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.