For those of us who served as ETT’s or PMT’s up to 2009, we worked for Task Force Phoenix. TF Phoenix was headquartered at Camp Phoenix in Kabul. After TF Phoenix I, each succeeding iteration was staffed by a National Guard brigade, augmented with teams gathered from the National Guard and the Regular Army. Bouhammer and I were both on teams that were fielded to augment a National Guard IBCT (Infantry Brigade Combat Team) functioning as TF Phoenix. After Combat Advisor training at Fort Riley… which in later iterations was provided at Fort Polk… teams were deployed and assigned their missions by TF Phoenix as the task force saw fit.
Part of the tent city built on Camp Phoenix to house the influx of troops.
Each team processed in and out of theater, in part, at Camp Phoenix. The teams were then scattered to the winds as they fanned out to train, mentor and fight with their Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police counterparts. Teams from TF Phoenix found themselves in many different locations and situations. We all had our own experiences in disparate places, some of which few other Americans have been to. We worked with and developed relationships with Afghan officers, NCO’s, soldiers and interpreters that few other Americans would. Our experiences varied. But there is a constant in our experiences; Camp Phoenix.
Many of us hated Camp Phoenix. It was overrun with salute-seeking staff officers, fobbits and bull fobbits. It was a place where you found out how little support your task force would actually provide to you. It represented the weaknesses of the Task Force; the inability to supply or even advocate for the teams. Once we left Camp Phoenix, everywhere we went, we were strangers. Strange strangers. We operated in battlespace “owned” by… usually… Regular Army brigades who viewed us as potentially “gone native.” We had to observe their rules for communications, movement and coordination. Sometimes, we were told, in effect, that we couldn’t operate in elements as small as we were because we didn’t have the vehicles to meet the movement minimums. Some “battlespace owners” would count ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces… the Army and Police) vehicles, so that if we moved with our counterparts we could travel.
We also depended upon those “battlespace owners” for everything from shelter to food, maintenance and supplies; especially ammunition. One would think that these support relationships would be easy; hey, we’re all Americans and we share a mission. Right? One would think. Teams had widely varying experiences in this regard. For me, TF Gladius, led by the 82nd’s Division Special Troops Battalion and headquartered at Bagram, was a great unit to work with most of the time. We had good relationships with their S-2, S-3, S-4 and S-6. Bagram’s finance office worked hard to support us. Their contracting office treated us with equanimity. We had a place to stay when we needed, maintenance and ammunition and a decent working relationship with Gladius and Bagram. We were lucky.
My last few months were spent an the area owned by another brigade and the situation for advisors there was very different.
Horror stories abound of bad situations between advisor teams and “land-owning” units. This is part of what drove GEN McChrystal to disband TF Phoenix and make each brigade responsible for fielding and supporting its own advisor teams. I believe that while the General had good intentions, the actual results were mixed to poor. Green on blue went through the roof, for one thing. Advisors in the land-owning brigades were given much less training than previously. There is more that could be said, but the end result was that TF Phoenix came to an end with the 48th IBCT, Georgia National Guard being the ones to turn out the lights in late 2009. Camp Phoenix became something other than the headquarters of TF Phoenix. No one after that point would view the camp as what those of us who served as part of TF Phoenix would.
Camp Phoenix was also the home of Rambo. Rambo was an Afghan guard who was absolutely famous throughout each iteration of TF Phoenix. Rambo was always there.
Rambo (The Kabul Slugger) with a new bat to guard the front gate of Camp Phoenix
He hated the Taliban, and the stories of why he did were tragic. He had single-handedly foiled attacks on the ECP (Entry Control Point), the main gate of Camp Phoenix, including dragging a suicide car bomber from his seat before he could trigger his explosives. He wore patches from every unit that had ever been there on every bit of velcro space that his gifted uniform possessed. Rambo is a legend who surpasses the movie legend he was named after.
Mushroom cloud from the Vehicle-borne IED that blew up after Rambo pulled the bomber from the vehicle.
The front gate area of Camp Phoenix after Rambo stopped the bomber from getting inside the gate.
For those of us who served as Combat Advisors between 2003 and 2009, Camp Phoenix was one of the first places we saw when we got there and one of the last places we had to go before we left Afghanistan. It was a place where you could get a hot meal, some sleep and even some cigarettes, dip, or other comfort items which were not available “downrange”. I once commanded a convoy from Jalalabad to Camp Phoenix that was conveniently timed to not only take care of business but also catch a USO show featuring Robin Williams, Kid Rock and Lance Armstrong. One of our young security troops was a huge Kid Rock fan. I got an education on how talented Kid Rock really is.
Robin Williams performing for the troops at Camp Phoenix in December, 2007.
It’s only been a few years, but Robin Williams is dead and Lance Armstrong is discredited and reviled. Camp Phoenix has been turned over to the Afghans. The world changes, and sometimes the places we know change as well. Regardless of what your experience was at Camp Phoenix, regardless of how you hated the fobbitry and lack of support, it’s a place that our tiny club of Combat Advisors shares. We can still see it in our mind’s eye, and it’s a common touch point for us.
Give it a thought today. Remember those you served with and think about reaching out to one of them.
When you look for what makes great armies great, the existence of a strong, professional NCO Corps is one of the difference-makers to look for. The campaigns of the past decade-plus have not made the U.S. Army’s NCO Corps stronger, which would be what you would expect to find after protracted conflict. You would expect a hardening effect; the ability to cut through the bullshit and get right to what is important, the ability to put together effective small teams as if it were second nature, and to focus on the standards that matter. The role of the NCO… and the responsibilities traditionally handled by NCO’s… have diminished. These unplanned, undesired changes in the role and functions of NCO’s have been partially the responsibility of those who led the NCO Corps… the failure to adapt the NCO Education System to the realities of the war being fought, for instance. Risk aversion and the ability to micromanage via technology have drawn officers to over-control; dis-empowering junior leaders, commissioned as well as enlisted. Training cycles were centrally planned to a great extent, with brigades or above dictating schedules and tasks. Many battalion staffs yearned for a DMETL (Deployment Mission Essential Task List) which would guide the training decisions that would go into planning Sergeant’s Time as much as they yearned for Sergeant’s Time as a meaningful part of the training schedule.
Some theater-focused training improved greatly during the progress of the campaigns. Much time, however, was wasted on tasks that everyone knew were useless. The dis-empowerment of the NCO Corps took place as time was wasted on training that was either inadequate, inappropriate or inconsequential.
Apparently, there is a push out there towards re-implementing some fundamental practices that we’ve gotten away from. An NCO forum has made the recommendation to mandate Sergeant’s Time. The linked article provides an adequate description of Sergeant’s Time, so for those of us who have never had this be a part of our training lives, we can consider the playing field level. The article also makes a strong case for why Sergeant’s Time is beneficial… perhaps even critical… to training successful units. I agree with all of the reasoning.
It’s a start, but only a start.
As was mentioned above, there are things that help guide what those sergeants choose to spend that precious Sergeant’s Time on. Centralized control of training has damaged these processes over more than a generation of young NCO’s, and that’s going to make it harder to get back to where we were. Sergeants used to drive training. They drove training by being an integral part of defining what tasks needed to be trained. Sergeants helped break down the commander’s METL (Mission Essential Task List) into the sub-tasks that supported the unit tasks. Each headquarters would tell its subordinate units what the METL was for the large unit, and each subordinate unit would then propose a supporting METL to that headquarters. So, if the brigade commander foresees a need to be able to move towards an enemy and attack it, then he would expect his subordinate units to select tasks as part of their METL that would support his intention to be skilled at attack, including the movement required to conduct an attack and the things required before an attack is initiated, such as reconnaissance. When the higher headquarters approved the METL, then the role of the NCO was initiated.
NCO’s took apart the METL and broke it down into supporting collective and individual tasks. They cross-referenced these to identify “high-payoff” training; training that developed skills that would support multiple collective tasks or even multiple METL tasks. By being honest with themselves, NCO’s could choose where to spend that valuable time to develop or improve their unit’s proficiency, and its ability to support what the commander saw as being essential for mission success. We have moved away from this model over the course of the past decade-plus. Sergeant’s Time is a great idea… an essential idea… but what powered Sergeant’s Time is what needs to be reestablished and strengthened; the NCO’s role in defining the very training schedule which would provide that time.
Why are the ever-evolving US Army uniform guidelines and policies as clear and concise to read as Alaska Fishing regulations or the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) law?
In the release, the Army also clarified name and service tape instructions: When wearing the UCP-colored fleece jacket, the tape patterns should match the fleece and not the pattern of the ACU underneath….
…The new OCP uniform also includes a new darker T-shirt, belts and boots. These can NOT be worn with the old UCP uniform.
Soldiers CAN wear the old UCP belt, T-shirt and boots with the new OCP uniforms.
There have been several good friends of mine writing what Veteran’s Day means to them today for this blog. I know Nick is super-busy so I didn’t bother in asking him to write something, but as always he went above and beyond and did a video that is better than writing a post. He didn’t do it for bouhammer.com but I am going to embed it here because it goes with the theme and quite frankly, it just friggen awesome. So here you go, Nick from Rangerup.com explaining the difference between the media’s perception of Veterans and reality.
I feel tremendously privileged to be a veteran. By that, I mean that I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to serve, and to serve in the capacities that I have. I’m not special. There are millions like me. There are millions of others who have never had the opportunity to serve. Those who wanted to, perhaps even tried to serve, and were denied for one reason or another. It’s an honor to have earned the right to know that I am a veteran. It’s an honor to feel included in the meaning of today.
It’s an honor to have taken part in history, to watch it unfold around me and to try to influence its outcome by my efforts. What others read about… or never realized was happening… I got to participate in. I was lucky in that I had assignments that brought me closer to that. We most often do not get to choose the role that we wind up in when we’re deployed. I’m grateful that I wound up in roles that I don’t regret and I’ll never forget. I got to do and see things that were so incredible, some of it even sounds unbelievable. I was lucky. I never got a scratch from the Taliban.
It’s an honor to have walked with heroes. In August of 2007, in the Tagab Valley of Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, then-Major Bill Myer was in the commander’s seat of his Humvee with his small column of Afghan National Police (ANP) in their Ranger pickups moving along a road at the base of a mountainous ridge. When his column was attacked from the high ground with automatic weapons, the ANP could not remain in the thin-skinned vehicles. They dismounted and took cover in the ditches along the road. The Afghans were not exactly organized in their response, but they did not break and run.
Major Myer dismounted from his vehicle, under fire, rallied and gathered up the ANP… and attacked. He attacked, up a mountain, into the fire; and the ANP followed him. Their attack broke the ambush and the Taliban fled. Major Myer and his ANP chased them until they lost their trail in a village… where they were served tea.
I’ve seen Bill Myer scared. You could tell when he was scared because he’d be grinning uncontrollably. No matter how much he was grinning, he was doing what he knew to be the best thing for him to do under the circumstances. He never failed to act. He never froze. He never panicked, and he never hid. I’ll never forget serving with him. It is an honor to have served with him. For the action I did my best to briefly describe above, he was awarded the Bronze Star with V device.
That same month, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Brian O’Neill was moving down a road, again the lone American vehicle with a small column of ANP. On a narrow road running across a steep hillside, the column was taken under fire with machine guns and RPG’s. The ANP dismounted, took cover and returned fire. SFC O’Neill dismounted and worked to help organize the ANP response. One ANP RPG gunner moved forward and took aim with his rocket launcher. When he fired, the round malfunctioned. The explosive warhead detonated in the tube, leaving his shattered body in the middle of the road but miraculously not killing him.
SFC O’Neill broke cover and ran out onto the fire-swept road to the ANP soldier’s crumpled body. He quickly assessed the man’s wounds and dragged him towards the cover of the Humvee, where he could be treated. SFC O’Neill’s quick treatment of life-threatening injuries saved not only the soldier’s life, but his left arm as well. SFC O’Neill knew that he had to get the man to a hospital as quickly as possible. After applying a tourniquet and treating a sucking chest wound, he fought to gain fire superiority and withdraw from the kill zone. He had to get the ANP, at least the drivers, to get back into the thin-skinned Rangers and move with him out of the kill zone. SFC O’Neill extracted his entire force without any further casualties and got the severely wounded Afghan soldier to the MEDEVAC point in time to save his life. SFC O’Neill was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with V device for his actions that day.
SFC O’Neill would be the first to tell you that if never gets shot at again, he’d be perfectly happy. He’d tell you that he was scared. Again, no matter how scared he was, he always did what he needed to be done. He never broke. He never ran. He never hid. There is no one I’d rather have by my side in any such situation. Led by a grinning Bill Myer.
Those are two of the heroes that I have had the privilege to work with. On Veterans Day, I remember that I am honored to have walked with men and women who are some of the finest, bravest, most honorable people alive. I have gotten to see men tested to the limits of their training and personalities, and I have seen those who have shone under the harshest of lights.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, has been and remains an honor and a privilege.
Old Blue is another retired Senior NCO from the Army like Bouhammer and the two have been friends for about eight years, ever since Old Blue was on the heels of Bouhammer in a deployment to Afghanistan and started writing award-winning blogs. Old Blue has multiple tours both embedded with Afghan Forces and at the COIN Academy in Kabul. They have have been co-writers on blogs together and have both done their best to educate America on what it is like to serve in Afghanistan along-side Afghan Security Forces.
If you haven’t seen it, I suggest checking out The Fighting Season and learning a little more about what you absolutely won’t see in the news at all. Produced by Ricky Schroeder, this documentary series spends time on the ground in Afghanistan in current times as our military is drawing down and preparing to pull out of country for good…for now.
As anyone is aware, there is no news coming out of Afghanistan, not because there is no news to report, but because the MSM doesn’t care, doesn’t see a story and doesn’t think it is worth it. However, we still have young men and women there EVERY SINGLE DAY fighting and getting shot and wounded to support and continue our efforts for the last 14 years.
This series follows along with a platoon from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (a unit I fought along with in 2006-2007) and with 2/504th Airborne Battalion out of the 82nd Airborne Division and a Police Mentoring team in Afghanistan. It may have been 8 years since I was last there as a soldier (5 years since I was there as a military contractor) but watching this brings it all back. It was like I never left, as the negotiations, the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army, the people, the scenery, the dirt are no different than they were since the last time I was there.
From the casual observer it probably looks like not much has progressed over the years and for some parts of the country and the military and police I am sure that is the case. We used to say “two steps forward, one step back”, and it probably looks worse than that. However if what I saw in this series in an indication of the entire country and it’s forces then I can tell you a lot of progress has been made. Afghan progress is not the same pace as American progress, nor will it ever be. You can’t measure them against out standards, just like you can’t measure life in Hawaii against life in New York City.
The 6-part series gives the viewer a small glimpse of the life of the every day soldier in Afghanistan today. From the Infantryman in a patrol on the ground to a Battalion Commander trying to plan a operation and his staff going through MDMP (Military Decision Making Process).
They are not long episodes and are worth the time to watch. Educate yourself, do more than wear a flag shirt on the 4th, and share patriotic memes on Facebook on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. You don’t have to go through Basic Training, you don’t have to live in the suck, you don’t even have to break a sweat. Just watch and educate yourself. Of course you need DirectTV or a friend with it to see it right now. Hopefully it comes out on other channels soon or at least NetFlix.
When I was younger and in awe of what the tough man my Dad was, I used to be amazed at how I watched him get older but at the same time more sentimental. My Dad was a tough as nails, a three combat tour Special Forces soldier. He was super strict and I only remember him showing emotion one time when I was a dumbass in elementary school and broke his heart.
However well after he retired and I moved from being a teen into man-hood I would see him show emotions more and more. I never understood why until a few years ago.
Somewhere along the way I started getting more and more emotional at some of the smallest things. I would see a commercial, watch a movie, hear a song and feel myself get choked up. I would think “WTF is wrong with me” and I would choke it back. Most of the time I think I would keep it suppressed but I think there were a few times my wife knew something was going on. I would just move past it, as sometimes it would only last a few seconds.
I have seen and done a lot of things in my years, with some of the most horrible being while I was deployed in Desert Storm, and Enduring Freedom. However I have done well at parking that shit in a locked away CONNEX in my head buried under sandbags and behind HESCOs. However it seems time and the appreciation of life and how short it is along with who knows what else has ripped open some of those sandbags and broken the side of those HESCOs to release some of those locked away memories. The winds of time are blowing away the sand.
Anyway, I am not always sure what would trigger those emotional outbursts or cause them to bubble up, but there are other times it is clear as crystal as to what the triggers are. In the last two months I have had 4 specific Trigger Moments and they have caused me to reflect, remember and cry. As of lately it seems to be certain music and alcohol as significant contributing factors.
A little over a month ago I was in an awesome bar in Nashville with lots of friends, but it took one old friend to show up along with significant amounts of hard liquor and I was ripped open like I don’t think has happened….ever. I don’t know what triggered it, and I am embarrassed because I don’t. Was it just the booze? Did I feel safe around people who really had no military background and therefor maybe would not judge me cause they didn’t know me as the NCO I was? Was it purely the booze lowering my wall guarding some deep pains?
Honestly I don’t know and I don’t think I ever will. I had a great time the rest of the night after I had my outburst, but the next day I woke up ashamed. I know I shouldn’t have felt that way, but I did. Mad at myself for letting out some of the demons, mad that I did it there under those circumstances, mad that I burdened friends who were out to celebrate my upcoming birthday with that crap. I wanted to apologize to them all, but I knew that would be awkward and they would say nice things and tell me not to worry about it.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I am in the gym on the elliptical at my hotel in Australia. Five Finger Death Punch’s song “Wrong Side of Heaven” hits my earbuds and while working up a good sweat, images, thoughts, voices start bouncing around in my head and as I am alone in the dark early morning I just begin to weep. I again think of the incident in Nashville and wonder again what that was all about and why I was sitting there working out as a big sack of hot mess crying my eyes out as the lyrics pounded into my ears.
I thought about writing about all of this then, but I got into my work day and I was able to re-fill the sandbags and HESCOs and move on with life. Striking it up to being tired, over-worked or whatever.
Another moment happened after watching American Sniper (which wasn’t my first time seeing it), something I have watched 5 times in the last month after seeing it originally in the theater. It was one particular time while with friends and it was a private moment later after all went to bed.
The last trigger happened today. This fourth time was a sign to me that it was time to write about it. When I was deployed, blogging was a very good stress relief and helped defuse a lot of things. It is truly therapeutic so I knew what I needed to do that again.
I was driving from my parents house back to Nashville to fly home and a new song came on the radio. The DJ on Sirius’s channel “The Highway” said “stop what you are doing, put down the beer, step away from the BBQ and spend the next five minutes listening to this song. It is a new song from Zac Brown Band where they collaborated with Jewel. The song is called “Dress Blues” and I knew when he said what he did before the song came on and then looking at the radio to see the title that I was about to have a moment and glad I was alone.
I could barely see the road through the tears that flowed down while listening to the words reverberate around the vehicle. It is truly a great song with an awesome message and I knew it would rip the CONNEX doors open, which it did. Several minutes after it ended I was ok again, with the emotions leaving as quickly as they came but still leaving a lingering effect.
I have thought about these moments a lot and about my Dad and his outpouring of emotions, along with other old combat-hardened vets I know like CSM (r) Sneed, who I have seen cry openly and with compassion. The only thing I can surmise is that with the older we get the smarter we get, and with the smarter we get the more appreciative we are. I think they are not only tears of sadness but also tears of joy that we are still here, tears for our fallen friends and for the innocent people who’s lives were shattered, tears for our family members who had to suffer in silence because we were off being hoorah and full of bravado kicking ass and taking names.
Regardless of what it is or why it happens, it does happen. To the toughest, most stubborn and even those to prideful to normally show emotion. I don’t like that it happens, but it does. I can’t contain it, and many times can’t predict it. However it happens and I will chalk it up to God reminding me that we are still human, and still fragile. Regardless of what things we have done, what things we have seen and what persona we think we need to show, we will be humbled and in the end I am sure it is good for the soul.