May 08, 2008

It's Off Again

Either the BBC was wrong, or the Burmese ruling junta changed their mind. Either way, we don't currently have permission to enter their territory. That said, we may do it anyway. Apparently the SecDef said something like "I don't envision a circumstance in which we violate Burmese sovereignty. But we do intend to deliver aid to their people somehow." To me, that sounds like a somewhat non-specific denial. Without the Harriers we're not exactly set up to defeat a major air defense network. But from what I hear of the circumstances on the ground over there, they never had much of a defense net, and what they had is probably wrecked right now anyway. We're planning to go in.

The internet continues to be spotty aboard the ship, but at least now I know why. There's a motor that rotates our satellite dish to keep it pointed in the correct direction. Apparently that motor is acting up. The ship's crew was going to work on it yesterday afternoon, but then things went all crazy.

I'm still dehydrated from yesterday. I've not spent much time of the flight deck today, but I'm thirsty and pounding water. It's 1035 and I've chugged three liters in the last four hours. Everyone was working so hard yesterday that their water absorption just couldn't keep up. We had a guy go down as a heat casualty in the berthing this morning. He got up crazy early, put in a couple of hours at the gym (apparently not drinking water), came back to shower up after the workout, and passed out in our berthing's head. We didn't call a "man down" and wait for a stretcher party from medical; a bunch of the guys grabbed a blanket off a nearby bunk, soaked it in cold water, and used the wet blanket as a stretcher to cool him and simultaneously hustle him to medical. I hope someone brings him some clothes. No word on what the SgtMaj is going to do to him, but I'll wager she's most unhappy. We're short-handed as is, we can't afford people going down because they're being stupid during their off-time.

Speaking of short-handed, I get to put on another hat. The whole ordnance shop went ashore with the skids to show the flag with the exercise in Thailand. We're doing a servicing phase on one of the CH-46's still on the boat, and there are a couple of required tasks that are to be done by the ordies. So I think I'll be getting a temporary ordnance CDI certification so that I and my workers can do their jobs.

That works out well for me, because all ranks up to Corporals are given numerical scores that govern their promotion. As a Sergeant, I now have a semi-annual Fitness Report. I'll have to write up a bullet list of accomplishments, and cross-training outside your field always looks good. Also, the shop's SNCOIC assigns the scores for E-1 to E-4, so I've always been evaluated by my Sergeants, Staff Sergeants, and Gunnys. E-5 abd up get FitReps, and are evaluated by the first officer in their chain of command. So now I get graded by the Captain, not by my Gunny. Of course, Gunny still gives me my daily instructions, and I answer to him; and I'm sure the Captain will consult with Gunny while grading me. Still, it's an interesting difference.

Also, I looked at my latest paycheck. Woo hoo! E-4 to E-5 is the second-biggest pay increase out there, percentage-wise. (The only one bigger is Captain to Major, O-3 to O-4). The same two reasons for the jump apply in both cases. First, anyone that's not a screwup can make it to E-4 or O-3 in their first term of obligated service. But E-5 and O-4 are the start of the career ranks. The pay increases to encourage people to stay. Second, the biggest jump in responsibility happens at E-5 and O-4. Those are the levels at which you are assumed capable of operating independently.

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Wakey Wakey

Ahhh, a glorious morning. The sea rolls past as we charge ahead at high speed, Thailand lost in foam of our wake. The playful clouds look surprised as we leave them to their aerial games.

I was overtired when I went to bed last night, and was 15 minutes late to work this morning. Whoops. I'm the guy in charge of the shop, so there was no one to yell at me for being tardy. Hmmm. However, I wish to set a good example for my troops, and the embarrassment of looking like an ass is far worse than a tongue-lashing would have been.

We're traveling too fast to launch aircraft, so we've got a couple of days respite to get the aircraft into the best shape we can before we hit Burma. My original estimated transit time was hampered by lack of a decent map close to hand. The Malay Peninsula is longer than I'd recalled, so it'll take some time to get all the way south, pass the Straits of Malacca, and then get back north to the Irrawaddy Delta, which is the worst-hit area of Burma.

The ship is strangely quiet and empty. With all the Harriers and half the helos gone, the flight deck looks forlorn. Half the grunts and their gear went ashore to Thailand, too. Should be short lines in the chow hall! But we're shorthanded in the shop. There's only me and two lance corporals. I don't need more workers, what with the limited number of aircraft to work on. But it seems strange and quiet.

I keep writing words like "quiet", and I find myself face-down on the desk. I wonder if I can contrive to give myself a nap sometime today?

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It's On!

The fear has been that we'll sit off the coast of Burma, sailing in Essex-sized circles, waiting for the Burmese junta to allow us in. After a few weeks of pointless waiting, the disaster is over, and we go home with nothing but headaches and intestinal gas from the mess deck's lima bean casserole.

But per the BBC, we've been officially granted clearance from the Burmese to do relief operations. Yay us! There may be a hundred thousand dead already. But we will do what we can.

Treat the wounded, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the dispossessed, bury the dead.

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Throw the Operating Envelope In a Paper Shredder

Every evening the squadron issues the flight schedule for the next day. It's signed by the CO, and is a directive order that we will follow for the next day's operations.

I've got today's up on my wall as I write this. We were joking about having it framed as a document of historical humor.

We started work today crazy early. Well, it's now getting late. We're required by a direct order from very high up to work no more than a 14 hour day, but I'm at 16 and counting right now. I feel good though, because we are living the Marine dream- rapid fluctuating conditions and rapid movements with a continually shifting plan.

Many of the pilots are pissed though, especially the maintenance officer. Because the crew rest requirements are there for a reason. Those rules are "written in blood", and violating them is to knowingly gamble with the lives of those around and under you. I unfortunately got a bit sucked into the officer's argument about it. I was too tired to realize the necessity of evading when my captain asked me a rather loaded question about when rules get followed or broken during maintenance. And he knows me well enough that he asked his question in such a way as to elicit a response that favored one side of their argument. While my new rank makes me a power in the enlisted side, I need one more rank for it to be considered appropriate to argue with officers. (Not that it's stopped me before, I must confess.)

I'm being elliptical above, sorry. Today we were dropping off sections of the squadron that will not be useful sailing to Burma. We launched four aircraft and about 50 maintainers with about six hours prep time. Then the plan changed, and we launched seven more aircraft and another 50 Marines with 90 minutes of prep time. That one got hairy. And we're still flying late into the night trying to get all the gear they need ashore. The ship's landing craft and launches are also doing all that they can to help. You know a movement is serious when the captain's gig is running infantry with seabags back and forth to shore. I just talked to someone who was in the lower V (where you access the ship's landing craft), and he said it was a little taste of hell. Blazing hot, terribly humid,

*** DAMMIT gotta go, realized I forgot something.

*** OK, back. Too late to correct my oversight. They'll have to live without it.

Where was I? Right, lower V, Dante's Inferno. Terribly hot, sticky with humidity. Lit with red lights so the coxswains maintain their night vision. Forklifts and AAAVs roaring around. Everyone's exhausted and angry. I'd go down to take photos, but (a) it's dark, (b) there are enough people there already, and (c) I might get eaten by a grue. (Or crushed by a AAAV). [AAAV=Amphibious Armored Assault Vehicle. It's a swimming tank/landing craft. Cousin Scott drove them.]

People did a lot of yelling at me today, too. Because Gunny was out sick, I was the senior man in the shop, making decisions on what gear went where. And there wasn't enough gear to go around. Any military unit is not infinitely divisible. We are set up to divide into three pieces. But as of now, we're in four different places. So there are a number of critical items of gear, that I have three of. So I had to decide which group got nothin'. It's not just our shop though; there are probably a hundred different critical tools, test kits, ground support equipment, etc in the unit, and we've got three of most of them. The various dets are going to be doing a lot of improvising and scrounging for the next few weeks. And getting back to what I started this email with, improvising is _dangerous_. Military aviation is inherently dangerous. Helicopters are even more dangerous. I casually work on many systems that can kill me before I can blink. The procedures exist to control the danger. When the procedures are not followed, things can become lethal extraordinarily rapidly. For instance, we were launching so many birds today that we had to use both sides of the flight deck, while by preference we only launch aircraft from the port side. Normally a whole half the deck is safe, but today we had a 15' path down the middle as the only area not threatened by blades. Running back and forth in the heat, down a narrow path... on both sides blades spinning that would not even slow down to dismember someone... people exhausted and tired... this is how people get blown overboard by rotor wash. (Note that the
danger is usually not the one you are looking for! Everyone pays extra attention to the rotor arcs, and less attention to the deck edge.)

I suspect that this post is rambling and only semi-coherent. I apologize for that. But I'm not going to go back through and edit it, as if I don't maintain forward motion I'm going to drop. I think there have been battles won for that very reason- when one side realizes that if they mount a final charge and take the hill, then they can finally rest. Forward momentum is key.

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May 07, 2008

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose

I was really looking forward to this trip to Thailand. We were going to be living in HOTELS, with liberty EVERY NIGHT. Able to go out to town in Pattaya Beach, one of the biggest resort cities in the world. Morale, Welfare, and Recreation had tours scheduled to see the fabulous cultural sites of ancient Thailand. The Reclining Buddha, 160 feet long and 36 feet wide. The Golden Buddha, cast from 5 1/2 tons of solid gold. Ancient temples. Thai boxers. The genuine Bridge on the River Kwai.

Our hotel has the largest pool in Southeast Asia, and I brought my swim trunks. After the exercise concludes, I now rate overnight libo. My favorite Gunny had invited me along with his overnight libo group. He spent a year living in Thailand, so he knows where to go. Then after Thailand, we head to Hong Kong, for three more days of liberty in one of the world's great cities.

After the freezing Korean forests, stinking Cambodian swamps, stinking Philippine swamps, and blazing hot Australian desert, I was really looking forward to a nice place to stay, with liberty rules that treated us as adults.

I am such a sucker.

I should have known better. We've been cancelled from participation in the Thailand exercise. As you've probably seen on the news, Phibron 11 and the embarked 31st MEU is going to Myanmar aka Burma aka Rangoon, effective instantly if not sooner. All hands are scurrying like a recently-kicked anthill. We set flight quarters at 0430 to get all the Harriers off the deck. It'll take us three days or so of sailing to get around the peninsula that points south from Thailand, so we're pulling anchor as soon as the ship finishes sending all the Harriers' containers ashore via landing craft. Some of our longer-range helicopters are launching immediately; they'll land in Thailand and wait for permission to fly into Myanmar overland. The rest of us will sail around to just off their coast.

I am going to miss the semi-vacation, easy-living deployment to Thailand. But. The last two years has been all political missions. My service says "No better friend, no worse enemy than a Marine." We've been wanting to either kill people or save some lives for the whole two-year float, instead of just cruising about hosting parties for ambassadors. A real humanitarian mission will feel good.

But, but, but. Myanmar HATES us. We've had sanctions against their military junta for decades, and they're paranoid about the US military. They have not yet granted us permission to enter their airspace or territorial waters. I am laying 50-50 odds that we will not do anything useful. We'll spend a couple of weeks floating back and forth outside the 11 mile territorial limit, until we give up and go home.

Just watch. Another wasted trip, on the way.

PS The stress is getting to people. My poor gunny went to medical last night worried that he was having a heart attack. Our flight surgeon got kicked out of the rack at 0330 to give him an EKG. Apparently gunny's ticker is OK, it was blamed as a stress-related panic attack. He's been going every which way for months now. He was prepared to be the shop head for a Flight Equipment shop. In addition to that, they made him Division Chief for Airframes Div, meaning he's in charge of not just our shop, but another shop the same size and a third shop that's quadruple the size. Then they made him squadron Big Dog too, which is a boat-only billet. It's the designated interface between our squadron and the ship's Flight Deck Handler, who is responsible for making sure aircraft, aircrew, and maintainers are all where they need to be when the schedule calls for it. Not an easy job at all.

PPS I guess I should go up to the flight deck and take some pictures of the Thai beaches, because right now I'm as close as I'll ever get to them.

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On Hold

We were originally supposed to go ashore today to begin Operation Cobra Gold 2008, a multinational exercise hosted by Thailand. The original point of the exercise was to intimidate Cambodia; now, it's more directed at Burma. Which makes it ironic that we're on hold because we might be going to provide aid to Burma.

I say "might", because the go/no-go decision will come from the Oval Office, and we're just hanging around waiting for word. Whee. I'd like to be either in Thailand living the high life, or in Burma saving lives. Just circling around in the Pacific is most annoying.

I suppose this time doesn't count as wasted; with nowhere to go, the ship has no objection to steaming into the wind for hours at a time. Both we helos and the embarked Harriers have been practicing carrier landings all day.

The shop's a bit tense, too. One of the two corporals in the shop came in to work a little irritable this morning, and kicked the other corporal from behind. I had to restore order and we had a little talk about the joys of getting along. Marines scrap all the time, I'm just annoyed that it was a hit from behind.

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May 05, 2008

Rumor Control

The ship rumor mill is working overtime. The word under the ladderwells is that we're going to go to storm relief work in Burma, where apparently things are unpleasantly wet. I'm telling people that we're not going, because Burma's government hates America. Even in the unlikely event that they accept relief supplies from the USA, they'd never allow the military to deliver anything. The place is run by a paranoid military junta. So if we go in to deliver aid, we'd have to go in shooting.

Which, of course, we are well-equipped to do. Hmmm…

Don’t get me wrong, I'd love to go do some humanitarian work. The 31st MEU is all about pointless political BS "joint training" missions, which are a waste of time and tax dollars. If we got to go save some lives, that would be great.

But it's not going to happen.

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Cruise Book Again

Some of you may recall that I created the cruise book for the first year that we were part of the 31st MEU. I'm proud of my creation, but it took a hell of a lot of my working time and a lot of my "free" time too.

The powers that be decided we should have another cruise book, for the second half of our two-year mission. So far two different officers have asked me to do it again. While it is impolitic to tell an officer "Hell no, sir!", I've been attempting to express that sentiment: "It was a rewarding experience, but I think someone else should get a chance to express their unique perspective. Maybe Sergeant Taylor from Flightline, sir?"

Of course, if they can't find another volunteer, I might get voluntold. That would suck. Because me being me, I don't think I could actually blow it off. I can't stand doing a half-ass job on creative work, especially since 300+ coworkers will be looking forward to the work product. I want to have a good time in Thailand, not spend every evening in my hotel room laying out photo spreads.

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Getting Close

We're almost there. I've not seen our official position, but during my morning flight deck PT run I saw some sampans. I couldn't see land, but those guys aren't exactly deep-sea travelers. In the afternoon, I saw an island on the hazy horizon.

The weather so far this float has been outstanding. No storms. Never a wave higher than three feet. The only rain has been the two-minute squalls endemic to the tropical seas; a refreshing cooling spray.

In the mornings, the sea is the pale hue of a lover's eye. At noon, it becomes a blue so deep and mysterious, one is hypnotized looking into the endless depths. In the afternoon, the sea fades again, into a blue-green jade, pale as the finest stone. As the sun sets, the oceans wears robes of a rich purple, fit to make any emperor weep for jealousy.

 

Whoa, sorry, got carried away for a bit there. I can watch the ocean for hours. It might be heat exhaustion effecting my brain, because it is hot as, um, er, no, wait, sorry, all the similes we Marines use aren't really suitable for mixed company. So I'll just say it's hot. Overnight lows in the mid-80's, and highs in the high 90's. The humidity is in the 90% range all the time, of course. So we pound water like it was going out of style. The Corps now issues a hydration pack similar to a Camelback, and we're under orders to wear it at all times when on the flight deck, with a promise from the SgtMaj that if someone goes down as a heat casualty and didn't have their hydration pack on, she'll charge that poor SOB. (As if becoming a heat casualty isn't punishment enough. The docs don't waste any time getting your core temperature, ifyouknowwhatImean.)

So, things have been terrifically pleasant this trip. We've all done this so many times the kinks are worked out; we're going to spend time on shore with the liberal III MEF's liberty policy instead of the punitive 31st MEU policy; everyone's happy because in a couple of weeks we'll be done with the MEU for a year. Life is grand!

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May 02, 2008

Sticky

The ship had a plumbing problem for a couple of days. This was a issue because we had no fresh water in any of the Marine troop berthing spaces. So we went two days without showers or shaves. We weren't expecting to be field living, so no one brought any baby wipes to keep clean. Plus, it's hot as hell right now. (Last night's overnight low: 87 degrees. Seriously.)

But after two days of Marines not washing or shaving, the problem got noticed by the highest levels. We had two sergeant majors in our spaces yelling at some Navy chiefs, and then the MEU commanding officer showed up. Yelling at the chiefs just made them dig in their heels, but the CO is a real "enlisted first!" type, which makes him popular with us. He directed that all the enlisted could shower in the head in Officer's Country. The lieutenants may have been irritated at having to wait for five hundred Marines to use the six showers up there, but none dared complain out loud.

I didn't have time to wait in that line, so I went to work dirty and itchy and generally pissed off at the world. They got the water fixed at about the time I was getting off work, so I am happily clean again.

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