June 27, 2012
Each deployment is a marathon, and this is my third in five years. I recognize the cycle. We were even briefed on it. Each deployment has its phases, and there is a phase of irritability, restlessness and discontent. That has been the past month or so. It makes it hard to write, because although there are stories of missions to tell, it’s hard to tell them in a voice that does not drip of that same restlessness and discontent. Especially when changes to our force protection posture means that we can get even less done. I can’t talk specifics about that at this time because of OPSEC (Operational Security), but our capabilities have changed, and not to make our work easier.
One thing I noticed during our abysmal train-up at Camp Shelby was that a briefing had been added that described these phases. I recognized them, and the cycle that they are a part of. Of course, it was just another briefing, and for those who had not done this before, it was in one ear and pretty much out the other. It didn’t ring a bell in their consciousness. There were no recognizable features. I can remind others that they had such a briefing, but they don’t remember it without prompting and the information was not retained. Perhaps the briefing is useful; perhaps it is not. It describes something that only those who have gone through it can comprehend.
The months of April and part of May were part of that cycle.
We still conducted missions. We still did our best to do what we need to with the Afghans. But we did it under that cloud of restlessness, irritability and discontentment. I have found it difficult to write, and have at times chosen not to write because I did not want the darkness of this time to fill the pages of my blog, to taint the experience of those who would wish to feel along with it through reading. And, sometimes, the motivation was just not there; “writer’s block” is real. When you aren’t sure what to say, it’s hard. When you know that what you have to say is dark and unhelpful, it’s hard. When you’re trying to fight through a weight on you and your team, it’s hard. Each of my previous deployments have had that time. I know that having leave helps. We did not have leave on this deployment. We will not. So there is no break for each individual to hit the reset button, to reconnect with their personal world in a physical sense.
Email, Facebook and Twitter are not the same.
Keeping the darkness from reaching back to the ones you care about is a concern. Soldiers have put a happy face on their experiences -- not all have, but many do -- for centuries. We don’t want to whine. We don’t want to cause undue worry; because there isn’t anything that anyone back there can do to break that part of the cycle.
The great thing about cycles is that they change, and the phases end. Given time, they will come around again. A very long deployment, like my second one (15 months), can bring that cycle around again. People get “crispy.” A little over-cooked. But it does evolve. Sometimes it’s an event. Sometimes it just fades into something else. It’s like any phase in anyone’s life (and we all have them) but this is a consistent thing in my experience, and it’s not just certain individuals. It’s practically a team experience, and it damages the dynamics of the team in the short term and changes them in the long term.
There are symptoms; I’ve already described the restlessness, irritability and discontent. There are other symptoms. Many military leaders call it “complacency,” but I have learned that it is a loss of focus. This is a dangerous time, because little things that never slipped through the cracks begin to slip through. The leadership will express frustration, sometimes even threaten to “tighten things up,” or whatever. Those things are not cures. In fact, they only heighten the crispiness and further strain the soldiers. Yet senior leaders know that it is their responsibility to refocus the team and they do what they know; but it is often counter-productive.
Most leaders cannot break or alleviate the cycle; but they can prolong it. We’ve seen some of that.
This is one of the times during the lifecycle of a deployment when the senior leadership puts a particular emphasis on personal protective gear. Body armor. Gloves. Ballistic eye protection. The groin protector (pee pee flap) on the body armor that is often ditched early on as being a waste of uncomfortable time. (It is not there to protect the genitals as much as the inferior vena cava and organs of the lower abdomen, is useless for protecting against anything that blows upwards from underneath -- and it won’t stop a bullet, only fragmentation.) Risk-aversion reaches new heights and our chain, spurred by the loss of three soldiers, determined never to lose another -- although each of the dead was meticulously protected by their body armor from all threats...except death. Mission comes after such concerns as force protection, something that David Galula described as a sure way to fail in counterinsurgency. Audacity of action is quelled and even punished.
We have come to fear our counterparts. ”We” means the Coalition. The larger group. My little team does not fear the Afghan Border Police and feels handcuffed by the fear of the higher echelon. But the rules that come down from on high make it ever more difficult to demonstrate trust and a spirit of respect and cooperation. A man is not allowed to take reasonable risks, to balance his own safety with the ability to get real work accomplished based on his evaluation of the situation at hand and the needs of his mission. If he does he will be squashed like a bug by those who cannot stomach answering for why a man died or was injured in the name of that mission. Protecting ourselves has become the mission in the minds of those who can restrict us or punish us. These are the symptoms of the mid-tour doldrums, the darkness that creeps in to kill initiative, focus, teamwork and the sense of purpose that is all too important and that our unit (brigade) has in such short supply.
Every tour has a point, or points, at which morale takes a dip. There is a natural cycle, as natural as the stages of grief, that takes place over the duration of a deployment. They normally pass naturally as well. But these cycles can be stimulated by and exacerbated by the emphasis that senior leaders place on certain things. Confusion as to the purpose of our being separated from our families is one of those things, and being told that your job is simply to stay alive and unhurt is not a purpose.
These are things that affect the minds and spirits of those deployed...