Postcards from Tradocia

Tag: army

Gears of War

After two weeks together, the company is just starting to wear in. Like the parts of a machine, groups of people need time to break in before operating at full efficiency; each person and group has different threads and teeth and splines and ratios and hardnesses, all of which must be reconciled if the group is to work together. Some are composed of materials too hard, or have broken parts, or are too worn down, and thus will never align with others, reducing the effectiveness of the whole.

In the Army, assembling a team is often like putting an engine together using spare parts picked randomly from a mixed bin while blindfolded. You don’t always get to choose your people, so you just take a look and hope you got good ones. The idea of the military system is that, ideally, everyone is as close to a baseline spec as possible, so that you’ll be putting your engine together with parts from a single blueprint, instead of some from a Nissan V6 and others from a Cummins turbo diesel and others from a leaf-blower. This works about as well as can be expected, but it doesn’t account for differences in personality, which seem to account for most of team problems.

Team S6 is coming along well, since by blind luck (remember, blindfolded parts-picking) we ended up with a compatible team. Our integration with the rest of the staff, though, is not going so well. Already we’re falling into the old computer guy trap of responding to immediate requests as they come in, rather than prioritizing and directing traffic, which is turning our operation into a dog’s breakfast of scribbled notes, hastily-made spreadsheets (fucking spreadsheets!) and terse e-mails. Hopefully, this will just be a temporary phase during annual training, so that when we arrive at the mobilization site, we can reboot our operation in a more structured mode.

We’re also suffering from the “too many chiefs, not enough Indians” problem, being rank heavy. We have a captain, a warrant officer, an E-7 (soon E-8), an E-6 (soon E-7), another E-6, and two E-5s. Sergeants and officers all, we’re all used to giving orders and getting things done, which makes for a lot of crossed paths.

My dad always says that alcohol is a “social lubricant,” and we applied some of that last night, since the first sergeant surprisingly “lit the lamp,” as they say, and allowed us to drink – two drink maximum! We drank while playing a couple of rousing games of Three-Dragon Ante, and while Borg barfed during the night (he blamed it on the canned oysters), we enjoyed ourselves, breaking in the team and looking ahead to the next year together.

Open the War

Perhaps ironically, our first task on the first day of this new deployment was weapons qualification. Unlike The Last Time, in which every training event was laden with portent and every task a reminder of the grim, guns-blazing drive to Baghdad we were about to face – I’m not gonna lie to you, we’re gonna get hit! – this journey begins with a jaded attitude of “let’s get this Army shit out of the way so we can get to the desk work.”

[An aside about The Last Time: inevitably, this deployment will be continually compared to the last one. Unfortunately, this entire thing will be viewed through a lens of comparison, which I think will reduce greatly the sharpness of my observations. I’ll try to keep things as fresh as possible, since I’m getting tired of my comparisons already, and I’m only on day three.]

Stone cold pistol shooter

Does this look like a guy who fixes your computer?

In a rare fit of common sense, it was decided that everyone “going forward” would only qualify with the M9 pistol instead of the M4 carbine, mostly for logistical reasons I suppose, since there’s no sense in transporting a bunch of weapons for people who will never use them. I was thrilled about the news, since a) I’d never qualified with the M9 and b) it’s a much shorter, easier qualification process, which meant less time spent soaking up the sun (or rain or…) at the range. At least, that was the idea – an idea which would be proven wrong in short order. Like some sort of blob, weapons qualification always expands to fill all available time, regardless of the difficulty or length of the task.

We arrived at the range at 0730, but it took hours for the range to open, for various reasons that remain unclear to me. Then, firing was repeatedly interrupted for aircraft flyovers, since apparently any air traffic shuts down range operations, no matter how high or what the flight path looks like. My turn to shoot came around 1100, and after a warmup round, I shot expert, hitting 27 of 30 targets. This may sound like a great feat of marksmanship, but you get 40 rounds to hit 30 targets, and the targets are all E-type silhouettes, which are human torso size. The targets are ranged from five to twenty-five meters, and all hits count, which makes for a fairly easy course of fire, if one has experience with a pistol.

I spent the rest of the day on the line, serving as a range safety. Luckily the weather was good – hazy and 60s and 70s – and we somehow avoided being rained on. Unfortunately, some had a great deal of difficulty with the M9 (mostly because of flinching), which meant I spent about eight hours on the line, until we broke for dinner, only to return for night fire.

That’s not to say that we ended up with a company of expert pistoliers; some had a great deal of difficulty, largely because of flinching. After my turn at shooting, I was pulled for range safety duty, so I spent the rest of the day in a road construction vest, checking pistols and picking up spent brass. I guess the vest was so that the range safeties wouldn’t get hit by any passing dump trucks or something.

We bitched mightily about night fire, though we were in bed before midnight, which is more than you can say if you’re shooting rifles at night. Despite everyone’s grousing at the time, I can’t now elucidate why this range was particularly bad. In light of some of the ranges I’ve visited in my service, it was downright functional. Maybe it just seemed inappropriate to start a year of Army time without bitching, warranted or otherwise.

Mr. Malaprop

OK, got it.

This was actually drawn on the board in the classroom this week, by our warrant officer, who I think will be called Mr. Malaprop.

If you can figure this out, you’re hired.

(Click for larger image.)

Company Man

Five years ago, I was still in the war, a lowly E-4 multichannel transmissions systems operator/maintainer, writing whatever I pleased on this blog and worrying about little other than counting the days until we loaded up my dirty little truck and went home.

Now I’m on the verge of promotion to E-7, in a different MOS (locked in the back of a humvee no longer – I’m now a true TOCroach!). I’m in charge of a few soldiers, and as part of the headquarters, I’m making decisions that reach far beyond my immediate presence, and can even extend far beyond my perception. It’s a strange feeling to know that I can make somebody’s life – somebody I’ve never met, in some far flung armory on the other side of the state – a living hell based on some flippant comment or hare-brained recommendation during any one of our innumerable meetings.

Indeed, flippant comments are my stock in trade; I find that levity (sometimes bordering on outright sass) is the only way I can deal with my job. When we’re told to plan for a mission, and the mission consists of nothing but “we’re going to go somewhere and do something,” you can either a) get angry or b) laugh. Most pick the first option, but for me, stuff like that is comedy gold. Luckily, this attitude hasn’t gotten me into trouble; I guess my services are so useful that everyone is willing to put up with my insouciance – so far.

Sgt Apone

Hudson, get over here!

But I always wonder: is this the “right” attitude to have, as a senior NCO? E-6 seems to me like the last “screw-around” rank, where you have responsibilities but you’re still closer to the bottom than the top of the organization. But E-7, hey, that’s a different story: now you could be a platoon sergeant, a senior drill sergeant, a staff NCO, in charge of a lot of serious shit. Ideally, you’ll be like Sergeant Apone from Aliens: chomping a cigar while yelling obscenities and gesticulating, commanding respect and obedience with only a withering glance. Apone, however, wouldn’t be much good on a brigade staff; he’d probably just put out his cigar on the face of some uppity major and get busted back down to a line company as an E-5.

Anyway, this thinking dovetails with this blog: how does my role as a writer on the internet change with my advancing rank? As a senior NCO, I’m expected to be a “company man,” toeing the line of the command (at least in public), while keeping my grousing about command policies to a minimum. It’s easy to bitch about things when you’re at the bottom of the pyramid; indeed, complaining is the God-given prerogative of every junior enlisted soldier. But closer to the top, such complaining is unseemly, particularly in public – and though this is quasi-anonymous, the internet is as public as it gets.

Many milbloggers in this war have been leaders, though, so it’s not like I’m treading new ground. Some of them have even blogged while leading troops in combat, something that you’ll likely never read about here.

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