08 June 2011

My many colored days

A bad day in a combat zone looks a lot different than a bad day in the office. Make no mistake about it - I am going to war. And so are the 31 other guys who are here with me right now. And yesterday the war hit a little too close to home.

I hang out with the gunners here. Gunners are the guys who spend a majority of their time hanging out of the top of the truck with large (crew serve) weapons waiting to "put iron on target" (which is the military term for blowing crap up). They have absolutely the most important job there is to have when it comes to keeping people on convoys safe. And it takes a special person to be a gunner. Maybe an especially crazy person...but surely one with less fear than the average human being. But also someone with a heart of gold who will do anything to protect the good guys.

Johnny Cash is absolutely that guy. So is Juicebox. So is 7-11. One of those three is going to Afghanistan to be a gunner. And yesterday the guy he is replacing down there was shot and killed by a sniper. And of course he knew the guy.

And that's where the war gets personal to me...again. Maybe I haven't talked about my job at home...I am the person who is responsible for re-icing the bodies of all of the American service members who are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And to me and my team at Ramstein, those are fallen, faceless heroes. The only way to do my home station job is to never connect the transfer cases we re-ice with the people who have been killed and the families who are suffering. Instead, I focus on how important it is for us to do our job so that those families can see their loved one for the last time.

Just by chance I happened to watch yesterday as Johnny Cash opened the email telling him that he was going to Afghanistan much earlier than he expected. I watched his eyes glass over and the look on his face.

He didn't want to talk about it...I didn't press the issue. He was obviously shocked by the whole situation, so I just let him be. And today he told me more details. And he's still acting like it's completely fine. And maybe he is. But I wouldn't be. And in fact I'm not fine, knowing that one of my guys from here is going to that same place, doing that same dangerous job, and that something could happen to him.

But the real thing I struggled with was what to say to console someone who just received that kind of news. I can't say "you're going to be fine" because it's a combat zone. He may well not be fine. I can't say "I understand" because I don't.

So I settled for "I'll always be around if you want to talk." And I left it at that. And he did talk. Some.

And while I wait for him to keep talking, I'll be looking for the perfect good luck charm to keep my three favorite gunners safe. And I'll be thankful that there are kids out there, and literally two of these guys are just kids, who are willing to put their lives on the line to support and defend freedom. That's a pretty big deal.

But here's the thing that will floor you...the fact that Johnny Cash can look directly into my eyes and say "if I'm going to die, I want to be killed fighting for my country." And he's the reason I'll wear an American flag on the inside of my body armor. Because I think we could all be just a little more like Johnny Cash.

Simulated Fratricide

"When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity."
~ John F. Kennedy

My mother sent that quote to me yesterday, and she's absolutely right. Funny how moms are good like that (which is something I can only say now that I am 31 and not 16, but don't tell her that!) Anyway, it turned out to be the perfect prelude to my past two days. Yesterday we learned about hand grenades (and practiced throwing them). Today we learned how to breach and clear a room. And that was indeed a different story for me.

What I love the most about this place is that just when I feel like a total badass, something implodes in my face. Or I royally screw something up. Which honestly is the point of being here…screw it up with paintballs so that when it comes to actual bullets flying, I have a more significant change of getting it right.

Back to clearing rooms. Four man stack…which in Army terms is “butts to nuts.” I included a picture here because it really isn’t as terrible as people make it sound. Just four people up close and personal who breach the door (kick it in) then go storming into the room to make it safe (by shooting the bad guys). The key there is to shoot the bad guys…not the good guys. I’ll get to that in a minute. So we spent a majority of the morning learning how to clear rooms. We then cleared rooms using blank ammunition in our M4s. And then we were promoted to paintballs. And that’s when I came unglued, and I didn’t even know it was happening.

Bottom line is that I shot my own guy…fratricide. That’s really bad, and worse because it’s one of the guys I really like. I think it you would have put me in there about three more times I would have shot every single bad guy and kicked the boys’ butts. But paintball is apparently not my game. I am absolutely not afraid of running into a door with no idea of what’s on the other side. But the key with a paintball gun is that you still have to aim it, preferably at the target you intend to shoot.

I ran in like a champ. I was the number 3 man (third one in). Someone peeped around a corner on me. I shot him. A lot. One of my guys was close and a whole bunch of stray paintballs hit him. Needless to say the moral of the story today is that “ready, aim, fire” is intended in that very order…and that was not the order I used today.

Good and bad. Good because wow, I realized in front of everyone that I have plenty left to learn.  And bad because fratricide is a big deal…even with paintballs. The consolation I got from some of my other guys was “well, ma’am, at least you weren’t afraid to get in the door.” And while yes, that is true, I wasn’t afraid of the door, it is also true that the friendlies on the other side of that door should probably fear me just as much as the bad guys do.

Lots left to learn. About three weeks left to do it. And between now and then I will continue to be thankful that I am going to Afghanistan to run convoys and teach Afghans and not to clear rooms.

06 June 2011

The beginning of the end

It’s official. I’ve known the guys here for 7 weeks. But that’s really not an accurate measure, because when you factor in about 8 hours of class plus three meals, plus whatever free time, I’ve really known these guys for about 7 dog years. And I tell you what…with three weeks left, I am already starting to dread having to say goodbye to a few of them. A few others could get socked in the teeth and I wouldn’t miss the sounds of their voices, but that can be a story for another day (and yes, the Army is making me much more aggressive…just what I needed).

Interesting week here full of 14, 15, 16 hour days during which there were long periods of time where the Army E-6 (enlisted soldier who has been in the military for about 4 years) told a group of 60 of us to sit and wait…and wait…and wait. And two hours later, all of us were still sitting, waiting, and not asking questions. That’s when you know the Army has gotten the best of you…when you take orders from a junior enlisted soldier because you’re just too tired to come up with an independent thought.

Tough leadership week, too. Like I said, the Army is making me much more aggressive (something about walking around with two guns strapped to my body…) but it’s also forcing me to reconsider everything I know about leadership…and that is a very good thing. Now I am much more apt to get in someone’s face when they refuse to lead…like I did this week. Our team is “led” by  Major who we will henceforth refer to as The Slug. He produces nothing. He leads nothing. And my new favorite thing is to get a few inches from his face and say “If you are the leader, I expect you to lead. Period. And if you want to keep refusing, get the hell out of the way because our Airmen deserve better.”

I also watched my first family implosion. Hillbilly had a really tough day on Saturday. Here’s a quick summary…text wars between spouses are a very bad idea. In this case, it imploded into a complete misunderstanding and Hillbilly was very shook up. And he came to me asking for help. YES! I can lead. And the guys want to listen. Once the dust settled, my guy thanked me for helping.

And that’s how I measure success. When people come to me because they want my advice. And that happens here more than that has happened for me any other place. 

And to celebrate the fact that Hillbilly's marriage made it through the weekend, I took him, Juicebox and Tattoo out to the batting cages. I swear to you those softballs had faces. I had a contest with Tattoo to see who could hit the most out of 12 pitches. I won. These guys had no idea what they were in for...but I bet you did!