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!