Afghanistan: Visual Cues to Sending a Fallen Soldier Home

Like so many communities have done thousands of times before – Tampa Bay will welcome home a fallen soldier. Army Spc. Brittany Gordon’s remains arrive Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida.

Yet, few know what it’s like at the other end – in Afghanistan. What do the soldiers experience when sending home a fallen colleague.

My thanks to Tony Schwalm for sharing his observations. He is a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces currently assigned as an Army civilian to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan and author of The Guerrilla Factory.

A Journal Entry from Afghanistan

Tonight, due to a torn calf muscle, I am missing the institutional response to what is now a common signal on the camp where I live in Afghanistan. In the center of the camp, which is defined by a line of razor wire and blast walls within a larger perimeter of razor wires and blast walls that encapsulates the adjacent airfield, stands a row of flag poles representing the nations who hunt and kill Taliban alongside the US.

As it is a US camp, the US flag is first. Without warning and I have never seen who does it, the flag is at half-staff and remains there for 24 hours when a special operations soldier dies.

Due to the connectivity of the world in which we live and kill each other and the chance that a social media site will announce the death to an unsuspecting family member, no one is given the name until the next of kin is notified in the US.

As I was limping back to my office, I saw the flag at half-staff and most of the task force was walking down to the airfield. They will stand at attention in a rectangle of a few hundred people while a truck with flag-draped coffins slowly passes in front of them and stops at an honor guard. Continue reading

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Army Mom Uses Websites, YouTube, Facebook to Learn

Graduation from the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Benning. Dorie Griggs with her son Nelson and family. Photo by Stanley Leary.

I’m on the steep learning curve on how to become the mom of a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After four years of being the mom of an Army ROTC cadet at The Citadel, I thought I was pretty aware of the real military process.

I was wrong.

Over the years I have learned how to navigate various military related web sites. In my previous professional positions, I honed my Internet research skills. Those research skills and my drive to learn are coming in handy now.

The past few months, I’ve heard from other mothers of soldiers that they too are learning a lot. We learn more from our own research than from what our sons or daughters tell us directly.

I found great support from other mothers in particular about the various processes. Our children are busy starting their new careers. Many of them are in training that requires them to turn in their cell phones and don’t allow for computer access. It is during these periods, when we can’t hear directly from our own sons or daughters, that we as parents and spouses reach out to each other.

Armor school Basic Officer Leader Course graduating class. Photo by Stanley Leary.

The Army’s Family Readiness Groups (FRG) appears to be most helpful to spouses of military members. So far, I’ve not found them to be particularly helpful to family who do not live near the base. My son is scheduled to be deployed in the fall. I wonder if the FRG will be more helpful at that time.

I’ve found the base websites to be very helpful with back ground information.  During Armor BOLC both the website and the Facebook groups posted updates. The same was true when I researched Ranger School, Reconnaissance Surveillance Leader Course (RSLC), and Airborne School.

I found I could get lost in research on these sites. I also found answers to many of my questions on the various Facebook groups. To find more information on the particular training your soldier is going through, I have had  great success using the search window on the main base website. I used the search window to find the links to the various training pages and Facebook groups listed above.

Airborne soldiers during an exercise. Photo by Stanley Leary.

To find the Facebook group for my sons battalion and regiment, I put 3-69 Facebook in the search window on the main Fort Stewart website.

At Fort Stewart, they have an extensive website and also a variety of Facebook groups. Fort Benning does as well. Through these sites I’ve come to “meet” other parents and staffers who were more than willing to answer my questions.

If you want to find the group for your soldier, enter the base name in the Facebook search window. Once you find a site, you can also check the “Likes” section on the right side of the page to see what other related groups are listed.

YouTube is another source of information that I believe is under utilized by parents. I also know that sometimes you can have too much information. The videos in particular may not be very comforting if you are worried about the training your loved one is going through.

If you’d like find videos about the training or unit your soldier is in just enter the name in the search window of YouTube. I try to watch the videos posted by an official source like this one about the U.S. Army Basic Training.

Airborne graduation. Photo by Stanley Leary.

While my son was in college, he was involved in learning Modern Army Combatives. I found some training videos that helped me understand that discipline. One website gave me the background and another link showed a series of training videos. Now that he is active duty, the other videos I’ve found about the Rangers training, and the U.S. Army Special Forces are ones you need to be ready to watch. I wouldn’t recommend them to someone struggling to come to terms with this extremely challenging career choice.

The greatest gift I have received is the many new friendships, most virtual, that I have formed. Our children are on a path most of us haven’t traveled. The parents with military background help those of us without that experience.

The training we go through as family members isn’t physically grueling, but it is tough emotionally. We have peaks and valleys. The best you can hope for is that the peaks out weigh the valleys. Reaching out to others who understand this dynamic may not literally save your life, but the military family community can ease the stress.

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