Not deploying as much anymore
War is delightful to those with no experience of it. — Erasmus
I was at a get together the other day for a church I go to. It was at someone’s house and was a chance to meet up with other social circles—connect with new people. I had some great conversations and a lot of fun.
While the lot of us were in the backyard, waiting for the grilling to finish up, I ran across a group of guys, all with close-cropped hair and faces clean shaven. Being somewhat of a military town, I assumed they were in the service and started chatting.
Turns out they were. They were Air Force (…damn Zoomies!). I asked if they were in the medical field. One was, but the few around me were IT guys. I joked about how I had made their lives harder by being one of the dudes who advocated for DoD social media use during my time around the Pentagon. They rolled their eyes and we had a laugh at the shenanigans troops still get into while using DoD computers in inappropriate ways.
These kids were young…geez…like “two or three years out of high school” young. I know that’s only going to get worse as I get older, but I hadn’t pegged them to be that fresh.
Anyway, they started asking me about my time in service, how I was a journalist, joined up after 9/11, all that stuff.
One of them asked, “So did you…like…deploy?”
The others stopped their chatting and looked to me to answer. I felt like Old Man Salmons about to tell his grandkids a war story. It caught me off guard.
“Um…yeah,” I said.
“Wow. That’s crazy, man. You went to war. Crazy.”
Wait, what? It took me a few minutes to process.
Normally I get that from civilians. The idea that someone might have to go to a part of the world where men are actively trying to kill you every day through various effective and laughably ineffective ways is alien to most sane people—as it should be.
But I wasn’t ready for this from these active-duty guys. In my day, everybody deployed. Constantly. All the time. Marriages fell apart. Suicide rates were through the roof. Men and women broke down. This year marks TWELVE YEARS of perpetual war. World War II was four, by comparison.
Hell, a big reason I got out of uniform because I didn’t want to be in Iraq or Afghanistan every other year for the next 14, then retire a burnt out husk.
But then I got to thinking. You know…things had changed. We had withdrawn from Iraq and abandoned them to their fate. We were about to yank ourselves out of Afghanistan in the same way. The military isn’t deploying as much! Which means fresh guys like the ones I was talking to might very well NOT deploy in the foreseeable future. Not that the entire posture of the DoD can be discerned by one guy’s conversation with four dudes, but still…
Blows my mind.
And I got to thinking how different things might start being for the rest of the services. Maybe easing off on the training schedules, not having to be in the field constantly practicing war stuff, not having to go to Fort Irwin is hot-as-hell-desert California for training every year, not having every moment peppered with the idea that deployment is coming deployment is coming deployment is coming. Secure your sh*t, troop, deployment is coming!
When this drawdown mindset finally does reach all corners of the services, it will be a big shift, but not unprecedented.
Dad talks about the cycles of build ups and drawdowns that the military goes through. He saw several purges and build ups during his 27 years. This one will be no different.
People will be asked to leave because the military won’t need the numbers. Like always, more good people will be expelled than bad, gutting the NCO and officer corps. It happens every time. Budgets will be slashed to the great consternation of those wanting more shiny toys.
It makes sense that it will happen or perhaps is happening, according to some of the activity around Washington. I just wasn’t ready to see the dawn of it, honestly. Part of me thought we’d go 1984 on things and just keep the war machine marching forward forever, swapping out names and places as we involved ourself in occupation after occupation.
Now we still and will continue to spend mind-boggling amounts on defense, but that’s another blog.
For now, yes, young airmen, Old Man Salmons went to war during his seven years in uniform. Many of us old timers did. So heed our joyless words and see the weight of our hearts.
Can you stop by Afghanistan on your way out?
To anyone who has ever served in the military, changes to plans are as commonplace as breathing. We even have a type of order for that helps us handle sudden shifts in direction. FRAGOs (fragmentary orders) are used throughout the military planning process, but usually end up as the “oh crap!” type of order that we all use to switch things up. FRAGOs aren’t complete (hence the fragmentary part) and go along well with “stand by” or “more to follow” instructions. Back in the states, waiting for the boss to arrive at a briefing? No problem. Deployed, waiting for the boss to figure out which road won’t lead to certain death? A little more interesting.
We usually just laugh about situations that go 180 degrees every four or five hours. I could tell you a lot of stories that involve a lot of troops waiting for hours in the rain, pounding metal rods through concrete (unsuccessfully, as we figured) to set up tents, briefing changes, ammo changes, miscues…normal stuff for most offices, but with high-caliber weapons and no climate controlled lounge to vent frustrations.
So, I’ve been looking forward to finishing out my term of service for a while now. My original plans involved getting out in January of 2008, but stop-losses being what they are, I stayed in a little longer. Truth be told, being locked in turned out to be the best thing for me. I ended up teaching at the military’s journalism school (and thereby escaping Fort Hood!), and was ushered in as one of the DOD’s social media paragons.
And yet, even the extended time was to eventually end–June of 2010 in my case. We get to save up our vacation days in the military and use them, if we wish, to edge back our final day. We call it “terminal leave” which is an ominous moniker that simply refers to the fact that at the start of this “terminal” period, we will finish spending our vacation days at the legal end of our enlistment contract. So, for me, having not taken many days off in the last while, I have a solid two months of vacation time saved up. So, June became April. Getting out of the military isn’t as easy as it sounds (as in NOT getting up early, NOT pulling duty, NOT saluting every third person you see). It actually involves mountains of paperwork to document the physical trauma most of us suffer at the hands of environments and men who try to kill us.
So the “out-processing” period takes time. Time, for me, that was rapidly approaching its end. Yet there was enough. I was starting to disconnect myself from work—a common theme, as commanders expect their subordinates to take care of themselves on their way out—nothing shirking about it.
That is, until I got a FRAGO of sorts. I got a call as I was heading out the door one morning from a Navy captain I know from the U.S. European Command. He said that Lt. Gen. Caldwell’s office needed me in Afghanistan ASAP. I thought it was hilarious—sounded like something out of a spy movie or action flick. Can’t really say “no” to that sort of direct request. I was told “more to follow” and the higher-ups got to work on the preparations.
So I’m heading over to Afghanistan in the next couple of weeks. NATO is revamping its NTM-A (NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan) websites and wanted me to put in social media initiatives and join a small, select team to formulate the strategic communication plan for NATO and the Afghan people.
Beyond that, there really is no plan. These sorts of special missions rely on the ability and knowhow of people who are put in the mix. So there will be no “wait and see” on my part. I’m starting my prep to hit the ground at full speed. What’s cool about NATOs intent is they want something that can interface with the Afghan people directly. There are, as you might figure, a number of obstacles and quirks to dealing with the Afghan public directly. One being a lack of computers. One being relatively high illiteracy. One being dialect issues.
However, a large chunk of the people have cell phones, in a strange juxtaposition of pre-industrial/post-industrial trends and technologies. These phones are hardly the ones most U.S. commuters cart around—and the cellular infrastructure is barely 1G; but they have cell phones! They get text messages, by and large. There are some Afghan carriers that have data plans, but those are often too expensive for much of the public. If NATO is to have success in establishing a rapport with the Afghan public, it can’t just have a fancy website with social media links and a Twitter feed, it’s going to need a shift in information distribution.
That’s where I come in. I’ve talked with some of my coworkers who have spent some years over there. I’ve tried to get some insight. I think a quasi throwback approach will be best for NATO. We can put a website in place, sure. That will serve the local and international media well. But I also want to see an SMS system put in place, where people can text to a number and get information. That means mobile-friendly versions of the sites. Moreover, that means very, very basic mobile-friendly versions of the sites.
Since dialects and illiteracy are still barriers to communication, I will also want to explore the possibility of having a sort of call-in voicemail system. Regular people will hear that they just have to call a certain number to hear what’s going on, and someone on NATO and the Afghan government’s side will read the stories aloud to them over their phones.
Granted, some will cry “propaganda” from these channels. One, that’s in direct violation of the DoD Principles of Information and the standing intent from our highest levels. Two, we have tried unsuccessfully to repair and restore the country for nine years. The Afghan people aren’t stupid, they know when they’re being fed BS. For my part, the system will be for the distribution of genuine information.
That is, unless I receive a FRAGO that orders me to cancel the Afghanistan trip and head downstairs for a meeting about the school’s website redesign. Ha! Wouldn’t that be painfully normal?