Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What You Hear In A War Zone

Many years ago, while living in Portsmouth, Ohio, I had an apartment located no more than 150 feet from a rail yard. My first few weeks living there were difficult. I had a hard time sleeping through the screeches, bangs, bumps and grumbles in the night as rail workers prepared trains for their departures across the country.

Over time, my mind and ears seemed to filter out the once annoying sounds and I was able to sleep peacefully. It seems that those sounds became so common place that I was able to tune them out. The situation had changed so drastically, that even if a mouse or mosquito moved or buzzed in the night I could hear it and respond accordingly, even over the industrial sounds emanating from the rail yard just outside my front door.

In some circles, this ability to filter out ambient noise is also called Mommy/Daddy deafness. A syndrome experienced by parents whose children are able to tune out the voices of parents and peacefully go on their merry way, as if their parents aren't actually talking - but I digress.

Today, I discovered that I am once again filtering out the noise of unwanted sounds to allow me a peaceful nights sleep, and further, to filter out the everyday sounds of a war zone.

At 0530 today our unit met at the base of signal hill for another installment of unit PT. (see SFC Burke's blog entry for greater detail on that). SSG Burrell put us in a PT formation, got us all stretched out, warmed up and ready for an unexpected 3-mile run around what we call Z lake here on Camp Liberty.

That's when it hit me. As I ran, I noticed a few things. I could hear the breeze rustling the reeds that line the lake shore, I heard a duck and a bird squawk on the shoreline. I could hear my feet strike the pavement (when there is pavement) and the crunch of gravel under foot as I ran. I could hear my breathing and the rhythmic jangling of my dog tags bouncing between my chest and shirt. I could hear the voices of my Soldiers yelling at me across a small span of lake saying, "you go first sergeant!" What I heard were the peaceful sounds of a morning run along a beautiful lake. It was invigorating.

Here is what I did not hear, though I can promise you these sounds fill the air around us 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The whopping rotor blades of helicopters over head. The constant drone of hundreds of diesel generators, from which there truly is no escape. The revving of engines from Humvee's, MRAP's, strykers, buses and cars. The thrust of jet engines from airplanes taking off from Baghdad International Airport, BIAP as we call it. Whining sirens from the lead vehicle in convoys headed outside the wire. Automatic weapons fire from ranges on the camp and distant combat engagements from off post. And a cornucopia of everyday sounds and noises that are the constant audible backdrop to our life here.

Somehow in the past few weeks my mind has made a change. Like the change that occurred years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio. All those noises that, when I arrived, were so obvious to me, that at times raised my adrenaline level, or might have made me duck and cover, have become almost silent to me.

And again, just like those days next to the rail yard when I could hear a mouse or mosquito, it's the noises that aren't normal that raise my attention now. I always wondered about that before coming here. How it was that our groundpounder's (infantrymen), MP's and EOD (ordnance) Soldiers could know when something bad was going to happen or how they knew when not to go around a corner, go into a building or avoid certain areas of the city or road. It's all about filtering; knowing the difference between normal and, - not normal.

It's a strange shift in reality. When the sounds of a war zone actually become peaceful. When what once brought fear brings comfort.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bringing Things Into Focus

To date, the majority of my posts have been very upbeat, relatively fun and easy in nature. I'm pretty optimistic that way. I try to find the lighter side of our unit experience and, with a little literary embellishment, tell some of our 'war stories'.

Of course, it's not all fun and games. There are days when the stresses of being away from home, family, friends and our real lives takes it's toll. With that kind of stress, the ability to focus on our mission wanes a bit.

One of the hardest aspects of deployment is maintaining that focus. Day after day the mission continues. There is no break, there is no stopping. There's always another story to write, another mission outside the wire, another event, another deadline, another day away from all that we love, all that we know, all that brings us comfort. Sleep is restless, hours pass like minutes and seconds like hours.

In all of this, for any Soldier, journalist or infantryman, it's inevitable that sharp focus can give way to complacency, laziness, daydreaming, lack of interest, anger, resentment, feelings of fear, doubt and apathy. 

Understandably, some of these challenging side effects have found their way into the 211th. It has been a pretty tough three weeks here. And the reality of our environment has hit home.

My goal in writing this blog is to share with those who have never deployed or those not in the military to see what it is like to deploy. This is one of the aspects of deployment you may have wondered about and though it isn't easy to put out there, I felt like you should get a little flavor of this part of being away.

As a first sergeant, my main job is to look after the health, safety, training and morale of my soldiers. This includes everything from food and lodging to personal problems and job proficiency. It is a delicate balancing act between allowing soldiers to guide themselves or giving specific direction to accomplish the mission.

Today that balance shifted entirely onto my side of the scale. I took control and in many respects I took hold of our soldiers and pointed them in the right direction to get the mission complete. It might sound like a nice thing to do, but ask one of our soldiers if they feel that way and I'm sure you'll get a solid, 'no'.

In essence, I set some new ground rules for our daily work schedules. Changed the way we had been doing things to a more regimented process and took away some personal liberties. The forum for this change in course included a lot of yelling, push-ups, rolling in the dirt and general humiliation. What one might picture as a basic training scene. This of course did not go over well, and honestly, I didn't expect it to.

Don't get me wrong - I am truly proud of our Soldiers. They are honestly some of the smartest Soldiers I have ever had work for me. They are intelligent, witty, resourceful, talented and motivated to work. But, even the best Soldiers can be distracted by the challenges of being deployed. Back home there are relationships that need attention, there are family health issues, behavior problems with our children and a myriad of personal issues that we cannot address from across the miles that separate us.

Here in Iraq, there are personality conflicts, differences of professional opinion, feelings of inadequacy, fear of the war itself, disappointments and uncomfortable living conditions. All of which blurs our focus. 

Generally, moments like this pass, and I'm confident they'll pass with us too. But, sometimes a little nudge by someone in authority is needed to move the group in a forward direction. I've mentioned on several occasions how very much like a family, an army unit is. And like a family, there are times when some stern motivation can help get everyone back on track.

I've mentioned to some of my NCOs that it isn't my goal to be a great friend to each of my soldiers, though I think there are a few that would consider me friendly. My goal is to keep my soldiers focused in a positive direction, help them find success in their work here, accomplish the mission assigned to the unit and get them back home to their families with an experience they can be proud to claim.

That's a tough job when you consider all the factors that affect the life of a deployed Soldier. Too many aspects of a Soldier's life are out of their control, beyond their influence and tremendously frustrating. For now we'll focus on the things we can control. Getting rest when we need it, eating when we're hungry, getting to work on time, telling the story of the American Soldier and staying safe.

I'll grant you, that's not much of a life, but for now, these things may very well be the only things we can keep in focus.