So there’s this airplane. It’s headed for a mountainside and has been on that course for some time. There are two clowns in the cockpit. Each thinks he knows how to fly the plane better so they take turns elbowing each other away from the controls. They’re vaguely aware of the impending disaster but disagree about what to do. Clown A thinks they should increase their airspeed. Clown B is sure they need to decrease their airspeed. They agree on one thing; changing course would upset the passengers and may threaten their position as pilot-clowns, so they determine to never change course.
While Clown A is piloting the plane, Clown B makes frequent announcements about what a lousy job Clown A is doing and promises the flight would be far more enjoyable if Clown B were flying. Clown A does the same thing when Clown B is flying.
There are a few people on the plane who have been in the cockpit, are not clowns, know how to fly the plane, have seen the looming mountain and are willing to take evasive action to avoid it. The two clowns don’t let them anywhere near the controls and try to have them ejected from the flight deck.
Most of the passengers believe the plane is going to the promised destination, at least when their favorite clown is behind the controls, and are actually content either way as long as they get good in-flight movies, snacks and cocktails.
There are some passengers who aren’t watching movies or guzzling cocktails. They’re looking out the window at the rising landscape and nudge the passenger next to them to take a look. They are generally glared at or ignored.
A couple of the passengers know exactly what is coming because they happen to be students of past airline disasters and recognize the signs. They start to make some noise about it. At the request of the pilot-clowns, they are quickly subdued, tied up and thrown into the baggage hold by annoyed passengers and the Federal Air Marshal.
So there’s this airplane. It’s headed for a mountainside and has been on that course for some time.
Norwegians, unlike Americans, have their first names, not their surnames, on their uniforms. A few European nations follow this practice. I was curious about it so I asked a few fine Norwegian soldiers I met recently. Apparently is it to protect them. Not from the enemy here, but from anti-war radicals back home. There were several recent cases in which soldiers serving in Afghanistan were featured on film during news broadcasts and shortly thereafter had their families threatened by nut-jobs. Some service members had to return home and move their families to avoid harassment. Or worse. Their families were easier to find when the last names were shown on the uniforms in the video. So now they go by their first names.
It made me realize that as active, and sometimes rabid, as the anti-war crowd is in the US, I haven't heard of anyone's family being threatened. Generally people in the military are respected by the public, in my experience, and people opposed to our wars understand that it is our policy makers that are largely responsible for our involvement in the world's affairs, not the soldier, sailor, airman or marine executing their policy.
In Norway, being in the military is about on par with being in a common trade. That too, is different in the states. I believe part of it is our warfare culture that many Europeans do not glorify; they who have seen war come to their cities and destroy them along with generations of young men. That's the trick, I suppose. To honor the warrior but not the war. But without war there are no warriors. So we must hate war and love those who fight them at the same time? Okay, but can we at least hate those who make war necessary?
In the old days we called it "psyops", or psychological operations. Actually that discipline is still around but modern warfare calls for friendlier names so we refer to Information Operations, or InfoOps, or simply, IO, when we're talking about efforts to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Generally, the bad guys beat us every time at this game. For some reason there is a natural inclination to believe everything the Taliban says and disregard everything the Coalition Forces (CF) say. Here's an example.
In some parts of the country children will bring unexploded ordnance (UXOs) to CF in the hopes they will get a reward. They find grenades or un-detonated rocket propelled grenade (RPG) rounds in the fields and then when a convoy approaches they run toward it to exchange what they've found for food or candy or money. This is not encouraged by CF for obvious reasons. They ask instead to be shown to UXOs in place, rather than have them delivered. Anyway, some kids were playing with a UXO, probably a grenade they were kicking around (not unusual) as a non-US convoy was driving past and tragically, it detonated, killing two children. However, because it was in the presence of a CF convoy, the Taliban spun it that the CF killed the kids. The locals were enraged. We tried to explain the truth but it just didn't sell.
Sometime after the incident, a foreign soldier I know ended up talking to a generally pro-coalition journalist in the town. He brought up the incident and asked what the sentiments were in town. The journalist said it was still largely believed that the soldiers killed the children but mentioned that, "Personally, I know it was the Americans, not your people." Great.
This information war is constant, and perhaps more important than the bullets and bombs kind of war. We are making progress but it's slow. The US and other nations have great credibility in many parts of the nation but other areas are more difficult to reach, physically and in other ways. The good news is that the more interaction we have with the locals, the more they tend to trust us. That which is unknown or mysterious or foreign is always easier to manipulate into fear and mistrust. Until next time.
I've been away from home for over nine months. Violet turned a year old just the other day. She's about ready to start walking. She started crawling on July 4th, the day after I returned to theater from leave. We developed a game while I was home where she would say "Da," and I would say it back to her, matching her tone and volume. Sometimes she would whisper it and other times she'd yell it out. Hannah wasn't so thrilled about the yelling. Violet is so charming. She's generally very happy, loves to eat and is completely boy crazy. A total extrovert, she enjoys being passed from person to person, preferrably male to male. She appears to have a special penchant for tall, dark haired men. How cliche. Regardless, she did seem to take to me at my average hieght and medium-brown hair. It was hard to leave her.
Seeing Violet was only surpassed by seeing Hannah. She prefers me, which is nice. I felt like I just eased back into life with her as though I hadn't been gone. (In fact, as soon as I arrived home it was like I never left. And when I got back in theater, it was like I never went home.) We enjoyed great meals together, walked around Calhoun, went to Stillwater, shopped for groceries, fooled around. What did you expect? Try keeping your hands off your spouse after 9 months of involuntary abstinence! Anyway, Hannah was simply lovely, in spite of the exhaustion of single-motherhood. She made no demands on me and was surprisingly gracious despite my culpability in her harried, hectic, sleep-deprived and stressful life.
Charlie, our dear dog of 12 years, died earlier this month. He was such a beautiful part of our family. Charlie was the second dog of mine who I couldn't comfort when he died. Buck died while I was at Lake Itasca for the summer. Why is this a theme in my life? Why did Hannah, by herself, have to go through putting down the gentle soul who saw us through so much, joining our family only four months into our marriage? He was the dog Hannah always dreamed about when she was a child. Floppy ears, freckled muzzle, soft fur, dopey grin, affectionate, loyal, big puppy paws and a sturdy frame.
A lot can change in 13 months. I should be home for Thanksgiving. Violet will be approaching 16 months old and our house will be short one member of the family. I look forward most to resuming my relationship with Violet and Hannah and then my friends. I miss you terribly. And I'd like a proper grilled cheese sandwhich.
It seems the internet in my room is finally strong enough to load my blog page! I'm so sorry I haven't been able to write at all. The only other internet I have access to is at work and all blog pages are blocked per policy. So hopefully this is the beginning of what will be some regular entries.
Almost seven months have gone by since I left home. After about five I felt like it had been long enough and that I was ready to come home. The work is very rewarding but the cost is very high; not just for me, but for my wife as well. My daughter probably is unaware of what she's missing but that doesn't mean she isn't worse off for it. One thing my wife has noticed is that our daughter is awfully fond of men. At ten months she's a little young to be boy crazy.
We are able to keep in touch fairly well via phone and the Godsend that is Skype. So I get to see our daughter and how she's changed and she gets to see her dad and wonder why he looks vaguely familiar. She seems to be fascinated by my image on the monitor though, so that's good. She claps like a champion and is waving like a pro. By the time I see her on my leave she will be almost 11 months old. We're thinking of staging a premature birthday party.
The toughest part of this by far has been knowing how difficult it's been for Hannah. Nearly every day is a struggle. With the house, two dogs (one geriatric), her business and the baby she never gets a breather. Some people from a military spouse support group were over at the house today cleaning up the yard, planting flowers and mowing the lawn. Apparently the man cutting the grass was doing so in a diagonal pattern. Now everyone knows that diagonal patterns are superior and as soon as Hannah saw that she knew this man and I would get along. It's one of those subtle, possible signs of being a perfectionist. I can't wait to meet these saints and thank them in person. Really, at least in my case, I don't need care packages and aid sent my way. Hannah's life is far more difficult and she's the one who needs the care packages, sympathy and thanks. She's been my rock. Without her support I couldn't be over here.
Speaking of my life; it is very strange. I work, I eat, I sleep. More of the first than anything else. Typical days are between 16 and 20 hours of work, sometimes without leaving for meals. Today I worked a short day from 0700 to 2000 hours and never left the building until I left for my ConEx box. My record work day was 21.5 hours and I've had two of those. Sometimes to take a break I'll get my lunch to go and eat on the roof of the Australian "Shack". From there I have a lovely view of the mountains, some privacy, which is a rare commodity with 3 men per 8x20 room, and some sunlight.
It's late here and I need to go to bed. Hopefully this good connectivity will continue and I'll be able to post regularly. Keep praying for this country. These people deserve peace after so much war and death. I see signs of hope every day but there is a lot to overcome. One thing I never doubt though is my ability to contribute to the success of the mission here, the "right-ness" of the mission, and the ability of this nation to eventually prosper. I've driven through the streets on market days and they are full of life and commerce and there is little fear. Of maybe the fear is simply not enough to keep these resilient people from being controlled by it. More to follow, hopefully.
I've been wondering why it is that I get choked up when I read all of the letters we have posted all over camp from kids in the states. Adults write us letters too, but the kid's ones get to me. They aren't very wordy and don't say anything profound. Mostly they tell us thank you; for keeping them safe, for trying to help poor and frightened people, for defending our country. But they also say come home without a scratch, be safe, try to stay warm, and that they hope we have a merry Christmas. It makes me remember why I'm here. A friend I have made here put it better than I have ever been able to.
I asked him once why he joined. He said it was after the London train bombing that he made up his mind. He thought to himself simply, "I don't want to live in a world like this. I want to change it." An idealist? Of course. But he's also a realist. He understands that it is futility to fight all of the madness in the world but that there isn't really an alternative for him. I told him that he just described how I have felt for years. A bond formed out of those shared sentiments and I felt understood by someone like I rarely do.
I'm here. It was a pretty crazy trip too. We got to fly from our last training location to a nearby base in a C-17 Globemaster. That's the workhorse freight hauling plane for the Air Force. We all sat in jumpseats along the sides of the aircraft and in the middle were two brand-new, desert bound, two and a half ton trucks. After the captain turned off the seatbelt sign half the passengers pulled out sleeping mats or bags and napped around and underneath the trucks. Other than being ungodly noisy (earplugs were mandatory) most of us agreed it was one of the most comfortable flights we've been on. There was so much room it was like flying in a noisy, truck filled gymnasium. And who wouldn't like that?
Going from the base to my present location was even more fun. We made the journey in a two vehicle convoy. Our driver blasted Metallica the whole way. Add to the soundtrack the fact that we're dodging slower vehicles (and everything was slower moving than us), donkey carts, potholes, kids filling potholes, pedestrians and more potholes all while flying along at 70 mph, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic and you get something akin to an amusement park ride on speed. I felt like I was in the next Jason Bourne movie. The convoy drivers get extensive aggressive driver training. I think the Metallica comes with the course it was so appropriate.
The whole idea is to be a difficult target to hit. Since I've been here there have been a few SVBIED (suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) attacks on coalition forces. They have all been in the news by now.
We were supposed to watch out for a particular make and model of vehicle during the ride so for yucks we counted them for about five minutes and came up with over 50. Sure enough though, three days later a vehicle by that description detonated alongside a bus filled with local nationals. A day prior to that another had tried to insert itself into a coalition convoy and detonate. It didn't penetrate the convoy but did blow, disabling one of our vehicles. That nobody was killed other than the suicide bomber was a testament to the skill of the drivers and the armor on the vehicles. The vehicles we drive around come from the factory weighing 3500lbs. They leave the up-armor plant weighing over 9000lbs. And you would never know by looking at them.
I've got a lot to write. Finally being in country has brought a lot of new experiences I can't wait to share. Thanks for your patience during my hiatus. To add interest I'm going to try to load some pictures. I haven't been able to figure it out yet.
Soon I will be leaving for the next phase of training. What we did here at Camp McCrady was great. We had an exercise toward the end that was a culmination of all of our training; medical, communications, combat, maneuvers, IEDs, etc. It was a lot of fun.
Anyway, thanks for reading for the last few weeks. I appreciate the comments and the e-mails from everybody. For the next two weeks though I will be incommunicado with no access to internet or phone. In fact, for part of it we won't have shower facilities. It's going to be pretty rugged from what we understand. I'll write again as soon as I get a chance. By then I'll no longer be in the States. Have a good next few weeks.
We're wrapping up our training at Camp McCrady so today we had a little ceremony during which the Drill Sargeants passed out awards to some students who showed leadership skills and maintained a good attitude, demonstrated particular aptitude and the like. One person in each platoon got one. First Platoon's award recipient was a hard charging Lieutenant who consistently boosted the morale of his group with his fiery attitude, terrific motivational skills, etc. Imagine my surprise when the 2nd Platoon leadership award winner ends up being me. I've been flying under the radar pretty much, an intentional strategy designed to avoid getting chewed out and volunteered for unsavory assignments. I'm not sure half of my platoon knows I've been with them these last few weeks.
Here's the punchline. Based on the brief speech Drill Sargeant McGill gave about who he was giving the award to it was based entirely on the fact that I twice shot two targets with one bullet; a feat never before seen at Camp McCrady, which he announced to all of assembled Bravo Company. So I got a leadership award for trick shooting. Vindication!
P.S. I did get awarded the "Expert" marksmanship award as well. Apparently they counted scores from the practice round where I shot the 37. That one feels like a mulligan though. I couldn't repeat when it mattered. Ah well.
I read a book years ago titled "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" by Lt. Col. David Grossman and found it a fascinating study. He explained how and why, during the Vietnam War, our soldiers, individually, were capable of killing far more enemy than Americans had in any conflict prior. According to the author it was due to the successful breaking down of the powerful psychological barrier most humans have to taking another human's life. There are exceptional humans who have no little or no barrier; we call them psychopaths or sociopaths. I've seen now, first hand, how this is done, although to a much lesser extent than do soldiers and Marines who go through full combat training.
I mentioned in my last entry that the better shooters are called killers. And the Drill Instructors are smiling at us and encouraging us when they say it. "Are you going to be one of my killers today?" they will ask. We started to call each other killer, just joking around with each other. We shoot at vaguely human shaped silhouette targets now, not the round bullseyes with which we started. We ran through a high-tech simulation during which we would fire at full-sized video images of people acting in life-like scenarios and the computer system would register our lethal and non-lethal shots in a slow motion replay. A group of five of us would watch the scenario unfold until a threat presented itself and then we would "Light 'em up." In six second we could place 120 rounds into three or four characters.
During another exercise I found myself seeing the silhouette targets before me as enemy insurgents. I better get them before they get me or one of my buddies. Two shots, center of mass. POP POP! POP POP! And keep it up until the target stops moving. It's a strange amalgamation of reflexive conditioning, de-humanization and encouragement. I should say though that the de-humanization part isn't derogatory at all. Nobody uses any slurs or nicknames for our enemies. It's always just "the target" this and "the target" that. There is a target behind that wall. There's a target planting an IED. Engage the target!
Is this a bad thing? I suppose it depends. Am I going to start devaluing human life? I don't expect to. But am I going to be able to react faster to a threat when it presents itself? Will I be in a better mental position to protect myself, my shipmates (I am still in the Navy after all), or innocent civilians? I think so. The old Mark had a history of not reacting very quickly in certain circumstances because his mind would start tracking through all of the ramifications of the various potential actions and inactions. Well, if I do this, this and this will happen. If I don't do this, this other thing and this other thing will happen and this other one won't. Meanwhile, I'm not reacting at all. We'll see if this new training and mindset translates to other parts of my life.