Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Human Spackle

Do you want to know how people’s lives get tossed around and they end up in harm’s way in Iraq? Conversations like this:

“Hey dude, we got a tasking.” It’s my BN XO and good friend on the phone. Active Guard and Reserve officer. West Pointer and all around great guy.

“Oh shit, what for?” That’s my normal reaction. The last time we had this conversation, I lost twelve soldiers to Iraq. I’m still waiting for my turn to come around again.

“Just one. 35 Delta. Lieutenant.” A 35D is a standard Army military intelligence officer, one each.

“I got one left who hasn’t already been mob’d.” Mob’d, Army slang for mobilized. If you’ve been called up for over a year, like me, you can’t be called back up under the current rules. If you haven’t been called up, then it’s just a matter of time.

“2LT B, right?” my BN XO asks. (I won’t use 2LT B’s full name here.)

“Yeah, and I’d prefer not to use him right now.”

“He’s good? You like him right?”

“Yeah. I want to keep him. If we get hit with another big tasker for teams, I want to send him with soldiers so he can lead them. Fuck, I’m running out of troops. You know how empty my manning is.”

“Hmmm. Okay. I’ll talk to the other commanders and see what I can do.”

“What’s the tasking for?” I ask. “Who with? We need to find out. That might help drive our decision. Don’t want to stick the wrong kid in an infantry battalion.”

“Unknown,” the XO replies. “We tried to find out, but you know how it goes.”

So, I call 2LT B, and give him a heads up-- a WARNO to let him get ready.

A couple days pass and we have our monthly conference call with all the commanders. We’re running out of soldiers and officers who haven’t been called up. We go down the list of who’s left.

“We can’t send him, he’s a company commander.”

“Does he want to go?”

“Volunteer? Uh, no.” We all laugh. We’re all way beyond volunteering now.

“Okay, how about Lieutenant so and so?”

“Uh, shit. She’s in Dental School, right?” the XO observes. “New rule came out saying medical students can’t get mob’d. I think dental school counts.

“Shit,” I say. “You sure?”

“I’ll check,” the XO says. “But it’s looking like 2LT B.”

“Yeah. Great.”

So we check. Dental school counts.

So I get to make another phone call. The good news is that he’s got until late July until he’s called up. He’ll have time to spend with his family. Some soldiers don’t get that luxury. The bad news is that he’s a newlywed, and this is going to make for a tough first year of marriage.

And I have another empty slot in my unit. I’m down to three officers counting myself. I have positions for several more.

And that’s my big problem with how this war is being fought. This isn’t a political blog, and I’m probably out of line for complaining this much. But, shit like this pisses me off. I just gave up a good junior officer to God knows what or where or how long. He’s going to fill an empty slot somewhere out there. Human spackle.

I’ve already been tasked several times like this. The last round of troops got scattered around Iraq, and it has been hit or miss on how well they are taken care of. Frankly, some are being abused by the units that they got stuck with. Don’t even get me started on issues like pay and promotions.

So how am I supposed to train my unit when it has essentially become an individual replacement pool for the Army? My mission still remains the same, but with 50% of my strength gone, it’s hard to train. There is also a profound impact on retention.

And the problem runs deeper. My battalion had two soldiers get caught up in the Abu Ghraib mess. One spent time in jail. They were both individual replacements to another MI unit. I believe that Abu Ghraib is one of the biggest meltdowns in junior leadership that the Army has ever experienced. But, then again, how can you effectively lead a group of cobbled together strangers?

This is not how it’s supposed to be. Units are supposed to train and fight together as one coherent team. On active duty this bond is forged by hard training and living in a close knit community. In the reserves, it’s often our local and regional bonds that tie us together. We’re Texans damn it. Stand up and fight. Those bonds are broken by a system of individual replacements.

I’d proudly go if I got called up again. After already having done two years, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d do my duty. I’ve been home for a year and half, and I know the war isn’t ending any time soon. As a soldier, I accept sacrifice.

I’d especially be proud to lead my soldiers into battle. I’ve been in my battalion for about five years now, and this is my second command here. I’m an old hand. I helped get this unit through its first terrible year of mobilization. I know everyone. I’m trusted and respected by most, hated by some. But, I can guarantee Lyndie England and Charles Grainer wouldn’t last a second under my command.

I wish that as a country we would own up to the fact that we’re going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time. This would be so much easier if the Army told my battalion that we’d be called up in six months or a year, re-set everyone’s mobilization clocks to zero, gave us a mission, and then told us to prepare. If we were short soldiers, you could plug in soldiers from other units long before the mobilization happened.

In return, you would get a cohesive unit with intact leadership. You would get a unit that had time to prepare for its mission and understood its strengths and weaknesses. You’d have guys like me and my BN XO who would bust their asses to make sure that we did things right. Plus, you’d have the benefit of veterans, like me, who have already been in the fight.

Is a second mobilization what I want? Hell no. But, if you did it right, in the end it would be the best thing for the soldiers and the war effort. Anything beats death by a thousand taskers. None of us signed up to be human spackle.


At June 08, 2005, Blogger J. said...

Good post - very interesting and open discussion that's probably reflective what's going on in other reserve units, no doubt. I was supposed to be "human spackle" for the 1991 Gulf War - ready replacements for the unit chemos that might be killed in the assault. It was a quietly unsettling feeling - ends up the war was over before I was put into the ready mode.


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