Slightly Scared of Charity


In just a few days, I would be out of Afghanistan and on leave, I thought. I was so excited that I could almost taste home. Prior to leaving, I had one more mission to go on though. And while I was on it, I had moments where I thought I may never make it home.

It was suppose to be a simple mission. I was headed out to a nearby village to hand out humanitarian aide with a Special Forces Group. I was going along to document the mission through photography. I have to admit, I was thrilled to go. As a public affairs officer for a signal task force, there was not necessarily a lot of excitement or interaction with the Afghan people. So, I jumped at the chance to go on a mission. It was a low-threat area and we were just handing out clothes and food. The SF guys wanted to use this opportunity to give specific items to specific people. Baby clothes and food to new mothers. Shoes to young kids. Hats to the teen boys. Interacting with the community also gave us a chance to talk to them, build relationships. And of course, get a feel for what is going on the area.

We loaded up the gator with our boxes of donations and we started walking though the town. Like expected, people started to follow us. We chatted with the kids, handed out candy. We spoke to the adults. We found out their concerns. And through all that we handed out some items to people in need.

Of course, some Soldiers were not involved in the banter. Their job was security. As I snapped away, I tried to be very aware of those Soldiers to watch their cues as they instructed. They knew I was not very experienced in moving through a village. I’ve been on some patrols and convoys over the years, but its not my typical every day mission. So, I have to trust the experts. So of course, I was a little nervous.

As we kept moving through the village, more and more people came. The crowd was not only making me nervous but I could see the security team was not as relaxed as before either. They started pointing things out for me to photograph. Certain people. Odd piles of rocks. They told me to get closer. I was getting a bit uncomfortable and very aware of everything around me. (And, when looking at my pictures, I can tell when the mood changed because the quality of many of my photos diminished greatly. It was like I was just snapping away and not paying as much attention to my craft. I was merely thinking of tactical skills at that point. I was no longer a photograph but a Soldier with a camera.)

What I noticed is that there was now a bigger crowd and they were pressing in on us. The security Soldiers were telling them to back up. They were not listening though. They were trying to grab things off the gator. They were trying to “steal” the things we wanted to give them. My thoughts were very conflicted then. I thought, if we are going to give them these things anyway, why do we care if they take them? Well, we wanted to give the right items to the right people was my answer. Then I felt empathy, thinking how awful it must be to feel that desperate, that in need. And of course, part of me that had never been in the middle of a swarm of people pushing, was scared. I was scared I would get hurt. I was even more scared someone else would get hurt. My fellow Soldiers were in the crowd. There were kids in the crowd. One child fell to the ground. I helped them up and put them near my legs and pulled them with me out of the growing chiaos. Now, I was getting angry at the carelessness of people pushing with no regards to the kids.

To bring the risk to an end, we just walked back from the donations, pulling what small children we saw with us. And we just let them run of with the stuff we wanted to give them anyway. It removed us, and the small kids, from the middle of the pushing and the crowd dispersed.

We headed back to the base shortly after that. I think we had all had enough community interaction by that point.

I look back at this mission years later and think, a few varied thoughts. This is definitely no where near any level of danger that many Soldiers have experienced. As a matter a fact, it would probably be laughed at by some of those hard core troops, and justifiably so. But, I can only tell you about my experiences and how I felt. At that time, I felt conflicted. I was nervous, but still had a job to do. I could see the potential for this situation to go bad as a Soldier and as a public affairs officer. I was trying to think tactically and not do anything that would put my host Soldiers at more risk. I didn’t want to let them down and make the situation worse. I was also thinking…I am about to go on leave, I really hope I get to go.

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For the Daily Prompt ~ Fight or Flight

To see some of the better photos from that mission, check out my photography blog next Thursday, March 5th.

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Lessons That Never Left – I Wish I Could Say Thank You


The mud was so thick that it clung to my boots making it hard to march. We were not going far or fast, but my inexperience and short legs were struggling to keep up. I was not going to make, I thought. And then, I fell hard, face down in the mud. Another trainee reached out to help me up, but the drill sergeant screamed at them. “Don’t help her!” Then, he looked at me with such contempt and yelled, “Well, get up! Now!” I stumbled to me feet and managed a few more steps. I don’t know if I was really that weak, if I was flustered and overwhelmed or the mud was literally pulling me down, but I fell two more times in the span of 40 feet. Each time was hard, dramatic and utterly embarrassing. Mud was on my uniform, my face, my weapon. By the third time, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t; I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. The drill sergeant got down near me on my third fall, screaming in my ear, “You deserve an academy award!” At that moment, I decided this drill sergeant was going to be my enemy…and my best teacher.

The weeks after that horrible road march drug on and one. This screaming mentor was in my face all of the time. “Are you really this weak?” “What’s so funny smiley? Maybe you should do so pushups and see if that makes you laugh!” “Why are you here!” “Are…you….kidding…me?” “MOVE! You are holding up the entire company!”

He screamed, ranted and raved at my pathetic efforts. He glared into my face. It was intense, but I had a point of view others didn’t have. I went to basic training at 29. So I had a few more years of experience on me, and after the initial shock of the yelling, I realized that was just it. He was yelling to yell, yelling to create stress. The younger “kids” at basic took it a lot more personal. I eventually got the perspective that they were just words and put myself in his shoes. Then, everything was kind of humorous. I could see how he made up jump up and down, run in circles, and would yell at us for little things. It had to be funny on his side of the fence. We were a hot mess of smelly confused “kids” running around in a panic.

Everything he did had a purpose though. He taught us to pay attention to small details. We learned to look out for each other and work as a team. His “punishments” helped build our strength and patience. He showed us an example of behavior and how to carry ourselves with pride.

One day, we were all sitting around cleaning our weapons and he was talking to us about ethics and the heart of a Soldier. He said something that really hit me and I knew he was talking to me personally. “No matter how good someone is on the inside, they may not be made out to be a Soldier though. And that is a shame, for a Soldier’s true power is inside them. But, their body has to be able to support the fight.” I looked up at him. He was looking at me. I looked away quickly, thinking, “Is he trying to say I won’t make it?”

After that, I went out of my way to prove him wrong. I tried so hard. I held back tears of frustration. I laughed at how ridiculous we acted at times. I really absorbed the lessons he gave. I understood the reasoning behind the details. Everything had a purpose and built on each other. The ultimate goal was to make us stronger, resilient and prepared – to make us Soldiers.

I succeeded and graduated, and he continued to yell at me even on graduation day, but somewhere during that day he gave me the greatest reward. “I didn’t think you would make it. You proved me wrong. I am really proud,” and then he patted me on the back and walked away.

I never saw him again after that, which is a real shame. For if I did, I would tell him that he made me want to be a good Soldier, inside and out. He made me better. I still may not be the fastest, strongest or most agile Soldier, but I am still in the fight and holding my head high, and it is all because of him.

So wherever you are Drill Sergeant “B,” thank you for showing me how to be a Soldier and know that I give you much respect and will never try to tarnish the ideals you taught us.

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 Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

 

Hindsight on a Bad Leader


Naturally, I have made many mistakes in my life. Who hasn’t? There are also a plethora of missed opportunities I wished I would have seized. That is the thing with hindsight. It is always so much clearer…later.

I was talking about deployments to someone the other day, and it dawned on me. I missed a big opportunity, and I regret it. And oddly enough, I was given multiple chances, two deployments, and one conference to seize it. I let it float away like a butterfly though.

It started on my Iraq deployment (2005-2006). I was a first lieutenant then. It was not a high rank, but I was in charge of ALL of the embedded media for the first Iraqi election. So, I did have a fairly important job that I did alone for most of the deployment. As the Multinational Force Iraq media embed coordinator, I did everything concerning the embedded reporters. I mean everything. I coordinated their plans of what units to go to when they arrived and their travel plans on getting into Baghdad (which was only weeks of countless emails and phone calls at a minimum). I would literally go pick them up at the flight line or armored bus area. I took them to get a media badge. I escorted them to meals. I answered their questions. I helped them with their bags and a place to sleep. I assisted them with work space. And, when it was time for them to head out to their unit, I played liaison and taxi again. While on they were embedded, I remained available for any questions they might have (as well as for the leaders of any units they were with). I had to know at a moment’s notice, what media was with what unit, what was their latest story and what were their upcoming plans. My leaders always wanted to know these things. So it had to be in my head, on slides and in full detail. It was the first Iraqi election after all, so the pressure was understandable. When the reporters were ready to leave, I had to play helper and taxi in reverse if they passed through Baghdad on the way out. It was an all-consuming job. My phone was constantly ringing. My inbox never had less than 80 emails. I was struggling to keep up and stressed. But, I managed the program very well for a staff of one I have to say.

Anyway, at some point during all this, some group of leaders were having an email discussion on the embed program and how it was broken. I was copied on the email conversation. So naturally, I thought I could contribute to the discussion.

I did a reply-to-all response that I drafted very carefully and edited. I professionally stated that I did not think the program was broken per say, but certainly could be improved. Then, I laid out a couple of paragraphs detailing ideas on what I saw wrong and how it could be improved. I chose my words cautiously and think the final contribution to the conversation had value. I was THE embed coordinator for the entire country/war after all. I thought I had a very good perspective on the situation, at least at the boots-on-the-ground level. I was wrong, very wrong.

Shortly after my email response, my boss did a reply-to-all email as well. His email simply stated, “Please disregard 1st Lt. Lunato’s response. It will be discussed internally.” Well snap. That was a slap in the face if I ever saw one. I did have the nerve to ask him after that (via email) why I was not entitled to speak on something that I was in charge of. He reply was short, sweet and very to-the-point. “There is only one voice of the CPIC (Combined Press Information Center), and it is not yours.” Well hell. That was clear. I was just to be in charge of a program and not offer input. That message was received loud and clear. I can’t say it was a great mentoring moment though, and I completely lost respect for that leader as there were other situations similar to this.

Years later I regret not having the courage to ask him why he had such a problem with me, and I had multiple times to do it.

I could have done it tactfully during the deployment. There were certainly a handful of situations like the you-do-not-have-a-voice situation where I was slapped down. I could have approached it from a learning point angle. I could have straight up asked him if he had a problem with me. I could have asked him to mentor me and show me why he did the things he did. I didn’t though. I just brewed irritation with the leader.

Then years later, I missed another chance. I was at a military conference. He was there for the entire three-day event. There was plenty of mingling time. We crossed paths a number of times, but I refused to speak to him. I simply smiled, nodded and moved on. I had so much to say and ask this man, but it just didn’t see like a good time.

On my third deployment, I ran into him again. (Small world huh?) Though I was deployed to Afghanistan this time (2010-2011), I had to travel to Iraq (twice) to visit one of our battalions. While at one of Saddam’s palaces, I was trying to find a friend who worked in the building. Who do I run into on the stairs? Yep, the dismissive leader from years ago (who a friend I referred to as SAM, for Short Angry Man). This time, he stopped me. I couldn’t really avoid it as we were on a spiral staircase, alone. (If I thought I could have jumped from the staircase, I think I would have.) He started some small talk. I was polite, professional, but very curt. After exchanging some meaningless courtesies, I said I had to move out on my mission. My brigade did send from one war zone to another after all. Clearly, I was a big deal, or so I made it sound, lol. I had nothing to say to the man. There was no point in reminiscing or catching up. What I had to say could not be said on a staircase in passing…and probably would seem silly bringing it up years later. Clearly, it still bothered me though.

Now, I feel like I should have asked him. Obviously, it upset me since I remember it so vividly. I look at some of the things he slapped me down for and can see his twist or perspective made sense or offered some validity. What I don’t understand is why he delivered his messages or decisions in such an arrogant way. He could have been a wonderful leader and sat me down to say hey, “You have some good ideas but we are going to do it this way and this is why.” That was not his style though. He was not a mentor or leader; he was just the Short Angry Man in charge.

Well SAM, it is said that you can learn from bad leaders just as much as good ones. You thought me how NOT to be. You also taught me that if something bothers me that much, I just need to speak up and ask questions about it. Maybe that is why God kept making me run into him? Perhaps. Or maybe God was just teaching me professional restraint and thought it would give me something to write about today.

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For the Daily Prompt.