War? Oh, we’ll still be open.

Imperial site survey

Having been a staff officer for the last decade or so of my career, I was able to do some traveling.  Most of my traveling was done to help plan exercises in various Asian countries.

One thing often forgotten by American military planners is that Asia is a whole lot older than the United States.  Our allies in the region (Japan, South Korea, Thailand, etc.) have been around for hundreds – if not thousands – of years longer than we have.

Some have said that America likes to throw its weight around and even “bully” its friends and allies.  I used to think this was an unfair statement until I went on a site survey trip to South Korea.

So there we were, a bunch of American military guys in South Korea.  We were looking at locations for Americans to land and “save the day” should the armistice with the North Koreans end and hostilities pick up again.  (Don’t forget, none of our allies can do anything without big-brother America coming to save the day.)

One day of our survey we met with the director of a large South Korean port complex (which will not be named).  Because we were the Americans and (at least in our minds) the most important people in the world, we told the port director that we wanted particular berthing positions for our ships.

This gave the port director a perplexed look.  He then thought about our demand request for a moment.  After what seemed like an eternity, he said in almost perfect English, “If there is a war, the port is staying open.  You can have the end of the port if you want.”  He then turned and left.

Our Korean guide/translator had no idea what to do or say.  He stood there for a moment, then managed to say, “well gentlemen, let’s go take a look.”

The crowd was shocked.  “BUT WE ARE AMERICAN MILITARY PLANNERS!”, was the look that most of our group had.  Those of us who were lesser in rank (but not snarky sarcasm) started snickering to each other.  We knew we had just been put in our place and it was funny – at least to those of us in the back row who didn’t have to tell folks with stars on their collars what had just happened.

Far from being a “sucker punch to the gut of America” as one person put it, it made me realize that not all of our Allies need America to always come save the day.

Life Lesson:  Just because you are “America” doesn’t mean that your friends will occasionally put you at the end of the pier.


Sometimes if you’re late – you need to stay late.

There is an old adage in the military that says, “if you’re not early – then you’re late.” For most day to day situations in the military, as well as life in general, this is good advice. I mean, just look at the early-bird specials at Denny’s and the lines for the newest iPhone.

Other situations in the military call for a more precise arrival or departure time. For example, what military jumpmaster would want to have those about to leave his aircraft via parachute exit early and end up in the woods instead of the dropzone? Not anyone I know of for sure.

My first field operation was at 29 Palms, California in January 1993. I was a brand new cannoneer in a Marine Corps artillery battery and  I was loving life. I got to ride in a big truck that pulled around a big gun. When we got where we were going, we would set up the gun and shoot 95 lb, high explosive projectiles at various targets.


Big Truck.  Big Gun.  (www.okierover.com)

Now, remember that this was 1993. Operation Desert Storm had concluded only a couple years prior and the U.S. military still was preparing to “fight the last war.” One aspect of fighting a large, modern, professional enemy involved denying him the capability to stop our aircraft from penetrating his defenses.

When it came to enemy air defenses, the main task assigned to the artillery was to suppress (i.e. make the enemy “keep his head down” so he could not shoot down friendly aircraft) enemy defenses so our aircraft could then destroy them. This was formally called Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD).

NOTE:  Yes, I asked the same question you are probably thinking right now, “Why doesn’t the artillery just destroy the targets instead of suppressing them.”  I won’t tell you, the reader, to “shut up” but I will tell you that “shut up” is what I was told when I asked the same question.  I’ve since moved on and so should you.

SEAD manual coverpage

U.S. Marine Corps manual on SEAD.  (www.marines.mil)

The way that we, the artillery, would suppress the enemy’s air defense was to try and hit them with white phosphorus smoke rounds. The theory was that if the enemy anti-air crews were busy dealing with red-hot, burning phosphorus landing on them, then they couldn’t focus on attacking incoming aircraft. Friendly aircraft would then use this gap in the enemy’s situational awareness to drop bombs or launch missiles at the enemy’s air defense system.


White phosphorus tends to make you quickly forget what you were doing before it arrived.  (www.systemsrevolution.com)

Sounds easy enough right?  Well, back to the subject of this post – timeliness.

Coordinating the arrival of a combat aircraft traveling hundreds of miles an hour to occur immediately after the arrival of an artillery round traveling hundreds of feet per second can be tricky. If one or the other arrives before or after it is supposed to it usually is not good. The fire direction center (FDC) of the artillery battery does this coordination with a higher echelon FDC or tactical air controller. This coordination can be done perfectly, but there is always one group of folks who can make it go terribly wrong – the gunline.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

These guys have to do it right or the SEAD goes wrong. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by GySgt Michael Q. Retana)

So there we were, me and 7 other guys in the middle of the California desert having a good ‘ole time doing manly, artillery things. Not knowing (or even caring) about why we were shooting in the desert. Luckily for us, we could see where our rounds were hitting (that happens in the desert where you can see for miles and miles).

When we received the warning order of “FIRE MISSION!” from our FDC we treated it as if it were a normal fire mission; one where we fired the round when we were ready and not when FDC told us too. To our dismay the additional instruction “AT MY COMMAND” was included in the firing instructions. This meant that we could not fire until the FDC told us to. That’s part of life on a howitzer gunline though; you can’t always do what you want, when you want.

Normally, the preparation of a round for firing is a closely choreographed movement of between 4 and 6 men all performing separate tasks at first, but then coming together to load the round, insert the propellant behind the round, close the breach, prime the firing mechanism, and attach the lanyard before firing. As we prepared this particular white phosphorus round with its appropriate fuze and amount of propellant, something happened which put us behind schedule.

What exactly put us behind schedule is lost to the ages, but the end result was that upon hearing “STANDBY….FIRE!” from the FDC we had not yet even loaded the round into the howitzer.

When our cannoneer who had wire communications with the FDC did not immediately respond to the FDC with “Shot, one” (translation: Gun Number 1 has shot the round you told us to) there began a string of increasingly panicked responses:

FDC:  “Gun 1…Fire!”

Gun 1:  (No response)

FDC:  “Gun 1…FIRE!”

Gun 1:  (Still no response)


Gun 1:  “Hold on a second, we’re almost ready.”


Gun 1:  (Imaginary crickets chirping)

Gun 1:  (Imaginary crickets still chirping)

Howitzer serial number 268:  “BOOM!”, as the round leaves the howitzer headed towards the point of impact.

Gun 1:  “Shot, One”

FDC:  (Imaginary crickets chirping at a funeral)

Even though we had just fired a medium-towed howitzer in broad daylight in the middle of the desert, the silence coming from the FDC was deafening. Everything in the entire gun position was eerily quite. Then we heard it.

From behind our battery’s position approached a U.S. Marine Corps A-6 Intruder.

a6 dod pic

A-6 Intruder (Department of Defense photo)


The sound of that approaching aircraft began as a low rumble, then turned into a high pitched whine as it drew closer. The approaching aircraft took our attention away from the round that we had just fired. As the aircraft passed the gunline we noticed it was headed towards the same area where we had just fired that round (fired nearly 10 seconds late mind you).

Just as one of us new cannoneers uttered the question, “Hey, where did our round go?” we saw a large, white plume of smoke arise from the floor of the desert.  This was immediately followed by the aircraft making such an extreme right turn that it appeared to disobey every natural law related to gravity and aerodynamics.

There I was, less than two months in the Fleet Marine Force and I was part of a howitzer crew that almost shot down a multi-million dollar aircraft. Less than 60 seconds after our round impacted and that aircraft nearly tore itself apart with what must have been the hardest right turn in aviation history, we were all being chewed out by our battery leadership.

It was no ordinary chewing out though. Usually, chewings-out in the Marine Corps involved lots of yelling. This one was different. Our leadership didn’t raise their voices. They didn’t threaten us with any kind of punishment. They were, however, slightly shaking. Their tones were very measured and they kept repeating, “When you’re shooting for SEAD missions and you’re late…you stay late.”

Life Lesson:  Sometimes in life – just sometimes – instead of arriving even just a little bit late, it is better to not show up at all.

You’ll never be that cool.

There are times in every POG’s career when he is reminded that he can never be as cool as other non-POGs.

One of these times happened when I was working in Baghdad, Iraq in 2006.

Because I was a staff officer I was not allowed to leave base (the last group of guys in my position would often go out on patrol with “real” units, but oftentimes not make it to work on time because they would get into engagements with the enemy).  I was allowed, however, to work the night shift. Doing this allowed me sleep through the heat of the day.

One night as I was making my way to work, I walked directly beneath the flight path of a group of special operations helicopters. I knew these were special operations guys not just because of the type of helicopters they flew (MH-6 Little Birds), but because they all sat on specially designed seats OUTSIDE of the helicopter (see example below).

little bird 1http://www.americanspecialops.com/images/soar/mh-6.jpg

Imagine if you will, sitting on the OUTSIDE of a small helicopter flying at treetop level, at night, in a city where most of the inhabitants want to kill you (or at least see you die horribly).

Now imagine yourself getting close to your objective (where again, everyone there wants to kill you) and the pilot takes the helicopter so low that you essentially are bound by same rules of the road as the local guy with his goat cart or moped (see example picture below).

little bird 2http://hdwpics.com/images/20D231C129E9/Military-Helicopters.jpg

Meanwhile back at the base, dozens of staff folks are making their way to work. Where in a matter of moments some will watch a live video feed of guys who you can “literally never be as cool as” doing things that you only see in the movies or movie-like video games.

It’s then that (again) you realize you will never be that cool.

Life Lesson:  Yup, you guessed it.  You will never be that cool, but that’s fine because your wife would rather that you NOT ever even try to do something that cool.

Trip. Bang. Sign.

Aw Faw Palace (photo courtesy of http://www.gregnwoko.com)

That awkward moment when you’re a four-star general and have to sign a silly log book…

Al Faw palace, Baghdad, Iraq was an old get away for Saddam Hussein and his cronies (“get away” may be a stretch as it is only about 2 miles from Baghdad International Airport).  In 2006 it was being used by coalition forces as a headquarters for Multi-National Corps, Iraq.  Occasionally the commander of all coalition forces in Iraq (a certain four-star U.S. Army general who would later go on to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff) would pay a visit to meet with subordinate commanders or to participate in briefings.

Now within Al Faw palace was a massive room that was as large as an average State-side IMAX movie theatre.  This room was used as the operations center for the Multi-National Corps operations personnel.  It had between 50 & 85 people working in it at any given time (24/7) and had representatives from each American branch of service as well as all coalition partners (e.g. the United Kingdom, Poland, Australia).

A little known fact about this palace is that although it looked pretty from the outside, the quality of construction left much to be desired.  This was especially true in the operations center.  For reasons known only to whomever built them, the stairs within the operations center were of varying heights.  Nowhere was this difference in height more pronounced than between the floor and the first stair.

green log book

Green Log Book (photo courtesy Amazon.com)

Now in the military, the use of green log books is prevalent.  This allows personnel standing watches (i.e. shift work) to record happenings for later use.  Because of the non-standard height of that first step there was an 8 1/2″ by 11″ log book specifically used to record the names and ranks those who tripped on that stair.

When I arrived in early 2006 over 40 pages of names already were in the log book.  I noticed this when I myself nearly went head over heals up the stairs one very memorable night shift.  As this was my first experience with the stair-trip-bang (your shin)-sign process I was unnerved and resentful at first.  However, when the U.S. Air Force non-commissioned officer bellowed, “Sir, stop!  You need to sign the logbook!” while in the same motion opening the book for me to leave my mark, I realized that hundreds of people of all ranks and branches had come before me and also left their mark in government issued black ink.

Several days later the aforementioned four-star commander of all coalition forces in Iraq paid a visit to our operations center.  This may have been that gentleman’s first time in our work space as he stopped for a minute upon entering and began looking throughout the room for where our commanding general sat during briefings.  Once he saw where he wanted to go he began to make his way up…the…stairs.

I can not say what happened next happened in slow motion because the same U.S. Air Force non-commissioned officer that had bellowed to me “Sir…stop…logbook!” was already getting out of his chair at lightning speed reaching for the logbook before the four-star gentleman’s foot even began to slip on that first step.  No sooner had this experienced U.S. Army general officer’s shin hit the very step he just tripped on did shouts of “SIGN THE BOOK”, and “OH YA…SIGN IT!”, along with other muffled (and not-so-muffled) shouts of approval, applause, and even a “WHOO-HOOO!” or two reverberated throughout the operations center.

Initially shocked from the lose of grace and poise in front of his men (and women), this gentlemen waited a moment to regain his bearing then began to move up the stairs again only to be stopped by a certain U.S. Air Force non-commissioned officer bellowing, “Sir, stop!  You need to sign the logbook!”

Then it happened.  After the four-star commander of all Coalition forces in Iraq tripped and banged…he signed.  All with a smile on his face and then a wave for the crowd.

Life Lesson:  Never think you’re too high and mighty to “sign the logbook”.

Carpentry Lesson:  http://jaloworm.blog.com/2011/12/02/building-stair-stringers-calculator/


How it’s supposed to be done. (Photo courtesy of http://jaloworm.blog.com/)