Getting Embed with the Military

Get it, sort of punny, huh.  I can’t take credit for it.  I wish I could, but I can’t.

I found a pretty great list compiled and written by Peter Van Buren.  Van Buren is an author who writes about his experiences with the Defense Department in charge of some Provincial Reconstruction Projects in Iraq.  He is sarcastic, he uses humor and analogies to put difficult concepts into language that makes them easier to understand than they should be.  His book, We Meant Well is critical of how the U.S. has handled rebuilding Iraq.  I’m opting not express much of an opinion on this topic, but knowing this about Van Buren, knowing that he has spent years in Iraq and has seen his share of journalists come through on embeds makes this list of his all the more insightful as he provides ideas for civilians to ponder before before they head out on their embed.

I’ve read this list 3 times; and will come back to it again before I leave for Afghanistan to embed with the Minnesota National Guard’s 135th Agribusiness Development Team.  I’ve put a few of my favorites in bold.

1) Earn respect by being very good at whatever it is you are doing there. Don’t expect second chances to move from the dumb ass to the useful category. Don’t be a know it all either, especially if your knowledge is mostly book learning.

2) 0900 means be there no later than 0845. Don’t operate on civilian time. If you’re late for a movement, you’ll be left behind, or worse, they’ll wait for you. Don’t be late even though you know the movement will start late, as it often does.

3) If you are entitled to privileges beyond what the military gets, share if you are allowed (sat phone, laptop, movies, books) or keep quiet about it (booze).

4) Follow the rules even if you can get away with not following the rules. Shave, keep your hair cut, don’t dress like a slob.

5) Start off formal, work back toward casual. Expect to be invited to call senior officers by their first names. Plan to decline to do so unless in private.

6) Anything to do with real military stuff, such as defensive plans or drills, shut up, pay attention and follow along. Don’t end up dead weight that has to be carried. Don’t think your input is sought on military matters, even if someone asks you. They are just being polite.

Hauling gear

Hauling gear, I guess I did this right

7) Always be able to and always do carry your own gear. Even if you are short, weak and slight, hump what is yours and do not let a soldier carry it for you (they will try). If you can’t carry it, leave it behind. Check how much room you’ll have for stuff on various forms of transport, like MRAPs and different model helos and pack knowledgeably.

8) Expect to be tested. Expect things to be thrown your way to see what you’ll do– meet deadlines, help out, or skip things and get away with being lazy because you have the freedom to do so. Soldiers have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t.

9) Socialize. If you are one of many civilians, try hard not to split off into a civilian group at meals.

10) Adopt a sports team if you don’t follow one. There is not a more neutral topic in the military than sports. It’ll be a while before you can argue politics, but sports is always a decent topic and opinions are encouraged. You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia, just be able to join in. Surprise people by being “normal.”

11) Listen carefully to how soldiers complain. Complaining is a right of being in uniform, but you must be careful not to exceed the boundaries, or to make it seem like you are not being cared for.

12) Do not criticize another soldier, even if the troops are doing it. They’re insiders, you’re not. Do feel free to poke fun at yourself to show that you are not like the last civilian they dealt with. Just because soldiers of different races can make racial jokes with one another, don’t think you can.

13) If told to wear body armor, or a helmet, or gloves or long sleeves or whatever, just do it. Don’t try to get away with not. There may or may not be a good reason, but that is not your concern.

14) If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Otherwise people will expect that you understood and expect you to do whatever is expected. Nobody will translate everything for you and as long as they do you are an outsider.

One of these guys is a soldier

One of these guys is a journalist the other is MSG Rich Kemp

15) Don’t play soldier. Don’t wear military gear you don’t need, don’t over use slang or profanity, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, or know only from war movies. Be polite and respectful but don’t overdo the Sirs and Ma’ams. Be who you are, though maybe a slightly more laid back and in-shape version of who you are.

free cut

I guess I did take advantage of a free high n tight

16) If you agree to do something, absolutely do it. This is not an environment to say “Let’s get together sometime to discuss that further” without meaning it.

17) Share hardships. Expect to always be offered the best food, the best sleeping arrangements, the ride instead of walking. Decline sometimes, say yes when it seems better than insulting someone by declining (hard to judge– that’s why you get the big bucks).

18) The military will always out spend the civilians. They will always have more resources, more people and more cash. Commenting/joking about it once or twice is expected; still talking about it two weeks into your deployment is unnecessary, unproductive and whiney.

Thanks to Mr. Van Buren, I think this list should be mandatory reading for those of us making the jump.