Monday, March 23, 2009

The End of The Beginning

Mood: Settling In
Music: Seize the Day/Avenged Sevenfold

Seize the day, or die regretting the time you lost
It’s empty and cold without you here, too many people to ache over

Today is March 20, and I have been at my job for almost three weeks now. I have some catching up to do, but am at a point where I have to decide how to keep everyone up to date while being vague enough so that the Taliban assholes lurking on the internet (here fore after to be referred to as taloti) don’t glean anything of value from reading my blog. I’ll try to figure it out as I go.

I left off with me snoozing in my sleeping bag at the Udari range in Kuwait, thinking about the convoy exercise that would, for all intents and purposes, end our training. It was the last training we would get prior to moving on to our final destinations. The weeks spent in San Diego, Camp McCrady, and now Kuwait would all end after we went through the convoy exercise, and took a bus back to Camp Virginia. Everyone was eager to get it over with.

We started waking up, one by one around 0430 the next morning. The early risers got up, dressed, stowed their gear, and went outside into the pre-dawn, desert darkness to visit the port-a-john, eat an MRE, and clean up the best they could. The late sleepers then reluctantly began to stir, and by 0545 the lights were on and everyone was up, eating and getting themselves ready for the day. I ate a cold spaghetti MRE for breakfast, and then took three packets of instant coffee, dumped them into an empty water bottle, added a single packet of sugar, re-filled the bottle with cold water, and shook vigorously. It tasted a little bitter, but I needed a cup of coffee, and it would have to do. I offered some of the concoction to a buddy, who violently spit it out, and acted as if I had played some sort of practical joke on him by letting him drink it. Oh well, so much for sharing…

The first evolution of the day was additional reflexive firing training with our rifles and pistols. It was meant to build upon what we had learned at Camp McCrady. Unfortunately, the King of Kuwait had made some sort of decree about something important to the King and that somehow resulted in us being prohibited from firing live ammunition that day. The training we received was still OK, but at times it seemed comical. The thirty of us going to Afghanistan were lined up in a single row facing the targets we were supposed to be firing at, as the instructors slowly went through footwork and body movements. They built upon each other and slowly got more complex. It looked like we were learning how to country line dance, except we were wearing body armor, and slinging weapons around. The instructors did the best they could, but everyone was disappointed we weren’t firing any ammo.

After we finished line dancing in the desert, the folks who had been selected to be drivers and vehicle commanders for the convoy exercise were sent to the motor pool to draw the hummers we would be using. All of us then went back to the tent for some classes on convoy operations, and to review portions of the exercise scheduled for the next day. Before breaking for lunch, the instructor let us know that the remainder of the day’s training would be directed by what I wanted to do. Huh? As the convoy commander, I was supposed to come up with a list of topics that I wanted to go over to get the class ready for the convoy exercise. Time to start thinking As we were let go to eat MRE’s for lunch, I pulled the other five vehicle commanders aside to get their opinions as to what they thought was needed to get everyone ready. Right off the bat, I made it clear that my top priority was clear communication and proper radio procedures. During the convoy exercise at Camp McCrady, I had sat back and watched as everyone talked on top of each other, held their mic’s open for extended periods of time and basically cluttered the net so that no one could effectively talk to each other. Since it was my show to run, if no one learned anything other than how to calmly, clearly and succinctly communicate on a radio, I would be happy. After making sure all the vehicle commanders (who would also be the radio operator for each vehicle) were on board with communications, we then decided the gunners from each vehicle should get together and come up with a common set of hand and arm signals so that they could communicate with each other independent of the radios while they were standing up in the turrets. We also decided that the drivers needed some additional instruction on vehicle safety, and instead of just hopping into the vehicles and driving around, we would have every one stand in their respective positions next to the vehicles and walk through as many scenarios as possible before even stepping foot into the vehicles.

After lunch, as we were standing next to our vehicles, pretending to drive, and literally walking through different scenarios, the Iraq group passed by and gave us curious glances as they drove out into the desert to rehearse. I could hear unspoken questions from some in our group as to why we weren’t out driving around and why we were doing what appeared to be a kabuki dance in the sand next to our vehicles. After we had walked through as many different scenarios as possible, and spent some time going over safety issues, we mounted up in our vehicles and moved out. Our convoy of six vehicles followed the instructor out into the desert and after we had a chance to get used to driving in formation, and had established good communications, the instructor began calling out different scenarios over the radio. As a group we responded well, but it immediately became clear to me that things got real complicated real quick trying to keep track of six vehicles as the instructor was calling out which vehicle was disabled, who was dead in each vehicle, where the enemy contact was coming from, etc. I tried to keep track of it all in my head, but soon found that I was scribbling in my note book to make sure I knew who was where and who was doing what. After the third or fourth scenario, the instructor told us that we were doing well, and that he thought we were prepared for the exercise the next day. He asked if we wanted to run through any more scenarios, I said we could do one more on the way back to camp, but wanted to make sure that it was still daylight when we got back. It is easier to eat when the sun is up, then it is to fumble around with flashlights trying to eat MRE’s in the dark.

While we were cleaning up from dinner and after the sun begun to set, the Iraq group rolled back into camp. After everyone was settled for the evening, the vehicle commanders and I spent time reviewing some of the scenarios that we had run through earlier. I let them know that after the second or third scenario, I had to start writing things down to keep them straight. I made an offhand comment about how I wish I had a grease pencil so I could scribble on the windshield while talking on the radio and scanning out the window. We only spent about 30 minutes or so going over things, before I went outside for a walk.

I had my boots on tonight, and a jacket. The same group that was standing around chatting last night was there again, laughing, complaining and doing imitations of some of the quirks of the various people we had spent the last four weeks with. As with the night before, some in the Iraq group were still up discussing their convoy exercise. I felt like I could do more, but the things that I and the other vehicle commanders thought important; communication, immediate actions to respond to simulated attacks, vehicle safety, and formation driving, were all covered well enough that going over them anymore would not add any value. However, before going to sleep, I opened up my little green notebook, drew six circles and labeled them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I then made the same marks on six consecutive pages. That way, after each scenario ended I could turn the page and start over. Hopefully having a fresh page for each scenario would help me keep better track of the vehicles during the exercise.

The next morning was just like the last morning, except that everyone woke knowing that as soon as we were done with the exercise we would be busing back to Camp Virginia, getting hot showers after three days without, and finally, finally getting our travel plans for moving on to Afghanistan. (or Iraq) This was truly the end of the beginning of our deployments.

After eating an MRE, packing our gear, and cleaning out the tent, we were all anxious to get started. As the other vehicle commanders and I reviewed some last minute details, a commander, who had been listening to us talk yesterday, handed me a black grease pencil, and said, “Do you still want one of these?”

“Absolutely,” I replied, not really thinking to ask where he found one out here in the middle of nowhere.

We loaded into our hummers, conducted radio checks, fell in behind the instructor’s vehicle and drove into the desert to begin the exercise. I hastily scribbled the same pattern of circles and numbers that I had drawn in my notebook the night before on the windshield with my new grease pencil. The instructor called over the radio to let us know that the “game was on” and then sped away, out of sight over the nearest berm. We were to continue on the road (there really wasn’t a road, just tire tracks in the sand to follow) we were on and respond to whatever they threw at us.

The first and second scenarios were some of the basic situations we had rehearsed several times and we responded well. I made marks on the windshield to keep track of which vehicle was damaged, who was towing whom and the number of dead and wounded in each vehicle. After the first scenario, I tried to wipe my marks off the windshield to reset for the next situation, but eventually resorted to spitting on my drawing and rubbing it clean with my forearm before redrawing a new set of vehicle symbols. We were working well as a team and our emphasis on proper radio procedures seemed to be paying off because the radio traffic was crisp, succinct, and to the point. The instructor called a halt and we all dismounted and formed up around him. We reviewed what we had already done and he provided us some feedback on minor things we could have done better, but all in all he said we were doing well, better in fact than some of the Army personnel that had previously gone through the exercise. He let us know that we were about half way done with the exercise, and that the next couple of scenarios were complex and designed to be “no win” situations where the intent was to completely wipe the convoy out. Great. I get to lead us all to our doom.

This seems like a good place to break. I swear, in the next post I’ll finally get to Afghanistan.

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