Thursday, December 25, 2008

Twas The Night Before Deployment

There was very little color present, other than the digital camouflage of an Army uniform. There were no stockings hung by the chimney, if there were they would smell to high heaven. But, the spirit of the holiday was thick and there were candies and cookies to munch on.

This was an Army holiday celebration.

1Lt. Sarratt, dressed as one of Santa's oldest elves, brought the kid out in each of us and had us all sitting on the floor while he read two versions of The Night Before Christmas. The traditional version and a special 211th Commemorative edition, as penned by Sgt. Risner. (I'll publish that version as soon as I can get a copy of it from the author).

Cookies and candies were provided by Maj. Daneker and in the end, we all felt warm and fuzzy. It was another one of those Mark The Moment experiences.

Earlier in the week we had a great holiday party provided by one of the units former members, Barbara Reed, and her husband. It was a great time to let the hair down and relax.

Again, entertainment was provided by Sgt. Risner. A crooner to say the least, his music is great and the stories about how his lyrics come to him kept us all hanging on to every word. His talents will be used up by the time we're through with him.

And finally, no holiday story would be complete without a story of children (the real kind, not the kind we all act like at times). So, I've included a picture here of Sgt. Heise holding the newest member of 1SG Martinez' family, Alivia. If she's looking for a job when she comes back, Sgt. Heise can nanny for us anytime. Thanks for keeping the little one quiet during the noisy get together.

Happy holidays and see you all next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Breaking Contact

In the Army we use an operational term, generally reserved for tactical situations - "break contact".

We use this term as a directive during tactical situations in order to discontinue any contact with an opposing force. However, like so many aspects of military life the tactical starts to merge with the practical. Today, the term "Break contact" is used in everyday army life too. Someone might say, "okay, let's break contact," to signal the end of a conversation or meeting. In general, the term signals an end to any contact with another individual or group (informally speaking).

So, here we are at the end of phase one of our deployment - phase one comprising of our time here in Bryan for our pre-mobilization training (to include our three weeks at Ft. Dix).

For the next two weeks the Soldiers of the 211th will break contact with each other. It is our privilege to get some time to head home for the holidays and a well-deserved break. In essence however, as we break contact with the unit, it really is the final preparation to break contact with our families for the next year.

For me, it is a difficult time. I've grown to appreciate each Soldier in the 211th and being away from them for the next couple of weeks will surely be a challenge as we have all grown so close - I honestly look forward to having them all back together again.

At the same time I am anxious about breaking contact with my own family for the next year. The holidays are an emotional time for most people. It's generally a time for coming together, renewing family relationships, remembering old times; renewing spiritual commitments and a host of other very positive aspects. Underlying these feelings this year is my upcoming deployment. Some of you may feel the same.

It's time to Mark the Moment. Make a decision to make this time memorable and filled with great experiences. I will strive to focus on making this year a great memory, just like all the years before. What I won't do is wallow in my concerns about the year ahead and about the challenges of breaking contact with my family and friends.

Every year, the holidays allow us to bring together those we love. Families and friends reunite, share the experiences of the past year, laugh and cry, eat and likely laugh some more. Since our childhood most of us look forward with great anticipation to the holidays - an annual reunion of hearts.

While this year we may be anxious about breaking contact with those we love most for the year ahead. We look forward with great anticipation to our reunion with each of you, our family and friends a year from now. Regardless of the day we return, it will be like Christmas day - no doubt we'll share with each other the experiences we've had, we'll probably eat like it was Thanksgiving day; we'll laugh and probably shed a tear or two.

As a kid I sometimes would count the days down to the next Christmas beginning December 26th. I couldn't wait to get there. I couldn't wait for the magic of the season.

I, for one, will be counting down the days until our return. Today I officially put my family and friends on notice that no matter the day we get back, I expect presents, food, a good laugh and a big hug.

Until we MAKE CONTACT again, Happy holidays.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Print and Video Dispatches From the 211th

Kudos to our broadcast team for doing a great job on this short clip about some of the training we've been going through over the past several months.

Our print journalists have also produced several print and photo pieces highlighting some of the Soldiers in the unit. To read their submissions click one of the following links:

Good job to all. Enjoy.

A Letter To The Parents of Our Soldiers

Dear Parent,

Twenty-one years ago, I joined the U.S. Army. Memories were still somewhat fresh about the War in Viet Nam back then and when I told my parents I had made a decision to join up and serve my country, they were supportive, but reticent. I was 24 years old then and so I'm sure my parents felt that outright discouragement would be counterproductive.

I didn't quite understand their lack of full-on support back then. "They should be happy about my desire to do my patriotic duty," I thought. I wanted them to feel and see my decision the same way I did.

Today, I have three children, I got started late on the family thing and so my family is pretty young - ranging in age from one month to three years. Today my eyes are wide open to why my parents might have felt less than fully supportive of my decision. I'm sure they were proud that I had taken my life by the horns, made a decision about how I would support myself and so on. Looking back however, I'm sure they simply wondered, "of all professions, why the Army?"

As a parent, it is impossible to ignore the inherent dangers of a child's service in the military, and especially now as we prepare to deploy to a war zone. I wish I could tell you that we were able to remove any and all risks associated with our deployment, I can't. And I wouldn't think of telling you not to worry about them, that "they'll be fine," - worry is hardwired into the soul of a parent, when it comes to their children.

I know that some of you have served in the armed forces as well, and may understand the point I now make. I am now on both sides of the fence on this quandary. As a Soldier I love the Army and the service I am rendering my country and family. As a parent, I can't imagine allowing my child to be placed in harms way. It's a little internal war I fight regularly and not with just this issue. Parenting is a delicate balance of providing protection to our children while allowing them enough latitude to protect themselves.

Three days a week, I leave my daughter, Araya (uh-ray-uh), with strangers at pre-school. In a world where the news reports molestation, school shootings, abductions and child abuse, to name a few, as regular occurrences, I feel a certain apprehension each day I drop her off at the school. Some days are easier than others, but that anxiety remains.

On the other side of the coin, each day when I pick her up and get her report on the day, my smile widens and my mind sees her limitless potential. I am amazed at what she learns, how she retains concepts and how she is developing her independence. She's in good hands at the school and they are doing their best to teach and protect her. She's making friends, having a great time and preparing for a time when I won't be able to watch her every move.

Your Soldiers are in good hands. We are doing all within our power to teach them and protect them. They are incredible individuals who make our unit strong, effective and fun. Their personal reasons for being here are varied, but they are all serving with honor. The memories and experiences they have over the next year will certainly change their lives and the lives of those associated with them. We have all become great friends, we look after each other and we sometimes even hold hands when we're crossing the street.

We hope that when you get their reports from Iraq, you will see how they are improving, how they are reaching their limitless potential- how they have developed their own sense of belonging in the world.

Thank you for lending them to the us for a while. We appreciate all you have done to prepare them for this moment in their lives. We'll do all we can to add to your efforts.


First Sergeant Anthony Martinez
Father of Araya, Ammon and Alivia

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mark The Moment

I have a saying. I'm not sure if I made it up or if I picked it up from someone else. Either way, it's a saying I use and I have claimed it as my own. The saying is, "Mark The Moment!"

It's not something I generally say out loud, although I have at times. The saying is more of a guide that I use in my decision-making process. I don't use the guide in every decision, just a select few - specifically, when a choice between two options does not pose a significant threat to anyone or when the result of either choice will not cause a major change in outcome for myself or others.

In essence this is what Mark The Moment means for me; Does one of the choices in front of me offer a greater opportunity to make this moment special, magic or eternally memorable?

Today, one of those choices was presented - snow fell in Bryan, Texas. This is not a normal occurrence - it is truly rare. It was a Mark The Moment kind of opportunity.

The decision point came when we went out for PT (physical training). I heard a couple stray comments from the Soldiers that maybe, with snow falling, we might postpone PT for the day. I had even considered it in a passing thought, but that was my cue - should I cancel PT and move on? What would it hurt? The answer was obvious - Mark The Moment. We held PT in the snow.

It was cold, it was a bit windy and the snow was coming down, but the moment was magic. Seeing our Soldiers run up and down the Bryan High School stadium steps, snow flying, red noses and lungs burning in the chilly air became an eternally memorable moment, if for no one else but me.

There isn't much about this week that in 10 years I will remember with any clarity, but this one day, when snow fell on the Soldiers of the 211th MPAD; when the athletic staff of Bryan H.S. looked out their office windows and laughed at, "those crazy Soldiers, out in the stadium." This moment, I will remember forever. I hope our Soldiers will remember the moment too.

Monday, December 8, 2008


(left and below) 2Lt. Douglas and SGT Taylor in fierce team competition during PT

SGT Risner (AKA crazy magazine head guy) gets immunized against some awful unknown disease.

PFC Johnson and that, "You are not going to run me into the ground" look on her face

Facing fear, SSG Ford prepares to start an IV on PFC Johnson

Baring his "war face", SPC Fardette gets a little wheelbarrow shove from SFC Burke.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Combat Lifesavers All

Look out medical professionals everywhere - the Soldiers of the 211th are certified Combat Lifesavers!

Several years back, the Army revamped their policies and curriculum regarding the teaching of the Army first aid program (called, buddy aid at the time). What they determined is that teaching Soldiers a few advanced lifesaving techniques and providing them the medical equipment to go with it, would increase the mortality rate of Soldiers injured on the battlefield. Hence, the Combat Lifesaver Certification Program. I don't know the statistics of its success, but I have heard that an increase in life expectancy for injured Soldiers has gone up. Good news for us all.

So, that has been the focus for us this week. On the outset, I have to admit that I felt a bit intimidated by the course itself. Some of the advanced techniques I am referring to are things such as how to insert a Nasopharyangeal Tube into the nostril; how to perform a chest needle decompression for a tension pneumothorax condition and how to insert an IV catheter into a patient. The words of these procedures alone are enough to scare the bugga buggas out of you much less make the committment to perform such procedures if necessary.

Fortunately, the nose tube thing and the chest needle decompression are procedures we only practiced on medical mannequin's. Not so lucky on the IV insertion and infusion. That part was real - real challenging and scary.

As I mentioned in our chow (lunch) formation today, "there ain't nothin' like a good old fashioned blood-letting, to kick the day off." Every Soldier got the chance to be the sticker and the stickee. We had a couple Soldiers perform perfect sticks, without spilling a drop of blood. Others - not so much. There was blood everywhere. To put it into a phrase, "making someone bleed their own blood? Well, it just isn't normal."

However, when it was all said and done, we all passed. It was messy, but it was a success.

Kudos today go to SSG Ford. He hates needles - hates them, I tell ya', but he and his partner hung in there. He faced his fear and made his partner PFC Johnson face a little fear on the other end of the needle too.

That's what Soldiering is all about. Facing your fears. Most of us probably wouldn't choose on our own to undergo the training we've had this week, but we do it - we do our part. Heaven forbid we have to do it in real life, under grave circumstances, but if we are needed, we'll be there. It may be messy, but maybe we'll save a life.


- SSG Ford inserts a Nasopharyngeal breathing tube into a mannequin while SPC Alperin looks on.

- Soldiers practice loading and moving a casualty on a SKED (newfangled stretcher).

- Success! SSG Burrell makes the grade by successfully inserting and starting an IV drip in the able veins of 1SG Martinez.

- SGT Taylor checks the set up of an IV bag in preparation for his shot at a successful IV start.

- SPC Fardette cleans and secures the IV start for his final practical exercise. (bleeding arm courtesy of SPC Anderson)

Monday, November 17, 2008

We Are Family

Meanwhile, back in Bryan . . .

It's been about two weeks since our last entry and believe me, you haven't missed much. Our training at Fort Dix was great and coming back to Bryan was a welcome change, but in comparison to the tempo at Dix, life in Bryan is a bit slow. We are still focused on training, but the training is not quite as "hooah" as Fort Dix. We won't be firing weapons, and crawling in the dirt - instead we'll be focused on more mundane requirements like military driving, personnel issues and administrative duties.

It's times like these, when life slows down and your mind and body are taking a vacation, that you have the time for reflection and good old contemplation. For journalists, that's the time when the real story rises to the top, the story that makes a difference.

One of the goals for this blog is to help families, friends and any other curious onlooker, to get a feel for what life is like in a deploying Army unit. That's easy enough really, when you consider that it's as easy as posting some pictures and a narrative of the days events into a blog like Downrange 46.

If you follow along regularly, you will likely have an idea of our day-to-day activities; the Day In A Life type picture of what we are going through.

But, from time to time, when good reflection and contemplation permit, I'll try not only show you what a day in this little unit looks like, but also how we actually feel about our service. Of course, I can only tell you how it feels from my point of view. If you want the full spectrum, you'll have to visit the sites of our other Soldiers by clicking on the photos on the right side of the screen.

So, I'm gonna show my age a little here, but I recall a song from the late 70's by Sister Sledge. Yes, it was a kind of disco song, but the title makes my point and when you have time to read the lyrics you'll be able to pick out the parts that apply. The song was We Are Family.

That's the essence of life in the Army. If it can happen in a traditional family, it can happen in an army unit (family). Love/hate relationships, sibling rivalry, mommy/daddy deafness, separation anxiety, dysfunction, bad communication, discipline, lack of discipline, middle child syndrome, preferred child syndrome, death, birth, birthdays, anniversaries, religious discovery, political discovery, depression, and even love. It all happens here, and in many respects it all comes with the same emotional relevance you find in your families at home.

How can that be? When you consider that we are strangers to each other, from different socio-economic and geographical backgrounds and know nothing of each other personally. Well - It's all about time. Just as a "real family". Studies show that families that spend time together (quality time) tend to be more successful and in general, happier. I don't know if those same studies include that families that spend more quality time together also face more challenges in relationships that require greater compromise, patience and understanding. That's what I believe anyway.

The bottom line is that because Soldiers spend so much time together (24/7) we experience the same side effects that families experience (ie. all the things I mentioned a couple paragraphs back).

That time, the time we spend training, translates into personal time spent together. We talk, we laugh, we cry (eventually) together. We get to know each other intimately. We know what's happening in each others lives. We develop concern for one another and, in time, feel the same joys and pains for each other that a parent, brother or sister would feel for their child or sibling. We become a family.

That process in fact has, in many respects, already become a reality in just a few short weeks for our little band of Soldiers. We've celebrated birthdays and holidays together, acting as surrogates for our Soldiers biological families. We've celebrated the birth of a baby to one of our Soldiers. We've felt the pain and void of losing a couple of our Soldiers who will not be able to deploy with us for various reasons that only we know (family secrets). We know of some of the challenges that our Soldiers are facing in their personal lives, whether it be the beginning pangs of homesickness, family separation, divorce, health challenges etc, etc, etc.

All of these things are the stuff of a real family. This is part and parcel of what it's like to be a Soldier. Army life creates a unique environment where its members temporarily fill in for the true family members and friends we leave back home. In the process we become true friends and family.

As you read up on our training activities and eventually the events and experiences of our deployment, you should understand that what you are really witnessing, in print and photos, is the formation of a family. In the end, when this deployment is over, the closeness we will have developed will be a relationship that will last until the day we die.

Just as "real families" grow up and disperse into their various lives, the time will come when the members of the 211th family will disband and return to their civilian lives. And, just as "real families" maintain strong bonds of love and friendship regardless of the geographical distance or the passage of time, so will our members maintain the same.

We Are Family. You, by extension, our real families and friends, are cousins, uncles, aunts and friends of the 211th family. We are all family and we always will be. That's what it feels like to be a Soldier.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Putting It All Together

Okay, we've been here at Fort Dix for nearly three weeks and now it's time to shine. Over the past few days we have been putting the final touches on our training here and today was the first day of really putting to the test all of the PowerPoint classes, practical exercises and familiarization sessions.

Before I get to what that means let me just say this, just in case I haven't mentioned it before, we really have a great group of Soldiers here - oh yeah, I guess I have mentioned it already - well, it's true!

As proof of my declaration, I use as an example our Halloween celebration. At the commanders direction, SSG Delgado (our rear detachment NCOIC - who is here with us) made a trip to the PX to pick up a load of candy to celebrate the Halloween festivities. At about 8 o'clock on the 31st, the commander, bed sheet over her head (her impression of a ghost), took a large bag of candy around to our Soldiers. Not far behind was our XO (executive officer), 1Lt. Sarratt, who had apparently made plans for Halloween before leaving Texas. He walked around in black thermal underclothes, a black knit cap and some sort of black bandanna that had a skeleton head affixed across his face - ooh scary!

Not far behind him was Specialist Anderson. Her first getup consisted of a scarf wrapped around her head and face as she did her impression of a middle eastern woman dressed in a burka. For realism she kept making a loud high pitched yell. You know the sound; it's the one that some Mideast women make for which there has to be a name for, but for which I can only describe as - well, loud high pitched yelling. Minutes later she had a new get up. This time as a pregnant Soldier - a pillow stuffed in her shirt.

Finally, Sgt. Risner came into the hall dressed in civilian clothes, holding an ammunition magazine on his head and claiming to be "crazy magazine head man". That must be a costume I missed seeing on the costume aisle at Wal-Mart, but at least he had a costume.

I have pictures of all these moments and will post them when we get the time. We all had a great time. As said before - we have fun and we work hard.

Back to the hard work part. . . .

In the past couple days we have learned how to protect ourselves from a vehicle rollover, how to recognize IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), how to operate a convoy, a check point and several other tasks.

Without going into too much detail we have been given missions in the last couple days and again tomorrow to test all this knowledge. These are the closing days of our time here and now it is all coming together to help us gain confidence in our new skills. The trainers here are putting us through the ringer to see how well we have absorbed all we have been taught. Do we know how to use the weapons? Can we defend ourselves? Can we perform our soldier tasks?

Based on our performance during today's scenario's, the answer is yes! We did great! Our trainers told the unit that of all the units they have had come through here, we have performed at the top of the list. Not bad for a bunch of journalists, huh?

Tomorrow is our final test. More scenarios and opportunities to show our trainers that we get it. That we can hold our own, that we can get the job done.

We aren't infantry Soldiers, that's for sure, but as Army journalists, I think we can honestly say we are more prepared to tell the world what our combat Soldiers are doing in Iraq. How hard they work to get their job done, the sacrifices they make to accomplish their mission, how hard they fight for their fellow Soldier.

They are the best at what they do, and now we can be better at what we do.

A couple more days and we'll be home - preparing for our actual deployment. We already have stories to tell and we're still on American soil.

Great days are yet ahead!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's All About Training

To put it in an easy to understand perspective let's compare the Army to the game of baseball. Baseball is a long drawn out game, interrupted by moments of sheer excitement. Army life is a long drawn out process of training, interrupted by moments of sheer excitement.

We have been here at Fort Dix for about two weeks and each day has been filled by a variety of training classes and hands on practical exercises. Our training classes are sometimes called "death by powerpoint" - meaning that we sit and watch powerpoint presentations until we are on the brink of death. As difficult as it is to stay awake during these classroom sessions, it's a necessary evil. You can't perform any task without some kind of instruction.

Where the excitement comes in is during the P.E's or practical exercises. That's when we get to take the book and powerpoint learning and practice it in a real environment. The past week has been a combination of these two.

Now, at the end of the week, all the classroom time pays off as we went to several firing ranges to put all our book learning into practice. We each got to fire several "sexy" weapons; the .50 cal machine gun; M249 and 240B machine guns and the MK 19 grenade launcher. It was time to rock and roll, as we say. An opportunity to blow some stuff up and feel the thrill of real American firepower.

It's hard to explain to someone who is not a Soldier how it feels to fire one of these weapons - to aim at something downrange and hit it; to apply a skill you have developed over time and feel confident that you are doing it right - that your fellow Soldiers can count on you if the time comes to employ your skills.

Beleive me, none of us want to be placed in a position to use any weapon in a real situation, but if any of us is called on to defend life and liberty, it's a very gratifying feeling to know that we can come through for each other. And that's why we train.

There is another Army training staple that Soldiers can count on - foul weather. The Army saying goes, "if it ain't raining, it ain't training." Add to that axiom, snow and freezing temperatures. In an earlier post I mentioned the irony of being at one of the coldest places in the US in preparation for deploying to one of the hottest on Earth. To add to that irony, this week we had a Noreaster blow in an inch of wet snow. Honestly, it was well timed. The snow storm was the only thing that woke us up during some of the more boring classes we had scheduled this week.

In true 211th style, however, no training would be complete without a great sense of humor and a lot of fun. There were a lot of laughs, group singing and a pizza party. We are still training hard but, we haven't lost our ability to keep it real.

We have a week left to our stint here at Dix and the next several days are expected to increase in intensity as we put into practice the skills we've been focusing on for the past two weeks. Before it gets too deep though, we'll be trick or treating tomorrow from room to room.

The training never ends here, but the fun never stops.


- Sgt. Heise gets familiar with the M240B machine gun.

- Sgt. Ebel catches a few ZZZ's during lunch break.

- The fighting 211th conductsw a tactical road march down a tank trail near range #6.

- Sgt. Taylor prepares a blasting cap before inserting into a claymore mine.

- Sgt. Zoeller disassembles a machine gun.

- Taking a load off the back, Soldiers wait for their turn to fire the M9 pistol.

- Spec. Fardette slings his .50 cal ammo over a shoulder before firing the big gun.

Friday, October 24, 2008

If You Have to be Away From Home, Make it Fun

Imagine that the last glint of sun is just disappearing below the horizon.

Imagine that you are on a bus with 18 other Soldiers (your buddies, the ones you will count on to cover you when danger comes) headed to a firing range where you will use your M16 to shoot at targets in the dark of night.

Imagine that the pressure is on to hit seven out of 30 targets - only 7 of 30. You gotta know that if you only have to hit 7 out of 30 targets that this will be a difficult task.

Imagine that this exercise is designed to simulate fending off an enemy who attacks in the middle of the night.

Imagine the concentration and focus it must take to complete this task while recognizing the importance of refining the skill.

Now imagine those 18 Soldiers on a bus; headed for the range in the dark of night; singing as many theme songs to all the sitcoms they can think of at the top of their lungs; laughing at how off key they are and making fun of each other for singing the wrong words.

This is not your normal Army unit! This is the 211th MPAD. Even the bus driver comments on the strangeness of the moment. "I've driven a bus at Ft. Dix for a long time and this is the first time I've ever had a unit singing songs on the way out to the range," said she.

Amazingly, every Soldier in the 211th qualifies without a hitch. The singing doesn't put them off their game one bit. They put their game face on; get the job done; and go back to laughing, kidding one another and having a great time. (Kudos to Pfc. Mitchell who hit 29 out of 30)

This scenario is standard fare for the 211th. They have fun, but they don't let the fun get in the way of the mission at hand. They all seem to know when to focus and when to relax. It's a commander and first sergeants dream.

We've been busy the last few days. We went to supply and got our first equipment and clothing issue. A total of one duffel bag and a huge back pack of gear. From extreme cold weather clothing and protective goggles to helmets and camelback hydration systems. We are getting all the free clothes we can handle.

Yesterday we completed the first of our weapons qualification tests. First we zeroed our weapons. Zeroing is the process of making sure that when we fire our weapon, the bullet (or round) hits the target we aim at.

After zero qualification we went to the full qualification range. We get 40 rounds and have to hit no less than 28 targets to get qualified. It's not easy. It really does take skill. The first test comes when we put on our protective mask and fire 20 rounds at two 50 meter targets. Each Soldier has to hit 11 targets to qualify. This is pretty tough. You can't see out of the mask very well and it is even more difficult to see the weapon site and aim. Again, every Soldier qualified.

Then we move on to shooting targets without the mask. On the range targets pop out of the ground at various intervals at 50, 150, 200 and 300 meters. You have 3 - 7 seconds to hit a given target. We shoot from a prone (laying) position on the ground in two different positions and while kneeling. The process moves along pretty quickly and when the smoke clears (literally - from firing the weapons) you are either a GO or a NO GO for the event. Again, all of our Soldier qualified - they were all GO's.

Finally, we had a great time brushing up on our land navigation (landnav) skills. The day started out very cold. There was frost on the ground and temperatures were in the low 30's. There was not nearly enough extreme cold weather gear to keep us warm.

With landnav we had to find three points on a map and move from point to point without getting lost. Each point was somewhere between 300 and 600 meters away from each other. Not that hard if you are walking across a parking lot at a mall. This was not that easy. We had a lot of trees, briar's, dead wood, hills and ticks standing between each point. It was a challenge, but, like riding a bike, it seemed to be a skill that came back easily to everyone. Nobody missed a point and nobody got lost. I'm not sure if any ticks were found - while we are close as a unit, we like to stop at tick searches.

Kudos for the day go to the whole unit. A big Hooah for the 211th!


- A weird picture of our bus from inside looking out at the mirror on the front of the bus.

- Looking down the sights. Sgt. Heise zeros her weapon on the zero range.

- Christmas in October. The Army gives our Soldiers new equipment and clothing.

- After a day of firing our M16's on the qualification range each Soldier returns to the firing line to find (police up) spent M16 cartridges for recycling the valuable brass. (left - Sgt. Zoeller/right Sgt. Taylor)

- Spc. Anderson and Sgt. Ebel re-enact the posing of American Gothic as it would have been while on an Army firing range.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Winds of Change – In New Jersey

Here we are at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The mornings are cold, but when the sun rises here – well, it is still somewhat cold. Fortunately, by the end of the day, when the sun settles in the western sky, you can have some assurance that the nights will be just as cold as the days and the mornings. That’s what Army life is all about – consistency.

I find it kind of ironic that we are here at Fort Dix, one of the coldest Army locations in the U.S., preparing for our deployment to Iraq, one of the hottest locations on Earth – go figure. No matter, the training we are receiving here works just as well in the cold as it does in warmer climes.

We arrived here Saturday, October 18th and we literally haven’t stopped going since. We started off with Army combatives, a mixture of martial arts used for hand-to-hand combat. It was a hit with everyone – literally, we all felt like we had been hit – over and over. There have been a lot of sore muscles and visible bruises from that training.

Our trainers were excellent! They taught us some very basic offensive and defensive fight moves and techniques that, as they put it, were just enough to help us get our butts kicked. What they didn’t tell us is that we would be the ones kicking each other’s butts.

When the formal instruction was over, the instructors had us pair up and challenge each other in one-minute bouts. I am proud to say that nobody held back, each of our Soldiers fought hard, used their new skills, as best they could, and came out fighting.After combatives came our weapons training with the 9mm pistol. For many of our Soldiers this was the first formal training they have had on this particular weapon but, you wouldn’t know it. They all took to it well and in the dry fire portion of the training our troops did great. (dry fire – firing the weapon without actual ammunition - only a laser sensor that simulates firing that makes noise when you have hit the target).

I am continually impressed with the maturity of this unit and how quickly and sincerely they have taken to each other. I watched them helping each other, encouraging each other and making sure no Soldier was left behind. This is one of the Army’s axioms as stated in The Soldiers Creed – “I will never leave a fallen comrade”.

This unit truly has become one of the most cohesive units I have ever been a part of. The caliber of our Soldiers is impressive and I truly am proud to call them my Soldiers. I can speak for MAJ Daneker as well, as she has expressed these same feelings in our discussions. We couldn’t ask for a better group of Soldiers to take on this mission.

Back to our training – we also focused several hours on the use of our protective masks or promasks, as we call them. Most people outside the military call them gas masks. Again, we had a great instructor. Interestingly, the instructor mentioned that he had once considered retraining and becoming an Army broadcaster and joining a public affairs detachment. You would have thought the entire unit were recruiters by the way they told the instructor how great it was to be a public affairs Soldier. Comments from all around the room were directed at him to leave his current military occupation and to come to public affairs. Our Soldiers truly love this field, it shows in their enthusiasm when they talk about it.

Finally, today was a full day of instruction on the use of our assigned weapon, the M16. We started early and picked up our weapons at the weapons vault. Then we headed to the classroom about a half mile away where we reviewed the simple steps of taking an M16 apart and cleaning it. We also had great instruction on new techniques for more accurate shooting.If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that Soldiers love to shoot their weapon. They don’t always like the classes that teach you how to shoot, but when it comes time to shoot, they really like to light up the targets. We’ll get that chance in a few days and I know many of them are looking forward to it.

To end the day we had PT (physical training). We won’t get many opportunities to have PT while we’re here, but we got out of our classes a little early today and so we had some chow (food) and then went as a group to the post gymnasium. After a quick stretching session, given by SSG Burrell, we broke out and participated in a variety of physical activities – volleyball, running, walking, cardio glides and some of our folks played a few games of ping pong. It wasn’t strenuous, but it was fun.

Kudos for the day go to SSG Delgado. SSG Delgado won’t be deploying with us since he will be focusing on becoming an officer through the direct commission program. However, he is here with us making sure that all of our administrative and logistical issues are addressed. His work here allows all of our deploying Soldiers to focus on training and preparing for deployment. We truly cannot thank him enough for his efforts here and will surely miss having him along for the extended ride over to the sandbox. Good job SSG Delgado.

Photos (top to bottom):

- The unit marches to class in an early Jersey morning. Pfc. Mitchell is our guidon bearer, a traditional Army role for the youngest member of a unit.

- 2Lt. Almodovar, Maj. Daneker and others clear their weapon during the 9mm weapon training class.

- Sgt. Ebel dons his protective mask. During our promask training.

- First Sgt. Martinez takes a beating during Army Combatives training.

- Spec. Logue takes aim during the M16 dry fire exercise.

- SSG Burrell sets his sites during the dry fire exercise.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stepping It Up

Morning came early for the 211th today. Our first formation was at 0230 (2:30 am) in preparation for transportation to the Houston airport and our flight to the Regional Training Center at Fort Dix, NJ.

Many thanks to Angie Martinez who provided some freshly baked cinnamon rolls for our morning snack and a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies for snacks on the trip out.

The day was long and after four hours of flight time, 3 hours of ground transport and a two-hour layover in Chicago we made our destination at Fort Dix. First on the docket was a real Army meal at the local chow hall. Honestly, the meal met all and any expectation one could have for a free military meal. With a little imagination and a suspension of reality the meal was like a gourmet feast. MM-MM-MM.

Tomorrow the first day of our 3 week training begins. Our first class will be combatives (military martial arts). The Soldiers are looking forward to it and frankly so are the the commander and me. It's a great way to mark the moment. I'm sure there will be a few bruised and sore muscles come Monday morning, but it will make the memory more, well - memorable.

Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Back to The Basics of Training

This week was a trip down memory lane for us as we were placed in the hands of a small squad of Army Reserve drill sergeants from Bravo Battery 1st of the 355th, 95th Training Division, from Corpus Christi, Texas. Their job was to provide us with refresher training on some basic soldier skills and to help us all get into the mindset of thinking the Army way.

Even after 20 years in the Army I still feel that tinge of fear when I see a drill sergeant in his brown round. Just the sight of a drill sergeant with their distinctive hat, dark sunglasses and impeccable military bearing sends a shot of adrenaline into the system. It's ingrained into you from the day you enter the army as a private and stays with you till the day you retire to the old Soldiers home.

As I mentioned to the Soldiers during our final formation - it's a love hate relationship we develop with drill sergeants. On the one hand we fear even being around them and on the other hand we have a great sense of gratitude for everything they teach us. They truly are a part of who we are as Soldiers.

We reviewed some basic skills this week - things we have trained on for years, but that somehow seem a bit more poignant now, as we prepare to deploy.

We worked with our weapons, reviewed advanced first aid techniques and revisited a number of other basic Soldier skills that, together, help Soldiers pay attention to details. Attention to detail is the heart of survival for a Soldier. Everything we do as Soldiers is surrounded by details - what we see, what we hear, what we feel and ultimately what we do with the details we observe.

Most of the tasks we trained on this week, we learned in basic training, and in many cases simply reviewing the standards and steps of each training task was enough to rekindle the memories of what we already knew. In the end these training sessions helped restore the confidence we once had when we were younger Soldiers or reinforce the skills our younger Soldiers learned during their more recent basic training.

In addition to the great training we got, we made a few new memories too. On one occasion the entire unit was disciplined for not obeying a simple order to have and drink water regularly in order to protect ourselves from dehydration.

This may seem like a minor infraction, but as we are headed to a location where heat casualties are frequent, it is a simple detail that, if followed, will save lives. As punitive punishment, the drill sergeants put the entire unit in the front leaning rest position (push up position) and with a sense of pleasure had us doing slow cadence push-ups. Then they put us back up on our feet - and without skipping a beat had us back down on the ground to do slow cadence flutter kicks (laying on your back with your feet held above the ground about six inches and slowly shuffling you feet up and down in the air). When we finally got back up to the position of attention, Drill Sergeant Enriquez yelled out, "I bet your thirsty now, right?" That first cool drink after that was enough to remind us to always keep our water with us and to drink often.

When it's all said and done, the pain of the punishment reminds you of the value of attention to details and following the orders of those appointed over you.

That said, we did get a little revenge on the drill sergeants later in the week. At different times during the week the drill sergeants would drop a fake grenade in our work areas to help us put some of our training into action. On the first couple tests of how we would react to this mock exercise, we didn't do so well, but by the end of the week we were more attentive to what was going on around us and our reaction times were greatly improved.

"You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times and in all places," said the drill sergeants. In the end we helped THEM understand that we got the message loud and clear. A couple of our soldiers set booby traps for the drill sergeants on our last day together. Wouldn't you know it they didn't pass the test and they fell victim to our simulated traps. They knew they were HAD and like great sports they laughed right along with us - a great lesson was learned and a great memory was made.

This really is a slice of what Army life is like for a Soldier. We train hard, we work hard and we have a great time doing both.

Next week we ratchet up the training when we go to one of the Army's Regional Training Centers for a more intense and advanced training program. It will be in a field environment and it will be the first test of how we work as a team. We'll keep you posted.

As a token of appreciation, each of our drill sergeant trainers was presented a special coin of recognition from our commander, MAJ Daneker. Many thanks to these great American Warriors. (SSG Barajas, SSG Alfred, SSG Pepau, SSG Enriquez, SGT Botello, SSG Bertrand)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fall In!

It never seems to amaze me how Soldiers are able to quickly survey a situation and determine how they can make a positive impact.

A commonly used term in military drill and ceremony is the command "fall in". When this command is given, all the Soldiers of the unit quickly and quietly take their assigned place in a unit formation. It's a very orderly thing really. As a background - a unit formation is made up of several ranks. At the head of each rank is the squad leader. In perfect order each member of the squad will line up directly to the left of the squad leader - ensuring that they are approximately an arms length from each Soldier on their left and right. The next rank that lines up behind the first rank does the same thing and at the same time ensures that they are lined up directly behind the Soldier in the rank in front of them.

When done right, the formation (from above) would look something like this:

Everyone knows their place, leaders are always located in the same position. If someone is missing, the formation won't look complete. For the platoon leader, who stands before the formation, it is the easiest and most efficient way to account for all of his Soldiers and to communicate important information.

The 211th is "falling in" quite nicely. The Soldiers seem to be figuring out how they fit in with the other Soldiers in the unit. Our leaders are starting to take hold of their leadership reigns and this team is truly coming together.

We have a great variety of skills, backgrounds, experiences and even ages in the 211th and, at this point, they all seem to be complimentary to each other.

Kudos today go to one of our young enlisted Soldiers, PFC Arlon Mitchell. He's quiet, but he's busy. Looking forward 12 months from now, it is my opinion that he'll truly be one of the unit's MVPs. When we all introduced ourselves during one of our first meetings, he quietly stated his name and almost apologetically said, "I'm just the HR Specialist". So far, he's the busiest Soldier in the group and if anything he'll be JUST what the unit will need to get through months ahead us.

In the days ahead we'll put classroom briefings on hold and start some of our warrior task training. MAJ Daneker has arranged for several drill sergeants to come and run us through the gauntlet on these tasks. With a warning she said, "it's gonna be boot camp all over again." Oddly some of the Soldiers didn't bat an eye - some people just love being abused.

Here are a few pictures from the day:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Day One

Getting on the same sheet of music can sometimes be painful. Yesterday our unit started to do just that. Like the sprinkles at the beginning of a rainstorm the morning saw a few soldiers report until, by the end of the day, we were a full blown storm, all in one room.

The first few days of any new adventure are always frought with uneasiness, stops, starts and just plain trying to figure it out. In my experience, it's a necessary step in making a team come together. So far - so good.

For our first day we started the SRP (soldier readiness processing) and had our initial SJA (Staff Judge Advocate) briefing. No offense to our briefer, but it was hard to stay awake. There were alot of bobbing heads and heavy eyelids in the briefing room.

Kudos for the day go to SPC Erik Fardette, one of our broadcasters on loan to us from the 305th MPAD in Hawaii. He crossed 4 time zones and sat on a plane for way too long to get to Bryan, TX. I don't know how long he had been up before he hit the rack lastnight, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't soon enough.

We are still missing a few soldiers to complete the unit. Some are in school, others aren't even assigned yet. We look forward to having the whole team together soon.

Today will see more briefings and more opportunities to get to know each other. Our team NCOIC's, SFC Burke and SFC Quebec will conduct their initial counselings with their soldiers in order to let each soldier know what to expect over the year ahead.

Overall - I feel good about the team and look foward to the experiences ahead.