PTSD: The Unintended Consequence of War

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Almost daily, we receive reports of the devastating impact of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) on our men and women in uniform and the terrible side-effects on their families and friends.   The US Army is aware of the terrible cost of PTSD as evidenced by the 2010 US Army Report on Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention.

Many publications suggest that the origins of PTSD are unknown as evidenced by this recent commentary from a government organization: 

“The cause of PTSD is unknown, but psychological, genetic, physical, and social factors are involved. PTSD changes the body’s response to stress. It affects the stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves (neurotransmitters). Having been exposed to trauma in the past may increase the risk of PTSD.”

While this may be true, there does appears to be a clear linkage between PTSD and the effects of increasing IED (improvised explosive devices) attacks on US and Allied military forces serving in Afghanistan.   While many believe that PTSD is a psychosomatic discorder, it is becoming increasingly clear that concussion-like head injuries are contributing to PTSD and its debilitating physical and mental consequences.    The US Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that between 11% and 20% of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan may have PTSD.   If so, this is an alarming number – almost of epidemic proportions.

SFTT has long argued that ill-fitting military combat helmets afforded little protection to our men and women in uniform.  The US Army has been painfully aware of this problem for sometime as evidenced by their decision some years ago to implant sensors in helmets to track trauma related injuries.    Recently, we have been told that a “simple tweak” in the amount of padding in combat helmets would reduce head trauma injuries by 24%.    Why did it take so long to realize we had a serious problem?  More importantly, how long will it take our procurement process to get better protective gear to our troops in the field.

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Talking to Troops in Airport Terminals during the Holidays

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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.

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TSA and US Troops returning from Afghanistan

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Editor’s Note:   The following story was recently received by SFTT.  We have not been able to determine the veracity of this story, but regular contributors to SFTT believe that many details “ring true.”  SFTT has taken the liberty of changing some of the more obvious details of the story to protect the identity of the author.  

This story in no way reflects negatively on the TSA and the awesome responsibility it has in protecting our transportation security.  Nevertheless, the scene described below – if true – suggests that our  limited TSA resources might best be channeled in a more efficient direction.   We salute our brave troops returning home from the frontline and applaud their common sense and restraint  in dealing with the “stupid.”

SFTT welcomes stories from our military forces serving in harm’s way and their family and friends who wish to “Share a Story.”

QUOTE

As the Chalk Leader [army speak for ‘in charge’] for my flight home from Afghanistan, I witnessed the following:

When we were on our way back from Afghanistan, we flew out of Baghram Air Field. We went through customs at BAF, full body scanners (no groping), had all of our bags searched, the whole nine yards.

Our first stop was Shannon, Ireland to refuel. After that, we had to stop at Chicago, Illinois to drop off about 100 folks from the Illinois National Guard. That’s where the stupid started.

First, everyone was forced to get off the plane-even though the plane wasn’t refueling again. All 330 people got off that plane, rather than let the 100 people from the ILG get off. We were filed from the plane to a holding area. No vending machines, no means of escape. Only a male/female latrine.

It’s probably important to mention that we were ALL carrying weapons. Everyone was carrying an M4 Carbine (rifle) and some, like me, were also carrying an M9 pistol. Oh, and our gunners had M-240B machine guns. Of course, the weapons weren’t loaded. And we had been cleared of all ammo well before we even got to customs at Baghram, then AGAIN at customs.

The TSA personnel at the airport seriously considered making us unload all of the baggage from the SECURE cargo hold to have it reinspected. Keep in mind, this cargo had been unpacked, inspected piece by piece by U.S. Customs officials, resealed and had bomb-sniffing dogs give it a one-hour run through. After two hours of sitting in this holding area, the TSA decided not to reinspect our Cargo-just to inspect us again: Soldiers on the way home from war, who had already been inspected, reinspected and kept in a SECURE holding area for 2 hours. Ok, whatever. So we lined up to go through security AGAIN.

This is probably another good time to remind you all that all of us were carrying actual assault rifles, and some of us were also carrying pistols.

So we’re in line, going through one at a time. One of our Soldiers had his Gerber multi-tool. TSA confiscated it. Kind of ridiculous, but it gets better. A few minutes later, a guy empties his pockets and has a pair of nail clippers. Nail clippers. TSA informs the Soldier that they’re going to confiscate his nail clippers. The conversation went something like this:

TSA Guy: You can’t take those on the plane.

Soldier: What? I’ve had them since we left country.

TSA Guy: You’re not suppose to have them.

Soldier: Why?

TSA Guy: They can be used as a weapon.

Soldier: [touches butt stock of the rifle] But this actually is a weapon. And I’m allowed to take it on.

TSA Guy: Yeah but you can’t use it to take over the plane. You don’t have bullets.

Soldier: And I can take over the plane with nail clippers?

TSA Guy: [awkward silence]

Me: Dude, just give him your damn nail clippers so we can get the f**k out of here. I’ll buy you a new set.

Soldier: [hands nail clippers to TSA guy, makes it through security]

This might be a good time to remind everyone that approximately 233 people re-boarded that plane with assault rifles, pistols, and machine guns-but nothing that could have been used as a weapon.

UNQUOTE

3

DoD Shell Game?: You be the judge.

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DOD Shell GameCan anyone tell me exactly how many US servicemembers are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan?  How about the number of Americans in uniform on 9/11? Or the number serving in uniform today?  Does anyone know the total number of servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan over the past 9 years?  Deployed to Iraq since 2003?  I’m asking these questions because all I’ve been hearing since “combat operations” ended in Iraq on September 1st is that “the troops are coming home.” Let’s take a reality check re: the number of troops still on the frontlines and then you decide if all the redeployment happy talk rings true.

When we first took stock of our military capabilities the day after 9/11, there were 1.37 million Americans serving in the military with just over 200,000, or about 15%, deployed overseas in static positions. The shell game since then has gone something like this:  The initial force deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 was 13,000 and increased to a stable force of 20,000 through 2005,  then increased to 23,000 in 2006, to 26,000 in 2007 and 2008, to 67,000 in 2009—and today Afghanistan fields approximately 100,000 US troops.  In 2003 the US invaded Iraq with approximately 175,000 boots on the ground; between 2004-2007, deployment averaged 150,000.  The 2007 troop “surge” increased the total to its peak strength of 197,000 and returned to approximately 150,000 by summer 2009.  Today, there are approximately 50,000 troops deployed in Iraq supporting Operation “New Dawn”. 

Taken as a whole, the number of troops deployed inside Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 9 years averaged approximately 225,000; the total today is 150,000.  This boots on the ground number does not include 28,000 personnel and logistic support assets deployed in Kuwait that has remained constant since 9/11.  Nor the requisite sea and air assets in the region supporting these operations, which totaled approximately 75,000 during this same period.  Even if we were to round down the numbers, we are still at 253,000 troops deployed supporting operations exclusively in Iraq and Afghanistan, while another 175,000 are deployed in static positions world-wide supporting other missions, contingencies and treaty obligations. 

The bottom line:  Don’t believe it when you hear “the troops are coming home,” because they’re not.  We still have 50,000 troops deployed in Iraq, 29,000 troops deployed in Kuwait, 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, 75,000 airmen and sailors deployed in the region supporting operations and an additional 175,000 military personnel deployed world-wide.  We’re talking approximately 419,000 troopers deployed in perpetuity from an available end strength of 1.4 million—a third of available US combat power—or a sustained 50% increase since that fateful September day over nine years ago. 

But there’s more to consider.  Since 9/11, the Army has “grown” from 480,000 to 569,000, an 89,000 Soldier increase, while our beloved Marines have ratcheted up their numbers from 172,000 to 202,000 for a 30,000 Devil Dog increase.  Why does this matter?  Because we increased our boot end strength only 119,000 over nine years or less than 10% of our total force, while keeping over 35% of our total forces deployed at any given time during this timeframe.  And remember, the majority of the 35% total have been repeatedly deployed and engaged in combat operations. 

So again, no matter how you work the numbers, “the troops are coming home” is pure spin. The harsh reality is that the troops remain deployed and strategically exhausted. And while the drawdown in Iraq is welcome news,  for every two troopers the US drew down, one returned stateside, the other deployed to Afghanistan or elsewhere. 

As I reviewed these numbers from a host of open source and non-Wiki documents available on Department of Defense websites, I decided to fact check them with an inside-the-Pentagon planner who confirmed my math.  His take on the propaganda went something like this: “. . . deployment numbers are really like a shell game . . . try to follow the shell with one pea hidden underneath it . . we’re moving some over here, and there, and then over there, and then back again . . . repeat and distract the player with song and dance . . . and guess what?  Normally you would turn over all the shells and find at least one pea under one shell.  However, now the rules have changed and the powers-that-be will lift up all the shells, but hide the pea.”  He’s got that right, it’s a new shell game.  No one really knows how many troops are deployed, and no one really knows when they’re coming home.

CLOSE HOLD   

For more stories on the “reality” of the hardships faced by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq visit CLOSE HOLD

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US Troops: Stressed and Tired. You can help!

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As readers of SFTT are aware, we have recently introduced CLOSE HOLD, a column developed by a “master intelligence analyst” with deep ties to the grunts in the field and a committed warrior who wants to make sure that our troops have the best combat equipment possible to come home alive and in one piece.   CLOSE HOLD covers stories from the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq to the DC Beltway to bring you closer to the real-life stories that are unfolding each day that affect the brave young men and women serving in harm’s way.   We encourage each and everyone who values the service of our front-line troops to contribute your story to SFTT.  You are not alone.  For those who want to do more, become a member of SFTT and make a Donation to keep the Light of Truth burning brightly.

Found below is an excerpt of a recent article from CLOSE HOLD which describes the rigors of continued deployments and how our troops are stressed to the point of exhaustion.  It is a pretty discouraging story.  Can we continue to subject these brave young men and women and their families to this form of existence?  Care to share your story?

The Cost of Endless Delployments to US Troops:  Stressed 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 front-line 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.”

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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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