Friday, November 20, 2009

Looking In The Mirrors...

Sigh. Yes. I know. I haven't posted a blog in a long time...aside from the story that I did recently. So yeah...if I had blogged during my little hiatus it wouldn't have been very positive.
Anyway. I'm blogging now. I'm more content now...we're leaving Baghdad very soon. Things are starting to wind down for us as far as public affairs is concerned. I, on the other hand, still have to layout the newspaper and distribute it until our replacements arrive.
Things have changed since my last blog. The weather has been the most drastic change. No longer are the days where we swelter in the 115+ degree heat. Since about a couple weeks ago, the temps have been nice. Partly cloudy skies and temps in the 70s-80s during the day and between 50-60 degrees at night. The rains have turned everything to a sticky, mucky mess. A precursor to the December weather at Fort Dix.
I'm still reading books and teaching the GT improvement class. It's my last class. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to do that. Not only has it kept the 'rust' off but it's helped Soldiers put themselves in a position to change their course while they're here. Many of them want to become officers while others want to re-enlist and change their MOS.
Speaking of which, that's my major change.
The Army has done it's share in changing my life. When I first enlisted, it was so I could get some money to help finish college. I was 23 years old. I started out in aviation, working on Apache helicopters. At the University of Houston, I entered the Green to Gold program but had to drop it at the end of my junior year when I had to choose between that and teaching. I met COL Beesley, he and I taught LOTC in Galena Park ISD (some of my best years teaching) and I even worked for him as his PAO. He's the one who encouraged me to re-enlist when my contract was up and showed me the light...that light being public affairs. Since then, I've deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, I've served in Germany, and I've been with the 211th MPAD for almost 8 years now. 2LT Delgado and I are the only remaining Soldiers from the original crew when the unit came into being. I've been to so many schools and training events and have been very fortunate.
What I'm getting at is...after almost 15 years of service, I'm leaving the Army after my return home from Iraq. Many have tried to talk me out of this. "You only have five years left!" they'd say. Others have encouraged me and wished me well. I've thought about this for a long time. I've talked (and argued) about this with my wife before also. When she married me, she married the military too. She's been through a lot...but the one who finalized my decision for me is Loren, my daughter.
I remember blogging about an unhappy and unnerving experience I had during my leave in May. I don't want to her to miss out on anything...including her father. I've missed a lot already. My not being home has affected her and my wife. Call it selfish...I don't care. I've seen so many kids at school missing out when it's a single parent household. I don't want that for my family.
So, I'll be saying goodbye to the Army and the 211th MPAD. I've had the privilege of working with some great guys and girls during this last deployment. It's been quite a journey. I'll miss it at times...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Karkh Area Command Graduates First Class of Strike Team Soldiers

By Sgt. 1st Class Ron Burke

BAGHDAD – Sixty-nine Iraqi Army Soldiers stood at attention on the parade field at al-Muthana Air Base, here, Oct. 19, during a graduation ceremony for the first class of the Karkh Area Command Strike Team.
IA Soldiers from six different units, that formed the new team, trained together for six weeks under the tutelage of combat advisors from the U.S. Air Force, special operations, the KAC Advisory Team, and D Troop, Division Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division.

Training focused on movement and weapons skills, advanced small unit tactics, mounted combat patrols, intelligence gathering, explosives ordinance disposal, and physical fitness training, which culminated in a combat patrol in west Rashid.
“This is the first class of the Strike Team that will eventually number over 400 Soldiers,” said Capt. John Stires, of Palatine, Ill., the KAC Advisory Team operations officer. “The Strike Team will be responsible for all quick response operations for Multi-National Division—Baghdad west of the Tigris River.”
The Strike Team was formed from collaborations between Iraqi Staff Gen. Ali Hamadi, the Karkh Area Commander and Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim, the deputy commanding general for support with MND-B.
“We are honored that you are the first members of the Strike Team,” said Ali during the ceremony. “We will serve Iraq, the Iraqi citizens and ensure security in Baghdad from insurgents and terrorists. We are very proud of the Karkh area units and this training class. Our thanks to Coalition forces who helped mold the Strike Team.”
The Soldiers of D Troop, who trained the IA Soldiers, reflected on the last six weeks they’ve spent with them before the ceremony.

“These [IA] Soldiers have a lot of combat experience but no specific methods,” said Sgt. Jose Munoz, a KAC instructor assigned to D Troop, DSTB, 1st Cav. Div. “We’re teaching them how to be more effective and make them better Soldiers,” said the Santa Barbara, Calif. native.
Sgt. Juan Bracero, another KAC instructor from Chicago, also assigned to D Troop, added that training goes back to muscle memory and they showed the Iraqis how to execute day-to-day operations and pretty soon they started doing everything on their own.
“We’ve accomplished something here,” said Spc. Ervin Lee, a cavalry scout from Columbiana, Ohio. “They knew the principles of things like room clearing and we fine-tuned that. Now they’ll be able to teach more of their own guys.”
The IA soldiers’ enthusiasm and dedication did not go unnoticed.

“We know you’ve worked hard to get here,” said Rudesheim during his speech to the Soldiers standing in formation. “You are proud examples of the Iraqi Army and your mission is more important than gaining trust. It’s about demonstrating to the Iraqi people that you can function as an elite unit within the Iraqi Army.”
With the sun was settling below the horizon, the Strike Team was called to attention, the command signaling the end of the ceremony. It may have been the end of the day, but it was the beginning of a new chapter for the IA and its Strike Team.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

VBC Service Members, Iraqi Scouts Leave Their Mark on Community

By Sgt. 1st Class Ron Burke, MND-B PAO

VICTORY BASE COMPLEX, Iraq – Twenty-five children lined up outside the entrance to Saddam Hussein’s old Flintstone Palace, on Camp Slayer, here, August 2. The boys and girls were split into two groups, each led by a volunteer service member. Maj. Gary Farley, an Iraqi Ground Forces Command Military Transition Team advisor for Multi-National Corps - Iraq, led one of the groups up the winding path to the entrance of the main structure while the other group was led around the palace to the edge of a man-made lake.

Today, the Iraqi Boy Scouts and Girl Guides of Victory Base Complex ventured out to begin a community service project and learn a little about fishing. The organization recently celebrated its one-year anniversary after establishing a scout camp and community to teach valuable scouting lessons and implement new sporting activities for the area’s youth. Over 100 service members take time from their schedules and meet with the children each Saturday.

After Iraq embraced the scouting movement during the British occupation in 1921, its Boy Scout and Girl Guide program became a member of the World Organization Scouting Movement. Due to war and instability, it has been decertified twice by the World Organization Scouting Movement. After its one year mark this past April, the program is only growing stronger.

Inside the main structure of the Flintstone Palace, Farley led the children through the doorway. The children look around, wide-eyed, at the graffiti that has accumulated over the years, and a linguist explained to the children what they were to do.

The Flintstone Palace was commissioned by Saddam Hussein for his grandchildren and modeled after the neighborhood in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Over the years, the unused structure has fallen into disrepair in some areas and is covered with graffiti. The scouts’ mission was to beautify the building after learning its history and take a break by fishing from the back porch of the building.

“Maj. Raheem wanted to do something off site,” said Farley, who is from Gowanda, N.Y. “We wanted to show the kids that this place is part of their history and that community service begins by connecting ideas and bringing people together to accomplish a mission,” he added as the linguist finished explaining what was required of the children. Maj. Raheem Falah, a member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, and Farley have worked together for several months now, organizing events for the children.

The kids wasted no time grabbing paintbrushes and paint. With VBC service members by their sides, they began white-washing the walls of the palace as other service members took care of the higher areas with rollers.

On the porch outside the palace, the water glistened as the sun slowly drifted west. Small groups of scouts and service members huddled over fishing poles, showing the children how to bait the hooks, swing the poles back and cast the lines. Once the children understood what do to, they began to cast out, disturbing the water’s smooth surface as each baited hook plopped down.

Spc. David Hughes, an ammunition specialist with 2nd Platoon, 664th Ordinance Company, 10th Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division-Baghdad, and 13-yr old Mohammad picked their spot and were baiting their line.
“I got a 2-yr old back home and I’d like someone to do this with my daughter if the opportunity came up,” said Hughes, a Branchville, S.C. native.

On the edge of the structure that resembled a balcony, Maj. Raheem blew a whistle, signaling that the groups needed to switch places. Children who were fishing eagerly climbed the steps leading to the main building, entered the rounded doorway, and picked up the brushes that their fellows dropped in the pans and began covering the spray-painted walls. Others who were painting now stood at the water’s edge with their eyes fixed on a linguist who explained how to set up their fishing poles as they were picking at the dried paint on their hands.

Back inside the main building, 1st Lt. Jacqueline Zuluaga, an ambulance platoon leader with the 256th Area Support Medical Company, 421st Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 1st Medical Command, attached to MND-B, seemed to be everywhere at once. The Florida National Guard Soldier, who was one of the event’s main planners, was shoving water bottles into the icy depths of a big cooler.

“We wanted the children to paint the palace and clean up the graffiti here,” said the Orlando native. “It’s more for them than for us. Scouting is all about giving back to the community and here they’re doing that and establishing a new footprint. This can empower them to take ownership of their community,” she said.

As the children moved from room to room, they would stop and marvel at the explosion of color on one large wall where Abdul Sajad, an artist, was hard at work painting a mural depicting a summer landscape with flowers and birds in flight.

After both groups had painted and tried their new-found skill at fishing, they lined up outside the rear entrance of the building. Each child came in, dipped their palms in colorful paint, and left their little handprints on the wall.

“The kids need to learn about giving back,” said 1st Lt. Jessica Burton, of the 644th Ordinance Detachment, 620th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 10th Sus. Bde., 1st Cav. Div., MND-B. “They can learn to take pride in their work and in their community. These kids weren’t even allowed here in Saddam’s time,” said the New Braunfels, Texas, native who serves the officer in charge of an ammunition supply point.

“The handprints signify them leaving their mark and when they come back they can say ‘Hey that’s my hand,’” said Farley as he watched the smiling children pressing their painted palms on the walls. “I hope this artwork deters any future graffiti,” he added.

Outside the main entrance, the high-pitched squeal of a power drill attracted the scouts. A sign was being fixed to the wall. It read in Arabic and English: “Restoring one place at a time. The Iraqi Boy Scouts and Girl Guides worked to improve this site. Please keep Iraq beautiful. The future of Iraq thanks you.”
“Another group of kids will come next month to continue the painting until it’s finished,” said Farley. Thanks to dedicated service members and the youth of Iraq, the eyesore at the edge of Camp Slayer can be a place of pride for the community that surrounds it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mile-long Training Trek Concludes Combat Lifesaver Class

By Sgt. 1st Class Ron Burke

BAGHDAD – As the sun slowly rose beyond the palm trees on signal hill, Soldiers worked together in two teams of nine to complete a mile-long combat lifesaver training exercise to end a three-day CLS course, here, July 22.

“Okay, everyone set?” asked Sgt. Janelle Graham, a combat medic and course instructor with Headquarters Support Company, Division Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. “You need to do a fireman’s carry from here to the quarter-mile mark.”

Soldiers in full gear lined up with stretchers, skeds and aid bags as the Sacramento, Calif. native explained the first task. On her signal, one Soldier on each team was hoisted onto the shoulders of another and the whole team shuffled down the road. On cues from the medics, teams stopped and switched ‘casualties’ and equipment so everyone got a chance to complete the first task.

The teams, sweaty and focused, worked to keep up with the demands of the medics.
“Skeds! Get your casualty on a sked! Your casualty has a gunshot wound on their left leg!” shouted Graham. As Soldiers placed their ‘casualties’ on the skeds, Graham eyed the placement of the straps across the ‘casualty’s’ chest and legs. As one team member strapped on a combat tourniquet to an ‘injured’ leg, another applied an emergency trauma bandage. Then the teams lugged their equipment and their casualty on their improvised litter to the half-mile marker.

“Okay, you need to administer IV’s,” yelled Graham as the teams reached the marker. Teams switched to four-man litters and quickly gathered items needed for an intravenous injection out of their combat lifesaver bags.

Securely strapped to her litter, Pfc. Lauren McKeehan, a supply clerk with HSC, DSTB, 1st Cav. Div., from Texarkana, Ark., extended her arm to Pfc. Kenny Lawson of Battery E, 3rd Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment from Philadelphia, who quickly applied a tourniquet and had IV fluid flowing into her vein in less than two minutes. After taping the line to her arm, Lawson, an air defense control computer operator and maintainer, held the bag of fluid aloft as he and the rest of his team took off for the finish line.

Everything the Soldiers have learned the past two days was being put to the test. Day one of instruction consisted of controlling bleeding of an extremity, opening and maintaining the airway, treating penetrating chest wounds and decompressing a tension pneumothorax. Training on day two consisted of evacuating a casualty using a sked or improvised litter, inserting a nasopharyngeal airway tube, initiating a saline lock, administering an intravenous infusion and initiating a medevac card and requesting a medical evacuation. The CLS class usually lasts five days but, in a deployed environment, there is a limited amount of time that Soldiers can be away from their daily duties so the class is taught and evaluated in three days.
“I like that there is a lot of hands-on training,” said McKeehan. “You get to interact with new people and there are a lot of things that have changed since the last time I took a CLS class in Korea.”

Lots of things are changing.

“All Soldiers are now required to be combat lifesaver certified,” said Capt. Marolyn Pearson, the division’s senior physician’s assistant assigned to HSC, DSTB, 1st Cav. Div. “If we’re in a mass casualty situation, encounter an improvised explosive device, or injuries during a patrol, there are usually one or two medics around,” she added. “If a medic is not available, a Soldier who is CLS qualified can do almost anything a medic can do.”

Fatigue set in as Graham warned about communication and teamwork when lifting and lowering the litter as McKeehan’s teammates shuffled along the side of the road, struggling, stopping and switching out from carrying the litter to carrying equipment. The end was in sight and Cpl. Michael Warren, an information technology specialist with Company B, DSTB, 1st Cav. Div., encouraged his team. “We’re almost there, keep it up!” Warren, who hails from Dexter, Mo., led his team past the finish line. The Soldiers lowered the litter and proceeded to suck in air and suck down water.

With the exercise complete for team one, Lawson withdrew the IV from McKeehan’s arm and the team moved to some shade to wait on team two. As they waited and drank water, Warren pulled out his notes and began reviewing his team for the written test that was set for later in the day.

“You really have to learn to depend on each other,” said Pfc. Seth Crowell, a supply clerk with Company A, DSTB, 1st Cav. Div. “Communication is important and I’ve also learned that you have to be conditioned or you’ll burn out physically. It was a good experience,” the Buffalo, N.Y. native said as he poured water over his head. “I have a new respect for medics.”

The combat medic who taught the class and supervised the practical exercises for the past three days was happy about the results.

“I saw a lot of good teamwork today,” said Graham. “Lawson and his team did great with the IV, they were communicating, and I think they need to work on their PT [physical training] more,” she said as she walked back to her ambulance.
“I’m proud of them,” said Graham. “They all passed and we now have 18 more combat lifesavers here to help if needed.”

Friday, July 17, 2009

Family Guy Fun...

Lots of things have changed since we've started getting ready for this deployment back in October 2008. Met lots of new people, switched from putting magazines together in InDesign to a newspaper, and gotten used to 110+ degree heat...just to name a few.

When I met SGT Soles, I figured he was a quiet kind of guy who kept to himself. Back in Bryan, when we were training for this deployment, I had a room by myself at our lovely EZ Travel Inn and, since he showed up late, he roomed with me. Pretty soon we started watching The Family Guy. I never really paid attention to that show. All I remembered about it was the fact that it came on TV and then was taken off due to some of its content.

Well, apparently it has a huge following because the more I watched it with him, the funnier it became. I mean some of the stuff you see happening is so crude and funny but it relates to life sometimes and the intro to the cartoon says it all.

I can say that I'm hooked now. The Family Guy comes on every day here in the evenings. Thanks SGT Soles, you bloody fool!! That's Stewie. He's a great character. I recently printed out many of the characters and SGT Soles and I 'assigned' them to members of our unit here after evaluating their characteristics.

For example, I'm Stewie. Everyone knows how I blow up at stuff now and again. SSG Burrell is Quagmire...without a doubt. Giggity. SGT Logue would be Meg. SGT Fardette could be Chris. Hmmmm...I'm not sure if SGT Soles and I assigned Bryan to someone. He could be SGT Risner...quite possibly. Giggity-goo. SGT Risner maintains his cool in just about any situation. 1SG Martinez or 1LT Sarratt could be Peter....but, credit to them, they don't screw up a lot like Peter does.

Anyways, as you can see, Soldiers have to find ways have fun in the office. A deployment would be extremely long and boring if we didn't. As it goes, all my blogs can't be serious or just my stories that I've written here. So, if you haven't seen The Family Guy, check it out. Don't be duckin' me, man!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe Works Magic in Baghdad

Did that title catch your attention?? "...let me tell you how healthily, how calmly I can tell you this story..."

Since I've started to take over the English portion of the GT Improvement class, I noticed that students have to read passages and then answer questions about main idea, author's point of view, or what a word means in a sentence. They also have the word knowledge portion where they get a word in a sentence and have to pick out the one-word definition from the four answer choices below.

One of the small passages on their last homework assignments was the first two paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart. Now, if you ever talk to one of my former students, you'd know that I love teaching Poe. I time it to where I can teach all the Poe stuff (Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, and The Masque of the Red Death) during Halloween. I decorate my room and everything. The kids love it and I'm pretty sure a lot of them remember it well.

Anyways, we went over the passage and the questions. I told the Soldiers that I have the complete story and if they wanted the whole thing. They all said yes so I went to work. The next day of English I came in and handed it out. We then read it out loud and I was amused at the faces that some of them were making as we were reading. They obviously haven't read that story before or haven't seen it in a long time. A lot of them liked it though...and of course, I went nuts with how and why the narrator did this and that.

I then used that piece to review main idea, vocabulary via context clues (Poe's vocabulary is extensive), and sequence of events....all needed for the AFCT (Armed Forces Classification Test) that they'll take this weekend to try to increase their GT score.

I talked to several of the Soldiers last night, asking them why they're taking the class. A couple just wanted to increase their score, a couple told me that their platoon sergeant made them take it, and there are several who are putting in a packet to become a warrant officer or will go OCS (Officer Candidate School).

For those who don't know, your GT score determines what type of job you can perform in the military. If you have a high GT score, there are more jobs that you can pick from when you sit down with a recruiter.

Next month, I'll be the primary English instructor for the class. It gives me something to do at night and keeps me fresh with my teaching stuff that I miss. I think that I'll end each class set (there are 6 classes a week for 3 weeks) with Poe.

So now I must go, "hark, it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Educational Opportunities Abound for Deployed 1st Cavalry Soldiers

By Sgt. 1st Class Ron Burke

BAGHDAD – One word sums up what a post-secondary education creates for someone: Opportunity. A person with a college degree, on average, can earn twice as much, or more, in their lifetime compared to someone who only has a high school diploma.

A degree from an accredited college or university can be a key that opens the door to a promising future. A deployed Soldier, however, cannot always attend the college of their choice and must work around their busy schedule to earn a degree online.

An increasing number of Soldiers are doing just that with the help of the Staff Sgt. Russell J. Verdugo Education Center here on Camp Victory. Between 700 to 1,000 service members a week pass through the doors for counseling and assistance in their quest for higher education.

“They [service members] can come in for any type of educational assistance and Soldiers can process and use their tuition assistance within 24 hours,” said Paul Karczewski, of Washington, D.C., and one of the three counselors who work at the education center. “We don’t process National Guard or Reserve tuition assistance here, but all active duty Soldiers can use Title 10 money for college,” he added.

The education center works closely with Central Texas College which is based in Killeen, Texas. It has a lab with computers for student use and proctors are available for examinations. The counselors and Soldiers use GoArmyEd, an online portal established in 2006, which allows students to research colleges and universities, register for classes, and request course materials and books. The portal services more than 140 accredited colleges and universities.

“The education center has helped me a lot with proctoring my exams and adding classes,” said Pfc. Randi Boardman, Joint Visitors Bureau administrator for the 1st Cavalry Division. “GoArmyEd is so easy too. I got my schedule and registration done and my materials and books were mailed to me with no problem.”

Boardman, who is from Chana, Ill., is attending Central Texas College online and plans to study architecture at Arizona State University. “I like the lecture setting, but sitting down and forcing yourself to actually read the textbook and learn the material is harder,” she said. “Luckily, I get a lot of spaces in between work so I pull out a book and work on coursework.”

The online community is just as diverse, maybe even more so, than a college lecture hall. Just down the road from division headquarters, Sgt. 1st Class Julia Palma, the Budget Manager for the 1st Cav. Div., is working to earn her Masters in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix online. “It fills the time when you’re separated from your family,” said Palma, who is from Lafayette, La.

Being deployed has not stopped the 19-year veteran from working to earn her master’s degree. “You have to be disciplined to complete online coursework,” she said. “You work it into your schedule and stay up late to complete the work.”

Discipline and dedication is what drives Sgt. Magdalena Sweesy, the executive administrative noncommissioned officer for Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim, deputy commanding general for support of the 1st Cav. Div. Sweesy is working 8-week semesters which will earn her double the college credit that a traditional semester offers.

“This is hard; I’m very busy and work after hours to complete all my class work and research,” said Sweesy, who hails from Honolulu. She is attending Barton County Community College online and aspires to major in criminology at Kansas State University in 2010. “GoArmyEd is very helpful here because of the time difference,” she said. “I don’t have to wait for someone to be in the office for registration. My career counselor is always online via email.”

Whether single or married, working in an office or not, Soldiers have increasingly jumped into the virtual world to begin their college coursework. The Army’s tuition assistance program makes it easy.

Sgt. Ryan Sweesy, one of the personal security officers for Command Sgt. Maj. Rory Malloy of the 1st Cav. Div., and husband to Sgt. Magdalena Sweesy, has started his first semester of classes. “I’ve started class work here because there are fewer distractions,” he said. “I either have a mission going out or a paper due.” Sweesy, who is from Cleveland, is attending Central Texas College online and plans to major in astronomy.

The opportunities for Soldiers who have the desire and dedication to earn a degree online outnumber the hurdles they may encounter. Time management is essential for deployed Soldiers who are working online to attain a degree.

“Make sure you’re really ready to do this because it’s so easy to say you’ll do the assignment tomorrow and put it off because you don’t have to physically go to class,” said Magdalena Sweesy. “It’s all on your initiative.”

A deployment can be an excellent opportunity for Soldiers to begin or continue their post secondary education. Determination, creativity, time management and the help of the education center here and GoArmyEd, can make that opportunity become the key that will open to many doors to a better future.