Do we really need airborne forces?

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When I was still in high school an Army recruiter visited and gave a short presentation to a bunch of disinterested, super-cynical New York Public School students. The recruiter, in his sharply pressed BDUs and shiny black boots paced back and forth in front of us. He spoke about the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunity to travel abroad. When those carrots didn’t pique anyone’s interest, he spoke about the opportunity to jump out of airplanes for a living. I shot my hand up and reminded him that this was 1999, and asked him if the concept of airborne forces weren’t outdated, because, you know, missiles. Like a true professional, he fielded my question and spoke at length of the esprit de corps of the airborne community and he explained the importance of maintaining the airborne “forced entry” capability. I felt smug, having bested the poor recruiter.

A couple of years later I would be jumping out of airplanes.

When Failure Thrives, which explores the concept of airborne forces in the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US, is the inaugural publication of The Army Press, which just recently popped up. As their mission states:

The Army Press is a single organization that serves as the Army’s focal point for identifying, encouraging, and coaching prospective authors to publish original contributions on history, policy, doctrine, training, organization, leader development, and the Army Profession. The Press’ programs and products enable scholarship, facilitate professional dialogue, and promote a fuller understanding of the Profession of Arms for uniformed and civilian members of the DoD and JIIM communities.

It’s a fascinating examination, and it captures a lot of the barracks banter that will be familiar to anyone who served in the airborne, only, it’s backed up with facts. In the case of the American airborne community, its ability to exist is in large part due to the initial investment of talent and resources during World War II, the ongoing redefining of the airborne’s mission (The Pentomic Division, lol), and the strong patronage of current and former paratroopers.

What I found really interesting is just how unsuccessful airborne forces have been over the past century (more failures than successes) and even when measured by historians aiming to gauge combat efficiency, airborne forces don’t perform any better than their conventional counterparts. For all the shit-talking that goes on, there just really isn’t a lot of data to back it up.

And as a friend and mentor once said to me, the hurdle to get into your traditional airborne units isn’t very high – it’s 3-weeks of airborne school and you’re in.

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The things I carried (in the field!)

Last week, I had my first “real” field experience since being back in the Army. The field time at OCS wasn’t bad at all. We slept on cots in heated tents each night – so that didn’t really count.

Like always, we had a pretty standard packing list, designed to meet a certain weight threshold and provide the soldier with the minimum stuff he’d need for a week in the field. There are a few things that I packed in my ruck that I knew would be good to have based on prior experience. And then there were some things that I forgot to bring, based on a faulty memory. I won’t forget again.

The things I remembered to bring:
Vaseline: Chaffing happens in the field. It didn’t happen to me this time, but it happened to some friends and they came begging for it.
Gold Bond Body Powder: When you can’t wash, you can at least get dry.
Foot care kit: Moleskin, gauze, tape, and band aids. Only needed the band aids this time.
Dust brush: A barber’s brush, for weapons maintenance. There is nothing more annoying than people constantly asking to borrow your dust brush.

The things I forgot to bring:
Watchcap: How I forgot this, I don’t know. My bald head is the only thing that pokes out of a sleeping bag, and we lose a lot of heat from the head.
Bug juice: As in, insect repellant. I suppose I thought it was still Winter. It’s already Spring here in Fort Benning. My face, head, and neck have the bug bites to prove it.
Canteen cup: It wasn’t on the packing list, so I left it out. I could have used it for hot water.

I usually err on not bringing extra stuff to the field. When I was in the 82nd, everything extra that you packed would be strapped to you for the jump in, so getting as light as possible was the goal. A watchcap and insect repellant are light enough to warrant bringing to the field for the added comfort.

What else is good to bring?

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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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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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Garrison soldiers, field soldiers, and missing the point

Garrison vs. Field: An imaginary distinction.

“He’s good in the field, but he sucks in garrison.”

I saw this story last week, and it bummed me out. ‘82nd Airborne Paratroopers Unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan Withdrawals.

Paratroopers like to fight. They like to go to war. But I was saddened by the tone in this report, suggesting that soldiers fear a return to a ‘garrison’ Army, one in which they won’t be doing real work, but instead, focused on things like area beautification and the ‘ol dog and pony show. It’s a strange fear, since, for most of these soldiers, they never really experienced a garrison Army.

One soldier reports that he wants to do his job and he can only do that while deployed.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the article, although, the younger soldiers seem to fear garrison life more than the older ones (who are on their umpteenth deployment and wouldn’t mind a little more family time).

The idea forwarded is that being deployed constitutes real work, while being back home does not. It is easy to understand where this attitude comes from. For those who join the Army looking for action and adventure, garrison life is a distraction and boring. I suppose time spent training in the field doesn’t count as strict garrison, and would qualify as a cut above pure garrison life (whatever that is), but still short of an operational deployment. But even time spent out in the field might be a downer. No one in the field is out there trying to shoot you.

Sadly, this eagerness to deploy to do ‘real work’ suggests that being back home isn’t taken as seriously. That is, true soldiering is something that happens only while deployed. Everything else is just nonsense. Not what I “signed up for.”

Well, Army leaders have nodded towards a coming realignment where discipline and old school garrison attitudes will soon be making a return. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the current budget crisis and a downsizing Army suggests a coming higher level of accountability from soldiers across the ranks.

The attitude expressed in the article reminded me of my first year in the Army. The ‘Global War on Terror’ had just started, but only affected a relatively small number of units and soldiers. There was a sense in the air that something big was looming on the horizon, but we were still a ‘garrison’ Army transitioning to a ‘wartime’ Army.

In the Army in days of yore, attentive soldiers with an eye on rapid advancement understood that a premium was placed on the wear and appearance of the uniform. A clean, freshly starched set of BDUs with razor angles and boots that shone like black glass attracted praise from tough NCOs. Standing tall and looking good was not done simply for its own sake, but was often done seeking reward. Preferential treatment, additional passes, and compliments rained down from superiors, who wished to foster an environment where all soldiers took pride in their uniform and appearance.

There were other soldiers, though, who were having none of this. So much attention paid to an immaculately kept uniform detracted from other, more important tasks. ‘Real’ soldiers were good at their ‘real’ jobs, and in the case of the infantry, that is closing with and destroying the enemy. Real soldiers were good at core tasks and were good in the field – PT, shooting combatives – whereas garrison soldiers were good in the rear – well-manicured uniform, competes in soldier of the month/year/millennium boards, takes correspondence courses, has the right things in the right pockets, knows unit history, etc.

Field soldiers and garrison soldiers.

A garrison soldier in the field.

Such a stark division couldn’t last. Handsomely dressed gentlemen wouldn’t survive in the field (there are bugs). And raw grunts would smell bad and break all the fine china in the chow hall.

This led to the inbetweeners. These are the soldiers who fancied themselves grunts but saw the value in keeping a good uniform and understood pragmatically that standing-tall-looking-good-ought-to-be-in-hollywood was good for their professional advancement. But they were torn, because it seemed as if only one path could be chosen – field soldier or garrison soldier. For an infantryman, the choice would be obvious. But to choose the field route meant forfeiting the benefits of the garrison route.

To address this, the inbetweeners decided to maintain a field uniform and a garrison uniform. The field uniform would be the standard issue BDU, but not specially kept. They would never be starched and they would be worn ‘as is’ – wrinkles and all. Field boots would be occasionaly slathered with a chunk of Kiwi quickly rubbed in with the sole intent of preserving the leather. There was little shine, only a matte, dull look that absorbed the sun.

The garrison uniform, on the other hand, would be kept clean and starched heavily. On Monday mornings, it would be carefully removed from its protective plastic wrapper. As arms and legs penetrated the pressed uniform, thin sheets of heavy starch might crack off and fall to the ground, shattering like tiny pieces of glass. Soldiers could look at themselves in the mirror-reflection of their black boots, which may have been shined by hand, or by the boot guy on Yadkin road.

Garrison soldiers could rarely ‘put their arms down.’

A 0900 Monday morning formation was always one filled with grumbles, as the field soldiers scoffed at the parade-ready garrison soldiers, who of course, insisted that they were simply wearing their garrison uniform – not their ‘real’ uniform. Field soldiers retorted that uniforms are uniforms and there should be no distinction, to which the garrison soldiers responded with accusations of laziness and jealousy.

That battle didn’t end until the introduction of the ACU and the tan boot, which requires no shoe polish. It’s hard to make the ACU look good, so no one bothered trying.

I recall seeing starched DCUs while deployed. Relevant? No. Silly? Probably.

The point in all this is to highlight the long-held distinctions soldiers have had on garrison life and field life (whether ‘field’ means a week out in the woods, a couple of weeks at NTC or JRTC, or a year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan).

Wherever soldiers are and whatever they are doing, that’s their real job.

Going forward, the challenge for leaders will be to convince a transitioning wartime Army that these ‘old school,’ basic soldiering skills are no less important than core skills related to a particular job. Leading soldiers in combat is important, yes, but should not be taken more seriously than leading soldiers in the rear, where the threat of death and injury exists just as it does while deployed (but with a different enemy).

Soldiering is soldiering, whether it is in the field or in the rear.

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The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk

PT, shooting, and combatives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND

When I first got to a line company in the 82nd, my 1SG called me into his office to give me his in-brief, and fill me in on his philosophy on how to be successful in his company. On his desk, he had a GI Joe action figure (one of the big ones). The GI Joe was wearing all the gear: body armor, kevlar helmet, web gear, and he had an M16 strapped to his chest. The GI Joe was sitting on top of a jar, and taped to the jar was a a white piece of paper with the bold black words PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND. He caught me looking at it, and said “SPC Gomez, what does that say?”

Me: “Psychological highground, 1SG.”

1SG: “And do you know what that means.”

It didn’t matter if I knew, he was going to tell me, so I shook my head no.

1SG: “It means being the baddest dude in the room. What would you do if someone came busting into your room with all that gear on? You’d probably crap your pants.” (he didn’t say dude or crap)

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

1SG: “Part of being a successful infantryman means being intimidating. When a 6 foot tall (me: neither of us were over 5’7”) monster comes crashing through your door, you’re going to pause, because he’s achieved the psychological highground by looking intimidating. In that pause, is where you win.”

I nodded in agreement.

1SG: “But that’s just one part. SPC Gomez, to be successful in my company you’ve got to be good at three things: PT, shooting, and combatives. You’re an 11B, so 300 is where you start. You will qualify expert, and you need to be ready to fight another human being and win.”

Nod.

1SG: “PT, shooting, and combatives. Take care of those three things and you’ll be golden.”

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

He was right. If you keep yourself out of trouble and do those three things well, you can be a pretty successful infantryman. But, as the title of the post suggests, these are the three things you can’t talk about with military folk.

This is something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve recently been reminded about it as I’ve dived into reading the comment section of blogs, and occasionally joining in.

Recently, the Army banned the use of Vibram Five Finger (VFF) footwear from use with the Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU). From what I understand, the reason they were banned has to do with the way VFFs look (like gorilla feet), not their utility as a running tool (simulating barefoot running). Over at Kings of War, a blog out of the War Studies Department at King’s College that usually discusses issues of grand strategy and big picture, highly intellectual stuff, they posted a short piece on the situation, which as of this writing garnered a whopping 78 (78!) comments. Heated debates ensued over what the ‘best’ or ‘most professional’ PT program is. I left a couple of comments on why I thought the Army made the decision they did, and was chided as being weak-minded for being easily distracted by footwear (true). Similarly, over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure, a post about the coveted Reflector Belt resulted in the same craziness.

Post a picture of a target with your shot group on Facebook, and rest assured, your military buddies will jump in to tell you how much you suck, the production history of the weapon you used (and why it is inferior to the weapon they prefer), a detailed ballistic report from the grainy BlackBerry photo, and then reiterate again that your shooting sucks, at least in comparison to theirs.

I won’t get into combatives too much. Everyone who trains in a martial art believes they are training in the best martial art. And to settle the debate, this is the best martial art.

The point is, these three things evoke an emotional response from military folk, probably because these three things are at the core of what we think the military is supposed to do, and be good at. Everyone in the military does PT, shoots, and probably does some form of hand-to-hand combat training. The civilian world certainly expects that we do all those things. So when you bring up your new PT routine with military friends, you are sure to get some unsolicited advice on how you’re doing it wrong, or how you should forget everything you know and adopt his/her eccentric-flavor-of-the-weak fitness regimen. Think you know something about guns? Well you don’t, and your military friends will remind you. And your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no match for my Krav Maga which is no match for his Sambo or her Muay Thai.

So, like politics and religion, I try not to talk about these things, to the best of my ability. And if I do, I just let everyone else be the expert.

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