Monday, September 22, 2008

In The Field

Our pre-Iraq training has moved to the next phase: "FOB Victory". The First Army headquarters at Ft. Dix has constructed a full-sized "Forward Operating Base", or "FOB", out in the forests of New Jersey. This FOB is supposed to resemble in every way an actual US Army base in Iraq or Afghanistan: trailer showers, port-a-johns, concertina wire, defensive perimeter, tent barracks, bomb shelters, guard towers, etc.

Mobilizing units spend 5 days living on the FOB, taking classes in Arabic language & culture, doing field exercises (traffic control points, small-unit infantry tactics, personel & vehicle contraband searches, etc.), and just generally living the FOB life. They even have a loudspeaker broadcasting the Muslim "Call to Prayer" 5 times a day in Arabic. Eerie!

One of the few saving graces of being a deployed Army Reservist (if you can overlook the long hours, the low pay, being separated from your wife and children for months on end, and the whole "getting shot at" thing) is the bonding within your platoon. If you are lucky, your unit rapidly gels into a fraternity-like group, a social dynamic that is difficult to recapture outside of college.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


They took my Dude! As predicted, too much cerebral talent resided on my team, resulting in the removal of SPC Duldulao. "The Dude" as we called him got yanked over to Headquarters Detachment, where he will spend the balance of the deployment making copies, getting coffee, and counting boxes of PSYOP leaflets. Exciting!

In his place, may I have the privilege of introducing Sergeant Jung Hoon Choi - Korean ex-patriate, two-time veteran (Iraq, Afghanistan) and motorcycling enthusiast. (photo forthcoming) I don't know Sergeant Choi too well yet, but so far he is very quiet and unassuming.

Other than the shake-up on my team, we have been visiting the outdoor ranges lately: machine gun, grenade launcher, and today, the 9mm pistol. They don't allow photos on the ranges, so no photos! I did, however, get to take pictures at gas-mask class (CBNR: Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, Radiation). The black stuff is for decontamination after a gas attack.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why We're Here

How did it come to this? Whose pot of ignorant hubris got boiled down to such pure evil? How much did a human love of drama ignite the burners? Is the Devil himself wearing the toque and apron?

I can hardly believe that it's been 7 years since that morning I descended the stairs of my dingy bachelor apartment in Pacific Beach, only to find that the second tower had just been hit. One tower, that could be an accident, we thought. One tower, a tragedy, but not totally implausible. But two towers...wait a second. That implies a whole different level of coordination, of planning, of intent. The trap door flew open beneath our thoughts, and we fell into a dark basement of conspiracy, suspicion, and fear.

My hippie roommate, who had been expressing admiration for Bin Laden's ability to evade capture just days before, suddenly had a look on his face like a toddler who had his Tonka truck snatched away on the playground: "Hey! That's not fair!" Like, hey Al Qaeda, I know you're struggling against The Man and all, but you didn't have to go that far!

In the mechanical engineering division at Qualcomm where I worked, employees wandered the halls like zombies, seeking updates and tidbits of info: has there been another plane? What flight was so-and-so on? Did she make it home safely? Should I give money to the Red Cross? Join the Army? What the heck is going on?

Long story short, the US economy ground to a halt, the US kicked the Taliban out of Kabul, Bin Laden fled to Pakistan, and the frustrated momentum of the American response spilled up into Iraq. Sadaam's regime, which hosted tons of Uranium and several terrorist training camps, collapsed quickly. Almost as fast, those violent ambassadors of ill-will known as the US Army rapidly alienated their potential friends on the ground, so much so that the Iraqi Sunnis struck a deal with the devil - they welcomed Al Qaeda as partners in the struggle to get their country back.

Fast forward 5 years later to today...after a blossoming of terrorism on their home turf, the Sunnis finally reject Al Qaeda and their psychotic ways. A freshly threatened and insecure Iranian regime continues to undermine stability in the eastern part of Iraq, the Kurds run a de-facto nation-state in the North, and the democratically elected Iraqi parliament is desperately trying to hammer out an agreement as to what tribe gets to steal which portion of the oil wealth.

Keep in mind, that there is always a Bigger Picture...

The British and Americans divided up the Middle East to begin with after WWI, put the tribes in power who rule to this day. Our intelligence agencies and oil interests have shaped the modern face of the region as much as Bedouin culture or Islam. Our interests have been inextricably entwined for over 100 years. Sense of responsibility? Accountability? Does it seem like there is no easy answer?

Do we know what the question is?

Crandall's Law

You know how sometimes, you're looking for something, and let's say you know for sure it's in one of two bags you have in front of you. So, you check the first bag, and lo and behold, it's not in there, so you check the second one, and Voila! there it is. That's Crandall's Law, a subset of Murphy's Law:

"If you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there is an 80% chance that you'll get it wrong"

Know what I'm saying? I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me during this deployment. Whether I'm searching for an armory in one building or another, or a piece of equipment in one duffle bag or another, it's always the same: If I have a 50-50 chance of guessing correctly on the first shot, I get it wrong about 80% of the time.

So now you know. Crandall's Law. Spread the joy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yum Yum Get Some

John Browning was an American, and a true mechanical genius. The guns he designed 100 years ago are still being used today, like the Colt 45 semi-auto pistol, the Hi-Power 9mm, and the .50-cal machine gun, seen to the left. The US military has been using the large-bore M2 machine gun since 1921, and you can find them mounted to humvees in Iraq to this day.

Our succession of machine-gun classes continued with the M2 .50-cal, Browning's longest lasting design. Army machine gunners are trained to fire in 5-7 round bursts, approximately the time it takes to say "Yum Yum Get Some". This prevents overheating of the barrel, which is difficult to replace in battle.

Next came the M9 pistol class. I own a civilian version of this gun (the Beretta 92FS) and have trained on it frequently. I hit a perfect "30" on the indoor laser-qualifying range.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Body Armor Day

We still have to wear body armor in Iraq - we wear it for training as well as fighting. The latest body armor systems have kevlar pieces everywhere - throat, groin, side-plates, back-of-the-neck. It limits mobility to have every piece on your body - for training we keep the main torso protector and that's it.

We inventoried our loudspeaker systems. The loudspeaker is traditionally mounted to the top of our humvees. However the word on the street is that the PSYOP teams will be rolling around in MRAP vehicles. Wonder what an MRAP is?

We have started the first official week of our Mobilization Training, with a set of machine-gun classes. M249, M240B, and the M2 will be included. I can't wait to get my hands on the M2 - also known as the .50-cal, or "Ma Deuce". The others I have fired before, but never the M2.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Dude

My third squad member, a former infantryman undergoing PSYOP training in NorCal, came down with a hernia (!) and will be delayed from deploying. In the interim, command assigned me Specialist James Duldulao, a 28-year old caregiver from Walnut (Los Angeles).

The last name is a little tricky - pronounced DOO-dool-ow, we call him "The Dude" for short. Pensive, reserved, and whip-smart, the Dude holds a BA in Psychology and is working on his Masters in teaching. He joined the Army in 2006 and should benefit from the GI Bill for his school payments.

I've got a high-powered squad, now. If command clues in, they'll probably grab one of my guys for another team and give me a "slower" soldier to train. I hope that doesn't happen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Worst Labor Day Ever

Reality hit home today as I blearily motored up the 5 and 57 freeways at 2 in the morning, hoping to reach my unit with enough time to properly prepare my car for a year of storage in a dusty Upland government parking lot. Let me back up a little...

Our 11-day "Pre-Mobilization" phase is over, so today our unit loaded up on a chartered flight for Ft. Dix, New Jersey, where we will continue the "Mobilization" process that will culminate in our voyage to Iraq.

The Commander was merciful and gave everyone Sunday off. I had one of the best days ever, driving back to Carlsbad to spend the day with Joan and Madeline: breakfast out, park, pool, pizza, we had a ball.

Then at 1:45am Labor Day morning I had to drive back to Upland to catch the 4am bus for Ontario Airport. It was a tearful farewell, with many soldiers' family members in attendance. (I let Joan and Madeline sleep in).

My Ford Exploder rests on jack stands with a car cover tied over it (plus fuel stabilizer in the tank and a whole bottle of Armour-All squizzled liberally over the trim & tires (plus the battery disconnected)).

See you in a year, Ford Exploder!


Two days of hand-to-hand combat training followed the Commo Class.

Nowadays, the Army focuses on submission holds and Jiu-Jitsu -style movement, with the added bonus of using any conceivable weapon at hand to stab/bludgeon/electrocute or otherwise disable your assailant.

I had the pleasure of getting my windpipe crushed a half-dozen times during practice, as well as grappling one of the motor-pool sergeants to within an inch of his life (that is I on the right, below.)