05 June 2009

AT09-Day 7


Okay, I've changed how I post-by email rather than MMS picture mail-and it definitely seems to be looking better, as well as not having the sending problems the previous method did. Leave a comment if anything still looks wonky.

I saw a UFO today! It was weird. Driving out to the FOB (pronounced 'fob') this morning, I saw a light in the sky. At first it was fairly small, but then it brightened into a globe. High and far away, so it looked pretty small, but still very noticeable. Then it dwindled a little and just vanished. It was almost certainly sunlight glinting off a small plane or perhaps even a weather balloon (do they still use those?), but the way it was just gone was freaky. I don't know what it was, so it's definitely an Unidentified Flying Object to me.

Today was not a lot different from yesterday. We didn't get to do the car bomb yesterday, nor did we today. It's just as well; combat (well, simulated combat) is a lot of fun, but that's not the point of the training we're doing here, and the tamer scenarios we did instead were better training.

Nonetheless, I achieved one of my objectives: I got killed. I mentioned that I had been playing an Iraqi chieftain, trying to get on base for a meeting with the commander. Then we would get hit by sniper fire. Only the first group handled this really well, getting us down without letting us run free. This group did neither; they didn't protect us, and when we did finally get behind cover, they didn't watch me very well, or cuff me, so when my 'wife' moaned and fainted from excitement and lack of water, I ran to her aid and got shot for my trouble. So now an entire friendly tribe of Iraqis has turned hostile. I'm happy; I've tried to get killed by them all week with no success (it's a different group every day, remember).

As the picture from a couple of days ago shows, I've been wearing a Middle-Eastern robe for several days. First off, it's too big; they ordered only extra large and double-extra large, apparently. Secondly, the tag on them said that the company has been making them since 1403. 1403. ~1403~?? Geez. Thirdly, I see why Arabs wear these; they're damn comfortable. I'd bet that with no clothes except perhaps underwear they'd be pretty comfortable even in the desert heat, as long as you kept outside and moving around, and they stay comfortable in the cool down to about 50° or so. BUT it doesn't work without the headdress. I see why they wear that thing. I haven't had one, and my head is hot and very sunburned.

04 June 2009

AT 09-Day 6

Part of the ECP (Entry Control Point)

Yesterday...what happened yesterday? More of the same, except that my platoon, or most of it, was going through the training. They did a pretty good job; one of my new guys--did I mention that Sergeants Morgan and Hayes had to leave for the rest of the week for Combat Lifesaver class? Yeah, it sucks. But we got two replacements-one of them mandated to be female, to provide a lot more realism-and they're just as good. The other guys still got to stay in the barracks, though.

We put in a new wrinkle on the 'pregnant lady' scenario, though. Instead of just trying to get in to work, we were the local tribal chief and his pregnant wife/interpreter trying to get on base for an important meeting with the Colonel (this was all my idea). The snipers were thus targeting us even more than the soldiers, because we were collaborating with the enemy. It went over well, and was fun, although nobody has done as well as the first group at handling the civilians after the firefight began.

One thing that really irritates me about the military (take note whenever I say 'military,' that I've only seen the Army National Guard and small parts of the Regular Army, so if what I say doesn't apply to your service, let me know...but I bet a lot of it does). Is that it's all about looking good. If what you're doing looks good, you can get away with almost anything; conversely, if you don't look good, you can be doing everything right and it doesn't matter. By 'looking good' I don't just mean looking handsome and sharp, but presenting an appropriate-seeming appearance, and not doing anything that looks bad or out of place or wrong, whether it is or not. My current Platoon Sergeant is particularly bad about this. He's actually a pretty easy-going guy, but if you or what you're doing looks at all weird, you can be sure he'll say something about it.

For instance, the Army standard for male haircuts is actually fairly long-AR 670-1 clearly states that the hair 'must not fall over the ear when combed.' Take note of that 'when combed.' That means that the hair can be long enough, when ~uncombed~, to fall over the ears. Well, apparently I'm the only one in the Army that can read, because that kind of haircut is never acceptable. It can't fall over the ears at all, whether combed or not. Even when you point out the wording, it's meaningless. Sure, the commander can prescribe a stricter standard, but he has to actually do so, and that's rarely the case. Everyone just enforces a nonexistent standard, while other ones, such as that everyone carry a pencil, which ~is~ prescribed in a policy letter, go ignored. Why? Long-but-proper haircuts look bad, but the lack of a pencil doesn't. Another example happened yesterday, when I was wearing my Army PT (physical training) shirt (with 'Army' printed on it) with my blue jeans in the barracks. I'm on OPFOR, remember, so I'm supposed to be in civilian attire. The regulation specifically encourages wearing pieces of your PT outfit with your civilian clothes, but I was made to change shirts by my PSG (Platoon Sergeant). Why? Because the usual rule is that you can't mix uniform items with civvies, so it looked bad, regardless of whether the truth was pointed out.

What's wrong with this is that it encourages blind conformity and timidity. You don't dare take chances, don't dare do anything or be anywhere everybody else isn't doing, and restrict your behavior (where your leadership can see anyway) to what you're already sure is acceptable, meaning there are certainly things that are okay and no one will yell at you for that might benefit you or just be easier that you don't do for fear of looking bad and getting called out.

Just today, I got called out by my PSG for not having shaved. Of course I haven't shaved. I'm OPFOR. I'm playing a civilian. I haven't worn a uniform all week. I deliberately didn't shave to make me look less like a soldier in Arabic dress. If I could have made my skin brown and given myself longer hair, I would have. As it was, I did what I could. But it didn't look professional, so I got told to shave it off (and this after overhearing this very same PSG-who is also on OPFOR-say a few days ago that HE wasn't going to shave).

The Army's big on what they term 'avoiding the appearance of impropriety.' By this they mean avoiding both acting improperly and even looking like you're acting improperly. But all too often-the great majority of the time, I'd say-we avoid the ~appearance~ of impropriety without worrying about the actuality. This means that people who look good without worrying about doing the right thing get promoted, while people who focus on doing the right thing regardless of how it looks-like me-get nowhere. Guess what kind of people lead our military?

AT 09--Day 5

Apparently no one is actually reading this; I started doing this so that I wouldn't have to tell everyone my summer camp stories separately (which I usually don't get around to anyway) and to let people who want to know how I'm doing up here. But if no one is seeing it, I may not bother.

Anyway, yesterday was a lot like the day before: We ran the soldiers (another platoon from our sister company, the 1544th Trans) through various scenarios during their base defense/Entry Control Point training. The first time through, we posed as two innocent civilians trying to enter the base to work, and they searched us and our vehicle (a HMMWV, since nothing else is available), finding nothing since there was nothing to find. Another time, two people tried to get in, one of them female and pregnant (that was SGT Morgan). Before we could get in, there was sniper fire from the treeline. The last scenario was the car bomb again, but this time SGT Morgan rode in the back and popped it off. This worked much better, especially since one of the instructors popped a smoke grenade behind the truck when we blew it. Then the two civilians (the other two members of my team) who were protesting outside the gate dropped their signs and started shooting, and all hell broke loose.

It occurs to me that I haven't actually said where we are this year. We're somewhere we've never gone to Camp before, Marseilles Training Area, near Ottowa, Illinois--not far from Peoria. It's an Illinois National Guard training camp, and it's nice for several reasons. First, it's owned by Illinois, so coordination is easier, and there are fewer restrictions on what we can do. Secondly, it's much closer from all points in Illinois than Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, which is where we normally go. For us, this cuts out a whole day of drive time there and back. The bad part is that it's not a permanent camp of any sort, just a training Area, so the amenities are nil. There's no PX, so there's no way to buy supplies without sending someone to Walmart, there's only a little, crappy workout room, there are few training areas, etc. On the other hand, the barracks are new, they have laundry rooms, and individual showers. They're pretty nice by Army field standards, although a Coast Guard veteran thought they were unbelievably primitive with their cinderblock walls and cement floors. It's all a matter of perspective, I suppose.

01 June 2009

AT 09--Day 4 Continued 2


The group that went through today (there are four groups and four days) did a really good job. The were very hard to ruffle, remained professional, and were never rude. When I was an innocent bystander in a firefight, they pulled me to safety but did not let me get away. When I was a maniac with a bomb in my car I wasn't able to get near the base and managed to kill only one of them, at most. Unfortunately my stupid bomb didn't go off, and I had to shout ';boom.'; It's supposed to shoot talcum powder everywhere, but something's wrong with it. Disappointing. OPFOR's an easy gig. We don't have to report until 0900 tomorrow, so this is basically a 9-to-5 job. I guess it pays to be an old fart sometimes.

AT 09--Day 4 Continued

Anyway, the mission of the group I'm in charge of is to act as civilians trying to enter the FOB. Many civilians have legitimate business on base, so the soldiers have to inspect them and their vehicles to ensure they aren't carrying weapons, etc. Sometimes we were innocent workers submitting to a mildly humiliating search in order to do our job. Sometimes we were insurgents intent on killing Americans. It was the soldiers' job to tell the difference, and remove any weapons and/or detain us before we did any damage if we were hostile, and let us in with a minimum of degredation and disrespect if we were peaceful.

AT 09--Day 4

Windmills at sunset

Have I mentioned all the windmills around here now? Wierd. They're huge. You'll be driving, and they will seem to hop up out of the trees from nowhere. Today we got to play bad guys all day. We wore Arabic 'man-dresses' (no one seems to know what these robes are actually called) and played ';hadji,'; which is the (probably deragatory) term Army folks use to refer to Arabs. In my day we called them 'ragheads.' I don't know where 'hadji' comes from, but it's just the same as calling the Germans 'Jerry' or the Vietnamese 'Charlie' except that those words referred mainly to combatants, but 'hadji' refers to any Iraqi or Afghani, presumably because you never really know who the bad guys are over there, and there's a lot of interaction with civilians.


Oh, I forgot to mention--I'm posting frequent updates to my Twitter feed. I'll put a link to it here at some point, but for now I'm Calion on Twitter.com. The Twitter feed should be updated even when I don't have time or energy to post to this blog. Besides, the network connectivity out here sucks, so tweets might go through when blog posts might not.

AT 09--day 3

Sitting in a culvert

Yesterday was a classroom day. We sat in a large tent in the FOB that stayed hot even when the air outside was cool and breezy, and learned about IEDs. IEDs are what the media calls 'roadside bombs'--Improvised Explosive Devices. They account for more than a third of the fatalities in theater, outstripping even accidents, which surprised me. The can be pretty scary; easily emplaced, hard to detect, and deadly. They've even got armor-piercing versions of them now, called EFPs--Explosively Formed Projectiles. That's new. Previously, some good armor pretty much made you immune, unless you got hit on your vehicle's soft underbelly or something. These new weapons are amazing--cheap, fairly easy to make in a machine shop, and make use of some cool physics. You take some metal--copper is good, because it melts easily--pack it in a cylinder over some explosive, and form the surface into a concave lens shape. When it's fired, it forms itself into a liquid metal bullet

AT 09--Day 3 continued

that slice right through armor, then explodes into whatever is behind it--namely the crew compartment. Wicked. We saw some horrifying videos from ogrish.com that were taken by insurgents (interestingly, one video called them ';the resistance';--but that's another post). One of them showed an APC with about 10 guys riding on top that got blown up by a bomb placed under a bridge--bodies flying everywhere. Scary stuff. The scariest thing is that now they're using an old Soviet hand grenade designed to pierce vehicle armor. There were scenes showing someone just walking up to an armored vehicle on the move and throwing it at it, taking it out. Then we went out and tried to find IEDs that the instructors had emplaced on a road. We missed the first few until we stopped looking for evidence of their prescence and started looking for places we might put them--which was the point. Someone mentioned that it reminded her of a deadly Easter egg hunt.