23 August 2009

The Squad Leader

SSG Jake Roberts, Squad Leader, 1864th Gun Truck Company

Deploying to a combat zone for the very first time can be a life changing event for anyone. It can be even more so when you’re deploying to theatre for the third time, but as a newly promoted Staff Sergeant with new responsibilities and a dozen or more soldiers suddenly dependent on you for leadership and guidance. Likewise, suddenly being thrust into the unenviable position of having these same soldiers lives in your hands, and doing a job you’ve never done before, can seem like an insurmountable task to the best of them. How does a man just 27 years of age confront such responsibility for the first time?
I had a chance to talk to Staff Sergeant Jake Roberts about such an assignment.

Staff Sergeant Roberts, a Carson City, Nevada native, is currently deployed as an Escort Commander with the 1864th Gun Truck Company, Nevada Army National Guard, stationed out of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a mere 4 months into his 12 month tour.
In his civilian life, Staff Sergeant Roberts works full time for the Nevada Army National Guard, and also works part time for the Douglas County, Nevada Juvenile Detention Division. In his spare time, Staff Sergeant Roberts, like any Northern Nevadan, loves to take advantage of the outdoor beauty of our region and enjoys, fishing camping and snow boarding.

Although new to the position of Squad Leader, Staff Sergeant Roberts is not new to combat. During his first deployment to Iraq in May 2005, Staff Sergeant Roberts was assigned as a .50 gunner. But on this day, he had agreed to let his Truck Commander ride in the turret while he rode inside the humvee. His convoy was escorting several trucks to Tal Afar, Iraq when one of the third country national trucks was suddenly hit by an IED. “Our Bradley (armored) escort stopped in it’s tracks which stopped the entire convoy”, Staff Sergeant Roberts told me. “It was then that we were ambushed with concentrated small arms fire. I got out to return fire when I suddenly started receiving small arms fire from a house behind me”. Staff Sergeant Roberts was nearly struck by several rounds before the gunner was able to return fire from the turret, and destroyed the house and the insurgents inside it.

Staff Sergeant Roberts is not quite half way through what is now his third tour since the war began, yet this is his first real leadership assignment, having been promoted from the rank of Sergeant while still training at Camp Atterbury, Indiana in April 2009. Speaking for the first time about the pressures of leadership, he said of being promoted, “Well at first it is a great feeling of accomplishment and success, then after that settles in for a little bit you start to think about how will you do as a squad leader, what type of leader am I or should I be? It sinks in that there is going to be a lot of pressure on you from now on”!

Staff Sergeant Roberts volunteered for this deployment after being told by his commander in Reno that the 1864th Transportation Company would be deploying and was in need of good NCO’s. He knew then that the job that lay ahead would be unlike any before. “Considering that during my first deployment to Iraq in 2004 I was a private, I basically was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was a gunner throughout my deployment so I was never really in charge of anything. This time around I am in charge of 14 soldiers, I’ve personally signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and am in charge of the security element when we go out on convoy. If our convoy is attacked then it’s ultimately up to me to decide our next plan of action; do we have the ability and justification to engage or not, do we need to call for medevac to evacuate our wounded”?

After being promoted, Staff Sergeant Roberts found that his world and his role in it had suddenly changed. He was now a squad leader, a role he had never assumed before. There’s a vast polar difference between having a two man crew under you in a gun truck and suddenly having to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of government equipment and 14 other lives. To prepare himself, Staff Sergeant Roberts looked to other senior NCO’s who had been there; leaders who had influenced him. “I talked with some of my former Squad Leaders and platoon sergeants to get a feel on some key areas I would need to focus on to be successful. I also took the good qualities from them and said to myself, that’s how I want to be and then added some of my own. I think it’s important for a leader to know his troops inside and out and know that because of his example, that his soldiers will have the confidence in him necessary to follow him without question“.

A good leader also knows his weaknesses. Staff Sergeant Roberts stepped up to the challenge and confronted his own head-on. “My number one fear was, would I be able to handle this task that lies ahead of me? I knew I had the experience but was it going to be enough? After our final training mission at Camp Atterbury before deploying overseas, I felt much more confident. We had completed our final convoy escort training mission and had survived several intense complex ambushes. I saw how our squad came together and how we just clicked as one team. It was then that I knew I was going to be ok”.

We all still have a lot of time ahead of us here on this tour. Each time we go out, we wonder if this mission will be the one where we get hit. We wonder about our own mortality and secretly hope that it’s not us that wins the “Iraqi Lottery” that day. Lately we hear of more and more bombings and civil unrest throughout Iraq. We’ve seen the vehicle bone yards here in Kuwait with the wreckage of war; Bradley armored fighting vehicles, Humvees, and even some MRAP’s turned inside out and blackened by fire, and our hearts sink just a bit. “I don’t think there is really anyway to prepare for that“, Staff Sergeant Roberts told me, speaking quietly about having to confront the possible eventuality of losing someone. “You just go out and do your job to the best of your ability and continue to train so its muscle memory, and leave the rest to the man upstairs“.

Looking forward to our homecoming and what lies beyond keeps us positive and focused. What lies ahead for Staff Sergeant Roberts? “I don’t know quite yet. I still want to go active duty but I would also like to stay in Nevada where I was born and raised. I would love to land a full time job with Guard in Las Vegas or in Northern Nevada. 5 years from now I still see myself in the Army, working on promoting to or already having been promoted to a Sergeant First Class and continuing my career in the Army”.
Like any new leader, Staff Sergeant Roberts has seen his share of good days and bad over here. Our squad, The Wolfpack, is like a family. We love one another, and some days we hate one another. We argue, joke and fight, but there isn’t a one of us who would not hesitate to lay down his life for his brother. Each one of us is here for a purpose much greater than our own desires, and Staff Sergeant Roberts is quickly coming into his own.

19 August 2009

Between Missions

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait 0230 hrs

Given the choice between pulling back-to-back missions and down-time, I would much rather be spending my time cruising Iraqi highways, staring at mud huts and featureless desert, and dodging potholes, camel spiders and "dub-dubs". "Dub-Dubs" are giant, beige colored 4 foot long, Kuwaiti, iquana-like lizards that are aptly named for the distinctive sound they make when you run them over with an up-armored humvee at 45 miles an hour. Hence the name "Dub-Dub".

Unfortunately, given the number of troops assigned to gun-truck and convoy escort security missions, there are only so many patrols to go around, which means that all of us at one time or another have to wait on the sidelines until we get called in for the big play. I have several friends that are fighting in Afghanistan now, and I have to admit that I feel just a tad guilty as I write this. I'm sure that they would kill for a little "down time", free from mortars, IED's and small arms fire, and the chance to enjoy some of the amenities that we do here as life goes on for us at Camp Arifjan. My apologies, boys!

Life for us here is backwards. It's too hot, and as the rainy season approaches here in Kuwait, too humid now, to work or do anything productive outside during the daytime. I joke with friends back home that I left my seniority at the Carson City Sheriff's Office, only to travle 7000 miles across the globe to work the graveyard shift. Just my luck. Fortunately, Arifjan has a fairly adequate nightlife for those of us that live like vampires, and plenty of distractions from the daily grind for those brave souls who dare venture out into the sunlight.

If one chooses to risk sunburn and stave off dehydration during daylight hours, there's always the AAFES (Army-Air Force Exchange Service) PX. It's a fairly decent sized complex roughly twice the size of your local Walgreens. The PX is stocked with everything a soldier might need, from personal hygiene items to electronics, from clothing to the latest periodicals, CD's, DVD's, groceries and jewelry. The only downside is that the Kuwaiti-run facility marks everything up roughly 25% to 50% above what you might spend for the same item in the states. Trust me, though; I'd willingly rather spend the extra cash than suffer being beaten by my fellow soldiers in my sleep with a sock full of oranges for refusing to replace my deodorant. Besides, we Americans come from a society that relishes instant gratification. Its much easier to simply hand over the twenty bucks for a DVD, or two hundred bucks to replace an IPOD than wait two weeks or more to have it mailed from home and risk it getting "lost" in transit. I'm not saying....I'm just saying. Which reminds me; If I ever find the Air Force mail clerks from Khandahar Airfield in Afghanistan that made off with my two boxes of goodies from home, they'll be introduced to a new level of pain and suffering yet unkown to mankind.

When not replacing deodorant, or financing a new IPOD, we can always visit the MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) facility. The MWR is a nice respite from the daily grind of eat-work-out-sleep-watch movies-routine that has become our daily life between missions. At the MWR, we can watch any number of channels on big screen TV's, play video games, billiards, rent movies, use the WIFI, or just hang out and visit with friends in air conditioned comfort. The MWR also is the place to keep up on announcements of upcoming concert events at Arifjan. The USO usually sponsors big name performers, from NFL cheerleaders (always a favorite with the troops) to Country Western and Hip-Hop artists. Mark Chestnut recently performed here. I'm personally holding out for Toby Kieth, but that's just me.

There are several Kuwaiti run outdoor souvenier shops and brand name shops such as Oakley that make up the outdoor bazaar. Theres a barber shop, nail parlor, massage center, even a Chrysler and Harley Davidson dealership! My buddy, Jake Sere, recently bought himself a brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle that he'll take delivery of when he goes home on leave this winter.

The Army is big on personal fitness. The Kuwaiti's (God Bless 'em) spared no expense on the gym. The "No Excuses" gym as it is called, is unlike most gyms that I have ever been to back home. Its a huge facility and the equipment is top-notch. Personally, the gym is the highlight of my day, and I hate when I have to miss a day. Our daily workouts prepare us to successfuly complete our APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) which we are required to pass, or we cant go out on the road. Fortunately, at my age, all I have to do to pass is show up, fog a mirror and register a discernible pulse. Ahhh, the benefits of AARP!

Arifjan is also equipped with an olympic sized swimming pool! Now before any of our wives or girlfriends back home envision tanned, toned and thong bikini-clad female soldiers, think again. This is Kuwait, not the Mandalay Bay Casino resort pool in Las Vegas after all, and modesty is the watchword. Think of late 19th century suffragettes clad in neck to ankle swimwear at the Jersey shore and you get an approximate picture. I mean, if they used to lop off hands here for stealing, I shudder to think what they wold lop off for dressing like you just showed up for a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit shoot! Still, it's nice to lay poolside, plug the IPOD in and soak up a little sun. It's amazing how quickly you tan when its 132 degrees outside!

Food is plentiful here at Arifjan. If you tire of the usual fair at the dining facility, like T-bone steak and crab leg Fridays, there's always the food court. Hardee's, KFC, Pizza Hutt, Subway, 31 Flavors, and my personal favorite Starbucks, adorn the outdoor foodcourt that is always a hub of social activity. In fact, this very chapter was born at Starbucks. The 4 shots of espresso I just consumed may explain it's wordiness.

Despite the abundance of distractions here for the thousands of US sevicemen and women stationed at Arifjan, it's important to remember that this is a country, despite its wealth and relative isolation, that is effected by war and terrorism. Just last week, the Kuwaiti government arrested six members of an Al-Aqaeda linked terrorist cell that was planning to attack Camp Arifjan with an explosive and chemical laden truck bomb. This is the week of Ramadan, the holiest of Muslim holidays, and always an excuse for those muslim extremists on the fringe to attack U.S. interests wherever they can. Despite the success of the Kuwaiti's in thwarting what could have been a disastrous attack, many of us here, especially those of us that have to travel for several hours along Kuwaiti highways to beyond the Iraqi border and back, are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It doesnt take much to remind us that even here in Kuwait, despite the U.S draw-down in Iraq and all that there is for us to do, we are still very much at war...and we arent even half way through our tour yet.

12 August 2009

One Man's Journey

Major General James E Rogers, commanding General of the 1st Sustainment Command, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, left, and Pfc Mario Nikic, right, after Mario was sworn in as U.S. citizen on August 6th, 2009.

I remember back about a thousand years ago when I first enlisted in the military. It was the spring of 1981 and I was an 18 year old high school senior, living in Scottsdale, Arizona. My dad drove me one morning to the recruiting office of the Arizona Air National Guard. My dad, a US Army veteran, pointed me to the air guard, saying, "You DON'T want to join the army, trust me". I didnt understand why at the time, but what did I know? I had seen pictures of my dad taken sometime in the mid to late 1950's. I still have one of those pictures today, framed at home. It's an old black and white photo showing my dad, a medic with the 63rd Engineer Brigade Combat Team/7th Army, posing next to a jeep as soldiers in the background erect a bailey bridge over the Rhine River in Germany. His unit, even as late in that decade as the photo was taken, was still repairing bridges damaged by allied bombing during WW2. Little did my dad know at that time what an inspiration that photo would be to me later in life.
My dad felt that I would have better accomodations and opportunites in the Air Force as opposed to the Army. He was only half right. My Air Force bretheren do live considerably better than we do in the Army. Especially in the field. While I was in Afghanistan, we lived in heated tri-walled tents. Crowded and austere, but one hell of a lot better than those poor guys did in the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions. They were living in bombed out and battle damaged buildings infested with rats, and often times had little cover from the elements. My dad used to tell me of eating WW2 era K-rations. In my day it was surplus Vietnam era C-rations while in the field. Air Force chow halls back then were more like 5 star restaurants. Hell, we even had waitresses at the Hickham Air Force Base chow hall that would clear our plates and re-fill our drinks!

So, at my dad's insitence, I joined the Air Force, and 8 days after graduating high school, left for basic training. I spent the next twelve and a half years, serving both in the Arizona and Nevada Air National Guard with the USAF Security Police. I deployed twice, once to Cairo Egypt and once to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan right after 9-11. It wasn't until I decided to re-enlist in the army in 2006 after being out for 4 years that I relaized that the Air Force had taught me nothing of what it is to be a soldier, or an NCO. There was something missing inside me. I wanted to be a part of something bigger and more important than myself. After all, there was a war on, and here was my chance to be a part of it and make a difference. Nearly twenty years as a police officer, training other police officers, had taught me alot about leadership, compassion and professionalism. The Army filled in the blanks.

Everybody has their own reasons for joining the military, whatever the branch. Those reasons are as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Some join for the benefits, the personal challenge, the promise of an education, or to stay out of jail. Others answer their country's call and join out of a sense of patriotism. Whatever the reason, few people realize what it takes in a man who is not even a citizen of this country to join because he wants to give something back to the country that gave him the promise of a better life.
Such a man is PFC Mario Nikic (pronounced Nik-eech) of the 1864th Gun Truck Company. Mario, 28, first came to the US at the age of 23 in early 2002 from Croatia, where he was born and had lived his entire life. Mario was part of a US/Croatian student and work exchange program. Mario had been a nursing student in Croatia and lived with a US host family in Montana while going to school and waiting tables at a Yellowstone Park restaurant. After 5 months, Mario returned to his native Croatia. Soon after returning home, he realized how much he missed the U.S. and the freedoms and opportunities this country offered. "It was hard living in a post war society in Croatia. I was amazed at how people in the U.S. lived free, normal lives. I wanted to live, and be able to travel and go to work without being judged for what religion I was."

It took Mario an additional two years to secure a visa to travel to the U.S. "When I came back to the U.S. in 2004, I arrived in New York with nothing more than a suticase and $30.00 in my pocket." Mario was only 23 years old. Mario said that it was important to him that if he was going to remain in the U.S., that he was going to do it right and do it legally. Mario lived in New York, Alabama, Montana and finally settled in Las Vegas, Nevada working odd jobs and paying taxes while working on his goal of eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.

I asked mario why he decided to join the Army. "I was impressed by how the Americans had helped my country. I finally enlisted in September, 2007. None of the other branches, not the Navy, Air Force or Marines could guarantee me that I would deploy antyime soon. Only the Nevada Army Guard did." What makes deploying as a U.S. soldier and facing the possiblility of perhaps having to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's country so important? "When war in Croatia broke out, I was only ten years old and too young to fight. My family's home and land was burned to the ground by the Muslims and the Serbs. The Americans were fighting our enemies now. I belonged in this war."
For Mario, the natural progression was to become a U. S. citizen. "It was my long term goal." After years of hard work and patience, Mario finally realized his goal and took his oath of citizenship on August 6th, 2009 at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Thirty seven other U.S. soldiers and sailors stood alongside him and were sworn in as new American citizens also. Major General James E. Rogers, Commander of the 1st Sustainment Command, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, adminstered the oath of citizenship, accompanied by a U.S Army honor guard and a representative from the U.S Consulate in Kuwait.
For so many of us, we forget how precious our hard won freedoms really are. We even take it for granted. Mario told me, "When I get to register to vote for the very first time, then it will sink in. This country wants and accepts me! It's a great reward."

03 August 2009

I Can't Hear You Unless You're Pushing Your Common Sense Button!

I found this cartoon from my favorite animator Bill Mauldin. Somehow this just seems very fitting.

I've never faulted any man for what he chooses to do for a living. Except for maybe Al Franken, or that 40 some-odd year old guy that I worked for at Jack in the Box when I was 16. That guy was more suited to be an Appalachian carny than he was greeting customers at 6 AM. But I digress.

Likewise, I, as well as every one of my fellow soldiers, strive to be as tolerant of various opinions about the war and what it is that we are trying to accomplish over here. I've always been of the mindset that whether you support the war or not, at least try and be supportive of the young men and women over here on the front lines. I've found that a great majority of Americans, in fact, are supportive of our efforts. This column is not necessarily for them, but for our dissenters. For those of you with loved ones serving over here, and those of you who support us through your continued prayers, e-mails, letters from home, and the occasional golden care package, put down your Sunday paper, drive to Starbucks, go for a morning walk, or cuddle with your children. Then come back in a little while and start reading at the last paragraph, after I've had a chance to vent. Forgive me. This may get ugly.

I used to listen in disgust to the reports from all of you conspiracy theorists and Code Pink whack jobs who spat out the ludicrous old line that we're over here for no other reason than "oil speculations". Ha!...I say again, Ha! I wish. If that was the case, I'd be supervising a team of world renowned geologists instead of two crew members on a gun truck, one of whom is younger than my own son, racking up thousands of miles on Iraqi highways, staring through two inches of armored glass at 3 legged donkeys and waiting for a bearded guy in a sweat stained man-dress and knock-off Bruno Mali sandals who stinks like hummus and goat shit to park an RPG in my right ear, while I make less base pay as a US Army Sgt than I do as a Deputy Sheriff!! In fact, there isn't a single soldier in our entire Company who, to my knowledge, has a degree in fossil fuel technology! You know what we do for a living? Collectively, we're bank customer service reps, casino workers, Home Depot branch managers, firefighters, cops, corrections officers, students, nurses, stock brokers, bartenders, retail sales clerks, supermarket checkers, lawyers, and even a mechanical engineer. Funny....not a single oil baron or Chevron executive in the entire group.

You may think that we spend our days securing oil fields and looting the Iraqi people of their most vast natural commodity. Not quite. Let me take you through a typical convoy. For operational security reasons, the names of actual convoy routes and FOB's will be changed.

We start in the heat of the day, after having been up all night doing maintenance on our aging humvees to ensure that they'll be able to handle the hundreds of miles of punishing roadway that lies ahead. After our vehicles are staged in the convoy lanes, we await inspection by communications and electronic countermeasure specialists to confirm that our equipment is functioning properly. After all, we cant rape the Iraqi infrastructure if we get blown up on the way to the fields by an IED, now, can we? Then and only then, do we get to eat. Being the last one in the chow hall usually means that you get the tail end of whatever is left. But were not done there. Later that morning (and by "later", don't assume that we have any time to catch a few winks in between) we have our convoy brief where we go over the game plan, destination, intelligence, etc.

If we're lucky enough to have a bus handy, we can usually get a ride back to the barracks in relatively air conditioned comfort after our briefing. Otherwise, its a 20 minute walk back in temperatures that hover somewhere around 120 degrees by 10 AM. After a few hours of sleep, assuming you've already had time to pack for anywhere from 10 to as long as 30 days out, we report to the arms connex where we draw our weapons and ammo. Me? I'm lucky enough to only have to draw my own personal M4 carbine and 240 rounds of .556 mm ammunition. Joel, my gunner? He has to draw nearly 1200 rounds of ammunition, for both his .50 cal machine gun and his backup weapon, the M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) parachute flares, night vision goggles, and the green laser, as well as both of his weapons and spare barrels for each. That's not counting armored vests, helmets, gloves, and extra G.I. socks. Let's see, did I leave anything out, like drilling equipment, the Lost Dutchman's map, ground penetrating radar or divining rods? By gum, I did. You know why? BECAUSE WE DON'T HAVE ANY! Funny, but none of those things seem to appear on the TO&E for a combat logistics patrol.

Once our humvees have been made ready, my soldiers' personal equipment has been checked, re-checked and checked again, and the Platoon Sgt or Company Commander have given us a few words of encouragement, we leave Kuwait and head out into the night and into the desert. Our first night is spent at a FOB not far from the Iraqi border. FOB Harpo is more like a giant roadside truck stop rather than a military installation. Its here that the entire convoy will meet as one before crossing the border and pushing on into Iraq. The Iraqi/Kuwaiti border is everything that you would expect a border to look like between two countries who are wholly distrustful of each other. Mile after mile of vast, open desert, littered with the remnants of the first Gulf War, and separated by twin 20 foot high concertina wire topped chain link fence lines that extend from horizon to horizon. But strangely, not an oil field in sight. In fact, every oil field I've seen since being here has been in Kuwait, with only one exception, and I've seen strip malls that were larger than the lone Iraqi oil facility that I've seen.

We then spend the next several days "FOB hopping". That is, escorting the trucks from FOB to FOB, protecting them from ambushes and looters alike. Not to take away from my brothers in the infantry who admittedly have it far worse than we do, but I've seen vacant lot squatters camps that were more inviting than some of the transient tents we sleep in. After all, nothing but the best for closet puppets of the oil industry.

Having been the target of sniper fire only twice before in my life, I'm not sure what's worse. Actually being targeted and shot at, or the anticipation of being targeted, shot at or blown up. As the insurgency begins to pick up steam again, and we hear in the news of more rocket and mortar attacks on many of the same FOB's that we visit, one cant help but begin to see armed insurgents in every shadow, or hidden IED's in every cardboard box, old tire or pile of trash along the roadway. Every dead dog along the highway becomes a potential threat to your life. The next time you drive past a dead animal or freshly repaired pothole on Highway 50 in Carson City, or McCarran Blvd in Reno, imagine what it would feel like if it suddenly blew up in your face and tore the doors and half of your right seat passenger from your Lexus. Imagine going to Farmers Market downtown and instead of enjoying a nice summer afternoon with your family buying strawberries, that strange looking, glassy eyed guy standing 30 feet away with the bulky coat on despite 132 degree temperatures suddenly vaporizes in a deafening explosion of gore along with 100 or so of your neighbors.

But you're right. Were not here protecting U.S resources. Were not here training the Iraqi Police and military how to protect their hard won freedoms. Were not here, fighting from street to street and house to house, rooting out the killers from the innocent and often times, not being able to tell them apart. Were not here ensuring that the Iraqi equivalent of our own families can go to the market, worship at their mosques, or drive along their own roadways without being blown to bits. Were here for the oil. That makes much more sense.

For all of you that have taken a break from your nightly UFO watch, or from trying to prove that 9-11 was an inside job, or that Niel Armstrong never landed on the moon, or from protesting in front of the capitol building with signs that read "GOD LOVES DEAD SOLDIERS", so that you can vilify us and call us "deplorable", or "a joke" or "part of the great failure here"; Thank you! Thank you for giving us something to chuckle about. More importantly, thank you for giving me something to write home about. I'm flattered that you think enough of me and my fellow soldiers here to put aside your REALLY important work and pay attention.

In the end, my two little girls, my adult son and daughter are proud of me, my wife, my parents and my brother (who also serves) are all proud of me. Our families and friends are proud of us, and the vast majority of Americans are proud of all of us. For your support and prayers, we will be forever grateful to you all beyond words.

And if you've just re-joined me, I apologize...I said that this might get ugly. But now I feel better.