Thursday, October 26, 2006
Monday, October 23, 2006
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Friday, October 13, 2006
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
In August, 2006, I had the honor of spending a week with 40 of our wounded Marines and sailors at the Wounded Warrior Barracks, Camp Lejeune, NC. All returned from Iraq sooner than expected, the result of a well-aimed sniper's bullet or the peppering blast of an IED. Despite their wounds, the Marines continue to march, all of them looking forward to the day they can join their comrades back in their old unit. Some, unfortunately, will never realize that dream, while others will return to duty for yet another tour in Iraq.
The photo shows Lieutenant General Amos (right), former Commanding General, II MEF, at the ribbon cutting ceremony of Maxwell Hall, the official designation for the wounded warrior barracks. LtCol Tim Maxwell, himself recovering from wounds in Iraq, stands atop the stairs with his wife and child. Tim is the mastermind behind the barracks concept and is owed credit for giving our wounded Marines a place they can call home during their recovery process. Here is my version of this success story:
“My hands were in flames, and my whole face was in flames”, said Sgt. Jason Simms, recalling the fateful day in July, 2004 when his light armored vehicle was struck by the blast of an IED, or improvised explosive device. He was nearing the end of an 8 hour patrol with Delta Company, 2nd LAR Battalion, when his life changed forever.
“My hands suffered third degree burns…and my face took second degree burns. I took three bullets in the right leg, with shrapnel through my tendons and arteries” says Simms, sitting comfortably inside the II MEF wounded warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune, NC. Still recovering from his wounds, the Sergeant motions toward the passageway where Marines begin to congregate prior to their afternoon formation. “Everyone here has been wounded. I think the most important thing here is we were all wounded and we can all understand each other.”
The wounded warrior barracks is home to over 40 Marines and sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, or II MEF. Located at Hospital Point aboard Camp Lejeune, the barracks formerly served as a bachelor officers quarters. In September, 2005, however, the BOQ was transformed into a home away from home for Marines and FMF corpsmen returning early from Iraq, their trip the courtesy of an Iraqi sniper or the blast of an IED. The newly renovated barracks provides the sailors and Marines a place to rehabilitate, allowing them to and focus on their medical needs rather than their next field evolution or unit training class.
The injured Marines and sailors are officially assigned to the Wounded Warrior Support Section, one of two sections comprised within the II MEF Injured Support Unit, or ISU. Established with the goal of tracking all injured II MEF service members and providing support to them and their immediate families, the ISU was developed in 2005, subsequent to a realization that some injured Marines and sailors were convalescing at home or within a variety of military and civilian medical centers, effectively cutting them off from their Marine Corps family.
Lieutenant General James F. Amos, former Commanding General of II MEF, recognized the need for a program that would track each and every wounded Marine and sailor coming home from the Middle East. Scribbling notes on personalized stationary, MajGen. Amos penned the following end state: "We will stay plugged in to every single wounded Marine who has been evacuated to CONUS for rehabilitation...until such time (sic) he no longer needs our assistance." According to the General's hand written memorandum, tracking and communication were the key elements that would lead to the successful formulation of the ISU. Later refining his end state by issuing a formal CG's intent, he wrote "I intend to develop an all encompassing program that provides continual support to all injured II MEF service members until such time as the service member no longer desires the support. This continual support will also extend to his or her immediate family. The program is directed to be a "one stop" shop for all injured II MEF service members, staffed with resident experts capable of finding solutions to all inquiries. It will provide continual command care and concern to the injured service member and their families throughout their transition to either continued military service or to the civilian community."
And so began the Injured Support Unit. Initially staffed with both recalled reservists and active duty personnel, its dedicated members made numerous liaison visits to wounded Marines in Military hospitals and VA centers across the country. Whether tracking the flight status of an injured service member from the time of injury until his return to CONUS, or assisting him in separating from active service, the ISU involves themselves in every facet of the Marines rehabilitative process to include the complicated logistics of family travel, convalescent leave, and follow-on medical treatment and rehabilitation, as well as VA transition and the medical evaluation process.
Since its inception, the ISU has tracked and assisted more than 2,000 wounded Marines and sailors. Unfortunately, not all of the injured Marines or sailors return to Camp Lejeune to rehabilitate among their fellow Marines and sailors. Many remain bed-ridden or continue to receive therapy at other locations, such as the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland or the military burn center at the Trauma Institute of San Antonio, Texas. Regardless of their location, the men and women of the ISU spend countless hours making telephone calls and personal visits to each and every Marine, ensuring no one falls through the cracks.
According to Major Daniel Hooker, Assistant OIC of the ISU, the unit quickly established a routine and developed primary points of contact at every hospital and trauma center known to treat wounded sailors and Marines. Referring to the ISU as the II MEF Chief of Staff's "hip pocket artillery" when it comes to injured support issues, Major Hooker emphasizes his primary goal: "Whenever we thought about the Commanders intent, it was simply, do we have an accurate list of the present physical location and contact information of all our wounded and are we actively helping them?"
"We have two main sections of the ISU" says Hooker. "The Injured Support Section...they handle the separate subsets of our wounded, which includes the medically discharged; the very seriously injured; the seriously injured; and the not seriously injured. The other main section is the wounded warrior barracks, also called the Wounded Warrior Support Section. In the barracks side, everyone has been wounded except the Lieutenant, while on the (ISS) side, no one has. Part of that was by design, in terms of the staff of the barracks. There could be very effective leadership and mentorship of wounded (Marines and sailors) by Officers and SNCO's that had also been wounded, in that they could serve as role models and could provide living proof that you can overcome your challenges, even severe wounds such as those LtCol. Maxwell sustained. He has served as an inspiration to the men, who in most cases, and as far as the residents of the barracks go, were less severely wounded than he was."
Major Hooker was referring to LtCol. Tim Maxwell, the Officer in Charge of the Wounded Warrior Support Section. As the chief advocate for the development of a medical rehabilitation platoon, a place where Marines and sailors could live in an environment shaped by their experiences in battle and their struggle to recuperate, LtCol. Maxwell was himself seriously wounded by an IED while serving as the Operations Officer for the 24th MEU. Shrapnel from the blast tore into his skull, leaving him with traumatic head and brain injuries. Unwilling to give up his struggle to stay Marine, he learned to walk, then talk, besieged by therapy and rehabilitation. Despite permanent damage he suffered, his injuries are relatively unnoticeable to the average person. He has since regained his speech and his health continues to improve with each passing day.
It was LtCol. Maxwell who first suggested the central billeting concept, a place of cohabitation for injured service members. In addition to enhancing the II MEF tracking capability, the central billeting concept would reduce the Marine's feeling of isolation and provide an environment for shared experiences, as well as creating an opportunity for smoother transition back to their unit or when separating from the Corps. Most importantly, the barracks would provide a consolidated location where specialized services, medical oversight, and morale enhancements could be offered under one roof for the collective benefit of all wounded service members. Maxwell summarized his idea - "The concept was simple...let's just keep the guys together, so they don't have to spend time alone."
LtCol. Maxwell's cadre wear many hats while working in the barracks. They serve as ad hoc parents, mentors and role models, all but one having been wounded in the war on terrorism. "The units are not set up to help some of these Marines who need long term care, but (who) are not going to stay in a hospital...it's a full time job doing that," mentions Gunnery Sgt. Barnes, Staff NCOIC of the Wounded Warrior Support Section. Pondering the benefits of the wounded warrior barracks, Gunnery Sgt. Barnes finds merit in the collective healing concept. "It's something I know because of all the doctors appointments (I required) and the amount of drugs I took for awhile," Barnes explains. "It's not a unit's lack of compassion or understanding, it's a lack of time to focus on those issues. Units don't have anything dedicated or set up to take the young Marines to their hospital appointments. Their hearts are in the right place...they want to be able to do that, but they have one focus when they get back, and it's not to heal...it's to rebuild and to get the unit ready to fight again."
Gunnery Sgt. Barnes stresses the wounded Marines aren't babied at the barracks. "I only give them compassion when they need compassion. I don't feel sorry for them because they got hurt...I got hurt. I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me, either. If you need help getting your pant leg on, well...that's not something you need to feel sorry for anybody for. It's just something you need help with...it shouldn't be embarrassing. You're still going to have to look good in your Alphas. They are required to be at work. We have a ton of jobs we get them involved in. The sergeants I've got here are squad leaders; they work around their doctors appointments. It shows them they can still do it."
Resembling little like the billeting at their parent unit, the wounded warrior barracks provides its inhabitants with private rooms, complete with individual bathrooms and separate living space. The barracks itself is modified with handicapped ramps and wheelchair accessible entry points. The barracks personnel were recently provided a beautiful stainless steel propane grill from the 2nd Marine Division Association, now permanently installed outside the barracks entrance. More important than its physical features, however, the barracks offers the wounded a place to share their experiences with others who’ve endured the same hardships and who share the same need for additional surgery and treatment.
"It's almost like being in Iraq" says LCpl. Brandon Love, a SAW gunner for 2nd BN, 2nd Marine Regiment who suffered severe shrapnel wounds in Al Karma, Iraq in September, 2005. "You find out about these guys...everybody has seen combat. Most everybody has seen their buddies get injured if not killed, and everybody here was injured. Those three things make us more alike than most people realize, regardless of where we are from, what our MOS is...the brotherhood and the camaraderie is the most beneficial thing." LCpl. Love's comments were quickly echoed by LCpl. Bruce Schweitzer, injured in March, 2006 while serving with 3/8 in Ramadi, Iraq, "They focus completely on your injury. It's all about your injury. They want to get you healed up and get you back with your unit."
General Michael Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps, had this to say to the staff of MARINES, the Corps Official Magazine in September, 2005. "Our Marines are just that; Marines to the core. Some have lost limbs or sustained other types of serious injuries, but amazingly they're trying to recover as quickly as possible so they can get back to their units. They don't slow down when thrown a curve ball and their resiliency and determination are breathtaking. When I talk to one of these Marines and they explain how they want to continue with their service, I want to make sure the Marine Corps takes the right steps to make that happen." Apparently, II MEF has taken the first steps and is continuing to march.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
A Marine Intel Officer in Al Anbar Shares Some Thoughts
From the net...courtesy of Reads...
All: I haven’t written very much from Iraq. There’s really not much to write about. More exactly, there’s not much I can write about because practically everything I do, read or hear is classified military information or is depressing to the point that I’d rather just forget about it, never mind write about it. The gaps in between all of that are filled with the pure tedium of daily life in an armed camp. So it’s a bit of a struggle to think of anything to put into a letter that’s worth reading. Worse, this place just consumes you. I work 18-20-hour days, every day. The quest to draw a clear picture of what the insurgents are up to never ends. Problems and frictions crop up faster than solutions. Every challenge demands a response. It’s like this every day. Before I know it, I can’t see straight, because it’s 0400 and I’ve been at work for twenty hours straight, somehow missing dinner again in the process. And once again I haven’t written to anyone. It starts all over again four hours later. It’s not really like Ground Hog Day, it’s more like a level from Dante’s Inferno.
Rather than attempting to sum up the last seven months, I figured I’d just hit the record setting highlights of 2006 in Iraq. These are among the events and experiences I’ll remember best.
Worst Case of Déjà Vu - I thought I was familiar with the feeling of déjà vu until I arrived back here in Fallujah in February. The moment I stepped off of the helicopter, just as dawn broke, and saw the camp just as I had left it ten months before - that was déjà vu. Kind of unnerving. It was as if I had never left. Same work area, same busted desk, same chair, same computer, same room, same creaky rack, same . . . everything. Same everything for the next year. It was like entering a parallel universe. Home wasn’t 10,000 miles away, it was a different lifetime.
Most Surreal Moment - Watching Marines arrive at my detention facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. I had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.
Most Profound Man in Iraq - an unidentified farmer in a fairly remote area who, after being asked by Reconnaissance Marines (searching for Syrians) if he had seen any foreign fighters in the area replied “Yes, you.”
Worst City in al-Anbar Province - Ramadi, hands down. The provincial capital of 400,000 people. Killed over 1,000 insurgents in there since we arrived in February. Every day is a nasty gun battle. They blast us with giant bombs in the road, snipers, mortars and small arms. We blast them with tanks, attack helicopters, artillery, our snipers (much better than theirs), and every weapon that an infantryman can carry. Every day. Incredibly, I rarely see Ramadi in the news. We have as many attacks out here in the west as Baghdad. Yet, Baghdad has 7 million people, we have just 1.2 million. Per capita, al-Anbar province is the most violent place in Iraq by several orders of magnitude. I suppose it was no accident that the Marines were assigned this area in 2003.
Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - Any Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician (EOD Tech). How’d you like a job that required you to defuse bombs in a hole in the middle of the road that very likely are booby-trapped or connected by wire to a bad guy who’s just waiting for you to get close to the bomb before he clicks the detonator? Every day. Sanitation workers in New York City get paid more than these guys. Talk about courage and commitment.
Second Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province - It’s a 20,000 way tie among all the Marines and Soldiers who venture out on the highways and through the towns of al-Anbar every day, not knowing if it will be their last - and for a couple of them, it will be.
Best Piece of U.S. Gear - new, bullet-proof flak jackets. O.K., they weigh 40 lbs and aren’t exactly comfortable in 120 degree heat, but they’ve saved countless lives out here.
Best Piece of Bad Guy Gear - Armor Piercing ammunition that goes right through the new flak jackets and the Marines inside them.
Worst E-Mail Message - “The Walking Blood Bank is Activated. We need blood type A+ stat.” I always head down to the surgical unit as soon as I get these messages, but I never give blood - there’s always about 80 Marines in line, night or day.
Biggest Surprise - Iraqi Police. All local guys. I never figured that we’d get a police force established in the cities in al-Anbar. I estimated that insurgents would kill the first few, scaring off the rest. Well, insurgents did kill the first few, but the cops kept on coming. The insurgents continue to target the police, killing them in their homes and on the streets, but the cops won’t give up. Absolutely incredible tenacity. The insurgents know that the police are far better at finding them than we are. - and they are finding them. Now, if we could just get them out of the habit of beating prisoners to a pulp . . .
Greatest Vindication - Stocking up on outrageous quantities of Diet Coke from the chow hall in spite of the derision from my men on such hoarding, then having a 122mm rocket blast apart the giant shipping container that held all of the soda for the chow hall. Yep, you can’t buy experience.
Biggest Mystery - How some people can gain weight out here. I’m down to 165 lbs. Who has time to eat?
Second Biggest Mystery - if there’s no atheists in foxholes, then why aren’t there more people at Mass every Sunday?
Favorite Iraqi TV Show - Oprah. I have no idea. They all have satellite TV.
Coolest Insurgent Act - Stealing almost $7 million from the main bank in Ramadi in broad daylight, then, upon exiting, waving to the Marines in the combat outpost right next to the bank, who had no clue of what was going on. The Marines waved back. Too cool.
Most Memorable Scene - In the middle of the night, on a dusty airfield, watching the better part of a battalion of Marines packed up and ready to go home after six months in al-Anbar, the relief etched in their young faces even in the moonlight. Then watching these same Marines exchange glances with a similar number of grunts loaded down with gear file past - their replacements. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.
Highest Unit Re-enlistment Rate - Any outfit that has been in Iraq recently. All the danger, all the hardship, all the time away from home, all the horror, all the frustrations with the fight here - all are outweighed by the desire for young men to be part of a 'Band of Brothers' who will die for one another. They found what they were looking for when they enlisted out of high school. Man for man, they now have more combat experience than any Marines in the history of our Corps.
Most Surprising Thing I Don’t Miss - Beer. Perhaps being half-stunned by lack of sleep makes up for it.
Worst Smell - Porta-johns in 120 degree heat - and that’s 120 degrees outside of the porta-john.
Highest Temperature - I don’t know exactly, but it was in the porta-johns. Needed to re-hydrate after each trip to the loo.
Biggest Hassle - High-ranking visitors. More disruptive to work than a rocket attack. VIPs demand briefs and “battlefield” tours (we take them to quiet sections of Fallujah, which is plenty scary for them). Our briefs and commentary seem to have no affect on their preconceived notions of what’s going on in Iraq. Their trips allow them to say that they’ve been to Fallujah, which gives them an unfortunate degree of credibility in perpetuating their fantasies about the insurgency here.
Biggest Outrage - Practically anything said by talking heads on TV about the war in Iraq, not that I get to watch much TV. Their thoughts are consistently both grossly simplistic and politically slanted. Biggest offender - Bill O’Reilly - what a buffoon.
Best Intel Work - Finding Jill Carroll’s kidnappers - all of them. I was mighty proud of my guys that day. I figured we’d all get the Christian Science Monitor for free after this, but none have showed up yet. Talk about ingratitude.
Saddest Moment - Having the battalion commander from 1st Battalion, 1st Marines hand me the dog tags of one of my Marines who had just been killed while on a mission with his unit. Hit by a 60mm mortar. Cpl Bachar was a great Marine. I felt crushed for a long time afterward. His picture now hangs at the entrance to the Intelligence Section. We’ll carry it home with us when we leave in February.
Biggest Ass-Chewing - 10 July immediately following a visit by the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Zobai. The Deputy Prime Minister brought along an American security contractor (read mercenary), who told my Commanding General that he was there to act as a mediator between us and the Bad Guys. I immediately told him what I thought of him and his asinine ideas in terms that made clear my disgust and which, unfortunately, are unrepeatable here. I thought my boss was going to have a heart attack. Fortunately, the translator couldn’t figure out the best Arabic words to convey my meaning for the Deputy Prime Minister. Later, the boss had no difficulty in conveying his meaning to me in English regarding my Irish temper, even though he agreed with me. At least the guy from the State Department thought it was hilarious. We never saw the mercenary again.
Best Chuck Norris Moment - 13 May. Bad Guys arrived at the government center in the small town of Kubaysah to kidnap the town mayor, since they have a problem with any form of government that does not include regular beheadings and women wearing burqahs. There were seven of them. As they brought the mayor out to put him in a pick-up truck to take him off to be beheaded (on video, as usual), one of the bad Guys put down his machinegun so that he could tie the mayor’s hands. The mayor took the opportunity to pick up the machinegun and drill five of the Bad Guys. The other two ran away. One of the dead Bad Guys was on our top twenty wanted list. Like they say, you can’t fight City Hall.
Worst Sound - That crack-boom off in the distance that means an IED or mine just went off. You just wonder who got it, hoping that it was a near miss rather than a direct hit. Hear it every day.
Second Worst Sound - Our artillery firing without warning. The howitzers are pretty close to where I work. Believe me, outgoing sounds a lot like incoming when our guns are firing right over our heads. They’d about knock the fillings out of your teeth.
Only Thing Better in Iraq Than in the U.S. - Sunsets. Spectacular. It’s from all the dust in the air.
Proudest Moment - It’s a tie every day, watching my Marines produce phenomenal intelligence products that go pretty far in teasing apart Bad Guy operations in al-Anbar. Every night Marines and Soldiers are kicking in doors and grabbing Bad Guys based on intelligence developed by my guys. We rarely lose a Marine during these raids, they are so well-informed of the objective. A bunch of kids right out of high school shouldn’t be able to work so well, but they do.
Happiest Moment - Well, it wasn’t in Iraq. There are no truly happy moments here. It was back in California when I was able to hold my family again while home on leave during July.
Most Common Thought - Home. Always thinking of home, of Kathleen and the kids. Wondering how everyone else is getting along. Regretting that I don’t write more. Yep, always thinking of home.
Friday, August 04, 2006
When an Army Captain asked him for the direction of the line of retreat, Col Puller called his Tank Commander, gave them the Army position, and ordered: "If they start to pull back from that line, even one foot, I want you to open fire on them." Turning to the Captain, he replied "Does that answer your question? We're here to fight."
- Chesty Puller At Koto-ri in Korea
Lewis Burwell Puller, a native of West Point, Virginia, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1917, shortly after completing his "rat year" at the Virginia Military Institute. Yearning to join the fight in Europe, he left his VMI classmates behind and attended Marine Corps recruit training, hoping to join the fight against the Germans. Unfortunately, he never saw combat during the world war and was placed on the Marine Corps inactive list due to post war drawdowns. Unsatisfied with civilian life, he re-enlisted in the Corps and got his first taste of combat in Haiti. It was the begining of a long line of military campaigns in which he'd participate. By the end of his 37 year career, Lt. General Lewis "Chesty" Puller had earned 14 personal decorations, to include five Navy Crosses, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit with "V" device, the Bronze Star with "V" device, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.
"Chesty" Puller became more than a hero; he was an American legend. His gruff, give 'em hell attitude was admired throughout the Marine Corps. His bravery and his nickname were known to millions of Americans on the home front. He was a man's man, a Marine' s Marine. For all his renown, however, there are few permanent monuments to "Chesty" Puller. One of the few is in the Hall of Valor at the VMI Museum. There, thousands of visitors come each year to learn about the VMI men who've made our nation great. "Chesty" Puller's medals are on display along with those of other famous VMI graduates, to include Admiral Richard E. Byrd, General Lemuel C. Shepherd, and others. Even some students who didn't graduate, such as General George Patton, lamented on VMI until the day they died. (paragraph courtesy of http://www.polaris.net/~jrube/chestpul.htm)
On June 29th, I was honored to assist the Marine Corps Museum with the retrieval of several dozen personal items belonging to LtGen. Puller. The items, located at the Marine Barracks at Naval Weapons Station, Yorktown, VA, included a complete set of the General's personal decorations, his original promotion warrants, an engraved Mameluke sword, a satin Lieutenant General's flag, and other items loaned to the Barracks in the mid 1970's by Mrs. Virginia Evans Puller, Chesty's widow. Displayed in "Puller Hall," the items have been remained in Yorktown for thirty years.
In February, 2006, Ms. Puller passed away at the age of 97. At the request of the Puller family, the Marine Corps Museum began efforts to account for items that had been loaned to the Marine Corps by Ms. Puller and distributed among various Marine Corps commands. Working closely with the Yorktown Marine Corps Security Force Company Commander and XO, the Marine Corps Museum curator obtained a complete list of items displayed at Puller Hall and tentatively arranged to have the items transferred to the Museum on behalf of the Puller family. By June, the only task remaining was the retrieval and subsequent transfer of the items from Yorktown to Quantico.
Sadly, the items had suffered the harmful effects of heat and sun damage while displayed at Puller Hall. Decoration ribbons had faded, as had photographs and flags that had become sun-baked behind the glass display case. Though beautifully displayed, the items were in need of restorative care, which will certainly occur once returned to the Museum. Assisted by the Marine Corps Security Force Supply Sgt., I carefully removed each item from the display case and packaged them in boxes, checking the items against the curator's list. Satisfied I had retrieved everything, I nervously departed the Weapons station with a priceless collection of artifacts in the back seat of my POV. As a fellow Marine and VMI alumnus, I 'm sure the General would have been satisfied to know I had been entrusted to care for his belongings, if only for 24 hours.
Of all the items, my favorite artifact was Chesty's engraved mameluke sword, presented to the General in recognition of his valor in Haiti, where he'd served as an enlisted Marine with the Gendarmerie d'Haiti, a military force operating in Haiti under a treaty with the United States. Most of its officers were U. S. Marines, while its enlisted personnel were Haitians. Spending almost five years in Haiti, he saw frequent action against the Caco rebels before returning the the United States in 1924, where he was immediately commissioned a Marine second lieutenant. The sword was in beautiful condition, a truly significant piece among the Puller estate items.
For those who weren't aware, the mameluke sword was originally adopted for wear by Marine Corps Officers after it was presented to Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon, who led seven Marines and an odd assortment of mercenaries and cut-throats in a bayonet charge against a Tripoli fort on April 27, 1805, securing the surrender of Jessup, the bey of Tripoli. Hamet Karamanli promptly took as ruler of Tripoli and presented O'Bannon with his personal jeweled sword, the same type used by his Mameluke tribesmen. Today, Marine officers still carry this type of sword, commemorating the Corps' service during the Tripolitian War, 1801 - 05. Appropriately, the actions of O'Bannon and his small group of Marines are commemorated in the second line of the Marines' Hymn with the words, "To the Shores of Tripoli".
Arriving safely at the Marine Corps Museum, I gently unpacked and inventoried the items with Ms. Jennifer Castro, the museum curator and caretaker for the incredible assortment of artifacts held in the museum archives. In addition to her curator responsibilities, Jennifer is heavily engaged with the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's National Museum of the Marine Corps, which will open on the 231st birthday of the Corps on Nov. 11, 2006 - you may have seen it while driving on interstate 95 near Quantico and Dumfries. It will soon display historic memorabilia of Marines past and present, which may one day include the documents, flags, decorations and sword belonging to the General we know simply as "Chesty."
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
The NCIS is a unique federal law enforcement agency comprised of special agents, investigators, forensic experts, security specialists, analysts, and support personnel. Headquartered at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., it is the primary law enforcement and counterintelligence arm of the United States Department of the Navy. The NCIS maintains a worldwide presence – its special agents operate from 15 field offices, including one operational unit dedicated to counterespionage, and more than 140 individual locations around the globe.
As the investigative arm of the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps, NCIS special agents deploy to locations most federal agencies fear to tread. You’ll find NCIS special agents serving aboard aircraft carriers or aboard the ships of an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). They currently serve among the Marines and sailors of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and among the Marine expeditionary units (MEU) in the Atlantic and Pacific and Persian Gulf. Forward deployed to dozens of countries around the globe, NCIS special agents strive to prevent terrorism, to protect the secrets of the Navy and the Marine Corps, and to reduce crime through a proactive and highly regarded criminal investigative program.
Unknown to many Marines and civilians alike, a small cadre of Marines work alongside the civilian special agents. They carry the same badge, conduct the same investigations, and testify at the same court hearings. They are Marine special agents, a few men and women of NCIS who’ve been individually screened and selected to serve the Navy and Marine Corps in a unique and exciting capacity. Previously assigned to the Criminal Investigative Division (CID) office at a major Marine Corps installation, the Marine special agent, once selected, is assigned to an NCIS field office or resident agency, such as the
Carolina Field Office located at and Camp Lejeune, N.C. or the Marine Marine Corps West Field
Office at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Indistinguishable from a civilian special agent, the Marine special agents are treated as equals within the organization. Though technically employed by the Marine Corps, they no longer stand formation or uniform inspection. Instead, they stand duty, responding to crime scenes and engaging with commands who’ve fallen victim to a criminal act. They carry their own caseload of criminal or foreign counterintelligence investigations, working the cases from inception to prosecution. Often cooperating with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the Marine special agents build a network of contacts and associates to further assist them in the conduct of their investigations.
According to Colonel John Forquer, the current military assistant to the NCIS Director and commanding officer of the NCIS Office of Military Support, roughly 65 Marine special agents and six counterintelligence Marines now fill the ranks of NCIS. They are joined by 130 Navy reservists and approximately 200 active-duty sailors performing various administrative, counterintelligence and analyst duties roles throughout the agency.
Despite the change in their working environment, the Marine special agents are still required to participate in PFTs, qualify with their firearms and meet the height and weight standards required of Marines in uniform. They still abide by professional military education requirements and are screened for promotion. Although they’ve traded their uniforms for a coat and tie, they remain Marines underneath and as such, are expected to meet the high standards of performance, physical readiness, and conduct.
With today’s demanding operational tempo, it is very likely that they will be deployed in support of potentially dangerous assignments and duties. Marine special agents were the some of the first NCIS special agents deployed to Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. From OIF I to present, over 32 former and current Marine special agents have deployed to Iraq to support the war on terrorism.
Leatherneck NCIS agents have conducted investigations into criminal misconduct of Marines and sailors, ranging from common theft incidents to sexual assaults. They’ve spent countless hours investigating non-combat related deaths and allegations of detainee abuse. They’ve embedded with other NCIS special agents at locations such as Camp Fallujah, Camp Blue Diamond, Tikrit, Taqaddum and Al Asad. Five Marine special agents are currently assigned to the 2006 deployment cycle in support of OIF and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: Master Sergeant Tim Fowler,
Gunnery Sgt William Link, GySgt. Mark McLawhorn, SSgt Michael Payne and Sergeant Jeffrey Farmer.
Marine special agents have also served on personal protection teams in the cities of Al Hillah and Al Basra, protecting high-level dignitaries of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the United Nations from potential threats and harm. Since the start of OIF, Marine special agents have subsequently deployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Djibouti and numerous other locations in the war against terrorism. First to fight, the Marine special agents are always at the tip of the NCIS spear.
MSgt Tim Fowler, a Marine special agent from the Washington Field Office, is an NCIS subject matter expert in the field of computer forensics and computer crime investigations. Deployed by NCIS to Iraq during OIF I, MSgt Fowler utilized the skills he practiced as a NCIS special agent to assist various governmental agencies with the screening of computer materials seized across the area of operations. Traveling across Iraq in a variety of military and civilian vehicles, his actions and incredible successes on the battlefield earned him a Bronze Star with combat “V”. MSgt Fowler is currently deployed with NCIS to Afghanistan in support of OEF, continuing the fight against terrorism.
MSgt Tim Fowler, Marine Special Agent, atop Mount Ghar, Afghanistan
GySgt Dan Carlin, a Marine special agent at the Carolinas Field Office, volunteered to serve on a dignitary protection team in the city of Al Hillah, Iraq during OIF 3. Part of a nine-man team dedicated to providing personal protection for the CPA ambassador in south central Iraq, “Gunny” Carlin often found himself dual-hated as a gunner and team navigator, using the land navigation skills he learned as a Marine to navigate around the small towns and villages between Baghdad and Hillah.
MSgt Patty Lyons, a Marine special agent from the NCIS Resident Agency in Quantico, deployed to Iraq in support of the NCIS criminal investigative mission, spending the bulk of her time with the Third Marine Aircraft Wing at Al Asad. Her assignment took her on dozens of “milk runs” aboard CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters to Al Asad, Taqaddum, and Camp Fallujah during her deployment, investigating crimes including arson, assault, bribery and graft.
Special Agent Doug Einsel, the supervisor for the NCIS detachment at Camp Fallujah, Iraq during OIF 4-6, said NCIS special agents, both Marine and civilian, are dedicated to supporting the MEF in Iraq, providing criminal investigative support and force protection methodology to the MEF. Working closely with the MEF antiterrorism/force protection (ATFP) cells and force-protection units established at each of the camps, the NCIS agents seek to identify physical and counterintelligence vulnerabilities which could jeopardize the health and well-being of Marines located at or transiting to the camps.
Formerly military police investigators (MOS 5819) or criminal investigators (MOS 5821), the Marine special agents receive their entry-level law enforcement training via the Marine Corps MOS training program at the Army’s Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Following their acceptance into NCIS, they are required to attend six weeks of specialized training conducted at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia. Operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FLETC provides law-enforcement training to 81 partner agencies, to include the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The newly selected Marine special agents learn the “ins and outs” of felony level investigations and how to operate in a civilian environment. They use this training time to sharpen their skills and to learn some advanced techniques for conducting crime scene examinations and interviews, enabling them manage a felony investigation from crime scene to courtroom.
For those special agents engaged in the war against terrorism, FLETC is creating a Counterterrorism Operations Training Facility to augment their already robust training center, situated on the grounds of the former Brunswick, Ga., Naval Air Station. The $50 million facility will recreate various settings, both foreign and domestic, that agents might encounter in the field, including urban and rural neighborhoods, subway stations, buildings and roadways. Within the facility, a mock Middle Eastern training village was constructed, providing students a realistic environment simulating the urban environment of Iraq. At least 13 organizations at FLETC, including NCIS, currently send graduates overseas in direct support of the war on terrorism.
Post academy training for both Marine and civilian special agents covers a variety of subjects, including but not limited to legal instruction, forensics, crime scene processing, firearms, driver training, computer crimes, illicit narcotics, child pornography, larceny, and a host of other activities prosecutable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the United States Code. If necessary, Marine special agents are granted relaxed grooming standards for certain activities, such as narcotics or gang investigations. Blending into their surroundings aboard base or out in town, the Marine special agents are an inseparable part of the NCIS team.
Seamlessly integrated into NCIS, the Marine special agents are enthusiastic about being part of the NCIS team. According to Col Forquer, the special agents in charge of the NCIS field offices are quick to tell you that the Marines assigned to the field offices are a critical part of their team. “They have an outstanding work ethic and eagerly take on the tough assignments. They are true professionals, absolutely dedicated to the mission. But if you asked a Marine special agent, he or she’d just tell you that it’s all in a days work.”
Leatherneck Editors Note: LtCol Covert served as one of two U.S. Marine Corps Field Historians deployed to Iraq during OIF 4-6. Traveling throughout the Al Anbar and Babil provinces, he collected 240 taped interviews of Marines, sailors and soldiers engaged in combat operations, security and stability operations (SASO) and combat service support. The interviews, along with corresponding photographs and documentary materials, are permanently archived at the Marine Corps Historical Division at Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA. In his civilian career, LtCol Covert is a Supervisory Special Agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Norfolk, VA.
Sunday, May 07, 2006
The following piece is a story I submitted to "Leatherneck" magazine for publication. I've been notified by the editor that it will probably appear in the August issue. For preview by fellow milbloggers and non-subscribers to Leatherneck, here's my first attempt at publication:
Standing upon the roof of a small border fort, five dust covered Marines scan the horizon, searching for signs of life across the sandy, barren desert. Joined by an equal number of Iraqi border police, the Marines and “jundee” discuss an upcoming patrol along the expansive border. The Marines belong to the Multi-National Forces West (MNF-W) border transition teams, or BTT, which operate along the Iraqi borders of Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Unique to OIF, the primary mission of the BTT Marines is to support the manning, training and equipping of the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, or DBE. One of several fledgling law enforcement organizations within the newly formed Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI), the DBE operates 43 border forts along 900 kilometers of border.
Tasked with staunching the flow of illegal aliens, foreign fighters, smugglers and insurgents into Iraq, the DBE remains a separate entity from their Iraqi Police (IP) counterparts, a separate law enforcement organization within the Ministry of Interior. Similar to the U.S. Border Patrol, the border policemen of the DBE exercise powers of arrest along the border, while the IP operate in the cities and towns located in the interior of the country.
Deploying to the border for weeks at a time, the BTT Marines work with and live among the Iraqi Jundees at the various forts. Supported by the addition of embedded Arabic interpreters, the BTT’s began their initial operations during the spring and summer of 2005. “Our job (was) to assess the operations and logistics at the forts, using the assessment as a baseline and trying to improve from there”, said Major Michael Casey, Border Transition Team Chief, during a September 2005 interview. “We spent a lot of time working with the jundees one on one, teaching leadership and basic military skills.” Classes on patrolling procedures, weapons maintenance and hygiene (were) routine. “We try to infuse the (warrior) ethos” Casey said.
The BTT Marines quickly found they had their hands full. “When we first got there, the area was the wild west,” said LtCol. Kenneth DeSimone, II MEF DBE coordinator from February through September, 2005. “We were told they (the Iraqi border police) were equipped and trained. But in reality, they had no uniforms, weapons, or vehicles. There was little or no comm – no radios or phones. It was a very spartan existence.” “It was straight from a scene out of an old French foreign legion film,” DeSimone continued. “Many of these forts are located in extremely desolate locations. The forts have turrets and shooting ports and look like miniature versions of a medieval castle. It may be the only real building within miles – there’s a surreal aspect to many of these locations.”
Prior to the arrival of the BTT Marines, few border forts had hosted permanent coalition staff. Some received sporadic visits from U.S. Army advisory support teams, as well as hosting officers of various U.S. civilian organizations such as the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agency. Assigned to remote areas like Waleed and Trebil, the officers deployed in 4-man teams, each comprised of two Border Patrolmen and 2 CBP Officers. Still, the lack of permanent coalition presence was a continuing issue.
Filling this void were the Marines of the BTT. Having Established the original Border Transition Teams by late spring, the Marines set out to assess the effectiveness of the existing Iraqi border police and to determine the readiness of their forts. Traveling hundreds of miles in small convoys, they moved in self-sufficient detachments initially containing M-1114 up-armored HMMWV’s (high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle) and an accompanying logistics train comprised of a 7-ton MTVR (medium tactical vehicle replacement) or LVS (logistics vehicle system) filled with supplies and equipment.
The initial assessments uncovered a variety of challenges. The Iraqi border police typically relied on the leadership of border police officers to make the day-to-day decisions. Few, if any, leadership roles were delegated below the rank of officer and many of the border police failed to show for work on a routine basis. Sanitation concerns were almost non-existent at most forts and training was not being conducted on tactics, patrolling or standardized law enforcement techniques.
According to 1stLt. Braulio Lopez, logistics advisor for Border Transition Team 4 during OIF 4-6, the assessment phase paired up members of the BTT with individual policemen at the forts. The teams assessed not only the training and effectiveness of the border police, but also reviewed the maintenance of the buildings, the condition of their vehicles and the functionality of the weapons at the forts. Often lacking electricity, heat, water, and vehicles, the forts were initially ineffective.
One major obstacle hampering the efforts of the border police was the lack of vehicles assigned to each fort. Many forts had only one vehicle, usually a run down SUV or pick-up almost in a state of disrepair. Proper equipage became an immediate priority for the BTT, resulting in the delivery of new vehicles, uniforms, weapons and other equipment to the forts. “We constantly emphasized that they open lines of communication with their own chain of command, the Ministry of Interior,” Lt. Lopez noted. “It was important that they start to rely on MOI for issues rather than relying on us for everything.”
Getting the equipment to the forts and keeping it maintained was the greatest challenge following the assessment phase, said GySgt. Shawn Dellinger, Operations SNCOIC. “We showed them how to improvise, to adapt, to utilize the equipment they already had…when a piece of equipment breaks, (how to) keep it maintained and fix it.” From 4-wheel drive vehicles to communications gear, GySgt. Dellinger said the establishment of an effective preventive maintenance program by the border police went a long way in the ensuring the success of the DBE.
Dellinger indicated the lack of NCO leadership among the Iraqi units was the root of the problem that allowed the maintenance and equipment issues to flourish. “There is no staff or NCO leadership when the officers are not around, no enlisted leadership whatsoever. An officer has to make the decision. An officer goes out on patrol, an officer tells them to clean up, to wake up…they don’t make a move without an officer present. If the officer didn’t give approval, they don’t do it….it’s a habit from the old regime,” Dellinger stated. The solution was teaching the border police the concept of the non-commissioned officer. “Our biggest challenge was showing them that we, as staff NCO’s, have responsibility, have leadership, make decisions and go out there to get the mission done without having to have an officer present.” (4)
The training phase started slowly but rapidly gained momentum. The first several days were spent teaching sanitation fundamentals. From trash collection to hygiene trenches, the Leathernecks imparted the philosophy of cleaner, more sanitary workplaces. Operational lessons followed, including instruction on basic patrol fundamentals at the fire team and squad levels. Getting the border police to leave the confines of the border fort and conduct proactive patrols, either by vehicle or afoot was a success in itself. The active patrols were outwardly displaying a law enforcement presence not previously seen on a regular basis.
The BTT also developed leadership courses using the 14 leadership traits taught to Marine officer candidates and recruits, focusing on judgment, initiative, and integrity. Classes on motor transport maintenance, driving techniques, and basic logistics issues helped fill the day, each lesson resulting in a more empowered border policeman.
In order to formalize a more permanent training regimen within the ranks of the DBE, the Falcon Academy was established in An Najaf by the fall of 2005. Akin to “train the trainer” programs found throughout the US Marine Corps, the Falcon Academy provided a structured environment to train senior border policemen as instructors and mentors, giving them the ability to become training representatives at their respective border forts. The week-long border training initiative provided instruction in logistics and medical issues as well as courses on leadership, communications, and weapons handling. BTT Marines organized and taught the courses, developing the curriculum and perfecting the syllabus. “We empowered the senior sergeants, the class commander and squad leaders, giving them the ability to make decisions…and provide consistent sustained training…they just ate it up”, said GySgt. Dellinger. Given the responsibility to make decisions on their own accord, “…they were leading the way.”
“Taking and using our procedures, ” Dellinger said, “was one of the greatest success stories of the Academy.”
During a Falcon Academy graduation in September, 2005, Maj. Gen. Hussain Aooyz Al Ghazali, commander of the 5th Border Patrol Regiment, addressed the students. “Take what you have learned here and teach the others you work with. There are no contracts between Saudi Arabia and Iraq to keep the insurgents from crossing the border.” He continued, “You are policemen, protecting our borders. You are very important men, carry yourselves high due to the position you are in.”
LtCol. DeSimone stated it was difficult to maintain a constant finger on the pulse of each fort. An average of 20 kilometers spanned the distance between each of the 43 border forts, and communication between forts was spotty. Manned by 20-25 border police, the area of coverage for each border fort was immense. “We flew to one desert town where they had never seen U.S. forces before…they thought we were Spanish.” Regardless, DeSimone remained positive in his assessment of the DBE and the future of the Iraqi border police. “The border police have successfully made arrests and have taken people into custody,” DeSimone commented prior to his departure from Iraq. “We are bringing the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) to a point where they can conduct their own law and order operations. Nobody knew how bad a shape they were in until we started poking around the border, hitting the border forts and meeting with the Iraqis. Since then we’ve been pushing out vehicles, uniforms, improving their pay and their life support. We’ve been getting them into training academies and are bringing them up to better standards that what they were before.”
LtCol. DeSimone believes the BTT’s role is vital to the success of Iraqi government. Commenting on the state of the Iraqi justice system, he opined the DBE is more effective than the courts they serve at this point. By the end of his tour in Iraq, Desimone saw radical changes in the effectiveness of the border police forces. “The border police are locking people up and are becoming more and more effective daily. We measure their success on how many arrests they make and how many people they are stopping and interdicting. They’ve come a long way – from guys in Metallica t-shirts and flip-flops to what we’ve got now – jundee in uniform, armed, conducting patrols and making arrests. We hope to see the same level of forward progress with the courts in the Ministry of Interior. It will take some time.”
Today, the BTT Marines of I MEF (Fwd) are focused less on assessments and basic equipment issues and spend the bulk of their time teaching advanced marksmanship techniques, patrolling, weapons handling, and internal security. The changes over the last year have been dramatic and continue to improve daily with the continuing efforts of I MEF (Fwd). During his turnover with I MEF in January, 2006, Major General Stephen Johnson, Commanding General of II MEF (Fwd), commented on the status of the Department of Border Enforcement. “The Department of Border Enforcement forces have grown over the past several months. The Iraqis, in coordination with the coalition forces, have built a number of border forts or installations along their border in the areas that we are responsible for - the border with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Those border forts are manned. The border police continue to go through training….there are now two brigades out there making progress in returning control of the border to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi people. It’s not a unilateral effort. They are partnered with Iraqi Army forces on the border and are also getting support from coalition forces as well. It’s a three-way effort out there, and the Department of Border Enforcement forces are showing improvement.” (8)
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Traveling with us were Marines from the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (2nd MLG), formerly referred to as 2nd FSSG. Aboard the plane, the 350 Marines were split among coach and first class. The Officers and Staff NCOÂs were led to the front of the aircraft where smiling crewmembers greeted us warmly. Though I try not to abuse the privileges of being an Officer, the first class section was one perk I was definitely not going to refuse! I took full advantage of the supple leather seats with integrated foot rests, extra legroom, and in-seat televisions. I started feeling sorry for the Marines stuck in coach, but quickly drifted off in a comfortable slumber, the roar of the jet engines lulling me to sleep. After traveling in cramped helicopters and HMMWVÂs over the last few months, I wasn't about to give up my spot in first class.
Nearly 15 hours after leaving Kuwait, the plane touched down at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, NC. The date was February 15th, 2006, the sun shining brightly as we taxied down the runway and eased into the terminal area. The Marines were all smiles as the doors opened and we caught our first breath of fresh Carolina air. Gone were the pungent odors of burning trash and port-o-johns. We had finally arrived home.
After an hour of sifting through seabags and MOLLE packs, our group boarded buses for Jacksonville, NC. A short, 30 minute drive led us straight to the gates of Camp Lejeune, home base to the majority of Marines traveling with me. As we approached the MEF Headquarters, family members of Marines could be seen standing behind signs and placards, waiting to welcome home their loved ones whom they so dearly missed over the last few months.
The next 5 days would be spent attending mandatory briefings, required of all returning warriors. These classes included safety lectures, a brief from the Chaplain, and a host of other nitnoid lectures focused on helping the Marines readjust to normal life. Certainly nothing earth shattering or difficult, the classes were usually over by noon, the rest of the day available for PT or relaxation with family, a nice way to transition back to life at home. Soon enough, the Marines will be preparing for their next deployment. These few days of easy living will pass, and the Marines will be back to normal, ready to serve wherever they are called to do so. That is the life of a Marine.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Camp Victory Kuwait, a fitting name. For Warrant Officer Fay and myself, it was indeed a small victory, the end of a successful tour in Iraq, both of us leaving Fallujah healthy and filled with memories of a lifetime. Memories that will only be surpassed by our next deployment, wherever that my be.
Camp Victory is our second waypoint between Camp Fallujah and home. The layovers are built into the retrograde for the purpose of mental and physical decompression. Studies conducted on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have prompted such efforts, Marines and sailors using the opportunity to discuss their experiences and enjoy each others company for the final few days without the worries of leaving the wire, the possibility of striking an IED or being ambushed by an invisible enemy.
The camp is similar in appearance to the military camps in Iraq – Hesco barriers, checkpoints, concertina wire and endless rows of tents. Marines and soldiers mill about the area, waiting for the buses that will ferry them to the airstrip, taking them on the final leg of their journey. Despite the isolation from civilization, the camp has several amenities to keep the Marines busy during their lull in travel. A wonderful USO tent sits in the center of the camp, air conditioned and carpeted. A sign inside the door reads "Please remove your boots - Really!!" Similar to the practice of removing ones shoees before entereing a home in Japan or Hawaii, all Marines entereing the USO take off their boots and store them in little wooden cubby holes ab le to accomodate a hundred pairs of boots and shoes. Marines stroll the USO in uniform and stocking feet, a funny sight for all to see. Free internet terminals sit off to one side of the USO, the very spot I sit writing this post. Situated inside a large quonset hut, it is filled it with furniture typically found at Ikea, comfortable sofas scattered about; large soft pillows piled high in the center of the room. Weary Marines lie peacefully among the pillows, dreaming of their impending reunion with family and sweethearts. Free coffee and internet service is available, and lazy boy lounge chairs provide comfortable seating areas in front of several large screen TV’s, movies running all day long. We sit in the lap of luxury.
The rest of the camp is typical – the remainder of the area containing the KBR chow hall, AT&T telephone centers and Haji-marts, those small local trinket stands where Marines have the last opportunity to spend their hard earned money on tacky plastic camels and Arabic headdresses.
Waiting for a flight has never been so pleasant. I’ll take Camp Victory over Dulles International Airport anytime!
Saturday, February 11, 2006
I am still in theater, several days coser to the charter flight that will wisk us from the middle east to Europe, a quick layover, catching our first beer in months, a precursor to the final leg of our journey.
I am looking forward to the reunion with my family. Yet, ironically, I am saddened to leave this god-forsaken place, to leave behind the Marines with whom I've lived and worked, my brothers, the men who are part of me and I them. I don't want to leave, not just yet, I haven't finished what I started, Please, I'm not ready to go....
It is time. A confusing time. Happy and sad. As if I'm losing something; It's hard, I don't understand why it has to feel this way...The end of my journey is close at hand. The long road home has begun.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Behind every successful director and movie star, there are a number of players that ensure the successful production of the film. You've got stuntmen and gaffers, key grips, wardrobe personnel and a host of other positions. Just like Hollywood, the Marine Corps has its own production crew, a bevvy of Marines who work behind the scenes to support their "cast" to ensure a succsseful operation. I've met a few of the Corps "production crew," the men and women who'll never be the stars, but will always be the backbone of the Corps, the reason for our success.
There’s US Navy Petty Officer (MR1) James Heard,a Machinery Repairman deployed with the 133rd Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (aka: the “Seabees”). Machinery Repairmen are skilled machine tool operators. They traditionally make replacement parts, repair or overhaul ship's engines and auxiliary systems, and work on deck equipment including winches and hoists, condensers and heat exchange devices. Miles from the ocean, MR1 Heard finds himself “working steel,” using his skills to design and craft specialty parts to sustain operations aboard the camp. He’s machined items ranging from custom water hose couplings for the Camp Fallujah Fire Department to replacement refrigeration parts for the dining facility. He’s produced bolt-on vehicle armor to protect our HMMWV convoy vehicles and has hastily manufactured specialty parts to repair inoperable M-240G machine guns. With only a lathe, drill press and grinder, he quickly turns scrap of metal into a functional object. He is the Picasso of steel.
Commander Stephen Christopher is also a repairman of sorts – he spends his days fixing broken fillings and cracked teeth of Marines and sailors deployed to OIF. He’s also spent time with soldiers of the Iraqi Army, providing emergency treatment to those in dire need of dental care. As the 2nd Marine Division Dental Officer, he has personally treated over 1100 patients during his deployment. A wanderer of sorts, I met CDR. Christopher at Hurricane Point in Ramadi, home of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He and his dental technician travel lightly, carrying a fold-up dental chair and dental tools in addition to their M-16’s and body armor. Despite the lack of a permanent office and the specialty tools associated with CONUS dentistry, he performs magic with cracked teeth, extractions, fillings and temporary crowns, a task made more difficult in the hostile environment of Iraq.
Major Mark Gilday, the II MEF (Fwd) G-4 Motor Transport Officer, was intimately involved with the introduction and installation of Marine Armor Kits (MAK) and Marine Armor Systems (MAS) on hundreds of II MEF (Fwd) HMMWV’s and 7-ton trucks. If you recall, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked by an Army soldier in December, 2004, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" The Secretary’s initial response was testy. "You go to war with the army you have," he barked. The soldier’s question, it turned out, had been planted by a reporter embedded with the US Army 278th Regimental Combat Team. The effects of the question, however, resulted in a firestorm of activity for the Army and the Marine Corps over the next 12 months. Since deploying to Camp Fallujah, Major Gilday has coordinated the up-armoring of nearly 1200 of the II MEF’s HMMWV’s with the new MAK systems. These improvements have greatly increased the survivability of our Marines in the field.
Lance Corporal Stephanie Twichell, a Marine Corps reservist from New Orleans, LA, enlisted in the Corps in June, 2004. She’s spent her deployment guarding prisoners and suspected insurgents at the Regional Detention Facility (RDF) in Camp Fallujah. She performs a thankless job made even less enviable following the US Army debacle at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. However, you’ll rarely find a Marine complain about this important duty, knowing they are the thin blue line that separates the residents of Camp Fallujah from the captured insurgents. Breaking the monotony of daily prisoner counts, feedings, and searches, she spends her off-duty hours learning new law enforcement techniques, such as TASER training, escalation of force and riot control. The challenges of deployment were doubled when Hurricane Katrina ravaged her hometown. Regardless, LCpl. Twichell continues to serve her country and her Corps with dignity and without a complaint.
In Al Qaim, Iraq, I ran into Captain Timothy Evans, Company Commander for Food Service Company, H&S Battalion, II Marine Logistics Group, formerly known as the FSSG. Captain Evans enlisted in the Corps in 1983 and is currently a limited duty officer, deployed to Iraq to supervise the fielding of the new Field Food Service System (FFSS), a mobile kitchen unit which will update the old Marine Corps “mess kitchens,” taking us away from 1950’s technology and into the 21st century of food preparation. Captain Evans supervised the installation of these portable kitchen units at FIRM bases and FOB’s along the Syrian border, the unit itself enclosed within two 20’ x 8’ self-sufficient ISO containers similar to those seen stacked aboard transatlantic freighters. In lieu of eating MRE’s and pogey bait, the grunts on the front lines can now enjoy freshly prepared hot chow from these portable kitchens, capable of operating in black-out environments, all the while providing the field messmen protection from indirect and small arms fire. Nothing motivates a dirty, tired, and worn-out troop better than hot chow.
Others, like Colonel Gary Wilson, a retired Marine
brought back on active duty to serve as the II MEF (Fwd) Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer (ATFP), conduct their daily duties atypical to that of their fellow Marines. The Colonel and his small staff play the part of the devils advocate, intentionally thinking and acting like the bad guy. They develop “red cell” ideas and schemes on how to successfully attack the base and threaten the safety of our Marines. He and his team conduct surveys of the camp perimeter in search of vulnerabilities and weaknesses, an attempt to uncover weaknesses in a units force protection stance. Afterward, he suggests methods to correct the vulnerabilities and improve the levels of protection for Marines deployed in theater. His findings are sometimes rebuffed by Commanders unwilling to believe they are less than prefect, that their individual force protection plans may have missed something upon implementation. Regardless, the Colonel and his staff are the mechanism that identifies and helps bring in the necessary technology and equipment to further enhance the safety of our Marines, be they in Camp, at a checkpoint, or in a vehicle.
Similar to the my job as the Marine Corps Field Historian, Sgt. Josh Hauser spends his deployment collecting stories from Marines far and wide. Sgt. Hauser is a combat correspondent with the II MEF Headquarters Group (MHG), traveling from FOB to FOB, embedding with Marines from various companies and platoons in search of the stories that will tell the world the tale of the Marine Corps in OIF. Unlike my Field History collection, Sgt. Hauser’s stories are published in hometown newspapers, spreading the exploits of our young Marines at work and play in Iraq. He’s a gypsy among Marines, attempting to live the story of which he writes, if only for a short period of time. His weapons are his camera and pen, although he has often put them aside to shoulder his weapon to protect himself and his temporary family. He goal as a combat correspondent is to balance the negative image of the Marine Corps as portrayed in mainstream media with good news stories from our Marines, fighting the good fight, doing what needs to be done to protect the freedoms of the naysayers back home.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
The American History Museum recreates WWII through several life-sized dioramas. One can walk past jeeps parked haphazardly around a bombed out building, European household knick-knacks littering the ground adjacent to a realistic wall that appears to be crumbling from the effects of war. These scenes are reproduced to allow the visitors to step back in time, to see for themselves the same scenes viewed by Marines, sailors and soldiers in 1944. Someday, these same museums will recreate similar scenes depicting life during OIF, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. One day, we’ll see scenes depicting the urban battlefield of Ramadi or Fallujah and displays depicting daily life among the various camps and FOBs around Iraq.
Yesterday, with the assistance of two Seabees from the 133rd Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB-133), I was able to collect a particular artifact I have had my eye on since arriving in Iraq. I previously mentioned it in an October, 2005 blog post titled “Generals and Barberchairs” - please forgive the redundant information.
One of the most innovative pieces of unintentional folk art I’ve run across since arriving in theater, the Camp Fallujah barberchair consists of an automobile seat that was taken from the rear of a van or SUV. Welded to a military vehicle wheel rim, the entire unit swivels atop a metal mount, the mount hidden beneath the raised wooden floor inside the Camp Fallujah barbershop.
Granted, there is nothing remarkable about most barberchairs. You’ll find them in every city and town across the United States. This chair, however, is unique, and the ingenuity of the young sailors and Marines who produced this eclectic chair is typical of sailors and Marines deployed far from home. They universally subscribe to the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Using only their innovation and imagination, they create items needed to combat the enemy or to make life more comfortable while idling away time in the rear.
Rather than sit on a plastic chair or box when getting a haircut, an ingenious young sea-bee from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 1 (NMCB-1) manufactured the chair out of scrap items lying about Camp Fallujah. Wanting to make the chair swivel, our unidentified sea-bee brought new life to a scrap M-79 rifle mount for a 106 mm recoilless rifle. Originally entering US military service in the 50’s and 60’s, the mount and its missing weapon probably made its way to Iraq decades ago, most likely used during the Iran/Iraq war and quite possibly against coalition forces in Desert Storm and OIF. Life is circular, however, and the mount once again serves our forces in war, only this time in a much different and friendlier capacity.
“Frankenchair” has seen her last haircut. Replaced with a simple plastic chair, "Frankenchair" is destined for the Marine Corps Museum. Symbolizing camp life and the ingenuity of our servicemen, it has hosted Marines from Private to General, as well as Marines who are no longer with us, Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice. If it could talk, it would repeat the tales told by Marines since 2003, tales recounting heroics during the battle of Fallujah and explanations of the sights and sounds seen and heard by our Corps of warriors. It would also tell the tall tales spun by our young Marines, the same stories heard for years among small town barbershops, tales similar to those heard by Andy and Barnie at “Floyds Barbershop” in Mayberry.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Beyond the similarity of equipment and uniforms, each strives to enforce a universal law of nature, a law dictating the separation of good and evil. Marines and cops are society’s good guys, their inner drive fueled by the desire to weed out danger from society, be it criminal or insurgent. Good order and discipline are the hallmarks of both professions, each respecting a chain of command and the necessity to follow orders in the face of danger.
It is devotion to duty, love of country and service to fellow man that weaves the common thread between our two professions. Even in Iraq, our law enforcement brethren surround us. Dozens of Marine reservists like myself hail from various law enforcement agencies back home. Take the Marines of 5th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment (5/14), for example. They deployed to Camp Fallujah last year to form a “provisional” Military Police Battalion instead of deploying in their traditional artillery battalion role. A number of its men are current or former Police Officers and Federal Agents, to include the Battalion Commander and his Executive Officer. They utilize their civilian skills to enhance the security and safety of the Marines deployed with the MEF, escorting convoys, guarding observations posts, and performing other quasi-law enforcement functions. Other MEF elements are comprised primarily of Marine Corps Reservists who are cops in their civilian careers. The bulk of the Marines attached to the P3 program (Police Partnership Program) are law enforcement officers at home. As P3 Marines, they train Iraqi Police recruits in the basics of community policing, search and seizure, firearms, and other law enforcement curriculum. A similar situation befalls the Marines of the II MEF (Fwd) DBE or Directorate of Border Enforcement. These Marines, many of them cops in real life, teach patrolling and policing skills to the newly formed Iraqi Border Police along the Syrian and Jordanian border.
Civilian police officers have also joined the fight in Iraq. They fill the ranks of the CPATT or the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team. These volunteers are civilian cops who’ve taken sabbaticals
from their jobs at home to deploy to Iraq and assist with the training of the Iraqi Police. CPATT includes the likes of Montcalm County Deputy Sheriff John Hannon, a man who left his family and friends behind in Michigan to deploy to Iraq and work alongside the Marines of II MEF (Fwd). His very first trip into Fallujah was interrupted by the simultaneous detonation of two IEDs against his convoy, a sobering welcome to an extremely dangerous community.
The MEF hosts a slew of civilian Special Agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), its criminal investigators and counter-intelligence agents spread throughout the II MEF (Fwd) area of operations - Camp Fallujah, Blue Diamond, and Al Asad to name a few. They routinely investigate accidental or suicidal deaths, thefts, assaults, and other felonious crimes that occasionally occur aboard the bases and FOB’s in Iraq. They are often assisted by Marine Corps investigators from the USMC Criminal Investigative Division, the “detective” arm of the USMC Military police units. At Camp Fallujah, Gunnery Sgt. Orlando Higgins works side by side with the NCIS Special Agents in an effort to help counter the occasional bad apple that sometimes finds its way into our Corps of Marines.
Of the twenty-three NYPD Officers killed at the World Trade Center, three were former Marines. Sergeant John G. Coughlin was an active member of the Rockland County detachment of the Marine Corps League, helping older veterans and doing honor guard duty at funerals. "He loved that," his wife said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine." One of his favorite times was the middle of December, when he would take a week's vacation to work on the Marine Toys for Tots Program. "He was a firm believer that every kid should have a toy for Christmas," Mrs. Coughlin said. He perished in the collapse of the towers.
A member of Harlem-based Emergency Service Unit Truck 2 of the New York City Police Department, Michael Sean Curtin was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. He was last heard from that morning when he phoned his wife to wish her a happy birthday, his wife said. Having enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1975, he was honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant Major. Were he still alive, he’d probably be here in Iraq, on duty with his fellow Marines.
Marines will always be attracted to law enforcement. It could be the guns or perhaps it’s the ability to carry a badge. Most likely, it’s the desire to continue the tradition of serving ones country and protecting the freedoms we so easily take for granted. There’s a great quote from the movie “A Few Good Men,” where Jack Nicholson’s character, Col. Nathan Jessup, defends the actions of his Marines in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During a courts martial proceeding, he speaks directly to a young Naval Lawyer who has never been in harms way, has never faced the enemy or been silhouetted in the sights of an enemy sniper. It just as easily applies to the Patrolman walking the beat, the “thin blue line” that separates good from evil back home.
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because, deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you" and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.