“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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Keeping the fire burning

“Are we done yet?”

I’m a little over half-way done with IBOLC. After that will come a short “break” and then more specialized training and before heading to my first duty assignment. So, at this point I’ve been at Fort Benning for about six months, and I’m staring down another five or six before I actually get to the operating force. Talking with a lot of my peers from OCS, many of us are experiencing a degree of burnout.

For them it’s probably worse – they started with nine weeks of basic training before getting to OCS. For our peers from ROTC and USMA, this is there first run in the “real” Army, so they’re riding strong. A lot of the classes we get at IBOLC are the same classes (with exactly the same PowerPoint slides) that we got at OCS. Training environments can be mind-numbing, all the more so when the courses are exactly the same.

Unlike OCS, though, we’re not really competing for anything. At OCS, scoring well and doing your best directly affected where a candidate ranked in the course and their ability to choose their preferred branch. Everyone wants to do well in an Army course, but the rewards for being in the top x % at IBOLC are bragging rights only. I think the Honor Graduate gets a special school slot. The guys who ranks number two? Well, he was number two.

Being stuck in the training vortex can get people down. I remember feeling that same way when I went to Infantry OSUT and Airborne School. It felt like I was going to be in training forever. Like all things, it eventually ended and I moved on to the real Army, and from that vantage point, Fort Benning seemed insignificant and distant. I try to remind my peers that in the scheme of an Army career, this is a blip. In a year’s time we’ll look back and scoff at it all. Things that seem challenging or annoying now will be a joke compared the real problems that we’ll face on the line. That, and the fact that as junior LTs in a training environment we’re essentially responsible for ourselves only (no easy task, mind you). Once we get to a unit, we’re responsible for our entire platoon. This, then, should be easy. “Take care of your three-feet of space” like my old BN CDR used to say, “and the rest will work itself out.”

So how do you keep the fire burning? I remember being in graduate school last year, fantasizing about what it would be like to be back in the Army – to wake up and go to formation, do PT, and be around a bunch of people who all at some point in their lives decided they wanted to do something bigger than themselves, and in seeking that were willing to put it all on the line to do it. I remember thinking about how great it would feel to be able to experience that again – so many of my peers who have gotten out and veterans who I’ve met on the outside can never come back in. I try to remind myself of how much I wanted this when I’m faced with some of the inconvenient realities of these actual situations (standing in PT formation 45 minutes before PT starts in a summer uniform during the freezing winter,  or no coffee for the first six weeks of OCS, for example).

Essentially, to keep the fire burning you have to have a deeper reason to be doing this in the first place. Because it’s “cool” won’t last a week. “Dig deep” is what they say when a guy is sucking on a foot march or a run. If you do this right, there should be a whole lot of mental tumbling going on when a person decides this is what they want to do as a profession. This is a serious business, and it deserves serious thought. Being burned out will happen from time to time. The physical exhaustion of military service, the stress of leadership and the mission, and balancing these with social and family obligations will eventually pile up to a point that overwhelms a person. If we’ve done the mental gymnastics that answer the question “why” beforehand though, then “digging deep” will never be necessary – the answer will always be right there.

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The moral equivalent of war

“What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war; something heroic that will speak to man as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved to be incompatible.”

-William James
American Philosopher

COL (Ret) Ralph Puckett mentioned this idea in his talk to IBOLC students a couple of weeks ago. I forget what sparked him bringing it up, because it didn’t sound like it was something he always mentioned. It’s an interesting idea, the “moral equivalent of war.” The idea that war is is something universal that does something to people that draws them to it again and again. That it provides people with something they seek. Why do people join the military or seek out that excitement? There is some part of it that is about crawling out the edge to see what is there. Can you really experience that anywhere else?

As far as I can tell, no one has discovered the moral equivalent of war, yet.

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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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