The first time around in Iraq, I had the honor of serving in the 101st Airborne on the Invasion. I would be lying if I said I do not miss the excitement that was unique to the Invasion. Everyone I have met that went on the “run and gun” ground assault race to Baghdad, with stripped down HMMWVs, in unbreathable NBC suits, surrounded by 140 degree heat ,with very little water and no air conditioning, tends to compare every other bad event in our life to that year. I was completely undertrained and underequipped, but I was simply too ignorant to know the difference. That was the first time.
On November 3rd of 2007 I happily left the oppressive heat of Kuwait and went back to Iraq for the second time. I remember the date exact as it was the same day that I got the call on my cell phone that my second Son, Gabriel, was born. Due to some serious differences between my boss and I about how he treated the Soldiers, I was asked to take an assignment as the Squadron’s, (it was a Cavalry, i.e. light Infantry unit) public affairs officer. My mother was a union boss and my father was a militia leader so I guess I was just not built to shut up and mind my own lane. The sunny side of the incident was that it gave me the freedom to step away from a life as a TOCroach or Fobbit, (to those unfamiliar with the terms please see “Bob on the Fob”) and go Soldier. Some of what I wrote went through sites like DVIDS and can still be seen online if you Google hard enough. But I digress.
Lesson 1: Know your neighborhood
There are three areas that you should be interested in. The Army calls this your Areas of Responsibility (AOR). The primary zone is your area of operations (AO). This is your house, yard, crops, and everything that has your name on it. Everything you can physically touch is your Area of Operation. You have direct control of this area and it is your primary focus for most everything you do. The second area is your area of influence (AOI). This area is the block, neighborhood and town you operate in. This is the area you are a stakeholder in and if something were to happen to this area, your own area of operation would likely come to harm. I will go more in depth into the Areas of Responsibility and how it relates to planning in future Praxis posts
I told you that story to tell you this one; know who the people are in your areas. Get a map of your town from the local visitors shop and mark out your AOR. This is a map that everyone should be familiar with and it will help you in dealing with future contingency planning. Topo maps are absolutely invaluable, so if you can have your area covered in 1:50,000 scale maps from USGS.gov, please do so. It should be fairly obvious, but noteworthy none-the-less, to point out that the farther you get outside of your area of operation that the more you will have to interact with other people their own areas of operation. What this means is that you will be dealing with individuals and groups that will have their own self-motivations and they may not be helpful to your cause. This is no different than today but hardship tends to magnify personality issues seldom for the better. The quicker that you can form relationships now in your area of influence is the more you can increase your effective area of influence.
Lesson 2: Sometimes your “Friends” do stupid things.
The previous unit that occupied our AOR had to put a Stryker armored vehicle on every street corner in order to maintain order. In order to sustain that presence, they built walled compounds around Baghdad called Joint Service Stations (JSS) to house and maintain a company of infantry. Given the urban terrain, some were obviously better suited than others but we made do. It is easy to get things done when you don’t have a choice. In order to get the Iraqi military and police force to do their jobs, the headquarters of the local military or police presence was co-located in the same compound. With everyone walking around armed all the time it was relatively peaceful so long as you kept them out of your pantry and bathrooms. Or until tragedy ensues.
Our JSS, dubbed Ghaz 1, was unique in that it had both local militia and Iraqi Army. The militia was created by Uncle Sugar as what amounted to organized pay outs to local thugs to stop shooting at us and start shooting at the bad guys. Sounds crazy enough to work, right? One day, one reformed thug showed up with a bomb but ended up prematurely detonating it on himself. The glorious moment was caught on one of our cameras and provided more entertainment then what it had a right to. The take away is that it is impossible to see inside the hearts of the people you call you friends and associates but try to choose them wisely. Sometimes they do stupid and self destructive things and it is best not to be collateral damage when they do.
Lesson 3 Fences, sandbags and walls are great. Walking is better.
If you want to maintain control your AOR you will have to walk around and see what is going on. What you do not see, you do not own. It is fine l to sit in a hermetically sealed bunker with a pile of MREs but that is simply unsustainable. Walking around gives you positive control over what you currently see. Just like when you are driving a car or clearing a room, as soon as your eyes are off of a certain space, it no longer becomes safe. If you are not in control of your AOR, then who is?
Any Intelligence Analyst will tell you that for all of their high end technology to find what they bad guys are doing and that the good guys are thinking, it is the simple act of knocking on a door and talking with someone that will get you the best intelligence. As I walked around Ghazaliyah with the patrols, we would literally knock on doors to see if anyone would talk to us. After a brief exchange of peasantries we may be asked to share some tea or Tang, (yes, they loved the stuff) and talk about what was going on in the neighborhood. Generally speaking, the Platoon Leader or Commander would enter their homes with a very small security force and remove as much armor as they could to scale down the intimidation factor. Then, with the aid of an interpreter they would have a talk. The worst thing that would come of this is that the person would know that we were there to help. Go out and get social.
Lesson 4 Logistics, Logistics, Logistics
Unlike my experience during the Invasion, during the Surge we had seemingly endless supply of ammunition, food, bottled water, and, for the most part, we did not have to burn our poo in fuel soaked metal containers. We had a mountain of jerky, Fruit Loops, salt, Pop Tarts, toilet paper, and hot sauce. We received one “hot” meal a day from the main supply base, Camp Victory, and would have to get creative for the rest. It was not a hardship but then it is amazing what you can get used to. As I remember, I ate a lot of Ramen that year. The supply train was great until it wasn’t there anymore. A huge upsurge in violence from the Jaish Al-Mahdi made the logistical patrols unpractical and the four companies that we had sprinkled around Baghdad were cut off for a solid month. With over one hundred guys sharing the same few Port-A-Potties, everything stacks up fairly quickly. Donald Rumsfeld observed that you do not come to war with the military you want, you come to war with the military you have. In a “come as you are” world, you will have to figure out where your logistical bread gets buttered and make sure you reach those goals. The internet is filled with endless lists for BOBs, 72 hour kits, etc. I recommend Rawles spreadsheet monster “List of Lists” over at the Survival Blog for a more comprehensive supply list for extended contingency planning. Because I am a bit of an Excel nerd, I have tinkered to no end on my version. Take his as a rough draft and make it work for you.
Lesson 5: Physical Training
Proper physical training that approximates the types of conditions and equipment that you will use cannot be emphasized enough. Running in full kit for any distance will take the breath out of you quick. The last thing you want to do is run to the sound of an explosion or gun fire with an energy tank on empty and have to wheeze your way into your first mag change. Go on short runs of one to two miles with a 12 to 20 pound weighted vest. Work your way up to using wrist and ankle weights. Do some pull ups and sit ups. If you cannot do any of those things you are behind the power curve and will need to get there. People will count on you to be able to physically do the right thing. Do not let them down.
If you are overweight, cardio and no carbs is the key. Getting in shape is like a bicycle in that you need both wheels of diet and exercise in order to run it. One without the other is a losing battle. It is just that simple. There are more ways now than ever before to get healthy and in a fighting shape. Take advantage of it now while you can. It is slow and painful but looking good naked is the byproduct.Much of what I have written is not new ground. Thousands of other Vets have had similar or better, harder experiences than I regarding living and working in a tenuous area between stabilizing the community and fighting. Whatever your stripe of preparedness, I would ask that you seek out those Veterans and learn from their experiences. As time permits I may reflect on more lessons learned and produce a follow up. I would love to hear from the community as to what their lessons learned are from either following a disaster or conflict. Depending on the response, we can hang them on another post.