Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Competing for t-shirts, cement trophies and bragging rights

I was asked to write for this BLOG the day after I participated in an event. I think that instead of writing about my political thoughts on the war, or what I miss at home, the Combat Relay would probably be easy for readers back home to relate to. Since I may be embellishing the truth a little bit, I changed the names to protect the names of the participants.

This past Sunday, one of the units here in BIAP hosted a unique race. The Combat Relay was a relay race in which five team members would run or walk two miles with a 30 pound rucksack and rifle. The runners had to wear their combat uniforms and combat boots, the rucksack and rifle were the relay batons. For some reason this sounded like a good idea, when we started talking about it two weeks ago. One of the teams was picked early. We immediately started calling it the “Varsity Team” because they picked people who were fit and should have done well. Majors Z, Y and I started picking other members for a second team. Our search criteria were based on rank because we were going to call our team “Major Issues.” We were unable to find two other majors willing to run the race so we convinced two captains that it may help their careers if they participated.

With two teams competing, we felt like we were doing something fun. But something was missing, and that was the participation of the unit’s enlisted soldiers. About a week before the event, we started smack talking and challenged the junior sergeants, and “Team Sergeants’ Time” was born.

With three teams competing internally, we had people spying to figure out what the other teams’ race strategy was and how their rucksack would be packed, and trying to figure out who should race against whom. We heard rumors of teams of ringers being flown in from outlying bases, and of the course obstacles. The smack talk continued, and we were having a great time with it. The trash talk continued about our advanced age, someone stopping for a cigarette on the course, and who would require CPR after the race.

On race day, we met at 4:15am for the ride across Baghdad International Airport for the 5:00am registration. Like many races in the States, it was dark when we registered. The race would begin at 6:15am, so we sat around, drank coffee, made nervous jokes, and listened to the 10th Mountain Division Band, which began playing in the dark. There were more than 70 teams competing for t-shirts, cement trophies and bragging rights. Some of the teams included Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and others had Brits, Australians, and even Ugandans. We received our race instructions, listened to the invocation, had our team photos taken, and all three of our runners stood next to each other in the starting box.

And then it started, the runners took off in what I would describe as a sprint. We sat and stood in the transition area waiting to see who would be first in. Fourteen minutes after the start, a soldier sprinted in and passed his rucksack and weapon. That is moving very fast, world class fast. We were outclassed and we knew it.
Somewhere in each of us is a competitive instinct. It comes out when needed; we may ignore it for years, but it is still there. This instinct came out that day for 15 members of my unit. All three of the teams knew that they would not win, but we would not let our team members down, and we could always talk smack to the other two teams if we beat them. Every member of our teams put forth his or her best, and I am immensely proud of that. These are the kind of people that you want to go to war with.

The run was difficult, much harder than most of us imagined. It was on a dirt path around one of the lakes, but the only thing that I saw was my boots hitting the ground and the occasional glance forward. Sergeant X, one of my sergeants, came out to watch the event. It turned out that instead of just cheering us on, he escorted Captain W along the path, and when she passed me the ruck, he ran the two miles with me. He could have slept in like most Soldiers that day, but he chose to run 4 miles to support his team. SGT X didn’t have to say a word of encouragement, his being there was more than enough for me to keep plodding forward.

The winning team completed the course in 1 hour and 20 minutes, barely beating team “Major Issues” with a time of two hours and 7 minutes. We didn’t finish dead last, just dead tired. We managed to cheer on the last runners and escorted our unit members as they crossed the finish line. As we watched the awards ceremony, I realized that we hadn’t been talking smack to each other after the race. It seemed that we had a new found respect for the 14 others who participated, and the two members of our “support staff.” Although I didn’t know all of those people very well before the race, I know a lot more about them now.

In the Army we have a short creed that states among other things that “A warrior never quits, and never accepts defeat.” The Combat Relay reminded me there are men and women among my small group, and many others here who continue to live as warriors. We may not be a part of America’s World War II “Greatest Generation,” but their spirit lives on in their grandchildren and great grandchildren. You can all be proud of that.

Maj. Michael Bruschi is a logistics officer and serves as the Aviation Brigade’s S4. He has been in the N.C. Army National Guard for 22 years and is on his second deployment in Iraq. Bruschi is a resident of Fayetteville, N.C. and married to Lori and has one son, Chris.

Maj. Michael Bruschi, a logistics officer for Task Force 449,participates in a 10 mile combat relay, where he runs two miles, with a 30 pound pack and carries a rifle.

Soldiers with Task Force 449 participated in a 10 mile Combat relay, while deployed to Iraq. Pictured are the three Aviation Brigade teams, which completed the challenge, running two miles with a 30 pound pack and hand carrying a rifle.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In the Desert Sands of Iraq

My name is Spc. Leah Ann Rowell, and I am a paralegal specialist working in the Brigade’s legal section. I am extremely lucky to work under two awesome Judge Advocates (JA’s), Brigade Trial Counsel Major J. Wriley McKeown and Brigade Judge Advocate Major Brian Blankenship. My Noncommissioned Officer in Charge is Staff Sgt. Kristian Hall, and I am fortunate to have him as my first line supervisor. The pros of Staff Sgt. Hall are that he is there for me 24/7, always brags about my accomplishments at any time to anyone that is willing to listen, keeps me on the straight and narrow, helps me gain experience in my job, teaches me so much about everything not just about being a paralegal but also about being a good soldier and gaining the respect and confidence in others. The cons of Staff Sgt. Hall are very limited but he does drive me up the wall with his Star Wars memorabilia placed all over his section of the office, and I want to rip my ears off from the steady nonstop playing of his old school rock music he calls “classics.” Needless to say, the pros outweigh the cons, even though I enjoy living day to day driving him crazy, Staff Sgt. Hall is indeed the best NCOIC I could have in this unit, and I appreciate everything he does for me.

I am known as the goofball in my unit. I am always doing something silly, I am a huge KLUTS. I will trip over my own two feet walking on flat land. I will pull pranks on people and just randomly start dancing anywhere I feel like. The thing about me is I know when to have fun. There’s a time in the Army when you have to conduct yourself as a professional and have a strong military bearing. I have proven people wrong time and time again that I can be as silly as I am and still be a squared away soldier. While in pre-mobilization training at Fort Bragg, N.C., I received a Certificate of Achievement from XVIII Airborne Corps’ legal office for my hard work in support of military justice. Upon arriving in theater, I volunteered to be a part of the Color Guard with my unit, and I was a rifleman in our Transfer of Authority Ceremony November 29, 2008. There was also a Soldier of the Quarter Board my NCOIC talked me into competing in. I was so hard headed and stubborn on preparing for this; I finally agreed to participate two weeks prior to the board. I studied for those two weeks and my hard work was paid off. I won Headquarters Company’s Soldier of the Quarter. I then went on to participate in Brigade’s Soldier of the Quarter and won that position as well. Per my Command Sergeant Major, I will be receiving an Army Commendation Medal and an Army Achievement Medal for my successes at both boards. It just goes to show that being in the Army you can still be a professional and have a little fun and personality.

I am preparing right now to go on leave, Rest and Relaxation. I plan to go home to Fort Bragg, N.C. and have as much fun as possible with my family and friends. I am more excited to see my nieces and nephews, Cody, Jaylin, Ember and Kyndal, and I have a niece on the way!

All in all, so far for my very first deployment overseas, my experience has been very positive. When I come back from R and R, I plan on continuing my mission as a paralegal for Task Force 449 JAG and look forward to coming home soon!

Spc. Leah Ann Rowell, a paralegal specialist assigned to 449 Theater Aviation Brigade, is serving in Baghdad, Iraq.

Rowell, a resident of Fayetteville, N.C., is a huge Patriots fan.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Slow is good, boring is better….

In Iraq for my second tour in just over 3 years, I find myself and my charges contemplating the current state of affairs. The situation on the ground is vastly improved from when I was last here, which is a good thing – dare I say a sign of success? But successes across the country have led to a definitive slow down within my sphere of influence, in some circumstances, outright boredom. Boredom at the war brings with it a multitude of problems, albeit in most cases, good problems to solve. When things are slow in my world, it means that the situation in Iraq is far closer to where we want it to be (peaceful, orderly, democratic… etc., for those who aren’t exactly tuned in). It means our Warriors and as importantly, the Iraqis are achieving those signs of normalcy that we so cherish in the United States. In many ways my current challenge is to fight boredom without turning on the “make stuff up” switch and trying to limit the “Crisis du Jour” – “I don’t know what it is, but we have one every day…..”

For the obligatory who am I, and from what basis do I speak. I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the North Carolina Army National Guard, with just over 25 years of service to our great nation. I’ve been on Active Duty and in the National Guard as both an Enlisted Soldier and Officer. I have spent the majority of, if not all of my career in the Aviation Branch in one form or another. In an attempt to avoid the dreaded military jargon that is so often unintelligible to the civilian populace, I’ll try to equate most of what I do to the civilian world – for hopefully they’re the ones reading this. (That may be probably the only ones reading this since the military limits access to blogs due to bandwidth concerns in the military IT infrastructure – at least that’s the party line!) For a time, I was a traditional National Guardsman with a civilian job, but found myself doing both about 50% of what I thought I should be, so I chose the Guard and a full time vocation. I am currently the Director of Operations and Training for an Aviation Brigade comprised of several thousand Soldiers and numerous helicopters – of all types. I am also fortunate enough to fly several of those helicopters – the UH60 Blackhawk (flew last time I was here), and the AH64D Longbow Apache (currently flying across the skies of Iraq). The two types of helicopters have completely different and absolutely essential missions to the current fight. Fortunately, I think flying them both over here has given me a tremendous appreciation of the range and breadth of missions going on over here and absolute and total respect for our Warriors from all the services who leave secure bases daily on the ground in order to accomplish the mission.

On the home-front, I live in Cary, North Carolina and am married to a strong, wonderful woman, Jennifer and have two of the best children ever – Jordan Taylor and William Charles. Yes, everyone thinks their kids are the best, but I really believe it. The sacrifices that our families, friends, and loved ones endure as a result of our chosen profession, can never be underestimated, and are truly a combat multiplier for all of us here. In many ways they have the toughest part of the war and should be recognized and cherished for what they do. Knowing that “all is well” though often times it’s not, allows us to focus on the task at hand. I’m sure most of our Warriors feel the same way, and I pay constant tribute to what those on the home front continue to do while we’re at the war.

As for being at the war, there are definitive differences from the last time I was here, clear improvements and a significant change to the mindset and attitudes of those people (US and Iraqi alike) that I come into contact with. But we are still “at the war”, and Iraq is still a dangerous place, in some quarters more so than others, though by any objective assessment, far and away less dangerous, less violent, and clearly more prosperous then years past.

The first time I flew into Iraq in early 2005, I was struck by a few things: the sheer magnitude of the irrigation systems (some as old as biblical times – yes, the Fertile Crescent) that made up the vast agricultural landscape, and how a mud hut (possibly as old as biblical times, but certainly built in the same manner) could support a satellite antenna. I was also struck by in a country this size how few automobiles and people were out and about. Though slowly growing in numbers during my last tour, my first flight in country this time put an immediate end to the notion there were not many people or cars as one would have thought. As an Army Aviator, I am able to have a unique perspective as I fly across Iraq. Flying the friendly (or more aptly – semi-friendly) skies of Iraq allows me to see most of the country at one point or another and to a point, whether it be city, country, or desert – there are exponentially more people out and an almost unbelievable number of cars. (I won’t go into the driving habits of Iraqis, that would take an entire webpage and several hours, but suffice to say lanes painted on the roads, road signs, and even directions of travel are but mere suggestions most likely not to be heeded).

While us Americans, and most in the global economy are experiencing a slowdown in the building sector, that certainly does not pertain to Iraq! There is a veritable building boom going on here, and no, it’s not just on the military bases. I’ve had the opportunity to track the progress as entire apartment blocks are built, new neighborhoods rise of the arid landscape, and infrastructure is put in place to support it all – absolutely definitive signs of progress. Please don’t ask me why if we can advise and assist the Iraqis in their building boom, we are having so much trouble in the US, that’s opening way too political of a door, and although my world may be somewhat slow, it’s nowhere near slow enough to go down that path …..

Yes, slow in my world is good, that means that bad people aren’t doing bad things to good people, at least not that often. It means that our Iraqi partners are getting it done and we’re stepping back to advise and assist. It means that the conditions are being, and have been set for success in this endeavor. During a somewhat slow period just the other day, I had the opportunity to watch a “talking head” on some news show. I turned it on half way through the conversation with the other supreme intellects on the show and only caught the part where he justified us leaving Iraq immediately because the Iraqis had a successful election and the threats just weren’t here anymore. In some ways I don’t disagree, as a matter of fact, the closer we get to boredom is the closer we get to going home. But slowness and boredom can also be fleeting and can turn to the “Crisis du Jour” without notice, very violently and rapidly. Unbelievably, I was tracking with this gentleman right up until he said it did not matter that Saddam Hussein was no longer the Dictator of Iraq. What …?!?

I’ll close with my own personal “moment of Zen” – the epitome of slowness. I was flying over- head security and reconnaissance in that tandem seated, all weather, day, night, freedom fighter, chariot of death – also known as the AH64D Longbow Apache. A convoy of our Warriors was on the ground executing one of their daily missions on the roads of Iraq, with their Iraqi partners – again those who are getting it done on a daily basis outside the wire, those who are on the ground have my unwavering respect. As I flew forward of the patrol, clearing their way, I came across a gathering of people close to a traffic circle that they were soon to pass through, and became somewhat concerned. Generally, a gathering of people near a convoy is not such a good thing on the good/bad scale of convoy things. But in developing the situation, I was able to utilize my sight systems to zoom into what was happening, and to a pleasant surprise I found a playground. That gathering of people was families at a playground! No different than me and my wife taking our two little monkeys to Bond Park on a Saturday afternoon. I was momentarily taken back; I had immediately thought the worst (of course then my Warrior/Freedom Fighter side took over and I told myself how good it was of me to be wary in support of our Warriors on the ground). As soon as I got over myself and my internal conflict, I reflected that Iraq had changed, certainly in that time and space, and continues on a path where slowness and boredom will be the only fight in sight.

Lt. Col. Brian Pierce, Task Force 449 Operations Officer, is currently serving in Baghdad. Pierce, a Cary, N.C. native, has been in the Army for more than 25 years and flies AH64D Longbow Apache Helicopters across Iraq.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Good We Are Doing Here

Iraq most people think it’s pointless, or nonessential to be here. I want to disagree with those statements, even though the people who make them are entitled to their opinions because they have the freedom of speech and opinion. For those who think we do no good here, and want to bash the accomplishments of the fallen, I want you to realize how much good we are doing in protecting freedom for everyone around the world not just us.

During my short time in Iraq, I have noticed so many changes here compared to the start of the war. During the start of the War children had no schools, families had no jobs, and there wasn’t any kind of government established. Now in 2009 and the extended time America has been here, I have witnessed children receiving education, Iraqi’s getting jobs to support their families, and government trying to unfold.

I have really enjoyed my time here, actually getting the chance to say I played my part to help a suffering nation start from nothing and help them establish a new beginning and give them hope just like America. I honestly think someday we should pull out, but not anytime soon. If we pulled out now all that we have worked so hard for would crumble. America really doesn’t realize how much good and potential there is here, because of all that has been reported on television. It seems as if the only thing the media knows how to post are things of bad nature. Don’t get me wrong it is tough being here and away from our families. Even though, I would rather stay and know I played my part in history, and to help other nations start a new beginning rather than doing nothing at all. Isn’t that what Americans should do is help one another? That help shouldn’t have to stop just in America.

Americans should always remember we started from nothing in the beginning. We had to establish our freedom and government. Now it’s our turn to return the favor to suffering people of the world.

Spc. Ryan A. Wetherington is an aviation operations specialist, who has been in the N.C. Army National Guard for three years. The Cove City native is a math tutor at Craven Community College. He currently attends Embry Riddle online and is studying professional aeronautics. Upon returning to the states, Wetherington intends on going to Liberty University and double majoring in the commercial airline flight program and electrical engineering

Spc. Wetherington sits in Saddam's chair at Al Faw Palace. The majority of 449 Theater Aviation Brigade Soldiers have been fortunate to visit some of Saddam's palaces and have learned more about Iraq's history and culture.

Spc Wetherington and recently promoted Spc. Jeremy Stancil pose for a quick photo in Iraq. The North Carolina Army National Guard Soldiers continue to bond through the deployment experience.