Friday, January 2, 2015

That's a Wrap

Well folks, three and a half years after I enlisted I'm a US Army Engineering Officer. Thanks for sharing in this ride with me, and I hope that some of my insights and behind the scenes looks have proved helpful in your decision making.

I originally started this blog to help keep my family up to date with my training an give other readers a glimpse into what this path looks like. I feel like that mission has been accomplished and it's time to sign off. I still have several years left on my service commitment, but my career going forward doesn't need to be published for the entire world. 

Please feel free to contact me with questions in the future and I'll do my best to respond in a timely manner. I really do enjoy hearing from my readers and offering insight where I can.

Lastly, I feel like it's appropriate to thank those who have made this final post possible:

To my classmates of OCS Class 56- Thanks for your encouragement, the joint suffering, memories, laughs, and constantly pushing me to be a better warrior. It's been an honor to serve with you all. 

To the cadre of the Texas RTI- Thanks for developing me into the leader I am today. I'm nowhere near finished but so much farther than where I started. There are few times in my life where I can distinctly say that something specific changed me. 18 months in the strange Hell that is Texas OCS is one of those times. Everywhere I go I can't say enough good about the school you run and I would be proud to one day serve on the battlefield with you. 

To my wife- Thanks for saying yes to this adventure and being my cheerleader along the way. I wouldn't have made it without your support and I'm proud of you for the sacrifices you've made for our country in your role as an Army Wife. 

To my son- Your little self makes me want to be a better man and father, thanks for pushing me towards excellence in this endeavor and all the rest. 

To my Savior and Creator- Without you I never would have made it. Thank you for allowing me to pursue the passions in my heart and for giving me the strength to follow through. I find the words of King David to ring true:
"For who is God, but the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?—
the God who equipped me with strength
and made my way blameless.
He made my feet like the feet of a deer
and set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your right hand supported me,
and your gentleness made me great.
You gave a wide place for my steps under me,
and my feet did not slip."
-Psalm 18:31-36

To the American Warrior past and present- Thank you to the sacrifices you have made to keep America free and for inspiring me to serve my country. May we always stand for one nation- under God, with liberty and justice for all. 

-The Texas Citizen Soldier, Out.

Engineer BOLC- Fox Module and Closing Thoughts

Fox Module is the golden ticket of BOLC, the days are few and you'll be going home (...or your next duty station for the active duty types). They only things that happen in Fox Mod are combatives, FTX III, Sapper Stakes, and everyone's favorite: out-processing.

The Modern Army Combatives Program is the Army's mixed martial arts program which sounds cool... but in practice is just a good reminder to keep the enemy in pistol range at the closest. There are now three levels of certification (down from four) and to date I've not even been certified in level one because none of the schools I've been to have taught the course in its entirety. The training we got in BOLC was identical to what I did in Basic Combat Training so scroll back to those articles if you're interested in more details.

This FTX is just like FTX II with round the clock operations- only this time it's five days long and you get less sleep (we averaged about an hour and a half per night). Good times were had by all. (No really, it was fun. I promise.)

Sapper Stakes
This was the final event of the FTX, and the course. It consisted of a 12 mile ruck with 60+ pounds of gear and equipment and 10 stations along the way that tested each squad's engineering skills. Testing stations varied from tasks like assembling a M249 machine gun to correctly identifying deficiencies in an explosive system. My squad ended up winning the competition which gave us something to laugh about as we just set out to make it through (see earlier reference to the amount of sleep we were running on). The course was no joke and the Missouri terrain really separated the men from the boys.

The final week and a half are really a joke. There's not much to do except wonder why you aren't getting out sooner. Paperwork and equipment turn in are really the name of the game until graduation when the cord is cut and you're home free as a trained and fully mission capable engineering officer fighting machine. Three and a half years after I took my oath of enlistment I was finally the officer that I set out to be. There was a pride there that I can only share with a small group of men and women who know what it's like to walk this path.

Final Thoughts
BOLC is what you make of it. It is a fire hose of information and a unique time to learn what the Army Engineers do.

Cadre- With the exception of a select few, the cadre assigned to the schoolhouse seemed to be there in a punitive sense- as though they'd screwed something up or weren't suited for leadership in the regular Army. The exceptions, however, strove to compensate for their colleagues and for the most part were able to bridge any gaps (no pun intended) that their fellow trainers left.

Family/Travel- Plan on having your family travel see you as much as possible. I was not able to return to Texas while I was in the course. By the time I graduated, the schoolhouse commander placed a 30 mile travel radius restriction on all the soldiers. There's not much you can get to 30 miles from Fort Leonard Wood. Most weekends are free and people can stay with you in your room at no additional charge. On the flip side, taking your family with you for the duration of the course is not a good option. Only one officer did that in my class and it nearly got him kicked out of the course for being late trying to juggle family and army commitments. Be prepared to miss things like births, weddings and funerals. My grandfather was a Korean War veteran and I was asked to serve in his military honor guard at the funeral six hours away. My request was denied for being outside the travel radius. The same thing happened over and over again- the cadre there are extremely unreasonable when it comes to these kinds of requests. Prepare your family's expectations accordingly.

Worship- The churches in and around Fort Leonard Wood leave a lot to be desired. I ended up watching my home church service live online (when our internet worked) while I was away. Not really my first choice, but it was the best option for me.

PT- PT was disappointing. It started every weekday morning at 0500 an consisted of the new Army PRT program which isn't a good workout by any stretch of the imagination. If  you're looking to maintain or improve your level of fitness you'll have to do it on your own time because five hours a week on the on this program won't cut it. There's a 2.5 mile engineer running trail in the woods behind Morelli Heights, which I highly recommend and a couple gyms on post if you're a gym rat.

Sapper/Ranger Train up- Towards the end of the course there's an alternative PT plan which replaces morning PT and adds a mandatory 1-2 hour PT session in the evening to prepare those bound for either Ranger or Sapper School. The National Guard doesn't send people to Sapper School really so my commander told me not to waste my time with it. If you complete the program you get a memo for your next duty station essentially saying you're ready to go at which point most likely you won't go anyway. Army logic.

Environment- I kept expecting the strict OCS environment the entire time I was there. It never came. I had knots in my stomach when I drove up to Missouri but they were completely unwarranted. As I mentioned before every experience is unique, but from what I observed the majority of the classes were like mine.

Fort Leonard Wood- Or Fort Lost in the Woods as it's affectionately called, isn't that bad. If you're from the city and your life consists of bar hopping an clubbing you're not going to enjoy the metropolis of St. Robert or nearby Waynesville. However if you like to do things outdoors like boat, fish, hike, hunt, then you should enjoy your free time.

Hurry up and Wait- The lack of efficiency is mind boggling. The course could easily be at least four weeks shorter but so much of the time is lost to poor scheduling. Just accept there is nothing you can do about it.

If you're in the pipeline for BOLC I'm sure you have more questions- feel free to email me directly at txcitizensoldier at gmail.

Engineer BOLC- Charlie-Decho Module

The next three modules of BOLC are very similar from an expectations perspective. The course curriculum changes but it's mainly testable classroom material. Subjects cover offensive and defensive tactics, general engineering, horizontal engineering (soil, waste water, roads and bridges) and vertical engineering (buildings, electrical, concrete). For those of you with an engineering or construction background the academics are a piece of cake. If you're good at math, you won't have any issues. If you don't meet any of the above criteria fear not- it's the Army and they'll get you through.

The work load varies considerably. One week you'll be bored out of your mind and the next you'll wonder when you're supposed to sleep. Take each with a grain of salt, keep your head down and just plow through it. One event at a time.

Some of the key tasks in these modules include a "15 mile" (more like 20) ruck, a timed 12 mile ruck, FTX II, a 5 mile run in under 40 minutes and exams based on course material. Most of those are self explanatory, but I'll mention that FTX II is 3 days and includes the "long walk" as the 15 miler has been dubbed. I say more like 20 because the walk is part of your operations so only the road miles count toward the 15 mile distance over the course of 24 hours and the miles spent humping up and down the Ozark Mountains don't officially count for anything (Bitter, party of one your table is now ready). We slept about 3 hours each night and conducted round the clock operations until we left the field.

It's physically exhausting work, but enjoyable- after all this is the kind of stuff I signed up for. Since combat engineers work so closely with the infantry you'll be expected to meet the same standards that they have over at the Fort Benning School for Wayward Boys (ladies included). In that regard, Engineer BOLC is considered the most challenging combination of physical and mental tasks out of all the BOLC schools.

A typical day for me was waking up at 0405, PT formation at 0500, class from 0800-1700, homework/free time until 2130 or 2200 and then hit the sack. Monotonous would be an understatement.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Engineer BOLC- Bravo Module

Bravo Module is the one everyone looks forward to for one reason: demo.

Land Nav
Before we could get to the cool explosives though we had to pass our land nav training. We spent two sessions out on the course one that went from day into night, and then from night into day. The course is self correcting, meaning if you find a marker, it will tell you the grid coordinate you're currently at(kind of like a "you are here"). It's really impossible to fail. The course is large and very hilly but it's ridiculously easy. Most people (including me) did the entire course without a compass- just using terrain association. Terrain association is a technique where you match up the terrain features on the topographic map with what you see in front of you. The course you do for credit is by yourself and starts before dawn. We were on the course at 0400. You need 5 out of 8 points in 5 hours. Only one officer failed the first attempt and later passed the re-test.

Advanced Rifle Marksmanship
This day was a repeat of basic training. You'll use your M-4's to familiarize yourself with fighting with full kit and a close quarters optic. You'll practice shooting from behind barriers, moving and shooting, and fighting from standing, kneeling and prone positions. Standing in the heat all day in full combat gear isn't the most pleasant experience, but the trigger time was fun.

When the Army needs more precision than the Air Force can provide from 30,000 ft. they call on the engineers. Part of the combat engineering training here teaches you how to remove obstacles in your way with explosive demolitions.

You'll spend about a week in class learning the calculations for several different types of tasks that require explosives. You'll take a test on safety and a practical hands-on test that proves you can calculate the right number of explosives to remove certain obstacles, and that you can properly set up those charges.

The day immediately following is the demo range. Arguably the most you'll have in BOLC, we spent the better portion of the day blowing up everything from C-4, TNT, dynamite, and charges designed to destroy roads, airfields, steel beams, and wire obstacles. We blew chunks of dirt the size of Volkswagen Beetles ten stories into the air and left craters deep enough to park two full size pickup tucks side by side three trucks deep with a single charge. The afternoon focused on breaching charges and the different type of charges that can be made for different types of doors or walls we need to get through. It's a rush to stand mere feet away from charges you assembled as the explosives turn doors into projectiles. Unfortunately we can't post the videos we took of the training for security reasons so for visual interest imagine the Death Star exploding.

At this point all the common soldier tasks (plus demo) were completed and it was time to move into specific engineer course work.

Engineer BOLC- Alpha Module

Unsurprisingly, there isn't much written about BOLC from a student's perspective available on the internet, so I'll do my best to outline the things that are relevant. This first post will cover the first three weeks of the course, known as Alpha Module. Here are a few considerations for my overview of this course:

-I am here to learn a very specific set of skills that contain "trade secrets" vital to the success of the US Army on the battlefield. I will not discuss those things.

-The atmosphere for each class is very different and driven by the cadre mentors assigned to each class. The cadre for my class have been more relaxed and allowed this to be more of a "gentlemen's course." Friends of mine in adjacent classes have not had that experience.

Packing List
My welcome packet had two different packing lists that were similar but not identical. When in doubt, pack to the more rigorous requirement. There is a military clothing store on post (closed Mondays) that should help you close any gaps you have. If you arrive at FLW early I recommend knocking this out. There is no formal equipment layout- it's on you as an officer to ensure you have the equipment that's required of you when you arrive. I can't stress attention to detail enough here, bring what's on the list.

You'll need your federal oath of office (not state if you're Reserve or National Guard) almost as frequently as your orders. Have at least 10 on hand.

Only bring original documents (birth certificates, marriage license, etc...) if the data hasn't been entered into DEERS already. If your DEERS is up to date just bring copies.

You can bring your own TA-50 but you'll get issued everything you need here. For some reason they still rock the woodland LBE from before Desert Storm here at FLW, so none of your high speed MOLLE equipment will work here.

Make sure your boots are in compliance with the new AR 670-1. Since the new revision rolled out recently for our class, a lot of people had to go buy new boots that were in compliance.

The list also says to limit your civilian clothes. That's bad advice. You'll want a good supply of clothes to wear after duty hours every day and on the weekends. PT is light in this module so you'll be working out a lot on your own, bring several sets of civilian workout clothes. You'll have a large wardrobe for all your clothes, so storage shouldn't be an issue. Don't go overboard, but a weeks worth of civies and workout clothes should be sufficient.

Throughout the course you'll have plenty of time on the weekends/evenings for movies and video games so if you have a console I'd recommend bringing it; life as a BOLC student can get pretty boring some weeks.

The welcome letter says that showing up at 0600 the Monday morning of the week your class starts is optional. It's not. I recommend arriving Sunday by noon to get moved in and finish up any shopping you may need to do before class starts. Arriving any sooner than that is unnecessary unless you have a lot to get done.

The very first building you'll go to is BLDG 470, STE 1201 (140 Replacement, Fort Leonard Wood, MO 65473 enter on Replacement Rd side). Check in with them to get your room assignment and keys. Make sure to join the rewards program to start earning free nights at hotels in the Holiday Inn, Staybridge, and Candlewood chains.

It wouldn't hurt to call a couple of months ahead once you have orders to request a room in Morelli Heights. It's a convenient location that puts classes and a DFAC within walking distance of your room. Call 573-596-8331.

Find the main PX. You'll need to know where the parking lot is prior to the start of Day 2 and for all your Wal-Mart type needs.

It's advisable to get a PO box while you're here. If not, expect all mail to be delayed by at least a week as it gets an added steps of going to your company and building for sorting. A six month rental costs $33. The post office is across the street from the main PX.

As mentioned above, I'm staying in Morelli Heights. Recently, the Army privatized lodging and from everything I can tell it was a good move. Daily room service includes fresh towels, they make your bed, vacuum, and mop. It doesn't feel like the Army. It's just like a normal hotel. (Don't take the housekeeping for granted. If your room looks like a college dorm when they come in to clean they'll text pictures to the Battalion Commander and you'll end up on the powerpoint slides of how to get dismissed from the course.)

I got lucky and scored a room that has a detached bedroom so it feels more like a one bedroom apartment. Most of the rooms here have a kitchen area, bathroom, and a combined living room and bedroom.

The kitchen has a microwave, toaster, stove top, coffee pot, refrigerator and sink (no oven). It's good for making meals on the weekend when the DFAC is closed or for having a quick breakfast. Silverware, plates, cups and bowls are also provided but bring your own cooking utensils/pots/pans, those are not provided.

There is free wifi and wired internet in the hotel, but both are very slow. I typically clock an unimpressive 0.25 mbps. You might be able to stream Netflix if no one else is online and the picture quality settings are as low as they'll go. I think the internet is faster in Afghanistan. Same goes for cell signal. Verizon seems to work slightly better, but my phone never lasts the whole day on one charge because it's always looking for signal.

The room does come with a 30" flat screen TV with basic cable and HDMI hookups so you can plug your computer in. I use a desktop in my room and take a tablet to class. It works well. You'll be issued a government netbook you can use in class for taking notes and storing Army manuals as well.

If you thought BCT reception was bad, this is a whole new level. Your average day will start with you waking up around 0400 to make it to a 0500 accountability formation. You'll get a break for breakfast and then start that day's tasks around 0700 or 0800. During these two and a half weeks you'll get several SHARP (Anti-sexual harassment/abuse) presentations, introductions from all the bigwigs on post, medical inprocessing, finance briefings, and you'll sign hundreds of documents. Your day will end and you'll be on your own after 1700-1800 typically.

Why it robs two and a half weeks of your life is a question I still don't know the answer to.

To speed things along make sure you have all the documents and certificates on the packing list prior to arrival.

Weekend Passes are largely up to cadre. Don't expect any in Alpha Module unless there is a federal holiday. That means you're limited to within 30 miles of FLW (which doesn't get you much). But there is plenty to do around here- especially if you like the outdoors. The "Fort Lost in the Woods" nickname is accurate to some degree, but I find it's a really nice post with plenty of things to do to keep you out of trouble. If you're a city boy it's a perfect time to learn some new hobbies.

As you'd expect with the Army, the pay comes slowly at first. I got into a bit of a bind because of how long it took for BAH to kick in. Don't worry, they'll back pay all the late payments but just expect kinks in the system. I recommend coming to BOLC with $1000 saved up to cover all the stuff you end up needing to buy plus one month's living expenses for your financial obligations back home. If that's not feasible, just do the best you can to have savings before you get to school (and check out the USAA career starter loan if you haven't already).

Pretty straight forward, you'll have a diagnostic APFT the second Monday of the course. Failure in any event (or scoring less than a 70 if your cadre choose) means you'll be entered into a remedial PT program and you'll be restricted from taking any passes off post until you pass. Retests for failures will be done with each new incoming class until the test is passed (every 2-3 weeks).

PT in Alpha Module is extremely light. You may do three sessions in the three weeks. And those sessions will be taught by NCO cadre as an introduction to Army PRT.

I highly recommend getting used to running hills prior to arrival. This area of Missouri is not flat and you'll be better of if you're prepared for that.

Right outside Morelli Heights there is a 2.5 mile wooded running trail called the Engineer Trail. It's very nice for running, rucking, and working out (there are different exercise stations around the trail). If you're not conditioned for hills this trail will help.

Class Composition
Each class has a different demographic but will be composed of roughly 60 2LT's.

Here's our class breakdown:
Active Duty: 50%
National Guard: 25%
Reserve: 25%

OCS: 25%
ROTC: 75%*
West Point: 0% (Most West Point grads will attend courses in the summer starting in late June.)

Male: 90%
Female: 10%

Also expect 2-3 foreign national students in each class. These students will come from "friendly" nations and are essentially auditing the course. They won't learn any of our secret squirrel stuff and they're not expected to do much.

*Coming from an OCS background I was highly disappointed by the caliber of the ROTC students. The program I graduated from washed out over 70% of the candidates. If the cadet gets a degree, well then slap a butter bar on him. There are a few quality officers in the bunch but most are fresh out of college with zero relevant life experiences, a penchant for getting wasted on cheap beer, and many completely lack command presence. [End rant.]

When to Go
If you have any choice in the matter, picking the time to go can have a big impact on how miserable your time is at Fort Leonard Wood. I highly recommend getting a slot in the classes starting in May-June. By this time the weather has warmed up so the mornings aren't freezing cold, and by the time you're done with the "outdoors" learning you're in classrooms during the heat of the summer and the weather cools off for the last FTX and Sapper Stakes (more on those later). Best of all you're out of there before snow comes.

The last few days of the module are devoted to a three day field training exercise. Leadership should request a packing list early and do a gear layout to ensure everyone has everything. My class did that. Others before us failed to do that and had some smoke sessions to correct deficiencies.

We rucked out to the training area, which was about 6 miles away. Be ready to carry 60-70 lbs at a 15 minute/mile pace. Boots should be broken in well before the FTX. Once we were in the field we zeroed our M-4's with iron sights and CCO's. Qualification was done the last day on a pop up range. After range ops were completed we would ruck about 2 miles back to the FOB. The first afternoon we did land nav with DAGR's (Army GPS units). After dark we went back out with NVG's and the DAGR's.

The second afternoon we did the first two "Warrior 2020" tasks. These tasks are meant to provide a uniform standard for male and female soldiers as the Army moves to integrate females into the combat roles. Right now the program is still in a trial phase so our class is part of the data collection process. The first two tasks included throwing a grenade 25m so that it lands within a 5m radius of the intended target (if you can throw a baseball from home plate to 1st base you're good to go). The second task was filling 26 sand bags in 52 minutes and then building a fighting position in 20 minutes or something like that. Nobody in the class took more than 15 minutes to do the whole thing. Both of those tasks are done in "full battle rattle" meaning your helmet, body armor, load carrying equipment and gloves. It's definitely tiring, but not difficult. My squad had the fastest average time so we won freshly grilled brats.

We caught trans back to the company area, cleaned weapons, and like that Alpha Module was done. Three weeks down, 17 to go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

National Guard Platoon Leader Time

When you get out of OCS the first thing you're looking forward to is your time as a platoon leader. If you're anything like me this is what you signed up for. As I've talked to more 2LT's across the Guard I've made a few observations that I'll pass along:

1. It's nothing like OCS. No one is there to belittle you every time you make a tiny mistake, your superiors will probably be genuinely interested in your welfare, you might even start to find you're enjoying the Guard. Coming from a background that was nothing but training, I was extremely relieved to finally join my unit. If you do your job well (or at least show that you're trying to learn it as fast as you can) you'll be part of the team in no time.

2. You may not get that coveted PL role. In the regular Army they'll send you to a staff role if there isn't a PL slot open. In the Guard they'll probably just double stack you on a platoon. How does that work? It doesn't. This is what happened to me when I commissioned- my unit went from having no LT's to 5 within a matter of months. So we all got to "share" PL responsibilities. My advice- find a project or a niche within your scope of leadership and go at it. Find a way to be useful. In rare circumstances you might get slotted as an XO or CO if the company is really hurting for officers- good luck with that.

3. Get a BOLC slot as soon as humanly possible. Until you finish BOLC you aren't MOS qualified. On the surface that means you usually can't do all the hooah fun stuff that your Joes are doing. Worse than that is you don't know your job. Walk in with humility and learn as much as you can from your NCO's, Specialists and Privates. Yes, even the lowliest of Privates just out of AIT know more than you do about your job.

4. Formally introduce yourself on the 2nd or 3rd drill. Prior to that spend some time observing. Do what the commander needs you to get done, but observe. Spend time in the motor pool, hang out with the supply Sergeant, sit in on training classes. Show your Joes that you're interested in what they're doing. Most (especially the junior enlisted) will be more than willing to tell you all about their MOS and what they do for the unit. They're feeling you out too. When you address your platoon for the first time tell them about yourself, tell them why you're there and what they can expect from you. It doesn't need to be super formal or long, just enough for them to feel like they know about your background and that you're there for them. Don't be afraid if you feel like you have to earn their respect. You do. Especially your NCO's. They might be a little cold toward you until they feel like you're not going to get their soldiers killed at the first opportunity. Its all part of the process- lead with presence, character, confidence, and competence and they'll get behind you.

5. Take time to care about soldiers. Find out what's going on in their lives. Celebrate with them when they have babies, learn what their Army and civilian career goals are, listen to them when they tell you about family problems, give them advice when they ask, find out the real reason they showed up to formation drunk. I could go on, but I can sum it all up by saying the real reason you're a leader is for them. That's the kind of superior officer you want to have, and they're no different.

Those are probably my top 5 suggestions to a new butter bar. They're not unique revalations that I've had they're more universal truths for the position. Any officer or NCO will probably give you similar advice. As always, I enjoy fielding questions you may have. Feel free to drop a line in the comments or to my email address.

Best of luck to Texas OCS Class 57 as they head to Phase III!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Next Up- BOLC

Just as a quick proof of life, I wanted to let y'all know I'll be heading to BOLC (Basic Officer Leadership Course) in the very near future. In order to keep a low profile I won't be giving "live" updates on the course- I'll save that until I get back. So look for a full recap in the last few months of 2014 (long wait, I know).

The last six months as a Platoon Leader have been great. I've thoroughly enjoyed the position and have a great group of senior officers and NCO's to work with. It's totally transformed my view of the Guard which until this point has been all training. The difference is night and day- being treated like an actual human being goes a long way for morale.

As always, I'm here to answer any questions you may have, shoot an email to txcitizensoldier (at) gmail (dot) com.