Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Army organization and waiting to go home

Sheila’s got a post up that’s inspired me to write something about one of the most difficult times in my recent past. She was brave in baring her soul and wrote an amazing piece. I doubt I will be quite so brave, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that it was nowhere near as brutal to my psyche as her torturous trip was to her.

To properly understand the story I’m about to tell, I have to provide a somewhat lengthy preface. Some of the current and former military folks and military enthusiasts who visit regularly will understand what I’m talking about, but I feel that I need to explain the irregularity of my situation.

Continue reading, but I warn you, it's amazingly long.

I should start by explaining the structure of an Army company. The average or ideal company (usually designated by an alpha character A, B, C, etc.) is sized around 100-150 personnel and further broken down into three to five platoons (usually designated by a numeral 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Each platoon consists of four or five squads (numeric again) of eight or 10 people. In a combat arms unit, those squads usually consist of two, four- or five-person fire teams. Each team has a team leader who is a corporal (E-4) or sergeant (E-5). Each squad has a squad leader who is, ideally, a staff sergeant (E-6). Each platoon has a platoon sergeant who is, again, ideally, a sergeant first class (E-7) and a platoon leader, ideally, a first lieutenant (O-2). The company is led by a first sergeant (E-8) and a company commander who is a captain (O-3). There is also a company executive officer who is the company commander’s second and he is a first lieutenant (0-2).

So, in a normal company, if you are a sergeant (as I was), you would be in a squad. You would probably be a team leader. You chain of command is from you, to your squad leader, to the platoon sergeant/platoon leader, to the first sergeant/CO. They take care of soldier’s problems and work information back and forth along these channels.

Outside of this squad/platoon/company chain of command structure, there are jobs within the company that are filled by these same platoon leaders, sergeants, etc. Each company has sections that deal with personnel issues such as leave, awards, records, etc. (known as S-1); security issues such as intelligence briefings, updating and initiating security clearances (S-2); training and planning (S-3); and logistics (S-4). There are others, but these are the primary shops that company personnel deal with. Within each ‘1, ‘2 , ‘3 and ‘4 shop, there are subordinate activities. I’ll pick the ‘4 shop as it has a bunch. Underneath a company ‘4 there is Company Supply, Company Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (sometimes assigned to the ‘3 shop for God knows why) and the Company Unit Maintenance Officer/NCO. There are usually a few soldiers working in each shop.

If you’re in, say, an Infantry unit, your job is to do infantry stuff. If you’re not in the field training, or deployed doing infantry stuff (that is, bringing death and destruction to the enemy) they are maintaining equipment, etc. Usually, within the company, the folks who are acting as company personnel officer/NCO, supply, etc. are doing so as a secondary duty and are actually infantry soldiers, although, sometimes, they are actually personnel or supply-trained individuals assigned to these companies for that very specific duty.

This is not to say that company-level personnel waste tons of time doing these additional duties and such. There is usually an administrative platoon (or sometimes an entire company serving a battalion) filled with this personnel. Anyway, I stray off point.

Basically, within a company, regardless of what your real job is, be it infantry, artillery, EOD, ordnance, or finance, your unit has to fulfill the basic S-1, 2, 3, and 4 functions.

I spent an inordinate amount of time on all this to bring you all to this point: outside of combat arms, deployable, “real world” mission units, most companies in the Army aren’t set up this way. You may have only 50 people in some companies and 250 in another. Some companies don’t have platoon leaders. Some don’t have squad leaders. It’s all based on the mission of the company’s personnel. For example, at Fort Huachuca, I worked in under a Garrison Command. My company, structurally fell under said command in a convoluted fashion. It was comprised of Public Affairs, Legal, Personnel and other offices.

Now these aren’t the company-level folks, these are offices that serve the entire installation and are basically assigned to a company for administrative purposes. But the company still has to fulfill S-1 through ‘4 duties.

To shift thoughts onto my main point: The Army, in its finite wisdom, decided to create something called Public Affairs Detachments. These eight-person units are comprised of a commander, a noncommissioned officer in charge (E-6 or 7), a Public Affairs NCO (E-5), three junior-grade (E-1 to E-4) print journalists and two junior-grade broadcast journalists. This unit is designed to deploy in support of operations at a division level. Great in theory and good in practice. However, problematic when not deployed.

Here’s the issue, this little eight-person detachment, by having it’s own command element, is responsible for doing everything a “normal” company does. That is, you have to deal with personnel issues, supply, maintenance, NBC, unit movement, training and all the wealth of other issues on top of your normal PAO job (which was preparing to deploy, maintaining equipment, PAO and soldier training and supporting the Post Public Affairs Office newspaper and broadcast products). And you had to do it without any of the extra personnel a “normal” company has to do all these things.

In a logical world, in a place where common sense rules, these PADs are attached to larger companies. These companies do all the personnel, supply, maintenance issues for the PAD. The PAD’s NCOIC and commander are a tenant and provide information to that company but are generally exempt from things like Battalion Training Meetings and the umpteenth little ittty bitty things that battalions like companies to do. Unfortunately, such an environment did not exist at Fort Polk, LA, when I was the 11th PAD’s public affairs NCO.

There were several different realignments of commands and we were tossed around to different units a couple of times during my three years there, but, for the most part, we had to rely on ourselves to do a great majority of company-level “shop” stuff. I don’t want to go into it too much as I’ve already eaten up a lot of space discussing this. However, what we wound up doing was using another company’s S shop resources, but doing all the paperwork (the lion’s share of the time-consuming nonsense) ourselves.

Taking care of business this way was standard operating procedure for us at Fort Polk when we finally got the call to deploy to Afghanistan. There are a lot of cool stories I could tell about that, but basically, as a unit we attached the “garrison” element at Bagram Air Base. It was easy to get personnel, maintenance and other issues taken care of because there were shops in place to service these needs. When deployed, the Army works like it’s supposed to. At home station you see the cluster foxtrot that drives a lot of us out of the service. The political posturing and Good Ideas Of the Moment (henceforth known as GIOM) that you see every moment of every day at home station are virtually nonexistent in a deployed theater (they do happen if you’re close to the command, but no where near as bad as in garrison).

So, one of my many duties in the PAD was that of Unit Movement Officer. The person that is in charge of making sure that all the unit’s equipment and personnel are ready to go and that the paperwork is all handled correctly. This person also acts as the liaison between the Unit Movement Coordinator -- a person or office dedicated to managing all personnel and equipment inbound or outbound of theater. The person tends to be old and curmudgeonly. They don’t have any patience for you not understanding the system. They don’t understand things like, “This is an additional duty, I’ve never done this before,” or “Could you please explain to me what I need to do?”

There’s the backdrop. Here’s the where we’re at for this story: At the end of a seven-month-and-change deployment to Afghanistan we’re trying to get all the paperwork and gear in order to ship back to home station. We’re also trying to secure dates of our replacement’s arrival so we can secure the dates of our departure.

There were a couple of issues with this. First, our replacements didn’t have a warm fuzzy on their departure date, just some semi-stiff maybes. Second, our colonel in charge of PAO in Bagram wanted to ensure at least two week’s overlap so we could train our replacements.

At first, the two seemed to have little to do with one another. They would arrive in plenty of time for us to do some right seat training and we could get on our merry effin’ way. However, once we got our departure dates locked in with the curmudgeonly UMC, it quickly became apparent that their arrival and our departure dates weren’t synching. At best, they were only going to have three or four days overlap and probably not that.

The colonel’s GIOM became policy though and we had to come up with a plan. We wound up splitting up our resources. We sent home our acting NCOIC (an E-6 attached to us from Ft. Drum, NY), two print journalists, and one broadcaster; all of our equipment excluding personal gear and weapons. That left me, my commander (a super cool guy I wish I was still in contact with) and a print and broadcast journalist. The replacements came on board, my entire PAD was there to greet them for a couple of days, but then our early departers departed and the rest of us were left to teach the newcomers the ways of PAO in Bagram.

That took all of a day.

Our stuff was packed we had everything ready to go, but we spent the next several days hanging out with the new guys in case they needed more information, more help, more something … the kind of things we never got when we arrived. And, once we were cleared to leave, came four of the hardest days of my life.

Overall, the time I spent deployed to Afghanistan was pretty easy. The job wasn’t hard, tent city life was pretty plush compared to those at forward operating bases and everything was geared toward keeping stress levels as low as possible. You don’t want people freaking out in a combat zone because someone’s riding their ass about something trivial. The biggest, hardest, most difficult part is missing your way of life. Missing your family. Missing your home. Missing your bathtub. Missing your yard. Missing your horizon.

We were all missing the things that we’d signed our lives away to potentially miss. But it was the end. We were going home! But we had no idea when.

When we made arrangements for our previous members to leave, they were manifested on a dedicated flight. They had a mission number. They had to because of the amount of equipment they were carrying. We, however, since we just had personnel and our weapons/personal equipment, had to try and catch a flight on whatever was smoking out of Bagram – catch as catch can.

Trying to get manifested on flights out of a combat zone can be difficult. First of all you have to understand that these are mission flights. The primary job of these flights is not to carry personnel, but to transport equipment, etc. and whatever space there is left is given to folks to fly out. Then you have a priority list. Injured personnel have priority over anything. In fact, they will bump mission flights. Then you have people who are traveling in theater on mission. This goes on and on until you fall to the bottom of the list – second from bottom: military going home; bottom: civilians going home; oh, and the below bottom, but still on the list: civilians going on leave.

So, you wake up really, really early in the morning to get to the A/DACG (pronounced “Ay Dag” [where the C goes, I don’t know] that’s Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group) where all the day’s flights are manifested. This is done at around 2 or 3 in the morning. Then you wait in a looooooooooong line, or you wait a looooooooooong time if you happen to be early in line and hope there’s a flight leaving that has enough room for all of your personnel.

We did this for four days. My commander and I would go down about 10 or 11 p.m. and wait until 2 or 3 a.m. to attempt to get manifested. We were, on two different days, tentatively manifested on flights. To the point that we moved all our gear down to the A/DACG only to learn that we got bumped off the one flight. The next day our manifested flight was cancelled.

I cannot explain to you the desperation one begins to feel when you are in this situation. Nothing is in your control. Everything seems left up to chance. You don’t even think about anything beyond the two or three things that you have any control over – eating, sleeping and shitting. You become zombie like waiting out time until you can let yourself hope again. And then, amazingly you’re on a plane. You get manifested – for real! You get all your personal baggage checked and palletized. You wait for the flight and then load up.

We flew from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan to Germany to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. We took a limo (really the only big enough to hold all of us and our gear) to Philadelphia and caught a civilian flight to Alexandria, LA. Home was never so nice.

But, there was this hole in my core that those few days had drilled into me. A complete sense of hopelessness; that whatever I do, no matter how much effort I put into something, ultimately I have little effect on the eventual outcome. And that really hurt.

I’m over it now, but it took time. And that’s the last thing I wanted to address – Sheila’s assertion that time does not heal all wounds. Her belief that time in itself does not provide the catharsis for closure. I understand her point. I sympathize. But I do not agree.

She says that time leaves things jagged, and askew. Well, don’t most substantial wounds heal this way? Doesn’t a deep cut or burn leave a scar; a memory that we carry? Some worse than others.

What I guess I’m saying is that time doesn’t make things better. Time doesn’t put things right. Time closes a wound and allows you to continue operating.

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