Captain Dye's Blog
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Thursday, 3 November 2011
It may be deja vu all over again.
As a relatively high-profile Vietnam Veteran, I'm on a lot of mailing lists used by individuals, groups and organizations insisting that those of us who played in the Greater Southeast Asia War Games got the shaft in one form or another. The flood of screeds, memorials, editorials and generic bitching usually hits a high-water mark around Veterans Day each year. I pay a little more attention than usual around this time as Im usually spooling up for the annual round of Marine Corps Birthday Ball appearances and veteran-related speaking engagements.
This year is no different. Here we are 36 years after the official end to the war in Vietnam and the inbox is crammed with missives bearing the same messages: We didn't lose on the battlefield, we lost at home. A hostile press poisoned American attitudes toward the war. We got spit on and called baby-killers. We were all unfairly tagged as psycho-vets by the media and a fistful of other plaints that youve all heard regularly over the past three decades. Some of that stuff is true. It's also moot unless we do something about it beyond crying the poor-ass.
I've often said the biggest gift surviving Vietnam Vets can give the nation beyond what we offered in our wartime service is to act as empathetic sounding-boards, counselors and mentors for the new generation of combat veterans returning from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We know what they've been through and we're more than a little familiar with what they'll be facing after discharge. We know all about things like PTSD, survivor guilt, separation anxiety, substance abuse, domestic turmoil and generic post-war angst. We've had nearly four decades of experience with those issues. So the Vietnam Veterans or support organizations who contact me looking for empathy or just another outlet for long-standing grievances or petulance don't get much more than a nod. I'm rarely more than mildly interested unless those individuals and groups are trying to focus their energies and do something positive.
On the other hand, I'm always gratified when I hear from veterans of my generation who vow to do all they can to insure the men and women coming home from overseas service in the most recent engagements are not subjected to the same disregard or indignities that many of us had to deal with after Vietnam. Many Americans old enough to remember the dark, divisive days of Vietnam and its aftermath believe our newest generation of combat veterans are experiencing a whole new deal in terms of public support. Even those who vociferously oppose the wars we are fighting in the Middle East and other parts of the world where our American military is confronting terrorism, will loudly and proudly proclaim they support our troops. So the appropriate separation between war and warrior has been established in a post-Vietnam society.
Some of that is situational. We were never attacked on our own soil by North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces. On the other hand, we were bludgeoned badly here at home by the terrorist attacks on 9-11 and elsewhere on several other occasions since then. Even the most isolationist Americans can understand we got hit and we had to hit back to prevent it from recurring. You can argue about who hit John and where the violent blowback is required but you'll have a hard time convincing most people that we don't need the military to provide it.
I like to think some of the credit for that goes to Vietnam Veterans who took a look at the controversy surrounding the dispatch of our forces into an undeclared, amorphous war and said we will not allow the people fighting in this conflict to return home to what we faced. Never again, proclaimed the vets. It won't happen on my watch; not as long as I'm still alive to prevent it. Much of the Support Our Troops mania that swept the nation during the early days of fighting in the Middle East was engendered by Vietnam Veterans who knew all about scape-goating in unpopular wars and who understood from painful personal experience how quick the American people are to take military service and sacrifice for granted. They did some valuable work in that regard but I think there's more to be done. As it stands, the men and women returning to civilian life after arduous service on battlefields in the war with terrorists or their supporters around the world have a fair level of emotional - if not practical - support among the citizens they served. Unfortunately, I'm seeing signs of deterioration and that is chillingly similar to the bad old days of Vietnam.
For at least a decade after Americas war in Southeast Asia ended - and maybe longer thanks to movies and TV shows looking for a convenient dramatic device - Vietnam Veterans were viewed as unstable, ticking time-bombs full of emotional turmoil, guilt-fueled rage and very likely potentially violent drunks or dopers. It made no difference at the time that this was all an undeserved canard and demonstrably untrue for most veterans who either quietly and peaceably got on with post-war life or went on to score huge successes in American business, politics or the arts. The public had a disturbing image of Vietnam Veterans and no one said much to counter the charges. There it we used to say in The Nam.
Now I'm seeing a disturbing and eerily-familiar image of our newest veterans beginning to emerge in the collective mind of American society. It's as if that old, hackneyed Vietnam psycho-vet specter has been reincarnated and re-sized to fit yet another generation of returning warriors. If we don't do something about it, our men and women who return from arduous combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to suffer the same unwarranted stigma and debilitating isolation that many of us experienced when we came home from Vietnam.
Beyond all the sentiment expressed on the bumper stickers and other outward signs that America supports the troops, is a growing suspicion among a significant segment of the population that all may not be well with our new generation of veterans. There are regular, alarming reports of suicides, substance abuse, domestic violence and all the attendant problems that Vietnam Veterans experienced. There's a new generation of civilians - very few of whom served in the military or even know someone who has - being slowly but surely convinced by scandal-hungry media that society is being infiltrated by another raft of ticking time-bomb vets. Hello, Vietnam Veterans! Does the term déjà vu meant anything to you? Does all this strike a familiar chord?
Naturally, the hints and allegations about our Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are the same kind of broad-brush general indictments that Vietnam Veterans faced for nearly the entire period of the 60s and 70s, but that won't make any difference in terms of harmful effect unless we stand up and testify. By we, of course, I'm talking about me and all the other Vietnam Veterans who have - or should have - a vested interest in seeing that our new brothers and sisters in arms don't suffer the unfair and unfounded suspicion, disdain and distrust that we did.
Some of us have bully-pulpits like this one, others have organizations they belong to, and virtually everyone has access to the internet. It's time to for us to speak out, time for us to step up and undertake a new mission in support of a new generation of American veterans. We need to remind people of our own struggles and our own successes both large and small. And we need to remind them that our new veterans are the same kind of people we are; just a lot younger. At least the people who hear us will know for sure we're speaking from experience and not just blowing smoke.
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Posted By Captain Dale A. Dye at 5:18 PM
Thursday, 6 October 2011
Worn Out Warriors
One of the really cool things about the weird niche I've carved out in popular media is the access it provides to our modern military establishment. Many folks in uniform, from the stars through the stripes, see me as a kindred spirit; someone who has been where they've been and done what they're doing in one form or another. These people aren't star-struck. Im no star. They know that and so do I but I am someone who speaks their language and understands their concerns from personal experience in uniform. They are anxious to tell me things they would not normally share outside the ranks. That gives me some unique insights; a reliable sense of the fiber and fabric of today's men and women in military service.
At this stage - ten years after our military took the lead in fighting a global war on terrorism - I'm more than a little concerned about the health and welfare of our forces. Some of my worry has to do with a large, convenient and razor-sharp meat-axe looming over the national defense budget, but never mind the big-ticket items lurking in a shaky procurement pipeline. I'm less concerned about tools and more interested in the mechanics that will have to do the preventive maintenance on a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan military machine. What follows are observations gleaned from people in the ranks and tempered by the judgment of a former insider now able to take a slightly broader perspective.
Our military services - particularly the Army and the Marine Corps - aren't broken but they are damn sure over-stressed and bent toward exhaustion. You won't hear our people in uniform whining or crying the poor-ass about it, but over the past decade we have experienced a serious, chronic shortage of military manpower both in the active and reserve ranks. As usual with anything bearing a Federal price tag, the devil is in the details of the budget. We have a successful all-volunteer force and have had one since the 1970's but we are only now - under intense cost-cutting pressure - taking a hard look at what such a force costs to maintain and support. The math is fairly simple. Keeping the ranks filled with capable people is a huge expense. You don't recruit or retain the best and brightest at substandard wage levels. You take a big hit in the bottom-line at every step of the military service pipeline from enlistment to retirement. That means when you're faced with a need for more soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines for things like battlefield surges and international disaster relief; you can't just wave a magic wand or institute a draft. You've got to find another way that works with the budget numbers and doesn't totally wipe out the funds set aside for new gizmos, tanks, ships or airplanes.
Our response over the last decade has been to turn to the military reserve forces or the National Guard, drafting them with a wink and a nudge into an ultra-high tempo deployment schedule and worry about their other missions - such as domestic disaster relief - later. When that's still not enough - and it never is - you wind up either increasing the number or length of foreign deployments for all hands to keep bases covered. We've been doing that dance since 2001 to handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the piracy problem in North African waters, various international alliance commitments, earthquakes, tsunamis and a whole host of other global problems that require American military presence or solutions. I'm not positive about what constitutes a frazzle these days but I'm damn sure our military is nearly worn to one.
If you doubt that, you're not paying attention to one of our nations most precious assets. Unfortunately for us all, that seems to be the case among most Americans. I was staggered to learn recently that an average citizen of this country is more likely to know someone from South Dakota, our least populated state, than they are to know a soldier on active duty in the U.S. Army. No wonder the strain on our forces goes relatively unknown, unappreciated and under-reported. But the evidence is now beginning to surface in the media so maybe we'll take the bull by the tail and face the situation once the hoopla surrounding the next presidential election fades. We need to do that sooner rather than later.
The strain of multiple deployments and combat tours is showing disturbing consequences in the ranks of our mostly-married military forces. I won't beat you up with statistics here - although they are available with a little digging into the DOD files - but anyone in command of anything from a platoon to a division can tell you heart-breaking tales of domestic woe. Divorce rates, one of the typical yardsticks used by leaders to measure the morale in an organization that now includes spouses and children as part and parcel of the establishment, are skyrocketing. Suicide rates have become so alarming that every unit in every service now routinely conducts seminars and preventive counseling as part of the regular training schedule. And that's not to mention a steady increase in incidents involving serious alcohol or drug abuse among exhausted, beleaguered troops looking for a pressure-release valve between deployments.
Then there are the insidious, long-term effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) that are becoming commonplace among military people facing constant combat tours and regular exposure to the blast and shock wave of the terrorist weapon du jour, the IED. We should have seen that coming but we didn't. It beats the hell out of me how we could observe the ugly result of combat trauma on our Vietnam veterans for forty years or more and not expect to see something shockingly similar among troops rolling in and out of combat zones in the Middle East like kids on a merry-go-round. The high-priced shrinks are finally reaching the same conclusion veterans have known for decades: The more combat time people endure, the more likely they are to suffer from PTSD. With the average soldier or Marine serving something like three to five years in or around a combat zone over a normal enlistment, what else did we expect?
Unless we do something practical, its just going to get worse when the big budget meat-cleaver falls and our force levels are both quickly and brutally hacked to the bone by government efforts to stem the flood of Federal spending. We could go all pre-World War II isolationist and obviate the need for a large standing military but that's not in our geopolitical interest. It is, in fact, a dumb-ass move that we can't afford to make given the threats we face from jealous friends and terrorist enemies. America is a world power as well as a world leader. We made it that way and we can't afford to hit the undo button without sinking into an even worse economic morass or suffering more deadly attacks on our citizens at home and abroad.
So what to do? How do we help our military leaders protect our superbly capable but badly overused manpower resources in an era where less than one percent of all Americans have served in uniform during an entire decade of war? Whats the best course of action as we dwindle in bodies, bucks and brilliant ideas? Do we need a return to the draft?
That's a bad idea at this point, as much as it pains me to say so. I grew up in a military reinforced with national service draftees and I've always felt that serving in the military had a cohesive, broadening and educational effect on those who got their notice and did two years in uniform. I felt they came away from the experience better, more mature, more patriotic citizens, but those days are gone and we'd likely spawn a second American revolution (third if you count the Civil War) if we tried to bring back a military draft short of worldwide, officially-declared war.
We've got sufficient people available to serve in a standing military force of any size we can agree on as necessary and can fit in the budget numbers. Even if way too damn many of them are overweight or under-developed mentally and physically, our military has long experience and expertise at fixing those problems. What's lacking is incentive to serve and that has little to do with patriotism although that sentiment is hard to find among the history and civics deprived under-achievers we insist on graduating from our high schools these days.
Picture yourself as a jobless, relatively-clueless 18-year-old high school graduate wondering what's next. You can volunteer for four years of military service that will stress you mentally and physically and then repay the effort by consistently sending you overseas to get shot at or spend the time tweaking widgets at Fort Godforsaken thousands of miles from home and family. Or you can chill out for a year or more on unemployment after a couple of weeks flipping burgers. Or you can easily apply for - and very likely get - any number of local, state or Federal grants or loans to attend college and not have to work up too much angst about ever repaying that money. You don't need to ponder. See my earlier comment about less than one percent of the American population serving in military uniform over the past decade.
So, here's what we do. We eliminate all the free and easy money for college education that's now floating around for the taking in our society. We plunk all that cash down on national deficit reduction and economic stimulus. We get back to considering higher education a privilege to be earned and not a birthright to be paid for and provided by taxpayers. You either qualify for college tuition assistance through academic merit or you go to work and earn whatever it costs to pursue a college education. Either way, you appreciate what you get and don't spend four years screwing the pooch on campus only to wind up where you started, jobless and clueless.
I'm betting a lot of good young Americans would wind up reconsidering the military option. Used to be that most Americans expected to pay something for what they got and a return to that mode of operations might just help us quash the entitlement mentality that seems to permeate so many sectors of our society.
Posted By Captain Dale A. Dye at 2:11 PM
Sunday, 26 June 2011
Neptune Spear and the Trident
Its been a while since that infamous scum-sucker Osama Bin Laden assumed room temperature and was consigned to sleep with the fishes. With the exception of repeated self-congratulatory references to it by a certain high-level politician running for reelection, the raid carried out by Navy SEALs and Army SOF aviators on 2 May has slipped below the media radar to be replaced by more pressing a narcissistic congressman tweeting phone-photos of his man-meat. So maybe enough time has passed for me to weigh in with relative objectivity on a few elements of Operation Neptune Spear that got short-shrift in the hoopla surrounding the long-overdue whacking of the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and the titular head of Al Qaeda worldwide.
Looking back on all the breathless reportage immediately following the raid, what strikes me initially is the wild-eyed hyperbole involved. It's as if all the deadline-frazzled journalists in the world googled "daring, dangerous and audacious" and then shot-gunned every synonym they could find into their copy. It was all designed to make readers and viewers do a pee-pee dance, read more and keep their sweaty hands off the remote. That's the nature of the highly-competitive media beast these days, I guess, but it's also an unfair overstatement of the facts involved in the OBL mission. Neptune Spear was anything but a cobbled-together strike with high-speed, low-drag operators slapping mags into their weapons and launching off into the night with knives between their teeth and devil take the hindmost.
It was, in fact, one of the most extensively and carefully planned operations in the history of American special operations. Neptune Spear was planned in minute detail by the operators and aviators involved who asked and then answered every what-if question and then rehearsed like the cast of a major Broadway musical before opening night in a full-scale mock-up of the Abbottabad compound that resembled OBL's hideout down to the texture of the walls. These guys are calm, stolid, clear-headed professionals who crossed every t and dotted every i before the first rotor turned on the night of the raid. It was that planning that allowed them to smoothly and easily transition from Plan A to Plan B when one of the specially-modified Blackhawk helos experienced vortex ring state and crash-landed in OBL's compound. Given the skill and proper prior planning of the 160th SOAR Night Stalker aircrew, it was not much more than a Murphy's Law burble and the SEALs aboard immediately transitioned into a smooth ground assault. Insert Method Two was just as good as Insert Method One for Team 6 shooters who proceeded as if the glitch never happened.
These guys were so good and so well-prepared that while the mission was indeed daring and certainly audacious given the proximity of Pakistani military forces, it was hardly deadly...except perhaps for OBL and his armed minions who were so shocked that they barely had time to react. Those minions that did react went down hard to precisely-delivered rounds that barely made a dent in fully-loaded magazines and showed admirable fire discipline. Given what might have happened with the headquarters of a Pakistani infantry brigade nearby and one of their senior military academies in the area, Operation Neptune Spear was a relative cakewalk as cross-border special operations raids go.
The brief history of long-range American Special Operations raids has not been spectacular prior to Neptune Spear so this relatively flawless op was a genuine textbook example of capability for our special operators; particularly the high-profile SEAL teams. Prior to the successful raid that took OBL out of the Al Qaeda terrorism picture for good, we have been hit and mostly miss in similar efforts. In 1970, Operation Ivory Coast (the abortive Son Tay POW rescue in Vietnam) and Operation Tailwind (a similarly-directed mission in southern Laos) plus the 1980 debacle in the desert that was Operation Eagle Claw, designed to rescue American hostages in Tehran, most covert military operations ended up in failure or a flurry of controversial misinformation that cast a shadow on American special operations.
Neptune Spear put all of that into the deep, dark background and that's as it should be. What the media has so far ignored is that this OBL strike mission was definitive proof-of-product for our special operators. Where our operators, door-kickers and shooters of the SOF community have screwed the pooch in past operations, they have learned hard lessons and applied the knowledge to current tactics, techniques and procedures. And chief among those lessons was the extraordinary cooperation demonstrated in the OBL raid between the alphabet-soup intelligence organizations and the active forces that rely on vital, perishable information to carry off a successful clandestine operation. On Neptune Spear all the horses were pulling in the same direction and the internecine, bureaucratic walls that keep information from flowing back and forth to and from the people who need it crumbled. Those things are crucial in understanding how capable we really are in the longest, most difficult war America has ever fought.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't fire a few rounds downrange at the current administration and the voracious media that insisted with high dudgeon that they should be given every specific detail of how the raid was conducted so they could score political points, boost circulation or score audience ratings without the first thought of how all that brag and blather might affect future operations against our nation's avowed enemies. Imagine for a moment that we'd simply acknowledged that a covert operation was conducted and a high-level AQ member was killed; nothing more, and to hell with the screaming minions of the press. We might have had a real, workable chance to exploit and act on the intelligence our operators policed up within OBL's compound. And the AQ network would be sitting out there wondering what we knew and what we didn't rather than presuming that all their secrets were now compromised.
If the administration and the press had been willing to play it closer to the vest, we might have wound up hitting OBL's entire chain-of-command and eliminating much of their infrastructure before they had a chance to react, change codes and implement their own version of Plan B.
Like it or not - depending on your political and patriotic - bent  there are things that the public does not need to know. Every time we ignore that or demand full and unfettered access to any and all military information, we tip our hand to the enemy and put the lives of our special operators in jeopardy.
Politicians, pundits and press copy my last?

Posted By Captain Dale A. Dye at 3:06 PM
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