Across six days in October, I got an inside look at the U.S. military that's afforded very few. With 44 other civilians and Defense Department escorts, I flew 17,000 miles through seven time zones to three Persian Gulf countries and Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
We participated in a ground training mission in the Kuwait desert, landed by helicopter on a huge amphibious assault ship in the Persian Gulf, toured the sophisticated air combat control center managing minute-by-minute engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw the military's largest nation-building outpost on the Horn of Africa.
I returned with a blur of impressions: the vastness of the American enterprise in the region; the high quality and spirit of the troops; the great difficulty of fighting in Iraqi cities; the commanders' laser focus on the roadside bombs that so threaten our troops; the frank acknowledgment by military leaders that political, social and economic reforms are prerequisites to "victory" and their deep resentment that they're not getting more help from civilian federal agencies.
Our trip was called JCOC 72 -- the 72nd Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a program begun by Defense Secretary James V. Forrestal in 1948 to give civilian opinion leaders an immersion course in military operations. This was only the second time a group had been taken to Central Command, ground zero in the global war on terror, a 27-nation region that includes Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Oct. 17 at 11 a.m. Bahrain time, we landed in theater after an overnight trip in a C-17 transport aircraft. Immediately, we visited the Coast Guard, which shares docking facilities with the Navy at Mina Salman pier. Six 110-foot cutters are stationed here, each carrying medium-range weapons and a crew of 22. A principal mission is to guard Iraqi oil platforms in the Gulf, 250 miles, or a day's steaming time, to the north on the line between Iranian and Iraqi waters, where there's regular probing of the oil facilities' defenses.
The Coast Guard also inspects cargo shipments, and at a training facility, I witness a tall, rail-thin bosun's mate expertly demonstrate how to rappel down a stack of containers and break through their locks. Only the hint of a ponytail suggested this was a woman, but at our group dinner we meet her, Nancy Lee Greiner, a 13-year veteran of the service, beautiful in her evening dress. Her story of escape from the routines of her hometown was echoed by other troops. The military offered them more excitement, a greater sense of purpose and more responsibility. Greiner, for example, is assistant port operations officer.
From Navy Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh and Marine Brig. Gen. Anthony Jackson, we learned that Americans contribute about two-thirds of a 45-ship international task force conducting maritime security, consequence management and humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the region. The U.S. fleet is staffed by 16,200 sailors, and the Navy also has about 12,500 boots on the ground.
This is a new role, but "there's a real feeling in the Defense Department that the Army and Marines are busy, so what skill sets can we use to help them?" Walsh said. Staffing detention facilities is among their shore duties. Jackson reported that morale is good among the 28,000 Marines in the region, high casualties notwithstanding. Re-enlistment rates are the highest in history, he said.
Troops we encountered seemed highly trained and motivated, with some shouldering responsibilities unthinkable at such a young age in civilian life.
On the bridge of the USS Iwo Jima WASP-class amphibious assault ship, flagship of a seven-vessel expeditionary strike group, 1st Lt. Mindie Guerrero, 25, a University of Illinois graduate, served as officer of the deck in charge of the ship. Behind her stood Seaman Melissa Lambert of Brooklyn, N.Y., whose three years in the Navy had qualified her to drive the boat, keeping to a course displayed on a monitor nearby.
The average age on the ship is 21, according to Capt. Michael A. Walley, a charismatic leader whose red turtleneck identified him as the "Sheriff"-- a nickname earned when he was present by chance at a huge drug bust on the southern U.S. border. The ship carries 1,800 Marines -- average age 19 -- as well as seven Marine Corps vertical takeoff and landing jets, 30 helicopters and a variety of vehicles that can be taken ashore on huge hovercraft that float out of the depths of the vessel.
The Iwo Jima houses a hospital that served victims of Hurricane Katrina, and it was the key Navy asset deployed to help evacuate Americans from Lebanon last summer.
A tremendous effort is under way to find better ways to counter deadly improvised explosive devices -- to retard their placement alongside Iraqi roads, to detect them once they're placed, to disarm them without incurring casualties and to protect the troops with better-armored vehicles.
Making IEDs from the extensive caches of ammunition in Iraq requires "no sophisticated research and development," said Army Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, who is commander of the 3rd U.S. Army and is in charge of supplying soldiers in the CENTCOM region. Roadside bombs are made with off-the-shelf items and triggered by cell phones, devices similar to garage-door openers or hard-wired systems. Some can take out the Army's largest armored vehicle, the 70-ton M1A1 Abrams tank.
Whitcomb called for a Manhattan Project against IEDs. The improvised bombs "get at our center of gravity; our willingness to stay," he added. In theater, he said, some 300 Navy electronics engineers are working the problem, while at home, an IED task force headed by retired Army Lt. Gen. Montgomery Meigs is spending $3 billion a year.
At Camp Dragon in northern Kuwait, 10 miles from the Iraqi border, we saw how troops learn to travel the dangerous region. A road scratched through the desert was lined with plywood shacks and ancient cars, and local men were hired to act as surly Iraqi civilians who easily could be insurgents. Our Humvee convoy went after one. In the turret, I found it difficult to rotate the gunner's station to bring my machine gun to bear on his fleeing vehicle. My rounds fell far off target.
Our Humvee was blown up by a simulated IED, resulting in two killed and two wounded. My broken leg was quickly placed in a lightweight, moldable cast, while the sergeant who led us was treated for loss of his lower leg.
During this and other training exercises, I was impressed by the military's ability to make routine what's unthinkable to civilians. From breaking into and clearing occupied buildings, to reacting to grievous wounds, young soldiers seem highly prepared for the dangers they face. Training is their job when they are not in the fight.
Budgets and Assets
Budget worries surfaced during some of our conversations. We're facing "a long generational war, and we'll lose it if we high-five it out of the end zone," said Whitcomb. "Americans spend as much on gadgets and lights between Halloween and Christmas as we do on the defense budget. Where are our priorities?"
He echoed a question the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Edmund P. Gianbastiani Jr., had asked while talking to us at the Pentagon. Defense spending is "historically low as a percentage of gross domestic product," he said. "Do we have enough to do what we need to do?"
More than $100 billion a year now is being spent in the CENTCOM region.
The large bases we visited in four countries were works in progress. Living conditions often were primitive; stacked containerized dwelling units were top-drawer, better than the rows and rows of conical tents that house many troops.
The United States is building a brand-new highway from south of Kuwait City to the Iraqi border to avoid traffic and population centers. In a logistical operation unprecedented in modern times, the military sends tons of materiel into Iraq every day.
Two million gallons of fuel move up the highway daily in 7,000-gallon trucks driven by contract employees from Kuwait and nations as far distant as Sri Lanka, the Philippines and India. U.S. troops haul military equipment north.
At an American air base, we also saw some of the most sophisticated assets in the field. The RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft can monitor conversations on the ground and is staffed by people trained to understand local languages. The E-8C JSTARS aircraft can pick up infrared images of moving traffic and stationary targets on the ground. The air war is run from a command center at the base, whose location we were asked not to reveal.
Huge video screens display all aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, and chat rooms enable dozens of people working on the floor to discuss what the aircraft are seeing and possibly targeting. The two-story, floor-to-ceiling video wall also includes live images from Predator drones and feeds from U.S. and British news organizations. Predator images, fed to laptops of troops in the field, allow precise adjustments to target unmanned aerial vehicles' Hellfire missiles.
We were seeing firsthand the practical effects of the concerns former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld voiced when he told our group on Oct. 15, "It's quite a different proposition to wage war in a country you're not at war with."
Bombers and fighter-bombers take off every day from the air base, but they often return from Iraq with payloads intact. The 500-pound bombs are simply too big, too destructive to use in urban environments where civilians are at risk.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, who commands CENTCOM air operations, told us that "limiting collateral damage is job one" as he displayed the careful decision-making process for dropping a bomb. "If you kill an innocent, you have lost the fight and you may have lost the war," North said.
Officials at the base seemed excited by the arrival of a new 250-pound bomb. "Small diameter bomb explodes onto scene," screamed a headline in the Oct. 15 Desert Eagle, the newspaper of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
I was struck by the concentrated deployment of many hugely expensive and sophisticated air assets against cheap, primitive IEDs. F-15s, sent up for eight hours (and four refuelings) a night, carry pods that scan for variations in the terrain or the faintest heat signatures that could indicate IEDs, enabling their crews to warn ground troops.
This seemed a principal focus of their missions. An F-15 weapons officer reported that it was difficult to pick out potential IEDs but added that "we are the guardian angels overhead" for ground troops in trouble, and that fighters can scare the enemy away without dropping ordnance.
Some assets are ancient: I toured a KC-135 Strato-tanker refueling aircraft whose crew wasn't born when it was built in 1958. Its newly installed avionics system won't work unless it's specially cooled before takeoff.
Hearts and Minds
Virtually every briefing emphasized the importance of nonmilitary goals.
CENTCOM's deputy chief, Vice Adm. David C. Nichols Jr., for example, told us that the most important task "is to change conditions that give rise to terrorism [by seeking] political, economic, educational and social reform." He voiced a common military frustration at the dearth of coordinated help from civilian agencies.
Whitcomb, discussing the importance of economic development in Afghanistan, said of agricultural reform: "The poppy problem is not a mission the military wants. Other organizations need to get involved."
In the absence of other resources, the Pentagon has been forging nation-building capabilities. But Rumsfeld voiced tough criticism of Congress for cutting his funding requests "for building partnership capacity."
It does little good to arrest criminals in Iraq "if the Ministry of Justice is incompetent or crooked," he said, adding that the country's citizens "have to have confidence in non-military institutions-finance, health, criminal justice and others."
We went to see how the military is managing civil affairs on the Horn of Africa -- the largest such effort under way.
Commanded by Navy Rear Adm. Richard Hunt, CENTCOM's Combined Joint Task Force-HOA marshals about 1,800 military and civilian Defense and State department employees, private contractors and coalition partners, to "wage peace," as Hunt puts it. The task force attempts to cover eight countries with a total population of 167 million people, many of whom live in extreme poverty and are afflicted by displacement and disease.
The task force is headquartered in Djibouti, at a one-time French colonial base called Camp Lemonier. One important mission is military-to-military training, and Hunt said U.S. trainers (often Special Forces) emphasize the law of armed conflict and human rights concerns in the hope that African military forces will earn the respect of the citizenry.
We flew by CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter across the Gulf of Aden to the town of Tadjoura, Djibouti, to see Navy Seabees' progress in refurbishing a hospital and secondary school in the town of 5,000 people. The hospital, primitive but improving, serves a regional population of 25,000, as does Tadjoura's "college," where the Seabees are building a dormitory to house 25 girls sent from outlying areas.
U.S. officials hope educated women will have the confidence to pressure the male population to stop chewing khat leaves, which lowers productivity by inducing euphoria, depression and other effects. Lt. Col. Mark A. R. Koloc, a civil affairs planner, has a $12 million budget for these and other projects. He stretches dollars by employing local labor.
I asked the French-speaking mayor of Tadjoura, Abdourazak Dauoud Ahmed, whether he favored the Americans over the Chinese, who have a huge presence in Africa and are building a sports stadium in his town. "Mais oui," he replied, recounting difficulties dealing with the Chinese.
At the Djibouti base, about 300 employees of Halliburton Co. subsidiary KBR handle operations ranging from cleaning to running the flight line. Among other contractors we'd encountered were two tough former noncommissioned officers running safety operations at the machine gun and rifle range at Camp Dragon, the northern Kuwait outpost. They were employed by MPRI of Alexandria, Va.
In his early 50s, Koloc is playing a key role in spreading the word of American good intentions among African populations. A reservist on a one-year call-up, he's an impressive officer, as were men like the Sheriff and Marine Maj. Gen. Timothy F. Ghormley, CENTCOM chief of staff.
They're more than twice the age of the men and women who make up the bulk of the force. Guerrero and Lambert on the bridge of the Iwo Jima, are examples, as is 1st Lt. Jessica L. Regni, 25, co-pilot of our C-17.
We encountered many who are pursuing military careers, and others, such as Djibouti-stationed Marine reservists Pfc. Ricky J. Pinson and Lance Cpl. Dylan C. Baker, who'd gone into the service to escape boring jobs and to help pay for college, but weren't necessarily in for more than a six-year stint.
Many seemed unimaginably young: Army Spc. Christopher Greene, for example, who drives heavy trucks at night in round trips taking up to 14 days from Kuwait to Baghdad. He's 21 and married, but looks younger.
In the Kuwaiti desert, I met Marine Sgt. Matt Romine, whose wife of eight years and two children, 6 and 3 years old, are living near his unit's home base in Alaska. He joined the Marines to escape the boredom of managing a warehouse and never looked back.
Nearby stood Sgt. Kelley Starling of Live Oak, Fla., a nine-year veteran of the Marines. "I love my job," he said. Did he have a wife at home? "No, sir," Starling replied, "If I'd needed one, they would have issued me one."