One foot after another; Update 3/12/06

Four months now is how long I’ve been back on active duty and every time I think the training and disorganization here can’t get any worse…it does…and to an extent, that despite the seriousness of our purpose here, it is almost comical. It would take pages of ink to explain all of the reasons why, so I’ll spare the details and tell you about a few of the things that have gone right.

With little more than six weeks away from deployment my entire unit – Alpha Company of the 402nd CA Battalion – is finally on the ground and we have begun training together. The unit can roughly be divided into thirds: one-third are people are like me – recalled to duty, another third are drilling reservists from the actual 402nd battalion and the final third are a composite group from various other reserve units from around the country.

While I’ve met my supervisors, peers and subordinates already, there are still changes being made to the battle-roster. This is being done to ensure a better balance of skills and experiences across the teams.

During our first full week together the Army brought a few of the officers we will be replacing in Iraq to Ft. Bragg and we received fairly detailed briefings on our area of operation. I found these to be very informative and am grateful someone had the foresight to bring these people here. One fairly certain thing I took away from these briefs it that things won’t be dull. Word on the street is we’ll have two weeks with these guys once we hit the ground in Iraq to transfer responsibilities and have them show us the ropes.

On a side note, there’s been a short book written by an embedded journalist about the unit we are replacing titled “Waging Peace” by Bob Schultheis – one of our briefers is the main character of this book. [Note: since this message, I've read this book and it's terrible. It was useful to learn about some of the guys we'll be replacing, but in terms of useful discourse about Civil Affairs, it's worthless].

Anther worthwhile investment of training time was the Pre-Deployment Iraqi Arabic Course which I completed last week. In short, this was a two week crash course on the local Iraqi language and culture. Our instructor was a former Iraqi Army officer and secular Shiite, whose first name “Sabaah” means “morning” in his native language. Sabaah joined the resistance against Saddam in 1995 and fled the country in 1997. His perspective and military background were inherently valuable, but more importantly his passion a secular and democratic Iraq reinforced my personal inclination to believe we are doing the right thing over there.

Initially, Sabaah was confusing the word “strong” with “power” and to the class’ amusement, kept referring to me as Captain Power as opposed to Captain Strong. I didn’t particularly mind, (it does have a nice superhero ring to it) but after three days I think he figured out why the entire class was smirking every time he addressed me as such and promptly changed my name to Kowee which is Arabic for strong. “Knockeeb Kowee (Captain Strong) would you please read the first word on the board for us.”

The amazing thing about this course was that in two weeks he did in fact have us reading Arabic, a language with letters that to me, at least initially, looked like little more than modern hieroglyphics. There are 28 letters in the academic Arabic alphabet – plus three more letters (Paa, Cha and Gaa) that are used in the Iraqi dialect.

Now when I say “read” I have to qualify that by saying if you present a sentence to me, provide me unlimited time to spell out the letters and then sound out the word, I can do it quite well. Much of the group spent the better half of last week sounding out Arabic words and perhaps more closely resembling third grade American kids learning English.

However, all in all, my vocabulary must be up around a thousand words and I have a pretty good understanding of conjugation. I think I know enough to be able to point and repeat phrases well enough to communicate on a basic level. And I hear talking louder helps too! Or maybe, I know just enough to get myself in trouble.

Other training that we’ve completed over the last month has included Blue Force Tracker (BFT) which is a computer system that tracks the movement of friendly forces on the battlefield via a global positioning system (GPS). Most vehicles have a BFT device on them that automatically reports the position of friendly forces and individual operators can view these on the computer screen in their Hummer. In addition, observed enemy locations can be reported to the entire coalition evacuation with the click of a mouse. The system has fairly detailed maps in both graphical form and aerial reconnaissance photography which is useful for studying terrain while planning missions.

We’ve also done a variety of exercises in a simulator called the Engagement Skills Trainer which is sort of multi-million dollar 3D video game which, among other things, provides visual feedback on the accuracy of shooting. M4 rifles are modified with lasers and compressed air that simulate the recoil of a weapon. When shooters fire these weapons at the giant movie screen the computer registers hits but also charts the movement of the barrel before the trigger is pulled – this way shooters can see how their breathing or trigger pull affect the accuracy of their shots when the exercise has ended.

Speaking of shots, my shoulders could be mistaken for pin cushions. Anthrax, Small Pox if there’s a vaccine available, I’m pretty sure I’ve had it. Even as a child, I don’t believe I ever had the small pox vaccine and as a consequence had quite a severe reaction to the extent that I made a panicked phone call to my sister, an experienced Air Force nurse, to ask if I should go to the hospital. After I sent her photos of swollen lymph-nodes via my camera-phone, she concluded that I had every symptom medically possible which pointed to the fact that it was a “successful vaccination.” In other words, I’m a big wimp and should suck it up and drive on.

One foot after the other.