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.
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.
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.
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.
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.