Desert Storm: Logistics and the Build Up

Everything to do with supplies and carrying equipment and troops is called logistics in the military.  If you don’t have the supplies, soldiers can have problems with basic things like not get enough food.  That was one of the reasons the First Battle at Manassas during the Civil War was such a surprise to everyone.  That railroad at that location was logistics, in this case, bringing more troops in.

Because the military moved so fast to start getting soldiers over to the Persian Gulf, we were reading in the newspaper about shortages of toilet paper, toothpaste, and other personal hygiene items.  So our supply sergeant ordered everything and tried to anticipate what we would need.

My company was what was called a “Medium Truck,” which gives a very different impression than the reality.  We had M915 tractor trailers — yes, a tractor trailer is a medium truck.  There’s an even bigger truck with tires that are taller than me!  As the supplies came in, we either packed them into boxes mounted on pallets, or packed them in corrugated steel shipping containers called conexes.  The conexes could be mounted on the back of a truck flatbed or lifted by a crane and put on a ship.  They also could be locked.  Anything worth stealing went in those.

I remember that one of the trucks pulled up outside out company area, in the gravel parking lot.  The lot always had muddy holes in it and was on the 10 year waiting list for repair.

We had the shipping boxes out and were throwing things in.  I had a clipboard and lots and lots and lots of copies of packing lists.  This was in the days before computers, and even copy machines were a bit on the early side.  I sat on the ground and hand wrote the contents of each box on six copies.  One copy went inside the box, and one was put outside the box, one went to the supply sergeant, and I don’t remember any more where the rest went.

We were like zombies at that point, almost mindlessly going through the packing.  It was a foregone conclusion we were going, though we still didn’t have a date.  It wasn’t like if you get really stressed out at work, because at the end of the day, you can leave.  Deployment was all around us, and we never could quite get away from it. We were all racing to get done without the end actually in site.  I remember in one of Tamara Pierce’s books, Daja’s Book, the main character is using her magic to put out a massive forest fire.  All she can see is what’s in front of her, and it’s go, go, go!  Then the fire is gone rather abruptly, and it’s like “Now what?”

We got the trucks packed up, and then they were driven off to the Seattle port to be shipped out.  Suddenly we had nothing to do but wait.

This an interesting article on the build up, which discusses some of the logistics.  It also mentions the 7th Transportation Group, which would be eventually assigned to after we arrived in the country.

Exorcising Writing How-to Advice

Last week, I wrote about leaving the writing message boards because my writing was getting polluted by a lot of the nonsense advice being passed around.  But I’d also started pulling back from general writing advice from how-to books even before that (some writers were absolutely horrified at this.  Writing advice is a huge safety net).  I was finding that the advice assumed all writers outline and didn’t provide anything really for someone who might not be doing that.

One of the core problems for me is that a lot of the how-to advice is common sense and seems perfectly reasonable.

Until I apply it to when I’m writing, and it turns the story into a freaking mess.  I could not tell this until I tossed out all the outlining-flavored advice, and once I did, the story simply worked.  Writing the story also went back to being a lot of fun.  Using outlining flavored techniques really sucked a lot of the fun out.

But it’s a constant battle, because I’ve been hearing that advice for decades.  It’s like it’s imprinted on me as a default.

I’m currently at the one-third point in my current book.  It’s a place where I always have trouble in every single book.  The story was going great, and then suddenly it’s ‘what do I do?’

LEFT BRAIN: Ack!  Ack! Story is broken!  Story is broken! Go find the problem and fix it!

I wound up stuck at that point, mainly because I’ve been at war with the Left Brain.  It figures all that writing advice out there is useful and maybe a turning point would help resolve the sticking point.

No, no, and no.

Because that wrests takes all the creativity away from my Right Brain that’s actually trying to do the writing.  What’s happened in the past is that when I let the Left Brain dictate what happens next — story beats were one of those things that seemed really reasonable but were horrifyingly bad —  I ended up trying to make the story fit what I’d come up with.  The story, in turn, became very convoluted and twisted because the creative process of discovery as I wrote was not allowed in.  It distorted the story so badly, in fact, that this is a complete redraft from scratch, and I have not used anything from the original version.

I end up feeling like I have to keep giving Left Brain an NCIS head slap to stay out of the story’s business.

The hardest thing right now is that I am literally doing a scene that I do not have any idea what is going to happen in it.  How-to advice and writing rules all say that’s a bad idea, and it’s what I have to do.

It’s trust the process.

Desert Storm: Packing for War

I went out to a trip to California last year, and I just took a carry on bag with about three shirts and three pairs of pants in it.  I was definitely more lightweight than some of the people at the airport, who had giant suitcases.  Sometimes we pack way too much for short trips.

But with the deploying to Desert Storm, we packed everything we would need, and it would be quite a lot because we were going to be living there for an unspecified time.  Unlike going to a vacation or travel spot, we probably wouldn’t be able to buy what we needed if we forgot something.  And, some of those items could be life-saving, like the gas mask.

Our leadership distributed copies of the packing list to us.  We would be taking two duffel bags and the ruck sack (like a back pack), labeled A, B, and C.

Packing the duffel bags was a challenge because it was a lot of stuff, and everything had to fit.  A pair of uniform pants was folded in half, and then rolled up tight from the bottom hem.  I used blousing rubbers to keep them from unrolling.  Some of the other soldiers excelled at getting the clothing rolled very tight, but I’d sometimes see soldiers climb into the duffel bag and mash everything down!  I always had trouble getting the rolls tight enough so everything was fit.  I’d get to the end of packing and couldn’t close the bag to lock it.

Does this sound like I did a lot of packing and repacking?

Well …

Everything had to match each bag.  If it didn’t fit, I couldn’t move it from Bag A to Bag B.  Our squad leaders had just take everything out so they could inspect it and make sure everything was in it.  Invariable, one squad leader would do a random inspection, find a sock pair out of place, and that would trigger an inspection for everyone.

In hindsight, the multiple inspections showed the fear all our sergeants had because no one really know what was going on.  Packing was something they could control, but I don’t think they understood that their fear was filtering down to us.  After a point, it was hard to say it was military mentality.  Constant unpacking and repacking meant items got in the wrong place or that bottle of aftershave ended up broken.

Packing and repacking also kept putting war right in our faces and reminding us over and over that we were going.

Desert Storm: 25th Anniversary Reunion

I’ve been invited to a Desert Storm 25th Anniversary Reunion next year.  It’s for vets of the war in general, so not my specific union or battalion.  It’s a cruise, which I wouldn’t mind doing, since I’ve never been on a cruise.  At least, unless you count the Catalina Flyer, which was when I was in the Girl Scouts.  I got terribly seasick on that and spent the entire trip on the stairs, enough below decks to cut the motion and still in the fresh air.

It also goes to Honduras and Mexico, and the only overseas countries I’ve been to have been courtesy of war.

But the cost is making me hesitate.  I think I will be able to afford it at that point, but I’m kind of wishing they’d put this in Las Vegas where it wouldn’t cost as much as this.

It certainly would be a different experience — not like a high school reunion where everyone is comparing everyone else’s success, because most of us wouldn’t know each other and yet we have this unique shared experience.  I think if this had been done on the 10th anniversary, I wouldn’t have done it because I didn’t have enough distance from the war.  But 25?  It would be a very different experience.

What’s your take on it?  Have you been on a cruise?  What was it like?  Did you get seasick a lot?

Desert Storm Reunion October 11-18, 2015
Desert Storm Reunion October 11-18, 2015

Almost a Year Off the Writing Message Boards

It’s kind of surprising to realize that I’ve been off writing message boards for almost a year.  I woke up one day and just deleted all the links to the writing message boards, and I was done.  I’d been on the boards since at least 2007, and honestly, I haven’t missed them.

When I first signed up — early on, it was as many as six of them because I just couldn’t get enough of writing advice.  I was always like I was looking for this one piece that would help me solve problems I was having.

One of the problems though was that most of the advice was being given by beginners to beginners, so no one actually knew what they were talking about.

Over the years, that started become apparent, particularly as I started thinking about moving to indie publishing.  Going indie really changed my perspective because then it’s not about simply getting published; it’s about making enough money to live off it.  Most writers don’t fit into that category.  They want to get one book published.  Maybe it’ll be three.  But make a living at it?  Nah.

The worst and probably the silliest piece of advice I heard was “You have to know the rules to break the rules.”  A writer usually got told this when they were perceived to be doing something beyond beginner level, and if they asked what the definition of when you knew the rules, they were simply told the same thing again.  It kind of came across as “Shut up and don’t ask questions.”

Honestly, how do you get above beginner level if you don’t experiment?  I never understand it either when someone wanted to imitate a technique they’d seen in a book by a favorite author, but all the writers promptly said, “No, you can’t do that.  Big name writer can get away with it.  You can’t.  Don’t even try.”

Seriously?  That’s the best way to learn!

Over the last few years, I found myself participating less and less because of silliness like this.   But the reason I finally decided it was time was because of a writer named Lester Dent.  He wrote the Doc Savage books during the pulp era, and I don’t know, maybe I connected to how he wrote in a way. My early experience with writing was an uncle who also wrote during the pulp era, and Lester Dent reminded me that writing doesn’t need to be complicated.

He also reminded me that none of the very early writing books talked about all the nonsense we get today: three act structure; story beats; character worksheets.  It was just story, characters, and setting.  Yet, on the message boards and even in some craft books, the writing process had become enormously overcomplicated.  Everything was about following a method, and not really about the writing itself.  It’s like everyone mistook the technique for the process.

Worse, I found some of this junk getting into my writing, in spite of the fact I knew better.  There was just so much of it that it was hard for it not to get into my writing.

I also discovered how shockingly negative most of it is.  It’s a lot of “Don’t do this,” or “Kill this,” or “If you don’t do this/do this, you won’t get published.”  Where exactly does the fun in writing come in when everyone is so busy trying to follow all these mysterious rules?

So the only thing that I could do was just stop.

I haven’t regreted it.  My writing has actually improved once I got free of all the junk and the self-inflicted rules we see.  Most of it isn’t necessary.  It’s tell a good story.  Have good characters.  Use whatever needed to get to those two goals.

Desert Storm: Packing Even More Equipment!

I was at Barnes and Noble and saw the “U.S. Army Survival Kit” they were selling. It was a box, about the size of two hardback books laid side by side. Had a blanket and and few other things in. I was kind of scratching my head it because none of seemed particularly hardy enough for what the military really has.

In additional the uniforms we would be taking, we also had a long list of individual equipment for each soldier:

  • Two blankets: These were green wool blankets, like the ones you see on M*A*S*H. Since cots were twin sized, they were twin-sized blankets. Very scratchy.
  • Sleeping bag: This was green also and looked like a caterpillar. Not like those nice rectangular ones you get at the camping stores that are more like folding a blanket in half.
  • Rain poncho: A woodland camouflage piece of plastic with a hood. It wasn’t really much protection against the weather if it was raining harder than a sprinkler.
  • Poncho Liner: Any soldier will tell you this was the most useful tool around. It was not standard issue; purchasing it came out of our own pockets, and we all bought one. It was a quilted rectangle of cloth that could be fastened to the rain poncho to create an impromptu sleeping bag. It could be also used in addition to the blankets, or to sit on, or hang up like a wall.
  • Rain jacket and pants: This was a heavy duty rain covering, rather like the yellow ones you see in rescue movies, only ours was green and stank of plastic.
  • Galoshes: These were your basic galoshes that you pulled over your own shoes and hoped you could get off when you feet sweated too much.
  • Chemical boots: Or my nickname, fish boots. They were black plastic and had this weird part on the bottom that you had to pull up and tie around your ankle with
  • Chemical clothing: A jacket and pants. We actually brought the training version (don’t ask; it’s army logic) and the real thing, which was sealed in a package. It was heavily quilted, so quite warm when we put it on over the uniform. After we got to Saudi Arabia, we received a notification that one entire lot of them was defective. The recommendation was to wear the rain jacket and pants over the top. Comforting.
  • Entrenching Tool: Army speak for a collapsible shovel.
  • Shelter half and tent stakes: The shelter half was a cotton half of a two person tent. The only place I ever used one was in Basic Training. It was just extra weight to lug around though it did make a great wall to accompany the poncho liner.
  • Duffel bags: Each soldier was given two of these as part of normal issue.
  • Ruck sack: Army speak for a backpack, but nothing as fancy as the ones you see hikers carry. It came with a frame to put the weight on your hips.
  • Footlocker: For the war, we were issued one footlocker. Pretty much like the ones on M*A*S*H, though dark brown. The footlocker was the only packing tool where we could use it for whatever we wanted.

Hardly a box the size of two hard backed books! From what I read, for the later wars, the soldiers carried even more weight. We would get cots when we got there, but those were part of the company’s inventory, rather than the soldier’s equipment.

Off next to packing all this stuff!

Desert Storm to September 11, 2001

When we came home from Desert Storm, everyone was already saying, “We’re going back,” because we hadn’t finished what had been started.  And, of course, we know that’s exactly what happened because of 911.

I was in Washington, DC on that day, working at the same place I am now.  I was in the National Guard at the time, and I was short-timer and looking forward to getting out in December.  At that point, I was done with the military.  People were saying, “But you have twelve years in.  Why don’t you stay the extra eight and retire?”  It was something you had to be there to understand.  I’d gotten to the point where I just couldn’t take it any more.  I would end up hating it, and I hated what the military was doing to my writing.  It was not the best of environments for being creative.

When the first planes hit in New York, we didn’t really know what was happening.  Initially, I think people thought it was an accident, but once news started getting out, we were evacuated into the basement of our building in case were attacked.

Eventually, we were kicked loose, and I had to head North, into DC.  It was a 14 mile drive and took four hours.  Traffic inched along, and unlike normal DC traffic, everyone was mannerly.   I sat in that traffic, sick to my stomach, as I watched police escort convoys of cars down the shoulders.  So many rescue workers headed in that direction.

My car started to overheat, pumping out pink smoke — the fan had gone out.  I finally got over to an exit and got off, moving away from the traffic, to get the engine cooled down. I stopped in a restaurant to wait things out, and I was beyond being stunned or in denial.  How can you react to the enormity of what had happened?

I finaly got home, and over the next few weeks as the Pentagon burned, I could walk out to the sidewalk and see the black smoke in the air.  And I still had to go to work the next day.  My then boss, a retired Army colonel, wanted us to get back on the horse.  But, for me, dealing with the fan that needed to be replaced, was almost more than I could handle.  It was get by the day, minute by minute.

The first weekend, my then cowriter and I got together to write because it was important to do something normal, even if the rest of the world wasn’t.

It took about two weeks for everyone in the area to start recovering.  About two weeks after, it was like the sun came and people started emerging from hiding.

I went to my first drill after, which might have been in late September or early October.  I don’t remember any more.  I was scared because I had only a few months left, and I knew the military was going to deploy.  If the President started calling soldiers up, I would be put on stop loss and deploy, and I didn’t want to go.  I’d had one war, and that had been enough.

The route back from drill duty took me past the Pentagon.  That part of the freeway had been previously closed, but once the fire was under control, it had been reopened.  I remember this guy in front of me jamming on his brakes and pulling over to the side, and then hopping out so he could take pictures like it was tourist scenery.  The Pentagon had this big black bite taken out of the side of the building, and it was difficult to even look at.

Time slowed down to an agonizing pace as I watched the news, waiting for the call up to start.  My last day in the military was December 25, 2001, and they started deploying soldiers soon after.

Pocket Kitten

Cuteness alert!