Monday, August 10, 2009

Goings On

During the brief time in my life when I pursued a career as a police officer, it was at best with a very uninformed, outsider’s perspective. I didn’t know much about police work, didn’t know what comprised a typical work day, and armed with the non-facts of half a dozen police-themed TV shows and movies, I had it all wrong. The stories cops themselves tell and the scripts that attract movie producers aren’t mundane, but frequently tragic, grisly, and action-packed. The end result is that most of us are left with the impression that cops are always in the act of speeding to a crime scene, arresting a violent criminal, or firing a never-empty service weapon at drug lords in a firefight that leaves half the city in shambles. None of this is particularly realistic. Police officers spend a great real more time than we realize just patrolling, or flippantly: sipping coffee and eating donuts. The boring parts are simply omitted when they tell stories.

Public misunderstanding of the military is remarkably similar, and quite likely more pronounced. Mothers presume that if their son wears a uniform, he will spend the next four years of his life either doing pushups in the United States, or charging the enemy’s bunker on combat. Neither assumption has much truth to it. If her son tells stories, it will pertain to the more interesting periods of his service, but there will be enormous gaps. Military service is a series of events which we combine to develop an opinion or a memory. When I think of the year or so I’ve spend in Iraq, I think of specific missions, specific firefights, and maybe the occasional altercation between me and a roommate over the top bunk. They add up to about three hours of my life, yet somehow develop into hours of stories, deeply-rooted opinions on US foreign policy, and a lifetime of valuable (and difficult) experiences. What happened in the other 364 days and 21 hours? Well, we did stuff. It’s just not as interesting to me personally, or the news didn’t report it.

In this manner, those at home are left to construct an opinion of a conflict based upon a veteran’s short stories and media reports which fixate on the more “interesting,” all at the expense of reality. No doubt, it increases their concern for their loved ones – perhaps unduly so. As a good friend (and veteran) recently reminded me, “more occurs in war than killing,” yet that killing becomes the primary focus of our service, perhaps to the point that everybody assumes the troops are constantly engaged in epic, linear combat.

Yesterday, a Soldier very keenly remarked that, “people at home don’t ever hear about the schools we’ve built, or the roads we’ve repaired, or the power plants we’ve reconstructed. All they hear about is war. They forget that this hasn’t been a ‘war’ since the earliest parts of 2004.” Yes, combat operations continued, but mostly in a defensive role – and intended primarily for self defense and ensuring stability. Nor will anybody hear that of more than 300 missions run in Iraq, this conversation took place on perhaps the most boring mission in which I’ve ever participated. All they did is drive up the road, drop off some lumber at an Iraqi Police station currently under construction, and drive back to base. Save for one of the vehicles catching on fire during the return trip, it was uneventful and will soon be forgotten. More likely than not, the vehicle burning will be the only aspect remembered.

If you asked the Soldiers here what they did yesterday, very few of the responses will involve war. Somewhere in the country, a unit or two was engaged in a firefight (probably briefly), but aside from that, most will tell you very little. Nevertheless, it was a typical day. Combat comprises but a miniscule portion of one’s service, but often becomes the focus. Let us now examine the question veterans most often hear: “what’s it like over there?” Some will answer simply “hot,” or that “it sucked.” If they tell you stories, theirs, like mine, will only encompass a few short moments of their service. Unfortunately, they do little to answer the question. Even my own writing casts undue focus on combat operations. It’s simply more interesting, however misrepresentative. Let us amend the question and try again: “what happened yesterday on FOB Brassfield-Mora, aka Silo?”

One small unit delivered some lumber to an Iraqi Police station, then towed back their vehicle that burned. Another two or three moved sandbags. Half a dozen Soldiers labored from dawn to well past sunset preparing, serving, and cleaning up meals at the chow hall. A few platoon commanders prepared micro-grant proposals based off of extensive interviews with local entrepreneurs and farmers, while their company commander met or teleconferenced with local Iraqi Police, Army, and militia leaders.

More than a dozen Soldiers manned radios and tracking equipment on base in support of units outside the wire, while several more worked to repair or maintain humvees, MRAPS, and other military vehicles. No doubt, a few were working to diagnose the vehicle that burned during that one small unit’s mission.

Scores of Soldiers cleaned weapons while a few Soldiers confirmed issued gear rosters for hundreds more. One unit relocated to another base, as this FOB prepares to be altogether dismantled and handed back to the Iraqis. A number of logisticians sat behind computers and coordinated what units will depart, when they will leave, where they will go, and what means of transportation will get them there.

A small handful of Soldiers dashed out to helicopters and quickly refueled them for the next leg of their flight, while others in-processed a few travelers and out-processed a few more. A few Soldiers departed on R&R and a few more solemnly returned. Throughout the country, hundreds read books, played cards, or created new games of their own. Several Soldiers took naps, either from exhaustion or boredom.

Well over a hundred Soldiers worked out in the gym, went on runs around the FOB, or otherwise saw to maintaining and improving their physical fitness. At least two manned the MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) room with its bank of phones and computers. Some packed their gear in preparation for relocation, and a few units laid out all of theirs for inspections, then repacked it.

Communications specialists worked to maintain radios and wire comm capabilities, and a few more unintentionally broke lines that would later need repair. A number wrote e-mails home, watched movies, or called their loved ones. At least a few telephone conversations ended poorly.

Several Soldiers contemplated reenlistement, several more prepared for transfer to new units, and a sizeable group readied to return to civilian life, college, and non-military jobs. This battalion is losing a solid 40% of its Soldiers soon after returning to the United States.

One company commander helped his Soldier study for a GED test, and later he stepped outside to help other Soldiers move sandbags late into the evening. Throughout his company office, several platoon leaders came and went, similarly covered in dust, preparing reports, briefs, and reconstruction contract proposals.

In every platoon, medics assessed and advised Soldiers on health problems, either treating them on-site, or referring them to the battalion aid station where they would be examined by medical officers and other staff. Quite a few medics readied to oversee redeployment health questionnaires to their charges, and a few updated medical records and a couple administered immunization shots. Some inventoried medical equipment.

Intelligence analysts processed the latest field reports, sifted through interviews, and conducted a few more of their own, preparing detailed reports to submit up the chain of command. Nationwide, several detainees were released, while a few more were taken into custody and handed over to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)

Elsewhere in Iraq, aircrews repaired and maintained fixed wing and rotor wing fleets while pilots delivered personnel throughout the country, others flew aerial surveillance missions, and a few conducted medical evacuations. Key leaders manned Joint Communication Centers, coordinating troop movements with their Iraqi Police and Army counterparts. A few small units conducted training courses for local ISF in preparation for them assuming full operations in short order.

I am unsure where the war took place.

None of this is intended to downplay the critical importance of combat operations, or suggest that Iraq is a very boring place and we should therefore all go home. In truth, much is happening here. The point is this: very little, if any, of these events (or non-events) will make the news or be reported back to loved ones in the states. It doesn’t mean nothing happened, or that the mission was a total flop. In many ways, silence is good news: nothing horrible happened.

What does remain critically important, however, is that the troops receive recognition for their service. They are doing amazing things, great things, and with an enthusiasm I know I wouldn’t possess after more than ten months in-country. Here, more than 7,000 miles from home, they continue to carry their weight and contribute to successful reconstruction and stability of this country, regardless of their belief in the mission. The vast majority want nothing more than to go home. And when they finally arrive there, expect to hear very little of it, for they have not done it for recognition, but simply because it was right. Just know that much took place.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Best account I have ever read of a day in the life of an Army unit. Good work!

  2. I like the perspective here, like Uncle Caesar said: A day in the life of an Army Unit.