Friday, February 6, 2009

So long and thanks for all the fish

It's hard enough to prepare for deployment, seeing your family for the last time in what would be a year. The shred of worry in the back of your mind knowing there is a possibility that you may not return home to them. Goodbyes are difficult enough and no one likes to say farewell.

I said my goodbyes to my family and friends during the Christmas holidays. Everyone was so supportive and many were heart-broken as they watched me go fight in a war that isn't entirely supported by the American people. Society understands and gives the Soldiers praise regardless of the political engine behind the motivation, these people give the strength to carry on and do what Soldiers are trained to do. Fight.

The unit shipped off to Fort Dix on 5 Jan. 2008, the final phase preparing the troops for war. They would be screened for physical and mental fitness. Assuring all the personnel are ready for what lies ahead.

In the process we lost Spc. Mitchell, our admin clerk. Rumors were flying that there were other individuals that would not make the cut. I was one of those individuals.

It's hard enough to say goodbye to kin, it's even harder to say goodbye to the men and women you have spent the last 4 months of your life with. Knowing their perks and peeves, their strengths and weaknesses. Knowing that in the end, no matter how crummy the situation gets or how ridiculous something seems, that as a whole, as a unit we could manage any task; any feat.

Unfortunately, I was told that I was unable to deploy with the very unit I prepared for war. The very unit that I, with a few others helped organize. The full-time staff worked hours after the midnight oil had long burned out. There were times the frustration ran so high that giving up seemed to be the easiest response. Failure was no option and as a team, we drove through the issues like a steam-roller.

I sit at a doctor's office. He reviews my files and then looks to me. He flips a few more pages in what has become a thick journal of who I am. The file grew thicker each time I came in for an appointment and no doubt it would be thicker than the novel "War and Peace."

The doctor, he looks at me and says something that would burn in my skull. It isn't often that mere words have the ability to strike someone down worse than being struck across the the head in a fight. After he said his statement, I was left fazed and feeling hopeless.

"Sgt. Zoeller, You realize you're a REFRAD?" He commented curiously and continued. "Has your command informed you of the procedures?"

REFRAD is a military acronym for "Release from Active Duty." This is the process Reserve and National Guard Soldiers go through when they return from their tour of duty.

I wouldn't accept this REFRAD diagnosis without a fight. I understand they are looking out for the best interests of the Soldier by DOD regulations. I replied to the doctor as best as I could, stomaching this new-found nausea swirling around my head and making the office spin, "No."

I couldn't muster anything more to say. I had my guard down when the blow hit me. No military training in the world prepared me for what just happened.

We spoke about the DOD regulation and protocol and how it affects the situation. I told the doctor how this effects me but the stamp had already been printed on my file.

"Rejected" isn't the right word to use, but it's the first that comes to mind.

I left the doctor's office and returned to my duties where my unit was continuing to prepare for their deployment. I now say their deployment. I was in denial all up until the last moments, anyone in the unit could claim this.

I proceeded for an appeal, I asked for second opinions, I demanded waivers to protocol. I spoke to nearly every doctor and every provider available in my case. I exhausted every avenue I had. I did everything I could...

Now I sit here in this barracks in New Jersey. Each day is like the last. Each tomorrow will be like today. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Appointments and finally preparing for my inevitable return back to the civilian world.

There is no feeling worse than knowing your unit is in Kuwait. I was tracking their flight, thinking how many hours into the flight they were: Mid-Atlantic, Germany refuel, Kuwait.

The Soldier's Creed seems like a joke to me right now. I feel that every line of that creed has been broken by either myself or by Army protocol. It leaves me angry and frustrated. It leaves me upset, and left with a simple question, "What if?"

Even worse, I don't know how long I will be here. I could be here two more weeks. I could be here two more months. It's hard to say right now and all I know is that I am now in a squad leader position in charge of Soldiers in the same predicament that I am. Left behind.

There is no chance for me to fall in on my unit at a later time during the deployment. I did what I could but the Army has its way of doing things. I wonder if I could have done more? I know the question is rhetorical.

The military plans to recover me after a period of therapy. After I am physically and mentally prepared and fit, they want me to go over there. I have a lot to offer and I will perform my duties stronger than ever. I may not be over there now, but I will be there sometime. It's a matter of when, not if.

I wish the best for my comrades over fighting the fight. Thank you all for the service you do and know that I will be thinking of you all every day until your return. I miss you guys, I don't have many friends and you all are the closest I have.

Friday, January 30, 2009

HURRY UP... now wait.

This is common for the military. Since the very first day I began my military career I have been told to rush a hundred miles an hour only to find myself sitting for hours twirling my thumbs and whistling out of boredome for something to happen.

A decade later I find myself doing the same thing. It's something I feel no ordinary person can become sensitized to. There's been days we wake up so early we can't even put on our boots, or even worse, you put on your bunk-mate's boots (gross I know). Then we run around and dash into formation, grab accountability then haul butt as fast as we can to our training site.

We're met with the barren nothingness requiring paitence in extremely frigid conditions. Range control hasn't shown up yet, probably waiting in line grabbing Starbuck's coffee and donuts. A half hour goes by and the temperature decreases. An hour goes by and the temperature has now fallen ten degrees, the wind has picked up and the wind chill cuts right through several layers of clothes meant to keep you protected from them.

An hour and a half later they show up and ready! We scramble as fast as we can into the warmth of a building, prepping our equipment and double checking our weapons. We're told to stand-by again! Setting up the ranges, getting safety briefings, drinking more coffee. At least we're in the warmth now.

Three hours later we perform our mission! Three hours. Three hours we could have taken our time getting ready. We could have shaven properly instead of having patches of fuzz and razor burn under the chin. A bit more sleep so we wouldn't share boots. A bit more time for relief.

I find myself in that same predicament now! We've finished all our training. We've packed up our gear and we're now in another waiting mode. Waiting. Waiting. We rushed and now there's nothing more to do. It's silly really, but it's how the military has always operated. At least from my experience.

Hurry up! Now wait.

** UPDATE **

We have confirmed dates and times that I cannot disclose on this unsecured blog. The unit will be leaving sometime mid-week (closest I can tell ya). Here I am in limbo waiting... waiting... on Monday I'll be running around again like a maniac! We'll see what happens then!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Happy Birthday!

It's my girlfriend's birthday today and I would want nothing more than to be there with her. I think of her often and I'm there in spirit. Wish we could hurry up with the deployment so I can move on with my life and do the things I need to do. All good things come to those that wait. That's what I'm told. I hope that is the truth.

Life does get better after the Army. I can't wait to experience life outside of it. I can think of no other I would spend that experience with other than my most beautiful, wonderful, and awesome girl.

I Love you,


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Choppa!

Many units go through the training here at Fort Dix for mobilization into combat. Not all units do so with accolades in achieving above course standards.

There was a culminating live fire exercise where the 211th MPAD was forced to defend base perimeter from an overwhelming force. We had lines of M4 rifles firing down range and discriminative sniper fire from M4 scoped rifles from the towers (I was one of those guys).

The training was intense. Arabic prayers roared over the intercom system while explosions muffled the speakers. Whistles of incoming mortar fire sung like banshees followed by earthquake effects on the towers.

Smoke masked the position of the enemy. Soldiers fired bullets downrange toward incoming enemy while others attempted to find more ammunition for the fight.

Consider that this training is focused more on combat arms rather than public affairs and other administrative career fields. This is where the irony comes in.

As a unit we moved like a machine. Soldiers gave cover-fire for their buddy's lanes while rifles were being reloaded and malfunctions corrected like it was second nature. Orders were clear and uniformed and the enemy was put down.

The trainers said that there would be casualties on the combat field. That key leaders may be taken out for other leadership to fill their shoes. They said that no unit has come through here without killing civilians on the combat field.

The 211th MPAD suffered no casualties. They took out all the enemies and avoided any collateral damage. There were no civilian casualties on the range, and the 211th showed their mettle.

The weather was chilling, the sky was overcast, the training was intense. The 211th MPAD prevailed where other units have failed. We shoot civilians with cameras not bullets.


Larger photos and story by SFC Ronald Burke Click here!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm Public Affairs?

This might sound a little funny to some of you, but I think I just realized something...

I've held the title of a "public affairs specialist" for the last part of a year and a half now. It hasn't really occurred to me what that meant. Sure I went to the school, yeah, I did a story here and there. Of course I took photos and ran around being all friendly and talkative. But wait, this is now full time?

At first I was a little baffled by the idea. Am I a good writer? Is this what I want to do for awhile? How will I perform in a job I have very little experience in?

As an NCO, I can lead troops, mentor them, assist them in military protocol and basic warrior skills that are part of who I am. The tactical soldier mentality, the discipline when required, the ability to excel in tasks capable of combating the enemy and saving human life. These things I am familiar and comfortable with.

Speaking to media, holding press conferences, escorting VIPs, reading the news constantly, dashing around to find, write, and photograph history in the making. These attributes are rather foreign to me, but as a soldier I learn to adapt and overcome the issues.

It hasn't dawned on me the exact nature of my job and I'm fairly certain that I won't get into great detail of all that is expected of me until we reach theater operations and take over where our predecesors left off. The long haul for a year can seem overwhelming at times, this isn't my first rodeo though, and I know how things shake out.

The diversity of personalities within the unit has been an interesting experience. As we have grown to know each other more as family rather than co-workers, it seems almost comfortable... Trying something new and interesting becomes exciting and more of an adventure than a hassle.

I realize my potential in media relations and public affairs. I know that the combined experiences from supervisors, peers, and subordinates will be invaluable in my own personal understanding of what being a public affairs specialist is.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What nerds!

Okay, today I diagnose the pure nerdiness shared by many in my unit:

Last weekend we spent 18 hours playing Risk! Godstorm. It is a variation of the classic Risk! boardgame that includes magic, gods, special moves and my favorite, plagues. The game became addicting for many and I can only assume it will only get worse as the deployment progresses.

Where will it end? First we will start out "Lite-Nerd" then it will progress to the ever-so-common, "Dork" and finally the definitive "Geek" where the individual wears their BCG prescription glasses proudly with a bit of tape on the bridge of the glasses between the lenses to assure proper fit.

The Army has already issued pocket-protectors for the most part on the left sleeve of our uniforms. They give us tech manual to read constantly, our job is writing stories and taking pictures. This is certainly a formula for disaster.

I fear that in the long run, the nerdism will become pandemic in proportions and that some how this feverish rampage of geekiness will consume a good chunk of our unit.

First it begins with Risk! Then it progresses to games like Axis and Allies. Finally someone will think about bringing in Warhammer, and finally, when you thought it could get no worse, it does. The Geekism takes over and before you know it we're all rolling 1D20 dice and calling each other by our character names from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

My name is Ganodorn, Dwarfe warrior from the highland caverns.

Sgt Taylor may become the barbarian orc from the Swamps of Sorrow...

Spc. Logue... well, she's always been a gnome, no change there.

That's my fear, I have properly warned everyone. The age of the Geek is upon us. Prepare for the inevitable! Run for the hills.

Urban Combat at Fort Dix

Sgt. William Zoeller
211th MPAD
January 23, 2009

Fort Dix, N.J. -- The enemy throws smoke grenades at Soldiers in a mounted patrol in a heavily crowded village. Confusion and chaos incur, orders are barked and messages on the radios become inaudible. This is training for urban combat for Soldiers preparing for war during pre-mobilization here.

Operations in urban environments have become common place in locations like Iraq and Afghanistan for the 21st century. The United States Armed Forces continue to learn new tactics and strategies to combat the growing number of urban conflicts in these regions through lessons learned and after action reports from theater.

Military Operations on Urban Terrain is any military action planned and executed in regions with man-made structures that affect tactical options available to commanders.

Regional Readiness Centers and mobilization sites around the United States continue to train Soldiers for deployment and continuously adapt the training in order to combat new strategies utilized by insurgents. Fort Dix is one of many sites where this training is being conducted.

Capt. Stephen Messenger, First Army, Fort Dix MOUT officer in charge said First Army trains more than 5,000 troops from all branches of service here every year.

Depending on where you go, the urban combat training site along with the counter improvised explosive devices are probably the two key ranges on Fort Dix, Messenger said. He explains that because all the troops going through here are going to some kind of urban environment in Iraq or Afghanistan; they will probably see some form of urban combat.

The MOUT training team stays current and up-to-date with the latest training and tactical scenarios by continuing to keep in contact with the very units in theater that went through the training during the pre-deployment phase. The team also receives feedback as well as receiving additional intelligence by various means of communication.

“Fort Dix has the largest MOUT training facility, and the most extensive,” Messenger said. “In terms of the one I saw at Camp Shelby, [Fort Dix] definitely exceeds the standard in terms of how we train people,” he added.

“We receive a lot of accolades from generals when they come down to see the training.” Messenger said. He continued by saying that the real work horses here are the 15 trainers that came from theater and sacrificed an additional year or two of their life. Messenger mentions that his instructors' real world experiences bring invaluable experience and training for the troops heading over to war.

Pfc. Justin K. Green, truck driver for the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Philadelphia, Pa., is preparing for deployment to Iraq. His mission may require him to walk the streets of Iraqi cities and villages.

He said the training he has received from Fort Dix has been outstanding. He is familiar with MOUT from basic combat training and home-station training, but the training he received at Fort Dix has given him a chance to expand beyond the basics.

“I never knew there were hiding spaces inside their houses. I learned a lot more about being more alert to my surroundings,” Green said.

Basic MOUT training is required for all Soldiers deploying to combat. No matter the
career field, infantry or human resources, the first priority for every Soldier is to be a rifleman. Knowing how to be tactically prepared for any situation is what MOUT training is all about.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

West Virginian southern comfort

Sgt. William M. Zoeller
Jan. 14, 2009

FORT DIX, N.J. -- The 332nd Ordnance Battalion located in Kenova, W. Va., rigorously continues training at Fort Dix, N.J., for Operation Iraqi Freedom. About 60 Army Reserve Soldiers left their homes around West Virginia to the Tri-State Armed Forces Reserve Center in Kenova for deployment to Kuwait on Jan. 3, 2009.

Being away from family and friends can be difficult for anyone deploying but the Soldiers of the 332nd have helped each other cope with separation from their loved ones by embracing each other as extended family.

Spc. Sara Mitchell, intelligence analyst with the 332nd Ordnance Battalion, knows the sacrifices Soldiers face to serve their country. Her husband, Thomas, waits for her return from her deployment. She understands the importance of family and the camaraderie required to keep spirits high within the unit.

“The leadership is fantastic! We’re like a close-knit family,” She said “The command staff knows each and every one of us and our families.”

There are lots of team building concepts such as relay races and other events that built teamwork, and helped make it a more cohesive unit, Mitchell said with a smile.

Additional ways Soldiers of the unit cope with family separation are by bonding and talking about problems to each other while at a pizza parlor or during a game of bowling. The Soldiers remain in high spirits because of the relationship they have with each other, and this has directly reflected the training exercises they have been performing.

The 332nd trained on combat related tasks ranging from rifle marksmanship and crew-served weapons to military operations in an urban environment during an exercise in December at a Regional Readiness Center in Fort Hunter-Ligett, Calif.

The troops are highly motivated and due to the cohesion and unity, the 332nd went straight through all the training over the last 100 days without a hitch, said Maj. Edward G. Cox Jr., logistics officer for the 332nd Ordnance Battalion. All of the Soldiers are extremely supportive of one another, he added.

Cox is no exception to the anxiety of family separation. He has a wife and three children at home in Logan, W. Va.

“To accomplish all the training so quickly required the need of excellent leadership and team effort from the commander down to the individual Soldier,” Cox said.

Lt. Col. Charles McCormick, commander of the 332nd Ordnance Battalion, leads as the example of team-building and unity. His efforts can be seen throughout his unit, giving the 332nd a unique ability to work like a well-oiled machine that has allowed the unit to go through the training exercises quickly and efficiently.

For some Soldiers, this is their fourth deployment. For others, this is their first. The accumulated experiences from Soldiers that have deployed before has given confidence to those who haven’t served overseas.

“Without the teamwork we wouldn’t be here today,” Cox said.

Now the unit is gearing up and receiving final briefings and refresher training as required for their next stop: Kuwait. Their mission will take them to various parts of the country in support of deployment and redeployment operations for U.S. and coalition forces where they will continue to provide the team work necessary to move troops to and from theater, and ultimately completing their own mission and returning to their own families.


Unit receives generous Freemason donation

Sgt. William M. Zoeller
January 13, 2009

FORT DIX, N.J. --When many people hear about Freemasons their minds begin to dazzle with images of secrecy and ritual. However, what people may not know, the Freemasons have participated in many positive fundraising events that benefit the community and the military. The 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team located in Philadelphia is no exception to the traditions and history of the Freemasons.

The 56th SBCT received over 4,000 international calling cards from the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania January 13, 2009. Grand Master Stephen Gardner, lodge leader of the group, handed the calling cards to Col. Marc Ferraro, commander of the 56th SBCT.
The Freemasons have donated over $156,000 to their “Change for the Troops” program since December 2008 in support of the U.S. Armed Forces heading to all regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We were fortunate to honor you by giving each of the 4,000 Soldiers deploying a phone card,” Gardner said to the Soldiers of the 56th SBCT present for the ceremony. “It’s not enough of a measure of gratitude for all that you do.”

Each Soldier will receive a telephone card with 300 prepaid minutes to keep in touch with their friends and families while deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Soldiers of the 56th SBCT performed combat training for deployment at Fort Polk, La., and have been unable to communicate as often as they wanted to with their families.

The generous donation has increased the morale of the Soldiers by giving them the opportunity to call back for no price to families and friends. Organizations such as the Freemasons have reassured the Soldiers that there are groups that support the troops during times of war, said Spc. Danielle Wilson, Soldier of the 56th SBCT.

It’s great that we received the cards. We’re not given the chance or availability to talk on the phones and it really helps financially, Wilson said. “It’s good to know there are people out there looking out for us.”

The 56th SBCT also has ties leading as far back as the American Revolution and the Freemasons. As a token of appreciation, Ferraro gave Gardner a Liberty Bell plaque from the unit. The Liberty Bell plaque and the unit’s history date back to the Benjamin Franklin Association, Philadelphia’s original militia. Ferraro also gave Gardner a unit coin.

For many in the unit and local area the Freemasons are familiar. Among the group that was organized for the ceremony and exchange of items were fellow masons who were more than anxious to meet with Gardner. These Soldiers were given lapels to distribute to other brothers of the Freemasons while in theater.

Maj. James Fluck, the brigade civil affairs officer, is one of many valued members of the 56th SBCT. He is also a mason that has lived in Pennsylvania his entire life. He said that the generous donation is typical to Masonic lodges and that their support is greatly appreciated by his troops.
“Deployment is tough enough. The biggest complaint in the unit was the lack of communication back home,” Fluck added “The use of these cards will help the morale of the troops a lot!”

This will be the unit’s first deployment to Iraq, but this isn’t the first time the unit has been called on by the country to help in times of need. The unit was deployed to New Orleans on September 1, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina struck.

The 56th SBCT has strong ties to their minuteman legacy under Benjamin Franklin as the “Independence Brigade.” The brigade again has been called on for a historic mission similar to their revolutionary ties and Pennsylvanian heritage. Assisting and rebuilding the infrastructure of Iraq remains paramount for the stability of their government of and for the people.