Friendship and Loneliness

The lost art of the handwritten letter and the convenience (insidiousness?) of social media and the need to be heard…

I was thinking about this as I took a break in my TOC to write. My wife and I are maintaining a boomerang journal to send back and forth during the deployment. We did this during the last deployment, but unfortunately it seems lost forever as it never made it back from Iraq. I also, as I did for the last deployment, had custom stationary made up. Each Soldier, and those that help us through mentorship, teaming, and support, receives a hand written note from me as their commander thanking them for all they have done.

I’ve never really put a lot of thought into this. It just seemed right. Polite.

As I deal with the problems that instantaneous communication presents to me as a leader, I also appreciate being able to use it to see my kids and speak with my wife. Seeing their smiles and hearing about their days brings me great joy and can lighten up my day.

But nothing replaces that letter or care package.

Carrying the Gun


I recently re-blogged one of my first posts on Carrying the Gun, called The Last Letter WarI was still in graduate school at the time, and I was getting nostalgic for the feeling that letter writing and receiving brought during my first deployment, which was pretty austere. In that post, I lamented the fact that due to the rapid spread of connectivity and smartphones, future wars would likely not depend on good old fashioned mail the way we once knew it. In that, something would be lost – solitude, loneliness, and a deep yearning for outside contact. I admitted though, that all that nostalgia would be lost on a soldier sitting on his cot, waiting weeks or months for a letter that may never come – he’d choose the internet in a heartbeat because it is better, easier, and instantaneous.

A couple of years later, I wrote a piece…

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Prepping for Deployment

To be honest, I’ve kind of been hoping that it was going to get cancelled.  Don’t get me wrong, ever since being told I would command a company plus of Soldiers last year on a separate deployment I have been excited for the chance.  With deployments these days, as well as command time being slim, the opportunity for over a year of active duty command time is a hell of a career boost.  Even better, this is in a joint environment working with the Navy and the Air Force and the Major’s board instructions of late have directed primary consideration to those with joint experience.  Its a lot of responsibility, especially not deploying with a higher headquarters and coming under another service’s chain of command.  No chance to lay low on this one, thats for sure.

I’ve been tracking parallel paths in my head for a while: get my company and Soldiers trained and ready for mission success in an unconventional role for an Infantryman, and hoping that politics and constraints would have this thing cancelled so I don’t have to miss the time with my family.

For many of my Soldiers, they are excited for the chance to deploy.  Whether it be for financial, personal, or career enhancing reasons, there seems to be a line for guys that want to go.  I can’t take them all due to a myriad of reasons, and some of them take it personal when I tell them they can’t go.  My old timers, those guys with deployments under their belts, are a bit more realistic.  They want to deploy because they, like I, enjoy the challenge of leading Soldiers, but they understand the real pressures of the actual deployment.

My older kids have lived through multiple deployments and training periods away.  I know from their experience that kids are resilient and can adapt and move past the pain of separation, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to subject my younger kids to their first deployment.  For my wife, well all I can say is that I am in awe, because here she is doing it again (because what choice does she have) with strength and grace.  I am sure she is pissed at me, but she hunkers down and does not only what is right for the family, but finds the extra energy to help my Soldiers and their families as my Family Readiness Group leader for a second deployment.  She is certainly stronger than I.

As we train up for this deployment, I continue to be surprised by the strength, dedication, and professionalism of my Soldiers and Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs).  In order to meet the requirements for this deployment I have had to pull Soldiers from across the battalion and from our forward support company to get the mix necessary to be self sufficient.  I have had to anticipate what specialty military occupational specialties will be best suited for our success and build a task force package with zero input from the command I will fall under. My job description is an interpretation of various requirements, and the position “N3/SECO” does nothing to describe my responsibilities, nor the responsibilities of my Soldiers once we get to theater.  I guess soon I will find out if my assumptions were correct….What I do know is that given this unconventional role for my Infantrymen as well as the attached mechanics, drivers, chemical, military intelligence, signal, and other specialties, that the fact they have truly melded as a team and developed a coherent NCO support channel is a testament to their professionalism and strength.

A brief story about our train up.

See you next time.



Life Happens, Sandy is still my mistress, and Work/Life balance is a myth.

In the immediate aftermath of “Superstorm” Sandy, I found myself in Hoboken as part of the first response during the rescue and sheltering/sustainment as the city recovered and started the rebuilding process.  Immediately after I found myself as a project team leader for NY City’s Rapid Repairs program, responsible for the high-rise and multi-family programs and then 5 programs in 3 boroughs.  Long days and nights, again taking care of the emergent needs of a populace at risk as we restored the ability to safely shelter in their homes by providing heat, hot water, and safe electricity.  During this period I was able to keep up with my school commitments and completed my MA at Rutgers.  I even managed to get published in a professional journal, so that’s a plus.  As we slowed at Rapid Repairs I finally had a chance to start spending time with my family.  It was hard to be resentful of the job, as we were much better off than those that were devastated by the storm, and it was “doing good”.  Of course, summer meant additional Army commitments, taking me away from the family for over 3 weeks, but I had a normal schedule to look forward to when I got back.  I could get some things done around the house, we could go out and do family stuff, and we could be “normal”.

Then Sandy called me.

As I write this I am sitting out on Long Island.  We are doing recovery work, helping homeowners get back to their homes, complete their repairs, and providing necessary support as these communities rebuild.  Whole blocks were wiped out, and a lifetime of memories and savings were destroyed for many, and this assistance is what brings happiness and stability back for many.  Due to political considerations, a need was identified to attempt to complete over 5,000 home inspections and awards in the span of 27 days, so since the beginning of September I have been out here working 7 days/16 hours a day.  For 6 weeks the only days off I had were for military duty-not even to go see my family.  I am living out of a hotel, because a 2+ hour commute each way does not jive well with a 16 hour day…

I started this blog as an extension of my schoolwork progressing into my PhD and as a way to informally get some of my thoughts and ideas expressed towards those that may share my interests or that I may interact with professionally.  I learned that it is hard when there are so many commitments.

I have also further determined that the thing called “work/life balance” does not exist as balance; it exists as compromise.  When considering the balance, it is really a consideration of what must be given up in order to support the other.  Some things are less flexible than others by nature, so it really comes down to what you are willing to put up with, and what your family is willing to support.

COL John D Sims, USA, reflected on his thoughts on Balance in a Military Career in an article published in the Canadian Military Journal.  The article concentrated on being a good leader, but finished with some sage advice regarding being a good parent: “My dad, Lieutenant Colonel (ret’d) Billy Gene Sims, has mentored me throughout my career and my life. He served 20 years as a field artilleryman and army aviator. He fought on Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War, and flew during two tours in Vietnam. When he commissioned me as a second lieutenant, he gave me some great advice. Dad said, “Son, go to work early and come home early.”  I understood the “go to work early” part, because it reinforced the perception I held of the army – you had to work long and hard to succeed. But I did not understand the “come home early” bit. His point was that if you go in early, your kids really won’t miss you because they’ll still be in bed.  Plus, you can get a lot of work done before other soldiers arrive and you begin to change focus. “Come home early” really meant be home in time to sit down at the family table for dinner, and to help with homework, baths, and bedtime stories.  Those are critical times in raising a family. Kids have a simple but vital need: to be with their mothers and fathers. No special activities or accessories are required; just being and talking with your kids and your spouse. Just being there will do more for family and world peace than any other activity. There will be deployments or training missions that prevent you from being home for dinner. Make those times the exception. If this lesson isn’t sufficiently clear, just ask your kids, and they will tell you.

By the way, my dad continued the rest of the story by saying: “Son, I mastered going to work early, but I never mastered coming home early.”  I have considered it my job to finish what he started….There are successful leaders who sacrifice and lose their families for their career. Why is that? Perhaps we take our spouse for granted. As soldiers, the army gives us orders, but our spouse gets invitations. Did you ask your spouse for his/her continued support during your next assignment?  Was his/her opinion part of your decisions?  Have you thanked him/her for the contributions to your career, children, community, and country? Bought any flowers lately? It is when we take spouse or family for granted and fail to nurture our relationships that we are no longer successful. Spouses sacrifice a lot to allow us to serve. Acknowledging and appreciating their contributions helps reinforce why they make such sacrifices – namely, you”

I wouldn’t be out here doing this if my wife didn’t support me, and I just hope that when I decide that this is too much that I don’t make that decision too late. 



The view from my office



Just thought I would share. Trinity Church, birthplace of Columbia University. I work in the Trinity Building in the Architects and Planners office of my firm. Downstairs, affixed to my building, is a plate designating it as the spot where the American Institute of Architects was founded. Great things have been done all around us, inspiration just has to be observed to be found.

Soldier Surprises

Just cleaning up some study space and I ran across a copy of “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith. In Iraq my facility was secure and was jot permitted any “non-military necessity reading materials”. I can not function without reading material laying around, so I bent the rules in what I considered acceptable, willing to take the heat. A quiet, rather backward, Soldier once asked if he could take my copy of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond back to the FOB to read. He had been randomly picking it up for a week, so I let him. A few days later I asked how he liked it and he told me he was going to buy a copy for himself. I told him to keep it, rather impressed based on what little I knew of him that he was interested. This is bad of me to say, but based on my experience with him to this point I wasn’t even sure he could understand half the words in the book.

A week later he stopped me on the FOB going into the CP and handed me a book. It was the only book he had brought with him, and it was one of his favorites. “The Wealth of Nations”. I met him for lunch a few days later and he spoke eloquently and genuinely informed on his subject. He even started discussing Hayek by the end of lunch. When he was in his element, he was on. I was touched that he could open up to me, upset with myself for discounting his abilities based solely on behavior, and wished that other Soldiers in the platoon could look to him as an inspiration, rather as the dumb kid.

Last I heard he had finished an honors program and was on to study engineering at NJIT. Need to find him.

Ethics in the Military

I generally have a lot to say about what I perceive as a lack of formal relevant ethics training during my military career.  Save 3 or 4 “ethical leadership discussions” during Infantry Officer Basic, I can’t recall a single ethics brief or training that did not solely concentrate on what you can and can’t do with a GSA vehicle, when you are allowed to keep an airline bump, and what is considered an acceptable personal stop during a duty day. Don’t remember much about leadership ethics training at the Maneuver Captain’s Course.  Certainly have never received it at an Officer Professional Development activity at the Battalion or Brigade level.  The USAF Squadron Officer’s School did a better job by having many professional discussions, everything from Janowitz and Sarkesian to Toner.  Much of what we rely on is that our profession is supposed to be self correcting; the members believe too much in the honor and duty to allow bad apples to rise to the top without having at least been corrected.  Not sure if it has ever worked that way, but I fee sure that it is not necessarily the best way.

Ralph Peters seems a bit of an extremist most of the time to me, but here he nails it: Instead of going easier on the generals, they should face harsher penalties than the captains. Generals know better. But their sense of entitlement has murdered their sense of duty, honor, country.  In his op-ed today for the NY Post he gets it right when describing the failures of GEN (LTG) Ward, D/CIA Petraeus, and BG Sinclair, but he fails to address any more than the sense of entitlement at the General Officer level.  He describes other GOs closing ranks around Ward and protesting his loss of rank at retirement based on his reduced retirement benefit.  For abuse of power and the public’s trust he should be censured, not defended.

SECDEF Panetta has ordered a review in ethics training, but again this is concentrating more on public image and fiduciary responsibility that it is establishing a core ethical foundation.  “Beyond mere compliance with the rules, I also expect senior officers and civilian executives to exercise sound judgment in their stewardship of government resources and in their personal conduct,” Panetta said. “An action may be legally permissible but neither advisable nor wise.”

To Peter’s point, SECDEF’s seemingly reactive CYA review of ethics training (though the article states that this was in the works before the Petraeus break, timing is everything…) does not address a core leadership trait that is not being sufficiently reinforced.  Peters mentions “entitlement”.  My Soldiers know that I am very quick to knock them down a notch on humility.  We have built over the past few years the sense of entitlement that goes with being told “we are special”.  Advocacy groups and merchants both use the “1% or .45%” numbers that have been bandied about to show what a special segment of the population service members are.  Leaders pump their Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines with a “you are a warrior, a descendent of Sparta” tributes with very little reflection as to what those words mean, or the expectations that go along with them.  We teach Privates from day one that they are special, in many ways more special than other mere citizens (at least we haven’t gone full Starship Troopers yet), because they have volunteered to do something that has the very real potential of being very, very dangerous. These Privates come to expect being lauded.  They expect special treatment.  And they become the Sergeant Majors, as the Second Lieutenants become the Generals, that expect that they do deserve what they believe they have coming.  It is OWED to them.  This sense of entitlement permeates every level of what we do and leads to ethical lapses of individuals that are at the heart a lapse in the system.

Andrew Exum created a little controversy when he discussed what is owed a professional Army, but he was right in addressing that we need to take a hard look at how we are convincing our Soldiers today about who and what they are.  His best example, and one I have seen first hand, is an airline asking for uniformed service members to board first ahead of a mother with infant.  How screwed up are our priorities when this is the expectation we are setting in our Soldier’s heads?

I have had the unfortunate experience of having to counsel depressed Soldiers, and during discussions several have mentioned that they didn’t understand that it would be so hard post-deployment as they returned to the civilian job market and their lives.  “Don’t we deserve better?” was a common question.  We all probably do, but it doesn’t mean we are entitled to better by way of service.  Selfless Service is an Army core value.  Maybe we need to remind ourselves about that every once in a while.


Hurricane Sandy, and a good social media story

I spent a couple of weeks on state active duty in order to assist in the hurricane response, primarily in Hoboken.  The city was swamped, with storm surge flooding out major infrastructure, leaving many to shelter in place in cold dark high rise buildings.  Our mission was to rescue residents trapped by high water, then to support the city, FEMA, and the multiple civilian and volunteer agencies in assisting these sheltered residents.  Though tempers could flare from all sides due to frustration, seeing the community pull together, especially during a election week, was heartening.  We definitely learned some lessons on how to continue to improve responses to a civil disaster.  DVIDS video below:

Social media definitely came into play during my mission.  A resident came to ask if there was anything we could do to help her contact her 90 year old grandmother in law living on Coney Island.  They had not been able to contact her since the beginning of the storm.  It was a long shot that I could do anything, but I took the information and told her no promises.  I used Facebook messenger to contact a friend in Afghanistan who’s civilian job back home is as a logistics planner for the NYC Office of Emergency Management.  I was looking only for a reference as to who I could pass the info on to, but within an hour she had made contact with her friends back in the city, and within 2 hours we had the grandmother on the phone with her family.  She was OK, just in the dark, and the family was relieved.  All the while I was trying to find a way to maintain consistent communication with my Battalion HQ 40 miles away while in a satellite canyon where my FBCB2 wouldn’t catch signal, and with an insufficient antenna group to get radio range.   Cell phone towers inconsistent, power inconsistent, Facebook saved the day.  S6 should work that into the PACE plan.  First person account from the resident:

Random other clips:

Random thoughts on terrain

Working on a post and paper on drones and targeted killing, I started thinking about how terrain and the plain of combat has been redefined from the old days of lines on maps to today’s “global” war on terror-whatever it has been rebranded.  Generally my responsibility to brief terrain consists of actual in your face terrain-where me and my fellow Infantrymen will fight.  The best cinematic terrain brief I have seen is BG Buford at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg:  This is wargaming and terrain analysis at its simplest.

As we engage in the global war, how do I explain terrain and the enemy’s effect on it?  Just a random thought.


Seems that one way to get ahead in academia and professional life is to have a blog.  I haven’t really received that much advice, other than “have a blog”.  Trolling other people’s work for some time I have been fascinated and bored, usually at the same time, except for those rare “life” blogs where the author blends policy, thoughts, and personal life to get a whole picture of why the words are on the page in the order they are.  My hope for this blog is that I master that blend and create a readable and enjoyable blog.  Comments always welcome!