Archive for September, 2009

Meet Some Outstanding Officers and NCOs

September 29, 2009

Today we began a series of intensive interviews, gathering the experiences of soldiers who have fought and bled for our country on the mean streets of Iraqi cities and in the bleak countryside of Afghanistan. You will be able to read their full accounts in “Warrior Police” when it is published.


Meet Captain Laura Weimer, second-generation soldier, West Point graduate, and former operations officer at Forward Operating Base Rustimayah in Iraq. Weimer recounted one of the more serious episodes during her recent Iraq tour when the base came under intense mortar fire from Madhi insurgents in Sadr City. “One squad was inside a bunker and in a lull in the incoming fire, the sergeant pulled back the Kevlar curtain to see if any soldiers were outside. At that moment a round impacted just outside the bunker, mortally wounding the sergeant and injuring 13 others in the bunker.”


Meet Master Sergeant James Eakin, now designated to attend the Sergeant Major Academy, who sustained disfiguring wounds to his face and right leg from an IED attack outside of Baghdad. At the “schoolhouse,” Fort Leonard Wood’s MP school where junior NCOs and officers train, he has assembled a pool of up to 70 soldiers with two or three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the purpose of applying their experiences in combat as “lessons learned” to instruct the budding leaders on methods that will keep them and their soldiers alive in combat and allow them to accomplish their missions.


Meet Captain John Petkovich, who, with two tours in Iraq now trains recruits on basic soldering skills. Petkovich worries that our enemy knows our methods better than we know his. “They use our system to push back at us,” he said, referring to restrictive rules of engagement that insurgents take advantage of to our detriment. “They have no regard for civilian lives and intentionally hide behind them when engaging our soldiers, knowing that we will hold fire in order to protect the innocent.”

Meet a master sergeant who prefers to be known as “Big Bo,” – and doesn’t like photos – a man wounded in Fallujah who pulled another soldier back so that he could be the first one through the door in a house-clearing operation. “I won’t let a soldier go where I wouldn’t go first,” he said.

Seconds later an insurgent fired first at him in the dark room, tearing out part of his neck. Big Bo saw him out of the corner of his eye, yet hesitated for a split-second while silently reviewing the Rules Of Engagement in his head. He luckily turned his head just a bit and was instantly hit, “But I fired back, and ended it there.”

Big Bo is concerned that returning soldiers who have suffered serious mental strain will not receive proper care. “We need to remove the stigma of combat stress,” he said, “and take effective action to help these returning veterans.”

Watch for more interviews tomorrow.


Preparation for Deployment and Some US Weapons – Another Day at Ft Leonard Wood

September 26, 2009

Phase 5 is a final field training exercise (FTX) that newly-minted MP trainees go through just prior to graduation. It is set in the forests a few miles outside of the main post area and incudes the combat in urban area range that we saw earlier in the Warfighter competition as well as a mock Forward Operating Base (FOB) made to replicate conditions soldiers expect to see in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Here I discuss the layout of an entry area with SP4 Josh Thielen, our driver, and CPT Toby Clark, our escort officer. From the entry standpoint concrete barriers are marked with painted signs such as “authorized entry only,” “warning,” “slow,” and “stop.” A bilingual sign in Arabic and English warns that “deadly force is authorized beyond this point.”


From the inside the same barriers are painted with Rules of Engagement (ROE) for those guarding the base. These indicate the level of force authorized at each point. They include “shout,” “show” (your weapons), “warning” (fire a warning shot), and finally “kill.” In country these barriers are place much further apart to give those approaching and those guarding adequate time to react properly. On this same subject, Ralph Peters wrote a revealing article for the New York Post this week that further discusses what our troops are faced with on the ground in terms of the ROE and the issues often mentioned during our interviews with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan .


After leaving that range we went to Range 19 – US Weapons – named after the famed Ardennes Battle or Battle of the Bulge in WW II. Here new soldiers are familiarized with several weapons including the MK 19 grenade launcher, the M-203 grenade launcher, the Claymore mine, and the AT-47 anti-tank weapon, a shoulder-fired evolutionary product, a descendant of the old bazooka and Light Anti-tank Weapon (LAW).


Wherever soldiers go, even on ranges or in a combat zone, they are reminded that health considerations are paramount. A sick soldier is no good to himself or his battle buddies. So even crude facilities are available for hand-washing and sanitation.


First soldiers gather to watch a demonstration of the three weapons live-firing.


They watch the AT-47 fire at a tank placed downrange. It is capable of punching a hole into the armor plating, disabling or destroying the tank or other armored vehicle. It can be used also to destroy bunkers or even bring down a small building in which enemy is hiding.


Then the Claymore – a smaller, anti-personnel mine – is detonated. This is an old Army standby, used to fling BB sized pellets into the face of an approaching enemy. Traditionally a drill sergeant’s hat is placed in front of the Claymore so that trainees can appreciate the damage the mine can inflict.


Staff Sergeant Vazquez holds his hat up to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Claymore. Anyone underneath that hat would have had a very bad day.


When firing the M-203, a grenade launcher mounted beneath the M-16 or M-4 rifle, training rounds are used that are filled with orange dye, so that soldiers can see exactly where their shots are hitting. An old tank body about 220 meters out is a convenient aiming point.


After each soldier fired three training rounds, my researcher and I got our chance to move into position.


We both found that aiming the M-203 properly takes some practice. The firing position is awkward, as my researcher discovered, because of the IBA and Kevlar, but it is smart training to have soldiers dressed as they would be in combat during practice sessions. Also, being in battle-rattle improves safety conditions, always a consideration in training.


Finally I get to lock and load an M-203 round before plunking it downrange. At first I was shooting long, but practice leads to improvement and I was able to fire a round through a simulated window at about 100 meters fairly regularly.

We topped off the day with dinner with friends at the Hub German restaurant just outside the Ft. Leonard Wood gates. Our friends lived in Germany for five years and dubbed their meals as authentic, beyond that the food was simply delicious!

Tonight we have been invited to join in the Military Police Regimental Ball, the culmination of the 68th Anniversary week, so stay tuned for more photos and an update that will be posted tomorrow morning!

Pistols and Tear Gas – Out On the Range with Soldiers

September 25, 2009

This morning we went to the 9mm pistol qualification range, where we were welcomed to participate in firing by the range non-commissioned officer in charge.


Our theory in conducting research for “Warrior Police” is that we will interview, discuss experiences, observe, and when possible, participate in all Military Police activities. It is one thing to be an outsider looking in, but stepping across that line and participating with soldiers brings us inside their world, and we can tell their stories better when we know the wet, the tension, and the stress that they are going through – whether training or combat.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain the past couple of days here, and this morning was a steady drizzle with fog. When we got to the range it was necessary for us to don “battle rattle” – protective vests (interceptor body armor) and Kevlar helmets. The company commander and first sergeant were kind enough to lend us their personal sets, so for this morning’s exercise at least, my researcher outranked me!


Every soldier has an individual target that is scored. The system is simple: either you hit it – and the holes in the target tell the story, or you don’t. So we carried ours to our respective firing lanes. Targets are of human silhouettes – some may think that cold, but downrange the targets are hostile terrorists, not bull’s eyes.

First we fired from the prone position. My spot had a puddle of water in it, so you will see my armor and shirt wet from the rain. One nice thing about being an old Infantryman is that a little water and mud don’t put me off.

Soldiers fire a total of ten rounds for practice followed by 50 rounds for qualification. Hit the target 35 times and you’re qualified on the 9mm Beretta pistol.

I shot my prone position rounds.


Meanwhile, my researcher fired her 20 rounds. Bang! With a little coaching she was smacking rounds into the target.

Soldiers then move to the standing position and fire from both hands – the dominant hand (right, for the majority) and left. This is a new addition from my time on active duty when we fired only from the primary hand, and a good one. Suppose your primary hand is injured? Then you’d better be able to shoot accurately from either side.

Then you go downrange to check your target.


I hit the target 48 times out of 50, not bad for a rusty old soldier – I would have qualified “expert.”

My researcher hit 27 times. The range sergeant said that beat many of the new soldiers who have been training for several days on this range. Not so bad for a first-time shooter and with more practice she’ll get better.

After lunch we went to visit soldiers in their 2nd week of training who are getting ready to go through their introduction to chemical warfare. They were nervous and excited. The gas chamber is everyone’s “war story” from training.

Drill sergeants run the range (another change from my ancient days) and prep the trainees thoroughly before the exercise. This is what they look like before they enter the chamber.


This is what they look like coming out!


Gas used is conventional tear gas – CS in military parlance – and while non-lethal is definitely painful to eyes, nose, and throat. It makes breathing hard.

Having done the gas thing previously I opted out of this exercise, but my researcher wanted to participate, so she found herself at the back of a line of recruits with protective equipment.

“Who are you, why are you here?” one of the soldiers whispered at the back of the formation. The other trainees looked bug-eyed at her  red shirt and civilian attire, a figure as foreign to them as a fashion model working in a sausage plant.

Knowing that messing with trainees is a popular sport, she answered with a straight face “Because I’m on vacation and didn’t want to miss this particularly famous attraction, it’s supposed to be the best event on this entire cruise, I simply can’t miss it.” That got a lot of quizzical looks. Vacation? they thought. Hmmm, maybe my Aunt Millie might want to try this one someday!

Inside the chamber photography is tough because of the fumes. At the end of the line, my researcher inadvertently attracted the attention of an astonished drill sergeant, who peered down as if an alien from Mars had suddenly landed in his chamber. He apparently wasn’t used to anyone showing up to such an exercise in blue jeans and a pony tail.


Through the observation window we saw her responding along with the other trainees with the required “thumbs up” to indicate that her equipment is functioning properly.


The company commander – who was inside the chamber along with a few drill sergeants for the exercise – checks everyone out.

New soldiers must then crack the seal on their masks allowing CS gas to penetrate. Then they are taught how to clear their masks. For anyone who has snorkeled or SCUBA dived, the procedure is familiar.


Then soldiers are required to do a right face, place their left hands on the shoulder of the soldier in front of them, and remove their masks, holding it high in their right hands.


Wow! Do they ever feel the effects of the gas at this point! Photography through the observation bubble became difficult as the fumes thickened amongst a mass of drooling, teary-eye trainees who struggled hard for a single breath. After chanting “ALPHA!” (their unit designation) a few times the drill sergeants finally allow them to exit.

They continue croak-chanting on command until the pain – fortunately temporary and non-injurious – gets to the point that they are finally – blessedly! – released from their torment.

Soldiers emerge in every form of extreme discomfort – noses flowing, eyes watering, and throats aching – but lo and behold – who emerges from the door behind the trainees as cool, collected, and in charge as can be from the chamber – my researcher!


First Sergeant King said, “Sure she didn’t like it, but she was under control when she came out.”


The way she put it: “If I can’t shoot a suitable score at this stage on the range then the very least I can do is doing something ‘passive’ like getting gassed with a little style and grace, come hell or high water. Is there a box of Kleenex somewhere…  I can’t see a thing right now, drat. And where are my cigarettes?”

Another day of experiences logged for “Warrior Police” under our belts. Much, much more to come so keep watching this space for daily updates!

Memorial Service, Dogs, Combat Driving Prep, and Dogs that Bite Bad Guys!

September 24, 2009

Leaden gray skies opened the annual Memorial Service today, as Gold Star families (those who have lost a loved one) and soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood remembered their comrades: Military Police Regiment soldiers who have fallen over the past year.


Invocations, songs, commemorative speeches, a bagpiper, and a horse with the boots reversed in the stirrups (the traditional military way of marking a lost soldier) made up the ceremonies, with memorial bricks with soldier’s names laid in place at the memorial.

Sadly, the number of bricks has grown over the past few years from soldiers lost in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the fallen had been a military working dog handler and the detachment came out, with K-9 warriors to mark the loss.

Spaulding a chocolate lab, Bodo a German Shepherd, Hatos a Belgian Maliones, Eva a flat-hair retriever, and Storm a half-Lab half-Golden retriever mix lay quietly at their handlers’ feet while the moving ceremony took place.

Afterwards, I greeted military dog handler Sergeant Chris Bond and Bodo, who invited us to visit their facility in the afternoon today (instead of Friday as originally arranged) for interviews for our book “Warrior Police,” and to participate in demonstrations.


We then left to visit a training company in its advanced phase learn techniques of driving a HUMVEE in off-road conditions – the type of terrain they are certain to face when they deploy downrange to Afghanistan and Iraq.

First they rig the vehicle with weaponry that they will use, in this case the Mark 19 caliber 50 machine gun.


While some are learning how to make a 3-point turn, others are introduced to the HEAT (HUMVEE Egress Assistance Trainer) a device that allows the drill sergeant (in this instance Staff Sergeant Richardson) to tip the vehicle into an inverted position, simulating a roll-over.


All four of the riders learn the drill that helps them survive the overturn movement, something that can come from bad terrain or from an explosive mine or bomb.

My researcher and I were then asked to participate in a demonstration of the HUMVEE’s off-road capabilities. We navigated over slick logs, dropped down a 60-degree slope into a simulated river crossing and emerged from another 60-degree rise. We also went through mud, sand, and alongside highly angled slopes. We lifted boots high in the pool and escaped with dry feet as water flooded into the body of the HUMVEE but didn’t slow our skilled driver down a bit.






Later this afternoon we returned back to the Military Working Dog kennel for interviews with some great dog handlers – both patrol/scout and specialized search dogs – many of whom had supported combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When asked if we wanted to see a “bite demonstration” we said “yes” and watched one of the soldiers, SGT Burton Harlow pretend to be a suspect being taken into custody by SGT Bradly Holt and his beautiful Belgian Maliones Frank. Harlow ran, resisted, stood firm, and was treated differently by the dog and handler in each instance. Once, when Frank was in full attack stride, Holt was able to halt him immediately in place by voice command. Pretty impressive.


Then our stalwart driver, SP4 Josh , took his turn. There’s nothing easy about staring down a dog that’s aboutThielen to leap and attack.


Thielen ran as instructed but was stopped cold by Dak, an older German shepherd handled beautifully by SP 4 Reed. Dak may be older, but his inch-and-a-half canines still have lots of bite in them.


Next it was time for our intrepid researcher to take her turn. In full protective gear (including the pants in what she called a “full fat suit straight out of a ‘B’ movie”) she tried the “nice doggie, good doggie” routine while hoping to induce a little mercy.


Dak was not fooled, snatching her arm and then bringing her to the ground.



As Reed led Dak away, the savvy old guy turned to give her a disdainful look as if to say “that ‘nice doggie’ act don’t cut any ice with me, chickadee.”


Finally, I could not to be outdone, offering my other right arm to Dak who promptly took a big mouthful. “Just spin him around,” SSG Lee McCoy coached, “it’ll help you keep your balance.”


Spinning with a 90-pound shepherd hanging off your arm is a movement easier described than executed.


At the end, Dak and I looked deeply into each other’s eyes. I elected not to move, despite those two laser beam eyes that seemed to bore through my face right into the back of my skull. What a dog! And an opportunity to share a moment with a thoroughly trained and in fact intimidating professional who has save hundreds of soldiers, in addition to countless civilians in war zones.


Tomorrow we’re headed for the 5am Brigade run, and then back to the ranges — come back tomorrow for more photos and stories as we continue our work on “Warrior Police”!

A Review, Dogs, and Wow – Some Very Dirty Pictures! – A Day at Ft. Leonard Wood

September 23, 2009

On the 68th anniversary of the Military Police Regiment a Regimental Review opened the day at 0800. After a stormy night the day dawned clear and cooler as units under command of Brigadier General David Phillips passed in review. General Phillips made the point that “these men and women represent the 50,000 members of the MP Corps, most of whom are not here with us” because they are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and around the US and the world.

After General Phillips reviewed the soldiers, they paraded past, in a classic “pass in review” movement that dates back to Roman Legion days. A band played stirring martial music as several hundred soldiers marched past the reviewing stand.


Later we dropped in on the kennel to meet some of the famous Military Working Dogs (MWD), most of which have one or more combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. MWD are usually as patrol and scout dogs – mostly German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois. And yes, these dogs are usually trained to subdue or attack on command. As we walked through the kennel, they instantly made us appreciate the very sturdy construction of their enclosures:


Our guide, Specialist Chris Bond who worked as a handler in Iraq and here in the States, clearly loves the dogs and working with them.


He noted that some (but not all) of these dogs can still be hospitable enough with visitors when they’re off duty — although supervision is certainly appropriate until the dog is officially retired. They can indeed be friendly, although when this one jumped up to for a close inspection I was a little concerned that he’d eat my camera!


That said, not all military dogs are of the patrol variety. Special Search Dogs (SSD) excel at finding drugs and explosives, and are therefore also critically important members of the team. The latter are typically from the hunting breeds – retrievers and pointers, although many other breeds also demonstrate capability in this specialty. These dogs are comparatively laid back, used to working quietly around strangers and crowds, and even somewhat receptive to visitors.


When a dog gets too old to work or simply decides that he doesn’t want to participate any longer (yes, they can choose to quit their jobs at any time) he (or she) is de-trained and offered for adoption. It is common for handlers to adopt dogs that they have been working with. The bond between handler and dog is very close and they are considered “battle buddies” by their humans.

We are going to return to visit the MWDs again later in the week and may actually have a chance to take turns being “the person in the padded suit” that the dogs practice biting. Imagine the thrill of being on the receiving end of a sprint by a 100-pound Shepherd who wants nothing more than to sink inch-and-a-half canines into your butt. Ah, the anticipation.

After lunch we watched a training company go through one of the confidence courses on the post. These are obstacles designed to build strength, agility, and teamwork among the recruits and to get them over the fear many have of heights and balance.

One of the favorites was the Belly Crawl in which recruits low crawl under an obstacle through mud. Even though it had rained heavily the previous night, several 5-gallon cans of water were added to make sure that it was a muddy crawl for all concerned. Other obstacles include a tower and rope slide, rolling over logs, walking balance beams, and weaving in and out of raised cross-beams.








Since this company is at about the 2 1/2 week mark they are considerably better at push-ups than the newbies we saw yesterday. Here the privates form a push-up chain and knock out 15 under the watchful gaze of a paternalistic drill sergeant.


After about a dozen we see some sagging in the middle, and, oh, looks like the drill sergeant – megaphone in hand – lost count! Shall we start from one, men?


Our day ended on a more sober note with an in-depth interview with Sergeant First Class Clifton Stillwell, who served as a detainee guard in the three major theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq. His experiences and insights will be covered in our upcoming book “Warrior Police”; meanwhile, stay tuned as tomorrow is another busy day and we’ll be posting many more updates and photos from this trip!


Their First Army Push-Ups on Active Duty

September 22, 2009

We had a real treat today, on our Fort Leonard Wood, MO tour, to watch a bus load of new recruits on their “Day Zero” receive their first introduction to their drill sergeants and what the next 19 weeks of Military Police training have in store for them.

Some looked dazed and confused. Others were hyper-attentive trying their best to keep their backs straight and chins pointed up in acts of semi-false bravado. A few more appeared to be more than ready for training with a respectful air of confidence.

The first order of business as they lined up in somewhat crooked rows alongside their freshly-issued duffel bags of gear was to raise their left arms straight up into the air for roughly five minutes without “falling out” or complaining (there were a series of bent elbows and discreetly hidden cradled arms after the first few minutes; drill sergeants walked the lines occasionally shouting “get those arms up, straight up, do it now!” to maintain focus on the small, inexplicable but nonetheless very difficult task at hand).

They are in the basic training phase now, and from the Army’s perspective “basic” means exactly that. No drill sergeant will assume that a new private knows how to walk, stand, march, or – in what we saw this afternoon – how to do a proper push-up – without instruction. They are correct in that assumption.

The Army method of instruction involves demonstration first then practical exercise with inevitable and necessary corrections following.

In the first photo (also posted on my Face Book site with many others from this trip), we see the drill sergeant properly locked into position, body straight, performing the ideal push-up:


Looks simple enough, doesn’t it? Hands shoulder width apart, back straight, head forward.

Then the privates get their chance as a group to perform the same simple action. Whoops. Two hundred plus privates and two hundred plus versions of a push-up!


What a rare and comical sight! To our credit, we remained stoic and very serious as observers (although their first excessively solemn Official Army Push-Up attempt had us laughing all the way to the car after we were out of eyeshot).

They will improve. You can bet on it. They are simply hours-old new trainees in the finest military in the world, starting from scratch — just like the somewhat ridiculous and silly looking little bald eagle chicks in the nest who will quickly grow and later soar in the air. These fledgling soldiers will soon be our nation’s most important front-line protectors. Still, even bald eagle chicks can be very awkward, funny and thus incredibly cute in their own very special way, so it was hard not to giggle behind our outward “scowls of non-approval”.

One thing these trainees can be absolutely certain of is that in a few short (to them long) weeks they will have practiced push-ups sufficiently to become extraordinarily proficient in the exercise. Along the way they will gain upper body strength that they did not possess previously, strength that will carry them through combat and give them the physical means to withstand rigors that are unimaginable at the moment.

I’ve been on both ends of this story, having been introduced to Army push-ups myself in basic training at Fort Dix, NJ in 1967, and having later commanded an Infantry training company – the first integrated basic through Advanced Individual Training (AIT) post-Vietnam program in 1973-74.

Some obvious differences from those days to today’s Army basic training: men and women train together from the onset, and will later serve in combat side-by-side. The drill sergeants are men and women too. But make no mistake: as one senior sergeant said – those women are hard as woodpecker lips.

Old soldiers listening would hear none of the cussing or profanity that marked their training days. The crusty old drill sergeant that couldn’t utter a sentence without a few Anglo-Saxon root expletives is gone forever.

The Army is convinced that approach won’t work with these recruits. Nor will threats and physical intimidation. Contemporary training is more oriented towards communications and persuasion between drill sergeants and trainees than any time before in history, a necessity with this “wired” generation of 21st century recruits that would certainly short-circuit with the comparatively harsh training methods of yesteryear.

Even so, this is still a traumatic experience for these new boots. There is shouting, in-your-face direction, and insistence on performing well. Yet not habitual, routine yelling as before. Today emphasis is placed on the urgent need to meet standards at every step forward and achieve objectives as a team — rather than requiring instant submission to unexplained orders without ever asking questions.

It is a different Army, with its own set of pros and cons. For some recruits it will seem very tough, after a short lifetime of teachers fretting over their degree of self-esteem and parents who cut the crust from their lunch-box sandwiches and tuck them into their beds at night.

Others, more street-wise or athletic, may find the training relatively easy, but they don’t realize that they will be changed too, usually for the better.

What seems impossible to all these trainees now will shortly become routine. What seems a strange, alien, unfriendly environment will eventually be their second home.

They will work as a team, look out for each others backs, grow stronger, tougher, and more proficient in soldier skills. Hands that worked Play Stations and Nintendo will learn to hit a man-sized target with a rifle from 300 meters, drive a variety of vehicles, search a suspect safely, toss a grenade accurately, and slide effortlessly across a battlefield computer array.

They are now raw recruits, but in a few weeks will become new soldiers, ready and able to meet the life and death challenges that most certainly wait for them. It was a pleasure and honor to witness their first hours of earnest initial attempts to both fit in as individuals while at the same time also meeting common objectives as a group.

Don’t laugh too hard at the too-funny photos above. These young men and women are on their way to being Army Strong!

See me on Facebook for short updates to the Fort Leonard Wood visit – I’ll be posting more extensive commentary about this trip here, too.