Strange military terms: Snowbird and Blackbird

As I’ve written about before, it’s not uncommon to go through an Army life hearing terms over and over again without knowing the meaning. For me, Snowbird and Blackbird are two of those terms. I first started seeing them when I was getting ready to go to OCS and looking  up information in online forums. I’d see people use the term in sentences like “you’ll have time to do that school while you’re Snowbirding,” or “generally, you’ll have a lot of Blackbird time.”

I’ve come to understand that the terms refer to the time that soldiers get in-between mandatory training events. That is, if you have a course that ends in August and your next course doesn’t begin until October, you would be Snowbirding (or Blackbirding) in September.

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I have no idea where these terms came from or who started them, and they’re a bit obscure. Not everyone uses them, but those who do tend to use it with the confidence that everyone knows that they exist. They’re certainly not doctrinal terms, although in a cursory search for some information on this I did the term “Snowbird” used in an official-looking ALARACT message.

My guess is these terms were more popular a long time ago and are being used less and less, in the same way much of the lingo popular in the Vietnam era is now completely out of fashion. If anyone has any information on the terms, I’d be curious to hear it.

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A note on recent posts

Somewhere, I saw a recommendation for a book called Never Eat Alone. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps this is unfair, but I felt like I got the gist of it from the title. The book is about relationships, and I think I take the point that it is best to take advantage of opportunities to build and foster human relationships. Meal time is one of those opportunities.

I’m sure it’s a good book. It’s doing well on Amazon.

I just don’t think I needed to read it. Just hearing the title and the book’s purpose imparted the advice. Reading the book and dedicating the time to that endeavor might solidify that advice, but I just wasn’t that interested.

I’ve been taking that approach to some of the posts on this blog. I’ve had things I’ve wanted to write about for years that have been sitting on a list. These ideas sit there until I’m able to will myself to do the work and bang out a 1,000 word missive on it that makes sense.

Instead of having these ideas waste away on a  list, I’ve decided to get them out there as ideas, half-baked and raw. Often that’s all there is to it, anyway. It’s a technique I’ve seen done well at The Best Defense by Tom Ricks.

It’s a departure from what I normally do, so I thought it would be helpful for those who come here expecting longer pieces all the time. I’ll still write longer pieces, but only ones that I really want to.

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Our political and cultural narrative is being shaped by memes

In conversations lately, I’ve noticed how much of what I’m hearing sounds eerily familiar to memes and nonsense that I see widely shared on social media. This is especially true when it comes to political and cultural issues. I’ll say one thing, and be retorted with something I saw recently online – often some soundbite that is impossible to disprove in an argument or some emotion-laden appeal.

To put it another way, what do you think is having a greater effect in this year’s Presidential election – political advertising or viral memes?

Then, a friend posted this article from the Chicago Tribune which confirms the suspicion:

Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.

It’s a wild, brave new world. And we’re still figuring it out.

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If you had a completely free “extra” hour every day, how would you spend it?

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That is the question Gretchen Rubin used the other day on her podcast as a way to gauge what it is she ought to be doing. It’s such a simple trick.

Ask yourself, if you had one extra, completely free hour each day that sat somehow outside of the regular rules of time, how would you spend it? If you didn’t have to worry about it interfering with other things, or getting tired, or any other considerations, what would you do?

Essentially, the question asks, what do you most want to do?

Often, as she indicates, the thing we want to do is a thing we rarely do at all. It makes no sense. Why would we not do the one thing we want to do the most?

By identifying that one thing, it tells us a lot about what we want. More importantly, it begs why we haven’t made the adjustment to do that thing already. While freeing up an extra hour a day might not be completely possible, identifying the thing that you want to do with more time can help you prioritize the things you do when you make the time.

Freeing up an extra hour a day for a hobby isn’t always possible for me. However, I’ve found that I can find those extra hours during the early mornings on most weekends. Instead of forcing the extra hours into an already crammed workweek, I’ve built the time into the weekend at a time that I can control.

It’s worth re-evaluating how you would spend that one hour from time to time, as priorities change. It’s a great tool for seeing where you are and what’s missing from your life, and often provides a quick way to patch up a hole.

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“I’m Proud to be an American.”

“So what are you, in the Marines or something?” This was his cold open. His head rested against the seat. He looked straight, eyes hidden behind large brown sunglasses.

“No, I’m in the Army,” I said.

“Are you like, coming back from Iraq?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“Oh, I do not agree with that at all. I’m glad you’re back home.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Do you want a Bloody Mary or anything? I need a Bloody Mary.”

He was probably in his late twenties. Well dressed, with a day’s stubble on his face. He seemed exhausted. He told me he was hungover from a night of partying and heading back home to New York.

“So did you have to shoot anyone?” he asked with the casual air of a mother asking her child if he had homework today.

“Yes, I fired my rifle.”

“Oh my god,” he said, finally looking towards me, flipping up his sunglasses, “did you kill anyone?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s crazy. I could never do that.”

Since this was the first time I was going home on leave after war, I was wearing my dress uniform. It was issued to me before I even began basic training. I weighed 140 pounds then. This was three years later and I had put on 20 pounds. The uniform was tight, but looked good. It felt very strange to be traveling like this, but I wanted my parents to experience it. I kind of wanted to experience it too.

The flight attendant delivered the Bloody Mary. Her vest was full of pins. Most were variations of American flags and yellow ribbons. Some were of military units I was familiar with. She placed a coke on my tray.

“My son is in the 101st Airborne Division. Thank you very much for you service,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

My new friend leaned forward and eagerly stirred his drink with a piece of green celery and took a large sip.

“So do you have to go back?”

“Not anytime soon,” I said.

“Well that’s good.”

He became more talkative. He talked about his party last night and the partying he is going to do in New York when he gets there. He says he’s tired of it all. I don’t say much back to him.

My uniform is too tight.

I spend most of the flight looking out the window. It’s a short flight. North Carolina to New York.

The pilot announces we are making our approach. The flight attendant gets on the microphone and tells us to raise our seats and place our trays in their upright position to prepare for landing.

At the point in which she would normally say to sit back and relax, we’ll be on the ground shortly, she instead announces that we are privileged to have a real American soldier on board, just back from Iraq. This gets a round of applause.

As the applause dies out, she begins to sing.

From the lakes of Minnesota
To the hills of Tennessee

“Holy shit, this is crazy!” my now drunk friend says, excitedly.

Across the plains of Texas
From sea to shining sea

I can see the flight attendant at the front of the plane, singing into the microphone. Heads are turning in their seats with wide smiles to see me. My uniform suddenly feels huge.

From Detroit down to Houston
And New York to L.A.
Where’s pride in every American heart
And it’s time we stand and say

Everyone is singing now. My friend is looking at me with a wide grin.

That I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

The passengers erupt into applause and the plane lands a moment later.

I’m in the back of the plane, sweating. I take my time and will be one of the last to get off.

My friend gets his luggage and wishes me luck. He disappears into the rush of people getting off the plane.

I make my way to the front of the plane and thank the flight attendant as I get off. She shakes my hand but doesn’t say anything special. I get the impression that this experience wasn’t unique. She’s done this before.

My parents are in the terminal. They look impressed with my uniform.

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20 Round Magazine

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At some point during my first enlistment, I acquired a 20 round magazine. The standard Army rifle magazine is 30 rounds, and the 20 round magazine was no longer issued, as far as I knew.

It was shaped differently. Instead of the banana curve in the 30 round magazine, the 20 round magazine was angled and sharp. It was also just a little lighter, and when inserted into the M4, the rifle didn’t seem to tilt or wobble while leaning against something as much as when it did with a 30 round magazine.

Of course, it held 10 fewer rounds.

While the 20 round magazine was an interesting oddity to others, it became an object of disdain to senior Non-Commissioned officers who viewed it as a totem from another dimension. They didn’t like seeing it and they definitely didn’t want me to use it.

At first, I thought they were just jealous, which I admit today, seems very Gollum-esque.

Eventually, I learned their disdain came from the fact that the magazine just didn’t belong in the standard infantryman’s load anymore. It’s time had passed. These magazine were old and would likely fail at some point.

And most importantly, by using one as a leader, it sends the wrong signal that it’s okay to use whatever you want when it comes to equipment.

I put it away.

They still look cool though.

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“Taking Care of Your Three Feet of Space”

I’m getting ready to move to a new duty station, which has me making the rounds to different areas of post collecting stamps from various offices to outprocess; finance, medical, transportation, etc. As is the case, I’ve been crossing paths with lots of soldiers with whom I’m unfamiliar and exchanging salutes. Back in my unit, most soldiers are familiar enough with each other to spot one another from far away and can ready themselves to exchange salutes before they get within a few paces. Out in the wild, you often can’t tell what the other’s rank is until you’re just about right on top of them.

In these past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting annoyed at missed salutes. Not annoyed because I wasn’t being saltuted – the salute is a formal exchange of respect between soldiers, not to one. Rather, I viewed the missed salutes as a lack of situational awareness at best or poor disicipline at worst.

Each time it happened, I could have stopped the soldier from where he or she was going and made the correction. It’s a hard correction to make, by the way, because – like writing this post – it can so easily come off as pompous.

“Hey, why didn’t you salute me?” 

Of course, the spot correction can be better handled by using the “exchange of salutes” technique, which I learned when I was a non-commissioned officer. If I were walking with my platoon leader or company commander and we passed a soldier who did not initiate a salute, I would correct the soldier, saying something like â€śIt’s an exchange of salutes between the two of you, and as the junior soldier you are supposed to initiate it.”

As I collected more stamps across post, saluting became a mild obsession. Not only was I now hyper-aware of crossing other soldiers and the exchange of salutes, I also began honing in on the manner of the salute. Was it sharp or sloppy? Did they wait for me to return the salute before dropping theirs? I recognized that this obsession was getting a little weird, but I couldn’t help it.

As I approached another building for another stamp, I saw two soldiers approaching me at a distance. The one on the further left seemed a littler older, and the one nearer, on the right, was younger. As they got closer, I was able to make out the rank of the younger one – First Lieutenant. We approached one another and I keyed in on him, ready to return his salute. He looked back at me and directly into my eyes. He didn’t salute.

I was angry for only a millisecond when I realized I knew the Lieutenant and we were actually friends. He smiled and greeted me, and I instinctively threw my hand up in a salute because I was already primed. We exchanged hurried words in passing, “Hey man, what are you up to? Oh, you know, staying busy.” 

As we continued moving past one another, in the few seconds this lasted, I remembered that my friend was the Aide-de-Camp for a General Officer. My eyes moved from him to the back of the patrol cap of the “older” soldier who had passed me a moment earlier.

I suddenly realized that I had passed a General and had not saluted him, because I was hyper-focused on seeing if the First Lieutenant was going to salute me.

My friend, the Aide-de-Camp, quickly shook my hand and then dutifully followed his boss to a waiting vehicle where I imagined the General shared words about the lack of discipline and situational awareness in this generation of junior officers, as demonstrated by my failure to salute.

My focus on others’ behavior resulted in my failing in the exact behavior I was looking out for.

As embarrassed as I was, the episode served as a good learning point. When I was enlisted, I had a Battalion Commander who ended every speech by imploring us to “take care of our three feet of space.” He said that if we took care of ourselves and the things within three feet of us, we would all be exceptional soldiers. It’s a simple concept, and had I taken care of my three feet of space in this scenario, I would have recognized the General and rendered a proper salute. Instead, because I was so focused on the potential misbehavior of others, I failed to do the right thing myself.

Since this episode, I’ve been less concerned with what others are doing and more concerned with what I am doing. I’ve been taking care of my “three feet of space.” It’s a much more reasonable way to get through a day.

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I’ve met few people who don’t have some twinge of regret for getting out of the Army

Having left the Army once and then come back in years later, I’ve seen lots of soldiers make the transition out of the Army. After the initial honeymoon phase of not having to wake up early, no standing in formations, and the multitude of other absurdities that color military life, there comes a much longer period of time characterized by nostalgia. The miserable field problems in the rain and cold fall to the background. The camaraderie and sense of purpose rises to the top, and regardless of what the veteran is doing in the civilian world, nothing seems to ever match it.

I’ve seen the same in soldiers who leave the Army today. In separation counseling, I mention that with very few exceptions, I have rarely seen someone get out and not regret it on some level. A soldier determined to get out is undeterred, though. Still, I have not been surprised by the number of soldiers that have gotten in touch with me after getting out to say they definitely regret it, if even just a little.

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In the military, it’s hard to say “I don’t know”

Disrupting enemy activity

In the dozens of daily interactions military personnel have with one another, the phrase “I don’t know” is rarely heard.

It’s not that everyone in the military is so smart or well-read, it’s mostly a fear of admitting that one doesn’t know what he or she thinks she is supposed to know.

I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Standing in a hallway with a colleague talking about an upcoming training event or plan, I’ve nodded dutifully to a barrage of acronyms or concepts that I’m hardly familiar with.

Military terminology is so laden with jargon, acronyms, clichés, and buzzwords it is a small miracle when any information gets passed along at all.

Most officers can attest to a time some piece of information came across on a radio transmission or a phone call on speaker, and instead of responding immediately looks up to those around him mouthing “What did he say?”

We don’t want to admit ignorance to a subordinate because by virtue of our positional authority we are expected to know more.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our peers because we are supposed to be of equal knowledge, experience, and ability.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our superiors out of fear of seeming incompetent and losing trust.

The paradox of this fear is that in most instances it is refreshing to all parties to admit “I don’t know” or to ask the question “Wait, what does the mean?”

Asking a subordinate to clarify an elusive idea or concept gives him the opportunity to explain it in full to his boss. He gets the practice in unpacking the idea and the boss gains better understanding.

Stopping a peer from a barrage of acronyms to get clarification allows her to demonstrate mastery of memorizing another military acronym – a small military feat. That acronym, though, might be the one key to understanding the idea of what is being communicated. The peer will likely enjoy the small kick in dopamine for clearly knowing just a little bit more.

Seeking clarification from a superior on his insistence in hammering a clichĂ© or buzzword allows him to explain exactly what he wants while demonstrating that you -the subordinate- are actually interested in understanding. While it might not be true in all cases, most bosses don’t want blind compliance after a brief; they want true understanding and buy-in. Initial concepts might come out dry and loaded with military-speak. Saying that you don’t understand and seeking clarification gives the speaker the opportunity to try again in regular language, outside of the scope of formal speech.

Admitting “I don’t know” has a powerful effect in an organization. Once one person starts doing it, the doors are opened towards others admitting they don’t know either. Instead of a room full of automatons complying with an order they don’t understand, it becomes acceptable to admit ignorance and subsequently gain understanding.

It’s actually a wonderfully refreshing thing to see someone you respect in your organization admit they don’t know what an acronym means or the concept behind a oft-said piece of jargon. As hard as it might be, try it out next time.

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