Wednesday, July 20, 2005

 

Finally and Fully Back!

Am I glad that's over!

No, not my time away, that could have gone on forever with Mrs. Dadmanly, Jilly Bean, Spud, and Little Manly. I'm glad the Odyssey of my return has finally ended.

It is a pleasant idea that the process of the Army sending Soldiers home on R&R (Leave) reflects an admirable expediency. Policies, processes, and the core mechanics of the task favor the departing Soldier and gaining him or her maximum advantage in reaching final destination (home, vacation spot, whatever). Less pleasant is that the gathering back in of returnees is anything but. Some of it is probably due to physics. (Not like aerodynamics, although there may be some quantum components in play, but I digress).

Think of the difference between a fan (or central air?) and a vacuum. Going on leave is central air, coming back is a vacuum. (I'm beginning to enjoy this exercise, because of course, it goes without saying that going on leave is a blast, while coming back sucks.)

Sorry, back to our metaphorical construct. Soldiers going on leave (from Iraq) are immediately aggregated to a single colection point. The responsibility for moving these Soldiers is each individual command and base location, funneling to the collection point (that's like the air intake to the air conditioning system.) Again, the Soldier's aren't "drawn," they're "pushed" in this sense.

Once at the consolidation point, a huge air and ticketing operation kicks in, with the tremendous desire to get the Soldiers out of theater and on to their rest the "coolant." (Army, Air, military contractors, USO, various non-profits all contributing "freon" to the mix.) The output of this massive airlift operation blasts the departing Soldier to the 4 corners of the globe, home or some desired recreational venue.

And the U.S. Military and everyone involved does a terrific job. Most of our Soldiers made it home within 3 or 4 days, which with the distances and numbers involved seems pretty remarkable.

The return was remarkable, but not at all in the same way.

The return flights were all prebooked; as we hit our major stateside hub we were handed a return ticket that brought us all back at the appointed end of our leave period. Which of course efficiently returned each of us to the hub, which runs continuous operations back to the in-Theater end of the consolidation.

And this is when the vacuum gets turned on and the physics kick in.

Huge masses of Soldiers (and airmen and sailors and Marines in fact) need to now get back to their respective places of duty, and each trip may involve different varieties of fixed wing, rotary wing, and ground transportation (read, convoys) to get each Soldier "home." (Mrs. Dadmanly gets upset at how naturally I refer to my hootch here on the FOB as home, but it is my home away from home, and a rather nice one at that, despite how poorly it compares with ours stateside!)

Scheduling of all this transportation from the central site -- and all the required staging of Soldiers for billeting, dining, and personal hygiene -- becomes a logistical and management nightmare. Any casual reader of the Stars and Stripes (the unofficial, independent, but ubiquitous military-partnered media) would eventual stumble across the grumble fest of complaints about the R&R processing site in Kuwait.

Most of us can well tolerate the waiting, but conditions at the site can be deplorable, and the longer one sits there, the less tolerable they become. I myself spent 5 days on hold at the site, and through a combination of careless record-keeping, inefficient processing, and major problems with contracting operations, what might have been just tedious was often odious as well.

From the first day, we were all held in huge transient open bays (hanger-style warehouses actually). These remained lit 24 hours a day, subject to continual flow of personnel coming and going, and subject to regular, full-throated announcements every hour or so. (In our bay, this was most often, "Female on the Floor!" as all but one of the R&R schedulers was female, and the shortest route between her offices and half of the dozen or so bays involved went right through our section.)

Sometimes, this was to announce new or scheduled roll calls for flights, sometimes just to wake us up to police up the bays, sometimes to announce flight infomation formations. I would use the term "accountability" formations, but at no time was there an explicit check of names of individuals awaiting transport for specific destinations. The only time individuals were explicitly identified was when a manifest for a specific flight needed to be generated, and only those named to fit the allotted seats were recorded, with others identified as "hold-overs."

Once a flight got off the ground (and didn't somehow get turned around), any hold-overs went back into the pool of those awaiting flights, and there was no guarantee that those waiting longest would get first priority on any subsequent flight, though that was the stated and hoped for intent. But As my fellow management professionals would say, preferred outcomes don't just happen, they're managed.

Making an original flight manifest meant you had a 25% chance of actually leaving. Getting boarded on a bus for the airstrip for your manifested flight meant you had a 50% chance of making your destination. We watched some individuals make 6 or 7 attempts to get on a flight before one actually left, and actually made it to their destination.

Now, in fairness, summer months mean not only peak volume, but some of the worst weather for Kuwait and Iraq due to duststorms (as I've discussed previously, more accurately silt storms), high winds, reduced visibility, and reduced human resources due to -- you guessed it, those away on leave.

As if all of that doesn't make for a grandly aggravating return, pending changes to the R&R process and site locations are causing one-time disruptions to all manner of services and capabilities at the R&R collection and staging points. Base closures and relocations (in Theater and in interim locations) are causing limitations on services. Contracts are ending, repairs are forestalled, services are slow or halt altogether for who knows what reasons.

Recreation and personal care facilities, already very limited due to the necessities of being on a perpetual "stand-by" for any "pop-up" (unscheduled) flights, are further reduced by closures and breakdowns. Sanition facilities are taxed beyond their capacities. Contract personnel in some basic services are not being held to contract standards, and with contract ends looming, neither incentives nor disincentives have much hold.

Was it worth all the aggravation and unpleasantness? You bet. Precious time away with our families and friends in the midst of a prolonged separation and the hardships of deployment, priceless.

But with the week I had after I said goodbye to Mrs. Dadmanly and Little Manly, I was very relieved and grateful to get all the way back. Step foot into my hootch, drop my stuff, clean nearly 4 weeks of silt from every exposed surface in my room, take a shower, get some sleep, and catch up with my fellow soldiers.

Oh, and get back to work.

(Linked at Basil's Blog as Covered Dish for Lunch.)



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