Friday, May 7, 2010

ILE: The First Weekend

There were many tired souls wandering around the classroom areas of ILE Class 10-002 today. It's Friday, May 7, only the third "full" day of class but me, and many of my distinguished classmates, were exhausted. Not from late nights studying, not from partying, but from trying to adjust to the student "battle rhythm".

The assigned homework isn't overwhelming...pages in books here, handouts there. The classwork isn't overwhelming...discussions on topics that have so far ranged from 'what is a leader?' to 'is studing military history relevant?'. We have ample breaks and plenty of access to the caffeine source of choice. So, why are we all so tired? Because our schedules have been thrown out of whack and our brains are in overdrive. While the information we're being given or researching isn't rocket science, it is a lot of minutiae and concepts and themes. It's a different life than what we're used to and it's going to take some time to master that ever-important student battle rhythm. But we will accomplish this task and we will succeed!

So, it's Friday evening of the first ILE weekend. Classes let out at noon on Fridays. After lunch I walked through parts of the Petersburg battlefield, enjoying the birds, the deer, and the Civil War artifacts and sites. The trails were nice...up and down so an effort...and shaded so I didn't get too hot. After a bowl of soup for dinner, I am now working on...homework. I have enough to keep me busy this weekend but not enough to keep me from accomplishing two tasks: 1. Getting out on Saturday and exploring the cities of Colonial Heights and Petersburg; and 2. Buying a bookbag/backpack. I thought my briefcase would suffice but alas, it's not big enough to carry my books, notebooks, pens, papers, and that all-important coffee mug.

One interesting note about ILE: We are being treated as adults here. I hated the Captain's Career Course that I went through in 2005 because I hated being 40 years old and treated the same was that I was when I was a Private in basic training. We are given the coursework, the schedules, the homework, and the assignments and expected, as field grade officers, to do the work relatively unsupervised. We are expected to conduct physical fitness training and behave as befitting our rank. We are expected to come to class prepared and participate in class discussions. We are expected to clean up after ourselves and ensure our buddies aren't left behind. Our advisors have expectations of us...and I can already feel that myself and my new peers/friends will meet, nee, surpass, those expecations.

Graduation date: 18 August. Mark your calendars!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Time for More Adventure!

I'm not being deployed again, although I'm sure someone, somewhere, is plotting that future for me. This adventure is at ILE (Intermediate Level Education) at Ft. Lee, Virginia.
Let me explain: Majors in the US Army have many requirements necessary to move on to Lieutenant Colonel. A Master's Degree is helpful to make them competetive with their peers. This course, ILE, is required and comes in three different forms:
1. The 10-month PCS course at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
2. The 16-week course at various satellite campuses across the US. This is the course I'm attending at Ft. Lee from 5 May through 19 August.
3. A two-week residence course, followed by insufferable correspondence courses for 9 - 11 months, then another two-week residence course.
To get to courses 1 or 2, an officer comes up on a board and then is selected as either an alternate or a primary. For 3 years, since I was promoted to major, I showed up on the boards as an alternate for the 16-week course. I figured I'd just sign up for number 3 once I returned from Iraq.
But, lo and behold, I showed up as a primary for the 16-week course in January 2009 (while I was at Ft. Dix getting ready to mobilize if you ever followed my blogs). I happily picked the May - August course at Ft. Lee because at the time I wasn't sure when I'd return from Iraq.
So, here I am. Just finished Day Two and, am happy to report, that I am sincerely enjoying this course. The Army is paying me (well) to do what I love to do the most: read, research, and talk. :) I am, after all, a Public Affairs Officer. We are required, as part of the course, to either do a blog, a media interview, or a community engagement. Well, I've been doing media interviews at the local, national, and international level since I was a First well as community engagements. So I thought I would blog. I hope you enjoy my blog and please...give me feedback!
Get ready...the Games have begun.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Was it real?

It's hard to believe that it's been a year since I posted the question, in the form of lyrics of a song from "Rent"..."how do you measure a year?"

How do you measure a year of your life? Time you consider well spent but...difficult. We found out that there are many ways, indeed: in cups of coffee, in missions completed, in bitching sessions, in calendars marked with an 'x' at the end of the day. Time alternatively moved quickly and stood still.

It's been two weeks now since I said difficult and heartfelt farewells to the Soldiers of the 211th MPAD at the Philadelphia airport. It was time to move along...people were happy to get to their gates and wait for their flights and get back to their spouses, children, family, friends and their lives. Most of these Soldiers will not return to the 211th...they were "cross-levels", i.e. we borrowed them from other units throughout the Army Reserve. That's a sad thought but I also know that Army Public Affairs is a small world. I will cross paths with many of them, either on another deployment or just at a conference or even in an e-mail string.

What did we have during this deployment? We didn't have magic, or perfection. Nobody will make a "Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan" movie on the mission of the 211th. But what we had was good and strong...through the tough times, through the arguments, through the pizza/movie nights, through the heat, through the endless walks to the dining facility, PX, showers, and latrines, we had a family. The kind of family that frustrates you and sometimes makes you want to throw things, but in the long run, a family that sticks together and sticks up for one another. The kind of stable Army unit that stumbles through missions but works hard to emerge on the other side with experience and knowledge to use later. Honestly, if I had known then what I know now, I wouldn't change a thing. Okay, maybe a few things. :)

Deployments are tough, on Soldiers, on Families, on friends. We hung in and saw this long deployment to the end...through training, through many holidays, through redeployment. It's been a long road but we have reached the end. This is my last post...sadly...I will miss writing here! Farewell, 211th MPAD. Best wishes always. MAJ D.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

So Close We Can Taste It

So close we can taste it
I just finished reading the blog of one of our sister units, the 314th Public Affairs Operations Center. The writer was SGM Troy Falardeau, a fine senior NCO whom I’ve known and worked with for years. His blog was entitled “Iraq in the rear view mirror”. As of today, 15 November, they have departed Baghdad. The advance party left earlier in the week, the rest around Veteran’s Day. We’ve shadowed the 314th through their training (we did attend the 21 days of RTC at the same time, although on a 1-day difference in our schedules), deployment and eventually, redeployment. They weren’t that far away from us, either…they were in the IZ or International Zone. Close enough to visit a few times and certainly close enough to call.
They deployed one month before we did, arriving just after the New Year. And now they are gone. What does that mean for us? Simple…it means that we, too, leave soon. In fact, we leave so soon that we can taste the beer and the freedom that comes with not being in Iraq. We can already imagine being back in our homes, on our couches, wearing our civilian clothes, and enjoying life not in Iraq.
Why is it so important for us to be home? Some would say that we just want to be out of a war zone. Not true. The Soldiers of the 211th have served proudly, honorably, and bravely. Living and working in a war zone is hard and we definitely have taken our share of hits. But our time has come and gone and it’s time to hand over the baton to the new unit, the 366th MPAD, from Wichita, Kansas. It’s time for us to sit back on our laurels and look at our accomplishments and see what we did.
What did we do? SFC Burke produced 18 copies of the newspaper, Crossed Sabers. This 28- to 32-page newspaper took a lot of his time, blood, and frustration, but ever y two weeks there it was…an interesting, professional newspaper ready for Soldiers throughout MND-B to read. SGT Soles, SSG Ford, and SPC Johnson produced the daily e-zine, the Daily Charge. Where did the stories for both publications come from? From them and from SGT Risner and SSG Burrell and SFC Burke. (Also, many stories from the outlying BCT PAOs, but this isn’t their blog..!) Those guys were inside and outside the wire, taking photographs and getting interviews and writing stories.
Then there are SGTs Heise, Anderson, Logue, and Fardette…otherwise known as our broadcast section…who put together a radio piece, the Cav Roundup, EVERY WEEKDAY that we were here. And once a week they either wrote, produced, anchored or…sometimes…all three…the First Team Update. Where did those stories come from? From them (and again, the BCT PAOs). They, too, were inside and outside the wire, shooting video, getting interviews, and returning to the office to put it all together.
SPC Ward is our unit clerk…he did the unpopular jobs like paperwork and stocking water. But he always had a smile on his face and he always did a good job. A unit is like any other entity…there is the fun stuff that gets everyone’s attention and then there are the other jobs…jobs that must be done in order for a unit to function. That’s what Ward did…he made us function. Not dysfunctional.
And there are others in our unit who worked elsewhere or on a different shift: 1LT Almodovar, who was our night shift PA rep in the operations center; 1LT Douglas who lived and worked in the IZ and made a lasting impression on the Pan-Arab media; SFC Quebec who was the MND-B media embed coordinator and made a lasting impression on many US and international journalists. And 1LT Sarratt and 1SG Martinez who just did everything else…paperwork, training, meetings, and more paperwork.
Everyone worked their own shifts and schedules and produced their own stories. But together, we made up the 211th MPAD, we kicked some butt and now…we’re ready to be gone.
Each passing day is one day closer to home. Hang in there friends and family…just a few more weeks!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Under Pressure

Just a little OBE right now.
As anyone who has been in the Army more than one day knows, we have a variety of creative and memorable ways to let people know that we are busy. Not just busy, but overwhelmed, “have more tasks than can be humanly accomplished”, busy. Mine has always been that “I’m a bit OBE right now”. I’ve said that before in my previous civilian jobs and got the deer in the headlights expression from people who have no idea what I’m talking about. Of course, OBE stands for “Overcome By Events” and is a good way to let people know that either there is too much going on or the mission failed because, well, it was overcome by events.
Other colorful expressions are “up to my elbows in alligators”, “I’m in the weeds” and “my eyeballs are bleeding”. There are probably as many idioms as there are Soldiers who are busy.
Although I’m not there with them, I can probably guess what the 366th MPAD from Wichita, Kansas, is experiencing right now: they are up to their elbows in alligators. The 366th is the unit that is scheduled to replace us in early December. We’ve been tracking their progress through pre-mobilization for several months now and I am now proud to report that they have arrived safe and sound at their mobilization station, Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Anyone who has been tracking our progress through this deployment recognizes Dix as the mob station that we went through last January. It’s the final stop before the long plane ride to Kuwait and then into Baghdad. You might remember some of our trials and tribulations: medical examinations; more paperwork than there are trees in Jersey; more training; and of course, that glorious 4-day pass (I went to New York City, remember?).
But I also remember the first week and how much work it was for the command team, i.e. myself, my XO, and my 1SG. We had checklists and memorandums and multiple meetings (that always seemed to be scheduled at the same time). We were supposed to not only be in 3 places at one time but weren’t given the luxury of a vehicle to get us there. I remember walking to some of the required appointments…in 20 degree weather in the snow. I also remember the long days for the 3 Soldiers who had to make up the training that they missed at RTC the previous October (go read those blogs too).
But what I remember the most about that month spent at Dix in January was how the unit finally came together and worked as a whole, preparing for war. Although we’d been training together for almost 4 months, none of that brought us together as a unit like the time spent at Ft. Dix. Perhaps because we realized it was finally “real”. Ft. Dix was the end of the training…the next time we were out in a convoy it wouldn’t be through the fake village on the outskirts of Dix but instead the mean streets of Baghdad. The next time that we put on our “battle rattle” it would be to protect us from real bombs and bullets, not blanks and smoke grenades.
And that’s where the 366th is right now. Dealing with the realization that the end of training is near and that real life in a war zone is about to begin. But don’t worry, the 211th is a fine group of battle-weary veterans who have been shot at, blown up, run through the ringer, mistreated, misaligned and generally worn out. We’ve had our vehicle stolen, our laptops confiscated, our convoys/flights cancelled and our building almost hit by a mortar. We’re done. But we’ll be waiting for you guys at BIAP with a truck and a smile. We’ll ensure you are fully prepared to face anything that the mission can throw at you. So, get ready…here it comes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sunday in the Park with George

As our days here in Iraq start to dwindle I’ve been spending some time reflecting on our work schedule during our time running the Media Operations Center. It’s been a vicious cycle of steady work interspersed with bouts of sheer madness and sessions of inescapable boredom. This is definitely a theater of operations on its way out the door…but that’s a good thing.
My job here has been relatively steady…as the commander EVERYTHING this unit does is my responsibility, which is why I was careful a year ago to ensure that I had officers and senior NCOs who could do their job.
So, what’s a typical week like for me? Here goes…
Monday: This is the day where I tackle all of the things that I, uh, postponed over the weekend. Time to read through the emails sent over the weekend, tasking us to do this or that, catch up on other emails, and generally get caught up on paperwork. I have one meeting at 1700 (5 p.m. for you non-military types) at the DSTB. This is the first meeting of the week and all of the battalion’s commanders and first sergeants get together and discuss their last “24 hours” and their “next 24-48 hours”. We keep it simple and quick because that’s just too close to dinner time to be yapping about stuff that you can talk about “off line” or at a different time. I also make sure out that three reports that are due every day go out: the personnel status report, the “green” report, and the SITREP (situation report), which lists all of the products my journalists are either working on, have submitted, or have been released.
Tuesday: A day full of catch-up and the time we try to schedule appointments, etc. No meetings on this day, but it is the day the DFAC (dining facility) has quiche for breakfast. They do good quiche here. I do spend this and every other day reading the over 100 emails that I tend to get. Most of them are summaries of media articles regarding Iraq. I breeze through them, skimming the titles to see if it’s something that catches my eye. I also spend free time daily reading various on-line news sites (CNN, Fox, Drudge Report, Slate, BBC, and many others).
Wednesday: My first meeting is at 0900 but thankfully it’s a briefing FOR commanders, not by commanders. So, we sit and listen to information regarding incidents around MND-B, personnel updates, redeployment status, anything that the battalion commander deems necessary for us to know. I usually get back to the MOC in time to head out for lunch. Wednesday is fried rice day at the DFAC for lunch. My XO has a meeting at the DSTB at 1330 and then at 1700 we head over to the 1st Cav Public Affairs office for our PAO “Huddle” (which we now combine into just plain “puddle”) to discuss any issues we might have. Then it’s off to dinner.
Thursday: Thursday is another quiche day in the DFAC for breakfast. If Tuesday’s quiche is mushroom, then Thursday’s is broccoli. But never the same on both days! It’s an open day, like Tuesday, meaning no meetings. Lunchtime is the infamous “Taco Thursday” (see previous post regarding the calendar). Only lately we’ve given up on tacos and head to Burger King instead. Perhaps we should call it “Burger King Thursday”. But then I’d have to print a new calendar. The Division CUA slide is due today…won’t bore you with the details, but it lists all of the main events we’ve done the previous 7 days and the ones planned for the next 7 days.
Friday: Ahhh, Friday. The weekend is fast approaching! Just think…two more working days until Monday! J Training schedules are due, as is the Breeze Slide (explanation on Saturday).
Saturday: All of the PAOs in MND-B get “together” once a week via computer link-up to discuss issues, events, etc. in the weekly Breeze. No video, just audio and some PowerPoint slides that we can all look at. Usually this lasts a half hour and then after that…it’s more paperwork and finishing up the day. Oh, and Saturday night is the night I put my earrings in before I go to bed, so the holes in my earlobes don’t close up.
In between all of this fun, I answer personal emails, go to the gym or the track at least 4 times a week, turn in laundry, go to the PX to see if there is anything new or just sit quietly and read a book. But my favorite day is, of course:
Sunday: This, for the most part, is almost like a real Sunday back in the States. (Well, I tell myself that, anyway). It’s the one morning where I don’t set my alarm clock although I’m usually up by 0800. I start getting hungry after that! Breakfast is usually a big one…things I don’t normally eat: bacon, biscuits and Gravy, Pepsi. The morning at work drags on. It’s the day that I move up our large wall calendar one week. That has been my Sunday morning ritual since we began. On this calendar we mark our meetings, milestones, suspenses, products (green for print, red for broadcast). Anything that we need to remember and act upon. I head to lunch usually around 1300 and for me…that’s the end of the day. We try to take ½ day off around here and Sunday is my day. I get lunch to go and head to my CHU. I get to put on my physical training uniform (although I sometimes put on a pink shirt, but have to change into the Army Tshirt if I go outside) and enjoy not wearing combat boots. I usually clean my room…sweep and Swiffer the floor, and then relax with some DVDs. I can watch multiple episodes of a TV show to pass the day. Occasionally I go get some dinner (fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potatoes) but most of the time I have a pop-tart and Diet Coke and be done with going outside until Monday morning. It’s a great day to relax and recharge and pretend like I’m back in civilization, even if it’s only for a few hours. And, it helps to know I really only have about 4 more Sundays to do this, before we move into the transient tents and then it’s time to GO HOME. Yay.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Happy Anniversary,, 211th MPAD

Well, five days ago, anyways.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since the 211th gathered in Bryan, Texas on October 10, 2008, to begin this odyssey that has been our deployment to Baghdad.
For some of us, the work began over the summer, with conferences to attend, training to plan, equipment to be ordered, and contracts to be moved through the system. It took a lot of hard work on the part of a handful of people to ensure that when our Soldiers arrived on “hit day” everything was in place so that Soldiers could focus solely on the looming pre-mobilization training.
Slowly we worked through the summer and early fall, working towards the date of 10 October. When it arrived, we were ready. Our battle roster was full and we were ready to head to Ft. Dix a week later for 21 days of RTC. Since I supervised or did most of the paperwork prior to “hit day”, I knew a lot about our inbound Soldiers…and I hadn’t even met them yet! I had talked to all of them on the phone at least once and had passed multiple e-mails back and forth, giving them tips, ideas, and packing lists.
Then the day arrived. There were multiple trips out to the small airport that serves Bryan/College Station. We picked up inbound Soldiers and took them to their home for the next 2 ½ months…the EZ Rest Hotel (or the EZ SleazY as it was nicknamed). Many of them partook of their first Army-supplied meal at Golden Corral Steakhouse. For some, that was also their last!
We’ve been through a lot in the last year, the mighty fightin’ 211th MPAD. We’ve had Soldiers drop off of our battle roster for various reasons, but we managed to pick up a few as well. We survived Ft. Dix, New Jersey not once, but twice, battling cold, snow, and frozen toes. We arrived in Baghdad after a lengthy trip with many duffel bag drags already a little worse for the wear.
In the past year we have:
-Celebrated everyone’s birthday with cake (or at least Twinkies with candles stuck in them), silly string, and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”.
-Welcomed a new baby! Congratulations again to the Martinez family.
-Gone on R & R all over the world and then faced the grim reality of “I’m back here?” upon return.
-Squabbled, made up, fought some more, made up, scratched and kicked, made up. In the Army, no matter how hard you fight with someone you always make up because the guy you’re arguing with tonight could save your life tomorrow.
-Saw four of our own receive Combat Action Badges and one of those Soldiers receive a purple heart.
-Learned a lot of hard lessons about the world of A/C Public Affairs and learned to just “let it go”.
-Ate a lot of pizza and watched a lot of movies.
-Admired that beauty that is Army Dining Facility Food, especially chicken and Mexican food.
-Learned to find the humor in EVERYTHING. Even where none lurks.
-Grown up, matured, and realized that life outside of the US isn’t always nice.
But, alas, although we have marked off one year, it’s not over yet. We have just under 60 days before we depart Iraq and once again brave the wilds of Ft. Dix. We have mountains of paperwork to complete, not including the documents I’m not even aware of yet! And we can’t let our guard down. Complacency is what gets Soldiers hurt…we have to stay focused on the endgame but not so focused that we have tunnel vision and don’t see the dangers lurking all around us.
Hang in there, guys.