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.

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.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, America

It's the 4th of July, 2011, which means it's been exactly a year since I sat in the dust, my back to a tarp-covered fence that was shading me from the mid-day Afghan sun, and described a little of what it felt like to celebrate the 4th in country.  It has not, of course, been a year since I got back (it's been 115 days and this morning), but it sometimes feels like it.  This year my tuchis is parked not in some moon dust but on my plush microfiber couch, and instead of feeling sweaty and grimy I'm freshly showered (TMI?) and enjoying a typically temperate southern California breeze through my balcony door.  A year, a world, a lifetime - pick your favorite measure of distance, and that's the difference between this 4th and the last.

So as you can tell, it's good to be back.  That answers the most FAQ I get : "how's it feel to be back?"  Others include:
  1. What's it like over there?
  2. What do you think will happen in Afghanistan?
  3. So what do you do now that you're back?
  4. What's next for you?
Knowing me, that's enough questions for four separate posts.  I'll work backwards and see how far I get.

4.  What's next for me is probably another deployment to Afghanistan, exact date TBD but likely in the spring.  In the military, you can't be sure what's going to happen until after it happens, but I'll keep you posted.

3.  Meanwhile, now that I'm back I will do some training exercises...next one is three weeks in Yuma, AZ (where it was 116º this weekend!).  Back at the squadron between exercises, I'm the company intel officer, safety officer, occasional supply officer, get-this-distributed-before-the-meeting officer...I call myself the EEO - Everything Else Officer.  But it sounds like more work than it is, and I'm almost always home by 5PM if not earlier (work starts at 0730 so don't worry taxpayer, you're still getting your money's worth).

 As I said it has been 115 days, so what else have I been doing?

Well when I first got back I took it easy for a few days but within a week, I think, I was starting to PT hard to try to burn off some winter flubber and get ready for the PFT (physical fitness test).  It paid off, as I got a personal best of 20 pull-ups (max score = 20), 100 sit-ups in 1 min 20 sec (max score = 2 min or less) and ran the 3-mile in 20:56 (max score = 18 min or less so forget about that). That may all sound ok, and I was proud of my performance, but I still have a ways to go to meet my goals.  Next test is the CFT - combat fitness test:

CFT: the most painful 2 to 3 minutes of your life

It hurts just to watch.

Anyway, I've also done some traveling, though as most of you know my big road trip that I'd been planning for a year had to be ixnayed.  The reason was that I got in a small car accident (no one hurt or anything) and it took too long to get my car back from the shop.  Nonetheless, I got to spend Passover at my dad's with my uncle and fam, and a truly great time was had by all.  Normally I would post a pic or two here but I don't know what happened to mine...!  VM, do you have any?  AH, did you take any?  If so I want copies.

Shortly after that trip - by plane - I got my car back from the shop (as I told someone at the time, it was like having a girlfriend in the hospital.  I checked on her daily).  Then my youngest brother came for a visit, and we tore up the state of Arizona.  In fact, I have a ton of pics from that trip to share, so that'll probably fill the rest of this post...questions 2 and 1 will have to wait for next time.

So.  We drove out to Sedona, AZ, one of my favorite cities, and spent a week out there leading up to our hike in the Grand Canyon.


 ...Sedona dirt made me a red-head.

Sgt Strike A. Pose

inexplicably puzzled

Arizona: indescribable

Mission Improbable

Scarlet Cowboy

"Feygeles?"  "No, we're just merry."


 COB, day 1

eh...what's up, doc?

Lake Pleasant, AZ.  It was.

COB day 2

Days 3 we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon, and days 4 and 5 were spent hiking into it via the Grand View Trail to a spot called Horseshoe Mesa, camping out overnight, and hiking back out the next day.

On the way

The Grand Canyon.  It is.

 The view from my sunglasses.

Nice shot, E.

A model of the canyon showing our route.

In the pic above, taken from the Grand View trail head, you can see all the way to our destination, Horseshoe Mesa.  If you view it full size, you'll see I added four dots.  The red is the end of the trail, one of the two ends of the horsehoe.  The blue is roughly where we camped out.  The green is where we finally found water after some exciting (failed) attempts, and the yellow I'll explain in a minute.

Starting out

1,216 ft down...just getting started

Don't slip!

toilet paper tuna - Israeli delicacy

some desert flowers

 another desert flower

Along the way we took a little detour to see some old caves.  One of us was too chickensh*t to go more than a few yards in.  The other is pictured below:

To get to the caves we had to scale some pretty gnarly cliffs.  That's where the yellow dot comes in...that's where the cliffs are.  Here are some pics:

Good thing you had that rope.

After the caves, we resumed our trek...

 Incredible views

 remains of an old miners' kitchen


Almost there...

 we made it!

The other end of the horseshoe

My best attempt at a collage of pics to show the view from the Mesa. 

And here's another attempt to capture it.  Nothing really can.



...and terrified.

Just realized we're both wearing our unit t-shirts.  What a bunch of motards.

And it was evening, and it was morning, day the fourth.

After eating carrots for their water content and dreaming all night of falling off cliffs, we woke up the next morning juuuust about ready to find some H2O.  How hard was it to find?

But eventually...


 What we hiked down in our search for agua...

 ...and what we now had to hike back up just to get back to the Mesa.

Leaving the Mesa

What goes down must come up...

 Resting on the way


~3000 vertical feet in 3 hours 11 minutes. 

The next day was Shabbat, so we reflected on the miracle of our survival.  Sunday was the road trip back to the coast, and Monday we unwound as any two elite Jewish warfighters would...

...by shooting Yassir Arafat.

Maybe with two guns I'll hit him.

So.  That's kind of a long answer to #3. Stay tuned for more later!

 Happy 235th, America.