I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Good days, bad days...

Like everything, life on deployment is a series of ups and downs.  Today I butted my head against the brick walls of incompetence, short-sightedness and ego, but also got to see one of those Einsteins taken to task publicly by his higher, so that was nice.  I'm trying to make that happen with another one tomorrow...wish me luck.  Meanwhile no day is all bad since every day down is one less to go.

Yesterday was definitely a good day, as I spent the morning training Marines (there is nothing better in the Marine Corps than training Marines) and then I built a wall.  I know, I know, we're here to tear down walls, not build them up.  Only about 100 people have shared that witticism with me.  But since we finally got our own office once again - three walls of it anyway - I decided we needed a fourth and the option of some confidentiality when necessary.  Given my recent success building a bookcase out of warped wood chips and rusted thumbtacks, I thought I was ready to try something a little more ambitious.  Judge for yourself:



The gap at the top is intentional, for airflow, lighting and eavesdropping.  The doorway is intentional as well, for a door.  Date TBD.  The whole thing only took about two days.  I wish it had taken longer; planning, measuring, sawing and hammering are all great diversions from the daily grind of emailing, meeting, haggling and persuading.  I'm going to add built-in shelves next, just because I can. 

Not much else to report really.  There are a few events coming up in the unspecified future for which I'm running security, including a memorial service for Sugar Bear. 

Speaking of which, I got a ton of feedback on that last post, and I want to thank everyone for your kind words, condolences and prayers.  I'm writing a letter to his family and I will be sure to include how many people who have never even met him are grateful for who he was and what he did. 

Finally, in sports news, the playoffs start tomorrow.  We have a decent first-round opponent but in the second round we'll have to face the toughest team in the league, with a 17-0 record.  We've had them beat at least once and handed the game back so we'll have to do better if we want to get to the finals.  That will be fun but the better news is that after the playoffs are over we'll keep on playing pick-up games.  I'm glad - as crappy as I play sometimes it's still great to have the outlet of sports.

Well it's getting near my bed time here.  Hope today is an up day for you.

One less to go...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fair winds and following seas, Sugar Bear

The truth is, I never asked Sugar Bear where he got his call sign.  For all I know, it could have been because he liked gummy bears.  The nickname so perfectly fit the man, with his youthful face and round cheeks, his omnipresent, natural smile and his easygoing, selfless and approachable personality – especially for one of his seniority – that I just took it for granted.  Of course he was Sugar Bear.  That’s what he was.

Shortly after “is” became “was,” I learned that he had been one of the pilots.  We lost two today.  I did not know the other pilot, but I knew Sugar Bear, a little.  I’ll tell you what I knew about him.

When I first reported to the unit with which I would deploy, I didn’t know a soul aside from my Gunny, whom I’d met once.  I had not yet had any training in the job I was to do as a member of the General’s staff.  All I knew was I was the only butter bar in a room full of oak leaves, birds and the occasional star.  I was clueless, and rudderless.

Sugar Bear saved me.  He was the first person to pull me aside and orient me to the massive task before me.  The very first time we met, he spent several hours describing my job to me, explaining the challenges I would face, sketching out a phased approach I could use to overcome them, and most importantly, instilling in me a sense of the gravity of my position as the Wing’s Antiterrorism/Force Protection officer.

Throughout the pre-deployment period, he repeatedly followed up with me, taking time out of a very busy schedule to make sure I was on track and to provide additional guidance.  Behind the scenes he was the strongest advocate for AT/FP on the staff, getting me the resources I would need, since I had neither the rank to get them myself nor even the knowledge to realize I needed them.  Whenever I had a question, which was almost every day, Sugar Bear answered it, not cursorily but fully and patiently.  He gave me the confidence to do the job.

Sugar Bear had been the AT/FP officer on a previous deployment.  This, together with the fact that he was a thorough and consummate professional, explains why he knew the job so well.  But it does not explain why he took me under his wing.  After all, it was not his job to teach me mine – there was a school for that which I attended a little later on.  But if my brief experience with him these past six months was any indication, Sugar Bear was simply a natural leader.  He saw an opportunity to mentor and develop a junior officer and he seized it wholeheartedly.  There was nothing special about me; he would have done the same for any other junior Marine and I have no doubt he did so for many over his career.

Once we deployed, Sugar Bear got even busier, but he was still there for us – my Gunny and me – at every turn.  When AT/FP had no place to work, he offered to make room for us in his office.  We eventually squeezed into a small office of our own in another building, only to get booted out a little while later.  Once again, Sugar Bear offered to re-arrange his entire shop to make room for us if we needed it.  He was the first friend of AT/FP and its longest and best friend, not only because he believed strongly in the mission of protecting Marines, but also because he was perceptive enough to understand the challenges of being an inexperienced Second Lieutenant on a General’s staff and big-hearted enough to give of his own time, energy, resources and expertise to help.

The night before he died, Sugar Bear was still busy helping AT/FP.  I can’t go into specifics on the project, but he was working on something that would improve our awareness of the immediate battle space.  The e-mail he sent me on that project is time-stamped: 1:58 AM.

I did not know Sugar Bear well or long.  I know he leaves behind a wife and two sons but I never had a conversation with him about personal matters.  But I believe I saw enough of the man, the Marine and the leader to understand a little of what we lost today.  The man was almost always smiling, and I will miss that smile.  The Marine was trustworthy, creative and talented.  The leader was quite simply inimitable.  He was Sugar Bear.


That, I suppose, is my eulogy for Sugar Bear.  I didn’t set out to write one.  I guess I set out to share an experience.  So let me tell you about it.

I found out about the downed bird very shortly after it happened this afternoon.  Within a few hours I’d learned that Sugar Bear was one of the pilots.  I knew he was a pilot by trade, of course, but I had never thought about the fact that he was doing some flying out here, so I was initially shocked.  I found it hard to believe that the man who had been so friendly and helpful and considerate to me these past six months was simply…gone.

My next thought about the whole situation was one that I can’t share here at this time for operational security reasons.  This is quite frustrating as you can imagine.  Moving on.

We almost immediately went into River City, which we’re still in (I’m writing this late at night on the 22nd, local time, but won’t be able to post it till we get out).  A few hours later we had the ramp ceremony.  This is a somber ceremony wherein the caskets are loaded onto the plane to be flown, eventually, back to the States.

The ramp ceremony was the largest one we’ve had since we got here, I’m told by someone who attends them all.  The other pilot we lost was a regular member of the affected flying squadron, so virtually that entire squadron was there along with virtually the entire headquarters (my) squadron, and many others as well.  I would guess there were more than five or six hundred Marines lined up, maybe even a thousand.

A lot of thoughts raced through my head as the caskets were carried by and we executed those slow salutes.  They might not all seem appropriate or rational or I-don’t-know-what, but I’m going to share them anyway.

I thought about Sugar Bear himself, of course.  I thought about his family and the moment they would be notified by a knock on the door from a Marine in Service Alphas.  I suppose it is tautological to say that all men are loved by their loved ones, but as you hopefully gathered from the above, Sugar Bear was the kind of man that it was easy to imagine how much his family must love him.

I thought about whether Sugar Bear got up this morning, knowing he was on the flight schedule, and thought that this might be his last day to live.  Odds are he didn’t; why would he?  The man’s been flying a long time.  I know I didn’t get up this morning thinking that this was Sugar Bear’s last day to live; that by nightfall we’d be deprived of him.

I thought about the fact that I knew he was gone, but his family probably didn’t yet, and how that seemed cosmically unjust.  I thought about the Marines around me and saw in so many of their faces, as clearly as if it were written there, that this was not a new experience for them.  I saw clearly on some faces that it was.

We lined up and we saluted the two caskets.  Then those who wished to do so marched in small groups into the hold of the aircraft to pay our personal respects.  We saluted, and we knelt by the caskets to pray.  I had one hand on the cloth of the flag that tightly draped the casket and I was kneeling for a few seconds before I realized that I wasn’t praying; my mind was blank.  I didn’t know what to pray – did I offer a prayer in Hebrew, the Mourner’s Kadish, for a man who wasn’t Jewish?  I decided to simply ask G-d to look after his family.  Then I asked him to look after the Marine to my left and to my right.  To my left was a Gunny I know, and to my right a Navy LT I know.  I prayed that they would make it home OK.  We rose, saluted again, faced outboard and marched off.  As we marched I realized I hadn’t said a prayer for the other fallen Marine so I asked G-d to look after that man’s family too.  I didn’t know what else to pray for.

When I got back to the office it was late, but everyone, it seemed, had returned as well – no one went straight home from the ramp ceremony.  Conversations I heard, and those I had with some Majors who stopped by, were about everything but Sugar Bear.  There was some small talk and some laughter but I think no one was fooled.  Eventually people started trickling home until I was one of the last there.  So I walked to my can and started writing and that more or less gets us to now, when my eyelids are drooping.

I have no idea what you could possibly have gotten out of this post, but hopefully it was something.  Maybe only the second-hand memory of an exceptional Marine…and that will certainly do.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Plus ça change...

Things remain pretty much la même chose around here.  It's still hot (mid 110's, down to low 100's later in the week).  Also windy.  Finally got a decent shot of the very regular dust devils we get:

 This one went right over my head - they aren't nearly as menacing as they look...

...but that didn't stop my friend BK from cowering behind some containers. 
She'll kill me if she finds out this pic is on here, so let's not tell her.

If I were an alcoholic, deployment would be my cure.  Almost every week someone seems to ask the question, What's the first drink you're going to have when you get back?  Depending on my mood, my answer vascillates between a yard of Killians and a single malt Irish whiskey.  But what I've failed to share until now is that we do have options here.  They're not good options though.

People actually drink this stuff.

Oh I almost forgot - we've finally moved into our new (3rd) office.  It's part of a larger office but we're building a wall.  By we, of course, I mean Gunny and I.  If you want something done around here, you have to steal the resources and do it yourself. 

Speaking of which, I sweated my tuchis off for two days last week building a quasi-bookcase for our new office, out of whatever warped scrap wood and bent nails we could find around here.  Considering all that, I think it came out pretty well, don't you?

Thanks to GH and family for the US flag bandanna and the rest of the package!

Speaking of packages, Gunny got a pile of them recently.  Among other things he got a talking Donald Trump.  While his words of wisdom almost always lead to the same dead end ("you're fired"), now that we have him I don't really know how we ever made any decisions BT - Before Trump.

Senior ATFP Advisor Donald Trump

In softball news, we're back on track with one of the best records in the league (there are about a dozen teams) and we should have no trouble getting to the post-season, which will consist of one intense week of playoffs in early August.  I was in a personal 3 or 4 game hitting slump but coach never lost faith and kept me in the 3 hole, and last game I finally broke out of it.

And finally, I've done a little traveling lately, with more on the way, but don't worry, I always keep my head down - usually because I'm taking a quick nap.  If there were a way for me to share with others my uncanny ability to sleep anywhere, any time under any conditions, I'd be richer than Trump in no time (isn't he bankrupt?).  Alas, no pictures available of me napping. 

But it is just about bed time.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Happy (belated) birthday, America

Wrote this on the 4th - just got a chance to post it today...

It's Sunday, 4 July, my first Independence Day on deployment, and it just doesn't seem right not to post something here, even though I've only got a few minutes.  Did we do anything special, you may be wondering?  Well sure, we had BBQ ribs and chicken in the chow hall.  But no fireworks if that's what you mean - and no beer.  The war goes on.  I checked...well I checked the thing I check that tells me about what's going on out there (I know, my specificity is richly illuminating).  So I can tell you that war takes no holiday...I'm sure you get my meaning.

Actually, I've heard the story, as I'm sure many of you have, of the war that took a holiday - how on Christmas day one year during WWI, the two sides just stopped shooting at each other, refused to shoot at each other, sang Christmas carols from one trench to the other across the bloody, shell-pitted no man's land, and then got back to business the next day.  It happened, but it seems impossible.  Now that I understand a tiny bit about how wars are fought, the idea that they unilaterally, spontaneously took a day off and refused orders to resume until the next day, sort of leaves me speechless. 

So instead of more words, here are some random pics of life these last few weeks.  More to follow when I've got more time...

Gunny tries to work the new coffee press (thank you, AH!).  
Eventually got it to work, but only after exhausting all crude jokes about breast pumps. 

Gunny poses with a terrorist undercover Marine.

Military working dog came to visit.  Cool Marine factoid: when one of these pups gets injured in the line of duty, they are treated just like a person for CasEvac/triage purposes.

My digs - that's my rack straight ahead and my pile of crap on the left.  
We're 10 to the room, with highly diverse social skill sets.

Semper I