Thursday, September 17, 2009

I'm Bringing Sexy Back

You heard me.

The tall one is me, and the one who looks like a Panamanian General is my First Sergeant, 1SG Neumann. He is my right hand man, and keeps me out of trouble.

Me (the tall one again. Sometimes I think I work in Munchkinland). From left to right, not counting me, CPT Jeff Jaramillo (will be taking command in two weeks), MAJ Bill Dowling (the Battalion Executive Officer), CSM Evaristo Torres (the BN CSM) and 1LT Ginette Bocanegra (my XO.)
In case you're wondering, the little short coats that Dowling and Torres are wearing are called the Mess Dress uniform. They cost A TON and I'm not getting one until I'm a major.

(This was at the Association of the United States Army Bradley Leadership Awards Banquet. Or the Army Prom.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Papi, what's a general?

That's a general.

Where were you?

Wow, just looked at this blog for the first time since, well, May. It's been a ri-freakin'-diculously busy several months, and I've been forced through sheer fatigue into this long hiatus. I think I've got a handle on my life now, so I will start updating again.

Today's entry is three days late- I had originally inteded to publish this on 11 September, but got lazy.

During September 11th, 2001, I was working in the Washington, D.C. area. I was attached to an agency called the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and was doing a joint (meaning multi-service: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) mission dealing with a couple of Latin American countries. There were about thirty of us, of which maybe five were Army personnel. We all lived in these really nice furnished apartments in the D.C. suburbs. Mine was two blocks off of the Ballston Metro station. I had already been in D.C. for ten days, and had settled into a routine.

Every morning, I would wake up, get dressed in my Class B uniform (slacks, shirt, name tag, medals, beret), and go downstairs. The van would pick me up, along with the other personnel assigned to the DIA for that day. We'd get to work at about 0700, get a bagel and Diet Coke, and start work no later than 0730.

The 11th was business as usual. I had just settled down to work, had my headphones on and was listening to Weezer. We worked on the 14th floor of an office tower complex called Crystal Towers, in Crystal City, VA (approximately one mile from the Pentagon, and maybe seven miles from D.C. proper). Anyway, there I was, Weezering it up, and all of a sudden, heads start popping up from cubicles. I took out my earphones to find out what was happening, and started hearing radio stations announce that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.

Since we were all intel nerds, we stopped what we were doing and went to the TV to watch CNN. That's when we saw the second plane hit. We were stunned- no one spoke. Finally, one of the Airmen said what we were all thinking.

"Holy Shit." (sorry, Mom).

We all started making phone calls to our respective headquarters- we knew it was a matter of time until we were recalled back to our units to prepare for war. That's when it happened.

An Air Force colonel came running in to our office. "Everyone evacuate the building- a plane just crashed into the Pentagon!"

Here's why I love the military. At this point, instead of devolving into panic, we all looked at our NCOIC for instruction.

"Get out of the office, walk down the stairs, and get outside."

Which we did. We got outside and saw all traffic at a complete standstill. We also saw, about a mile away, a column of thick, black smoke coming up from the Pentagon.

"The van will be here in an hour. Til then, no one leaves. Report to me if you need to use the bathroom or leave the immediate area for any reason."

We stood there for an hour, watching all the buildings on our block disgorge literally hundreds of military personnel, all in their Class B uniforms. Then we all stood there for another hour, watching each other watch the same unmoving cars.

Those few of us who were able to make cell phone calls contacted our loved ones. My Mom was at my apartment, visiting Jen.

"Mom, turn on the news. I'm ok, just wake up Jen."


"Turn on the news, I'm ok, now wake up Jen."

"Oh my goodness, are you ok?"


"Yes, I'm ok, now wake up Jen, please."

Once I finally told Jen I was ok and not to worry, I hung up. That was the last phone call I was able to make for two days.

Back on the street in Crystal City, we finally decided that the van wasn't coming. So we all started to walk home.

We walked past miles of stopped cars, past police and emergency responders, past National Guardsmen. We walked through two suburbs- eight total miles in plastic dress shoes and wool slacks. I know because I kept a 100-meter pace count and counted the kilometers all the way.

As we all walked home, we saw thousands of military servicemembers, all walking to their various suburbs. All I could think about was "holy crap, if they got us now, look at how many casualties they'd get."

By the time we made it back to our apartments, it was dark. We all congregated in one apartment and watched the news. No one wanted to be alone. Later, we all went back to our individual places and went to bed.

That's my story. I was at a 9-11 rememberance cremony on Friday, and someone asked those of us who were personally affected by 9-11 to raise our hands. My First Sergeant looked at me and said "I spent three and a half freaking years of my life in the Middle East. How's that?"

Personally, I hate 9-11 rememberances. I know it was horrible- I was there (kind of). I remember the feeling of helplessness and anger, and the urge to retaliate. I remember the resolve we all had that this would never happen again. I imagine people felt the same way on December 8th, 1942.

But I for one would just like to get on with it. Let's remember that it happened, not with a schmaltzy funeral every year, but with decisive action, with determination, with substantive fixes for the systemic problems that led to the attacks. Remember 9-11, but keep it to yourself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Big News

Big news, everyone.  I was offered a Battery Command.  For those of you not in the military, I will explain:  The main goal of every Captain in the Army is to be a Company/Battery/Troop commander.  Unfortunately, for officers in my career field, those opportunities are fewer and farther between because of the way the Army has been restructured.  Couple that with the fact that command is a privilege and and honor, and you get a glimpse of why this is big news for me.

As part of my incipient command, I have written a draft of a command philosophy.  There is a lot of stuff I could have put in it, but I was trying to keep it to under a page and a half.  I am going to reprint it here, with the caveat that this is a first draft.

Oh, also, the battery call sign is "Hardcore," so don't be confused by that.

Here goes.

1.      Our mission is to provide outstanding, professional support to the line batteries of 2-43 ADA BN.   While the other units conduct air defense operations, we provide the critical unified command and control necessary to accomplish the battalion’s missions.  Hardcore Soldiers are a team, and our job is to support the battalion’s missions in peace and war.  Our attitude must always be “The answer is ‘yes,’ now what is the question?”  We will take pride in our ability to sustain the combat capability of our fellow Warriors no matter what conditions, no matter what time, no matter what day


2.      Hardcore Soldiers are motivated.  Hardcore Soldiers are treated with dignity and respect, and Hardcore leaders constantly demonstrate real concern for Soldiers.  This does not mean pampering Soldiers, but ensuring they are always trained, informed, personal problems are addressed promptly, awards are timely and punishment is exacted swiftly when needed. 


3.      Hardcore Soldiers are professionals.  They are disciplined, motivated, and proficient in their MOS.  The nature of the HHB mission requires a high degree of personal responsibility on the part of all Soldiers, particularly in staff sections.  Soldiers and junior leaders must step up and take individual responsibility in their work.  This means that more senior leaders must empower their subordinates and allow them opportunities to excel.


4.      Non-Commissioned Officers are the backbone of the Army and of our unit.  Platoon, Staff, and section NCOICs are the center of gravity around which all battery operations revolve.  I will treat you with the respect you deserve- ensure you earn it.  Leaders will set the example at all times.  Good leadership provides purpose, direction, motivation, and will spark esprit in a unit.  I expect leaders to lead their soldiers, care for them by holding them to high standards and preparing them for combat.  Developing young Soldiers and junior leaders for increased responsibility is a priority in all our training.  Depth is provided in our ranks through delegation with supervision, as our primary method of leader development.  I expect all NCOs to know and live by the Creed of the Non-Commissioned Officer, to ensure that they are the standard-bearers of professionalism and to provide the outstanding leadership that all Soldiers deserve.


5.      Hardcore Soldiers and their Families are the core of our unit.  The Army frequently demands much of our time and effort, so we as leaders must ensure that we safeguard Family time for our Soldiers.  I believe in a strong, involved FRG and will work to ensure that Families are informed and involved in unit activities.


6.      The Army is not a zero-defect organization.  We will all make mistakes- it is how we react to those mistakes that will determine our success as individuals and as a unit.  I will do my best to take care of Soldiers who make honest mistakes.  I do have some zero-tolerance areas, however:  Drug or alcohol-related incidents, domestic violence, adultery, equal opportunity/sexual harassment or violence against another Soldier will be prosecuted with all the resources available to me.


7.      HARDCORE! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I'm home

Long time since I posted, just thought I'd give an update.

First and foremost, I'm home. Long trip, much drama, but the bottom line is, I'm home.

Second, I am (finally) leaving the unit I've been in since 2004. Kinda conflicted... wait, no, not really. It's time to go. Not that the unit hasn't been good to me- I've learned a lot and had some pretty neat opportunities. But it's time to go. (I'm only going up the road right now. It's a conscious choice so I don't have to immediately try to sell my house).

Speaking of leaving... the Army has a tradition called the "Hail and Farewell." It's a party that is designed to welcome (hail) the new officers and senior noncoms and farewell the outgoing ones. Now that you know the concept, let me say this clearly so you'll all understand.


Imagine, if you will, a unit that has been together for 24 months. Fifteen of those deployed. Throw in a bit of resentment from one half of the unit towards the other, as the battalion was split in two and one half was in a decidedly better place than the other. Add in some disgruntlement over evaluations/awards, etc. Sprinkle on there the fact that, when we came home, we only got ONE DAY OFF before having to come back to work. Throw in a bunch of spouses who are forced to spend one of their first, awkward days with their Soldier partying with people they neither know nor like very well.

Shaping up really well, huh?

Now add copious amounts of alcohol, shake it up, and then give people a microphone and an open forum.


In case you're wondering, what you get is basically lots of people hiding how they really feel in efforts to be politic, with one or two throwing truth bombs in there because they have nothing to lose. Also, elements of the command group trying to publicly humiliate people and making mean-spirited jokes. And then you get a bunch of awkward silences, punctuated by frantic guzzling of drinks.

No lie. Kind of horrifying, really.

What's really horrifying is that the powers that be are going to call that party a success, and an example of team-building and esprit-de-corps (that's French for "corpse spit").

Now, as horrible as mandatory social functions can be, they can also be done really well. I have personally been to several really good Hails and Farewells (ones that the wife didn't hate), where the event was well planned, the MCs had personality and charm, everyone was a good sport, and the alcohol just made everyone silly. Also, it's awesome to watch my friends humilitate themselves and then not remember it the next day. I love bringing back those memories, particularly in front of large groups of people.

Oh well. As I see it, that's one more hurdle behind me on my way to my next assignment. Hopefully I will update at least one more time between now and then. Here's what's on the agenda:

Block Leave. Disneyland. Family. Birthday. Road Trip(s).

Good times, good times.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A New Feature

This marks what will be the beginning of a new, randomly updated feature on this blog:

Staff Officer Stick Figure Theatre!! (you have to imagine the echo sound effect).

I know that not all staff experiences are like this, but I've received enough feedback already to know that this little comic has struck a nerve among some people.

Without further ado:

(I'm not saying that I did this during a meeting or anything... but it took about 20 minutes that would otherwise have been wasted).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I think Army got it right this time...

A couple of days ago, we were all forced to watch a multi-media, choose-your-own-adventure production made by the Army called "Beyond the Front." It details the (mis)adventures of either a Soldier or his NCO, and you make choices based on how you feel and what you want the person to do. At the end, either they kill themselves, or they don't, and we all learn a valuable lesson. It's a Very Special Afternoon of Training.

This video and associated mandatory training are part of the Army's response to record-high suicide rates. 2008 saw at least 128 Soldiers take their own lives, with more possible as investigations conclude. This is the highest rate of suicide since the Army began keeping records in 1980.

What surprises me is not the Army's predictable response (the pattern is usually Action --> reaction by Dept of the Army (DA) --> Overreaction by subordinate commands --> mandatory training in which we are yelled at for thinking about whatever the "action" was) but rather the fact that the training and video were... good.

Actually good.

And here's the litmus test for that: when, among the jokes and derision, you can hear more than one person say "No, man, I remember this one kid in my unit..."

Yeah, it was corny in the way that only choose-your-own-adventure stories are. But it actually used relevant scenarios with halfway decent performances, contemporary language (by which I mean the actor cursed when in a firefight or when his fiancee left him), and presented decisions that any of us would make under the circumstances. It was good enough that Soldiers participated and only one problem child fell asleep, and the tools that the video presented to deal with stressful/painful situations were appropriate to Soldiers and the culture of the Army. There was no "make a relaxing collage;" rather, they talked about talking to the Chaplain or the chain of command. All in all, not bad.

All of this dovetails with some other thoughts I've been having lately, regarding stress and stress management. Maybe you follow La Yen's blog where she has been talking about her "issues" (and by "issues" I mean "Shaking like Don Knotts"). Well, that's a stressor to me. There are other things- having to move out of comfy billets and into dusty tents, dealing with the sheer exhaustion of having been here more than a year, the stress of having to train someone else to do your job before you leave... All these things serve to make life difficult. And I've been wondering what tools we have available to deal with that. So here are my thoughts.

- Spirituality. This is a non-denominational post here. Whatever your religious persuasion is, whether you're Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon (word!), Baptist, Wiccan, Zoroastrian, Olmec Sun-Worshipper, or part of the Dalek Cult of Skaro, your faith can be a great comfort to you. So one of the tools I recommend, as I have been using it lately, is to do what you can to draw closer to the Higher Power of your choice. It helps.

(A note here about Army Chaplains. I gotta say, I'm not a big fan. I have had some bad experiences with chaplains before - one told me I was going to Hell for being Mormon. No lie. I've had good chaplains too, don't get me wrong. But I always feel like they're overwhelmed and don't have the time to devote to helping ME out. And that whatever time I spend with a chaplain is time that he/she should be spending with Soldiers instead. So see a chaplain if you need to- I won't be in line with you, so you can take my spot).

- Your peers. Everyone needs someone to whine at. Professionally speaking, it's terribly bad form to whine at your Soldiers. After all, they're doing the same things you're doing, because you told them to. So if you whine about your mission, then the Soldiers inevitably start wondering why they're doing what they're doing, and it's a downward spiral from there. But you should have some peers somewhere, who are a little bit removed from your exact circumstance and to whom you can moan and complain and get things off your chest. It's a good catharsis, which I recommend.

- Friends and family with military experience. Face it, there are a lot of things we're asked to do in the military that don't make a lick of sense. When we complain about those things to our civilian support system, we (or at least I) often get a lot of confused looks. So it helps to have someone you can complain to who has at least experienced your angst before, and knows whereof you speak. Now, this can sometimes bite you in the butt, because you have to consider why the ex-military people in your life left the service. You might not get a lot of sympathy from someone who left because of the stupidity inherent in the system (help! I'm being repressed)- they might just tell you to leave or stop complaining. So you have to be careful.

- Supervisors. This is a tricky one. Obviously, it's not politic to complain to your boss about your boss. But you can (carefully) complain about circumstances or poor decisions that affect both of you. It's always hard, though, because you have to temper your complaints. You don't want to be perceived as a whiner, and you don't want to be seen as an incompetent who needs help to solve problems. On the plus side, these guys have a lot of experience (usually) so they may have experienced the problems that you're going through and might be able to help you.

- Trusted subordinates. This is a tricky one too, since as we've already established, it's unprofessional to whine to your Soldiers. But if you and a subordinate work well and often together, you often develop a closeness that provides a certain amount of latitude in the professional relationship. Sometimes you have to be careful with this one, too, because your subordinates have peers who they complain to, and your business might be on the agenda. It's a calculated risk.

These are all things I've tried in attempts to clear my mind or sound things out. I generally use other outlets, like talking to my family or writing (duh), but if I absolutely have to vent, I use one of these. They help me deal with the stresses that I have accumulated over the past 14 months, and keep me from either killing someone or locking myself in my wall locker.

Or you could take my Tio Manny's approach: "My advice to you? Drink heavily."


So after talking to SPC Film School about this, he mentioned that he liked what I was saying, but the whole thing kind of fell apart at the end. Then he started talking about what he wanted, and I was stricken with a couple of other thoughts. So here goes.

As leaders, we are responsible for the morale of our subordinates. Telling someone to "get over it" or "suck it up," although sometimes valid and useful, is not always the answer. We as leaders need to PROVIDE outlets (like those above) for our Soldiers to use. They are the ones who are making the mission happen- they're the ones we owe our successes to, so we owe them an opportunity to vent.

More than that, though, Soldiers want to see involved leadership. They want to be asked "what's wrong" or "are you ok?" They also [gasp] might benefit from knowing that their leaderhsip is having troubles, or is suffering through the same suckfest they are, but haven't quit and are continuing on with the mission. That's inspirational. That's motivating.

Let's face it, sometimes, things just suck, for everyone. It's how we as leaders react to that determines the morale of the unit. And you know what? Helping a subordinate talk over their issues, even if I don't discuss what's bothering me at all, helps me. There is peace in service, and in knowing that you've helped someone out, even for five minutes. So be involved, be sympathetic, be caring, but above all, be there for your troops.

That's all I've got. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Checklist Leaders

Look, this is a rant, so be warned.

Also, this is non-attributional. If I work with you, don't think I'm pointing fingers. But if the shoe fits, then choke on it and die, because you're a horrible human.

OK. Checklist Leaders.

Thanks to my buddy Cap'n Sam for that one. It's a great phrase, referring to the guy who once read a book on leadership and made a checklist on "what leaders do" which he will break out once in a while as justification and self-gratification.

Item one: Greet Soldier. Hmm, ok. "Hello, [Soldier]. "
Item two: Ask ref: family. "How is your [Wife/Husband/Father/Mother]?"
Item three: Pick a franchise of a popular sport, and make that "your" team. Pick one per season. Ask Soldier about his/her team. "How about that [local sports franchise]?"

And that, these people think, makes folks a good leader. They've gone down the checklist, met the objectives, and then go home at night, regardless of their crappy decisions or utter selfishness, and can say, "I'm a good leader. Look at this checklist!"

To which I say, bull. BULL. Because yeah, good leaders are interested in their subordinates. But good leaders also make realistic plans, good leaders give credit publicly and blame privately, and good leaders are in it for more than themselves.


I'm not an idiot. I know that commanders ultimately will take credit for their unit's successes. Good commanders, however, subscribe to a philosophy that goes, "When it's bad it's me, when it's good it's us, and when it's really good it's you." And then they will also take blame for their unit's failures, because they realize that they are ultimately responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen in their unit.

But going by the checklist, I'm sure there are a lot of good commanders out there . He commanded a unit, check, where he gave some awards and promotions, check, and talked to Soldiers. Check.

BS. Check.

What happened to "Soldiers First?" What happened to earning loyalty instead of demanding it based on rank?

In an address to the US Corps of Cadets in 1879, MG John Schofield said, "He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself."

In other words, treat people how you expect to be treated. If you're a princess who demands respect based on position and doesn't earn it based on any kind of ability, don't be surprised when (1) your Soldiers don't respect you, and (2) you foster a command climate wherin your subordinate leaders act the same way as you, don't respect you, and don't have the respect of their own subordinates.

Then you raise selfish leaders, checklist leaders who can take their checklists and fool the Army educational system into thinking they're worthwhile because they can show all the blocks they've checked. It's a vicious circle.

The only way to fight it is, first, don't be a checklist leader. If you're the type of person who can't fathom actually learning something about your subordinates and being sincere, then do me and your Soldiers a favor and GET THE HELL OUT OF THE ARMY. Thank you for your service, but we don't need you.

And if you see that kind of crap going on around you, for heaven's sake, speak up. Force your junior leaders to be engaged-- empower them to make decisions and hold them accountable.

And seriously, if you can't, maybe the military is not for you. Maybe you should go be a budget analyst or a systems engineer or whatever else you want to be, as long as it doesn't involve leading and training Soldiers. GET OUT. Soldiers deserve better than you.

The greatest story ever told

Happy New Year and stuff.

Getting ready to get the hell up out of here in something like three months, and I am extremely happy about the fact.

But not as happy as I am about the following headline:

Little Blue Pills Among The Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan

(see the story here)

Seems that the CIA is distributing Viagra to aged Afghan tribal chiefs in an attempt to, um... raise support for US efforts in the area.

Seems it's hard to operate when people don't trust you.

I'm done now.

But seriously. Awesome.