12 September 2014

If the Army Changed Diapers, and Happy Birthday Joseph!

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" on September 17, 2008, shortly after the birth of my first son. 

As a new dad, I have the privilege of waking up to a screaming baby at the inconvenientest times of night. He is beautiful, and his cry is even adorable, even at ungodly hours. Sometimes he wants food, other times it a fresh diaper he wants. For the former, his mother promptly obliges. In the case of the latter, I can lend a hand, which I do quickly so I can get back to rest.

Though I don’t always get up eagerly, I don’t complain. Four days before Joseph was born I was at Fort Meade, Maryland doing some Army training. It’s the kind of place where you have to wake up at 0400 and present yourself for inspection. Fireguard duty in the middle of the night is the norm, and cleaning dirty latrines is a fact of life.

So waking up to change my own son’s messy diaper is no big deal. I do it and move on. But it got me thinking, what if changing diapers was an Army task?

First, everyone in the room would have to wake up and be in uniform before they could report for diaper duty.

The diaper changer would report to the NCOIC, who would ensure that everyone was in the right place and ready to go. Of course, any NCOIC worth his stripes would never abide a baby making noise while preparing to execute a mission, so someone would have to get the little one to forget the predicament that brought them to this point.

The next step in the baby-changing procedure would be the completion of all applicable DOD forms. This is to ensure that NCOs and officers can track the different diaper changings. Despite the fact that such forms never get read or followed up on, they are very important.

The Risk Assessment is the next step. The Army loves to assess risks, and there are many, even in a routine diaper changing. Take the risk assessment lightly at your peril.

Diapers and other supplies (wet wipes, lotion, powder) need to be requisitioned from Supply. More forms, and more approval. All requests need to go through the NCOIC for preliminary approval, but need the Commander’s signature. For any supplies used, forms need to indicate who used them, the quantity, and the time they were used.

Before changing the actual diaper that is dirty, a run-through should be conducted to improve accuracy and performance. After the drill, an After Action Report will help identify strengths and weaknesses.

Finally we are ready to change the diaper. By this time, the boy is potty-trained.

09 September 2014

Complaining the Army Way, aka Don't Gripe to the Brass

I complain a lot. Well, I take that back for modification.

I complain about the Army a lot. And even more specifically, the active duty Army. Big Army, as opposed to the Army National Guard. And while I'm clarifying and qualifying, let me add that the extent that the National Guard invites complaints is in direct proportion to the degree to which it tries to emulate Big Army.

On to the topic, then.

When a higher ranking Soldier politely accused me of simply pointing out flaws in the Army instead of trying to productively engage them, I had to reflect on that. Of course, I think my complaining is productive, because it's legitimate. Doesn't everybody?

Well, turns out, no.

To get to the bottom of it, I looked into bona fide social science. There are plenty of people and organizations who want to know why people complain (the Army isn't one of them, by the way.)

For starters, there are many types of complaints. Some whine. Others vent. The whiners and venters think they are just blowing off steam. But the irony is, Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel tells us, that we are not blowing off steam but creating it.

I might be guilty of that. But in an effort to affirm my behavior, I kept digging. 

According to Jeffrey Kassing, a communication researcher at Arizona State University, people vent because they feel helpless. In an organizational setting, this manifests as dissent. According to the literature (a really fancy terms that simply means, "a bunch of published studies"):
expressions of dissent can occur when employees combat psychological and political restraints imposed by modern organizations, when they choose to exercise freedom of speech in the workplace, or when they decide to use dissent as a means of participation.
Now here is the fascinating part (fascinating for people who get really excited by findings in journals with titles like, Management Communication Quarterly!) This dissent-- we'll call it complaining from here on out-- can be grouped into one of three types:
  1. Articulated complaints (expressing dissent directly and openly to managers)
  2. Antagonistic complaints (dissenting in an adversarial way, but with a perception of protection from reprisal)
  3. Displaced complaints
Can you guess which one this blog predominantly expresses?

Look, the reason I write is to find an audience. I am but a humble staff sergeant. I can't go to the colonel (whose main priority is to please a general) with a complaint. A lieutenant colonel can't even lodge a complaint, because the colonel used to be in Delta Force, so if you say something that upsets him, his mere glare will emit extracorporeal lithotripsic shock waves directed at your head and turn your brain to mush. For this reason, anyone O-5 and below must wait until the D-Force guy has had three cups of coffee and the Cowboys have won at least two games in a row before speaking with him, just to be on the safe side.

Me? I just write a blog. It is a safe way to express displaced dissent. The good kind of complaining. Or at least the best kind in the Army.

You see, displaced complaints are marked by,
disagreeing without confronting or challenging... It involves [complaining] to external audiences and/or to ineffectual internal audiences... [which] include nonwork friends, spouses/partners, strangers, and family members. Employees [complain] to these audiences because the risk of retailiation deminishes. (Kassing, J. 1998. "Development of the Organizational Dissent Scale," p. 192). 
Dissent serves as a corrective feedback mechanism. So I am really just trying to better the organization. And you wonderful readers are a part of that important work!

So, in the interest of telling the entire story, if dissent (complaining) is a way to provide feedback, then assent (praise) should be a regular practice, too, when appropriate. I think this blog has praised the Army quite well here, here, here, and here, for examples.

So I'm not done complaining. I'm just trying to do my military duty. 

04 September 2014

The Day I Got Arrested in Kandahar, Part 3

This is the third part in a three-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.

"Get down!" yelled the Belgian captain.

He was quite serious. The "big voice" notified us of the incoming indirect fire. These things, while not a daily occurrence on KAF, are not out of the ordinary by any stretch. And while the procedures for responding to a rocket attack are sound, the reality is that avoiding injury from an enemy rocket or mortar on a big base like KAF comes down to nothing but sheer luck.

I hit the deck. Cameraman had a $5000 camera on a tripod, and was more worried about it than anything else. "You have to get down," I informed him. He grudgingly complied. The Belgian was clearly irritated by our lack of earnestness.

After a couple of minutes, we were to move to a bunker. Instead, we got inside the police vehicle and drove with the sergeant to the "precinct."

Threats were issued. Regulations cited. More phones calls.

I offered to have myself flex-cuffed, just to make it official. But since the security officer had a flight line to clear (his protocol for a rocket attack) he let us go with a very stern look on his face.

He was from Utah too! So I thanked him for being so meticulous in his security practices, and he took us to retrieve Ricky, who had been left alone 100 meters away. The Belgian had gone after him earlier and directed him to the nearest bunker.

We met up and moved to another bunker, where we baked until given the all-clear (see photo of Ricky baking). Luckily there was an Air Force E-7 with his rifle at the ready in case the enemy launched a follow-on ground attack. Given that such an attack never came, I assume they had scouts that saw the E-7 and concluded that it wasn't worth the risk.

We went on with our mission for the rest of the day. We ate curry. I played volleyball with the Australians that night.

The aftermath of this, while somewhat anti-climactic, reveals a lot of what is wrong with the Army at times.

I got a call a few days later from the Belgian. He was back! He told me we had to talk about the incident. I told him I had moved on. It wasn't him, I assured him. It was me. We had just grown apart. He really didn't want to end it.

Then I get a call from a Romanian, who apparently do the dirty work of the Belgians. He told me that I needed to come in and sign some paperwork acknowledging the grievousness of my sin. Okay. I went and found out that I had committed several escort violations:
  1. I shouldn't have driven on the taxi way. Why did the guard let me in? The Romanian didn't know.
  2. I was too far away from Ricky. How far is too far? The Romanian didn't know, but assured me that the Belgian assured him that I was too far. Imagine if we came under a rocket attack, all the bad that could happen. You just never know.
  3. I didn't have a memo. The Romanian did know about that, but we all did. You're probably wondering if the lieutenant colonel who was supposed to have provided me a memo took any responsibility. 
Cliff hanger, huh? Well, while the light colonel was avoiding responsibility, a different light colonel was conducting an investigation of his own. He summoned me for a final berating, which was punctuated by,
"Don't do that s--t."
All of my violations apparently sent ISAF into a tailspin.

I also had to get my escort badge punched. It's like getting branded a war criminal. they're not getting that back, I hope they know.

Now this entire story might seem anticlimactic, to which I say, "fine." But let it be a lesson.

Never trust a lieutenant colonel.

03 September 2014

The Day I Got Arrested in Kandahar, Part 2

This is the second part in a three-part series. Read Part 1

Ricky Schroeder and his camera rode in the back of the Land Rover I drove, first onto a parking area just off the taxi way, and then down the taxi way to a spot where we could get some good video shots.

We were a hundred meters or so from the civilian Kandahar International Airport, and I parked off the shoulder of the asphalt on the other side of a t-wall. We got out and cameraman went one way, Ricky and I the other. 

I made my way back and forth between the two thinking to myself, "yeah, I'm probably pushing the envelope, but I'm doing a great job! These guys are going to get excellent shots, and they'll have me to thank."

NATO's busiest single-runway airport saw little traffic that day. It was hot. It was the day before the now-infamous presidential runoff, as I recall. Ricky and I made small talk. Then I ran over to cameraman and made small talk. Then I repeated the drill.

When I was with Ricky, I noticed a truck with sirens pull up to cameraman. The giant FLS on the door indicated that they were not looking for directions. I headed back to do my job as a combat-trained, secret-clearance-holding, flight line-access-badge-wearing, weapon-toting, DINFOS-distinguished-honor-graduating warrior-escort.

"They are with me, sergeant. We're cleared. All good."

In the military no one is "all clear" without a memorandum. It is the coin of the realm. My lieutenant colonel sent me out without a properly signed memo, though. Or any memo for that matter. My instructions were, and I quite clearly remember this part, "if anyone asks you anything, tell them you're with public affairs, and that should cover it."

It didn't. No matter that I had a super official-looking NATO flight line badge and an escort pass. Sergeants are not paid to infer, though. Perhaps that's what the captain is for, who joined us soon thereafter. 

Problem was, this captain was Belgian. Belgians haven't been in combat much, so this was his chance for action. He wasn't having any of my silly public affairs explanations, and told us, in true police fashion, all of the things that he could do.

Just then we came under a rocket attack.

Come back tomorrow to read the exciting conclusion in, "The Day I Got Arrested in Kandahar, Part 3."