Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Yon vs Fulham, NO CONTEST...

I just read two very different opinion articles: the first, by Michael Yon, the second by Peter Fulham.

Yon is 44. He did a stint many years ago in the US Army’s Special Forces, and now, as an independent blogger correspondent, has been embedded off and on for the last several years with soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Conversely, at 18, Fulham is a prep school student in Delaware.

On the two main fronts of The Terror War, as far as covering it from “where the fighters meet the fight,” Michael Yon has been one of THE most objective chroniclers I’ve found. In fact, a couple years ago his critical observations resulted in a refusal by the Army to allow him to re-embed. Lucky for us, the army had a change of heart, or was forced to it. In fact, his “tell it like it is reporting” along with his willingness to suffer the same fate for weeks on end, right along with the dirtiest, scruffiest grunts out there, has endeared Yon with most low to mid-level elements of US and British warfighters.

Young Master Fulham’s opinion piece is titled, “When will young Americans get angry about the war?" His concern is that many of his peers are bored with it all, that because our young warfighters are volunteers and not drafted, he grouses: “Why should we worry when we have no personal stake in the conflict?”

I’ll grudgingly give him that; actually, he makes a good point: most folks today have seemed to have lost interest in what we are doing in Iraq, and NOT just young people.

Yon, on the other hand, is ALSO concerned with what the average American thinks about the war in Iraq; only Yon’s concerns are based on what he’s seen “over there.” In his words, “Our soldiers are turning defeat and disaster into victory and hope. But we could still fumble—if the American people don’t hear the truth now. There remain serious perils in Iraq and this is a time for action.” (I suspect Yon plans to vote for John McCain…)

Now, from the knee-jerk cataleptic antiwar side, here’s more from the Fulham boy:

“American students have an obligation to be outraged about the war in Iraq — not just disapproving of it. We need to make this administration and the remaining pro-war lawmakers start to worry.

Young people need to get involved — and soon. We must organize protests. We must write letters to the editor. Most important, we must vote for a president who will acknowledge and act upon our anti-war sentiment. We have wavered too long on the fringe of electoral irrelevance, and 2008 is the year to fix this problem.”

Comments like the ones from this preppy kid in Delaware are exactly what’s got Yon so alarmed. The kid’s heart seems in the right place, he seems to be against war for being against war’s sake, but other than the two reasons he lists as to why this war should immediately end—“…its steep death toll and mounting costs…”—he seems totally unaware of WHY young volunteers continue to go back over there, tour after tour, at great risk to themselves.

If Fulham would take just a moment to look beyond the most recent Democrat talking points as to why we should immediately abandon Iraq (to Al Qaeda, albeit a trounced one, and to the Iranians), he might want to read what Michael Yon had to say about that in his recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed article:

“…I may well have spent more time embedded with combat units in Iraq than any other journalist alive. I have seen this war – and our part in it – at its brutal worst. And I say the transformation over the last 14 months is little short of miraculous.

The change goes far beyond the statistical decline in casualties or incidents of violence. A young Iraqi translator, wounded in battle and fearing death, asked an American commander to bury his heart in America. Iraqi Special Forces units took to the streets to track down terrorists who killed American soldiers. The U.S. military is the most respected institution in Iraq, and many Iraqi boys dream of becoming American soldiers. Yes, young Iraqi boys know about "…

…Iraqis came to respect American soldiers as warriors who would protect them from terror gangs. But Iraqis also discovered that these great warriors are even happier helping rebuild a clinic, school or a neighborhood. They learned that the American soldier is not only the most dangerous enemy in the world, but one of the best friends a neighborhood can have…"

So, in partial answer to Squire Fulham, war in and of itself is not evil; sometimes wars MUST be fought, and in the interest of civilization, including the continuation of Mr. Fulham’s safe little piece of it, those wars must be waged until won. American youth in Iraq regularly risk having to give “the last full measure,” and most do so entirely for selfless and decent reasons: because of the men and women they serve with, because they are professionals, AND, because, slowly but surely, they see that they are doing something truly wonderful and inspirational: they are breathing life into a new nation, even as they defeat the people who would destroy us.

Yet, Fulham, completely unaware of the miracles being accomplished in Iraq by HIS peers, continues to agonize:

“I can't help but imagine that the tone in high school was different in 1970, as the Vietnam War raged and 18-year-olds were sent into its deadly grinder. There must have been anger and no small amount of fear. The idea of a draft is almost laughable today. So we don't worry. We live our lives.”

I’m sorry, but I have to say it. How pitiful. The kid whines that none of his well-to-do schoolmates (AND him) give a fig enough to take to the streets (all Fulham does is write about it), even as he whimpers about how scary it must be for 18-year-olds to go off to war. Instead, totally inconsequential, he admits that all he and his buds do is “live our lives.”

To this pathetic lad I say, there ARE some things worth fighting and dying for. Bringing democracy and a chance at peace to Iraqis seems like a pretty noble thing to do, whether or not you agree in the reasons that brought us to it.

When it comes to the money we are spending, I say “The costs be damned.” The price of leaving the job undone would be FAR more costly, and not just in money and lives. To date, we’ve lost 4000 precious Americans in Iraq. To properly honor THEM we MUST stay until Iraqis are able to go it alone, whether it takes one, two, or even five more years to do so, EVEN if it costs a TRILLION plus dollars. And to the naysayers that claim the Iraqis aren't stepping up to the task, Yon, who knows, says that they ARE.

Being against war because it’s costly in lives and money has got to be THE most cynical of reasons. Notice that Fulham never once mentions being against the war because of ethical or moral grounds; I suspect that’s because he can’t substantiate such reasons. Thank goodness that we DON’T have the draft, as it keeps self-serving, wimpy individuals like Fulham and his preppy friends from being forced to serve alongside the like of truly brilliant young people who at this very moment are putting service over self, while continuing to do so, year after year, tour after tour.

(And yes, Michael Yon DOES have an axe to grind. HE has spent years in the region and KNOWS that we DO have HUGELY important national interests there; and if we simply wash our hands of the Iraqis, “cut our losses,” and run away from our responsibilities there, we will, in effect, be voluntarily ending ANY influence we have in that part of the world, and probably in the rest of the world as well).

He also knows that the best way to destroy the fabric of our marvelous military is to withdraw even as they are winning. Now that WOULD be immoral. Ask them if they want to come home now; most will say, “Yes, AFTER we’ve accomplished the mission!" If ANYONE knows if this war is the right thing to continue with, THEY DO! Listen to them.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Flying China Airlines, Northwest, and "Economy Heaven"

Amadeo, one of my longtime blog buddies, posted recently on his airline flight to the Philippines from his home base in the San Francisco area. His observations inspired me to write some comments here about my own recent “round tripper” to Phoenix.

It always astounds me how MOST things go so smoothly (and comparatively quickly) on these modern long distance sky treks. I tend to look at these things from the perspective of history; like, instead of pondering miserably on how LONG a 14 hour flight to LA is, I’ll think back to how it was for a guy like Andrew Jackson, our 7th president, who wrote of taking weeks to make the trip between Washington D.C. and his home near Nashville, a beautiful spot in Central Tennessee called The Hermitage. That was back in the 1820s and 30s when there were not as yet even railroads, or ANY roads at all for that matter, at least none that were readily passable for more than a few miles at a stretch. Most of the traveling back then was done by boat, using whatever rivers happened to be going in the general direction of one’s eventual destination.

Now, here in 2008, from the time I leave my home in Angeles City by car for the two hour ride to the Manila Airport, to the time I arrive at my parents’ house in Saginaw, it takes not more than 24 hours. Half way around the world in a day, and yet it’s not even something we marvel at anymore! I KNOW if I could go back in time and have a word with Ol Hickory, and tell him that such “fast” far-flung travel would one day be routine, he’d scoff and call me crazy. And I wouldn’t blame him one bit.

I flew China Airlines for the first time since I arrived on that carrier in 2002. I mostly like their style. They are very efficient and pleasant. The stewardesses are all mostly easy on the eyes, and I love the tight dresses they wear. It is interesting how “inscrutable” they are while providing service however. Unlike the wide-eyed friendliness exhibited by Filipina attendants on Northwest that serve on the Manila / Japan leg, the China Airlines girls have universally fake smiles planted on their faces and they NEVER look you in the eye. I find it eerie that a bevy of them could provide 14 hours of service and not once did I observe even a fleeting moment of eye contact. It must be something they practice; how else to explain it?

All four China Air jetliners that I flew on had touch screen players on the seat backs to my front. Having them was WONDERFUL! The seats in economy are just as small as the seats in Northwest’s economy sections, but what a difference having a touch screen makes! I know I’m raving, but it’s true. I LOVED being able to watch any of about 20 recently released movies, and I watched nearly every one by the time I made it back to Manila last Saturday. If I wanted to take a break, I could touch pause, or if I wanted to rewatch a particularly interesting scene, I just reversed back to the beginning of THAT scene.

Contrast that to my miserable roundtrips on Northwest last September and October. Those Northwest 747s still had the TV screens mounted forward for multiple passenger viewing. That meant I had to continually crane my neck to see around someone’s head, and if I needed to take a break to say, visit the little girl’s room, I missed that part of the movie. So, I’d more likely just sit there determined to see the whole movie uninterrupted and suffer through it to do so. Come ON Northwest, get with the program people! Although, a guy told me today that on his last NW flight last February that one of his jets DID have the personal viewing screens, so it seems they are getting there, slowly.

Something unusual happened on the return flight from LA to Taipei. Believe it or not, the plane was only about 75% full. I know I couldn’t believe it. I sat there in my window seat, 18J I think it was, and kept waiting for someone to squeeze in next to me. As the time drew near for “push back” I watched the parade of boarders approach me up the aisle. I saw two dudes coming and thought, ‘Please, NOT guys.” Then they stopped in and sat in some seats to the front. A tiny little old Taiwanese woman slowly came toward me, ‘Yeah. Her! Her!’ but she just kept going right on past me. At last, the doors were closed and I immediately jumped to the very center seat in MY row of three empties. I pushed both armrests up, spread my arms out directly from my sides, and relished the feeling of sheer unencumbered physical freedom as I stretched my legs out as far as they would reach under seats 17H and J to my left and right. ‘Yes! Now THIS is the next best thing to first class!’

I looked around and saw that several others of my fellow passengers were similarly exalting in being able to stretch out in each of their own banks of two or three open seats that had suddenly became “economy class heaven.” None of us could believe our luck. Sometimes, things DO go right. For the entire 14 hours I didn’t care once that the pretty flight attendants would not make eye contact with me. Who cares? I was sleeping in a horizontal fashion and it was GOOD! I’ve been making flights back and forth across the Pacific to the Philippines for ten years now, and that was the FIRST time I’ve been on a plane that empty. I’ll probably have to wait ten more for it to happen again.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dreading it, but back in the "barrel" I go...

I’ve been out of pocket for a few weeks. Anyone dropping by the site might have noticed that. The “why” is mostly explained below.

Basically, I’ve been drafted back into the service officer arena. About a year and a half ago I was “let go” as a Department Service Officer (DSO) due to philosophical differences with the senior DSO, a well intentioned man that I had been working with for four years. I wasn’t all that upset by that slightly nasty turn of events, since I was about used up from the stress of dealing with VARO Manila anyway; a VA regional office that in my opinion tends to assess veteran’s claims unfairly due to an institutional attitude that states that all veteran claimants are fundamentally fraudulent. Perhaps since we live in the Philippines, it's a case of guilt by association. Nevertheless!

The DSO who let me go was never one to challenge the VA and its questionable decisions. Consequently, once I was no longer available, some veterans began to stop using his services and instead begged me to provide my brand of advice, which is all about strategizing to preempt VARO Manila’s unjust “games” of “deny first and ask questions later.”

A few weeks ago one veteran-turned-activist saw me skulking about the local mall and basically shamed me into considering making a comeback. He told me that there was a plan afoot to put pressure on those in charge to force out the one remaining service officer, at which point the plan would be that I would throw my hat in the ring to replace him. Both things took place, although I was hoping that the commander would hire another fellow; especially considering my reputation as an over intense loose cannon. Alas, I was pretty much the only veteran willing to strap in. When I learned that I was indeed selected I most assuredly did not celebrate. Instead, I looked to the heavens and muttered a quiet prayer, ‘Father, let this cup pass!’

Why wouldn’t I want to be a service officer here? Well, I’m disabled; mentally, emotionally, and physically. The job requires a full time commitment, yet it is not paid, not that I would want money to do the work anyway. As I hint above, the local VA Regional Office is one of the worst three or four in existence as far as not complying with the intent of their own procedural code, which states that if a claim is at all feasible then the VA MUST assist in developing that claim. Instead, its raters, none of whom are Americans, not to mention that not one has ever served even a moment in ANY uniform, much less an American one, consistently deny claims, seemingly without giving much regard to the evidence or the facts. Over the years it has become evident to me that their credo is to comply with the letter of the law (in the wrongheaded way that THEY see it!) and to hell with the intent.

Admittedly, over the four years I struggled to advocate for my veterans, I had a pretty good record of success; just the same, the local VA’s ways has a way of wearing you down after awhile. It’s either that, or take up a similar VA mindset of “bahala na,” or “let God decide.” The only problem is that evidently, as far as the VA adjudicators around here are concerned, God is NOT on the side of most veterans.

And so, in very much a last minute way, I was sent by my service organization to the US for training to get recertified. I returned just yesterday and now I am doomed to have to climb back up into the agonizing service officer saddle. I do so with no little anxiety and with great reluctance.

My back is in spasms from the long stretches in tiny airplane seats, not to mention the long days of sitting in the classroom with hardly a break to rest my aching lower spine. Lucky me, I also managed to catch a head cold on the way; that, along with jet lag made my time in class an utterly agonizing ordeal. It's been a long time since I've looked at my watch so many times per hour; hell, make that per minute. Dang, it feels good to be home where I can rest, take my meds, and have my back massaged at a moment’s notice. In that respect, God bless the Philippines!

Aside from advising and advocating for my vets, one of my first priorities will be to find my replacement. Truthfully, it takes at least a year, even two, of training and experience to properly spin up a department level service officer. Knowing that is the primary reason I unenthusiastically agreed to climb back into this punishing torture barrel in the first place. Thus, the sooner I can find someone willing to fight for vets and to aggressively challenge the VA for them, the sooner I can go back to being a "hurting slug."

The primary reason I agreed to try this at all is that a small team of fed up activists in my service organization convinced me that they will provide all the physical grunt work when my weakened body begins to falter, and falter I will. So, based on their assurance of help, plus knowing that I am the only guy around with enough background in the task to be able to step in almost immediately, I’m willing to give it a hesitant go.

So, here’s a heads up: with all the above in mind, I should imagine that my posts will now become even fewer and farther between than they have already been these past few months.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Testing, My Last and BEST Job in the Air Force

From 1995 until my discharge in 2002, I managed and directed aircraft systems operational tests. Doing such a thing for so long wasn’t exactly good for my career progression, especially since I had already done six years of quality and project management before that; BUT, I found testing extremely satisfying and more enjoyable than I can tell you. It was so much fun in fact that I was reluctant to leave it for the more "mundane" work of the Air Force flight line. So, I didn’t; I stayed in testing until the very end of my military career.

My brand of test was operational. That means I made sure that whatever was assigned to me to test—whether it be a component, a procedure, a system, or even an entire airplane—that it was ready for REAL airman to fly and to fix and to fly again; and as operational testers, we used REAL airman to do this.

If the thing was new and about to go into full rate production, before it got to me it had already been tested by a whole host of development people. I was in effect the last tester in a battery of years of testing. You would think that by the time this stuff got to me that all that would be required was a tweak here and there. That’s NOT what usually happened though. I never ceased to be amazed by the obvious problems we’d uncover that had to be addressed before final fielding.

Operational test directors are usually recruited right off real world flight lines and from flying squadrons. I was an exception since I had come from years of doing other staff projects, such as aircraft modification and quality management.

In both test squadrons that I served with, my cubicle was in a room full of other cubicles. We probably spent less than half our time in them though, since our tests took us all over the world. I was an E8, a senior master sergeant, an enlisted fellow, and one of three enlisted avionics technician “experts,” but we had officer counterparts as well. Usually, we worked our tests as "teams," so that if a pilot needed enlisted maintenance expertise to test their systems, we were available; AND, if we needed pilot knowledge, the same held true for them. It was a very unique situation in the deeply rank concious military world, because as testers, we were pretty much equals regardless of rank.

Most of the enlisted directors were E7s and E8s, while the officer test directors—pilots and navigators for the most part—were captains and majors. The idea was to use our long experience in each of our respective fields to make sure no stone was left unturned when it came to making sure that what we tested was actually going to work in ALL intended settings and situations, to include extremes such as found in arctic and desert environments.

The concept of operational testing would seem easy to do in theory, but it never is in practice. When I signed up for it in the summer of ‘95 I figured all I’d need to do is put the system or component through its paces and see what happens, and in decades past that was exactly how new weapons and systems WERE tested, and with horrible and sometimes deadly results.

Over the decades, the military learned to use scientific methods to test, and that means understanding the concept of statistical data. I lost track of the number of classes I attended on the subject of scientific testing and all its jargon; to include such lingo as—sampling size, means, median, deviation, statistical significance et al, and most importantly, how to arrive at conclusions that excluded all the “noise.”

By the time the new weapons systems got to us operational testers it was a foregone conclusion that it WOULD be fielded, no matter what we found. Ours then, was NOT to provide a go or no-go, but to point out any last minute ways to improve our test subject before full production. Even so, I was almost always amazed at some of the obvious problems we’d discover so late in the production schedule. This was usually because, to reduce costs, developers love to use simulation, especially when it comes to software. It’s ironic really, since they are using software to test other software. Sometimes, though, you just got to put what you got through a REAL scenario, in the ACTUAL places, by the REAL airman who will eventually use the equipment.

Speaking of which, my most interesting and memorable test resulted from the failure of computer simulation to discover a software glitch in what was at the time a fairly new flight director on the venerable C-130 cargo transport aircraft. The failure was on a system called the SCNS, or Self-Contained Navigation System. When, by accident, this problem was discovered and then assigned to us, the 33rd Flight Test & Evaluation Detachment, to help test the “fix” for it, I found myself over a year’s time flying with one of the United States Air Force’s MOST professional flying organizations that I’ve ever been associated with, the 109th Airlift Wing.

More on that in my next post…