Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get serious or get out

A funny thing happened on the way back from Iraq. A strong opponent of the Iraq war from the start, I have since developed a different opinion on the matter. Perhaps this change of opinion arose from the simple fact that I am not physically in Iraq anymore; that I’m no longer in physical danger (however small that danger was living on secure Camp Taji); that whatever opinions I have on the continuation of our Iraq incursion now have no effect on me as a soon-to-be civilian with no deployment hanging over his head.

Don’t get me wrong – I still believe that invading Iraq was a terribly bad idea. I still stand by my belief that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; that he was contained; that we invaded with too few troops and not enough allied support; that we were criminally under-prepared in terms of equipment and cultural knowledge for the guerrilla war I knew we would face. However, after years of arguing that invading Iraq was a mistake, I realized that I was basing my argument too much on the should-haves of 5 years ago rather than the realities of 2008. No matter how tempting, we cannot turn back the clock and not invade Iraq. We are presently stuck with the situation we got ourselves in to, and must act accordingly by maintaining a strong presence there and enlisting the help of foreign allies to keep the lid on the conflagration and subdue the influence of religious clerics like Sadr.

This war has been run so poorly and amateurishly from the start that I know that it is difficult for anyone of intelligence and thought to justify its continuation. We had the guy at the top, from the safety of the Oval Office, egging on the insurgents in Iraq to attack my fellow soldiers with his “bring them on” comment in 2003. I think you know him: the same guy who landed on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit in 2003 with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him, even when the war was clearly not over. Let’s say I give him the benefit of the doubt—that he actually believed that the Iraqis had chemical weapons. That proves to me that he was willing to subject us troops to poison gas attacks in the beginning of the war. (I remember hurriedly donning my chemical suit in Kuwait in March 2003 during SCUD missile attacks. One perk in working in the V Corps headquarters tent complex was the early tip off I got in the form of a few out of place officers from the next tent running out with their protective gear in hand, even before the alarms went off).

Regardless, there is still a war going on and we must face the realities. While he and other war apologists stand like amazed and ashamed children at the sight of an out of control forest fire they never met to light, Iraq slides into chaos. Given the recent upheaval in Sadr City and Basra and the likely prospect of our eventual withdrawal, I predict disaster for Iraq’s people and its nascent democracy. Iraq is like a huge steel cage match, with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all ready to rip each other’s heads off while a small and feeble referee in Iraqi Army uniform tries, futilely, to stop the violence and establish some control. In the short run, he’s going to be powerless. Why isn’t the international community offering to provide more referees, of larger physical stature, to the fight? Is it because our President is too proud to ask for assistance? Or is it because the international community is also suffering from the same should haves and I told you so arguments? I don’t know what the truth is, but I bet it’s a combination of the two.

What is clear to me is that we as a country cannot handle this situation alone. Why isn’t the Arab League helping? Where are they in this matter? What is the State Department doing? Our Army has reached the breaking point. It’s calling up former soldiers like me who have been out of uniform for years. It’s relying on immigrants and former criminals to fill its ranks rather than putting out a national call to service or revamping the GI Bill to encourage a larger proportion of the American public to consider military service as an option before or after college. This is all really embarrassing if you ask me.

I just don’t feel comfortable about the idea of abandoning the budding Iraqi democracy, however tenuous their hold may be on the country. I know that the argument sounds very cliché, something you’d hear on Fox News or a White House Press briefing, but the alternative is something more sinister: a theocratic country run by competing religious clerics whose ridiculous and childish disagreements about the rightful successor to the “prophet” Muhammad motivate their followers to torture each other, subjugate women, and extinguish free thought and logical reasoning. Do we want to leave the Iraqis up to the brutality of the parties of God? You have seen what dastardly war crimes the Sunni and Shiite holy warriors have committed in the name of their religious beliefs. Are we ready to let them take over and massacre those who helped us? I don’t mean to knock Islam exclusively, as I think Christianity is equally laughable and deserves criticism too. It’s not based on a shred of credible evidence, provides false hope to those in need, controls people with guilt and shame, absolves people of personal responsibility, and impedes human progress.

If we are so serious about democracy and freedom in Iraq, then we should really push for the promotion of an Iraqi democracy unimpeded by the menacing influence of the religious clerics. That’s the only way Iraq will survive. If we allow Iraq to fail, the clerics will eventually have their way, and we’ll have to go back there to fight them again. It seems to me like we’re going about this war in a half-ass sort of way. 4,000 American deaths later, it’s about time we as a country get serious about this whole thing, or get the hell out entirely.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Homecoming Purgatory

I’m happy to write that I’m now back in New Jersey—not home exactly, but close enough. I have to stay at Fort Dix, NJ for about 10 days to arrange all the logistics for the guys in my unit who will arrive here shortly. They’ll need things like barracks space, their demobilization schedule, a place to store their weapons, flights home, etc

Flying out of Taji was, to put it lightly, an ordeal. I had about 250 pounds of equipment to lug around from helicopter to helicopter, helicopter to plane, tent-to-tent, and so on. My shoulders and arms are still bruised and scratched up from the duffel bag shuffles involved with each move. Exiting a Chinook helicopter, I even got choked by my M4 machine gun’s shoulder strap, which crept up my shoulder and neck thanks to the 3 bags I had strung over my shoulders. I had to tough through the pain to get far enough away from the backwash wind caused by the 2 rotors in order to drop my bags.

In Kuwait, Navy Customs searched through every item in each of our bags, checking to see if we had any contraband.

We stopped to refuel in Shannon, Ireland and had about an hour to roam around the airport. I was surprised that they let us walk around in our uniforms among the Irish waiting around in the terminal. The people were nice to us, asked us about Iraq and wished us a good trip back home.

At Fort Dix, there was a line of about 50 people waiting next to our buses to shake our hands and welcome us home. The first 10 guys were Vietnam Vets from the local VFW; they’d been there for 8 hours already, getting there at 2AM to greet the group arriving before us. The motto on their banner said something like “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another generation of veterans”—a pretty good crack against the “Greatest Generation” of WWII vets if you ask me.

It’s so good to be back in the States. I’m also grateful that I arrived here in one piece and I’m not physically and emotionally traumatized like so many other soldiers from this war and wars past. I saw on an AFN commercial over in Iraq that 17 IRR soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began. One was a West Point grad, Captain Brian Freeman, who as a Civil Affairs officer was ambushed along with several other soldiers at a meeting with a tribal sheik in Karbala in 2006. I tried to get switched into one of these Civil Affairs slots when I found out that I’d been drafted out of the IRR; maybe it was better that I just served the way that I did. Getting killed over there for nothing wouldn’t have been worth it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some parting thoughts

Thankfully this nightmare is almost over. I got lucky (a relative term) and was assigned to a National Guard unit on unusually short seven-month deployment. I'll be leaving in Iraq in a few weeks. After a day or so waiting for a flight out of Kuwait next month, I’ll leave for Fort Dix, NJ, where I’ll coordinate the logistics for the main body of soldiers arriving a few days later. While I’m grateful that this deployment was a short one, I want to make it known that I have unnecessarily spent the last seven months wallowing in this country as the result of a clerical error.

I have thus far largely refrained from exhibiting any contempt towards the Army’s incompetence at managing its personnel, but I now feel that it is necessary to summarize what actually happened over these past 9 months. My intent in this posting is not to complain; instead, I’m trying to raise awareness of the Army’s mismanagement and abuse of the IRR by highlighting my personal story.

From the day I received that fateful letter in the mail ordering me back to duty after having been out of the Army for almost 2 years, the Army has demonstrated its inability and/or unwillingness to honor its side of the bargain. Like any dutiful soldier in a supposedly professional Army, I believed I was being recalled to fill a legitimate personnel shortage in a particularly dire time in U.S. military history; that I would be punished for not showing up to duty; that the Army would have in place the necessary programs and procedures for those IRR recalls honorable enough to show up for duty when called. Boy was I wrong.

Culture Shock at Fort Jackson

Though getting word that I had to report back to the Army was certainly surprising, the real shock began when I arrived at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Upon walking into my assigned barracks of 30 bunk beds that night, I was surprised to see most of the beds empty. “Where is everyone?” I asked the few soldiers in the corner playing cards. “Oh, this is normal. Hardly anybody shows up. We heard they’re expecting 25 soldiers this week. Only 6 showed up so far, including you.” I chalked this up to soldiers being soldiers and arriving at the last minute. The next morning, I found out that only one more soldier had arrived during the night.

The Lieutenant Colonel in charge of our IRR training detachment actually took us aside the next morning and thanked the 7 of us for reporting for duty in a time when at least half of those receiving the orders get exemptions or don’t even call the Army back to report their status.

MOS Refresher at Fort Gordon

The next step after Fort Jackson was a two week Signal Corps “MOS Refresher” course. Not only did Fort Gordon’s student training battalion not expect me that weekend, the other IRR Captain and I had to fight with a semi-literate, rude Army civilian at the base hotel to get a place to stay for the three weeks we’d be there. The way she was looking at our orders you would have thought that they were written in hieroglyphics. “IRR?” The next morning, we reported to the student training battalion and attempted to report for duty, but received nothing but quizzical looks from everyone we questioned in the hallways. After about 10 minutes of this, we found someone who knew something about IRR call ups; we were to report to a Lieutenant Colonel after lunch. Knocking on the Colonel’s door about two hours later, we introduced ourselves and presented our orders. Again, to our surprise, he was not expecting us. Nevertheless, he told us that we would sit in on an already ongoing Signal Captains Career Course for three weeks we’d be at Gordon.

As expected, the regular Army captains in the class gave us confused looks when we entered, asking us what happened to us as IRR and how we ended up there. More humiliating to me was the common question many of them asked: “Why did you open that letter?” I went through about a week of this training, attempting to learn as much as possible about the computer networking principles I’d be using as a Battalion communications officer.

During my second week of training, I learned that I was to be assigned to a California National Guard Field Artillery Battalion currently mobilizing at Fort Dix for its Iraq deployment. When I called the Executive Officer of my new Battalion to introduce myself, I discovered that the unit already had the one signal officer it needed and that I’d be doing something other than communications. In disbelief, I called the Army Human Resources Command (HRC) and informed them that there must have been a mistake in my assignment. No, they said, the Battalion may still need officers to fill shortages (the operative word being “may”). In the meantime, I stopped attending the now-useless networking class (at which I felt like a foreign exchange student) and instead concentrated on my biceps and delts for the remainder of my last week at Gordon. Still hopeful, I drove up to Fort Dix as ordered and met up with my unit.

Fort Dix

Yes, you guessed it: they were not expecting me either. Had I not called and given them a heads-up, they would have had no idea a new Captain would be arriving that week. In hindsight, I probably could have just gone to Seattle or something and taken a job and nobody would have ever missed me. I’m serious. Probably would have still got paid as an Army officer, too.

At my new Battalion’s main office at Fort Dix, I presented a copy of my orders assigning me to the unit. The personnel guys were as surprised as I was, muttering a collective “oh,” when I told them what I was doing there. A few officers and NCOs even told me that I was stupid for even responding to the IRR recall letter, suggesting that only gullible vets take that bait. It was at this point that I truly realized that the Army’s IRR program was broken. The general unfamiliarity with the program throughout the Army suggests that not many soldiers before me have gone through the whole process. Sitting there in disgust in that office, I felt that I’d been had.

Needing a breath of fresh air, I went outside the building and met the other IRR Captain who’d already been at the unit for over a month. He was actually a Signal Officer too; his Fort Jackson and Fort Gordon stories were virtually identical to mine. When he arrived at Dix before me, he discovered that the unit already had the one Signal Officer it needed, confirming his suspicions of the Army’s personnel mismanagement. This proves that the Army erred in assigning us to the Battalion and abused its responsibility to call up only those soldiers needed to fill specific duties. Not only did the Battalion not need another Signal Officer, it had no need for Captains either. What they needed were Lieutenants, who for some reason were in serious shortage in California’s 15,000-soldier Army National Guard. I don’t believe that for one second though. Malingering is commonplace in the Guard. Out of the approximately 2000 soldiers my Battalion called up for duty across California, only about 800 were able to pass the medical portion of the pre-redeployment processing. How pathetic. It pains me to realize that these malingering soldiers continue to draw Army paychecks back in California while I sit here in Iraq serving in their place. I have no affiliation to the state; in fact, I’ve only set foot in California twice in my life.

Compounding matters was our discovery that our assigned unit, aside from the fact that it did not need two more Captains, had no official Iraq mission as defined by the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Our Headquarters element of 45 soldiers had no URF, meaning that it had no authorization to deploy to Iraq with the rest of the Battalion. For the last year or two, CENTCOM has primarily been ordering National Guard subordinate companies—not battalion HQ’s—for duty in Iraq. Attempting to twist the CENTCOM order so that it could piggyback to Iraq uninvited, our HQ essentially deployed to Iraq on a make-believe mission. Whether it was a thirst for combat duty, extra pay, or a chance to get away from the wife, the Battalion HQ deployed to a war zone with no official mission other than adding another level of bureaucracy over the soldiers in the Battalion who actually had a job to do. If this happened on a field exercise, I’d only be slightly annoyed. Astoundingly, this happened in a war zone, where even on the relatively safe bases, mortars and rockets could come out of the blue and end your life in an instant. This kind of waste is especially significant as Congress is looking to lower troop numbers in Iraq.

Yet IRR call ups continue

Despite all the supposedly great news stories you may have heard in the past few months about Army recruitment, it hasn’t spiked up enough to end the IRR recalls. I just got an email the other day from a 2001 West Point grad who had just been involuntarily activated. The Army also has a new “muster” program to improve its tracking of IRR members who have been out of the military for a while. Jason, a fellow IRR Captain stationed on the decrepit Iraqi side of Camp Taji, recently posted a response to an article in the Stars and Stripes "Army mustering IRR members, reinvigorating force". His response motivated me to get off my butt and convey my true feelings once and for all. So explains this new blog entry tonight.

In reference to the article, thank you, Mr.Gall. I hope you’ll see my smiling face (and your name) in op-ed pieces across the country.

Taji goings-on

Taji’s been so quiet that it’s easy to forget there is an ugly guerilla war flaring only a short distance away. In the relative comfort and protection of this base’s blast walls and guard towers, most of us are far removed from the daily bombings and ambushes that you read about in the newspaper. I don’t know about everybody else here, but I’m glad it’s that way.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Return of the blog

Hey, I’m back. I was just out on a really long lunch break. We take long lunches in the National Guard.

Things are fine here at Taji. My battalion’s soldiers dutifully protect our base in our many guard towers and entry points, braving threats such as freezing temperatures, rain, darkness, snipers, and bouts of boredom. I pulled guard duty a few times in Germany after September 11th and was completely bored out of my mind after two hours. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do it on a daily basis for 8 months. They’re doing a great job though. We haven’t had many incidents at all. We like to avoid incidents around here.

I have so many interesting and humorous things to talk about from this deployment but I hesitate to write about them because this blog is now officially registered at the Multi-National Corps-Iraq’s command HQ. A new directive had me report my blog address up to my higher headquarters last week. This wasn’t a surprise. In fact, I wrote all my entries with this eventuality in mind, so my throat was gulp-free when I heard in a meeting that all blogs were to be registered by a certain date.

Iraq is generally safer than it was before the fabled surge, but it’s still a dangerous country. Just about 10 miles away from here is Diyala province, arguably one of the most dangerous places in the world. There were also those suicide bombs in Baghdad a few days ago. The ones where the insurgents, from a safe distance, blew up two unsuspecting retarded girls in two crowded pet markets. What animals. Then again, animals don’t exhibit anything remotely similar to this repugnant behavior in the natural world. Baghdad is safer, but what did we expect would happen when we erected 10 foot high concrete barriers between Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods and poured 30,000 heavily armed American troops on the streets? I liken it to a domestic disturbance. When the cops show up at the house, a husband can't his his wife anymore. What’s going to happen when we, the cops, leave? That’s one of the central questions of American foreign policy, though from watching the news you’d think the war was already over.

On a lighter note, my unit is scheduled to return to the U.S. in late April. I can’t talk specific dates of course, but I’ll be out of the Army and on my own for the first time since 1996, when I entered West Point. I got out in 2005 and went to school but was still technically in the Army—something I was so politely reminded of when my parents received the Army FEDEX letter in the mail. I still haven’t written off the Army Reserves or National Guard though. My parents and some friends here think I’m completely crazy for even considering it, but I want to keep my options open. There is the potential for a bonus, extra salary for weekend drills and other training, leadership experience, camaraderie, retirement benefits, and other advantages. But then on the other side there is the chance (or more like the certainty) of more one-year deployments and time away from family and friends during uncertain times. Starting a new career, then having to leave the job after 2 years is not the best way to establish oneself in a field.

I’m jumping into the job market in May, so I’m doing a bit of soul-searching to select a career I’ll be happy with. I’m looking at both government jobs and private sector jobs in a few different areas, including state or city public finance, economic development, and emergency management. (Does anyone know anybody at FEMA?) You know what career counselors say about success: you should know what your short-term and long-term goals are before you apply for jobs. Well, that’s the thing. I’m not entirely sure what my end-state is. Is anyone? As long as I’m doing something I love, in a place that I enjoy, I’ll be a happy camper. Another decision I’ll have to make of course is where to live. What will make my job search a hell of a lot easier is that I am very geographically flexible. I’m most likely going to end up somewhere between Boston and D.C., but I can’t seem to get the other interesting places like San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest, and south Florida out of my head. I obviously want to wait until I get back to the U.S. before I make any brash decisions though.

I hope everyone is doing fine back in the States and I’d like to thank all of you who sent me care packages over the holidays.