Postcards from Tradocia

Category: MWME-2 (Page 2 of 3)

Money for Nothing

Spoils of war

Spoils of war

The departure of US forces from Iraq – also known as “planned retrograde” and “responsible drawdown” – is proceeding apace. Being far in the rear, I don’t see much change day-to-day as a result – except for the rapid proliferation of crap that’s filling up our office.

As can be imagined, the breakneck pace of the drawdown means that units are shucking stuff as quickly as possible, turning the whole theater into a scavenger’s paradise. Some of our guys were in Iraq and collected box after box of stuff, like the 68 (!) toner cartridges pictured at left. They sent back KVM switches, VOIP phones, laptop computers, hard drives, cables and wire, and fifty or a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of Cisco networking equipment. One of the big fiber switches was even labeled “Al-Faw-Core,” which I guess meant that it came out of Al Faw palace, one of Saddam’s big buildings that later became the headquarters for US forces in Iraq on Camp Victory.

There’s a scavenger yard here, mysteriously called “whiskey-two-november” (W2N), that I have yet to visit, but driving by it the other day, I saw nothing but trucks pulling in and dropping loads of…stuff. As far as I can tell, the storage yards here are enormous – I saw one yard full of nothing but giant truck tires, maybe taking up as much space as a football field. (Here’s an article about W2N, by the way.)

This incredible movement of stuff should come as no surprise; the end of every American war has been accompanied by a similar rush for the exits. Just one example, from Smithsonian magazine: “At war’s end, the U.S. military unwittingly enhanced the legend of their endless supply of cargo when they bulldozed tons of equipment—trucks, jeeps, aircraft engines, supplies—off the coast of Espíritu Santo.” The place is known now as Million Dollar Point; maybe we could call the reclamation yard here the Billion Dollar Litter Box.


Wasted Years

Faking the funk

Faking the funk

We’re into our fourth month here and things are still plodding along. I’ve settled into a comfortable routine now – Fridays are movie night, Saturday is my day off and it’s also Mongolian (MANgolian) night at the Zone 1 DFAC, Sundays we play Cosmic Encounter before everyone else watches the Vikings lose once again. Hours become days, days become weeks, and time ticks away steadily, just as planned. I’m familiar now with the method of accelerating time in a place like this.

I begin to wonder, though, whether I’m a little too good at such techniques. We have six or seven more months here, which means another 25 weeks of heads-down living, a lifestyle defined by living in a cave and counting time by the menus posted on the DFAC walls. After this, more Army schools lie ahead for me – some perhaps as long as eight months – where I’ll have to further hone my time-passing techniques.

It begs the question: when does it end? Passing the time is an essential skill for any soldier, but when does the countdown clock end and real life begin? Or does it mean that, as a soldier, one is only allowed to live in the spaces between deployments and schools and training, spending the rest of the time just trying to get by?

I’ve thought about this since, just like last time, this deployment represents a transitional period for me, both in my life at large and in my career. I’ll likely pursue the path of the warrant officer after this trip is done, but down that road lies more long schools and more time to kill. I have at least another ten years in this man’s Army (many more if I remain a full-timer), but what does that mean? It’s easy to just get carried along with the current in this organization, just grabbing opportunities as they float by; indeed, that’s part of the appeal. But where does it lead? For example becoming a warrant officer is great and all, but is it a means to an end, or is it just “as long as I’m here, might as well carry a coffee cup everywhere and get saluted occasionally”?

This deployment raises these kinds of questions much more than the last one, because it’s so much more mundane. It’s an office-job deployment for almost everyone except the bare handful of the brigade who’s actually on the road, and though it should be historic being here for the end of the Iraq war, I can’t help but feel like it’ll be a giant anticlimax. When the last convoy crosses the border in December, I don’t think there’s going to be some Empire Strikes Back-esque celebration (“the last MRAP is away. The last MRAP is away.” *cheers*). Instead, the end of eight years of war will probably be met here with a collective shrug. And that makes it all the more difficult to be here – after all, if it’s just business as usual, and we’re all just pushing papers and making PowerPoint slides and making work for ourselves, what are we even doing?

For some of us, our entire careers have been defined by the GWOT, and soon it will be over. The end of this war, and winding down in Afghanistan, combined with impending budget cuts, means big changes for the National Guard. What will it mean to be a Guardsman in the post-GWOT world? Will it go back to the good ol’ days of drinking all weekend during drill and going to “summer camp” once a year, coolers in tow? Or will it be something different altogether, something we can’t predict?

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

A Chinese pickup truck

Apropos of nothing, here's a Chinese pickup truck

A few weeks ago, one of the guys from the commo shop at the camp command cell asked me: “what exactly does the brigade headquarters do?” I paused for a moment, then answered, “well, mostly we make work for the battalions.” It was a flippant answer but largely true; from top to bottom in the Army, the job of a given echelon is to tell the echelon below it what to do. It also encapsulates the attitude of any given echelon towards its superior one: “fuckin’ guys at battalion,” “fuckin’ guys at brigade,” “fuckin’ guys at division,” and so on.

Not everything we do at our level, though, is designed to make work for subordinates. Another large percentage of our job is devoted to what I’ve previously named “organizational fratricide,” in a seeming effort to make our jobs as difficult as possible. An example:

Every morning, we have the “shift change update brief,” or SCUB, where each major staff section updates the commander and the staff about the vital signs and operational highlights of the brigade for the day. (Note that in addition to the SCUB, there’s the SUB and the CUB. There might be a FLUB and a BUB and a GRUB out there somewhere, but I’m not sure.) This brief is only about ten minutes, and my little slice of it is to describe the overall communications status of the brigade. Part of this is reporting the number of radios and other commo equipment installed in vehicles.

Apparently, these numbers are derived from incredibly complex quadratic equations, because the numbers seem to be different every damn day and they’re subject to endless scrutiny and discussion. It seems simple enough to me: we need N radios, there are X radios installed in Y trucks, with Z extras on hand and W of them are broken. Simple, right? Wrong!

Who determines the “required” number? (The unit does. No it doesn’t! The S6 does. No it doesn’t! Operations does. …) Should we include a 15% “fudge factor” or not? How many are really “on-hand”? Do we report spares? (A shrewd battalion might not, to prevent those “fuckin’ guys at brigade” from pilfering their stocks.) These two battalions have the same mission – why are their numbers different? How do you know the unit is reporting the right numbers? They say this many are “installed” but are they really? Do the commo shop’s numbers match the number of trucks reported by the logistics shop?

I have been asked all of these questions and more during our morning fun-fests, questions that I’m ill-equipped to answer. My initial philosophy was to report the numbers that the units reported to us, but of course that was the wrong answer. They don’t know what they’re talking about! Those numbers are wrong! It became like some kind of tactical Sudoku – trying to massage the reports into a number that was acceptable to all parties. I think we finally have it ironed out (with little help from me – I tried to stay out of the way and avoid as much friendly fire as possible), but I could be wrong. The whole thing could change next week and the arguments could begin anew.

To paraphrase Meat Loaf, “there ain’t no MRAP hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”

The Riddle of Steel

Thanks to Borg, we now have some fine handcrafted wood furniture for our TV and other entertainment equipment. While he’s no master of saw and drill like JoKur, I have no complaints – I could do no better myself. Besides, this is a war zone – things should be slightly dodgy! Or something.

What happened to this truck?

What happened to this truck?

Meanwhile, a couple of mysteries have surfaced. The first is the mystery of one of our command post trucks. From a distance, it looked burned – I thought at first that maybe it had burst into flames on the boat ride here. This would be totally par for the course with these vehicles, and so what should have been alarm was really more like resignation on my part. Upon closer inspection, though, I could see it wasn’t fire damage – but what was it? No idea.

(Interestingly enough, this same truck can be seen here, at our annual training in 2010, when we received the accursed thing.)

What about this mysterious patch of vegetation? As you can see, it’s clustered around a drain spout. A-ha, one might say – obviously runoff has caused a local area of growth. But every barracks building – and there are scores of them – has two drain spouts per side (for a total of four), yet none has a “lawn” like this one. A botanical experiment in progress, perhaps?

Ten Years Later

Photo copyright James Nachtwey for TIME

Photo copyright James Nachtwey for TIME

Ten years on, we still live in the long shadow of September 11, 2001, that horrific day that changed our lives in ways big and small, known and unknown, a historical discontinuity that stands among the most significant events of American history, and certainly the most significant in recent memory. It seems trite to write about “how 9-11 affected me,” but there are many better and smarter writers who will put the event in its proper perspective, so the personal is what is left to me.

I was in my last semester of college that year, living in the suburbs and commuting to school. That September morning, I was getting ready for class (a lazy 11 am start to classes on Tuesdays), when my roommate yelled to turn on the TV, because something terrible had happened. I did so, and watched along with the rest of the world as the World Trade Center collapsed in dust and flame. I went to class that morning, and we discussed the day’s events. Classes were then cancelled for the day, and I went home.

After that, I don’t remember doing much differently. I put an American flag sticker on my car, and graduated college, and went to work for the university. The war in Afghanistan began; my only connection to the war was a friend from high school, who was serving on the USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier that launched some of the first airstrikes there.

In August of 2002, though, I joined the National Guard. In March of 2003, I went to basic training, and while there, the war in Iraq began. One of my drill sergeants said, “mark my words, you’ll all be there someday.” I laughed off his bluster, but his prediction proved correct.

On the tenth anniversary of that day that changed the world, I’m here in Kuwait, serving with tens of thousands of my brothers and sisters, wondering where we’d be but for 19 hateful men. Would I have joined the Guard if 9-11 had never happened? Impossible to say, but it seems unlikely. I didn’t join out of some sense of going on a terrorist hunt or some revenge fantasy, but the military did seem like the right place to be during such a historic time, if that makes any sense.

I don’t know. It’s easy to ascribe monumental significance to your decisions after the fact, when in reality something like joining the Guard was a decision that was complex and weighed by many factors, most of them pedestrian. But the mood, the environment, the zeitgeist if you will, tilted me in that direction and touched everything that happened in my life after that day. Everything since then – my career, my marriage, my friends and lifestyle – all inevitably changed when those four airliners veered off course to bury themselves in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the fields of Pennsylvania. Those hijackers wanted to change the world, and change the world they did – for countless millions all around the world, in countless ways. I’m just one of them.

Fast Food War

Just another colonel among many

Just another colonel among many

“Wherever you go, we go” was the PX’s old tagline, but that might be more aptly applied to America’s great contribution to the culinary world: fast food.

Every major base in the GWOT has some sort of fast food representation, and has had such since the beginning of the war. Bases in Kuwait, having been here since the first Gulf War, are no exception. On our humble swatch of sand here, the vendor list is impressive: KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Charley’s subs, Subway, Hardees, Burger King, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, the Pizza Inn, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, a donut shop, and a Chinese restaurant. It’s enough to make a guy wonder if it’s the jihadists’ secret plan to defeat us gastronomically, since they can’t beat us on the battlefield.

Mrs. Melobi asked me why anyone would pay for eating, when the DFAC across the street offers an endless bounty of free food, in such variety and quantity as to boggle the mind. Logic would argue that paying for food would be foolish in this environment, but logic has little to do with it. Rather, it’s that paying for and eating fast food feels “normal” to most Americans, and normalcy is what many people seek here.

Honestly, eating at the DFAC is a little weird. You stand in a line out in the sweltering heat, then are corralled through the mandatory hand-washing station, after which you dry your hands on what you think is a roll of paper towels but is really more like toilet paper, which makes the stuff disintegrate on your hands. (One quickly learns to dab daintily, rather than rub vigorously.) You then proceed to stand in another line, where a bunch of Indians who barely speak English sling huge piles of your chosen food onto your plastic plate, which is divided into three areas, just like if you were on a picnic. Miraculously, these men never get your order wrong, which is more than you can say for many hash-slingers back home, who a) are native English speakers and b) only have to push a couple of numbers on a keypad.  After getting your food, you then go get your drink, and hit the salad bar, or get a jelly donut with soft serve ice cream on it (I’ve seen it done), or whatever you desire. Finally, you sit down in the dining hall with a couple hundred of your closest friends and chow down. The whole thing is lit like a hospital ward, all huge banks of fluorescent lamps and white walls, and at the end you unceremoniously dump your tray into a big garbage can and shuffle back out into the heat.

Have it your way, as long as you don't want mustard

Have it your way, as long as you don't want mustard

This combination of cafeteria-assembly line-hospital-party hall seems to subconsciously unnerve some people; many complain about the food after the first couple of months, but I wonder if it isn’t really the environment. Some just give up on the place entirely – one of our predecessors said she only ate at the DFAC ten or twelve times in her whole nine-month stay here. I believed it, since every day for lunch she’d come back to the TOC with bags from Pizza Hut, or Taco Bell, or Subway.

The fast food experience, on the other hand, is virtually identical to what you’d find anywhere else in the world. The smells and tastes are all the same, for better or for worse, except that you cannot get mustard on your burger, no matter what. Neither Hardee’s nor Burger King have mustard, nor did they on my last tour in Iraq. It makes no sense, because the DFAC has mustard, but there it is. At any rate, I think that the activity of exchanging money for food is such a habit for many people that it’s just something that must be done occasionally, if only to remember how such transactions work. That’s how it is for me: a little voice nags at me, saying, “you should spend some money on something since you haven’t lately.” OK, if you insist.

Fast food is firmly entrenched in the 21st century war experience, and is unlikely to go anywhere. When General McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, he proposed closing all the fast food joints in operation (sparing the coffee shops, of course – hard to run a staff without coffee). That didn’t happen, though – he resigned before his ban could go into effect, after the Rolling Stone interview scandal, and his successor didn’t try to pick up that policy, instead allowing it to fade away quietly. Here in Kuwait, Americans will likely have a presence here for many years to come, so I’m sure the fast food will stay here too. Maybe by the next time I come around this place, I can get some mustard.

Brass Knuckles & Flashlights

It’s been ten days since we officially took over the mission here, and already it’s hard to tell that our predecessors even existed. Signs have been changed, web pages altered, desks rearranged, SOPs remade, procedures rethought, all in a frantic effort to make our mark. Like a giant meteor suddenly wiping out the dinosaurs in a flash of light and a torrent of ash, our unit stands on the proverbial bones of brigades past, sometimes seeming like those other deployments never happened. Yet occasionally an artifact from these long-ago soldiers (long ago being two rotations ago) surfaces from the geological strata of filing cabinets and web servers: an old unit crest or phone roster, reminders of our predecessors and their hard work.

Sometimes, people still call us looking for soldiers of these brigades long past. Some poor 2nd lieutenant from the help desk called me the other day, asking about computers on our network that had policy exemptions in effect. I told him I didn’t know of any in our possession, and he asked if he could talk to some master sergeant from the 29th IBCT. I said well sir, that was three rotations ago – so maybe late 2008 or 2009? I think he’s gone now. I know we’re just lowly Guardsmen, living in the slums of Zone 6, far from the fancy silverware and swimming pools of Zone 1, but you’d think they’d have some clue as to who their subordinate units were. I didn’t blame the lieutenant, though; I’m sure he just showed up, fresh out of Officer Basic Course, and they handed him a list and said, “start making calls.”

1st Red BullsOne of the changes around town is a new sign outside the TOC. This sign was produced some weeks ago, and I immediately noticed something amiss: the unit patch image had obviously been blown up from a tiny web graphic to a giant square decal. It looks horrible, and I couldn’t help but voice my objection – we’ll be the laughing stock of the camp! Everyone will think we’re a bunch of talentless National Guard hacks with no graphic design skills! The TAG said we can’t use the Red Bull with the 1 in it! Etc Obviously, as the sign’s presence attests, my objections fell on deaf ears, and there it stands, a proudly pixelated mess. (The sign also says “Kuwait” under our name. No shit we’re in Kuwait!) I guess it’s not really that bad – from a distance, the pixelation isn’t that noticeable, and some people can’t notice it at all, so probably no one will ever know. But it remains my secret shame, and I avert my gaze from it every morning.

The heat is starting to break, as we head into September. It’s still over 100 degrees, but it wasn’t quite as oppressive today, a slight lifting of the sun’s punishing hand. The mornings are becoming almost pleasant, maybe in the 80s or low 90s; before you know it, I’ll be digging out my extreme cold weather parka! Maybe not. But the days go by quickly; indeed, instead of trying to fill my hours, I’m scrambling for more, both at the TOC and on my off time. Soon it’ll be winter and I’ll be home for leave, shoveling snow from the driveway and human food into my mouth, and maybe by then the Iraq war will be over, depending on the whim of the Iraqi government. That’s a topic for another day, though…

Movement in Still Life

I never ran a mile in my life (at least, not with running shoes on a course) until I joined the Army in 2002. Since then, running has been a necessity for me, not a pleasure; the yearly physical fitness test, featuring a 2-mile run, has made sure of that. Luckily, I’ve never had a problem with running my required mileage: no injuries, no lung problems, no particular hatred for the activity, just no desire to do it any more than necessary.

Riding a bike, on the other hand, became an interest of mine a few years ago; it’s exercise, but you go fast and buy expensive stuff! What’s not to like? Running is drudgery and takes a seeming eternity to cover much ground; riding a bike, on the other hand, is as hard as you want to make it, and cruising along at seventeen miles per hour means the miles just fall away under your spinning cranks.

The bike also means solitude. Alone in the saddle, the sounds of the trail or the city mix with the rhythmic thrum of the drivetrain and the measured in-out-in-out of my breathing, obliterating conscious thought and enveloping me in a bubble-world that no one can penetrate. For that reason, I lugged my bike twelve hundred miles to my last Army-sponsored vacation, at scenic Fort Gordon. It proved a worthy companion, carrying me around the range road loop in the fort’s back forty on sunny winter weekends; more importantly, it gave me an escape from the press of barracks life. I’ve become considerably more outgoing since I enlisted, but I remain an introvert at heart, so being alone is an essential part of my routine.

Kuwait posed a special problem. Obviously, shipping my road bike to the war was a non-starter; likewise, acquiring a $99 Wal-Mart bike on the camp wasn’t going to happen. It might make me sound like a snob, but that would be like driving a Chevette after owning a Ferrari. Furthermore, where would a guy ride? Do loops on the sand-blasted roads around the camp, with three or four laps to make twenty miles?

My new idea came, as it often does, in pursuit of a shiny new thing to buy. This time, shoes: the New Balance Minimus Trail, a low-profile “minimalist” shoe, caught my eye for some reason. This unleashed a flurry of internet research and next thing you know, I’m reading about running technique and minimalist running and proprioception and all kinds of weird shit I hadn’t known about, let alone cared about, just a few days before. Thus did my nerdiness intersect at last with running, and a new interest was born.

So here I am in Kuwait, running around the perimeter road after dark (when it’s still over 100 degrees), and actually enjoying it. Living in the refugee camp and working at the HQ being constantly bombarded with questions, the windblown perimeter at night is literally the only time I can be truly alone.

I look forward to my runs now, and I’m considering voluntarily running when I return home. This transformation concerns me for some reason – it doesn’t match with any facet of my personality, unlike all of my previous hobbies. Mrs. Melobi is similarly weirded out, about a similar transformation. I’m sure we’ll both integrate our new fitness routines smoothly; it’s not like we joined a cult or something. Still, I felt a serious unease when I walked out of the hooch for my run last night and realized that my shoes matched my shirt, I was wearing no socks, and I had dedicated running shorts on. Maybe it is some kind of cult after all…

The Tote Boat

Bags upon bagsThree more duffel bags and a footlocker (or tote) per man: that’s the load that arrived last night. The baggage was hotly anticipated, since most people loaded their stuff heavily with comfort items: civilian clothes, sheets & blankets, games, and other diversions. My bags were all half-empty, since everything I could think of to bring couldn’t fill them. Ignoring the brigade’s packing list also helped greatly; I figured it was nonsense when I saw our extreme cold-weather ensemble on the list. And as long as I’m ignoring one part of the list, might as well chuck the whole thing…Even still, all that crap needs to find a home, which isn’t a problem right now, but if the prophesied influx of soldiers really happens, we’re going to be damn near sleeping on piles of duffel bags.

Speaking of the exercise in human Tetris that is our building, the last two days have also been a flurry of reconfiguration, bracing for the arrival of newcomers. The neighbors expanded their space into the notional hallway, creating a weird vestibule at the entrance of our area that would be perfect for hanging raincoats – if only it ever rained. Meanwhile, the E-4 on the other side is somehow living alone, after the other three troops in his area abandoned him to establish a totally exposed shanty of their own, further down the hall. Their space seems a drastic downgrade; they’re basically living in the hallway, without even a poncho liner curtain to shield them from the rest of us, virtually piled on top of each other. It doesn’t bother me – they chose their arrangement – but it certainly puzzles me.

Essential war supplies

Essential war supplies

Meanwhile, my job at the HQ is quite pedestrian, and it (among many other factors) makes this feel less like a deployment and more like a year-long relocation to some branch office. I’m providing a basic first-tier help desk, the same kind of service provided in any corporate or public sector office anywhere in the world. (I hesitate to say that I “run” it, as the whole thing kind of shambles forward of its own accord, without much prompting by anyone.) It seems strange to fly across the world with piles of body armor and weapons and fire-resistant uniforms, just to help people figure out where to store PowerPoint files, but I guess that’s what they mean by “network-centric” warfare.

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