Afghanistan Adventures

I imagine a time when this intersection was always busy.

With post-deployment leave over, I thought I’d wrap up the end of war with a single post, pulling in whatever was significant over the past year, and some thoughts that seem relevant.

Of course, the actual deployment started long before actually deploying. Once the word came down that we were going, there’s an instant gravitational pull to start reading and studying. I began the End of War Reading List as an attempt to get a grasp on what one might expect as the end of a war nears. Before deploying, I wrote about how strange it was to be preparing to deploy to a war that we knew was coming to and end, all while other officers were being handed pink slips and the writing on the wall told of a coming smaller force.

Pre-deployment musings generated this popular post on “why we fight.” The answer: force protection.

Keeping with the Game of Thrones theme, the Battle of Castle Black seemed remarkably familiar to what a deployment to a small outpost can feel like.

And then, the deployment actually began.

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to post while overseas. My last deployment was in 2005, and I quickly learned that things had changed significantly and war in 2014 comes with a 3G data plan for your smartphone (not really, you have to pay for it). I had my own room and I had nearly 100% reliable WiFi from my quarters. And if I didn’t, there was always a green line somewhere nearby. It became clear, rather quickly, that the standard model of soldier morale (chow, mail, pay) was changing.

I read a lot about Major Gant.

I also read about the careful balancing of humanity and iron discipline in maintaining a lethal force.

After almost 20 years, I finally finished Tactics Ogre, and continued to pull amazing lessons from it.

Working for 9 months straight confirmed to me why deployment experience actually matters, and why it is so valuable.

The M9 continues to serve as the Army’s vanity weapon (I’m not saying I didn’t have one, I’m just saying).

I published a longform version of the Battle of As Samawah after it was rejected somewhere else.

9/11 in Afghanistan was like any other day.

FOBs are kept running by an unseen, mysterious bevy of small green insect looking creatures.

I thought a lot about drones – and how they are our Magitek Armor.

I tracked down Richard Johnson while passing through Bagram, and he graciously drew a sketch of me, which was rapidly corrected.

I got seriously good at PowerPoint.

The absurdity of war continued to fascinate me. The axiom “pics or it didn’t happen” became ultra-apparent, and I was pleased to learn that the Taliban follow the same general guidelines.

Nostalgia floweth over.

I discovered my new favorite military force, and pondered the role of “hate” in war.

I got really, really sick and then the war ended (over and over again).

The platoon leader is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do. 

American Sniper came out. I still haven’t seen it.

We all feared the reaper.

As the deployment came to a close, the Universal Truths of Relief in Place were once again, confirmed.

We waited and waited. And waited.

And then we came home, and the adjustment period began.

Last week, the May-June issue of Military Review was released and a piece that I co-authored was published there highlighting some of the steps our platoon took in operating resiliency at the platoon level.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, our NTC experience and all of the troubles and gripes that accompanied it, was actually validated by the deployment. Of course, we were only at NTC for a month, but it did a good job at replicating a lot of the problems we would face in Afghanistan. In many ways, it was easier to accomplish some things in Afghanistan than it was at NTC – which is good.

I’m not sure it’s all over. There are no clean breaks.

Leave is over, work begins, and everyone is still adjusting.

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The Universal Truths of Relief in Place

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Relief in place, commonly referred to as “RIP,” is that process of one unit changing out with another. I first heard about it shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Our initial mission set was to jump into Baghdad Airport after the Rangers had jumped in and relieve them (aka, the greatest mission that never happened). My platoon sergeant described it as a process of literally finding your counterpart on the battlefield and relieving him of his position, so he could go on and do something else.

Today, the RIP process is less literal. The incoming unit comes in and is shown the ropes by the outgoing unit, usually involving a lot of conversation and questions and some version of the “left-seat, right-seat” ride. That is, the outgoing unit will “do it” (whatever “it” is, a patrol or manning towers, for example) with the incoming unit observing, and then at some point they’ll switch and the RIP will be complete.

I don’t really have much to say about the RIP process, other than there are three universal truths that I’ve discovered over time:

  1. The unit you’re relieving sucks.
  2. The unit reliving you is totally not prepared for this.
  3. Both units want the other to hurry up.

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Long Goodbye

My first two deployments were short-notice deployments. I found out we were going to Iraq the first week of February, 2003. The war hadn’t started yet and the Commander couldn’t even confirm that we were going there. We were told that we were going to “southwest Asia” for “something.” The Department of Defense already put out a press release confirming the deployment of an Airborne Infantry Brigade, and we were the only one still available, but whatever. We stayed up late for the next two weeks stuffing our lives into duffel bags. We said hurried goodbyes, and we flew away for a year.

My second deployment was similar. I was driving for a General, and he was reassigned to a position in Iraq and had to be there in a couple of weeks. He asked his staff if they wanted to go and we all said yes. I packed, said goodbye, and was gone a week later as ADVON.

This current deployment loomed on the horizon like a giant barge, sitting in the water, inching closer by the minute but appearing not to move at all until finally it was here. We knew about it with some degree of certainty back in November, when rumors swirled we were put back on “the patch chart” – this mythical board that dictates when units will deploy. Further, the predicted deployment date was sometime in the summer, giving us at least a full six months in which to prepare.

That long run-up to a deployment is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it allows more time to train and prepare. A curse – and this is especially true for those who’ve deployed before – because a good chunk of time is spent soaking up the good things in life under the excuse of “soon I’ll be deployed and won’t have this opportunity.” Thus begins a see-saw cycle of hard gym sessions followed by binging on Chips Ahoy and beer, because, you never know.

It’s worse on relationships. It’s the elephant in the room, the thing that is right there and coming that both parties try to ignore so they can “enjoy now.” A couple of weeks before this deployment, I sat in a beautiful sea-side restaurant eating breakfast with my wife, looking out at a bay in Saint Thomas. Gazing at the lush hills, my mind drifted to reading terrain for an attack and our current and projected task organization. We began to argue over something stupid, but it was really frustration about the deployment – an oncoming train that won’t stop.

And then, after months and months of that – preparing and binging, ignoring and acknowledging – the day finally comes and it is time to say goodbye. There is no good way to do it – I’ve done it too many times and the only thing that makes it any easier is knowing that the actual physical act of saying goodbye is the hardest part. There are actually multiple goodbyes; the one in the living room, the one in quiet car ride to post, the first one when you thought you were just going to be dropped off at base before you saw all the other families lingering around, and then the final one where you say “this is it.” Inside that goodbye, there are a dozen false starts. You hug and kiss and say goodbye and step away, only to move in one more time “for real this time.” After that, you finally have to go. You look and try your best to absorb the entirety of that moment; the humid air, the early morning, blue hued twilight sky, the feeling of your loved one’s body against yours, one last time.

And then you break and say goodbye, turn around, and walk away.

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Why Deployment Experience Really Matters

End of War

It’s been interesting reading the reactions to the blog post by soon-to-be-forced-out Major Slider on The Best Defense. Major Slider is one of the hundreds of Majors who was selected to be cut from the Army as a result of the recent Officer Separation Board (OSB). The OSB saga and some of the defense of Major Slider, much of which revolved around valorous combat experience – coupled with the fact that I’m currently deployed – started me thinking about the actual value of combat experience.

When I was coming through OCS and IBOLC, I remember having lots of conversations with young Second Lieutenants who were wary about potentially missing their opportunity to deploy, since it was clear we were teetering on the tail end of the long war. Much of that angst – I think – stemmed from wanting “the stuff” that comes from a combat deployment; the combat patch, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the bucket of end-of-tour awards. For good or for ill, the Army fosters a culture of “badge envy” and the immediate value of a soldier, especially in combat arms, is first assessed by the things sewn, pinned, and velcro’d on the uniform.

Back then, in my infinite mustang wisdom, I tried my best to explain that it isn’t really going to matter if you deploy or not, that the Army moves on and will value and appreciate skill and leadership above whether or not you deployed – more a function of chance and when you were born than any actionable trait. More bluntly, having not deployed would not be held against you in an Army transitioning out of war. I believed that then, and I still do now.

What has changed – and this is partly a function of being currently deployed – is that I think I may have undervalued wartime service. While it’s true that every deployment is different, what remains unchanged is that whatever your job is – infantry, admin, medical, etc. – when you are deployed, you are doing that job more frequently and more real than when you were back home. Weekends don’t exist the same way they do while deployed than when you are home. You are accountable for your equipment twenty-four hours a day, not just until you turn it back into the arms room or the supply cage. There is a constant rotation of duties that is usually measured in hours between the next guard shift, not days – or weeks – between your next staff duty.

Combat operations occur at a frequency greater than the intensity of field training. You may run multiple missions a day, or operations that take place over twenty-four hours at a time, requiring planning and preparation days before the event starts. Each mission is analyzed and assessed through an after-action review process, which if done well, fine tunes the unit’s techniques, tactics, and procedures, making the unit more efficient and effective.

In all this, you are working in close proximity with the same people for hours a day and days that bleed into weeks and months. Conflicts arise and good leaders find ways to stay effective. Personnel management and more importantly – personality and ego management – becomes key to getting anything done. Knowing who to grease and who to avoid becomes critical to the deployed soldier navigating an unrivaled bureaucracy that involves multiple military services, countries, and languages.

All this is done in an adverse environment where someone is actively trying to kill you. At the end, the soldier that emerges is one that has done his or her job in a focused way for a prolonged period of time. Skills are learned and experience gets buried deep into the reservoir of the soldier, ready to be brought out in the future if called upon.

Put simply, the deployed soldier has done his job harder, faster, and longer than his counterpart who hasn’t deployed. That experience is valuable.

All that said, deployment experience does not necessarily create experts in anything other than that experience. One cannot simply say “I’ve been deployed” and hand wave necessary training or assume that anything done once is done forever. Rather, deployment experience is simply an indicator that  a soldier has done his or her job in a focused way for a sustained amount of time – which is more valuable than I once gave credit.

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“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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