Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Support Our Troops! Woo!

There's been a fire storm of controversy over the latest reports of the goings on at Walter Reed Medical Center. The Washington Post blasted the care at Walter Reed, reporting on bureaucratic red tape around medical compensation claims and the poor conditions in the barracks of the facility. Newsweek joined in, debuting a cover story in a few days, but you can read the fantastic writeup here. It tells of those caught in the middle of an archaic system that is too strained to handle the stream of Iraq and Afghanistan vets coming in. Lack of foresight in planning the War on Terror extended to poor planning on the caring of the wounded.

Walter Reed is the destination of the vast majority of wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a care facility where both physically and mentally injured soldiers come for treatment. Amputees get fitted for prosthetic limbs and claims are filed to draw a disability check. Those suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome can find help in support groups or with medication. In a perfect world, there is an efficient system set up to handle all of this. Since September 11, soldiers have been revered as heroes in the eyes of the public. But those who have left their limbs and their mind on the battlefield, it's just another fight to get the care they deserve. I've read several reports on injured soldiers denied compensation because of their past medical history. For example, someone who was in an IED blast that damaged their knee would not get any money because that person had an old knee injury during their high school football days. They couldn't prove the disability was a result of the blast. This goes to show that anyone in control of money in the military will find any way to save pennies here and there. Unless, of course, they're dealing with contractors, where perpetual war means perpetual profits.

After the shit hit the proverbial fan regarding Walter Reed, the staff went into a frenzy about the ordeal, claiming the reports coming out were factual but unfair. Um, did I miss something? How can something be true but not fair? That's why it's called the truth, not 'what we want you to know.' It's not rose colored or tucked away neatly like the problems were before the Washington Post exposé. Immediately they began renovating the offending rooms, removing mold, repairing holes in ceilings and fixing leaky pipes. "It's not the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City, I'll grant you that," Lt. Gen. Kiley, the Army surgeon general said of the conditions. I wonder how humble his accommodations are. Citizens pay for both with their tax dollars, yet the ones actually coming from combat zones without their god damn arms and legs are living in sub par quarters. The money is there, obviously. It's just not being well spent. At this very moment, I'm up late at night in a heated bay in Taji, Iraq with an internet line hooked right up next to my bed. Tomorrow I have the option of either going to a well stocked chow hall or to one of several fast food joints, like Subway or Taco Bell. Down the street, KBR employees are getting paid very little to do our laundry as Dick Cheney, former CEO of KBR's parent company Halliburton, gets paid a six figure severance per year. Round and round the tax money goes, where it stops, nobody knows. Especially not Walter Reed.

That's not even the best part. Those undergoing care at Walter Reed have now been ordered to keep quiet about problems arising there since the coverage began (the delicious irony is that The Airforce Times, a military-ran publication, broke that story). As you can see in the article, sweeping under the carpet as taken action as a first sergeant and twenty platoon sergeants were reassigned, with 120 new permanent soldiers expected to arrive mid March. That, unfortunately, will not solve the problems. A budget analysis and retooling is needed, along with granting VA hospitals like Walter Reed a bigger budget. In the Senate there will be those wondering where all that money is going to come from. Try by closing down every Pizza Hut and Cinnabon in Iraq. Then fine KBR every time they overcharge the government, which apparently is all the fucking time. There, budget problems solved. Now that I fixed the crisis, I just ask for a humble lieutenant general's quarters. Just don't put me close to Walter Reed so I don't smell the mold and decay.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Questions Answered

Nearly eight months into a year long deployment, I still get asked the most basic questions by those back home in America. To people I know, I’m the closest link to this conflict besides the distilled image shown on network news shows. One of the most common is “what goes on day to day?” and the more recent, “what do you think of the troop surge?” Both are excellent questions, if a bit nebulous. So a nebulous answer is what you'll get!

First, ‘day to day’ is a little difficult to define. In Mosul, we spent every day on presence patrols, meaning we drove around for a set time just to show we could. We’d get the occasional raid on a target or set up in someone’s house overnight, watching high traffic streets for enemy movement. Then, there was a clear picture on what happened from week to week. Our brigade was the only one operating there so we had a well defined mission. Suppress enemies moving in from the north and guiding the Iraqi Army to self reliance and competence. Life, for the most part, was good. Going out for two hours once or twice in an afternoon was our day to day. Then Baghdad flared up.

For every unit in Iraq, there is a designated AO, or area of operations that each brigade is assigned to. Being the sole brigade in Mosul, we divided the city equally into three parts, each sector going to each battalion. In Baghdad, there are several brigades who call Baghdad their AO. Everyone has a piece except us. We are the official errand boys for the flashpoint of insurgent activity in the war. Each unit has a specific goal and mission like we did in Mosul. Some have the task of raiding several targets at once. Others have big clearing missions, where troops go house to house searching for hidden caches and inciting enemy reactions. Each of these units rely on up-armored Humvees or tanks to accomplish this. We are the only Stryker brigade in Iraq. Following the invasion, the Strykers have shown their worthiness in this country for being the best equipped to handle urban combat. Their thick armor can take bomb blasts that would destroy a Humvee. They tote around either a .50 cal machine gun or an automatic grenade launcher while having four men standing up with relative protection scanning rooftops for gunmen or a fellow wielding an RPG. Their interior can hold a squad of infantry, which takes two or three Humvees to carry. And don’t underestimate the psychological factor of seeing a huge vehicle drop a ramp, pour out a squad with relatively little noise. To illustrate this point, we had a choke hold on Mosul. We owned that town. Attacks were few and far in between (I never shot my rifle in defense in the five months we were there, despite being outside the wire nearly every day of our tenure). Now, the Humvee unit that took over is losing control of the city. Clearly the Stryker is key when holding ground. Since we arrived in Baghdad, we have been attached to this unit and that unit, assisting in their specific missions. So potentially, one week will be dedicated to raiding potential insurgent houses, and the next week will be spent patrolling violent neighborhoods trying to locate the ever elusive cache sites. Flash forward to the announcement of the new Baghdad Security Plan, which in summary aims to reduce sectarian violence by permanently positioning coalition forces in the middle of neighborhoods, giving the Iraqis peace of mind knowing there is a 24 hour presence. At least in theory. When the 82nd Airborne was the first unit to arrive as part of the surge, they were set up in a COP (Combat Overwatch Post) in northern Baghdad, a former shopping mall turned fortress. Our job was to ensure the wall was built while informing the local population about the new post going up. We conducted patrols out of there for four days, the last evening getting into a firefight with what was later deemed as a handful of gunmen. The entire building returned fire, setting several houses ablaze.

The 82nd agreed that an area they were assigned to would take three months to completely search and clear, and decided it would take our unit five days. So they dumped the entire thing on our lap. And what do you know, we did it in about that time frame they established. Under a week. Now, they’re patrolling that area on their own. So for now, the surge is working as it’s supposed to. Until more units arrive in their Humvees to request our presence in their areas, and we’re pulled in every direction without any clear mission for us to follow. Which has been clear since December, as some of my esteemed colleagues pointed out in a controversial article then. How can you be confident in the mission when it’s someone else’s?