Monday, December 11, 2006


Soldier Stories

I started to write a Dadmanly Profile for MILBLOGGERS. I ended up writing about the significance of stories to soldiers, stories about their experiences, humorous anecdotes, remembrances, just stories, before I was very far into it at all. Rather than make the MILBLOGGER profile overly lengthy – I tell you, what I need most is a good editor – I thought I’d make this its own post.

I visit a Vet Center from time to time, and in one of our group sessions, I remarked that I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more for my troops as a First Sergeant, mobilized, training, and then during deployment to Iraq. Oh, I did what I needed to do, I watched what I needed to watch, disciplined who I needed to discipline, stocked what I needed to stock and fixed what was broke. I did the duty, took some pictures, got a medal way too easily earned, would have got the T shirt, if we’d bothered to make one.

But somehow, I took care of my psyche, my emotional and spiritual needs my own way, almost in isolation. My faith was central, but MILBLOGGING was my emotional lifeline, as important to my strength and morale as the frequent phone calls and IM and emails with my wife and family. Every troop needs some kind of emotional contact, and I hadn’t been that as much as I could have been for my troops. I kept pretty close to home, so to speak.

One of the young men at the Vet Center, struggling with his own demons with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) since combat, challenged me to turn my guilt into action. He said that I wouldn’t be in that room, saying what I was saying, if it were really the case that I wasn’t ready to help my men and women when they needed me most. He said, “Top, they need you now. You’re a First Sergeant, you need to remember what it’s like and advocate for your troops. You need to make sure they get taken care of, that they get what they deserve.” I added to that thought, thinking that they need to get what they deserve from the Nation that owes them more than can be repaid.

I often think about the guys at the Vet Center. Some of them are angry, some are hurting, and all have been affected by their time in combat. We all of us share concentric circles of connection, we who serve.

At the outer layer, any Vet feels a connection with any other, you joined (or were taken), you did your time, you served. It’s that shared knowledge and experience that those who haven’t, may not be able to understand or appreciate. The lack of that common experience is what makes all too many Americans oblivious to military service as a civic duty, or a responsibility to the Nation and its preservation.

At another layer, somehow closer to the heart, is the branch of service. It goes beyond the stereotypic service rivalry: grunts or ground-pounders, squids or swabbies, flyboys or birdmen, jarheads; the slang merely marks the common ground and labels the Others. Some of us get carried away, but really it’s just another layer of describing a shared experience.

Another layer even closer in, is a particular mission or posting, a deployment, a war or battle or campaign, maybe even a particular post or base or location of assignment. “Remember when? We were there together.” A tie in time and place that said we all went through something memorable together. They could be hard times, could be pain and suffering, or only aggravation, or they could be the best times of our lives. (Or even any combination of the above.)

At the closest layer I think, the one outsiders may never penetrate, understand, or even have revealed to them, is when military people share a common mission within a bigger history, that otherwise may exist only in myth.

It’s like an imprint, the real life counterpart to what a certain phony describes as being seared in one’s memory. For ten months, a group of men and women shared a single set of experiences that only this group lived through. Hundreds of thousands of troops have rotated through Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), but each unit, each group of soldiers, have their own unique set of experiences, no two sets alike.

Who saw action, how much, how tough, who got hurt, who was lost. How much they saw of the countryside, how much they were on the road, whether they trained Iraqi Police or Army, or dealt with or got to know any Iraqis in their areas.

Their Convoy AARs might sound similar, but they could never be the same.

Personalities are always different, however archetypical they may be. Some soldiers will always dominate the content of any story they figure in. They’re either the catalyst for the anecdote, or the story itself forms the definition of their personality. Like the motor section’s chronic bad luck with women, most often self-sustained. Or the would be Romeo’s disciplinary travels through the enlisted ranks -- being reckless and aggressive aren’t the only traits required of a Romeo, fortunately for them, but unfortunately for him. Or the Motor Sergeant’s infamous tendency to tirade.

Yet other soldiers remain nearly invisible. Some wanted to stay that way, others became everybody’s favorite anecdote, just so they wouldn’t be quite so invisible anymore.

Soldiers tell the stories we tell to create the bonds we need to survive, overcome, and put all those combat experiences in some kind of perspective. We can’t all be nuts, if we all laugh at the same stupid s***, and get angry at the same stupid s***, and for that matter, even wanting to tell the same stories over and over again. This must have been how the families and neighbors and friends and fellow citizens felt, when our Parents and Grandparents came home after World War Two, and wanted to tell the same old stories over and over again.

Soldiers tell stories, that’s what they do, aside from bitch. MILBLOGGERS share some of their stories online.

When any two soldiers can share more than 50% of the same stories, they’re pretty tightly bound by shared experiences. The closer they get to 100%, the tighter the tie that binds. Stories that get swapped a lot become like the secret handshakes of old, they’re a cherished legacy. If you know the story, and can repeat it well yourself, you’re in. The blank stare or disinterest or losing the point of the story means, you’re that much on the outside from the rest.

My Intel Analysts must have had that kind of bond with the other Analysts on the same shift, and maybe a similar kind of connection – sometimes competition – with their counterpart off shift. The stories they tell are far more often about quirks of character, duplicity or intrigue.

Some tell stories about the Big Story. During the Cold War, the Big Story would have been being the first Analyst to identify some new threat, equipment, capability, world changing event, or development. Intermediate range ballistic missiles, a Trade Union movement that would topple an empire.

Before Saddam crawled out of that Spider Hole, it would have been traces of Saddam. During our tour, the Big Story was anything that tipped us off to Al Qaeda plots in our area, or human intelligence (HUMINT) and targeting efforts that allowed us to pull one strand of captured terrorist and roll up the fabric of entire cells. Unfortunately, the best of these stories can be told only in secure compartmented intelligence facilities (SCIF).

The Motor Pool tells some great stories, most of which I could never repeat in print or pixels, and many of which require me to seek God’s forgiveness for finding them as entertaining as I find them. Before deployment, during mobilization, they told stories that invited the rest of us into the world of motor mechanics, motor pools, and maintenance and repair shops. Allowed us to get to know each of them in a more meaningful way, hearing the signature story for each of these characters.

During and after deployment, they added in their stories of fights, scandals and other extracurricular activities, mayhem and hi-jinks, and especially, all those high speed convoys through Tikrit. Maintenance soldiers completed missions as Driver, Truck Commander (TC), or Gunner on more convoys than any of our soldiers, (maybe) other than the Supply guys. They sure relished their convoys more than anybody, and took great care with the stories they told after each one. Forget AARs, what they spoke of was the stuff of legends-to-be. Part of the legacy. The time they took a wrong turn for the back gate, and ended up doing a K turn across both sidewalks and doing who knows what other collateral damage. The scrape against the HUMVEE hood that absolutely was the ricochet from an AK-47 round: “I heard the whistle as it went by my head.”

The guys and gals in the TOC tell different kinds of stories altogether. Stories out of the Battalion Commander (BC) storybook. The nightly Battle Update Assessments (BUA) and a certain Intel Sergeant’s “nothing significant to report,” night after night. Executive Officer (XO) hilarity, usually involving some completely unbelievable misunderstanding on his part, about some standard issue item or procedure, of which he had never heard. The BC’s emphasis on chock blocks and drip pans. Stories about the Command Sergeant Major (CSM), his monthly health and welfare inspections, or speculation on how he could go through as many cigars as he did, and where he got them. Clerk fascination with scandals and intrigues, of interest or comprehension only to them .

C (“Charlie”) Company, versus those of us in HHC, consisted of a very small platoon, really a couple of squads of radio, radar, and other systems technicians. They had their own billets in a little shop building, but they did have a roof, which they weren’t supposed to use for safety reasons, as there was clear line of sight with several adjacent, off post Iraqi apartment buildings. They used to get what seemed like close calls, a mortar or two nearby, and they were the closest to a vehicle born improvised explosive device (VBIED) attack at the Special Forces compound just outside the wire. We had car debris and hunks of shrapnel fall on the HHC billets from that one. That was the attack that blew open the stall door, with the Charlie acting First Sergeant shaken but still sitting “on the pot” in the latrine trailer.

I don’t think they had much equipment to maintain, or it mostly just worked as intended, because they racked up more card table time, and the least post details, than any soldiers on the FOB, which suited them just fine.

The Romeos were assigned to Charlie Company, but they were always part of us in HHC, by mutual acknowledgement on both sides. They spent the first part of our tour in misery, assigned as personal security detachment for the BC and CSM as they made their “command visits” around local FOBs.

They sustained a pair of IED attacks right off, one caused some vehicle damage, the other some spoiled desert camouflage uniforms (DCU) from a certain truck commander who confused the proper response to IED (regroup and assess damage and threat, call the Sheriff) with a response more suited to a hasty ambush (drive away, like a bat out of h***). That of course left him and his vehicle on the wrong side of the IED, away from the rest of his convoy. Luckily, one fine NCOIC was able to take charge and get everybody home safely.

After that, the Romeos successfully petitioned Division command to be reassigned with the Long Range Surveillance Detachment (LRSD) and some scouts at a series of remote sites, at which they actually got to deploy their battlefield sensors and do real time exploitation. They also got to go along on raids. You knew they were going to have to be invited, or they’d come along without invitation at some point.

They were called in as quick reaction force (QRF) on a complex attack, a coordinated ambush that saw the HUMVEE ahead of them completely obliterated, killing all 4 occupants. They had conflicts, a major behavior problem, had to run interference between conflicting command levels, and deal with all manner of hardship. They loved most every minute of their combat time, as much as it exhausted them. They were the tightest squad I ever saw, and will always represent the best of what soldiers can be.

All of us at HHC, the Clerks, Supply Sergeants, the LT, the Captain, the First Sergeant, we all had our shared experiences, too. More often, way more mundane. Scheduling convoys, preparing convoy worksheets for approval, preparing the HHC Commander’s input for the BC’s BUA, scheduling soldiers for post details, running Charge of Quarters, changing Radio sets, running 4-5 convoy logistic or command convoys a week. Running Convoy briefs, or after action reviews (AAR).

Dealing with the Motor Pool, the Analysis and Control Element (ACE), BN Staff, the cooks, the Motor Pool. Keeping the LT from chewing the heads off of unsuspecting (and sometimes negligent) NCOs. Running through 100% inventory of personnel and sensitive items every time a mortar or rocket landed near any of the billets.

At the nearest level of common experience, sat two people probably more tightly coupled than even the BC and the CSM, which after all was a match necessitated by command assignment, and certainly not by choice, for either of them.

My Captain and I. My Commanding Officer. The CO, and I was his First Sergeant. The integrated command of the basic command level, of the Company.

We had the many difficult conversations, about concerns and dangers. Soldier capabilities and weaknesses. Non-judicial punishments for disciplinary problems. Shortcomings, in each other, and in our troops.

He used to say that he was always way ahead of us, seeing things before they appeared, hearing things only whispered, “I have my ways,” he’d say. A distinguished State Trooper in civilian life, frequently assigned to high visibility roles or as VIP escorts, he knew his troops, us all, better maybe than many knew themselves.

He changed me. He gave me confidence I would not have had. I changed him too, maybe through the several heated discussions when I tried to open or inform his thinking about some impact to his troops. Driven and determined, he asked much of us all. Sometimes too much, or more than necessary, but never without some result. He made us all more than we would have been, and prepared us beyond what we expected, but more than enough for what we feared. He lifted us to meet the challenge of the unknown.

By keeping an eye on the troops, by being our conscience when necessary, I’d like to think I made it possible for him to likewise strengthen our hearts and minds, morale, along with the bodies that did the work he asked. To persevere, to do our best, to do more than survive, but to overcome.

I described concentric circles of shared experience, these last two the tightest and near in of all, of the unit, and of shared command. These bonds are the strongest of all.

Which is how I started thinking about MILBLOGGERS. Like the fellow soldiers of my unit, we’ve shared a mission. We fought together, in a very real sense, against media misrepresentations and the sometime indifference of our own nation or its leaders. We boosted each other up, we encouraged and sustained, we motivated. We worked through events together, covering scandal or history in the making, found perspective, described context, in short, told stories. Our stories, and our story telling, became the strongest bond of all.

More in the upcoming Profile. Stay tuned.

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