Try this one on for size if you find yourself in an airport terminal during this holiday season – introduce yourself to a servicemember in uniform, thank them their service, and ask if there is anything you can do for them. Most will be surprised, nod humbly, and refuse. And off they’ll go on the way to or from a flight. But if you want to know what it’s like in Iraq and Afghanistan, be persistent and engage them in discussion – you’d be surprised what you might find out.
Here is what I learned at the airport:
A 20-year old Private First Class serving in the Army had just completed his mid-tour two-week leave and is already seven months into a twelve-month Afghanistan deployment and his next stop was Atlanta, then Manas Airbase, and finally Bagram; he looked miserable. The leave period ended too early and he never really had a chance to wind down or relax. Hailing from no-where Missouri he joined as a sense of duty, to “see the world”, and get out of the rut and cycle of unemployment, “… it was a dead-end street.” “I’m a cherry rifleman and my squad’s mission is to patrol for IED’s while the platoon leadership works with the locals trying to convince them not to emplace IED’s. We normally find three to four on every patrol. We lost two squad members since we deployed. The MRAP’s we have can’t operate in the sector we are assigned. So we ride them as far as we can on the trails after they’ve been cleared of mines and then we dismount and walk. And walk like forever. The kit we wear is way too heavy, so we scrap half of it before we leave the wire. I spent almost two hundred bucks before we deployed for M-4 magazines, because the one’s we have issued to us, jam. The springs in the standard issue magazines suck. But chow ain’t too bad, we get one hot meal a day in the COP, no real complaints there. But, we all stink though because we only get to shower about once a week, but hey that’s the Infantry.”
A 31-year old Sergeant First Class serving in the Army was on the way home from Iraq due to an emergency leave situation. This being his fourth tour, third in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, he seemed non-pulsed when I offered him my thanks for his service. Getting him to say much more than what he did reveal is understandable given the circumstances and the anxieties he faced. “Since we got to Iraq, we’ve been sitting around on our hands. The Iraqi’s we are partnered with never call on us, even when there has been an up-tick in bombings and attacks against the public and security forces. It’s crazy. We can help. There are still bad guys outside the wire that are doing harm, but we just monitor the situation. So why are we there? Don’t know. Send us home or let us join some of our division units deployed to Afghanistan and get into the fight. My guys are getting in trouble on the FOB, and now getting fat and out of shape. Everyone has cell phones they buy from local vendors and try to keep in touch with loved ones back home – but that “tether” makes it worse. Everyone is on at least their third deployment and their home situation, if they have one, is awful. After I get back from this leave, back to Iraq and only nine months to go. I’m going to try to keep my guys focused so that no one does anything too stupid. Gotta go, thanks for the Starbucks.”
A 23-year Marine Lieutenant (out of uniform, but his high-and-tight haircut gave him away, and I asked him if he served) recently redeployed from Afghanistan and heading home for some “turkey and fixings”. I had two questions for him, one “did your unit make a difference during its seven-month tour in southern Afghanistan?” And two, “what would have improved your unit’s performance?” “On your first question, definitely yes. It was tough to get the Afghan Security Forces to lead, but slowly, and with pressure, they did and are becoming better. But, it was, and still is a very tough slog. I was part of the second set of Marines that cycled in and out of the area we were assigned to. It was rougher for the first battalion on the ground. They set us up for success and I think we did the same thing for the Marines that followed us. Time will tell, but I think we are running out of time. On your second question, probably maintenance, especially servicing the MRAP’s. We can’t turn wrenches fast enough to keep them in the fight outside of the wire. We have a huge graveyard of destroyed and inoperable vehicles and MRAP’s in Camp Leatherneck that we use as a junkyard looking for parts. Bet you didn’t know that for every MRAP deployed in theater you need three contractors to service and maintain an MRAP. And if you have to recover an MRAP outside of the wire, which happens all of the time, forget about getting a contractor out of the wire to recover the damn thing (it’s not in their contract), so we have to call the Army. But at the end of the day, if we don’t have enough MRAP’s for the mission, which is often the case, well then, I tell my Marines to march, and so we do.”
Well what did I learn? For starters, not much has changed for a grunt – too much heavy equipment to hump, out-of-pocket expenses to purchase reliable equipment, food is marginal, and showers are non-existent. Second, senior NCO’s have deployed to the point of being numb, and want their troops to be either gainfully employed, re-missioned to the fight in Afghanistan, or redeployed home because FOB life in Iraq is sapping morale and increasing the odds of indiscipline. Third, while Marines are making a marginal difference in a small slice of Afghanistan, Afghans are still hesitant to lead. And finally, the MRAP actually requires a sustained maintenance and logistics tail, an effort which is currently under-resourced (i.e. lack of parts, recovery assets, contractor umbilical cord) and as a result negatively impacts the mission.
Still curious about what, if anything, you can do during your holiday travels when you see someone in uniform, and you don’t have time to engage them and thank them for their service? Stand there and clap they at least deserve your applause.