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Postcards from Tradocia

Category: army life (page 2 of 38)

Red Bull No More

After more than ten years, December marked my last month as a Red Bull. Technically, I had been transferred in November, but elected to make my last drill before Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS) with my old unit, since the holiday party would be a fitting endcap to my tenure there. My new unit will not see me for many months, such is the length of the path of the warrant officer, and indeed I barely consider myself their man; viewing them rather as just some people who make sure I get paid once a month while I go somewhere else.

My new unit is still in Minnesota, but it’s not nearly as storied as the Red Bulls. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the Army is that sense of lineage, the history that pervades even inane shit like company change-of-command ceremonies. In a post-modern society that worships at the altar of new and shiny and looks upon tradition with disdain, the Army is a refreshingly grounded organization, fairly reveling in its heritage. Perhaps many don’t feel the same, but I am occasionally energized by the thought that I’m an inheritor of the Army of long past, that I am upon a page of history still in the writing, within the same book as the men of Anzio and Gettysburg – however small and anonymous my part may be.

Historical musings aside, I’ve worn the same patch on my left shoulder for all of my career until now, which means that I’ve “grown up” in the division, from a wide-eyed E-4 to the crusty E-7 (and soon to be lower-than-dirt, weaker-than-zygote warrant officer candidate) that I am now. In a very real way, the Red Bulls have shaped my career, my personality, my character, and my life for the last ten years. Of course, it’s not like I’m leaving the Army; and indeed, it is almost certain that I’ll wear the ol’ skull on my shoulder again. But it’s one of two stark transitions: the transition out of the division, and the transition from an enlisted man to warrant officer.

The Army, too, is in transition: the end of the war in Afghanistan is in sight, and post-war budget cuts loom large in nearly every conversation. The institutional memory of the lean post-Vietnam and post-Gulf War days is strong, and we enter 2013 wondering where the first hammer-blow will fall. Morale isn’t low, per se, and arguably the Guard has emerged from a decade of war the strongest, best-equipped, and most organized it has been perhaps in its entire history. Certainly, these years of integration with the active component have made us much more adept at asking for and getting support, influence, and money – though we will reap the bitter harvest of big-Army bureaucracy in the coming years as a price for our expanded role.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent more than ten years as a soldier – and it seems in many ways that I’m just getting started. I have a long career ahead of me, and I’m sure it’ll be just as surprising and will take just as many unexpected turns as those years behind me.

Space Rock

Two months back, and Kuwait already seems a million miles away and a lifetime ago. Like an elemental particle held against a repulsive force and suddenly released, I rocketed out of the deployment at incredible speed, hardly pausing after getting off the bus before jumping into post-war life. Mrs. Melobi put the house up for sale before I returned, and everything went according to plan after that: the place sold while I was demobilizing at Camp Shelby, I came home and we looked for houses, and within a month of my return we were living someplace new. This meant, of course, that it only took a month for virtually all of my mercenary spoils of war to evaporate in a puff of black ink and legal-sized paper, but those ill-gotten gains as my time as a fascist baby-killer were just numbers in the computer anyway. Better to trade digits in a spreadsheet for tangible goods, like an awesome giant house with a fucked-up roof.

Mrs. Melobi was amazed that, unlike the last time I returned from the war, I didn’t constantly babble about the people, places, and things there. Nor was I plagued with dreams of my comrades (not any sort of horror, mind you – just endless dreams of mundanity, a continual b-roll of the same damn people I’d spent 18 months with); it was almost like the whole thing never happened. Maybe that’s because so little actually did happen that in my memory, the repetitive bits are deleted and highlights (miserably few, those) compressed, so that the deployment is zipped into a little three-week excursion.

But it did happen, and it wasn’t three weeks. Just when I forget about it, I remember that there’s a year-long hole in my life; I catch myself saying things like, “last summer, I…,” before realizing that it was two summers ago, the intervening one having disappeared into the sandy horizons of Kuwait.

I struggled to contextualize the experience in the last months there, trying to find some larger meaning for an office job half a world away. Now that I’m home, I don’t feel that need so much – it just happened, and I can try to glean lessons about my career and think about individual events without fitting them into a larger whole. This also means that the deployment was evolutionary, not revolutionary; a continuation of a theme, rather than last time, which was a complete discontinuity. It was still a fitting end to a chapter – or a capstone event, if you will – since I’ll walk the path of a warrant officer soon, making this my last tour as an NCO.

And now it’s back to life in the human world, living and loving here as that sandy year fades into the distance, already a lifetime ago, with the glorious full-color world laid out in front of me, just waiting to be seen.

 

A Dream Within a Dream

Gazing into the sea

The soldiers from the North contemplate the sea

Pensive looks there, as we enjoyed the calming splash of water against the breakers and the warm breeze from the Persian Gulf, and talked about how close Iran was, just over the haze-cloaked horizon. It was a little escape from one prison camp to another, an all-day junket for work but also for sea-viewing and shawirma-eating.

We had to transport our measly three shelter trucks to the naval base for inventory, cleaning, and customs inspection, a task that should’ve felt like progress but really felt pointless, since two of the three trucks were never used. They came here on a boat, got shuffled around the camp from lot to lot, and will roll back onto a boat, never having been opened, except for inventory.

Civilians would be conducting the inventory, and they agreed to “start the day early,” saying they’d meet us at 0730. We arrived by 0700, and had enough time to make two runs to Dunkin Donuts, use the bathroom, and discuss everything wrong with our organization before the civilians arrived – at about 0845. “Starting early,” my ass.

The inventory went smoothly, although the civilians didn’t seem to know what most of the items were – several times, they’d read off an item (“AB-4289 antenna base? Got one of those?”), and I could’ve held up a ham sandwich and they would’ve checked it off the list.

After inventory, the vehicles had to be washed – can’t bring back any Kuwaiti sand, you see – so we had to drive them onto pairs of giant concrete wedges, angling them upwards to expose the undercarriage. Entering the wash rack, the ground guide pointed me to a set of ramps angled apart quite precariously; I was hesitant to approach but figured these guys do this every day so they must know what they’re doing. I gingerly nosed the truck up to the ramp and feathered the gas pedal, already formulating my statement for the accident investigation that I was sure to shortly follow. (Note that terms like “gingerly” and “feathered” are relative terms when driving a 15,000 pound truck that’s straining to climb a 20-degree slope, all while you’re trying to obey the precise directions given by the ground guide who’s almost completely obscured by the hood.) Somehow I didn’t steer the thing off the ramp, though, and managed to bail out of the vehicle and leave the thing in someone else’s hands. I swear the front passenger tire was halfway off the ramp (on the inside)…

Afterwards we enjoyed chicken shawirmas (kind of a gyro-like concoction, with chicken shaved from a rotating spit, then mixed with herbs & vegetables and wrapped in a tortilla or flatbread-like thing) and a trip to the pier, where the sea breeze washed over us and we furtively snapped pictures (trying to avoid the harbor facilities, lest the Coast Guard boat nearby train its .50-cal machinegun on us). Then it was back to the sandy waste of our own camp; it was the last time most of us would leave the place, until the end.

Speaking of the end, it’s almost at hand – our bags are packed, final packages sent, goods sold to the new guys or thrown away (we sold our 32″ LCD TV for what we paid, and got rid of chairs & rugs). I’m living out of one duffel bag until I return home, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, but it sure will be nice to return to the human world, what with the real furniture and indoor plumbing and non-brown environment and all that.

The Days of Waiting

All packed up and no place to go

All packed up and no place to go

The brigade commander said this morning, after hearing that our equipment turn-in was 98% complete, brigade-wide: “Let’s get us some flights and get us the hell out of here. What are we waiting for?” He was being facetious, of course – our timetable is on a fixed track and an organization our size is about as nimble as a fully loaded locomotive – but the sentiment was accurate. What are  we waiting for?

My time remaining here is measured in days rather than weeks, yet my impeding departure hardly seems real. Unlike last time, there’s no feeling of transition, since my job was office-based and our mission ended with a fade to black instead of a triumphant finale. Indeed, we’re not even being directly replaced; we’re literally just turning off the lights and leaving, with no successors to inherit our equipment and hard-won FOBbit wisdom. It’s an endcap of anticlimax to the ultimate anticlimax deployment, a giant squib round of a tour during which nothing seemed to happen.

That’s pure cynicism, of course – obviously we did things and stuff happened, but up here in the rarefied air of the brigade HQ, it’s all very abstract and distant. Particularly for me, acting as I do as support for staff who mostly make work for subordinates, it feels like I hardly deployed at all. Too bad I couldn’t telecommute to this thing! I’m about six degrees of separation from anybody who actually had direct activity in the war (known as “warfighters,” in the parlance of contractors and field-grades), making my job several echelons beyond mere terms like “REMF” or “FOBbit,” thus probably necessitating new terminology.

I’m groping for words here, trying to contextualize this experience. I don’t feel like my time was wasted, somehow, but I don’t know why, because on an individual level, it almost certainly was. Maybe it’s because I can see myself and my actions as part of a much larger whole, and place myself as a tiny part of the proverbial Green Machine that is the Army. I struggled with much the same rationalization during my Iraq tour, but looking back, that time seems so much more meaningful and important now than it once did.

In any case, it won’t be long before this trip is at an end, and I’ll return to the human world once more…

Passer Domesticus

There isn’t much bird life on the camp here, unlike many places in Iraq. Despite occasional sightings of interesting things, there are really only three species of birds here: Laughing Doves, pigeons, and the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Having nothing else to watch, I watched the noisy little sparrows, since unlike any other form of animal life, they have flourished here, even with little to eat and less water. I never paid much attention to them at home; they are so common and unexciting compared to other birds in the U.S. that they simply blend into the cacophonous background of city life. But watching them here – with a laser-like focus borne of sheer boredom – has taught me a few things. These things are summarized below for your reading pleasure.

  1. Like most birds, they forage early in the morning and late in the afternoon, especially during the brutally-hot summer. They especially like to perch on the bathroom trailers and fences near the dumpsters, behind the DFAC, and swoop down to the dumpsters, where discarded food ends up on the ground.
  2. Much like rats, the sparrows will eat almost anything they can carry off or tear apart with their beaks. As far as I can tell, they mainly subsist on old grease, orange peels, peanuts, and french fries. (The latter food item is limited to the populations that hang around the food courts. The sparrows at the LSA seemed particularly bonkers for McDonald’s fries – they seem to have much the same preference as humans!) The exception to this is beef jerky – though I suppose because they simply can’t eat it. (I have a full set of teeth, and it’s a difficult task for me.) I’m pretty sure a discarded piece of jerky sat next to our building for several weeks, untouched, until I guess someone threw it in the trash.
  3. Unlike their North American brethren, males here never lose the black color to their bills. They seem to maintain breeding plumage all year long. (Back home,the males’ bills take on a beige or “horn” color during the winter, changing to black again in the spring.)
  4. The breeding season here starts at the beginning of February and is still ongoing. There might be two seasons – one in late winter and one in the fall, when temperatures are low enough to avoid roasting eggs in the nest, but warm enough not to freeze the chicks when they hatch.
  5. Males entice females with a little mating dance, where they droop their wings, raise their heads, and hop around, chirping frantically. The females then rush the male, chasing him off, and he repeats the dance, and the female attacks, until apparently she gets tired and invites the male to mount. It’s a funny little show of hard-to-get that seems oddly appropriate for the urban environment in which they live.
  6. Males spend most of the day on a high perch, chirping to get attention and broadcast their territory. On our living buildings, they’ll space themselves evenly, one at each corner and one in the middle, and chirp away.
  7. Before dawn, the males will chirp from lower perches, like chain-link fences and the supports for our air conditioners. I suppose it’s because they can’t be seen, so don’t need to be high up. Also, it makes it easier to wake up stupid humans who unwittingly leave windows open, since those windows are right under the A/C units.
  8. Despite their inability to sing, the sparrows do have different voices, and some males even string different chirps together in a sort of performance (akin to a toddler banging on a piano). One even managed a bit of a trill between chirps, which gives me hope that in 100,000 years or so they’ll evolve a song or two. Females just make a loud chittering call when agitated or when chasing others around.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori

 

 

 

 

 

 

I might be the only person on the internet comparing the Playstation 2 and PSP role-playing game Persona 3 and this year’s movie Act of Valor, so bear with me here. (Also note that there may be spoilers below for both Persona 3 and Act of Valor.)

Saturday I finished my 120-hour epic quest in Persona 3, a pretty standard game about Japanese high school students fighting demons in their school after midnight, shooting yourself in the head to summon spiritual beings, and leveling up by eating fast food (at familiar joints like “Wild Duck Burger”). Saturday night we went to see Act of Valor at the base theater, and with the intense experience of the ending of Persona 3 fresh in my mind, the film about war and sacrifice made an interesting juxtaposition with the themes of the game.

For sacrifice is one of the final themes of Persona 3, as the main character – the silent protagonist who you control for the duration, and whose personality is only expressed through your choices as the player – willingly gives up his life in the end, choosing death in order to save his friends (and indeed the rest of humanity). It’s an act several orders of magnitude larger in scale than the SEAL jumping on a grenade in the final firefight of Act of Valor, but one that’s no less personal. And indeed, those “damn few” SEALs put their lives on the line for an entire nation, the citizens of which – much like the people of the fictional city of Iwatodai – may never know from what they were saved, or by whom.

The more overarching theme of both works, though, was that of facing death, and living in spite of that inevitability that awaits all living things. Act of Valor quoted Tecumseh:

When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

And Persona 3’s final enemy, Nyx, had her own quote:

Celebrate life’s grandeur… its brilliance… its magnificence… Only courage in the face of doubt can lead one to the answer. Beyond the beaten path lies the absolute end. It matters not who you are… Death awaits you.

Death is a journey that all life must make; the only choice left is how to face it, and sometimes, when to begin. In Persona 3, Nyx urges the characters to give up hope as death descends upon the world; after all, if death is known and inevitable, how can one continue living under that crushing burden? But the characters make the decision that the SEALs in Act of Valor already made: they choose to fight, and to live as best they can, with the time given to them. In both cases, this also gave them the freedom to choose sacrifice – voluntarily choosing death for the life of others. Not a berserker’s death (or that of a kamikaze), but a calculated decision, made in an instant.

Can such a decision be made in the moment? Or is it made long before, with “hard sweat of the brow” and long nights of doubt, ultimately arriving at that quiet steel, that state sought by many but attained by few? Neither work provides answers, but both suggest that only by facing death and acknowledging it can one live freely, unburdened by the fear of the infinite.

 

Ruined Planet

Life in the desertIn the dead heat of summer here, I didn’t think anything could survive – after months of scorching heat, how could a few paltry nights of rain be enough to revitalize anything?

And yet, here we have a little patch of life in the desert, maybe twenty yards long, right along Patton Avenue (the camp’s main drag), a riot of color in our otherwise brown world. A few small butterflies even flitted to and fro in the stiff north wind (I’m no bug guy – they looked kind of like the “Painted Lady“), and a pair of Crested Larks chirped and scuttled across the sand nearby.

Few will notice this little garden, since I’m sure it’ll be gone soon, and most traffic on the road is vehicular anyway. Still, it was heartening to see some life on Brown Planet; a mere preview of what awaits in the spring of home, three months and five thousand miles away.

Stirring the pot

I probably shouldn’t legitimize this kind of blatant trolling with a link, but I can’t help myself:

http://airbornewife814.blogspot.com/2012/02/stirring-pot.html

I’ll just leave this quote here:

The Vermont National Guard is just that, they are State Militia. The Hubs is a federal soldier. The National Guard spouses around here like to refer to themselves as ‘Army Wives’. They aren’t. I respect their significant others for the things that they do, but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, soldiers.

(emphasis mine)

Needless to say, this has caused some excitement here at the office, filled as it is with non-soldiers who somehow found themselves halfway around the world in the deserts of the Middle East.

(Oh, and Mrs. Melobi: according to her, you’re not an Army wife! Don’t care what your blog says!)

 

 

My Friend of Misery

Wherever you go, there you are

Wherever you go, there you are

After an all-too-brief respite, I’ve returned to the Demon World for the final leg of my Mideast adventure. Six months of living in Kuwait, though, means that home feels temporary and unusual, while the brown universe of the desert feels normal. It’s both a sad and an impressive testament to human versatility, I guess.

The journey home was uneventful, if brutally long – 36 hours spent at the LSA, then the bus ride to the airport, then three long flights (including a punishing 10-hour Atlantic crossing, flying into a 100-mph headwind). I spent so long at the LSA because R&R flights aren’t exactly precisely scheduled, which irked me at first, until I realized that soldiers & civilians from all over CENTCOM were departing through Kuwait, which can make scheduling difficult. Not everyone is within commuting distance of the point of departure like I am.

Most of the soldiers on the flight were coming from Afghanistan, by probably a five to one ratio; this was made obvious by their Multicam uniforms, as opposed to my now-passé ACUs. This distinction marked me as not of their ilk, and this made me uncomfortable among them, as if they were judging me for my cushy rear-echelon deployment. In a way, I felt like part of a different Army than them, since the two theaters of war are so different. I talked with a PFC from the 172nd Infantry Brigade who described living on a mountaintop with his platoon of artillerymen and two platoons of infantrymen, their fights among each other, and of two days in October when they fired over 300 rounds through their two 105mm howitzers, while being rocketed all day and night. Needless to say, I didn’t talk much about my experiences troubleshooting computers or configuring printers.

Just a small sample

Just a small sample

Once home, it was as expected: enjoyable but not truly relaxing; an incredible amount of fun but all hurried as if it might not happen again. We managed to get in our fifth-annual “MANCATION” – the trip to JoKur’s cabin for a weekend of boozing and loud yelling and game-playing. Mrs. Melobi was able to attend under the Special Wartime Wife Exclusion Clause; as such, we were unable to engage in the usual secret rituals and whatnot. Since most of the attendees are regular visitors to Casa del Delobius, though, her presence didn’t much change the character of the event. She’s used to ignoring us in our most drunkenly obnoxious moments. The alcoholic highlight for me was the Yamazaki 12-year (pictured at right), a Japanese single-malt whisky. My palate isn’t sufficiently refined to describe its taste, but I’m assured by the internet that it has strong notes of shoe leather, saddle soap, honey, and anise, with just a hint of aged gnome testicles and unicorn scat.

Seriously, though, it’s great – who knew there was such a thing as Japanese single-malt?

On the return trip I had to spend two nights in Atlanta, since a mechanical problem on a previous day’s flight had caused the whole R&R process to come to a crashing halt, resulting in days of delays. They put us up in a pretty nice hotel next to the airport, with free food at the hotel restaurant, with a mild admonition that General Order 1B was in full effect (read: no drinking); this was naturally greeted with rolling eyes and mumbled “yeah right”s. My roommate for the weekend – an air medic from St. Paul, deployed to Afghanistan – really wanted to see the World of Coca-Cola in downtown ATL, which sounded fine except all I had to wear was my Army costume. We scouted a Foot Locker near downtown and took the train, with me in uniform, which was socially uncomfortable but was made better by the fact that everyone in Atlanta looks fucking weird, so I didn’t stick out nearly as much as I would have in, say, Minneapolis.

After visiting Foot Locker I made a partial transformation by ditching my uniform top for a sweatshirt (converting to the homeless look, which enabled me to blend in quite well), and completed the change in the bathroom at the World of Coca-Cola. It was fine, I guess; free for us military types, and all the weird soda flavors from around the world that you could handle. (Inca Cola – enjoy the taste of a lost civilization!) But Atlanta – I visited the place on my last deployment, and I forgot how much I hate the place. It’s dingy, and full of bums, and doesn’t seem like a place that anyone should visit. One might say the same things about my home town, given a visit to the right spots, but still – I don’t plan to pass through again, unless I must.

After that adventure, I boarded the time machine, and a couple of days later I was back in Kuwait, disoriented and ready to pack it in by my twelfth hour back, what with the war finished and the whole theater seemingly at a loss for what to do next. But here I stay, for another three months or so; then it’s home again, hopefully for a good long while this time.

 

 

Finished Symphony

The war in Iraq is officially over, with our last convoys crossing the border yesterday morning. One of our brigade’s convoys was the second-to-last out of Iraq; the honor of the final convoy naturally fell to the active duty troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, who as America’s First Team needed to be last out.

It was a jovial atmosphere in the TOC today for the morning SCUB, and we proceeded according to our usual routine of the last five months. The intel guy started the brief with the weather, as he has every day, saying, “The weather in Iraq for today…” The colonel cut him off abruptly with, “Wait. Do we give a fuck about the weather in Iraq anymore?” Everyone laughed, and he answered his own question with “no,” and the intel guy carried on without missing a beat. For my part, I stated that I’d no longer be briefing the cryptic pile of numbers known as the “convoy equipment status”…unless, of course, the colonel wanted to see it. He said no thanks, and away we went. Finally, the colonel said that now that the war was over, we’d have to refocus on our new priorities. After a pause, he then said, “So I guess I’ll figure that out in a couple of days and let you know.” Cue staff laughter.

His statement was a joke, but it rang true for me. With the closing of the gate at “K-Crossing,” my motivation to work deflated with amazing rapidity. As long as there was a war on, I could continue my menial office tasks as long as I thought that somewhere there was a soldier at the pointy end of the brigade who might be positively affected by the staff I was supporting. But with that motivation gone (the so-called “people-will-die” excuse, as in, “people will die if I can’t print this PowerPoint slide on both sides of the page!”), I looked around at my brown universe and thought, “now what?” Today I felt an incredible urge to just leave, buy a plane ticket home (only $1200!), borrow a car and leave it at Kuwait International. Good war everyone, let’s pack it up!

***

In all of the media coverage about the end of the war, what has bothered me the most is the constant focus on the dead. How many American military personnel were killed, how many Iraqis were killed, look at these grieving widows (but only the good-looking ones, as rather shamelessly featured on CNN’s “Heroes” program)… I’m not trying to denigrate the soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors who paid the ultimate price in the Iraq war, or the suffering of their families; rather, it’s the constant harping, the almost voyeuristic exploitation, the hammering of the point that the only thing that happened for the last eight years was death. There was even an article in the Washington Post chronicling the final US death in Iraq, which had to throw in the execrable John Kerry quote about the Vietnam War: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Even at the last, people are trying to turn Iraq into Vietnam, since all attempts thus far have failed.

All of this coverage makes it hard to remember that, functionally speaking, we won the war in Iraq. So why doesn’t it look like victory? What of the bravery, dedication, and success of the American (and few allies’) military in the face of a brutal and cunning insurgency? Instead, the media and commentators are busy shaping the cultural narrative, painting the war as an expensive failure, a Vietnam redux fought by poor kids duped into joining the military and leaving a trail of weeping families in their wake, ripe for exploitation by “sensitive” and “hard-hitting” journalists.

The whole thing makes me vaguely sick. Why fight for a nation that sees you as nothing but a pathetic victim, a sad charity case like a kid with cancer or a lost puppy? We don’t want sympathy, and we don’t want tears – we want appreciation, and pride, and respect. Not just pride in serving, but pride in victory, in defeating the enemy, in doing the job that the nation asks of us: to fight and win the nation’s wars.

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