Staying in touch with the Discarded

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On long holiday weekends, warriors not deployed check on one another since they normally have a weekend pass or time off – and this past Labor Day was no exception.   The phone will ring, you see the caller ID nickname you assigned to someone you shared a foxhole with not long ago, you always stop what you’re doing and answer it.  “Have you heard …”, “…you doing alright …”, “… remember the time we…”, “…let me know if you need anything…”.  It goes on like that for however long it takes.  The kids ask afterwards “Who was that?”  You tell them, “RANGER 9”.  They know who that is.  They laugh, remembering the stories about this particular grizzled First Sergeant.  Over time these calls are more infrequent and you miss them — because no one at home understands your silence.  They try, but they don’t get it. 

So the phone buzzed today, the caller ID said CANCER GIRL.  Diagnosed at 22, she’s been fighting for her life for the past 18 months. The last time I heard from her she was having difficulties with her chain of command:  her landlord wouldn’t allow her to break her lease to move onto post and be co-located to the chemo drip and the chain of command never fixed the problem.  Instead, it took a determined and brave case manager to work her magic, but she told me afterwards she felt discarded.   She used the same sentiment this go round as well.  She’s off treatment for the time being and she has a new chain of command, but she’s still dealing with a host of issues and doesn’t have a clear status from the Physical Evaluation Board.

 Seems like it was only last week that the New York Times broke the story on how Warrior Transition Units (“WTU”) were “Warehouses of Despair.”   I asked her then if anything reported was true at her WTU.  “Absolutely.”  But that was this past April, more than four months ago, soon after which the Army started to spin and shifted the issue from “warehouses” to a few bad and despairing apples complaining to the press.  The Surgeon General relied on favorable ratings from recent Wounded Warrior satisfaction surveys to assuage any public outcry.  Then there were visits from  senior Defense and Army leaders to Warrior Transition Units and the fix was in.  In fact, the Surgeon General officially closed the case via a press briefing placing the fault inside Joe’s rucksack as sometimes due to soldiers entering service already mentally flawed with pre-existing conditions.  As a result, this put them at risk for successfully completing effective treatment or for obtaining essential services when they find themselves assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit. Plus, it greatly complicates, if not nixes altogether, getting fairly compensated for service-connected disabilities.

 “I feel like I don’t exist here.  It’s as if all of us here are on the Island of Misfit Toys.  We feel discarded.” “Has it gotten any better at the WTU?”  “No, it’s worse.” “What can I do?” “There’s not much anyone can do for us.  After all the dog and pony show visits, I thought it would return to business as usual, but it actually got worse.  The visits and what they said afterwards made it look like it was our fault for complaining and ever since then, the leadership believes they have a license to do anything.  And the other day, a classic TBI effects and PTSD crackup case that we thought for sure would rate a 70, 80, or 90% came back at 20% because he had a pre-existing condition before he entered the Army.”  “Let me guess, ADD?”  “Yes, Attention Deficit Disorder.” I tried to cheer her up, “But the surveys said everybody assigned to a WTU was as happy as a shiny whistle.”  “Yeah right, you know what we do with those surveys?” “No, what’s that?”  “We discard them, just like they do us.”

What could I say after that?

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Savages don’t Surf

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My friend is on his fourth and last deployment to Afghanistan assigned to a unit training the Afghan National Army.  He had a WTF moment the other day when he boarded a Huey UH-H1 and flew over the Jalalabad Pass, “Is this Apocalypse Now?”  I guess his disillusionment finally surfaced.  Can you blame him?  Riding in a Huey?  I thought the fleet was officially retired from the Active inventory last October 2009! Appropriately, this seasoned warrior closed with “Savages Don’t Surf!”  Very cheeky since “savage” is one of the more acceptable noms de guerre for the enemy in Afghanistan.

And the “…don’t surf” refers of course to Robert Duvall‘s LTC Kilgore telling Martin Sheen’s naïve Captain Willard, “Charlie don’t surf”—cleverly invoking a commander’s hubris and brazen disregard for danger in the pursuit of an objective to satisfy a whim.

Only missing was Wagner blasting out of loudspeakers as his slick flew to some dusty objective.  But supercharged rhapsodies were playing in Kabul this week to “…scare the hell out of the Savages”  while more happy talk ensued about Afghans and NATO being “shoulder to shoulder” and emerging as a lethal military force ready to assume security in late 2011.  None of which bears any resemblance to the reports we’ve been receiving from concerned advisors and trainers on the ground.

LTG Jim Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission, Combined Security Transition Command, leads the reforming and training of the Afghanistan National Security Forces.   After nine months at the helm, Frontier 6—the General’s call sign—finally briefed the press this week and provided an assessment of this critical mission.  Since early 2002, the training mission’s primary focus has been to develop infantry-centric skills. One would think that by now the “training wheels are off,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, independent Afghan operations have routinely been abysmal failures, the Afghans remain tethered to the US and NATO for logistic support and there’s a lack of effective intelligence capability, medical support and transportation units.

“Savages Don’t Surf” could be the indelible catch-phrase for what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan before we finally withdraw.  It’s as if LTG Caldwell, no matter his experience, talent, newly available resources and commitment from NATO partners, can only, at the end of the day, provide a temporary solution.  The looming deadline in October 2011 to double the force and create stand-alone Afghan military units gives Frontier 6 only 14 months to field a legitimate Army before the clock runs out. Whatever fledgling Afghan force is cobbled together and deployed to the four winds to take on the complex and dangerous security mission that is counter-insurgency, the beach will not be safe without serious US combat support. Which means that whatever the tune playing from the podium, our sons and daughters are stuck indefinitely in this tar baby.

What’s so frustrating is that the command will never admit the inevitable perpetuation of the mission nor its futility. And even if someone ever does, we’ll never know because the Ride of the Valkyries will be drowning out the General.  “Shall we dance?”—as the Huey pilot remarked to Robert Duvall—sounds about right. So why wait, we might as well crank up the volume and drown out the spin.

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Facebooking from the Pat Tillman USO Center

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Today I want to tell you about one change in Afghanistan:  Now the troops have access to social network sites while previously the command restricted access under the guise of operational security.  The donnybrook over this issue raged until the policy changed last year, due largely—or so I hear—to Chairman Mullen using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the troops.  The thought probably was if the top uniformed officer in the services can tweet, why shouldn’t a Private? 

The other evening I received the following message, “I’m at the Tillman Center in Bagram.  Waiting for my flight out.  Headed home finally!” I checked my watch, calculated the time zone difference (10 hours) and logged on my Facebook just in case he was still online.  His chat icon was green.  

“Hey brother, glad to hear you’re headed finally headed home.”

“Thanks man.  And you, how goes it?”

“All is well on my end.  You?”

“Unit is starting to flow north and we should be state side in 48 hours if the Manas birds hold out.”

“Where you at?”

“Tillman Center, Bagram.”

“Is Bagram still nuts?”

“It’s bursting at the seams.  Traffic jams.  But they still have Salsa Night.  I don’t get it.”

“Sorry to hear about the losses your unit suffered.”

“Thanks.  It’s been a tough slog this past year.”

“Were you in K-Valley?”

“No, P2K, Shkin and Tillman.”

“Still getting attacked constantly?”

“Yeah.  There was no let up the entire time – constant TIC’s and targeting.  Relentless.  Some attacks were hours long.  Tribal bloodlust I guess.  But SOF has a better fight – they’re not trolling or static waiting for contact.  They’re pure direct action.  Probably about the only thing we can do over here.”

“Was Salerno able to sustain gunship and Medevac support throughout?”

“Most of the time.  When they were maxed out we were able to get a lot of support out of Orgun-E.”

“Any improvements to FOB Tillman?”

“Some.  More internet – some QOL type of stuff for the boys.  A little more force protection.  But it’s still a rocket magnet.”

“Any improvements with the local support?”

“Yeah, right!”

“ANA? Are they getting any better?”

“Only the ANA that SOF/ODA trains and employs.  Conventional ANA units? Forget it.”

“Any new roads to facilitate access?”

“PRT’s and USAID are still working them.  I think the it’s the same road-to-market plan we put together in ’05.”

“Any ground movement on ‘the road’ past Sperra en route to the FOB?”

“Just once.  A GAC from Salerno to the FOB.  The rest of the time was strictly via air.  But, we still don’t own the terrain nor does the ANA.  Just the tribes do.  They still cross back and forth across the border with no respect for the boundary.  The Pakistani Frontier Corps still let’s them cross the without disrupting their movement.  They don’t consider themselves to be Afghans.  They’re Pashtuns.”

“ Yep, that’s the problem.  No national identity.  Sounds like nothing has changed.”

“No, just a recycling of events.  Same patch of dirt, same miscreants, same thing day after day after day.  Gotta log off.  I’ll keep in touch.”

“Keep me posted.” 

I sat with mixed emotions after his chat icon disappeared.  Happy and relieved on one hand that he was on his way home safe and unharmed.  Frustrated on the other hand that after all these years nothing has really changed in Afghanistan.  Same bad guys, different units, no positive results—year in and year out.  The only real differences are the rising US casualty rates—and now our warriors can tweet. 

I also couldn’t help but notice how many times we mentioned “Tillman” without considering his legacy.  Indeed, a forlorn base or a comfort zone is worthy of being named in his honor, but the truth is still M.I.A. This isn’t the case with The Tillman Story, a just released documentary which recounts his killing by friendly fire, the cover up and the propaganda machine that peddled his tragic death to promote a failing war.  

All of this makes me question whether we’ve forgotten Tillman’s ultimate sacrifice and those made by thousands of others like him.  But why bring up a problem without offering a solution, right?  Well then, here’s one idea: air the documentary at the Tillman USO Center in Bagram to troopers waiting for their flight home.  You know, play the truth channel for a change.  Let them know if it can happen to Pat, it can happen to them.

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Logistics: The Long Pole in The Tent

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“Logistics, logistics, logistics!” That’s what I immediately thought of last December when I heard the President’s decision to double down in Afghanistan and increase the current troop strength by 30,000 over a 5-month period. The most honest answer to the question that immediately comes to mind — How the Hell’s the U.S. Military going to pull this one off? — came from General Webster, the Commander of the Third Army: “Hannibal trying to move over the Alps had a tremendous logistical burden, but it was nothing compared to the complexity we have now.”  Notice it really wasn’t an answer…

At the time I would have loved to have seen the Pentagon’s J4/G4’s Power Point slide desk on the additional stress the new “surge” would place on Afghanistan’s already stressed lines of communication. Poor bastards, I would have hated that job. Can you imagine the staff guidance they received when all of the hand-wringing was going on in the Situation Room or the Tank? As I recall, the Chiefs pushed back at the NSC and asked for a longer timeline to get the new “surge” in place but never mentioned that the lack of logistics was the long hole in the tent. So the NSC and POTUS ignored the request and ordered them to shorten the deployment timeline and get the 30K troops in place even quicker. It would have been helpful to get a straight answer on the logistics then, don’t you think? Shouldn’t Mom and Pop, rightfully uptight in Peoria, Illinois with a son-in-law on his third deployment, have a right to know?

Any hoot, from what I heard, the logistic planning guidance went something like this: “Okay staff, before we start the slides, here’s the basic guidance on how we’re going to do this. First, build me a plan that squeezes another 30K worth of troops into the current deployment models using limited air-frames and access-entry-departure airfields. Yeah, I know we were hoping to rest the boys some as we drew down in Iraq but that ain’t going to happen any time soon. You heard the Chief, we’re in an era of “persistent conflict.” Yeah, I know we’re supposed to win straight out but that crap went out with Powell and Scowcroft, so suck it up and get your 21st century war mask on. Second, ensure you secure the LOC’s somehow for all of the line haul movement we’ll have when we’re moving supplies and vehicles on the ring road. Got it that it’s interdicted but we can hire some contractors to secure the loads or pay off the local militias. Third, someone has got to convince the Pakistanis to provide security for port operations and line hauling of supplies to the border crossings. Hey look, Major, I’m not the one that thought it was a good idea to go through Pakistani ports back in 2001 but we had no other choice. I got it that all of the Punjabis and Pashtuns try to outdo one another by torching our supplies, but figure out how to keep’em happy. Fourth, you over there, get with CENTCOM, EUCOM and TRANSCOM and create a new northern route for gear, supplies and troops in case the Pakistani ports and routes into eastern Afghanistan don’t work out. And while you’re at it expand the air bridge so we can get critical supplies and engineers in to country to build X amount of new FOBs and combat outposts. True, we already have over 400 FOBs and Outposts in Afghanistan, so don’t ask me why we need more, but we need more, dammit, so get’er done! Fifth, increase stock of all classes of supply at every FOB and outpost. Sixth, plan for bad weather that limits rotary and fixed wing access to remote airfields. And if we get favorable weather, have a plan to surge assets even though at this point we don’t have a clue where that would come from. Seventh, pay-off Krygystan for use of that airbase in Manas even though we’re paying another corrupt government with a garbage human rights record. Eighth, speaking of garbage, figure out how KBR can dispose of FOB waste without getting the troops sick, I heard it’s starting to become an issue. So no more new burn pits, tell them to use incinerators.

Next figure out what we don’t want to give to the Iraqis as we high-tail it out of there and haul all of the good kit to Kuwait. When you do this, don’t piss off any state Governor or their Adjutant Generals or for that matter our National Guard senior leaders when you brief them that they’re not getting any of the US equipment sets from Iraq to fill their stateside armories. We can’t afford to do that anymore even though we promised them we would – just tell them tough luck when they have to respond to national disasters in the “homeland” without their equipment. Also, don’t forget to increase the contractor footprint in Afghanistan with the new LOGCAP award. And somehow limit their downrange capability because every time we let those jokers out of the wire they shoot dozens of civilians. I know that increases the overall maintenance time for critical equipment because you have to backhaul everything to major FOB’s but you know the trade off. Oh and I almost forgot, the Marines want to stay relevant in the fight because they’re more than “Expeditionary” now but have doctrinal challenges in sustaining themselves longer than 30 days, so task the Army to do their logistics. Oh and another thing, just as you get everything set, the President wants us to start withdrawing, so figure that out in the plan too.

Last, I don’t have to remind you that the Afghan Army is going to need a lot of logistical support as well. But remember, Afghanistan is complex with virulent ethnic and tribal stuff going on with that Army of theirs—you know the Tajiks don’t like the Pashtuns, everyone hates the Hazaris and Karzai has intermingled his ministries and provincial leaders with a rogues gallery favoring his tribe and ethnicity, so deal with it. Any questions?”

“Sir, what is a LOC?” “Well, generally speaking, LOC’s or lines of communication are routes that interconnect military units, supplies and logistic nodes. Their security is vital to a unit’s command and control and its logistics lifeline –they’re key to any successful military operation.” “Sir, how many US troops will deploy in total?” “Approximately 102,000. ISAF troops? Approximately 47,000 from 44 countries. Contractors? Over 100,000.”

Can you imagine what we’ve asked our military to bring off?

Nevertheless, great credit is due to all of the hard working staff, agencies and contractors that had to form a plan from this guidance and somehow try to meet intent under incredibly difficult circumstances. My understanding is that the ramp up continues and that not all the additional troops and enablers have closed yet. But the party line continues that by and large this Hannibalistic effort has been largely successful.

Yet when I query the force, here’s what I get:

“…we really don’t control our LOC’s per se throughout our AO…we are bursting at the seams here on this FOB…if we really press and dedicate assets then we can conduct ground re-supply operations…the aerial delivery systems are working overtime…the Marines in the south just don’t get it…man, when we got here we sat forever because the battalion’s vehicle set was simply missing, and when we recovered it we didn’t have all of the required commo gear and jamming equipment required to be operational…if something breaks down, forget it, it’s a two week adventure to either backhaul it or get a maintenance team forward to fix it, but often without the necessary parts…the connex at Bagram and Kandahar could fill an ocean…when we do control some limited LOC, even then, nothing barely gets through…”

Not much squares here. My thought is that indeed there were necessary strategic and operational muscle movements in the area of logistics conducted over the past eight months to get the new “surge” into Afghanistan, but the matching tactical posture required to regain the initiative is missing. As one contact put it, “We are simply out of Schlitz.”

It wasn’t that long ago that LOC’s also served another purpose, to provide secure routes for runners or dispatch riders to shuttle orders and updates from the front between battlefield commanders. Then, it was ink and parchment: “Benteen, Come On. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. PS Bring pacs…”Too often the result was too little too late. Custer did get wiped out. So the question is: After almost 10 years in Afghanistan, can US forces secure their lines of communication and sustain the warfighter effectively or have we reached the breaking point? Can Benteen get the supplies to the beleaguered troops in time?

Meanwhile, I’m sure the American public neither knows the answer nor cares to know what the life and death question even is. Go figure then what the response will be if the US has to commit to another crisis with men and material anytime soon. My guess is that we’ll be out of Schlitz. Big time.

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“Young Officer”

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 A young officer I once served with recently changed command and is now attending the Army’s Intermediate Level Education course for field grade officers; when he graduates he’ll report to a new unit and redeploy. His tedious ride from the east coast to Kansas coincided with the sacking of McChrystal. Remember him? After the storm broke and his pension was paid, follow up analysis of the “crisis” revealed that the majority of attributable quotes and “off-the-record” background was provided by a score of “young officers” and not necessarily the General himself. Nevertheless, the collateral effect of their untimely and heartfelt Parisian disclosures to the Rolling Stone embedded reporter resulted in an Inspector General investigation of these young officers’ actions and statements. Imagine that, an investigation. Really? For what purpose? And as we’ve all learned by now, after the Wanat reversal, even if they’re found culpable of some level of insubordination or violation of policy, they won’t be held accountable they’ll simply be “Wanated,” yep, as in “to be Wanated,” the non-accountability finesse of a failed leader by his self-protective superiors.

But I digress, so back to my “young officer” driving to the brain-shed at Leavenworth for the consumption of more COIN kool-aid. As we commiserated over the amount of Galula theory he would have to suck down, I asked him to imagine for a moment being on the McCrystal staff still in Kabul tasked with General Petraeus’ transition and the integration of his new brain-trust of soon-to-arrive COIN-dinistas. For those who’ve never experienced the ins and outs of transitioning a four star commander while politely showing the door to the outgoing commander and his immediate staff, suffice to say, it’s a painful exercise. We’ll probably never know the behind-the-scene dynamics of the arrival of King David until Bob Woodward or Tom Ricks writes another breathtaking insider account of the administration or the war. However, we can safely assume that a new master of strategic communications is firmly in place in Kabul and a new brain-trust is arriving to assist the effort. If you want more proof, check out what was reported earlier this week by the New York Times coupled—not coincidentally—with the announcement of General Petraeus’ pending media blitz in the coming weeks. Here it is: “Meanwhile, a rising generation of young officers, who have become experts over the past nine years in the art of counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials they need time to get their work done. “Their argument,” said one senior administration official, who would not speak for attribution about the internal policy discussions, “is that while we’ve been in Afghanistan for nine years, only in the past 12 months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it some time and think about what our long-term presence in Afghanistan should look like.”

So let me get this straight—the administration is soliciting advice from “young officers” on whether to continue the effort in Afghanistan after next summer when the US is going to begin withdrawal? And they are “experts” as well? For sure we’ve been down this road before, in 2006 when General (Retired) Jack Keane, the American Enterprise Institute and a couple of Army majors and captains from the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (who subsequently retired) with recent expertise in Anbar province/Iraq drew up a Power Point plan for the “surge,” which was then sold by Keane to John Hannah in Cheney’s office, and well, the rest is history.

Maybe that example is too remote (or simply a footnote to hubris) to apply to this master stroke of strategic messaging wrapped in a soft pitch to the public that “young officers…want more time.” My money is on Petraeus as point man preaching next summer on why the 2011 withdrawal timeline needs to be extended in part because the administration and the public should listen to the “troops”—i.e., these “young officers”—for a change. It’s brilliant.

No doubt the new “experts” are a group of planners from the services “Jedi-knight” programs to plan contingencies and back up plans when the current COIN mantra begins to die down. They are probably joined by other “young officer” staffers assigned to the Joint Staff or the National Security Council who’ve somehow wedged themselves into preparing slides, position papers or might even have a seat at the table at very low-level planning meetings. Regardless, I would also bet they’re Petraeus acolytes or COIN enthusiasts from a different father committed to re-validating their previous deployment successes by pushing the COIN theory as the remedy to whatever threatens US interests. In any case, the word is you best be a Petraeus COIN follower or you’ll be placed in the slow lane. After all, Petraeus was flown back to Washington in 2008 to supervise the Army’s Brigadier General promotion board…

Bottomline, the simple statement that a rising generation of young officers are calling for more time to complete the mission will deeply influence the now-rigged debate. For starters, it will serve as a green light on the battlefield for other young officers to inform VIP’s, respond to the media and brief their troops that “they need more time to get the job done”. Unfortunately, it will also serve as a blanket statement that the entire Army stands behind this call.

What is truly shameful here is the total disregard for those officers and leaders who know the gig is up but aren’t allowed to report the truth—veiled censorship by a master of strategic communications suspending us all in disbelief for at least the time being.

I was tempted to call my “young officer” when I figured out what was going on and wish him luck because he’s the type who’ll tell his superiors that no amount of time, resources or troops will change the dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan. But he beat me to the punch and sent me a short note expressing his hope that the Chief of Staff will visit the brain shed soon so he can tell him directly that a small cadre of the “rising generation of young officers” doesn’t speak for the rest of the Army. Let’s all hope my guy gets to talk.

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“‘King for a Day’ Kit-Wise”

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As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the Pashtun tribal code in Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan is inhospitable to outsiders to the point of hostility. The history of the valley is marked with violent encounters and campaigns where these isolated tribes defeated their unprepared foes time and time again. In fact, US forces recently ceded ground and treasure by abandoning the valley after five years of futile fighting where they learned the painful lessons of the limits of power and lack of resources. The terrain is unforgiving – it’s elevation lines on a map stand out to even a casual observer – requiring prudent commanders to begin tailoring a soldier’s combat load immediately before any operation can commence while balancing force protection and the inherit risks of reducing the combat load.

From 2005 until this past spring US forces have had a short stock of gear that could be tailored to reduce the load because of the then current design never matched mission requirements. There was never a concerted effort by either leadership or by extension the defense industry to produce and outfit troops with the lighter, better equipment necessary for extreme conditions found in this little valley of death. If anything the Army and Marines only added more weight to the grunt’s kit. In other words: “more protection is better,” “we must protect the deltoids,” “we can’t resupply you as often because are helicopter resupply is limited, so you have to carry more,” “Hey, hand these items out to the locals and win their hearts and minds…yeah we know the items are heavy, but figure it out.” The on-the-ground commanders made the best of a grim situation and soldiered on, taking unnecessary casualties along the way.

Yet the Korengal Valley is not an isolated example that required specialized gear – just ask the troops at Lwara or Shkin or the Shah-i-kot Valley further south in P2K. Or ask a Marine humping his gear on the Helmand plains even further south. And you can’t tell me that troops in the Horn of Africa rotating through Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Africa couldn’t use some lighter gear as they conduct and support counter-terrorism missions in the heat and desert. Or that troops assigned to the DMZ or in the new safe-harbor base assignments in South Korea or the 50,000 troops way-stationed now in Iraq, who partner outside the wire with Iraqi security forces, aren’t asking for lighter gear.

I wasn’t exactly surprised when I ran into a dear friend recently who’d just spent some time arm-wrestling the bureaucracy in theater trying to get some new kit for his boys – an unsuccessful exercise for his unit that caused preventable casualties. And that’s the point, right? Save a troop today so he can kill tomorrow? I mean do the math? The enemy strength grows exponentially, while ours is being whittled away.

So I figured that by now there had to be some solution in the pipeline, some improvement being made and I put out the word to check the “kit” status while vetting open source reporting on this issue. Units seem to be applying self-remedy to this issue. In one published example, senior brigade NCO leadership queried troops and leaders on what gear they’d want if they were “King for a Day, kit wise.” Once the list was approved the unit began to stock up on these items – mittens, combat boots, stoves, and headlamps – practical and necessary items for extreme conditions purchased with unit discretionary funds. The same unit then later tested and fielded new light wear gear to positive effect.

It appears that the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group has a niche mission after successfully convincing Army leadership to develop, test and field much lighter and thus faster gear. Items recently tested and fielded include: Eagle MBAV-A plate carriers, Arc’terx Knee Caps, MK48 Machine guns, wrist-top Suunto GPS units, new boots and better socks. The net result during their most recent testing and fielding to units assigned to the Korengal reduced the combat load by 14 pounds. Finally a step in the right direction.

The Army is reporting plans to field new Multi-cam Uniforms that are lighter but more durable as well as new plate carriers by this fall to thousands of deployed troops in Afghanistan. For the novice, issuing new uniforms is a daunting task because of the requirement to change camo pattern for all associated field gear so as to blend in. It’s a colossal pain in the ass but well worth it for the troops if done for the right purposes – improved durability and force protection.

Forward deployed units still retain the option to submit Operational Needs Statements (ONS) specifically requesting specialized and/or necessary gear – however, this process isn’t very timely, cuts across numerous command relationships and hasn’t been the answer to a unit’s immediate needs, which was one of my mentor’s chief complaints when he came up on the net to eke out a response to me. His take is that ONS’s become legacy documents left forever in the pipeline to provide some gear in due course, but may not necessarily address reducing the Soldiers load. He’s absolutely right – the ONS system worked initially but now is overburdened, inefficient and untimely.

The Rapid Equipping Force (REF), a military organization which is operated largely by civilians, works with overseas and deployed commanders to provide them equipment items not found in the military supply system – in a pinch REF brings initial combat gear and provides some over-the-horizon capability to deploying units. In fact, Bagram Air Base houses an REF facility for these purposes, although I have yet to confirm how accessible and responsive that REF unit is. Or even, where it is.

The contractor base is alive and well and remains very profitable. All reports I’ve received indicate they’ve become a maintenance distraction for specialized gear purchased and fielded over the years, since contractors are normally restricted—because of liability—from regular travel to the more than 400 FOB’s or outposts in Afghanistan. This requires units to backhaul equipment to secure contractor locations for refit and repair, a backup system usually not available during the maintenance period so the unit simply does without.

But while self-help unit remedies with discretionary funds and a limited AWG fielding of lighter gear are steps in the right direction, antiquated and unresponsive ONS request and procurement systems, single source REF facilities not properly networked into the battle space and relying on long-haul DHL transportation to ship and receive goods, and the constantly expanding umbilical cord of contractors necessity to maintain increasingly complex equipment all still negatively affect the crushing combat load our Soldiers and Marines carry on the battlefield.

It would probably best serve everyone’s interest to pose the relevant question, “If you could be King for a Day, kit-wise” to every formation of troops serving today and act on those results. Not only would we be turning in legacy gear that’s “caused unnecessary injuries and fatalities” but also finally, for a change, really be taking care of our troops in harm’s way. To do anything less amounts to leadership negligence.

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“Close Hold” A new feature on SFTT

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I am delighted to introduce SFTT’s new commentary, “CLOSE HOLD” dedicated to the late Colonel David “Hack” Hackworth, our co-founder and my comrade-in-arms.  

Ram-rodded by a master intell-evaluator, “CLOSE HOLD” will feature what’s really going on with America’s frontline troops—from the ground up and from the top down, for better or worse, on the killing fields, in garrison or at home.  Hack taught me the importance of “bitching” and the value of carefully sifting through it. For sure, feedback direct from our warriors down in the mud, the sand and the blood should be brought to the folks who can set things straight. 

So please feel free to chime in and contribute confidentially in the safety and anonymity that was always fiercely protected by Hack and by me and that continues as an inviolable tribute to his legacy here at SFTT.  It’s an honor and a privilege to wield the torch of truth that Hack passed on to us.

Eilhys England Hackworth

 

The Cost of Endless Deployments to US Troops: “…stretched and tired…”

 

The resounding theme emerging from my constant commo with those serving in either Iraq, Afghanistan or stateside is a sense of exhaustion that permeates all levels of our Army—coupled  with its debilitating effect on morale and capability.   The impact of almost a decade of grinding down the force through under-resourced “persistent conflicts” is sapping the institutional core and increasingly manifest in the daily operations that on-the-ground commanders, non-commissioned officers and the privates struggle to sustain whether deployed or in garrison.  In one account an infantry officer describes the Army as “stretched and tired” and that “no one believes, no one cares,” which seem to characterize the issue best.  I am told that most senior military leaders discard these frustrations with status quo responses like “stay in your lane” or “your tactical disillusionment will pass,” giving these highly relevant observations little credibility or thought, while those few senior officers who do take them seriously are too often muzzled.  When unit leaders tell me “I’ve been telling higher for months about the dismal shape we’re in…they simply don’t listen” or “nothing changes, it never gets any better,” and these frontline reports come in unsolicited from battlefield leaders held responsible for our sons and daughters in harm’s way, I would suggest that senior leaders who ignore these insights, no matter from whom or where it comes, do so at great peril to our national defense.

I.  Redeployment

Imagine for a moment that you are an officer, sergeant, or a private strapped onto bench seats in either a C-17 or a C-141 leaving Bagram or Kandarhar finally en route to Transit Center Manas in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan after a year long deployment (the same scenario applies for those leaving out of Baghdad or Kirkuk for a short hop to Kuwait or some other transfer point to switch planes out of theater).  Maybe this is your first deployment, or second, but let’s just say this was your third deployment, which is the average for units since 9/11.  And then you reflect on the last 96 hours, which you spent shuttling out of FOB’s, outposts, and compounds on rotary or fixed wing support.  Each aircraft that arrived deposited new unit personnel while those departing clambered aboard.  You did your best during the lead up to the Transfer of Authority with the incoming unit to prepare them for their tour of hell.  You’re also a bit anxious because you’ve turned in your basic load of ammunition.  You chuckle to yourself remembering how agitated the First Sergeant got the other day when he was told that everyone in the company had to turn in their ammunition before leaving the FOB, “…that is just flat-ass stupid, Sir”, and it was, but everyone turned it in.  And the thought that you were in country somewhere technically unarmed is still disconcerting, but you understand because now it’s someone else’s mission to give up a pound of flesh, yet the fact of having no ammunition still doesn’t square with your intuition.  You realize that your unit is stretched out in competing flights somewhere in transit across the region and accountability at this point is really a joke because some poor personnel sap in the movement control shed keeps arguing with the rear detachment about everyone’s flight status, which remains a mystery.  You wait for your aircraft and you hear from someone in the hanger that the unit that replaced you in sector already’s suffered casualties.  And this bears on you.  You ask yourself “did we do enough?”  This will torture you for the next year or so.  You’ll also reflect on your comrades that aren’t on the manifest.  You pray for them and their families.  You reach into your pocket and feel the bottle of Ambien the medics handed out.  You’re fully aware you need to regain some sense of rest-normalcy but fear that you might not wake up after the initial four hour flight when you’ll really need your wits about you.  You’re simply exhausted to the point of pain.  At the final transit point you’ll be shuttled from one aircraft to a hanger to wait on cots for a contracted commercial flight back stateside.  There are sensitive items to account for, customs inspections, last minute after action reports to file – all of it ad nauseum and necessary.  But you risk operating in a trance fog and pop an Ambien anyway.

Later when you’re somewhat refreshed and on the final leg home, you become consciously aware that you know something others may not know.  Somehow in the final days of the deployment you were one of the unlucky few who has been given access to the “Patch Chart”, a term of art for the Army Force Generation models that confirm future unit rotations and mission cycles.  Maybe you found out during a unit announcement or a trusted headquarters friend whispered it to you in the chow line.  But in your case, you actually saw the document with your unit patch on the matrix and it was perfectly aligned to Month X in Year Y.  And the exhaustion just sinks in further because “X” means at a minimum 12 months.  Although it might be more, say 15, or if your unit’s really lucky, 18.  The bottom-line is that you’ll soon find yourself back in theater and you know deep down that your unit will be hard pressed to be prepared for the next deployment no matter what the leadership has decreed.[1]  

II.   Reintegration

At some point your flight ends and you find yourself in the arms of a loved one, parent or friend while flags wave and bands play – here, people care, and so do you again for awhile.  Later, after you return from an initial three-to-four day weekend leave, a few weeks are consumed with briefings, counseling, inspections and equipment retrieval from different ports and destinations.  You really need a long break.  To get away.  By now the Ambien’s run out just when you need it most.  Your sleep cycle’s way off, still set on Kabul or Baghdad time, so you figure out how to get some more “A” and promise yourself that tomorrow night you’ll take your last one.  And you’re good on your promise, but you’ve replaced the sleep aid with a six-pack of beer.  And why not, you deserve it.  Since redeployment the unit experiences an increase of indiscipline – alcohol and drug related and also a few domestic incidents.  Some units lose troops in preventable tragedies involving vehicle and motorcycle accidents.  Eventually, you’re released for a 3-to-4 week leave period with money flush in pocket.  And just as you begin to relax and forget, it’s time to report back for duty. 

Eventually everyone returns from leave – some are newly married, some are newly separated – things settle down, sort of.  Then orders begin arriving for leaders and individuals that are being reassigned to the training base, recruiting duty, or to attend a career course or school. Units form up in formation and honor their service, and then they’re gone.  Someone steps up into the empty position leaving a gap until a new arrival fills it in.  Then the commanders begin to switch out – they tear up at the podium and inspect their charges one last time – they’re plumb worn out too.  The new command team comes in chomping at the bit, and for the time being they’ll be the only rested souls in the formation.  New command guidance is slapped up on unit kiosks – everyone groans when they read it.  More platitudes and directives about the mission and the upcoming training schedule.  The garrison indiscipline rates increase.  Mass punishment because the norm – weekend formations, no-notice inspections, briefings, training holidays curtailed – you name it, and higher tries it, but nothing works because Joe is Joe and he’s going to screw up after everything he’s been through.  The best thing for the unit is to hold the individual accountable but higher is normally afraid to act in swift justice because every foxhole has to be filled, so the malcontent remains in formation and further burden the unit.  The constant flow of departures and arrivals continues, but the unit manning roster is being depleted faster than it can be adequately filled.  Within 90 days the unit barely resembles the manifest that recently left theater and marched proudly on the tarmac into the waiting arms of their loved ones.  The grind continues and the exhaustion never goes away. 

“X” month is published and now every one knows.  The countdown for the next deployment begins.  Soon the training guidance is published and it directs field training.    Each training event conducted never matches the manifest of the previous training event – old and new mix in together to fill the gap and make the training worthwhile even when proper manning is never achieved.  New energetic company commanders are assigned and charged with fixing the indiscipline and improve training proficiency.  The First Sergeant is still saying “…that is the stupidest thing I ever heard…”, and he is right, but the unit continues to march on.  Crash course ethics and team building exercises fill the calendar.  Crisis management sessions are in order to control the indiscipline, but to no avail.  More and more mind-numbing meetings are held at headquarters and they last for hours on end.  The Power Point gods are very pleased at the volume and rate of production.  The countdown continues.  Families of the fallen from the previous deployment find time to visit.  They want to meet you and talk about their loss – to get answers to impossible questions; they search for closure.  And so you replace the six-pack with a twelve-pack.  

III.  Pre-deployment and Preparation

By now your PT has become manic as you realize you are in fact going to the show again – no reassignment, no new orders, no change in direction – it is what it is, but this time your new sector “over there” has a spiked elevation change that will  require increased foot patrols with burdensome weight.  And so you lead your charges on longer runs and marches with heavier loads.  They grumble, you tell them to suck it up.  Equipment that was lost or damaged in theater gets replaced and often times is a new upgrade or model requiring specialized training that is limited or requires a contractor to effectively operate it.  And when it’s unveiled for the first time you just know the contractor explaining the procedures won’t be deployed with you outside the wire – so you ask yourself, what’s he doing here?  The grind continues.  Your rucksack gets filled with cultural mumbo jumbo and reading lists.  Some braino talks the unit into opening a Rosetta Stone language center and you have to march your charges into the room three times a week to learn the dialect.  The overnight training increases in length and frequency.  The squad and platoon are still only manned at 50% — but the unit expends itself dutifully in training exercises.  There’s no other choice or relief from the head shed.  At some point in time, the directive comes to deploy to a training center for a month-long mission rehearsal exercise, which becomes a mantra for the battalion, brigade, and division leadership.  Everything counts on how well the unit will perform – it’s an indicator on how the unit will perform in combat.  And so there is a train-up period for the training exercise and the nights away from home in the field increase.

The mission rehearsal exercise profile is established with tasks to be performed, but the problem of personnel manning persists and the equipment required to conduct the training is still not back from maintenance and refurbishments.  There’s a shortage of everything.  The unsung heroes of the unit, the logisticians and mechanics, work the longest hours trying to maintain an acceptable operational equipment rate.  So your platoon conducts a very long meeting addressing this problem.  Then the company has an even longer meeting addressing three platoons’ lists of similar problems.  Then the battalion has an extremely long meeting addressing five-to-six companies worth of similar problems.  No solutions are agreed to.  You don’t even know if these issues have been briefed to the Brigade or Division leadership because no fix is in sight.  But it really doesn’t matter because now there are two clocks everyone is monitoring – the deployment clock and the mission rehearsal exercise clock, so in effect more time is added into every day.  The mission rehearsal exercise comes and goes – it’s your third or fourth mission rehearsal exercise at this particular training center so you think you have an advantage, but the unit does poorly.  The evaluators create the worst day in Iraq or Afghanistan and project it over a three week period.  An underlying problem in the performance of collective training tasks is the inadequate manning at every level and specialty and lack of equipment.  The exhaustion gets worse and the commanders are now fully high strung.  While First Sergeants continue to attribute stupidity to everything that comes out of the headquarters, they remain professionals and lead their charges to perform burdensome tasks and complete every assigned mission and detail as required and ordered.

IV.  Deployment

The last vestiges of new recruits and replacements arrive, are matched with units and begin unit level in-processing, “Hey Joe, welcome to your unit, we deploy later next week…”  Most of them get into trouble immediately, but no one is held accountable because there’s no time left.  The initial roster of non-deployables and rear-detachment personnel is published with much angst amongst the formations because the deployment manning requirements are still valid and need to be filled and the initial manifest can’t cover them.  A second roster is quickly published to much more angst, but this time it comes from the previously non-deployable personnel because some have been ordered to deploy in order to perform administrative tasks in the FOB.  Less and less time is spent with loved ones, while more and more recycle bins at the curbside are overfilled with empty “twelvers”.  You hear from a friend who was reassigned to a training unit and he tells you that the base he is on has a tactical unit that is short on personnel for his deployment and so now he is in that unit redeploying again even though he reenlisted to be in a training unit.  You tell him “tough luck” and “good luck”.  What else can you say?  Hoohah? 

Family support and readiness groups form – contact lists and information are distributed.  Then the marshalling of equipment begins and longer days and nights at railheads and ports are required.  Barracks are emptied of personal gear and shipped into storage.  Personally owned vehicles are stored.  Deployment briefings and final preparations take hold while everyone is trying to maximize time with their families.  PTSD and TBI assessments are documented.  Yet single soldiers continue high risk behavior, because the married leadership is at home during the evenings hanging onto their personal lives.  Everyone is high strung.  No one sleeps. 

Eventually the last clock counts down and you find yourself back in the same hanger where you found yourself a year ago when you returned, and before that when you departed on your previous deployment.  All the bleachers or hanger benches contain piles of sensitive items and assault packs.  It’s a familiar eerie place.  The dread creeps in because everybody knows that someone in the hanger won’t be on the return manifest but will precede the unit draped in a flag.  You switch your watch to read Zulu time.  The family readiness groups have brought in snacks for everyone.  You can’t eat.  You talk as long as you possibly can with a loved one on the cellular phone you brought with you which you’ll give to the rear detachment personnel just before you walk to the flight line.  You’re already exhausted.  The medic hands out Ambien to control your sleep cycle during the transit period.  The commanders huddle in the corner of the hangar distressed because they just discovered that the geographical location everyone prepared for “over there”, the place with the memorized district names and studied tribes, has been changed “by higher” and the unit will now occupy a different sector and have a different mission.  They begin planning new troop dispositions and missions – for them they won’t rest until they redeploy and change command.  The Rossetta Stone dialect you learned is useless now in your new sector – good riddance, you had difficulty saying “we are your friends” anyway.  The word spreads of the new change in location and mission, more angst, more resignation to the fact that nothing ever changes.  The First Sergeant again claims stupidity – and he’s right. 

Meanwhile the reports of endemic exhaustion and how it’s ramped up even higher by the harsh scheduling our fighting force endures during their “dwell time” from combat—described as “an experience as grueling as being outside of the wire” — keep rolling in. When you add the fatigue level to the lackluster gear and ineffective equipment being issued (as reported by SFTT), the indignity placed on our warriors’ mantle of honor is appalling. Even though the expected drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months and years may increase the dwell time at home, it’s too little too late in terms of decreasing the overall burden and its terrible toll. It’s time to report the truth and finally jump-start open discussion the Service leadership has been avoiding for far too long.


[1] Marine doctrine and mission dictate a cycle of seven months deployed then seven months in garrison then seven months deployed.  Air Force deployments are based on Air Expeditionary Force cycles that may be shorter in length, but oftentimes more frequent, and maintain a relatively constant deployment cycle.  Navy deployment cycles are planned around carrier group deployments and missions.  Both the Air Force and Navy have numerous personnel and detachments forward deployed in theater to meet specialized manning and mission requirements.  The National Guard and Reserves has comprised approximately 15% of the deployed force since 9/11 with units and personnel experiencing multiple deployments.

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