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January 2012

MH-65 Sea Ice Landing

NOME, Alaska - B-roll of a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew conducting an ice landing beside the Coast Guard Cutter Healy offshore of Nome, Alaska, on Jan. 18, 2012. Coast Guard ice landings are extremely rare, requiring extensive safety testing of ice prior to execution. U.S. Coast Guard video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler.

RE-Enlistment Ceremony

Leap frogs reenlist
Navy Chief Warrant Officer Keith Pritchett, lower left, administers the oath-of-enlistment to Petty Officer 1st Class Michelle Turner during an in-air reenlistment ceremony over Jamul, Calif., Jan. 19, 2012. Pritchett is the officer-in-charge of the U.S. Navy parachute demonstration team, the Leap Frogs, and Turner is a mass communication specialist. The Leap Frogs perform aerial parachute demonstrations across America in support of Naval Special Warfare. U.S. Navy photo by James Woods

Movie Review: Warhorse

Gold Star Dad, Robert Stokely, sends this piece about his recent experience with Steven Spielberg's latest film:

My wife and I went to a movie tonight.  Stephen Spielberg's Warhorse.  It was a debate whether to go.  War is too personal and real to us.  It is a good movie, but I am not so sure whether it was a good decision for us to go.  We both left down.

Unlike most movies this day and time, Spielberg didn't show up close and personal graphic scenes of blood and gore.   By today's standards it was pretty tame.  For that, I am appreciative.  I got it just fine that soldiers died in battle without sensationalism of bullets tearing into their torsos, or brains / guts  spilling out. If one can say this about war, Spielberg did a tasteful recreation of the horrors of war, particularly the horrors of WW I trench warfare replete with soldiers charging across barbed wire laced open fields into raging machine gun fire.  But the one thing that can't be muted down are the explosions from artillery shells, even if the lethality of the explosions was not graphically displayed.  For me, a bomb or artillery shell exploding is too too close to home given Mike was killed by an IED - an artillery shell used as the explosive charge.  Even during the Star Spangled Banner when it comes to the words "...bombs bursting...." I struggle as I bow my head, eyes closed clutching Mike's dog tag.

Warhorse is a love story about a horse whose owner loses him when his debt stricken dad has to sell him to the English Army.  It is a story of a son going off to war to find his horse and along the way, losing friends and suffering violence himself.  And the back story is the son leaves a dad at home who can't escape the horrors of war he suffered as a lad.

Warhorse is also about the brutality war had on the horses and about how innocent civilians are caught up in the harshness in the midst of just trying to live day to day.  And I once again appreciate that Spielberg got the story across without sensationalized gore.  And in a low key way Spielberg's Warhorse shows how hard war is on the family back home.

But there is one facet of Warhorse that demonstrated a vulnerability I have and I don't think I will ever live beyond.  Warhorse has a good ending.  A son gone to war comes home and brings his beloved horse with him.  It is a quietly triumphant moment with quiet love of a mother and dad lovingly greeting their son at the front gate of their farm, hardly believing it is him, and hoping with every gaze he is whole and really alive.  It is at that moment, and thankfully it came at the end of the movie for if not I don't think I could have continued watching, that I choked back sobs.  It was too real for me.  It was a vivid reminder what I did not get.  It brought back my dreams of getting that moment even before Mike left for Iraq. It hurt.

Every parent, for that matter every family member, dreams and longs for their soldier to come home.  They yearn for that moment to look with long awaited anticipation and see a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, mom or dad come home from war.  They look with anticipation to see for themselves they are alive, they are "o.k."   And as I think about it now, and from time to time, I am grief stricken to the point of being sick on my stomach that we didn't get to run across the parade field and bear hug Mike and cry tears of joy.  Rather, we gently touched a Flag Draped Casket with tears of grief.    And when we did, we were soon to be saying a final goodbye as our life story physically connected to Mike ended as we laid him to rest.

As I choked back sobs tonight, I did so for another reason besides realizing again what I will never have.  I cried because I also got a visual image through Spielberg's art of a son who did come home from war, and was struck by what his parents were feeling - thankful and happy.  And I relish the opportunity to witness those whose sons and daughters came home.  Recently, thanks to Facebook, I saw one of Mike's battle buddies come home and through cyberspace, I gave him a hug.

Why put myself through that?  Why not just hide away and avoid it?  Because I owe it to Mike to be happy for his friends and to any family who gets their loved one home from war.  I owe it to them.  And I owe it to myself    It is not their fault Mike didn't come home.  And for those who have allowed me, I cherish the opportunity to share their joy, even selfishly live vicariously through their's.  And sometimes, I selfishly ask them to give their loved one an extra tight squeeze for me when they hug them....  It is so kind and unselfish of these families to welcome us when you could understand if they avoided us.  After all, we are not the face you want to see when it comes to how war turns out.   I admire them that they don't, for that is truly unselfish of them.  They do it without relinquishing their own joy, or feeling pity for us.  They make us feel like family. And I am reminded in that example of their unselfishness to share their joy with us that Mike left us a legacy bigger than treasure rooms could hold.  He left us battle buddies and their families to be our friends who would not turn their back on us.

As I reflect tonight as the Moon Over Yusufiyah shines through the briskly cold night, I offer this advice to parents out there, and the rest of their family as well.  If you ever find yourself feeling like you want to wring your child's neck, whether young, teen, or grown, think of how good it feels to hug it instead.  And then hug them, and give them an extra squeeze for me....

Robert Stokely
proud dad SGT Mike Stokely
KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah

Haditha Trial is Over

No one denies that the consequences of November 19, 2005 were tragic, least of all SSgt Frank Wuterich.  But the fact of the matter is that he has now been totally exonerated of the homicide charges brought against him by the government and the media.  For six years, he’s had his name dragged through the mud.  Today, we hope, is the beginning of his redemption.  He has always publicly taken responsibility for the lawful actions of his squad that day, as portrayed in his interview with CBS 60 Minutes.  Today’s agreement is completely consistent with everything he has always said.  Which is that the decisions he made that day led to an outcome that was tragic and regrettable and he takes responsibility for them, but they were not criminal.” - Neal Pucket, lead attorney for Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich

The North County Times has an article on the end of the Haditha trials.  Staff Sergeant Wuterich entered into a Plea agreement. 

...Seven of those eight saw their cases resolved, some with the withdrawal of charges in exchange for their testimony, one acquitted at trial and others having charges dropped entirely.

Wuterich, a 31-year-old Murrieta single father of three girls, had pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors appeared ready to strike a plea deal last week after a series of their own witnesses gave testimony largely beneficial to Wuterich's position that he believed he and his men were under attack and responded in keeping with their training...

See the North County Times article for details.

For those of you who wondered about where we were on this, we've been on it for years.  Some recommended links:

Blackfive exclusive interview with Captain James Kimber


Waiting for Haditha by Grim

Military Justice: A Brief Primer
by Greyhawk


Obama's political timetable for Afghan withdrawal

President Obama's decision to deploy troops to Afghanistan and announce their withdrawal during the same speech was one of the sorriest examples of politics trumping policy in my memory. Telling your enemy "Oh yeah, we are coming to get you" and then adding " But we have to come home in a year and a half because my boss is running for reelection" makes zero strategic sense and shows a tremendously callous attitude toward the lives of the men and women who went to war. Good people died so Obama could pretend to fulfill his mouthy campaign promises to go and win the "good war".

Any doubts about this cynical political hackery are dispelled in a new book that shows how O disregarded the advice of his military leadership and followed that of his collection of Chicago tools.

Obama began the discussion by explaining that he wanted the 23,000 forces out of Afghanistan by July 2012, five months sooner than Petraeus had recommended. Mullen thought a drawdown by July would sacrifice virtually the entire fighting season. Both Gates and Clinton also expressed reservations. When Obama looked to Gates in an attempt to achieve consensus, the defense secretary demurred that there was a big difference between July and an “end of summer” drawdown.
Can anyone think of a reason why it would be so important that the troops were out during the Summer of 2012 as opposed to the end of the year? I can, and it is not one that reflects well on the honor of the President. The only thing that would be substantially affected is his job security and hois chance to campaign as the "War Ender". His base would be outraged if he failed to "end" the war, and so he decided that their support was more important that the lives he would blithely throw away.  Petraeus, Mullen, Gates and Clinton- his entire unbiased professional strategic advisorship- told him that he was trashing the gains that the blood of our troops bought. But who was he listening to?
“Biden wins, Petraeus loses” was the headline the following morning as news of the president’s decision began to leak.
Noted military genius Joe Biden, and what did the professionals think?
(Jack) Keane, the retired general, denounced the decision and told Petraeus in another e-mail that it appeared to undermine his counterinsurgency campaign just as it was finally gaining momentum. “My god, Dave, they just pushed your recommendations aside and changed the war fundamentally. What a mess,” Keane wrote. Petraeus did not respond.
Petraeus kept his mouth shut because he is another professional and even though US soldiers were just used as pawns in the reelection campaign of a man unworthy of commanding them, he said nothing. He understood that elections have consequences and we elected the shallow narcissist who sits in the big chair, so we gotta live with that. And the troops gotta die with it. Gen. Petraeus said it perfectly when he noted that he wouldn't resign over this. He said the troops can't quit, so why should he?
By far the most dramatic moment, and a lesson for students of civil-military relations, came at the end of the hearing when Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, asked Petraeus whether he supported the president’s drawdown plan and what would have to happen before he would ever consider resigning his command. “I obviously support the ultimate decision of the commander in chief,” Petraeus said. “That is, we take an oath to obey the orders of the president of the United States and indeed do that.”

“And if you couldn’t do that — if you couldn’t do that consistent with that oath — you would resign?” asked Levin.

“Well, I’m not a quitter, chairman,” Petraeus said. “I’ve actually had people e-mail me and say that I should quit, and actually this is something I’ve thought a bit about.”

“I’m sure you have,” Levin said.

“And I don’t think it is the place for a commander to actually consider that step unless you are in a very, very dire situation,” said Petraeus. “ . . . I actually feel quite strongly about this. Our troopers don’t get to quit, and I don’t think commanders should contemplate that, again, as any kind of idle action. That would be an extraordinary action, in my view. And at the end of the day, this is not about me, it’s not about an individual commander, it’s not about a reputation. This is about our country. And the best step for our country, with the commander in chief having made a decision, is to execute that decision to the very best of our ability.”
Amen Sir. Would that you were serving the best interests of our great country rather than the political ambitions of a small man. Petraeus did the right thing and that is unsurprising. The one institution America can always count on is our military. But when it comes time to vote for President of the United States and decide who will serve as Commander in Chief, the shameful actions of the current placeholder should lead to his being out out to pasture. The troops can't quit, but we can sure fire their civilian leader. We damn sure should.

Marine video fallout: Smartphones an asset or liability?

The usual introspection has begun at DoD concerning the fallout from the Marine micturition video.  Charles Hoskinson at POLITICO provides the backstory and the current thinking about the matter:

In the post-Sept. 11 era, an overseas deployment no longer means being out of touch for days or weeks at a time. Nearly any service member can use a smartphone to communicate instantly with family and friends. And even forward-operating bases in Afghanistan and other hot spots have Internet cafes where troops can send emails, update their blogs or upload to YouTube videos that can quickly go viral worldwide.

Those communications can be as positive as a photo of Marines shielding Afghan civilians from enemy fire. Or as negative as a video that inspires Afghans and others to believe that the United States is urinating on their values.

At the Pentagon, Wilson readily acknowledged the challenges. “We have a hell of a lot to do and a long way to go for policy to catch up to technology,” he said.

The problem, crudely put, is one “Aw, shit” kills hundreds of “Atta boys”.  There is indeed a positive role for the use of smartphones by troops.  But the downside is also huge.

Simply put: With camera-ready smartphones within reach of nearly every service member, is technology outpacing efforts by military commanders to harness it?

Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Stewart Upton lays out some of the upside:

Mobile phones also are useful tools for communicating on the battlefield and for recording enemy tactics or evidence of possible war crimes, he said.

The downside, as witnessed by the urination video, can be pretty bad as well. 

Here’s a key point:

Local commanders have the option of barring the use of mobile phones and Internet access, but that’s likely to have a devastating impact on morale, Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Stewart Upton said.


“I think such a decision would be throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Upton said. “Everyone needs to be trained in smart social media use. You can’t have a warrior out there that isn’t trained to think about the first, second and third implications of uploading a video like this to YouTube.”

I agree. Probably the most puzzling aspect of the urination video is how or why it ended up on YouTube.  I don’t think there are many out there who watched the video that condone the action of the subject Marines.  The disagreement is on how to describe what they did, with one side using descriptors such as “desecration” and “disrespectful” and the other trotting out words such as “atrocity”.

This was not an atrocity by any stretch, but it was stupid.  Even worse, however, was displaying the stupidity for the whole world to see.  And that goes back to the point made in the article by Upton – “You can’t have a warrior out there that isn’t trained to think about the first, second and third implications of uploading a video like this to YouTube.”  The unanswered question is, “what were they thinking?!”

Each Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman who knows the overarching goals of the wars we are fighting should inherently understand the damage something like that does to its accomplishment.  Common sense policy and training are how you avoid (or lessen) situations like that. Banning smartphones would be the worst thing the military could do.  But, frankly, this is a lesson that should have been learned earlier, in all honesty:

The Abu Ghraib scandal was devastating because it brought the image of the United States down to the level of its enemies in the eyes of Iraqis, said the retired officer, who witnessed some of the fallout among the local population. But it could have been worse.

“Imagine if we had video of that stuff. … Imagine how bad that would have been,” he said. “The question is how do we get ahead of this so we avoid the next one?”

I’m not saying there’s another Abu Ghraib out there but I am saying that this sort of thing should have been anticipated.  That doesn’t excuse the Marines, obviously.  However, as the article points out, and the DoD spokesman articulates above, “We have a hell of a lot to do and a long way to go for policy to catch up to technology.”

It’s time.  In fact, it is past time.  Just don’t, as LTC Upton says, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Cruise ship captain- Sheepdog fail

Francesco Schettino is a name that will linger in ignominious shame with the stench of cowardice and failure all over it. He is the ex-captain of a cruise ship that he drove onto the rocks and the architect of the deaths of passengers he was duty bound to safeguard. That he deserves to be vilified would seem to be a non-controversial idea. But what fun would that be, and so we get pieces like this one in the Guardian.

Schettino will undoubtedly be vilified for his actions – but how many of us can say that we would not have done the same thing?

Well I wouldn't have and I think there are quite a few others here in our little community of sheepdogs who could say the same. The author, a psychologist, is willing to excuse Schettino from the responsibility he volunteered for.

Schettino's actions may seem spineless, but of course that is easy for us to say in the cold light of day.

Schettino's actions were spineless, and that is easy to say, regardless of the time of day. But let's get back to why the doc says should not vilify.

This is why training is so important. Individuals who regularly have to deal with danger need to be trained to cope with instincts of self-preservation. With training, we can learn to recognise and evaluate danger and develop coping strategies. Cruise liners are not supposed to sink so I expect that any training he did have was not one that captured the reality of the unfolding disaster last Friday.

WTF? Really? The idea that a cruise ship captain would not receive extensive training in what to do in the event of a crash is just stunningly, mind-numbingly dense. Is this guy really a PhD? Wow, talk about an academic completely disconnected from reality. What exactly does he think they train cruise ship captains to do, chat up blondes while drinking at the bar?

Given his chance again, I doubt Schettino would have done the same thing.

Well thankfully Schettino will not get another chance to do the same thing. And if they had another chance, I doubt the people he killed would do the same thing again by trusting him to captain their ship. Some jobs are more important because they involve a responsibility for the safety and lives of others. The people who choose these jobs are called sheepdogs and along with that title comes the expectation that they will not abandon ship. Psychology Boy thinks  heaping opprobrium on the failure that is ex-captain Schettino is wrong. He fails to understand that vilification serves an important purpose: It provides preemptive peer pressure that can help stop a wobbly spine from falling all the way out.

Our psych rightly references the fight or flight response and of course this comes into play. But there are two reasons vilification serves a valid purpose. First, the fear of it will stop some folks from taking jobs they are not suited for. Second, the fear of losing the respect of peers can provide the resolve necessary to keep a captain on the bridge rather than elbowing women and children out of his way as he scurries to a lifeboat. When neither of those works and an unfit guardian runs from his post, scorn and stigma should follow. Yes it punishes the malefactor, as well it should. It also serves as a warning to those who would follow in his footsteps. No one is forced to take a job where the lives of others ride on their shoulders or to accept the prestige inherent in these positions. So when someone does they should know disgrace will follow if they shirk this responsibility or wilt under pressure.

A dose of that tough love failed to save Schettino from dishonor when he caught a well-deserved earful from a fellow mariner.

He is Gregorio De Falco, 46, the Livorno port authority chief, who was on duty when the Costa Concordia ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

Outraged by the events unfolding on that fateful night, De Falco yelled to the captain: "Go back aboard, damn it!

But it may still stand as an object lesson for the next guy faced with that life or death decision. So let's join Signore De Falco and give Schettino the vilification he has earned by calling him a gutless weasel whose showboating and cowardice killed innocent people. Enjoy prison, you wretched excuse for a man.

The last Haditha Marine about to walk free?

He damn sure should. Here are a couple of looks at the non-massacre in Haditha one from Sgt Tim Sumner and another by me (w/ some help from Grim. Bottom line? The loss of innocent life at Haditha was a tragedy, and the prosecution persecution of the Marines involved was a travesty. SSG Frank Wuterich seems very close to some well-deserved vindication.

Camp Pendleton, Calif. -- Defend Our Marines has learned there is a deal on the table inside a Camp Pendleton courtroom where SSgt Frank D Wuterich now balances choices that will determine the rest of life. The 31-year-old father of three can bite the proverbial bullet and ask for administrative separation, or he can dig in his heels and fight for the principles he has already proved he is willing to die for.

Another option, considered less likely but more compelling, is a “Directed Verdict,” in which the judge tells the government it hasn’t made its case in all or some of the specifications of the criminal complaint. Military lawyer Kevin McDermott, an Orange County-based attorney who has been defending Marines for his entire career, says a directed verdict sends a potent message to panelists that the government has it wrong. ”A snippet of evidence in every charge” is all military judge LtCol David Jones has to take umbrage with to cast doubt on the entire prosecution case, he said.

Can the Afghans aggregate their fecal matter?

This piece is just fun and has all the things a great story should: War, history, outrage and.....sh*t.

A few minutes before the beginning of a Greek mythology class at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad, for which I'd prepared to lecture on Alexander the Great's swift invasion but treacherous occupation of Afghanistan, my best student stomped into the classroom, slammed his M4 down on the table, and announced, "I can't take their shit anymore!"

After his classmates and I had calmed him down, he explained that the walls, stall door, and floor of the toilet he'd just used were smeared with feces. They were always smeared with feces, he complained. He was furious about being forced daily to use facilities that were, as he put it, "Inhumanely, barbarically unhygienic and filthy." He and his unit shared their toilet with the ANA, as they had been ordered to do by their commanding officers-"hearts and minds." And it was the custom of the ANA to wipe themselves with their hands, smear their excrement on the walls of the toilette, and rinse their hands in the sink, which left the sinks reeking, a reek made especially acrid and pungent by the Afghans' high intake of goat meat and goat milk. While brushing his teeth, my student often had to struggle to keep down his gorge.