Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reflections on Shattered Glass (11-Sep-01)

My battalion was selected to send a company to Veszprem, Hungary to advise and train the Hungarian Army. Hungary was the latest addition to NATO. This opportunity gave us not only a key mission in developing this new alliance, but gave an intelligence geek like me the opportunity to get hands-on experience with Soviet Block weapons and equipment. I was more than excited about this mission.

Per normal protocol, I prepared a threat briefing for those deploying. We were not a nation at war in those days prior to the deployment. However, we would be at the time of our return. However, the biggest threats we faced were foreign intelligence agencies seeking to exploit our soldiers; and a few international terrorist groups that had demonstrated a fondness for attacking US forces who were abroad. Naturally, therefore, the briefing I prepared included the assholes responsible for attacking the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the USS Cole in Yemen:  Al Q'aeda.

Also, per normal protocol, many of the Soldiers zoned out, not thinking this to be overtly important to our mission. A couple of the more senior NCOs, Gulf War vets, paid a bit more attention and asked some questions. The questions led to discussions that spurred the younger Soldiers to become curious. The 45 minute brief ended up lasting over 2 hours. Of course, I was happy to share my knowledge and analysis. However, even as long winded as I can be, at the 70 minute mark, the topic was beginning to bore me. But I trudged on. By the end of the brief and the long Q&A, I had many Soldiers coming up to me to ask questions they were afraid to ask in front of the group. This, of course, is a hallmark of being a good intelligence analyst. Usually, the audience just wants you to shut up. Then again, this particular brief fell into my usually ignored and, at the time, seemingly irrelevant specialty.

It had been a busy year for me. A company from my Battalion had deployed with the rest of the Brigade to Kosovo. It was the company that we left in reserve when the rest of the Battalion spent 7 months in Albania (and Kosovo) during the initial campaign. So, we had just spent six months doing the Brigade's normal missions in garrison, plus supporting those deployed. I have never been one to sit on my hands when things needed to be done. I took up the mission of bolstering the force protection measures of the garrison. I also managed to do a few inspections with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) during those busy months. Then, when the rest of the Brigade returned, I went to Kosovo for my second time, to lend assistance to the hunt for some key bad guys. On that deployment, I was also tapped by another government organization to assist in securing Camp Bondsteel for a very special visitor. Yes, I was attached to the Secret Service for President G W Bush's visit. After that almost 3 month tour, I returned to my unit to be informed we won the Hungary mission. That gave me 5 days to prepare myself and my unit for that deployment.

Ten days later, I had fallen into a routine of doing my daily activities. I checked for things that presented a threat to my guys while deployed. I inspected the arms rooms to make sure all security protocols were adhered to. I socialized with the Hungarian soldiers and officers, sharing what little I could and soaking up every detail like a sponge. I even managed to make "friends" with a Maygar general whose coin I still keep on my mantle.

The capstone event of this mission was a planned demonstration of combined arms firepower between our two countries. We had trained tactics and planning and all the fun stuff. Then we set to rehearse for this demonstration. Many big-wigs from NATO were scheduled to watch the main event, including SECDEF Rumsfeld.

The day prior to the demonstration, we had run two "full-dress" rehearsals. That meant all of the munitions were live and not sub-caliber practice rounds. It meant lots of explosions and carnage brought to bear on the hulls of old, broken tanks and plastic mock-up enemy soldiers on "pop-up" lifters. So, sometime in the early afternoon, I marched up from the rehearsal (I was there to give pointers on how to make those darned plastic bad guys looks like they were using real enemy tactics) to our Operations Center. I had to give a current events brief, to include sports scores, to the Soldiers at 4pm. That briefing very quickly changed tone.

I checked the open-source information sources to prepare my brief. I had to keep at the lowest classification possible, so I used these sources to help do so. An "open source" intelligence source is also known as news-media. The date was 11 September 2001. I do not think I need to tell you what breaking story I found everywhere while I complied my nightly brief.

A former member of our Battalion was in the Pentagon that day. He died in the attack. I had several Soldiers with family members that worked in or near the World Trade Center. One of my best friends had family in the FDNY and NYPD. I had to do one of the hardest things in my life. I had to tell my Soldiers about the attacks. I had to look in their eyes as the images of pure horror filled their brains. No official word had yet been culminated on who was responsible, and no group had yet claimed responsibility. However, the question was asked "Who did this?". I gave the official answer. "Sergeant Mat, you know who did this, don't you? Who?". The words of my best guess came too easily: "That group that attacked the USS Cole, Al Q'aeda".

As soon as I said those words, I knew something in me had changed. I had spent the previous years being more of a vigilant guardian watching for a potential threat to pop its head up and attempt something stupid. Now, that potential threat had reared its head and done something horrific. I was no longer that vigilant guardian. I transformed into a flail of retribution and a sword of wrathful vengeance. I became war.

Coming up in the ranks, one of my mentors was, to use his official pseudonym, J. David Galland, a close associate of COL David Hackworth. Mr. Galland, whom I called "Sergeant Major", once told me that I was a rare retro bit of military equipment. He used to joke that he and I needed to be left alone and put in cases with placards that read "Break Glass Only In Case of War". Usama bin Laden broke that glass. All I can say in response to his little act of war is:  "I'm still alive motherfucker. How many times have you and your assholes tried to kill me? I'm still breathing. Where the fuck are you, huh?"

Still, there are days when it is too quiet and a little non-invasive thing will ping on my memories. I sit with a small regret at not having seen this war through to its necessary conclusion. It is far from over. All it takes is five minutes of complacency, and they will attack us again. They are down, but not defeated. This is an enemy we need to kick while he is down until he is unconscious. Then we need to kick him once more to make sure he isn't playing possum. Then we need to watch him and kick him back to sleep the second he starts to stir. If we don't, he will roll away and come back with friends.

Ten years, four tours to Iraq, and numerous trips to places undisclosed, I sit here. I have been retired from the US Army for 41 days, after 24 years of faithful service. Thoughts of many events still well up feelings of anger, wrath, grief, sadness, guilt, and indignation. Like the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and John Lennon, people will, for decades, still share their memories of where they were when the Towers Fell. I not only remember where I was and what I was doing. I also remember who I was and who I became.