03 September 2005

Day 2

We have arrived at what was supposed to be Camp Beauregard, but turns out to be England Airport, formerly England Air Force Base. I’m not sure why we changed our destination; I didn’t know it had changed until we arrived.

Today seemed like a very long day. We started out from a National Guard armory in Memphis, after having the most unnecessarily-catered breakfast ever: Three kinds of doughnuts and frozen orange juice. Did we really need a caterer to bring us that? Then we drove. And drove. It seemed like a really long time to me, though I suppose it was only about seven or eight hours all-told, not a ridiculously long time. Perhaps it was the unusual way the breaks were spaced out. I’m used to a rest stop of 10-15 minutes every two hours, but this time we took a break after 1/2 hour, then 3 1/2 hours, then 1/2 hour, then we arrived after another 3 hours. Odd.

We started to see some of the damage (not bad enough to call “devastation” yet) at Jackson, Mississippi. A few trees blown down, some of those large Interstate signs blown down and twisted, and lots of billboards either torn up or completely demolished.

After we got to Louisiana, I saw a handmade sign that read “Screw IRAQ, troops come home and clean your own yard” (or something like that).


No comment. However, I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of the 40% of Louisiana’s Guard troops that are deployed to Iraq right now. I can’t imagine how they must feel. When I was in Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm, there was a credible prediction of an earthquake in Southern Illinois. I remember wondering what we would do and plotting to steal transportation to get home if it happened. Not that we would have, but we were worried.

I had kind of an odd experience; parts of Louisiana look exactly like Cairo to me (Cairo, IL is where the unit I’m from is based). Not the city itself, but the rural floodplains outside of Cairo—down to identical-looking houses.

I know, I know—you want pictures of all this. Problem is, I don’t own a digital camera. I’m trying to find someone here who has one so I can post some of what we’re seeing.

Anyway, after a couple of mishaps, we finally made it here. This place is someone’s nightmare of an Air Force base. I’ve never seen anything like it. Every Air Force base I’ve ever been to has been extremely nice, comfortable and well-appointed. Heck, the “chow halls” are basically restaurants, which shocks me every time I enter one. This place, on the other hand (what I’ve seen of it), is an absolute hole. It looks like a refugee camp. We’re sleeping in a long metal barn-like building with hundreds of cots on some sort of burlap covering over bare ground, with wooden walls, open on the top half, covered with chicken wire and white tarps. Chow was some of the worst Army chow I’ve had in years: Chili over rice, warm soda or milk, and fresh-out lemonade. At least there was lots of ice. There is also the world’s smallest and ugliest PX (alright, Shopette) outside: a couple of short semi-trailers tied together with a porch and doors of old, ugly wood (PX=Post EXchange=military store. I’m going to have to start a glossary page. Post a comment if there’s something you want clarification on). I hope it’ll be open tomorrow. Oh, and porta-potties without toilet paper. I think we brought our own though.

That said, I want to reiterate something I said in my inaugural post: I’m not complaining. I’m really not. I am absolutely positive that this is the best that they could do for us, and I am honestly, truly happy to have a place to sleep that has a roof, lights and electrical outlets (yay!), and hot chow, no matter how bland. This is the Army. As long as I have food, water, adequate clothing, and a place to sleep, I’m satisfied. And I have all of that, plus electricity (again, yay! I used up all the charge on this PowerBook setting up this blog while riding in the truck today).

We’ve been getting lots of honks and waves on the road ever since we left Springfield, increasing as we go further South. At first I thought it was just the same kind of patriotic fervor I’ve been seeing since the Iraq War began, but then I realized, especially as we entered Arkansas and Mississippi, that that wasn’t it; there was far too much of it. No, they knew exactly where we were going and why, and were honoring us for that. I was a bit humbled. There was one guy standing outside of a store waving a huge flag and saluting.

We have had several breakdowns yesterday and today. This is not even remotely surprising. We have several kinds of trucks that have been scrounged from all over the State (Illinois that is). They’re bound to be in varying condition. We have a lot of very good maintenance people with us; we’ll get the issues worked out soon enough (if, that is, we have access to parts. I hope we will. But that’s outside of my department). I seem to be lucky so far, though. I’m driving a deuce-and-a-half that is older than me, but it seems to be in excellent condition. It has yet to give me any problem at all (knock on wood), except that the speedometer is awful wobbly and inaccurate. Luckily I don’t need to know how fast I’m going; if I’m 100 meters behind the truck in front of me, I’m all good.

I realize that I’ve missed a couple of days: Yesterday and the Wednesday that we first reported. I’ll try to work them in as I have time.

I’m sorry for the disjointed character of these entries; I’m just writing things as I think of them. I’m going to have to work out some sort of note-taking scheme so I’ll remember what I wanted to write about when it comes time to actually write.

• It looks like we’re going to be here until Monday. I have no idea what we’re doing tomorrow.

• Someone’s spouse told them that they saw General Thomas (the chief of the Illinois National Guard, called The Adjutant General) on TV saying that we would be gone for 47 days. (How can this be when our orders read 30 days?)
• There are 30,000 Guardsmen from all over the country converging on this area for Crescent Relief.
• We can only be on State Active Duty for so long; after that they have to put us on Federal status (I don’t believe this one in the slightest).

Actually this mistake was made a few days ago, but we saw the results today. When the Operations Order and strip map for the convoy from Springfield to Camp Beauregard were made up, the strip map (a route map to show how to get where you’re going; often hand-drawn—kind of like the Trip-Tiks that AAA puts out) was just a printout of the Mapquest route. On the surface, this was not a bad idea. However, we realized when we got down here that the map led us to the middle of Pineville, LA. No National Guard base around. What happened is that if Mapquest doesn’t recognize the address you give it, it gives you directions to the town you typed in—the exact geographical center of the town. That is what the strip map led us to. Oops! I’m just lucky I wasn’t in front; whoever was had the sense to know something was wrong and not turn into the residential district. I would probably just have followed the map and led a 20-some truck convoy into a narrow-streeted housing area. I’ve done that before, and it can get ugly.

Now that I think of it, though, we ended up not going to Camp Beauregard after all, so I suppose the mistake didn’t really cost us anything; the leadership figured out where we were supposed to go pretty quickly.

The problem here, as I see it, is that the Lieutenant who organized the convoy is from our brand new (to us) Battalion, which is not a Transportation Battalion, and he (I presume; I didn’t catch his branch) is not a Trans officer. In my experience, putting a Transportation Company under a Battalion that is not itself Trans works out badly. People tend to think, “how hard can it be? Point the trucks in the right direction, and tell them to go.” But Army Transportation, especially at the company/battalion leadership level, is a lot more complicated and difficult than it would seem. Even I, who have been in a Trans unit for 16 years, don’t know all the things that my officers know about this stuff. It’s really amazing how much there is to know, and how easy it is to get seriously wrong.

But, this battalion is going to be our permanent battalion from here on out (not just for Operation Crescent Relief), so I’m certain things will smooth out.

Again, a caveat: I’m sure that Battalion had good reasons for assigning the job to that LT (Lieutenant—the lowest Officer ranks). And I’m certain that that Lieutenant did the very best he knew how. It was obviously his first convoy, and he did pretty good for not having been specifically trained for it, like our officers have been. Like I said before, none of this is meant as criticism of my leadership. They, like the rest of us, are doing the absolute best they can under trying circumstances. My purpose here is just to point out lessons learned. Besides, no one got hurt, and we all made it here more-or-less on time. No harm, no foul.

So, Lessons Learned:
• If at all possible, let Transportation people both run and supervise Transportation missions (this probably applies equally well to every branch in the military. Anybody got good stories to share?) By Transportation people, I don’t necessarily mean someone that is in the Transportation branch, just someone who is familiar with good Trans ops. The best commander I’ve ever had was branched MP (Military Police), not Trans. If this is not possible, solicit and follow the advice of the officers of the unit you’re directing. (It’s amazing how much you start to appreciate your officers when you compare them to officers who haven’t had their training.)
• Always, always, always do a route reconnaissance if you’re a convoy commander. Even if it’s only looking closely at a map, never just accept what you’ve been given. This goes double for Mapquest and the like. This is one lesson that young LT is not likely to ever forget after today.

Oh, and here’s another dumbass mistake, this time by me: My boot polish was all broken and crumbly, so I decided to light it on fire so it would melt and be smooth and usable again. That’s not the dumb part; I’ve done it many times. The dumb part was when I realized that the spot I chose outside our building to do this was surrounded by dead, dry grass. I quickly blew out the on-fire polish.

And now I have officially spent way too much time on this tonight. Don’t expect such detailed entries in the future. I’m going to confine myself to about 15 minutes a night. (Damn mosquitoes!)