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The Mouse that ROARED!

Friends, I apologize for the length... and my absence. My computer took a crap on me and I had to buy another one. That, plus the workload, has kept me offline and away from ya'll. I'm very much alive and kicking... just read to find out how

The mouse that ROARED!

The military is a unique institution complete with a set of rules and hierarchy thru which one must carefully tread, that is, if one is smart. The restrictions inherent in the military system are usually absent in a civilian company. In the civilian world, if a worker has a suggestion, he/she can submit a proposal thru a “process improvement” program and hopefully get the suggestion reviewed. If lucky, the suggestion will become the new standard and the company overall will benefit from the improvement. At least that’s the theory. Sometimes that’s the case. Submitting a recommendation or complaint – with suggested improvements, is an accepted practice in corporate America. And why? Because capitalism usually rewards the most efficient, most adept companies.

The military is no company. Now it is an organization, but that strict hierarchical structure I mentioned earlier occasionally impedes progress. One can get in trouble for going “above one’s station” with a problem or suggestion because Commanders at all levels are empowered to implement change and improvements at their respective levels. Plus, Commanders don’t want to draw undue attention to themselves by making waves. The military is very conservative and often Commanders are hesitant to speak out for fear of a bad evaluation or other, more subtle “punishment.” Hurray for the troops who have a Commander brave enough to buck the system – for a worthy suggestion! Soldiers are often viewed as troublemakers for bucking the system, so complaints are grumbled, suggestions are made then paid lip service, nothing changes and Soldiers become disgruntled, but what’s worse – the overall mission can suffer or be distorted and what’s worse – Soldiers stop caring.

That whole process played out for me recently. I talk to locals remember? We try to find out what the bad guys are doing and stop them before they can wreak more havoc on this chaotic, fractured society. I’m like hundreds of others who are charged with the responsibility of getting the most complete information possible, passing it thru the system where it eventually gets to the Battle space owner, or BSO (usually an infantry Lieutenant Colonel – LTC). The BSO can take action against the bad guys if he feels the information is correct, verified and timely. There can be different outcomes of those actions with various levels of success. Some of you might recall hearing on the news the horrible consequences of actioning bad information. Unfortunately, that outcome is a painful facet of war.

Well, an indirect consequence of my job is to help the US “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, to foster faith in their government, trust in the Coalition Forces who are fighting insurgents, and get them to believe our mission of having their best interests at heart. Let me tell ya, everything we as foreigners do in this country has an impact on Afghan impressions of us – from interacting with the kids in town, to attending town hall meetings, to building cell phone towers, to repairing roads, to delivering humanitarian aid, to giving classes on crop rotation and animal husbandry and to taking bad guys off the street. The last part – dealing with bad guys – is the trickiest.

Everyone wants the bad guys off the street. They emplace IEDs which injure or kill both US and local Afghans. They shoot mortars at US/Afghan bases which injure/kill Soldiers from both countries. They coerce and extort bribes from local shop owners who sometimes get raided. They do a lot of crazy stuff. So when Uncle Sugar (code name for US Army – or the military) takes the bad guys off the street most people are happy, we “win the hearts and minds” of the locals and insurgent activity decreases in that area for awhile. That is, unless the innate, cultural Afghan attribute of corruption distorts or negates our success.

Corruption within Afghan society is omnipresent. If someone is put in jail – a bribe will get him released. If someone wants a coveted job – a bribe will get him hired. If someone is gravely injured – a bribe will buy the medicine which is stolen from the hospitals and sold on the black market. If someone wants his kid in school – a bribe will guarantee a place. The entire country is like this from top to bottom, and it can negatively impact my job of building trust between the locals and US forces and between locals and their government. It’s this inherent corruption that began to eat at my psyche.

Fellow collectors who do this job at other locations in Afghanistan experience the same frustrations as I do, tell me of their experiences with corruption and how it thwarts our big objective of “winning the hearts and minds.” It hit home for the third time on this deployment when a team member had to appease an irate local with whom we had been meeting because corruption not only ruined the work we had been doing with him, but also resulted in the deaths of innocent villagers in his area. I understood the guy’s frustration – why should he work with us if nothing comes of it but dead villagers? Why do we go from being the good guys to being the bad guys when Afghan corruption negates our success?

I stewed on this and previous incidents for a couple days – and when I stew, thoughts rumble around inside my head. The only way to clear them and get closure is to write them down – mainly so I can understand them, put them in perspective. Well, that writing became a three page discourse on how a lot of our work here gets jacked up because of Afghan corruption and has the effect of “losing the hearts and minds” of the people whom we are supposed to win over. Some of our national policies and goals for Afghanistan are being completely undermined by the widespread corruption at all levels of Afghan society.

At the local level we are doing everything right. BSO’s are doing everything right. We are following guidance emanating from the highest levels of the military and yet – often we become the bad guys in the eyes of the Afghans. With all this nonsense and frustration bubbling up inside me, affecting our work and our morale I decided to send those three pages of thoughts to someone – General Stanley McChrystal. He’s the ultimate military dude in charge over here. Yeah, I emailed the king.

Don’t freak out, I had my reasons, which at the time I thought were relevant. I kinda wish I could say I “drunk emailed” him, sorta like what one does after a night out when one “drunk dials” friends. Not that I could drunk email GEN McChrystal – we’re not allowed to drink here. But on a more realistic note – the last thing I want to do when I’m drunk is get behind the keyboard of my computer. Well, I don’t want to get behind the wheel of my car either, but that’s not possible because my car is in Texas.

“But, WHY did you email GEN McChrystal, Chief?” I can’t tell you how many times I heard that question from everyone. I guess, maybe it’s because I’m dumb like that – hear me out. First, my team is designated General Support (GS) to the big guys at HQ (we work for HQ AND the local BSO) but we don’t report to the local unit. I ensure we “pay the rent” here so to speak by working our butts off. Being GS gives us a level of immunity from local control – which we wouldn’t enjoy if the team was in a Direct Support (DS) role. Had we been DS – I might not have sent the email.

Second, collectors throughout the country suffer from the same negative effects Afghan corruption has on “winning the hearts and minds”, a policy GEN McChrystal promotes country-wide. The issues are not local based – they are national. If we must engage government at all levels, yet lose Afghan support and are seen as the bad guys when engagement works against us – then the issue of engagement must be addressed at a much higher level.

Third, I honestly didn’t know or think I’d get much of a response – let alone a visit from “the Man.” But he’s like that, I discovered.

Fourth, I’ve been associated with the military over 26 years now, am somewhat articulate, and pretty much an expert in my field. My team has done tremendous work, backed up by quantifiable results. We “pay the rent” here and then some – I think I spoke for many of us collectors.

And finally, the main reason why I emailed GEN McChrystal directly – his email address is in our global address book. Yeah, and he answers his email! Like I said, I was kinda shocked – half expecting there to be an aide or staffer who tackles the probable flood of email a man of his stature and position must get. But no, the General emailed me back.

I detailed how we at the ground level are working to implement his policies and yet are coming up short because of the inherent corruption everywhere. The US can’t win against Afghan corruption in the long run and I said so, and a few other related things. You know what he did? He came to visit us two days later. No kidding! I nearly shat myself when I saw his response. He wanted to hear firsthand what kind of problems we’re up against, how the average Afghan views our work and how we’d address the problems if we could implement changes.

Well let me tell ya, the days between telling my team what I did and the General’s visit were a bit unusual to say the least. I felt like “Pariah Carey” for awhile. Everyone was freaking out when they found out “the King is coming, the King is coming.” Honestly, I was kinda hesitant to send the email in the first place, but as I hit send, I figured I could spend my retirement years breaking rocks and mowing lawns at Ft. Leavenworth just as easy as lounging on a beach in the Caribbean – and it’d cost me a lot less!

At first – the team was furiously incredulous. Imagine, you’re a young, twentysomething junior enlisted Soldier who’s intimidated by your local company commander and your boss tells you he’s invited the Commander of US forces in Afghanistan for a visit and that Commander wants to hear your opinion on the problems and issues you encounter doing your job. A bit daunting wouldn’t you say? I let them loudly yell and cuss me for a good five minutes – they probably needed more. No one slept that night – including me. I hadn’t slept since hitting the Send button, but I was running on adrenaline.

I also had to tell my immediate Boss – the company commander my junior Soldiers avoid. He’s actually a great guy and really “gets” what we’re trying to do here. He totally supports us every way he can (and No, he’s not on my distro list for the update!) It was kinda funny: I got him alone in one of my work areas and asked him to hear me out first. I explained the frustration we all felt then told him of the email and the General’s visit the next day. Hahahaha – his eyes bugged out and his face got red. I half expected him to launch outta his chair and go for my throat, but he just sat there, waiting for more details – which I provided in copious detail. Then he started asking questions about the email – so I handed him the printed version. I knew he’d want to see just what I had sent. Thankfully, he read & listened with an open mind – and most importantly – he understood the big picture issue I tried to highlight. Whew, that was a relief! Now, the sweating began – telling the Battalion Commander.

It’s so strange, sending an email to the King was the easy part: Write, Edit and Send. Dealing with the hysteria after the General says he’s coming to visit was the hard part. The Circus was coming to town and Everybody wanted to know what I had said. My poor team mates were now under the microscope – but we had nothing to hide, we do everything by the book, who cares if they scrutinize us – they may learn something. Members of my unit gave us sideways looks, the local bigwigs kinda danced around me at the daily meetings (business as usual, right?), those who we support thought I was trying to stab them in the back by emailing the General. (Local Commanders are empowered to confront and address issues at their levels, remember?)

The senior Commander for the entire area also owns the base on which we live called me to his office. “Yes Sir! Yes Sir! Three bags full...!” I responded and high tailed it to his castle. The last thing I had wanted to do was piss off the guy whose units and Soldiers we support. Too late….

He’s not a bad guy, from the few minutes I spent with him. He began by telling me I’m under no obligation to reveal the dialogue GEN McChrystal and I shared (God, that sounds strange), by strategically explaining his position and goals and by trying to get me to tell him what my email said. (To my knowledge, the General hadn’t shared it with anyone local.) I assured him our team is very happy to support and work with his organization and that we’ve got no issue with anyone locally – but that the problem is national in nature. As I left I gave him a printed copy of the email, to answer his curiosity. I didn’t want there to be any lingering doubts as to what I had sent. I mean, if the General is the King, this guy is at least a Duke.

The day of the meeting was sooooo surreal. We had breakfast as usual, returned to the office – I had to brush and floss! I gave a pep talk to the sweaty-palmed, anxious, unnaturally-quiet, freshly-washed-and-scrubbed team and headed off to the castle. Have ya seen the movie The Devil Wears Prada? Remember one of the opening scenes when the Meryl Streep character arrives at the office unexpectedly in the morning and everyone scurries around like rats, trying to get out of the way or in the right place, or whatever? Well, that was life in the castle that morning. I was abit anxious myself.

Our Battalion Commander had flown in the night before and brought with her the lackey stand-in for our Command Sergeant Major. Both were present as was my Company Commander and my team. I half expected the conference room to be full of all kinds of brass, ash and trash – but it was empty, except for us – the General wanted to speak only to the team, thankfully. I still half expected to walk away a Private, but what the hell, it was showtime….

We’re waiting, and the man strides into the room. He’s a tall one, GEN McChrystal. Look, all I knew about him before emailing was that he eats one meal a day and runs like 8 miles every morning. He reminded me of a giant, thin Redwood tree, minus the moss and branches of course. He’s 6’5” or something and really lean. GEN McChrystal brought with him Major General (MG) Flynn, the most senior person responsible for intelligence in Afghanistan. He’s more manageable – probably 6’ tall, but just as lean. Reminds me of how much I hate running.

“Where’s Todd?” (gulp!) the General called out... Of course I stride right up to him, hand outstretched, big smile on my face, “Good Morning Sir, that’s me.” I think I immediately lost another patch of hair on my head at that exact moment. Thank God I didn’t fart. We shook hands, he invited everyone to sit down, and he prefaced the meeting by stating something to the effect that “no one should be mad that I emailed him” “People should be unafraid to email someone… blah, blah, blah.” OMG, what a relief, maybe I will keep my rank.

We talked about everything I had sent in the email and a few additional topics. We had some spirited discussions and thankfully two of my team members spoke up – adding very salient points to the topics at hand. Direct, engaging, sharp, intelligent, lively, pointed – all attributes I’d use to describe both Generals afterward. We may not have gained all we wanted from the meeting, but the team left the Generals with a better understanding of how we use everything at our disposal to implement his policies and what we think will help the overall mission to succeed (from the micro-level), in spite of the policies which undermine us on a daily basis.

I think I finally had a decent night’s rest that day. It’s still strange to think I emailed the King and he came to visit. It’s almost as if it didn’t happen – but enough people remind me of it that I guess it did. Well, it’s kinda embarrassing, and nothing I plan to do again (my boss made me promise to email him first – hahahaha) but at least I highlighted something important that will hopefully get addressed and corrected. And of course, the team got to meet the General. That’s always a bonus – just another day in the insane life of Todd – the mouse that roared.

Hope y’all have a good day, and don't be afraid to speak up about something that is wrong.

FOB Salerno Afghanistan

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