Olmsted was determined to make a difference in Iraq. "The sooner the Iraqi government doesn't need U.S. support to provide security for its people, the sooner we will probably be asked to leave."
We were a little late getting out due to some communications issues. The Army spends big money on communications, but connectors still go bad routinely and the heat in Iraq causes lots of problems for electronics. Once we got on the road we ran into our unit earlier than expected, as they had just broken up an illegal checkpoint. They showed us where the AIF had executed five drivers the day before. Five dark spots on the sand; four killed near the road, a fifth ran but was shot in the leg after he got about fifty meters and was killed there. The bodies had already been recovered, but the dark spots alone were sobering and depressing.
We continued with our unit up to one of their checkpoints, where they showed us around. It wasn't much by U.S. Army standards, but given their extremely limited budget the Iraqis had done a pretty good job with the place. We didn't stay long, continuing up the route to our unit's FOB. I was riding in back, so I didn't see much, but there were no signs of recent IEDs, which is always a good thing. We settled into our lodging area; there are contractors at the FOB who are improving it, and they let us stay with them while we're there for security's sake.
Once we were settled we went to meet with the battalion leadership. This was my first exposure to the Iraqi Army. Things went reasonably well, although I'm sure the commander isn't thrilled with having to get used to yet another American officer as his counterpart. Once I've had a chance to get to know him better I think we'll be able to come to an understanding, but because I'm currently responsible for two other Iraqi battalions, that's going to take a lot longer than I anticipated.
In the afternoon we rode through two towns in our battalion's area of operations. We saw two of our battalion's sites, a company HQ and a patrol base. Did I mention it was hot? I didn't realize just how warm it got in Iraq until I was out walking through the patrol base in full kit trying not to pass out from the heat. It was something else. I'll be glad when August is behind us. Things got exciting in the second town. We were passing through a main street when suddenly we heard small arms fire. We immediately began scanning the area carefully; none of us could see where the firing was coming from, so it apparently wasn't directed at us. After about a minute we figured out what was going on: it was celebratory gunfire. Iraq had just beaten South Korea in soccer. They play Saudi Arabia on Sunday, so we'll be staying off the roads, just in case.
That evening the battalion put on a feast for us, to say good-bye to the old team and to welcome the new team. I was a little nervous about Iraqi food before I arrived, but I'd already had lunch and been pleasantly surprised. But where lunch was palatable, dinner was delicious, and we enjoyed the food and the company into the night.
The next day we looked around the FOB, checking to make sure that the battalion is treating their detainees properly among other things, and I spent a few more hours with the commander. After lunch we rolled down to another town our battalion is responsible for before heading for home. Unlike our first trip, this voyage took us out along the Iranian border, although we didn't really see anything. It was a very long trip, however, and we were quite glad to arrive at our FOB again and get a chance to sleep in our own beds again.
With our first trip out of the way, hopefully the next one will be a little easier. We'll see soon enough.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 12:38 PM | Comments (4)
Sunday was reasonably quiet early on, after a busy Saturday afternoon, but that changed late when we received word that several of our Iraqi Army (IA) outposts had been hit by the enemy. We headed down to the IA battalion headquarters to learn what they knew about the attacks while U.S. forces moved to the scene to do their own assessment. That evening we put together the different stories to see if we could determine, at least roughly, the ground truth about what had happened so we could start planning for what to do about it.
That evening we also learned that a general officer would be coming to visit, and the unit we're working with had a number of other issues on the plate and didn't have an officer to spare to meet the general. So, while that's not normally on our list of things we need to do, we volunteered to head out and meet with him so the squadron could address more pressing issues.
So it was that Monday morning I jumped in the back of a HMMWV ready to go outside the wire for my first time in Iraq. We rolled out and almost made it to the gate before we got the word the trip had been delayed, and eventually scratched due to bad weather. When the sandstorms get nasty around here, the helicopters stay down, which means not only fewer generals moving around the battlefield but, more importantly, no air weapons teams to support units in trouble and no MEDEVAC aircraft to get wounded personnel to hospitals fast. So my trip outside would have to wait, and we returned to the RIP/TOA process.
Which is going quite well. I have met most of the major players here at the FOB, although there aren't as many of those as we might like because a lot of them have gone down to Ba'quba to deal with the fighting there. In particular, most of the people I answer to are down in the city, so I will doubtless have to take the team into Ba'quba at some point to meet with my bosses as well as to get a feel for those elements of our IA battalion that are in the fight there. I have been impressed, nonetheless, with the elements we have manning our FOB, from a special forces team to military police to elements of the squadron. It's good to be part of a team like that.
Today we head out to finally meet with our battalion. They are geographically separated from us, and we're not currently allowed to live on their FOB due to security issues; we're too small a team to protect ourselves alone, and there's very little other Coalition presence in that area, so we have to drive up every time we want to see them. Somewhat frustrating, but even with the surge there aren't enough spare personnel to augment the MiTTs to allow them that kind of freedom. So we'll drive up today, spend the day checking out our battalion's AO, overnight at the FOB, spend most of tomorrow checking out the AO as well before returning sometime tomorrow. It promises to be an exciting time.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 08:41 PM | Comments (3)
Friday was an easy day. We had a briefing on the IED threat in the morning, and a long discourse on the specifics of the MND-N AO (Multi-National Division-North Area of Operations) to familiarize us with some general information about what is going on where we'll be living and working. The IED briefing was excellent, going into a lot of valuable TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) for avoiding IEDs and defeating the IED threat.
IEDs are a funny thing. On the one hand, they are absolutely no threat to our mission as a whole. They're a nuisance tactic. But because they are so random and so prevalent, they create a steady drip of casualties that demoralizes both the troops and the American people. Don't get me wrong; few U.S. troops are trapped on their FOBs, unwilling to leave because of the IED threat, but we are all aware of it and it affects every aspect of our mission planning. And the very randomness of the attacks tends to undermine U.S. morale, because it appears that the soldiers are being killed to no good effect. It's one thing to lose soldiers, for example, while securing a town or a beachead or some other tangible object. It's a lot harder to accept for many people when the deaths occur during patrols that, however important, don't bring in much tangible by themselves.
Having been as thoroughly prepared for our mission as the Army could manage, Friday evening was our time to fly. We loaded all of our bags onto two baggage trucks, put on our body armor and helmets, and headed to the airfield. Thus began the ordeal. Our flight was supposed to take off shortly after midnight. Sure enough, two helicopters landed on the tarmac before midnight, and we stood by, assuming we'd get the order to load in short order. After waiting for some time, we were told that one aircraft had equipment on it and there wouldn't be enough room to carry us, our bags, and that equipment. While they were trying to work it out, the choppers took off to refuel. They were gone a very long time. Eventually it turned out that they had gone to shift their load, so they could carry us where we needed to go, but nobody on the flight line knew that at the time, so we had to stand by for several hours, with several more false starts, before they finally got the right choppers in the right place for us.
It is rather disconcerting to ride in a fully-loaded CH-47. Our bags were stacked to the very ceiling, so when sitting in the aircraft, you stare up at bags that look like they might topple down on you at any minute. (They won't; the crew chief is very careful to strap them down to ensure they don't shift.) And you can't move at all, because you've got personnel on either side of you and your back to the aircraft skin. It was a long flight, even though it really only took 20-30 minutes at most. We dropped another MiTT off at that FOB, then took off for our FOB, touching down a few minutes after four AM, three weeks to the day after arriving in Kuwait.
Our counterparts were all standing by, and they helped move us and our bags to our building in record time. They had all moved out of the rooms on Friday, so we were able to move right in to our rooms, a nice gesture that is indicative of the amount of work they have put into making sure the transition is as smooth as possible. By five we were ready to bed down.
I slept almost until noon, I'm embarrassed to admit. Once I was up, my counterpart took me to lunch and then started showing me around the FOB. I met many people today, from the U.S. unit we'll be attached to to other transition team members; I only hope I can remember them all. By three we were all sitting down for an initial in-brief, with our counterparts going over the details of our unit and our AO, getting our minds wrapped around what we're really going to be dealing with over the next year. They also had a barbeque for us, a way of welcoming us to the area that was much appreciated, particularly as I missed this year's family reunion today, so this was a nice substitute.
I then spent the evening in meetings. First was the commander's update brief, a weekly meeting during which the brigade commander hears from all his subordinate commanders. It's an important briefing, as it's one of the ways the brigade commander can hear what's really going on straight from the guys he expects to make things happen. It's also a chance for all of us to bring up any critical issues with him. A few issues came out of the meeting that my counterpart and I had to take care of, not least of which was meeting with the Iraqi Division Chief of Staff, so on my first day on the FOB I got to sit down with an Iraqi officer, drink some chai, and actually use an interpreter. My counterpart understands a lot more Iraqi than I do, so I missed some of the conversation, but it was a good first step for me.
Tomorrow things really get busy.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 12:52 PM | Comments (1)
We've sat through a lot of classes in the last two days. Wednesday we started with more Kurdish training, which has been really excellent throughout the training. They do language training right here at Taji, sitting us down for an hour every day rather than the six hour marathon sessions we endured at Fort Riley. I have submitted a memo with recommendations on what to change to really maximize the language program throughout training, and I believe the other team commanders are doing so as well, so I hope that the training will continue to improve for later teams.
Wednesday morning we had another training scenario. This one involved sitting down with role-players representing members of our IA battalion and discussing an upcoming mission with them. They kept trying to provide less-than-total support for their mission, so it was our job to convince them to execute to full capability without doing anything that might undermine our relationship with them. It was an interesting and challenging scenario that is probably likely to occur at some point, and it was probably some of the best training we've had at Taji.
The afternoon was nothing but classes, and while some of them provided good information, I have had about enough of sitting in a chair looking at Power Point slides and listening to instructors. Particularly as today involved nothing but just that all day.
Wednesday evening we were given a chance to bus over to the American side of the base. Camp Taji is two bases in one, a U.S. base and an Iraqi base. Since the Phoenix Academy is dedicated to training MiTTs, it's located with the Iraqis so we get a chance to start interacting with Iraqi soldiers. So we all jumped on a bus and rode over to the U.S. side. It was somewhat anticlimactic, not to mention a little depressing. The PX on that side was so poorly stocked I was unable to find any of the little things I was looking for. Worse, the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) Center was in a communications blackout. Those are put in place because one or more soldiers has been wounded or killed, a sobering reminder of where we are. (We were awakened early Wednesday morning by an alarm and a warning of 'incoming, incoming, incoming,' but other than the inconvenience of being awakened at that hour nothing else happened to us.) It was annoying that we couldn't call home, but it was hard to feel overly badly about that with the knowledge some more soldiers might have died in this war. So we ended up watching movies until the bus took us back to the Iraqi side and our barracks.
The highlight of today's training was a briefing from Brigadier Kelly. Brigadier Kelly is an Australian officer serving with Multi-National Forces-Iraq headquarters, and he was there in lieu of General Petraeus to speak to us a little about the current state of the war. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the data the Brigadier showed us, and impressed by the Brigadier himself, a credit to Australia's Army. While the Brigadier did not pretend that we have won in Iraq by any means, he pointed to a number of areas where we have seen great progress over the past eight months, and he highlighted how important our role is in trying to carry that progress forward.
My next dispatch will be from Diyala province, where we will begin to assume responsibility for our small part of this war.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 09:51 PM | Comments (1)
Brigadier General Yarbrough, the IAG commander, came to Taji specifically to speak with the MiTTs. He spoke to us about our mission and some of the problems and opportunities we'll experience as MiTT members. He's a fun guy to listen to, as he's very high-energy and he clearly believes in the mission. Unfortunately, he no longer has much ability to aid us once we leave Taji, as the MiTTs now fall under the brigade combat teams rather than IAG, and he's a guy I'd like to have in my corner. But it was still an interesting a valuable experience, particularly as he brought along footage of a MiTT team commander and an Iraqi general who both spoke about their MiTT experiences. It always impresses me when a general, who everyone has to listen to, takes some of his time and uses it to let someone else speak.
Lieutenant General Odierno, the MNC-I commander, was here to speak to everyone going through either the Phoenix Academy (which is MiTT-specific) or the COIN CFE (which includes all units going into sector), so the room was much more packed for his briefing. He spoke more about the current state of Iraq and his intentions as the MNC-I commander. This was at once a bit less interesting, since it's at a higher level than where I'll be as a MiTT commander, and very interesting because it gave me a chance to see what the bigger picture looks like in Iraq. Unfortunately, I can't share it because it was classified, but suffice it to say I expect things to remain quite interesting in Iraq while LTG Odierno is in charge.
Other than briefings from generals, the last two days have included two situational training exercises. The first was an exercise in sensitive site exploitation. One of the hardest things for us to learn as soldiers is that in COIN, there's a lot of police work to be done. (This is why standing up the Iraqi Police is so important.) When we go after a target, we can't just shoot him; in fact, the goal is to take him alive. But then we have to gather evidence just like any other crime scene, and if we don't do it right, the judge will let the guy go. That's a great thing for teaching the Iraqis the rule of law and it is the right thing to do in the long term, but it can lead to some real frustrations when a guy you know is guilty gets to walk. So it's very important that we be able to teach our Iraqis how to do the right things when they detain people, and the exercise was great because it let us go through exactly what our Iraqis will have to experience every time they go out to grab someone.
The second exercise was a communications exercise. We have four different types of radios on our vehicles, as well as a networked computer system. All those things allow us to do a much better job of staying in contact with other Coalition elements and understanding the battlefield, but they're also a lot more complex than the older radios we grew up on. Knowing how to put all that into operation can be a challenge, so they gave us a chance to work through all of our systems as a test and a confidence-building exercise. Our team, I'm pleased to note, was singled out as the best of the teams currently at the Academy (though there's only five other teams, and the margin is, I'm sure, not large).
We're on the home stretch now. A few more classes over the next three days, then we load the birds and fly on to our FOBs. This time next week we'll be hip-deep in the RIP/TOA and well on our way to owning our own battlespace. I can't wait.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:49 AM | Comments (1)
The highlight of the two days actually had little to do with COIN. This morning we had a block of instruction on moral detachment. That's a fancy psychological term for straying from our moral touchstones, and it refers to the problem of people who somehow act immorally under certain circumstances. In the civil sector the best example is probably the Milgram Experiments, while the military has a disturbing number of good examples, including My Lai and Abu Ghraib. In all those cases, people performed heinous acts, yet the people involved with in no way pathological. They were reasonably normal people who, in the wrong circumstances, acted as badly as humans can act.
I'm pleased to see that the Army is taking this problem seriously. For various reasons, soldiers in combat sometimes forget that morality and ethics don't vanish simply because they're in a new environment. In my experience, in the past the Army hasn't done much to address that problem, but in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the survey that showed many U.S. soldiers would be quite willing to torture the enemy, Army leadership appears to be sitting up and taking notice. Cynics will note we're rather late to the party, but I'm happy we're at least taking the problem on.
Of course, the acid test of the senior leadership will be how they treat the next whistleblower. The young man who stepped forward over Abu Ghraib has had a horribly tough time of things since he did the right thing, and the Army did little if anything to help him. Only by really protecting the next person who does the right thing can the senior leadership demonstrate that things have really changed. Meanwhile I hope against hope that we can be sure that there won't be a need for that, because acts like what occurred at Abu Ghraib are terrible stains on the Army I love dearly, and doing the right thing after the fact doesn't eliminate the stain.
The other classes were a mixed bag. Some were excellent, talking about Iraqi culture and how it effects intelligence gathering and operations and giving us tips for how to interact with Iraqis to best influence them. Others were done better at Fort Riley, like a review of two COIN examples taken from Iraq, one of which went well, one of which went poorly. On the plus side, they collected detailed reviews of each course from the students, and they appear very dedicated to improving the course with each new iteration, so I expect they'll maintain the good aspects of the course and improve those areas that can be better.
With COIN behind us, the rest of the week will involve a mix of evaluations, briefings from General officers, and theater-specific information. This time next week I should be in Diyala Province.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 08:09 AM
Actually, it's not nearly that bad, other than living out of a duffle bag. The accomodations at Taji are somewhat spartan, but at least I'm sleeping on a bed now, and we're no longer in a tent. Not quite home sweet home, but hardly anything you can complain about.
The flight from Baghdad to Taji seemed a bit silly. We had to load all our gear onto a truck to get it to the airfield, offload it once there, carry it onto the aircraft with us and carry it back off, load it onto another truck, offload it at the billets, and carry it into the billets. Total time in the air: about ten minutes.
Taji itself is quite spartan relative to the other bases we've occupied. This is because it's a combined FOB: our side is Iraqi, the other side is Coalition. The Iraqi side isn't nearly as nice as the U.S. side. I'm torn about this; on the one hand, it perpetuates the problem of Iraqis being treated as second class citizens in their own country, a problem that can't help us in winning over the population. On the other hand, for all its strengths, Iraq's economy simply wouldn't be up to the task of maintaining bases to Coalition standards, so from the standpoint of wanting to eventually turn all this over to the Iraqi government, it may make better sense to maintain it at a more reasonable level for the Iraqis to continue.
And neither us nor the Iraqis is suffering here that I can see. The dining facility, while smaller than those elsewhere, serves really good food, there are phones and internet available, and there are things you can do to keep yourself active when you're not working. I can think of much worse places to be, certainly.
This weekend I'll get two days of COIN training. I'm looking forward to it, although the idea of sitting in a classroom all day for two days is not appealling. But this will give us a last crack at the latest and greatest COIN data out there, and since that's where the fight is at, I look forward to learning as much as I can about it.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:56 AM | Comments (4)
This morning we headed up to IGFC headquarters. IGFC is the Iraqi Ground Forces Command, basically the senior staff of their Army. There is a large Transition Team assigned to IGFC to help them develop their top staff and officers, and we figured that they might be able to give us some valuable information about the mission and the status of the Iraqi Army.
We were correct. The G-3 team took about an hour or so out of their very busy day to give us a rundown on the current status of the Iraqi Army, some plans for the future, and some specifics about the units we're going to. It was time well spent, although sadly it did mean that I missed a chance to have lunch with the Lieutenants Jones, two Navy Lieutenants who trained with us for two months at Fort Riley and who now work in the BIAP area.
I also got back in contact with the team commander I'll be replacing. They have been quite busy of late, but their commander has cut them loose for the next few weeks to allow them to prepare for the RIPTOA (relief in place/transfer of authority). There's a great deal of work we must do to take over for them, and only ten days in which to do it, so they are developing a very detailed plan to get us through the process in a way that maximizes the amount of information they can give us so we can hit the ground running. That will be the focus of our spare time while we're at Taji, assuming we have any. For me, it will just be nice to get there and (hopefully) to move into some barracks with more effective air conditioning.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 06:25 AM
For some reason, we've gotten into Iraq a little earlier than was expected, and getting air transport from Baghdad to Taji takes so much time we can't get our flight bumped up, so we're going to have to spend a few days at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). This isn't wholly a bad thing, as our higher headquarters is located at BIAP, so we've been able to stop by and meet the men and women who run that headquarters and get a little face time with them.
The flight into Baghdad went remarkably smoothly. It took about six and a half hours to get from our tent at Camp Buehring to our tent here at Camp Stryker. That includes loading the buses and baggage truck, the ride to the airfield, loading the aircraft, the flight to Baghdad, offloading the aircraft, and offloading our gear. All in all it was an impressive experience.
BIAP itself is an amazing sight. Technically known as the Victory Base Complex, it includes multiple Coalition bases arrayed around the airport and thousands of personnel. We've only seen a small fraction of it, but what's we've seen bustles with activity and is a testament to how much work goes into maintaining the Coalition presence in Iraq. And I do mean Coalition: we've seen many non-U.S. military personnel here: Brits, Aussies, Poles, and many others whose uniforms I don't recognize. I know that it is fashionable in some sectors to poke fun at the nations who make up the Coalition, but those men and women are here working just as hard as their American counterparts and I hate to see their contributions belittled because of politics.
BIAP is also where the rubber begins to meet the road. Wherever we go here, we have to be armed. No round in the chamber, but just the fact you can't even get into the dining facility without a weapon and ammunition is a reminder of where we are. We also have to stay alert for incoming rocket and mortar fire. Fortunately we haven't experienced that yet, but just the knowledge it could happen does tend to keep you awake.
This morning I was up early to watch the All Star Game. A little taste of normalcy in a very different land.
Soon we'll move on to Taji and our final training experience before we get to work. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I can't wait.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 01:20 AM | Comments (3)
I'll be very happy to get there; some of this training has been excellent, and none of it has been useless by any means, but after almost four months away from home, the desire to get on with the job becomes almost overwhelming. I didn't come here to train, I came here to perform. If I can't do something soon, I may experience performance anxiety.
Yesterday's live-fire was very good for a live-fire exercise, but it wasn't nearly as valuable as the blank fire exercise. Live-fires simply involve too many safety concerns to provide the same level of training as blank fire exercises, as crazy as that sounds. For example, we didn't engage a number of targets because it was difficult to confirm whether or not they were hostile. A real person will have a weapon in his hand, but when the course includes lots of targets that all look like plastic silhouettes with clothing on them, it's hard to tell which have hostile intent. The plus side, however, and this is big, is that they do put lots of non-hostiles out there, just as we'll see in the real Iraq, and identifying real hostile people may be easy with live people, but it's still hard, so it was good training.
After the live-fire we had Doc go through the combat lifesaver bag and review all the equipment it includes. All of us went through training to become combat lifesavers, which means additional medical training that should allow us to preserve the lives of injured people long enough to get them to medical treatment facilities. Hopefully we'll never need that training, but because that's so important we spend a lot of time on it. When we got back to the barracks we also gave some IVs. After stopping bleeding and ensuring people can breathe, fighting shock is one of the most important things we can do for injured soldiers, and an IV is a critical tool for that. Hitting a person's vein with a catheter isn't easy under the best of circumstances, so we have to practice a lot so we'll have some hope of doing it under combat conditions.
This morning we went through another IED lane. Since that's the biggest threat we'll face, knowing how to ID IEDs is a critical skill, so we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to learn all the various methods the enemy uses. It can be somewhat frustrating, as a good enemy can lay an IED that simply cannot be seen until it detonates, but there are more careless enemies than skilled enemies, and spotting their IEDs is possible if we're vigilant. So we walked a ~500 meter lane strewn with debris and IEDs and tried to spot the IEDs before it was too late. We had some success, but we weren't perfect and one of the big lessons we learned is how fatiguing it is to look for IEDs. Even knowing they were out there, it was hard to see some of them, and by the time we were done our eyes hurt. Driving down a road for 50 miles and having to keep an eye out for IEDs all the way is going to be unpleasant.
We're about to draw our force protection ammo. That's our basic load of ammunition we'll carry as long as we're in theater. As I joked to Tom Casey earlier this week, I guess this means we're finally going in the s***. It's funny to think about carrying ammo around all the time, but in Iraq you can't be too careful. We'll be staying on an Iraqi FOB, which means it will be secured by Iraqis, or in other words, we're going to have to make sure we secure ourselves as best we can. At Taji we'll even get to stay in hardened buildings, so we won't have to seek alternate shelter during mortar attacks. The better news is that our permanent FOB doesn't get attacked by mortars; one more reason to get there sooner than later.
We don't know yet when we're heading to Taji. Classes don't start for a few days, so they can take their time getting us there. We'll have to fly to Baghdad first, then take a helicopter to Taji, and there's no way of knowing how long we'll wait in Baghdad for a chopper. Hopefully not long, but it could be an unpleasant few days between Buehring and Taji.
I don't know what the facilities at Taji will be like, so I may or may not be able to post from there. I'll continue to write these up on my personal computer, so if worse comes to worst I'll post them all once I get to our FOB.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 06:21 AM | Comments (6)
The culmination of the training in Kuwait is a convoy live-fire exercise. This involves taking our three-vehicle unit downrange with live ammunition and engaging targets in simulated combat conditions. Needless to say, when you train with live ammunition you have to be very careful to avoid getting anyone hurt, so while the actual live-fire won't happen until tomorrow, we've been preparing for it the past two days.
Yesterday we had some classroom training in the morning. We started with an hour of Arabic, although it involved culture rather than language yesterday. The training was solid, but it replicated what we had already learned at Fort Riley. One thing we're seeing here in Kuwait is that the integration of our training here with what we've already done leaves something to be desired. This isn't surprising, because the people here at Camp Buehring have to train many units, not just MiTTs, but it can be a little frustrating nonetheless when we end up spending training time on things we have already done.
After the Arabic we spent some time with the Army's newest radio. It's a nice system, a solid improvement on the radios I came up with, and we are expected to get them sometime this calendar year. Now we'll have a pretty good idea of how to operate them when they arrive, and we're looking forward to seeing them replace our current systems. Now if only they would come up with better hand microphones, as we're still using the same ones I've seen for almost 20 years, and those are very often the real problem when communications aren't working.
Yesterday afternoon we rolled out to the range to begin preparations for the convoy training. The contractors (most of the training we get in Kuwait comes from contractors and not military personnel, although we did get a fratricide briefing from a British officer a few days ago) issued us an operations order (OPORD) for two missions: a blank-fire lane and the live-fire lane. Before firing real bullets, Army training normally involves executing the same or a very similar mission using blank ammunition, and this training is no different. There were also several rehearsal lanes available to us, so we went out into the desert and practiced several of our battle drills to prepare us for today's training. Once we returned to Buehring we got the vehicles ready for today's mission, briefed the team on the plan, and got some sleep in anticipation of our 0230 wakeup.
As Robin Williams observed in "Good Morning Vietnam," the 'oh' on 'oh-two-thirty' stands for 'Oh my God it's early,' although we had little difficulty getting out of bed and heading to the vehicles to move downrange. By 0430 we were on the range, and at 0500 the first MiTT headed out for the training. Our turn came about ninety minutes later, and for the next ninety minutes we dealt with simulated IEDs, Iraqi civilians, Iraqi Army and Police forces, ambushes, and more. The training was pretty intense, as they have over 100 role-players on the battlefield playing the roles of insurgents and local civilians, meaning the towns are busy and we have to be careful when we're driving to ensure we don't hit anything or anyone. It is big value-added to the training, as too often simulated Iraqi villages are easy to maneuver in, an advantage we won't have in country.
The only real problem with the training was the same problem we've seen over and over again with our training: we just don't do enough of it. I would really like to have the chance to go through lanes like today's for many days, until our battle drills are second nature, but there just isn't the time or the resources to support that, so we have to augment this with our own team internal training. But days like today are really high-payoff training for us, and it's impossible not to wish we could have more of them.
Once I got back to Buehring I picked up my laundry; the Army has a contract for people to wash our clothes for us, probably because that's cheaper than having a bunch of washers and dryers all over the camp. While I was there I chatted with a gentleman from Bangladesh who reminded me (inadvertently) that I'm a pretty lucky guy. He's been working for this company for over three years, and he only recently got back from his first vacation in that time. He was away from his family for three full years before he could go home, and he has a four-year old child. I get to go home in a year. He'll be working here long after I'm gone to support his family. Suddenly a tour in Iraq doesn't sound nearly so bad.
We had three tasks on the schedule: verifying the zero on our weapons, close quarters marksmanship (CQM) and entry control point (ECP) live-fire.
Zeroing weapons means making sure that the bullets go where the sight is pointing. We already did that at Fort Riley, but since the weapon is little more than a heavy and unwieldy toy if it doesn't shoot where you're aiming, we double check it here before heading north. For most of us, this procedure went quickly. My own sight required a minor adjustment to put it back dead center, and I was good to go. A few people, however, had bought new sights for their weapons. While I'm perfectly happy with the sight the Army gave me, some people prefer different sights or scopes, and those have to be zeroed to the weapon, which took some time.
With that task finally complete we sat down in an air-conditioned tent to get a review of entry control point procedures. An entry-control point is the gate to any restricted area, like a FOB. Controlling access to a military installation in a combat zone is a complex endeavor. There are plenty of civilian vehicles that are permitted on Coalition installations, but because the enemy uses vehicle-borne IEDs against us, we have to be sure we're only allowing the right vehicles through the gate. The intent of yesterday's training was to practice dealing with a vehicle that attempted to get through the gate, but a vicious wind that whipped up all the sand in our area reduced visibility to a point where we had to cancel the live-fire.
Instead we went back to the tent to review the CQM plan. CQM is how we fight at close range, and it focuses on bringing the weapon up quickly and firing accurately. We do this over and over again, because it's all about muscle memory. You have to practice identifying the target, bringing up your weapon, taking it off safe, firing aimed shots, putting it back on safe, and bringing the weapon back down many times until you can do it without even thinking about it. Because most engagements in this war are up close, it's vital we be able to kill the enemy up close and personal, and this training helps prepare us to do that. Hopefully it will never be an issue, because we're not in Iraq to fight, but if the occasion arises, we have to be ready.
The CQM training was somewhat painful, both because of the blowing sand and heat and because we were bunched close enough together that every time my medic fired a round, the hot brass hit me. Fortunately, none of it burned me, while he now has a nasty burn on his neck where a spent casing managed to get into the collar of his body armor. One thing people don't realize about weapons is that they are not only dangerous because they're designed to kill people, but that they can do some real damage by accident. The Army pushes safety very hard to mitigate those risks, but accidents still happen. But the burn is a minor one, so Doc will go on just fine.
Today was the 4th of July. There are no days off over here, but we did get to do a 'fun run' this morning. A big chunk of the camp showed up to run five kilometers in the morning heat. The Army is big on running, so these events always draw a crowd. I don't know that I'd call it a fun run, but almost everyone on the team completed the run and got a t-shirt to prove it, and it was nice to have a little something different to do in the morning. The dining facility offered cake for dessert at lunch, a little birthday surprise for the U.S.'s 231st birthday. I doubt there will be fireworks tonight, but we all comfort ourselves with the knowledge we'll probably be home for the next 4th of July.
I should also note that we finally got the infamous steak and lobster for dinner. I only had the steak, but it was pretty good for mass cuisine.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:47 AM | Comments (5)
Fortunately, the human body adapts to change pretty well. I've only been here for two days, and already the heat doesn't seem unbearable, although I know that the day after tomorrow, when we go shooting and have to wear body armor for the first time, will be rough. But the only way we're going to be able to get used to it is by doing it, so while I'm not looking forward to it, it will be good training.
We arrived in Kuwait almost exactly on schedule. That fact is all the more impressive when you consider how many little problems we had on the way. We had to reload the aircraft at every stop, which meant we ended up staying extra hours on the ground every time before we could make the next leg of the flight. The only reason we ended up landing early was because we ended up cutting out one leg of the flight, going directly from New York City to Germany without stopping in Ireland as was originally planned. It worked out, but it made for a long and painful voyage.
And it wasn't over when we landed. As soon as we touched down we were told that we would have to stay on the aircraft so our bags could be transferred to a truck, and that we weren't permitted to take pictures. There was a C-5 on the runway, and five caskets were loaded on board while we waited to deplane our aircraft. A somber reminder of the dangers of this part of the world.
Those reminders kept coming as we were informed that the airbase was under a security lockdown, and so we couldn't be permitted to leave yet, so we all went to a holding area to wait. After less than an hour we were free to leave, so we loaded the buses and moved to the edge of the base. There we had to draw ammunition for four personnel, just in case anything happened while we were heading to our base. All the curtains on the buses had to remain drawn as well, I'm not sure why. All in all, it was a sobering way to start our time in theater.
We dropped the National Guard unit at another camp before heading north to Buehring, where we will spend about ten days training before we leave for Iraq proper. The training here is intended to reinforce what we learned at Fort Riley, focusing on items considered of particular importance. We'll refire our weapons, conduct some convoy and IED training, and get some more Arabic training, among other things. There are a total of eight days of training scheduled for Camp Buehring.
The camp is pretty nice. Our building is a frame tent, a metal frame with white canvas to keep out the wind and sun. It has lights and air conditioning, so it is reasonably comfortable, although I'm not partial to cots as a rule. It certainly beats sleeping out in the weather, however, as we're experiencing a pretty nasty windstorm at the moment. For a place to stay for a few days, it's quite satisfactory.
I'll be happy when we leave, though. I am ready to get down to business after three months at Fort Riley. So we'll take advantage of the training here, but my eyes are on the mission now.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 09:28 PM | Comments (6)