approached the counter. He was about my height, balding, overweight with a stained, sleeveless cutoff shirt. He looked me square in the eyes, making sure we were locked in.

With both hands pressed against the counter holding him up, he looked at me hard and asked with a straight and serious face: “Jade helm?”

I may or may not have responded with a sarcastic remark.

Without going into the details, the rest of the conversation revolved around preachers, preparations, and treason.

Without question, it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in regards to civilian-military relations, and I’ve dealt with a lot of anti-military rhetoric, having been a part of veterans issues in New York City and attending graduate school at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In those settings, challenges towards my military service usually resulted in me thinking critically about my decision to serve, and eventually hardening that resolve through deliberate thought.

In this instance, being called treasonous by an angry Texan, I wonderd what might be sitting on his belt. I got out of there as fast I could.

It’s interesting – and a little scary – to read on the internet about this group of people worried about an obscure military exercise. It’s a completely different and strange thing to actually be confronted by it and challenged by it.

I didn’t like it.

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End of War: Post-Deployment Nostalgia

We just hit our 3-month mark of coming home from Afghanistan.

First there was the honeymoon phase and joy of being back in America.

Then there was the long block leave period and the slow yearning to be back in a rhythm.

Then the madness of a unit reset into the gradual resumption of business as usual.

Now, I’m starting to see, hear, and feel the beginnings of post-deployment nostalgia. Guys are starting to talk about being “back on deployment” with a tinge of longing. Four or five months ago, we cursed the very ground we walked on. But now, it exists in our memories as a vacation from the drudgery of garrison life.

Soldiers stand around in groups and tell stories, words going back and forth between them, weaving a bond through every telling and re-telling.

“Fuck this place” is slowly becoming “Remember that time when…”

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The Effect of Narrative Based Games On Real Conversation

Life is Strange was one of the games on my list of games to play when I got back from Afghanistan. It’s a beautiful game, and it’s narrative-based, meaning the story is driven forward by conversation and decisions you make through the game.

Between Life is Strange and Mass Effect (and others), I’ve noticed that recently, when I’m talking with someone, and especially if we’re just standing there and the conversation is going back and forth, I’ve been hyper-aware of the things I was saying and understood that what I say and how I behave might significantly effect real outcomes.

Ok, I know there’s a “no shit” aspect to this, as in, of course this is the case – that’s called real life. But there is something strange about it when you are actually thinking while still in the conversation about how this or that response might affect the outcome.

While this is all anecdotal, I feel like being hyper-aware of the conversation is a good thing. Too often, it feels like we just breeze through conversations without really thinking about what we’re saying and what the outcome might be. “Game-ifying” conversations feels a little manipulative, but only in that you’re being mindful of what you’re saying. We’ve been taught to “think before you speak” but not really to think of the potential outcomes.

Anyway, I like being more aware of what I’m saying, and if it’s a result of games, awesome.

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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-ups, 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.

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Army Myths: Keeping your “head up” during the push-up

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Maybe this one isn’t as rampant as others, but if you’ve ever been docked a push-up during an APFT for not “keeping your head up,” then this can become a significant emotional event.

I’ve heard NCOs and officers grading an APFT consistently make the correction “keep your head up” and not count a repetition because the soldier didn’t keep his head up, or wasn’t looking forward during a push-up repetition.

While I’m not sure if there is a true belief out there that the push-up only counts if your head is kept up, I’ve heard people say you should keep your head up because it presents a more “confident” appearance while conducting a push-up, as opposed to having your face staring into the dirt.

In the actual instructions, there is nothing said about the position of the head.

armypubs_army_mil_doctrine_DR_pubs_dr_a_pdf_fm7_22_pdf

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End of War: Adjusting to Garrison Life

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Reintegration, block leave, initial reset.

A huge source of reintegration frustration comes from transitioning from an environment where leaders at every echelon have more autonomy and control over their formations than they do back at home. What you actually have to do on a day-to-day basis seems to be more tightly controlled at home station than it was forward deployed.

The quicker a leader makes that realization, the quicker he or she can stop raging against the machine and get on board for the big win.

At the platoon level, you go from being able to see the platoon – actually, physically see them – on a daily basis, to losing them to a never-ending stream of details, appointments, and mysteries.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

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Should an Infantry Platoon Leader already have a CIB before deploying?


War in 2014/2015 was very much about just trying to get outside of the wire. It wasn’t easy. In 2003, a quick check in with the CP via ICOM was enough to get you to at least leave the wall of your firebase to investigate something just outside – alone. Now, the massive CONOPs produced for a mission are sent up days and weeks in advance of SP, and scrutinized by just about everyone in the chain of command and beyond before getting the ok. To get outside of the wire feels like a victory in itself.

And to engage the enemy, a blessing from above.

During this last deployment, I watched with interest as other lieutenants jockeyed to get on a mission – any mission – mostly so they could score a Combat Infantryman Badge. In other deployments, firefights were more prevalent, and entire units would get blanket CIB orders. Today, there’s a bunch of paperwork that has to get done, sworn statements, PowerPoint slides depicting the fight, and drone footage if possible. The requirements at times become forensic!

So to get to the point I led with in the post’s title, young infantry platoon leaders who didn’t have a CIB tended to position themselves however they could and within the scope of their influence to get on missions. This, in turn, usually meant a mission for the platoon or at least a part of the platoon, putting them out there and at risk. In plainspeak, the eagerness to get “after it” and earn combat badges acts as a significant influence on a leader’s motivation to volunteer or otherwise try to get outside of the wire and on mission.

On the other hand, as a platoon leader who already had a CIB from a prior deployment, I felt no urge to volunteer myself or the platoon for any unnecessary missions just to get us out there and perhaps have a chance at getting the award. I often wonder how my behavior might have been different if I didn’t have a CIB. Would it have resulted in me jockeying the platoon to get out more? What might have happened?

In saying all of this, I’m not putting a value judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing. Maybe we want young PLs to be trying to get out as much as possible (although I tend to think not). And even with all of the jockeying, I didn’t see any PL needlessly put his soldiers at risk for some metal – although the point of this post is to say that it is precisely that which is possible.

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