WELL, IT’S BEEN A MONTH HERE, and life has really gotten interesting. I’ve settled into the barracks—two-story, rectangular white buildings with about ten sets of bunk beds on each floor. They look strangely similar to the ones you see in old World War II photos. I’ve sorted through the administrative details required for being “processed” back onto active duty. (You could say that the Army floats on a sea of paperwork.) And I’ve begun preparations for my deployment. My day typically begins at six-thirty in the morning with Physical Training, which consists of push-ups, sit-ups, and some running. Afterward, I shower and change out of my PT uniform and into a green BDU (battle dress uniform). Then it’s off to attend whatever training they have scheduled for us.
The highlight for me so far has been our two days spent on the shooting range for weapons qualifications. As a Civil Affairs soldier, I’ll be carrying an M4 rifle and an M9 pistol. The rifle is standard issue, but the pistol will be far better for mingling with local civilians. We’ll be working to earn their trust and to help them find ways to bring order to their society, and I imagine that that could be rather difficult with rifles in our hands. A pistol in a holster is much less conspicuous yet still effective if things get a little sporty. But since we carry both of these weapons, we have to qualify on each of them. Not that I mind. I was raised to hunt, and I must admit that I love to shoot, especially when other people are buying the bullets! For the M4 qualifying test, we each got forty rounds to shoot 40 pop-up targets from fifty to three hundred meters away. To pass, you had to hit a minimum of 23 targets. Our unit had a good day, and most of our soldiers qualified with relative ease.
The next major training event was the nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) gas chamber. Anyone who has ever spent time in the Army knows that this event traditionally finishes with rounds of laughter by almost all those involved. Basically the training cadre fill a big room with tear gas and send in a group of soldiers, fully dressed in uniform and protective gas masks. The goal is for us to appreciate how well our masks work. Key point: To appreciate how well your mask is working, you have to take it off and feel the difference. And in case you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing it, tear gas burns—bad. If it gets in your eyes or lungs, well, you will definitely not be needing any sinus medicine for the rest of the day! And therein lies the source of fear for the participating soldiers—and the humor for the people conducting the training. That day we all built up our courage and went in nobly and with our heads high—and came out spitting and sputtering and coughing and sneezing.
I’ve spent part of my time here at Fort Bragg learning about the history and culture of the installation. Fort Bragg is the home of the 82nd Airborne Division, the XVIII Airborne Corps, and a couple of other Special Operations units, and it is adjacent to Pope Air Force Base. The 82nd Airborne has one of the most prestigious histories as a fighting unit, most notably its many combat jumps during World War II. Its members are proud of the fact that they’re the president’s “911”; they can deploy rapidly to any spot in the world, and they are highly lethal once they hit the ground. If you spend much time around these soldiers, you will recognize their unmatched sense of pride and esprit de corps.
In addition to the airborne division here, there are also certain portions of the nation’s Special Operations Command; they are known as the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. This is the most elite group of soldiers on the planet. The bulk of them are typically referred to as Green Berets, who specialize in reconnaissance and unconventional warfare and are all trained with a specific geographic and linguistic focus. Most people probably think of John Wayne when they imagine what Green Berets are like, but as well trained and skilled as these men are, most of them stick to their main motto: “The Quiet Professionals.” They tend not to brag about their exploits; they remain behind the scenes and provide assistance in ways that only they can.
The combination of all of these units makes for a unique environment. The level of fitness around here is incredibly high. The missions that the Special Ops guys go on require a great amount of stamina and endurance, so they all work hard to maintain their physical edge. They can be seen in the mornings running and doing long marches with heavy rucksacks on their backs, and in the evenings you’ll see them in the gym lifting weights or swimming laps. Along with the physical aspect, there’s a certain spirit here that permeates the culture. You can hear it as the soldiers sing cadences during the early-morning training exercises, and you will see it in town, where retirees from these units typically own and operate local businesses. They all have a connection, and many of them are members of what an old colonel of mine used to call the “smallest fraternity in the world,” that of combat veterans.
By the time you read this, I’ll have begun my nine-week-long Civil Affairs course here at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Class goes from nine to five every day; the teachers are highly trained Civil Affairs officers with several deployments under their belts. I’m looking forward to learning about this branch of the Army. I think it’s the Civil Affairs group that’s going to provide the United States’ ticket out of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the many tasks a Civil Affairs officer is trained to perform, probably the most important are to help legitimize the local leadership and eventually conduct an orderly transition where these leaders take complete charge. The sooner we help the Iraqis and the Afghans learn how to run a government based on the notion that it should serve the people, the sooner we can move on.