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.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Next time, I'll...

As most of you know, my next deployment to Afghanistan is right around the corner - expected departure some time in January.  I've been thinking about how this deployment will differ from the last, and for whatever reason I thought you might find these thoughts to be an interesting read.  In fact I can think of at least one way that they directly affect you, so press on.

First, the obvious:: I'll be in Lashkar Gah at a British base, vice Camp Leatherneck, a Marine base.  I expect the primary differences to be:
  • Instead of being literally at the flag pole, I'll be far removed from it, allowing me greater freedom and independence as long as I do my job;
  • I'll have a shift job, expected to be just 8 hours a day; vice the average 14-hour days of last time;
  • I'll have less overall responsibility but a more direct role in operations in support of ground forces
  • I'll be eating a lot more curry
Additionally in the realm of the obvious, I expect to be back 6-7 months after I leave, vice a year.  This, of course, is a big difference.  Big.

All that is self-evident.  But there are a few other things I'd like to change.

First, while I PT'd hard for the first half or so, when winter came and March still seemed an eternity away, I pretty much lost my drive and my PT, when it happened, was mostly weak and unproductive.  This time I intend to push myself hard the entire time and come back in - objectively - the best shape of my life.  That's a pretty bold statement to make, especially in public like this, but I think I can do it.

Second, as some of you know I've been working on a book, on and off, for more years than I care to admit.  Again, these aren't the kinds of things I usually say in public but my aim is to finish this thing.  Probably it will be terrible.  That's OK.  My problem has been that I've gone over and over the same ground in my writing - refining, reworking, perfecting, whittling it to the bone, and while that's yielded some quality (IMHO), it's come at the price of quantity.  It's time to write out the rest of the story and then go back and improve it.

Third - and this is the one that affects you - I want my friends and family back home to be more involved in my deployment.  I believe that all Americans need to be personally invested in wars fought on their behalf, yet when you asked me, as so many of you did, what you could do or send, I fell into the trap of saying "don't worry about it, we've got everything we need here" because that was easier than thinking about what you really can do for us over there.

It's true that we have everything we need over there.  A person needs very little.  But there is plenty that we would like - would love - to have and we shouldn't be afraid to share that with those who want to support us.  So here: I give you a list of things you can send us or do for us - a list based on a little more experience than I had last time, and one that you can feel free to share with others.
  • Write.  This is definitely number one.  Whether it's a two-page letter or a two-line e-mail, we want to hear from you.  Even if it's been a year or 3 or 10 since we last spoke, this is the perfect time to renew acquaintances.  Any contact with home puts a smile on our faces and helps us sleep better that night.
  • Give of your time and/or money to an organization that supports the troops (then write us to let us know you've done it).  Here are a few of my personal favorites, but there are many to choose from:
  •  Make a CD or DVD.  My dad sent me one a week for almost my entire deployment, with news and sports round-ups, videos of old concerts and movies, pictures of the neighborhood (the White Mountain National Forest and environs) and a "from the producer" segment each week.  I know he's planning to do that again, but you can make me other DVDs - recent episodes of shows like House, The Office, Family Guy, Tosh.0, SNL etc. etc., or "mix tapes" of whatever the kids are listening to these days (not much radio in Afg). 
  • Magazines and books - but not in the mail.  Yes, several of you sent me these last time and believe me, it was great to get them and I devoured them all.  But it seems lots easier and cheaper to send e-books and e-mags, which you can do easily here.  You don't even have to buy the book - as a reading fanatic what I value most is just getting book recommendations from friends.
  • Care packages.  As I've written before, what you put in them matters much less than just knowing that you took the time to put it together and send it.  Let's face it - care packages are a pain in the ass to put together.  But here are some ideas of things to put in them, in addition to all of the above:
    • Home made treats
    • Beef jerky
    • Crystal Lite (any flavor but especially fruit punch)
    • Mixed nuts
    • Nerf guns - really anything nerf
    • Sugar-free gum
    • Crosswords and other puzzle books
    • Blank cards/stationary (so we can write back!)
    • Crisp hundred-dollar bills (crinkled ones may be returned)
    Those are some things I know I would use.  Here are two more lists for some additional ideas.
  • Get on Skype, g-chat, etc., so when we have unexpected Internet access we can talk!
So there are some ideas.  If I think of more I'll add them to this post.  Meanwhile, you're probably wondering when I'm gonna get around to posting my address.  Well unfortunately since I'll be off on an ASLT (Air Support Liaison Team), sending mail to the main address of my unit - at Camp Leatherneck - isn't the most efficient way to go.  Once I get in country and figure out the nearest Marine unit - probably one also based at Lashkar Gah - I'll post my address on this blog and send it out by e-mail.

Lastly, you should know that when it comes to care packages, the cheapest option is to use the USPS flat rate box for APO/FPO, which you should be able to get at any post office.

OK it's been a busy day here at LeftofRight...time for bed!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Veteran's Day

Last week I got back from a month in the desert around Yuma, AZ.  Things I did during that month:
  • Sweat
  • Sleep in a tent
  • Sweat while sleeping in a tent
  • Subsist on MREs (snacks only), Date Shakes and sand
  • Displace five times
  • Participate in three convoys
  • Attend an unknown number of late-night briefs
  • Experience some of the best the MST has to offer
  • Set my personal (albeit humble) record at 10 days in a row without a shower 
Naturally, I had a great time.  Why?  Well...

If you noticed the guys on the hilltop controlling aircraft (from about the 2 minute mark on), that was at a position called OP (Observation Point) Feets, and it's where I was working for the first week of the exercise.  Here are a few of my own pics and vids from there:

 Controlling atop OP Feets (note the field 'stache already coming in)

Cobra inbound 

Cobra gun run

Cobras rockets and guns
(it was extremely windy on OP Feets, probably 50+ mph winds at times)

Mock-up targets

Sunset at Feets
Cobra attack at dusk


Rockets.  Held an NVG (night vision goggle) over the lens.

More rockets and guns in the dark

More NVG action

Fixed-wing ordnance.  Boom.

OP Feets - not a fun climb


Weather inbound
The second week we controlled from various LZs and FARPs (Forward Arming and Refeuling Points).

LZ Star

CH-53's with some externals


CH-53E conducting mid-air refueling with the KC-130

KC-130 dumping extra fuel before returning to base

At FARP Star a few days later... 

UH-1 Huey

Three Cobras, just after getting jumped by two Hinds

A Hind

Getting "strafed" by a Hind

Moonrise over the FARP

"Devastate Bravo"

For the second two weeks, I was back with the main DASC as we displaced from one garden spot to another.

Tent living

Getting dirty

Desert dwellers

On the firing line at Fire Base Burt 

Taking a break during a convoy

At least there are nice sunsets in the desert

Well time to go enjoy the rest of my 96.  Happy 236th, Marines, and Happy Vets Day to all!

Friday, September 23, 2011

In the summertime, when the weather is fine...

I should be running right now but it's almost 9AM and still just 62 degrees out and foggy so I'm waiting for it to warm up a bit.  Now I'm not complaining about the weather here, but it's late September and I should probably accept that summer is just about over.

It's been a pretty good summer over all.  When I first got back in March, as you might have noticed, I was a bit of a frenzied mess mentally, inexpressibly relieved to be back but slightly disoriented by the shimmer of civilization.  My brain just felt like it was overheating a bit at times.  I remember trying to fill up my gas tank for the first time, getting it all wrong - trying to pump before I slid in my card, forgetting to select a grade - and wondering how something I'd done automatically for years could suddenly require such concentration.

But the initial dither of readjustment faded within a month or two (I now pump gas almost effortlessly, thank you), and since then I've just been enjoying life in S Cali, one of the world's great places to relax.  In May my youngest brother (E) came to visit (as previously briefed), in June it was my mom, and in July the middle brother (A).

After the big Grand Canyon trip, E and I spent a day
in Hollywood looking for amazing cars.

 We found some.

Mom on the USS Midway museum
Mom and me at the Grand Canyon (it never gets old)

A and I went to the SD zoo.  Love animals, hate zoos.

July-August was Scorpion Fire, a quick trip to NH, some more camping, and all kinds of other mishigas.  In September we sat a bunch of drills.  Also I ran the CFT and I got a 300(!).  First time I've aced a Marine Corps fitness test, though I still have plenty of work to do to reach my personal goals.

Yuma in July is hot...

...but at least it has an A&W!!

...and good sunsets.

Me man, make photogenic fire.

Chasing the sun from NH to CA

I also stood duty a few Sundays ago - September 11th.  Like so many of you who blogged/posted on that day, I thought about how quickly those ten years had passed and how things have changed since - in my life and in the world.  If you had asked me on 9/11 what I'd be doing exactly ten years later, I would never have imagined I'd be in a Marine Corps uniform, pistol on my belt, saluting the flag, preparing for a second deployment to Afghanistan.  Globally, on 9/11 the idea of "The End of History" ended as we recognized another ideological challenger to Western Democracy and entered the fight of our generation. (Unfortunately, much of the moral clarity of that period has since been lost - a situation for which I blame hyper-partisanship and a superficial and sensationalist press...but that's a whole other post).

Anyway, that just about brings us to today, when I'm on a five-day weekend, thanks to a 96 plus a day off for my birthday.  This Thursday I'll head out to Yuma, AZ for WTI (as previously briefed), where I'll be in the field until the end of October.  Somehow, that sand and heat just isn't the same as the CA coast.  So I'm gonna go out and enjoy it while I can.  See ya!

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Greatest Ever, Part 1: Mariano Rivera

"We don't want to face him any more. He's too good. He belongs in a higher league. He should be banned from baseball." 
- Former Twins Manager
Tom Kelly

In the 140+ years of professional baseball in America, and the over four decades since the emergence of the role, there has never been a greater closer than Mariano Rivera, who made it official today when he saved his 602nd game, setting the all-time record.

I've been a fan of Mo's since he made his big league debut in 1995.  Inspired by his accomplishment and some other random neurons firing in my brain lately, I've decided to start a series of posts highlighting, IMHO, the greatest ever in a given category.  Feel free to disagree and suggest your own candidates. 

In the case of Mo or any athlete, some justification is required.  

First, some background.  For those who aren't familiar with baseball, the closer is a pitcher whose job it is to get the final few outs in a close game, thereby securing the win and earning a save.  It's easily the most high-pressure position in baseball, and requires not only phenomenal pitching but nerves of steel.  This is especially true in the playoffs, where a blown save can shift the momentum of an entire series.   

In Mo's case, he's now the all-time saves record holder, but even if he had never reached that summit, he still would have been the greatest in my book.  Consider some of his other records, for starters:
  • Post-season saves (42)
  • Post-season series clinching saves (9)
  • Post-season ERA (0.71(!!))
  • Post-season scoreless innings streak (34.1)
  • Regular season save conversion rate (89.3%) 
  • Though it's not an official stat, I'd venture he has the highest post-season conversion rate as well (min 20 appearances, say) at 91.3%
Next consider his longevity and consistency:
  • Most pitching appearances in American League history (1038)
  • Most consecutive seasons with at least 25 saves (15) and 30 saves (9)
  • Most All-Star selections as a pitcher (12)
Other incredible accomplishments:
  • Eight seasons with 40+ saves
  • Two seasons with 50+ saves
  • 1999 World Series MVP
  • 2003 ALCS MVP
  • And oh yeah, 5-time World Series Champion
But even all these numbers and records don't tell the whole story.  For one thing, Rivera has accomplished all this with just one pitch.  He throws no curve balls, no sinkers or change-ups.  Every batter in the Majors knows exactly what's coming - the cutter - they just can't do anything with it.  Mariano simply dominates hitters.

His achievements vis-à-vis other pitchers aren't bad either.  Consider that second to Mo with his 42 postseason saves is Brad Lidge, with 18.  After Trevor Hoffman, whose record Rivera just broke, the next highest regular season saves total belongs to Lee Arthur Smith with 478. Mo's 2003 post-season WHIP of .438, also a record, is over 60 points better than the next closet, .500 (Mike Scott, 1986). 

"I get the ball, I throw the ball and then I take a shower."
- Mariano Rivera 

Then there are the (much maligned) intangibles.  There is no stat for consistency of delivery or pinpoint precision, but Mo is legendary in both areas.  Often overlooked is how well a pitcher fields his position: Mo does so with an agility and intelligence that far surpasses most pitchers.  Finally, the aptly-numbered 42 (the last player grandfathered in when Jackie Robinson's number was retired throughout baseball) might be "the most respected player in the league," as Rangers slugger Michael Young put it.  His professionalism, deeply held religious values and serenity are reflected in the imperturbable calm he brings to the mound, even under the glaring spotlight of October baseball in New York.

"The most mentally tough person I've ever played with."
- Yankees Captain Derek Jeter

Though fans often forget it, the man is still human.  Like any closer, he has blown saves - none bigger than Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.  With a 2-1 lead in the 9th, a double by Tony Womack and a whisper-soft bloop single by Luis Gonzalez combined with some other factors to cost the Yankees their fourth straight Championship, and that in a year when the entire world was rooting for New York. 

But even that failure only emphasizes how unequaled Mo is at what he does.  After all, the only other player who comes close is Trevor Hoffman, the previous saves record-holder with 601.  And Mariano Rivera has blown more World Series saves (1) than Trevor Hoffman has ever converted.  Sure, a few other names are sometimes thrown out there, such as Billy Wagner, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle or Dennis Eckersley.  I'll let Eckersley respond:

"The best ever, no doubt."
- First-ballot Hall-of-Famer
and former closer Dennis Eckersley

There is simply no comparison.  Mariano Rivera is indisputably the greatest closer in the history of baseball.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

The lights are off but somebody's home

Enjoying the great S Cali power outage of 2011. No need to worry, I'm well stocked on food, flashlights and sarcasm. In lieu of canned goods please send cash, or at least a cool breeze. iPhone battery reports 35% happiness remaining. Gotta run.

Same great taste...

...but now with twice the flavor!

Hope you like the new look.  It's a work in progress.

Monday, September 5, 2011

And by "March," I mean "January"

A lot has been going on the past few weeks, and I know I've been pretty bad about updating you, my undoubtedly dwindling readership.  But on the off chance that you clicked the wrong bookmark and somehow ended up here, let me catch you up and let you know in some more detail what's coming down the pike for me. 

Where to start.

My last post was from Yuma, AZ, where we were doing a three-week drill called Scorpion Fire.  That was a blast, and by "blast" I mean it was hot, slow and boring.  Prior to that drill, you might recall, I was back at my unit at Camp Pendleton, CA, where things were actually pretty busy.  By "actually pretty busy" of course I mean I spent almost every day trying to make 45 minutes of work last eight hours.  (Don't give up on me; I'm going somewhere with this.)

Anyway, I don't know why I whined so much about not being busy.  After a fairly full year in Afg I wanted nothing more than nothing to do, but it turns out I'm too antsy and impatient to leave well enough alone.  So in June or July or so a schedule came out with rosters for four upcoming drills and I was on none of them.  I whined, and now I'm on all six.  (It's Marine Corps math, to wit: how many paragraphs are in the Five Paragraph Order?  Six, naturally.)  

I think I also previously posted that I would be deploying again (to Afg) some time in March.  Well by "March" it turns out I meant "February."  By "February" I soon found out I meant late January, and of course "late January" is just MarineSpeak for early January.  Making plans lately has been about as useful as a football bat.

As you can imagine, with the compressed timetable things have gotten really slow and relaxed at work, if by "slow and relaxed"...well enough already, you get the idea.  We had a drill two weeks ago, have another in a week (that I'm currently scrambling to design), then I'll be in Yuma again for the whole month of October on an exercise called WTI.  November brings the Marine Corps Ball (a wasted week if you know what I mean), another exercise and Thanksgiving weekend.  Early December is the culminating exercise - two weeks of 24/7 ops I believe - followed hopefully by pre-deployment leave.

And then one morning about 10 months after I got home, I'll wake up in Afg again and wonder if I ever really left.

Well not exactly.  This time I'm supposed to be in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand.  This is a good thing.  It's a British base (I love the Brits) and even better, it's not Camp Leatherneck, where I spent the year last time and to which I'm in no real hurry to return. 

So that's what the next few months, and beyond, will look like for me, at least as of this moment.  Other than that I've been doing some hiking and camping and a little schmoozing and OH YEAH I'M GOING TO BE AN UNCLE! 

My brother and his bride will be returning from the desert in just a few weeks, and they're pregnant!  Well, she's pregnant, he's just hormonal.  I'll be hanging out with them and fam over Thanksgiving and it'll be really nice to have them back in the states.  If the prospect of me as an uncle (or A as a dad) gives you arrhythmia...well you're not alone.  I believe there's even a support group already.

OK as you can tell by now, I recently broke my funny bone and I'm still rehabbing it.  More later.

Currently in NH for a quick visit.  Pic credit: AH.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Back in the desert

For an amphibious force, we sure spend a lot of time in the wilderness.

I'm in Yuma, AZ.  It's 11 PM and outside it has cooled down to 92 degrees, from a high of 112 earlier today.  This morning's run wasn't too bad though - I'd guess it was around 80 at dawn which at about 1% humidity felt just fine.

We're here for three weeks supporting an exercise called Scorpion Fire.  Its an aviation-focused exercise, designed to qualify both pilots and ground Marines to employ air assets.  Since I (and apparently, you) have nothing better to do right now, let me explain.

One of the things the Marine Corps does best is "integrate fires," meaning use all available firepower (direct-fire weapons like rifles and machine guns, indirect fire weapons like mortars and artillery, and supporting fires like helicopters, planes and naval guns).  In fact, doing so is critical to the Marine Corps way of fighting.

The idea is to put the bad guys in what's called a "combined arms" dilemma - if you stay where you are, you will be hit by my artillery or bombs, but if you get up to move, you will be hit by my rifles and machine guns.  The catch is that artillery and bombs are indiscriminate.  If you are a safe enough distance from the enemy to drop a 500lb bomb on them but you use the wrong nomenclature and call for a 2000lb bomb, you might have a bad day.  Similarly, if you're dropping mortars on the bad guys and you bring in a helo to do a gun run without shutting off the mortars first, you may shoot down your own air support.  This is generally frowned upon.

Combined Arms...literally. The M-16 is a direct fire weapon,
while the M203 grenade launcher (under slung) offers an
organic indirect fire capability to a unit as small as a fire team.

So what the Marine Corps trains hard at is becoming really good at coordinating and deconflicting these various forms of fire support, e.g. shutting off the mortars just in time for the helo, but not too soon so the enemy has a chance to reposition (flee), and not too late so you endanger your own aircraft.  The Marines in charge of telling the aircraft what to do in these situations are called Forward Air Controllers (FACs) or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs).  The main purpose of Scorpion Fire is to qualify FACs and JTACs.


The cool twist is that FACs, in particular, don't have to be on the ground with the requesting unit.  They can be pilots themselves - a Huey pilot (for example) can be a FAC(A) (the A stands for Airborne).  He can be talking to someone on the ground to find out what they need, then tell an F-18 what to do, using his training as a FAC.

The business of telling pilots what to do is called "controlling."  So for those of you who have heard me talk about my job, "controlling" aircraft, this is what I do.  The difference is that I'm not a FAC or JTAC.  My job is to talk to the pilot once he leaves the airfield and get him to his FAC or JTAC quickly and safely.  As you can imagine, in a busy battle space like Helmand Province in Afghanistan, he may fly through the airspace of several different units on the way to his target.  Each of those units may be using indirect fires, may have their own aircraft flying around at various altitudes, etc.  My job is to "deconflict" the airspace, i.e. to tell him what route and altitude(s) to fly to get to his destination without crashing into another aircraft or interfering with what's going on above/below him.

And oh yeah...we do this without radar.  We keep a sort of written log of where everyone is, as well as an electronic one for general situational awareness, but in reality we just have to keep the whole (constantly changing) situation in our heads.  That's the part I find most fun and challenging.

airspace control concept, sorta.

Here at Scorpion Fire it's pretty easy - the pace of operations (number of aircraft in the air at once, number of fire missions, etc.) is quite manageable.  In Afghanistan, there are often several dozen aircraft (including many unmanned platforms) at all kinds of altitudes, along with lots of fire missions (artillery, mortars, rockets, etc.) to avoid.  As many of you will recall, my actual job in Afghanistan had nothing to do with all this - I was doing antiterrorism/force protection.  But in my free time I went and controlled aircraft to keep up my skills and earn a qualification.  Some days were slow, but some I had dozens of helos and unmanned aircraft I was controlling at once (someone else did planes) in very tight and congested airspace...not to mention civilian air (those crazy Russian pilots in their flying rust buckets).

Also, at Scorpion Fire all the flights are pre-planned.  In Afg, many are as well ("this aircraft will support this unit from this time to that," or "this aircraft will resupply that unit at this time/location"), but many others are immediate requests, usually of the "send shooters now" or "send medevac now" variety.  Immediate air requests are probably the most important part of what we do at the Direct Air Support Center (DASC), and certainly the most rewarding.

Whew!  Hope you enjoyed that little tutorial.  You're now well on your way to being a MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) officer yourself!  Which means you can probably come take over for me here in Yuma...

 ...now would be fine.