Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Convoy Exercise

Today we had our big convoy exercise where we got to apply nearly everything we've learned here at Fort Jackson. Our mission to drive to a simulated Iraqi town and meet with the mayor/sheik about a recently opened girls school. We had nine HUMVEEs; three for the convoy, three to man an entry control point (ECP) outside the town, and three to act as a quick reaction force (QRF) to come to the aid of any other vehicles that may come under attack.

I was a truck commander for one of the QRF vehicles. I had a turret gunner and rifleman along with a drill sergeant who drove but otherwise did not participate as a player. The QRF stayed behind after the first six vehicles left and we waited to be called into action.

We didn't wait long; we received word via radio the main convoy was hit by an IED at a traffic roundabout. We drove over quickly and assisted in securing the scene. One vehicle was destroyed and one soldier was dead. As we were securing the scene, an insurgent opened fire on us. Luckily, we killed him before he killed anyone else. When we examined the body, we found he was sitting on several pounds of C4 explosive. We left the body alone and called Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). We then remounted and continued on to the town.

On the way to the town, we were hit with another IED. One vehicle was damaged in the blast but was still drivable. With our turret gunner providing cover, we dismounted and established security. Our forces flushed out another insurgent and killed him. Another solider and I conducted the body search. The insurgent had a command detonator, rifle and ammunition. Luckily, there were no booby traps on this one. We confiscated all and moved onto the town.

The main convoy element, and one of our QRF trucks, went into the town. My vehicle was stuck with rear security. The convoy commander met with the mayor/sheik who told him the school needed pencils and water. He also said there were several suspicious foreigners (i.e., non-Iraqi Arabs) occupying a house in the center of town. A team was sent to clear the house and ended up in a fire fight. We lost one more soldier and another wounded. We killed one insurgent and captured another.

As I've written earlier in this blog, I now have undying respect for the common infantry man. It was very difficult moving around tactically in IBA when dismounted from the vehicles. Even in the vehicle, it was hard to work the radio because of the cramped conditions. Altogether, it was very eye opening experience.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Local Flavor

Here at Ft. Jackson we're all eating cafeteria food which has its ups and downs. For example, it's great if you enjoy scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast -- every day. We usually eat breakfast and dinner there when we have training in the field (where lunch consists either cold Meals Ready to Eat or sandwiches).

One of the best things about the cafeteria is the "Cuz" guy. He's a local hire who greets everyone in line with the phrase, "How 'bout it, cuz?" or "What'll be, cuz?" in an authentic South Carolina accent. It's the first time I can recall ever being called, cuz. By the end of week one we began answering back, "I'll have some Salisbury Steak with mashed potatoes, cuz." He usually has some snappy comeback, based on your choice of entree. "Aw, those sausages will make you run fast, cuz."

This evening he asked if we were still on schedule to finish our training this week and fly to Kuwait. I said we were. He said, "You be and sure an' tell the Navy folks over there the Cuz Guy says hi." It hit me that nearly every Navy IA in the last five years has had food served to them by this guy. We really like him.

Lunch with ADM Greenert

During our convoy exercises preparations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who heads Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, VA visited Fort Jackson specifically to see hour our program is going. He ate lunch with us in the field and answered questions we had about the Navy's Individual Augmentee (IA) program, which we all were mobilized under regardless whether we are active duty or reserve component.

Although he only took over FFC a month ago, ADM Greenert was very well versed in what we IAs are going through and was keen to learn about any snags in the process of augmenting we experienced. I was fortunate enough to be one of twenty five or so sailors selected to eat lunch with him. It's gratifying to hear a four star admiral so concerned about us.

Convoy Preparations

Today we prepared for our big Convoy operation which takes place tomorrow. It's a sort of final exam which brings together all the training we've received during our time here at Fort Jackson. We will run a convoy operation of ten vehicles from our training area to a fake town on base. The town has buildings and will be populated with role players playing Iraqis. Along the way, we'll have to deal with potential threats to include Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and insurgents (who will be role played by our own drill sergeants).

We took turns by platoon learning HUMVEE operation (yes, we got drive), practiced getting in and out of HUMVEEs with IBA on (harder than it looks), practiced room entry and clearing in groups of four, learned how to man an Entry Control Point (ECP) and otherwise learned about our over all mission during the exercise.

Based on the gleeful anticipation exhibited by the Drill Seargeants, we don't expect to live long during the exercise. Nevertheless, it should be great experience.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Full IBA

For the heavy weapons fire we were instructed to assemble full IBA. That is, we had to affix two additional side strike plates, two underarm pads, a neck guard, two deltoid pads, and the groin pad. All in all, another ten or so pounds. All of the pads are contain a small arms resistant kevlar weave. Two front and two side strike plates contain, to quote GlobalSecurity.org, "a boron carbide ceramic with a spectra shield backing that [is] an extremely hard material. It stops, shatters and catches any fragments up to a [rifle] 7.62 mm round with a muzzle velocity of 2,750 feet per second. It's harder than Kevlar."

You can see more of the side plates and deltoid pads in the movie below of me firing the M240B machine gun. Compare what I'm wearing in the photo above with the earlier version of IBA we wore last week to see the difference.

This kit saves lives in theater, no doubt, but it's heavy. In the barracks, we estimate it weighs 45+ pounds. Add the kevlar helmet, weapons, etc. and you're walking around with 50+ pounds of gear. That's quite an adjustment for a guy who stands 5' 8" but weighs only 140 pounds. My attractive wife says I should just suck it up.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mk 19 Grenade Launcher

Here is a brief video of the Mk 19 Grenade Launcher. This fires 40mm grenades which explode on contact. Listen for the rounds going downrange followed by the explosions. The targets are old M113 personnel carriers.

M240B Machine Gun

Here is a brief video of me (yes, me) firing the M240B machine gun. It's mounted in a simulated HUMVEE turret.

The M240B replaced the venerable, but long in the tooth, M60 machine gun first used in the Vietnam era.

"Ma Deuce"

Here is a brief video of the mighty M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun we fired today at the heavy weapons range!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Heavy Weapons Familiarization

Today we got our first look at three heavy weapons systems: the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun, the Mk 19 Grenade Launcher, and two variants of squad automatic weapons -- the M240 Machine Gun and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). Examples of all four weapons systems were laid out on the main drilling field. We divided up into groups and received briefs from our drill sergeants on basic operation of each system.

Unlike the other weapons we saw, which are all relatively new, the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun hasn't changed since World War Two -- because, like the shark, it is a nearly perfect killing machine.

We will get to fire all these tomorrow. It rained today so the ranges should be -- squishy.

Obscure 80s Reference

I'm not sure how many people remember this obscure video from the Australian group, Men at Work, but my life lately seems a lot like it. Not that I think what I'm doing is a mistake, mind you. It's that whole transition thing...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Weapons Qualifications

One thing the Army does well is build firing ranges. Last week those of us who were issued M9 pistols qualified with them on very cool pop-up range. The targets were man-sized, three dimensional shapes painted green (think life-sized toy army men). Sensors in the target actuators tell whether or not you hit it. If so, it falls down; if not, it stays up mocking you.

The course of fire involved numerous magazine changes and even movement forward to engage the targets. To aid in target acquisition, every other lane's targets had heads that were painted white. The result made them resemble Imperial Stormtroopers. I found it amusing. Unfortunately, I was assigned a lane where the targets were painted green missing out on a boyhood fantasy of playing Star Wars for real. I qualified nonetheless.

After qualifying on pistols we went to another high-speed range to practice qualify with our M16A2 rifles. The range had pop-up targets ranging from 50 to 300 meters which also were equipped with sensors that not only registered a hit but where on the target the bullet hit. We got immediate feedback and Army instructors made additional adjustments to our rifles.

Today, we qualified for real on the rifles on another range. Same set of pop-up targets but this time no feedback other than knocking the targets down if we hit it. The course of fire is forty rounds and forty targets ranging from 50 to 300 meters. I'm happy to report I can hit a man-sized target at 300 meters with plain iron sites (most of the time) with the crappy loaner M16 the Army gave me. We ran the qualification several times and I qualified on each one.

Later this week, we get to try out heavy weapons such as the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) and the M19 Grenade Launcher. Good times.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Barracks ...

Perhaps the thing least looked forward to about NIACT is the accommodations: open bay barracks. You've seen it before in several movies (Stripes, Full Metal Jacket, Biloxi Blues), two long rows of steel framed bunk beds separated by foot lockers. Here at McCrady the barracks are in relatively new buildings. Our group is separated into the barracks by rank so I'm in a building of twenty-five or so Lieutenant Commanders (O-4s). The Commanders (O-5s) are in another and Ensigns (O-1s) through Lieutenants (O-3s) are in another. The ten or so Captains (O-6s) have their own building where they sleep two to a room. The enlisted ranks have several buildings. The female barracks include both officers and enlisted due to their small numbers.

Barracks living isn't as bad as I thought it would be -- at least in the O-4 "Hootch" as we call it. We do our own cleaning on a rotating schedule and everyone is good about personal space and keeping quiet.

Of course, there is a lot of snoring which most people can't help. In the middle of the night it's akin to a frog pond where one frog calls to another. Every few minutes, all the frogs call out in unison.

Thankfully, I have ear plugs.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Battle Rattle

After putting on IBA for the first time, I understood the meaning of the term, “battle rattle.” One is carrying between 40-50 pounds of gear, mostly in the form of body armor and kevlar helmet. Miscellaneous gear (ammunition, magazines, etc) is stuffed into other pockets on our DCUs. The result is a strange rattle produced when one is walking -- in my case waddling -- from place to place.

Our first march with IBA happened last week during weapons familiarization. Although it was only about a fifteen minute walk, I really began to feel carrying not only the IBA but rifle and pistol as well. For some reason, wearing my helmet gives me a headache (probably due to the extra weight). Needless to say, I have new found respect for the Army or Marine infantryman; they have to carry not only IBA but other gear (radios, more ammunition, etc., etc.) as well which typically adds up to 70 pounds or more. On a good day I weigh 140 pounds dripping wet; I am not used to all this extra weight.

As the week went by though I began to get more comfortable (a relative term, believe me) with moving around in IBA. We take it to every training evolution but thankfully remove most of it off to practice shooting. For some reason we kept it on for our M9 pistol qualification last week (we did our practice shooting with it off). Some people had difficulty with the transition but I qualified nonetheless. Thankfully, we have been assured that next week’s M16A2 rifle qualification will be shot without IBA.

Friday, October 19, 2007

NIACT - Week One - Ft. Jackson, SC

Our Navy C-40A touched down at Columbia, SC airport on 14 OCT. Several chartered buses were waiting for us directly on the tarmac. We unloaded the plane and loaded our personal luggage, plus that newly issued seabag, into the buses and drove to Fort Jackson. This army post has been training Army personnel since 1917. The Navy occupies a small portion of the base known as McCrady Training Center, which trains the South Carolina National Guard. There is a small Naval Liaison Office which coordinates the hundreds of Navy personnel who attend Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training (NIACT) program.

Our class has over two hundred and fifty navy professionals from all over the country. We range in rank from E-4 (Petty Officer Third Class) to O-6 (Captain). As a class, we are here to learn how to integrate and fight with the Army. That means we are here to learn how to be infantry; that is, how to wear interceptor body armor, advanced combat helmet, elbow/knee pads, carry/fire/clean an M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol, work a radio, drive a HUMVEE, administer combat first aid and a host of other tasks.

Upon arrival, we were divided into two companies -- A and C -- each with four platoons of around 40 personnel each. I am assigned to A Company, 2nd Platoon. We are led by an Army E-7 (Sergeant First Class). We address him simply as "Drill Sergeant." Our Company is led, day to day, by an Army E-8 (First Sergeant)

Our first week was very busy and included lots of new gear issued to us (the aforementioned body armor, helmet, socks, another pair of boots, packs, cold/hot weather gear, holsters, camelbak, gloves. etc., etc.) Altogether, it was another three full seabags worth of gear. We jumped (literally) into Army Physical Training (PT), marching to and from everywhere, basic rifle and pistol marksmanship, and more medical training. We have put in an average of 12 to 13 hour days. At week's end, we have qualified on the M9 pistol and practice qualified on the M16 rifle.

NMPS, San Diego

On 8 OCT I flew from the Bay Area to San Diego to report to Navy Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) San Diego, located at Naval Base San Diego. The government flew me from Oakland, CA to Los Angeles and then to San Diego. Not the most direct route.

On 9 OCT I reported to NMPS and began a week's worth of more briefings, more filling out forms, got measured for the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU), which all Navy personnel wear in theater lest we be confused as Army, and lots of time in Medical. I got a battery of immunizations (Anthrax, Smallpox, Meningococcal, and Tetanus). Our group included about a hundred Navy personnel from all communities (air, surface, subsurface) and disciplines (medical service corps, judge advocate general, supply, intelligence, etc.). Our respective destinations ranged from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Guantanamo, Cuba.

The whole process involved a lot of hurry up and wait evolutions, especially with medical. At week's end, we were (mostly) fully immunized and were issued an entire seabag of new DCUs and boots.

On 14 OCT we boarded a brand new Navy C-40A (Boeing 737) and flew direct to Columbia, SC.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

It Begins ... at the NOSC

The mob orders gave me over a month to prepare myself, my wife, and our year-and-a-half old son, not to mention stew over, my impending deployment. I got a Navy lawyer to prepare an appropriate Last Will and Testament and suitable Powers of Attorney for my wife.

I also had to complete no less than nine online instructional courses on various Navy educational websites. These included weapons familiarization (M9 pistol, M16 rifle) hot and cold weather injuries, Army values, code of conduct, antiterrorism force protection, etc., etc.

I flew my parents up from Los Angeles to visit with us a week before my report date. I took that same week off from my civilian job and hung around enjoying family life.

On 5 OCT I got in uniform and reported to NOSC Alameda, California -- about a twenty minute drive from my house -- for in-processing. Thus would begin a series of checks to ensure my personal, family, and fiduciary information was correct in the eyes of the Navy. I say a series because the same information is checked at each stop along the way, often requiring similar forms to be filled out. Although we have a unified mission, the paperwork remains proprietary it would seem.

I was given a large check list to present at various offices at the NOSC (admin, operations, medical, etc.) where lots of information was verified. Filled out some forms and was done by lunch time. I headed back home to enjoy my last weekend with my family.

I'm Going Where?

In mid August, 2007, I flew to Honolulu on Navy Reserve business to attend a planning conference for Fiscal Year 2008. As the plane pulled into the gate, I turned on my cell phone and saw I had a voice mail. It was my reserve unit's executive officer telling me my name was in the cross hairs for an involuntary 450-day mobilization to Baghdad, Iraq.

Buzz-kill can't even begin to describe how I felt. Although technically not a surprise (my name had surfaced the month before on another mobilization) I still didn't really think it was going to happen to me. Yet here it was, five years after the invasion of Iraq, an my number finally came up.

Not surprisingly, no one in my reserve community volunteered for this peach of an assignment. My orders were cut and I received them, via email, on 27 AUG 2007. The orders said I was off to support Multinational Force Iraq in Baghdad for 450 days, 350 of which would be Boots On Ground (BOG). I was to report for pre-screening at my local Naval Operational Support Center (NOSC) in Alameda, California, on 5 OCT with follow on stops in San Diego, California, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Kuwait, and, ultimately, Baghdad.