12 December 2008

Connectivity in war

My buddy Oliver Grant (Maj, USA Reserve), whom I was deployed with in Iraq in 2004, sent me the article below this morning. It really brought home a lot of ways in which in my own deployment experience, the connectivity of email and cell phones made Iraq, circa 2004, so unique for me.

I was a Contracting Officer, supporting the CPA, the 1ID, Abu Ghraib for a time, and the DOE as they extracted nuclear waste from Iraq's Tuwaitha nuclear site, south of Baghdad...along with running a multitude of translator and security contracts in the Green Zone (static, Amb Bremmer's PSD, etc). Needless to say, in that operating environment, communication was an absolutely critical and indespnsible tool of the job. I had a cell-phone with a 703 number, based on a network set-up right after the occupation started by MCI, for US and military use. So we all literally called each other on DC area code phones, and likewise, any call from the States was standard long distance rates, regular cell minutes. We had (almost) constant email connectivity and web access (at least while I was in the Green Zone)...and we spent the better part of every day--from 0800 to midnight or later--in and out of the office in the Palace. Certainly this was not every soldier or airman's experience, but I was a contracting officer, managing big dollars, big projects with big customers...and always needed to be connected. My family could always reach me, including my little bro sending drunken text messages telling me about his night out on 4th Street in Tucson. This connectivity was a huge morale booster, but it also served to push feelings of desparation and helplessness in the times when my family would call or email with bad news, or tough times.

So while we were literally at the seat of power, and the epicenter of the global news cycle, and working with, arguing with, relaxing with and cavorting with the staffers, the movers & shakers and the entire 30-something idealists brigade that was behind the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution and the establishment of their democratic law...we could feel both overly connected, lonely, distant and central all at the same time. While the constant connectivity to the homefront was absolutely unique to war in all of human history, it was my experience, that just like so many of our brothers-in-arms before us, the real connectivity that was forged was lifelong bond, loyalty and brotherhood with those whom we served with.

This story below still makes for a really interesting read:

Jared Still

Christian Science Monitor
December 12, 2008
Pg. 4

A Letter From Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan

In Between The Fighting, Soldiers Also Battle Boredom

Technology offers troops in Afghanistan a respite, but some wonder if the tether is too short.

In decades past, going to war meant being out of touch with loved ones for months, even years. Today, soldiers can remain in almost constant contact with those at home.

It's the preferred method of distraction for many troops serving long deployments here in Afghanistan – sometimes to their detriment.

Each American base, big or small, has some version of the Morale Welfare Room, in which troops can surf the Web and check e-mail free of charge, make cheap phone calls back home, and pick up one of the pamphlets with titles such as "How to avoid arguments."

"Do NOT let him take the red car!" a furious sergeant – who seems to have given the pamphlets a pass – insists into the receiver to his wife in Texas. Yelling would get him thrown out of the room, so he grits his teeth and tries again. Their teenage son wants to pick up his girlfriend at the airport, and Dad, nearly 8,000 miles distant, is having none of it.

A few booths away, a staff sergeant chats with his wife, who waves into the video camera installed in their Florida home. "It's a lifeline for us," notes Sgt. T.J. Wadington.

But such constant communication, warns Capt. George Tyger, a chaplain at Kalagush Forward Operating Base, in Nuristan, can be complicated. "A lot of these guys are experiencing anger, loneliness, and even depression, but are young and can't express themselves well," he says. "Talking every day can be tough." Moreover, he points out, micromanaging life at home from such a distance "is not usually helpful to the spouse at home, and also diverts the attention of the soldiers, which is often dangerous."

Patrick Dean, an Air Force psychiatrist based in Jalalabad, agrees. "It's a double-edged sword: If you have distance, you can put your mind totally in the game and focus. But on other hand, being in touch with loved ones is a way to get support and validation."

Whether trying to stave off boredom, calm their nerves, or find distraction from the pinings for – or problems at – home, troops in Afghanistan are also finding plenty of other ways to entertain themselves during their long deployments.

Bagram, about 15 miles north of Kabul, sets the standard. Some 12,000 troops and 8,000 civilian contractors are stationed at the base, which resembles a fortified small town – complete with a Pizza Hut, a Dairy Queen, and a beauty salon. There are university extension classes, churches, mosques, and even traffic jams.

Jalalabad, a large Air Force base in the east, has three gyms and shops selling everything from contacts solution to flat-screen TVs. The base also hosts a weekly bazaar, where preapproved Afghan merchants sell fake Rolex watches and pirated DVDs of the latest Hollywood flicks. Friday night "Jalalabad Idol" singing competitions are the rage.

At the smaller bases closer to the front lines, entertainment is a more homespun affair. In Nuristan Province's Kalagush Forward Operating Base, for example, troops train for marathons by running around the helicopter landing pad (70 laps equals about a quarter of a race).

Saturdays feature "campfire night," where officers sit around a red flashlight and tell dirty jokes.

"It is important to keep your mind active," stresses Captain Tyger, who spends a good part of his days here hammering away on a climbing wall he is building.

"Time drags for me here. In Iraq, I was shot at 24/7 and time flew," says Sgt. Isaac Hibdon, a gunner on his first deployment here. "It's not that I want to be killed. Obviously. But the boredom is tough."

-- Danna Harman