Thursday, June 29, 2006

Milk and Cookies

Last night when I got back to my room, I had a hankerin’ for some chocolate chip cookies. Since the PX is near my room, I decided to go over and get some Chips Ahoy cookies – since I didn’t have any fresh baked, delicious, home-made cookies to eat (hint, hint) – and some milk. The PX was crowded. Apparently another unit is here that’s been in-country (that's code for being in Iraq or Afghanistan) for a couple of months and they hadn't been able to consume any alcohol. It’s always crowded then - guys buying necessary items like junk food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc - the finer things in life. I just about turned around and went back to my room, but those chocolate chip cookies were calling to me.

(The base commander’s alcohol policy is that you can consume two alcoholic drinks a day. Beer, whisky, vodka – two per day. No more. You need to know that for my story.)

The alcohol was being grabbed fast and furious. Beer bottles were clinking in the arms of young soldiers. Bottles of hard liquor were everywhere. Packs of cigarettes are being pulled off the shelf. Cans of chewing tobacco just waiting to be opened. The guy just ahead of me had 4 porn magazines clutched in his hot little hand, in addition to everything else I just mentioned. Guys are talking about finding the biggest bottles of beer they could find – regardless of brand or taste – they just wanted the biggest one. Remember, they could have two of'em.

And there I am, a Lieutenant Colonel. A smart, dignified, sophisticated man, standing with milk and cookies amidst all these young guys with their beer, cigarettes and porn. What was I thinking? I should have grabbed a bottle of Milk of Magnesia or a container of Metamusil to complete the picture. Maybe some Depends?

I still chuckle over the image that must have presented and at the comments about "this guy at the PX" I’m sure were shared among buddies as the beer was quickly consumed.

There’s a knickname in the military, and in our unit in particular as we’ve got lots of older officers and enlisted guys, that described me perfectly at that moment. I was a “FOG.” Pardon my language, but it stands for “f’in old guy.” Or as my 14-year old son Luke likes to call me, a “POM” – pathetic old man. Regardless of whether I was a FOG or a POM, I presented a pretty sad picture that night.

The cookies were good though.



That’s short for moustache. We’ve been told that in Afghanistan, men grow a moustache and beard as a demonstration of their ability to care for a family. Men who don’t wear them don’t command as much respect as those who do. Also, men with grey hair can get away with no moustache as the color demands respect as well. I decided to give it a go.

What do you think? I don’t like it either. I took this picture just to show you what it looked like, along with my “high-speed” haircut. Can’t do anything right now about the hair - have to wait for it to grow, but I can shave off the “stache,” which I will do when I get back to my room and take a shower.

Actually, I’ll probably keep the hair short as it’s so much easier to manage. And if we don’t get to shower as often over there as may be the case, I won’t have to worry about it getting to greasy. Our group commander, who’s hair is a little shorter than mine, actually puts hand sanitizer on his scalp. He likes the tingle. I tried it. It does make your scalp tingle.

Maybe I'll just "wash" my hair with hand sanitizer over there.

LDS Group

Here's a picture of the group that showed up for our first LDS group meeting. That's me. The third from the left.

This last week.

Whoa, where to start on the recap of this last week? (After typing this out, I’ll warn you, it’s pretty long so don’t feel like you have to read the whole thing.) We’ve had a double training schedule, meaning we’ve had a full day of training as well as a full night of training as well for the last 5 days. In fact, one day, I was up for 20 hours. So where to start?

Rather than give you a day by day recap, let me hit the highlights as they come to mind. We were trained on several different weapons systems. I now know how to shoot, dismantle and put back together the MK19 40mm grenade machine gun, the M240, M249 and the Browning M2 machine gun. The grenade machine gun was the coolest, although we never got to shoot it. We spent two days on the range firing the different weapons. Those were hot, humid, miserable, yet fun days. You get quite the adrenaline rush laying in a prone position with a loaded semi automatic or automatic rifle in your hands, waiting for the targets to pop up. I didn’t get to fire the Browning but it’s an amazing weapon. It’s maximum range is 4 miles. Can you imagine that, this huge, 50mm shell traveling up to 4 miles? It’s a little mind boggling.

The 20 hour day was one of the range days. I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get dressed, eat and on the bus by 6:00 a.m. to take us to the range. We got in from the range by 4:30 p.m., had our daily staff meeting, had dinner and were back on a bus by 6:00 p.m. to go for our night training. That night was NBC training – no, not the television network, but nuclear, biological and chemical. Our first stop was the gas chamber. We were all exposed to, to use the common term, tear gas. We all donned our protective masks then filed into this small, brick room. Inside, the room was filled with the gas. It immediately began to burn any exposed skin. It was like getting an instantaneous painful sunburn. We then went through some simple exercises – jumping jacks, running in place, to make sure we had a good seal on our masks. The instructor was in his NBC protective suits, but we were just in our regular uniforms with the masks on. He then went around the room, one by one, and had us close our eyes and pull up our masks exposing our faces to the gas. He then counted to five, very slowly. Boy did my face burn. I was already sweating profusely and that seemed to add to the burn. We then did more exercises, then we had to take off our masks and exit the room. We got off pretty easy with that exercise. Mine was the last group to go through so a lot of the gas had dissipated. Also, the normal course of training is to require you to sing a song, recite the alphabet, or something similar after taking off your mask which obviously requires you to breathe in the gas, which then results in coughing, vomiting, snot dripping from noses, etc. We considered ourselves very lucky that we missed out on the snot-expulsion experience.

We then went to class. That night the classes were on NBC topics. Our first one was about the care and maintenance of our pro-masks. It was a great and timely class. Next came the protective NBC suit class. That was a good one as well. This is me and my “battle buddy” SGT Aaron Last-Name-Unknown, in our protective gear. (SGT Arron is a linguist and speaks Arabic and Pashtu. He works in the intelligence community so I’m not supposed to publish his first and last name together so I’ll just call him SGT Aaron when I refer to him. He’s a brilliant young man. I’m constantly amazed at his vast store of knowledge. He and I get along very well together – have the same interests, etc. He’s saved my sorry a** on many different occasions over the last few weeks. I certainly got lucky when he was assigned to be my enlisted counter-part.)

Then came the two classes from h*ll.

Do you speak “Mississipi?” No? Wanna learn? Here’s how you do it. First, get a really, really big bag of marshmallows. You know what, get about 100 bags. Open the bags. Open your mouth. Stuff about 513 of those white fluffy things in your mouth. Then, stuff about a dozen more in for good measure. Then speak. Viola!! You speak “Mississippi.” And you thought you’d have to buy one of those fancy, expensive language courses.

Should I tell you how I really feel about the way people talk down here?

OK, not everyone is that bad, but our next instructor was literally unintelligible. He was teaching us about personal first aid if we get exposed to a chemical/biological substance. I was all ears to learn about this. I mean, if I’m exposed, I want to know how to try and save myself.

SGT Aaron got us seats on the front row. We were set. I was all ears. I wanted to hear and learn about what I needed to do if I was ever exposed.

Our instructor started talking – and my mouth dropped to the floor in astonishment. I knew he was speaking English as I could distinguish a discernible word here and there, but everything else in between those few words was gibberish. He was joining words and phrases so fast and with so many missing consonants that I could not tell what he was saying. I turned to SGT Aaron and looked at him. He just shrugged his shoulders. I turned to my good friend, LTC Steve Esplin – he’s a Lieutenant in the Utah Highway Patrol in Cedar City – and no, I can’t help you get out of a ticket down there if you get one – to see if he knew what was being said. He had the same look I did. Well we both got the giggles and he didn’t help out the situation as he started leaning forward and whispering the translation in my ear. Finally I’d had it and I asked the instructor what he said. He repeated the phrase and I said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” He repeated it and I said “I still can’t understand what you’re saying.” At that point, Steve leaned forward and said, “seek overhead protection.” The instructor was saying something like, and I’ll try and get if right – “see o’d pro ction” or something like that. It was pretty bad. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t follow what he was saying.

So how do we administer self first aid, well we’ve got several different injections we have to administer. Basically, you take these different tubes, hold them against your butt or thigh, press firmly and hold for 10 seconds. You then get a needle jammed through your uniform and get injected with the antidotes. We got to see lovely pictures of just where to inject ourself. The drawing of the butt was particularly interesting.

The final class of the night was pure hell. It started at 11:15 p.m. Remember, several of us had been up since 4:30’ish a.m. When he started the class, he said that he’d be going until 12:15 or 12:30 a.m. I actually said our loud and to him, “you’ve got to be kidding me?” He said, there was so much brass in the class – high ranking officers and senior enlisted that he wanted to make sure he got everything in. Well he did. He proceeded to read every word on every single slide he had. Most of the guys in my group have been through the combat life saver course and the rest of us will go through it so it was pretty redundant. But he didn’t just read the slides. He felt compelled to share with us every boring, useless, anecdote from his training. I was going crazy. I whispered to SGT Aaron at one point, “We don’t want to hear your stupid stories.” (I was pretty punchy by then and I’m afraid my bad side was starting to emerge. Because I’m trying to be a good example for him, I kept my language clean.) Apparently I didn’t say it softly enough as the guy in front of me heard it and started laughing. At midnight, he asked what time it was and said that he was just about done. I thought, “hallelujah!” but no, he kept going for another 15 minutes. Finally, the facilitator for the night’s training came in and told him he needed to wrap things up. We just about cheered. Then came the final blow, he said that he was one of the instructors for the combat life saver course, which is going to be a night course for me. I told SGT Aaron that if he was the instructor, I would start giving away my iPod, my computer, my camera, that everyone would be better off without me, etc. We were taught that these are signs that someone is contemplating suicide. He just laughed. Yah, of course he laughed. He’s already certified and doesn’t have to go through the class. Jerk!

The previous night we got to crawl through the mud. It has rained pretty hard most of the afternoon. The rainstorms here are incredible. So much water all at once. Lots of thunder and lightening as well. Anyway, when we showed up for training and realized that we’d be outside for quite a bit of the night I thought, “Great, I’m dripping wet from sweat, so now I’m just going to add mud to the combination.” That was Sunday night and the Lord must have heard my prayers as when we went outside to do a mine detection exercise, it quit raining after just a few minutes.

The crawling exercise was just a prelude to later training that will be much more grueling and intense. This one was just a glimpse of things to come. We had to high-crawl – hands and knees from the starting point to sandbags about 15 meters our. We then had to low-crawl to the next point, another 15 meters. Low crawl is face glued to the ground, reaching out with one hand and pulling yourself forward with that hand while pushing with your feet. Once we reached that sandbag, we then had to jump up and run the final distance. Remember, we’ve got our full body armor on, our Kevlar helmets and weapons on so we’re loaded down pretty good. Also, the sandbags were in the mud. Remember how I said that SGT Aaron was pretty smart, well he pointed out that the instructors were not making us lie in the mud, but could start from the side in the grass (I had actually already picked up on that one – I’m not as dumb as I look) so that’s what we did. We ended up not getting to wet on that one. However, I almost did a face plant when I got up to run. We were supposed to use our weapons to help us get up and to steady us, but I forgot. I launched myself up and was so top heavy that I stumbled for several feet before I got my balance and finished running the rest of the way. We also threw dummy hand grenades as well as did mine field extraction that night. It was actually a fun evening. But long. I didn’t get back to my room until after 11:30 p.m. (The next morning was the 4:30 a.m. morning.)

We had two days of land navigation. We learned how to read maps, navigate by compass and learned how to use the hand-held GPS system. We then went into the woods near our training site and had a treasure hunt of sorts. We had several locations that we had to get to using the GPS, find the location and write down the coordinates that were there. This is a picture of me holding the GPS making my way through the trees.

The next day we had to do mounted navigation. That’s where we got in a humvee and drove to the sites. That was fun as we had to have one person sitting in the turrent looking for IED’s (improvised explosive devices) along the way. We found a couple. Here’s a picture of the first one we found. It’s a cell-phone activated munitions shell set to explode on the side of the road. (Remember, we have certain systems that jam the triggering mechanism.) I did OK on everything except the map reading. I was the navigator on our last leg and I’m a lousy map reader. It didn’t help that the map was really small and I couldn’t read it very well – I needed my reading glasses – but I got us pretty lost. It was very embarrassing. Oh well, we finally found where we needed to go and finished on time.

The last two days we’ve been learning urban operations. We’ve learned how to patrol village streets, search and clear buildings, and react to sniper fire. Camp Shelby has built several mock villages. They hire people to come in and be villagers. Several of them are Iraqi’s, Egyptians, Iranians, etc. so that we get exposed to languages. We clear the rooms in buildings in 4-man stacks. Here’s a picture of our 4-man stack. It’s me, SGT Aaron, MSG Jimmy Stewart and LTC James Slagowski. They’re all on my team that's going to the same place in-country and are really great guys. James is a special forces guy so he’s our team leader. For that day, we got to fire blanks. It was really cool because as we’d cross a courtyard, the bad guys would pop up and we’d have to shoot them. As we were on patrol in the village, a sniper would shoot at us and we’d have to take cover and between our whole team, we’d have to approach the sniper’s location and take him out. For that exercise as well as the exercise where we were assigned to take and secure a building, I was assigned to be the squad leader.

I had three teams of 4-men each assigned to me. I was responsible for formulating our plan to provide security to the forces that went in and secured the area. I was a little nervous at first as I’d never done anything like that before, but SGT Aaron, James and others on my squad really helped me out. It was really cool leading my team through the forest to our position and making sure that we executed our mission.

I’m tired and am starting to forget details but maybe you’re glad for that.

To say that it’s been a busy week would be an understatement. To say that I’m ready for a break is an even bigger one. We get July 3rd and 4th off. I’m looking forward to that. SGT Aaron’s wife is coming to see him. Lucky dog. I’ve got a friend coming from Houston but he’s sloppy seconds at best to Janae. Oh well, I haven’t seen him in a few years so it will be fun.

Have a great evening.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Happy Anniversary - 20 Years

Yesterday, Janae and I celebrated our 20 year wedding anniversary. My was it ever romantic. We spent a great time at an exotic resort, eating gourmet food, getting pampered at the spa, having a wonderful time together. Wake up fool! That was what was supposed to happen. Oh yeah. Instead of a romantic get away for two, I'm in the middle of a romantic get-away for 137. Not that I would call this romantic.

I spent the day sweltering in the heat. I learned how to shoot a grenade machine gun. While it was not as fun as spending the day with Janae, it was still pretty cool. This thing can shoot hundreds of grenades a minute if you need it to. It's called a crew served weapon because it requires 2-3 people to handle it, put it together, carry it, etc. After spending all morning and part of the afternoon in a hot, muggy tent, I was looking forward to the afternoon off. That was not to be.

Instead, I spent it processing a soldier for what we call in the military, an Article 15. It's sort of like a trial but done in front of the commander for minor offenses. The commander hears testimony or reviews written statements from witnesses, questions the offending soldier, then decides on a punishment. It's not criminal so it doesn't go an any record or anything. It's just a way of handling minor offenses in the most effective way possible.

This soldier was the one I mentioned earlier, the one terrified about going to Afghanistan. There's actually more to it but since anyone can read this, I don't want to get too personal. Suffice it to say, he was supposed to be somewhere but disobeyed the order and was somewhere else and went there without telling anyone. This had happened so many times that the commander finally resorted to this measure. It ended up being a positive experience for all involved.

So that was my romantic day.

Then came the romantic dinner. For our anniversary dinner, Janae and the boys went to lunch in Provo. They got the buffet at Ottavios. It was the pizza buffet so Braxton was in heaven. My romantic dinner was, ooh, words cannot describe the delicacies I partook of. I'll try though.

First, imagine a stale, hard taco bowl. Then fill it with finely ground, greasy taco meat. Then came the choice of overcooked, slimy broccoli or overcooked slimy peas. Ooh tough choice. I chose neither. Then an endless supply of that lucious bagged iceburg lettuce. Mmmm. My mouth is watering at the thought. Add to that the choice of either Ranch, 1,000 Island or French dressing (there's some comfort in constants - the dressings never change) and some canned fruit. Are you jealous? Oh, I forgot to mention, the sour cream in little packets - like catchup packets, only sour cream. For dessert, I had a cup of chocolate ice cream. I had the privilege of scraping off the top sticky film on the ice cream. (I think it had melted and was then refrozen.) Yum, yum.

To add a little spice to the dinner, I asked my boss if he wanted to get a little romantic in honor of my anniversary - I was kidding of course. Next thing I knew, his combat boot was rubbing up and down my leg. I still get the tingles just thinking about it - Not!!

I did get to talk to Janae and the boys after dinner so that was nice. They're doing well. Janae is so grateful that the boys are doing well. They're doing their jobs when asked and even asking what jobs they can do. They're all working hard and being the great young men that they are.

Can I just say what a wonderful woman I married. For 20 years she's put up with my bull***t and hasn't complained too much. She has stuck by me and supported me in all the things I've accomplished. I truly married above my status in life and she has always lifted me higher than I could have reached on my own. She is an amazing woman. She knows just what needs to be done and when. She keeps our family organized. She's the best teacher ever. Not just in teaching school, but in working with the boys. I'm constantly amazed at how she is able to see their needs and meet them. She has the patience of a saint, I mean, she is a saint. I don't know too many people who would be able to do the things she does.

Now with this deployment, let me tell you about some of the other wives and show you what I mean. One wife was so angry when her husband told her he was being deployed that she didn't talk to him for a week. Janae has never been happy with this, but has always supported me. She's never once complained but has been positive. Some wives are calling their husbands constantly with problems. Janae asks me about things, but she hasn't burdened me with things that are outside of my control. She sees a problem and takes care of it. I know, we've only been gone 2 weeks, but I know she'll continue to be that way. Other wives cried and cried and became basket cases. Not Janae. I know she's cried and will continue to cry, but she makes sure that boys don't see as she doesn't want to add to their stress.

One of the women in the neighborhood really complemented her. While other women are saying things like, "I don't know how you'll handle this." or "I couldn't do it." or "How are you going to get by without him." and other things like that, one smart woman said, "If anyone can do it, it's you."' She really appreciated that complement and of course it's true. She is a remarkable woman. And I got her to marry me. What a lucky sap I am.

There's a song by Josh Groban that really says how I feel. I wish I'd figured out how to add music to this blog but don't have the time so let me just share the words. This is my public declaration of my love for my wife.

"You Raise Me Up"
Josh Groban
From the album Closer

When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

Happy Anniversary Janae.

I love you!!


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Mailing Address

Even though you can e-mail me at either of these addresses: or I love to get snail mail.

You can mail me at:

LTC Robert Church
1st Corps Artillery Forward
Team 2
2490 25th Street
Camp Shelby, MS 39407-5500

Also, if you remember, put Team 2 on the back of the envelope or box.


Sunday, June 18, 2006


I was going to write these experiences at the end of my last posting but thought that since they were two different topics, I'd post a separate entry.

As you can imagine, being a group from Utah, a large portion of our command is LDS. We met last Sunday night in one of the empty buildings near our command headquarters. We sat on milk cartons. We used a cardboard box as the sacrament table. Since our storage boxes hadn't arrived, yet, we didn't have sacrament supplies. Instead, we used styrafoam cups from the mess hall for water cups.

My buddy and I were among the first to arrive. And, in typical Mormon fashion, sat on the third row of overturned milk cartons. Perish the thought of sitting on the front row.

Our group leader asked for volunteers to help bless and pass the Sacrament. I love to bless the emblems of the Lord's supper and never get to do it in my own ward so jumped at the opportunity.

As the time drew near for the meeting to begin, more and more soldiers kept coming in. I couldn't believe how many we had. I guess I knew we had that many members but to see them all together was quite a site. One of our Captains, introduced and Air Force Captain. He was sitting on the front row as they got there just as the meeting was starting.

As we sang the opening hymn, I noticed the AF Captain had tears in his eyes. I somehow sensed that he had a story to tell.

As we began to sing the sacrament hymn and uncovered the bread, I could immediately tell that our group leader who had prepared the sacrament had not anticipated this many people. There were only two small pieces of bread on the plate. I looked at the brother who was helping me and we realized that we were going to have microscopic pieces of bread. Fortunately we didn't run out of bread.

When it came time to bless the water, the group leaders under-estimation was again apparrent. Because he hadn't yet received his packing box that had the sacrament cups/supplies, he had to improvise. Ever take the out of a styrafoam cup? Me neither. Well, there was only about 20 cups on the tray so in true soldier fashion we improvised and simply passed the cups around. It was interesting to watch as soldiers would drink out of those passed cups. I think under normal circumstances, some may have been a little squeamish to drink out of someone else's cup, but because of the circumstances, I don't think anyone minded.

After our group leader shared his message, he asked if anyone had something they wanted to share. Sure enough, the AF Captain jumped up and shared his testimony about how the Lord truly does watch out for us. He said that he'd been there for two weeks and had been unable to locate another LDS group to meet with. Because of the training schedule, he was unable to get off post to attend the LDS ward. He said he began to get depressed and frustrated at not being able to meet with fellow priesthood holders. Then, that very day, he heard that there was a group from Utah on post. He drew the same conclusion. Where there's a group from Utah, there will be an LDS meeting. His only problem, there's thousands of soldiers on this post and how was he to find a group of 140?

He took the bus into town that day. As he was riding back onto post, he was praying that he would somehow find us. As he felt more depressed, he began to hum a hymn. About that time, a voice, "as loud as I'm talking to you right now," he said, told me to ask the guy next to me where he was from. So, he turned to the guy sitting next to him and asked him where he was from. You know the answer of course. "I'm from Utah" came the reply. He said that he could not speak for a minute or so because he was so overcome by the Spirit. By this time he was openly weeping and I could feel the tears welling up in my own eyes. He testified that the Lord is mindful of us. He knows our needs. He knows our heartaches. The Captain told us that he knew that the Lord knew him and led him to us. It was a very moving story.

Today, we held our second meeting. This time it was in the base chapel. Our subordinate unit has been in Iraq for the last year. The command has been trickling back slowly. For the soldiers in my command who have known and worked with these soldiers, it's been really neat to see the reunions that have taken place. I only knew their commanding officer and had a great visit with him.

Anyway, since we were now double in size, the number of members who wanted to attend church, and since the command had a chaplain, he made arrangements for us to meet in the chapel. It's a beautiful white spired building with stained glass windows and oak woodwork on the inside.

After the chaplain spoke, he invited members of the returning command to share their experiences and feelings with us. Each soldier who spoke, spoke of how prayers were answered, how miracles took place. Virtually all testified that by staying close to the Spirit, their lives were protected. It was very comforting.

One of the soldiers mentioned how it became very clear to him just how many people were praying for him while he was gone. While he was on leave, he and his wife went to the temple. She took him to the prayer roll office and showed him how his and his family's names were on the prayer roll every month. I began to reflect on just how many people are praying for me as well. I know that mine and my family's names are being put on at least one temple prayer roll every month. I began to look around my ward and could envision all those who I knew were praying for me. I then began to think of family and friends who were also praying. And my heart was full of gratitude. The soldier said something to the effect of, "how could the Lord not lisen to and answer the prayers of all those people?" The Spirit bore witness to me that He does hear and answer those prayers.

One our soldiers is really struggling right now. He's terrified of being deployed. He's terrified that his family will not be safe. He's terrrified about a number of things to the point that he's becoming a danger to himself because he's so distracted. Our commander is considering sending him home. I was talking with one the JAGs that works for me today about him. We both commented on how great it was to have the gospel in our lives and to have that relationship with the Lord such that we can have experiences with the Spirit that confirm that we WILL be blessed, we WILL be protected and that things at home WILL be taken care of. What a great thing the gospel is.

Anyway, that's a recap of the two Sundays that we've been here.

I didn't even go into what a unique and special experience it is to meet with other Melchizedek priesthood holders and share the Sacrament. It's really incredible. But maybe I'll save those thoughts and feelings for another time.

May the Lord bless you all. And thank you for your prayers.


I thought I had our LDS group picture on my thumb drive but don't. I'll post it another time.

Happy Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to all the Dad's out there. I just got off the phone with my Dad. Aren't Dad's great?!

I talked with Janae and the boys last night. We actually celebrated Father's Day Memorial Day Weekend. As usual though, Janae is always prepared. In my stuff, she put in several cards with the dates they can be opened. Of course, I had one for Father's Day in it. I've got one to open on the 21st. It's our 20th Wedding Anniversary. I can't believe how fast the time has gone. I'm sure I'll have more to say/write when the day comes.

I failed to mention, the previous post is the second article I wrote for the military paper back home. I'm still not sure where it's going to be published but it's fun to think that I may be a published author.

Tomorrow is weapon's qual on our M4. It's a smaller version of the M16 machine gun. Of course, we have to wear our IBA's so I anticipate melting under its weight and with all the heat and humidity. I just realized, I haven't posted my third article yet so you haven't had the "treat" of reading about our weapons qual on the 9mm.

So, without further ado, here's my third article telling you about that experience...

“Weapons Qual”
LTC Robert Church
HHB, 1st Corps Artillery

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Close your eyes. OK, don’t really close them, but recall in your mind’s eye the first time you saw the Wizard of Oz. Remember when the Wicked Witch of the West ran into the wall of water, OK, it was really thrown at her, but work with me here. Remember when she was hit with the wall of water and she began melting? She turned all liquidy and gooey. She slowly melted to the floor and became this steaming pile of goo. Remember?

Ever think it would ever happen to you?

Well, it happened to us.

Have I piqued your interest?

We were issued our Individual Body Armor (IBA) this week. It’s a wrap around type vest with Kevlar inside. It will stop small caliber bullets but in order to stop the larger caliber weapons, you have to insert heavy plates in the front and back. Ever suddenly strap on 45+ pounds and have to carry it around? In order to relieve the weight off your shoulders, you have to tighten up the side straps. I have to imagine it is much like wearing a corset. There’s also a neckpiece that goes with it. Oh, and a cod piece. It’s a triangular piece that hangs down in front to protect…I think you get the picture.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this protection. I can’t tell you how hot you get by wearing it. The IBA is so tight, and with the neckpiece on, it literally traps all your body heat and seems to intensify it a hundred-fold. We’re required to wear it whenever we train in the field.

We were also issued our weapons this week. We got our 9 mm first. We went to the field to qualify. We wore our IBA. First we went to the simulator to practice. It was great. I shot 39/40. I was confident and excited to go and shoot the real thing.

Well as the sun continued to rise, so did the humidity level. Wearing that IBA in the heat and humidity was like walking into a wall of water. I could hear echoes of “I’m melting, I’m melting” in the back of my mind. (Did you read that in a high, squeaky, wicked witch voice? If not, go back and read it again to get the full effect.)

As the entire command needed to qualify, we spent the entire day at the range. We tried to find what little shade was available. Most succeeded.

The range controllers were great to work with. They got us through quickly and efficiently. I wish I could say we all qualified on the first go-round. But such was not the case. Remember that 39/40 I shot in the simulator? Well let’s just say that I failed to reach that level of success on the range. So as not to embarrass myself, let me just say that I did pass. Eventually. We all passed.

As part of our qualification process, we had to put on our protective masks and shoot with those on. That was interesting. Trying not to feel claustrophobic, while having to focus through the eye pieces of the mask and then shoot at the targets was quite the experience. It took quite a bit of concentration. Another of those firsts.

As the sun went down, we prepared for our night-fire qualifications. That’s where you have to shoot in the dark. You don’t have to hit as many targets but you still have to qualify. This time around, I achieved success the first time around. But then, I was in the first group and even though it was “technically” night, it wasn’t as dark as it was when the last group shot. My admiration and respect to those who truly shot in the dark.

Well we all qualified. Now we have the qualifications on the M4 to look forward to. We were issued those this week as well. We spent the morning becoming acquainted with the weapon. After some excellent instruction, we went and had a laser attached to the end of the weapon and began “zeroing” in our weapons. Zeroing-in is the process where we can adjust the weapon so that we hit the target in relatively the same location every time, provided we shoot the same way every time.

After we “zeroed-in” we got to practice the course of fire that we would be shooting on the range. We have to shoot in the prone position – lying down. Remember, we’re wearing our IBA while we do this. We shoot 40 rounds of fire at pop-up targets. We then hear the words, “gas, gas, gas.” That’s the signal to put on your mask and then shoot another round. Shooting with the mask on at the 9mm range was different. There, we were standing, looking straight down range. Now, lying prone, you couldn’t do that. You have to turn your body at an angle, and then jam your eye-piece right up to the site, in order to get a good view. It was pretty cool. Monday is the day we qualify on the M4. I wonder if we’ll hear a chorus of (get your wicked witch voices ready) “I’m melting, I’m melting” in the background.

I’m sure we will.

OK, I'm sure you gathered from my article that I didn't pass the first time. I was shamed beyond belief. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but it was the first time, ever, that I haven't qualified the first time. I shot 14/30. Pretty lame. Well the second time around, I was so hot, and the sweat was dripping in my eyes, I was at the farthest lane and couldn't hear the range instructor very well, that on one of the lanes, I grabbed the wrong magazine - I grabbed a 5 round magazine instead of the 7 round magazine. As you can guess, I ran out of bullets and missed a couple of targets. Well on that round, let's just say that I didn't even make the double digit mark. The shame of it all was quite distressing. So I practiced and practiced so that when I went back the third time, I was ready. I shot 25/30. About dang time.

Oh, and on the night shoot, I got a perfect score.

I hope I don't repeat my performance tomorrow on the M4. Wish me luck.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

First Days

Ever been to Mississippi in the summer? Do the words “hot” and “humid” mean anything to you? They are beginning to sink in for us. Actually, it hasn’t been that hot yet, only the low 90’s and the humidity has only be in the 60% range so I shouldn’t be complaining. Maybe next week.

Camp Shelby is quite beautiful. It’s green…something we don’t see a lot of at Camp Williams. As you travel throughout the camp, you can still see signs of Katrina’s wrath. Pieces of roofs are still missing or have been covered with tarps. Trees that were knocked over still have not been cleaned up. One can only imagine the fury with which Mother Nature descended upon this location.

Well we got here without any problems and jumped right into a “busy” schedule. PT was first thing Saturday morning. Because some of us did not strictly follow the packing list, our PT shoes were still in transit. Consequently, a trip the to PX to purchase PT shoes was required. For some, (like the JAG – not to mention any names), shoes were not available so PT was accomplished in PT uniform and combat boots. Hooah!!

Sunday was filled with our required briefings. The memories of that day still fill me with, uh, excitement. It was held in the base theater. The lighting system had been damaged during the hurricane and you could still see where part of the roof had been torn off. Since they were going to renovate the building anyway, not a lot of money was spent fixing the problems. Consequently, the briefings were conducted in near total darkness. Perfect conditions for conducting inspections on the back of one’s eyelids without being noticed.

The SRP (Soldier Readiness Processing) followed upon the heels of the briefings. Monday morning we arose before the sun, literally, got on busses and went to get the blood drained from us, our bodies injected with anthrax, our files checked and our patience tested. Actually, the whole process went fairly smoothly and what was expected to take a couple of days was able to be completed in one day. Our thanks to the staff at Camp Shelby for being so efficient and our thanks to the folks from Utah who traveled here to assist in the process.

Our protective masks have now been fitted and deemed safe and ready to be used. We’ve been issued our IBA (individual body armor) as well as our pistols. We are becoming a combat force.

We are becoming versed in “Dari” as well as the customs of the Afghan people. As anyone who has traveled to another country knows, the best way to win the hearts of the people is to try and speak their language and adapt to their culture. So, “salaam” and “subh ba Khayr.” “ma daree yaad nadaarum.” You’ll have to ask your soldier for a translation. For some of us, this is the first foreign language ever learned. (That is if you don’t count “southern” as a foreign language.) Hopefully by the time we get in-country, we’ll be able to converse with the people enough to at least ask where the bathroom is.

Another first – battered, deep-fried pork chops. Ah, the finer things in life.

As the training schedule continues to evolve so will the experiences. But for now, “shumaa baamaane Khudaa” from Camp Shelby.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

One of many firsts...

“subh ba Khayr” from Camp Shelby. We’re learning to speak Dari. Maybe I should say, we’re trying to learn to speak Dari. We have several linguists in our group so one of the officers is attempting to instill in us the ability to speak. So far, it’s a hopeless cause. Of course, that’s what I said about Spanish when I was in the MTC but I eventually grasped that language. Then, we were told about the military’s language training institute where they rate the ability and difficulty in languages. Spanish ranks as a zero and Dari is a four, with four being the highest. So much for my confidence level.

I’m sure I’ll experience many “firsts” over the coming year, but I had one the other night at dinner. I showed up at the chow hall and looked to see what was being served. I thought it was fried chicken. Turns out, it was battered, deep-fried porkchops. I was a little leary but thought, “when it the south…” It was actually pretty tasty. Of course, I could feel my arteries hardening while I ate it. I took pity on my cholesterol level and only ate half.

The days have been pretty slow. We have yet to have a full day of training. Well that’s not quite true. On Sunday last, we had a full day of required briefings. Does mind numbing/*ss numbing mean anything to anyone. We started at 0700 and went until 1630 in the afternoon. The last few briefers actually read their slides without adding any additional information. About the only thing that made it interesting was interpreting the language they were reading in – “southern.” It’s a form of English where the consonants are dropped and the vowels are run together. Also, it’s not uncommon for consonants to be switched, sort of like a dyslexic person actually speaking in dyslexia. “I ak-sed you a que-ion.” The South may still yet rise…heaven help us if it does!!!

One of my JAGs who works for me was tasked with the collateral duty of being the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for our command. He’s responsible for writing articles for a publication back home. I told him I’d write one or two for him. I’ll attach the first one today and the second one later. Hope you enjoy them.

Ya’ll have a great day.

My first article.

It was the Worst of Days, It was the Best of Days
LTC Robert Church

To “steal” and then change, a thought from an author much more famous and literate than I, “it was the worst of days, it was the best of days.” Friday, June 9, 2006 was the day HHB 1st Corps Artillery was called upon to bid farewell to our families and friends as we boarded the plane that would take us to Camp Shelby, MS to begin our training in preparation for our deployment to Afghanistan. We knew this day would come. We didn’t want it to come. We couldn’t wait for it to come. But in the end, it finally came.

It was the worst of days.

That morning, the skies were dark, thunder could be heard and it was raining. We had to say goodbye to our wives, our girlfriends, our kids, our grandkids, our parents, our friends and loved ones. As we gathered in the hanger at the Air Guard base, we had an opportunity to express our love to those who were there supporting us. Everywhere you looked, you could see fathers holding onto their small children, husbands, reaching out to touch their wives, children, clinging to their fathers. There were tears as well. And yet, there was an overriding spirit of pride. A huge American flag was hanging from the ceiling and family after family took their turn standing in front and taking pictures of, and with, their soldier. A friend of mine came to bid farewell and he commented on how poised everyone seemed to be despite the raw emotion that permeated the building. Our families did us proud.

Several made signs professing their love and pride. “I (heart) my soldier,” “I love my daddy” and others could be seen. Children waiving American flags, little girls dressed in red, white and blue. It was a sea of patriotism.

As the plane that was to take us to Mississippi arrived, a sense of, what?, foreboding, desperation to get in that last hug, that last kiss, seemed to fall over us. We knew that once we stepped on that plane, we would begin the long journey to Afghanistan.

We were told that we had ten minutes to say our last goodbyes. The tears that were close to the surface only got closer. Unless you’ve been there, words cannot express the feelings that are racing through your heart and your mind, knowing that these are the last moments you’ll spend with loved ones for a very long time.

Finally, the time came and we were called to final formation. As we stood there in our ranks, our families had an opportunity to take our pictures. I know we made an impressive sight. As were made a “left face” in order to march out of the hanger, the crowd parted to allow us to pass through. As the first soldiers began to march out of the hanger towards the plane, someone began clapping. Then another and another until the whole hanger was ringing with the sounds of clapping and cheering. The pride that swelled within us was palpable…as were the tears. As we marched towards the plane, I know I wasn’t alone in looking to see where my family was, to get one last glimpse. And I know I wasn’t the only one that was getting a little concerned when I could not locate them in the sea of faces.

As we made our way towards the plane, I heard a shout, “Hey Dad.” I looked back, and there was my middle, and tallest son, waiving over the crowd. Suddenly, they were the only ones that I could see. My wife and three boys were there waiving to me, sending me off with their love. I had to look away because the tears were ready to come.

At the foot of the stairs to the plane were the governor and his wife, General Tarbet, General Wilson, the Command Sergeant Major and several others. Each expressed their pride and gratitude in the mission we were about to embark upon.

Then came the stairs.

Each of us climbed the stairs and upon reaching the landing, turned to look back at the crowd. We found our own families and shared one last moment together. It was another moment that words cannot adequately express. And then we went through the door of the plane and were gone.

It was the worst of days.

But, it was also the best of days.

We have trained for years. We have worked together for years. And now, we finally have the opportunity to share that training with a people working towards democracy. We will be able to make an impact in the lives of the Afghani people that will last far longer than the mere twelve months we will be there.

We saw the best in our families. Of course they were sad, but they were proud. We have seen our wives, our children and our families step up to the plate and assume responsibilities that they didn’t previously have. No one disputes that it will be challenging for them, but they have been willing to accept those responsibilities so that we can complete our mission.

I was told that someone made the comment that if we left our families to serve, we must not love them. On the contrary, one of the reasons we go is because of our families. Our families are safe and secure because of us, and others like us. They are free to travel without the fear of IED’s and snipers and roadside bombs. Through our service, we teach our children that commitment, loyalty and honor are not just words, but values worth fighting for. We love them by serving them and the millions of other Americans who enjoy the peace and safety we live in.

As we found our seats and waited for the plane to take-off, the feelings of sadness began to be replaced with feelings of excitement. As we prepared for take-off, laughter could be heard throughout the cabin. Of course we were sad, but we were excited and ready to serve.

It was the best of days because we were finally on our way. In a few more hours, we would be able to say that our first day was done. Then it will be the first week, the first month, the first year and for most of us, the first deployment. While it may seem like an eternity, time will pass quickly. We will have experiences that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We will come back changed men, but it will be for the better.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


OK, I've figured out how to add photos. The boys have no respect for their father - tickling me shamelssly. There we are boarding the plane. There's Luke raising his arms. A view from the plane window. The barracks. And finally, my room.

The First Day

I wrote yesterday morning about the fact that the day to leave had finally come. Well it came and has gone. What a day it was. We woke up to dark clouds, rain and thunder. Poor Thor, our dog, was not very happy. He hates such storms. I let him into the garage but had left the door to the house ajar, so of course he went right in and tracked muddy paw prints all across the kitchen floor. As we drove to Salt Lake, to the Air National Guard airport, it was raining. It seemed somehow fitting.

As we arrived at the base, it was still raining. We were ushered into a hanger where a huge American flag was hanging. We were able to take our picture in front of it, the only problem was, it was so far off the ground that it wasn’t really in the background. Oh well. It looked nice. There were lots of folding chairs set up, but not enough for everyone. We were told to be there by 9:00 a.m. We made such good time that we got here 20 or so minutes early. As we watched people come in, some were very brave. Others were weeping openly. It was hard to watch some of the families, especially those with young kids and babies. I watched as dad’s held close their infant daughters. I watched as young sons clung to their father’s legs. It was really heart-breaking. I was grateful that my own boys were old enough to understand what was happening and that they weren’t overly emotional. I don’t think I could have handled that wave of emotions.

After a while, the hanger doors were opened and we could see a couple of Air Force planes sitting on the tarmac. At first I thought that we were going to flying to Mississippi on a cargo plane. However, after a while, a passenger plane pulled onto the runway and parked itself in front of the hanger. I breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that we’d be flying in some measure of comfort. However, at the same time, the arrival of the plane brought with it a sense of separation. I realized that this was the plane that was going to be taking me away from my family. That was hard. I think it was hard for a lot of others as well as I started to see more teary eyes.

Fortunately, instead of emotionally losing it, my boys started to get silly. They ganged up on their poor father and started tickling me. Can you believe it? Here I am, a distinguished Lieutenant Colonel, getting ready to leave for Afghanistan, and my boys are ganging up on me and showing no respect. It was fun.

Finally the time arrived. We were told that we had 10 minutes to say our goodbyes. That was hard. How can you put into the words you feel when you hug your children and your wife for the last time before leaving for the unkown. That was hard. I think I caught a glimpse of what the early missionaries for the church must have felt.

We got into formation. That was hard, looking at the sea of faces looking back at us with tears in most everyone’s eyes. We got the command for “left face” and the first column of soldiers began marching out. The sea of people parted and we began marching through the column that had been created. Suddenly, someone began clapping. Then someone began cheering. Eventually, the whole group of people were clapping and cheering. I lost it then. Tears welled up in my eyes. They were tears of sadness as well as pride. It’s hard to explain. Of course I was sad to be leaving my family, but I felt a sense of pride at being able to go and serve my country as well as serve the people of Afghanistan.

As I was in the last group to leave, I had time to watch those around me. Some had flags that were being waved. One lady had a sign that said, “We (heart) our soldiers.” That was a hard one to see. For some reason it really brought the tears to my eyes. There were other signs expressing love and pride for their soldiers. It was really moving to see.

I kept searching the crowd for signs of Janae and the boys but I couldn’t see them. I knew they hadn’t left, but was getting concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see them. It wasn’t until I had left the hangar and was half-way to the stairs leading up to the plane that I heard Luke’s voice shout out “Dad.” I turned and saw him waving to me over the heads of the people in the crowd. He had the camera up and was trying to take my picture. I really lost it then. I didn’t break down and sob, but my throat was choking and eyes were watering. I could finally see my family looking back and me waving. Even now, I’m still really emotional about that moment. That was pretty hard.

There was a greeting line of dignitaries shaking our hands before we went up the stairs to the plane. The governor and his wife were there. The TAG (The Adjutant General – general of the Utah Guard) was there. General Wilson, my boss was there – he is not coming with us. He’s an emotional man and he was very emotional at that time. He shook my hand and then gave me a hug and thanked me for my service. Again, that brought tears to my eyes.

It was then my turn to walk to the stairs, onto the plane. That was another really hard experience. As I got to the top, I turned and looked back at all the people and waved. I could see my family waving back. The tears came and I had to go inside the plane before I really lost it. As I found my seat, I chose one on the side of the plane so I could see my family one last time. I called Janae on her cell phone and got to say goodbye one last time. As we finally left, I had to put on some music to try and take my mind off things.

After we had gained altitude and people could begin to move around the cabin, a spirit of joviality began to creep in. You could hear jokes being told and people laughing. I think all the sad emotions and stress we had been feeling had finally been vented and we were able to move on. I must admit, I began to feel a little better. Of course, it still wasn’t easy leaving but it seemed less traumatic.

We flew into Gulfport Mississippi and took a bus ride north about 70 miles. Camp Shelby is in the lower center of the state. We’re near Hattiesburg, for those interested enough to look on a map.

After we got here, we were taken to our barracks. We had been told that we were going to be living in tents, in order to prepare us for Afghanistan so when I saw the open-bay barracks, barracks that were air-conditioned, I suddenly felt better about our living accommodations. Then, my team leader took the other LTC and myself aside and told us that we were going to be staying in the DVQ (distinguished visitor’s quarters) and not to take our stuff into the barracks. We were then driven a quarter of a mile or so away and dropped off. As I collected my key and began walking towards my room, my spirits lifted. As I unlocked the door and turned on the light, it was like walking into a motel room. There was a double bed, fridge, microwave, TV, two desks and best of all, a private bathroom. It’s almost obscene the great living conditions the senior officers and senior enlisted get. (LTC and above as well as E-9 and above are living here.) The only drawback is that this doesn’t feel like we’re deployed. It only feels like an extended annual training. I’m sure that will change, eventually.

And now, finally a story about the “red-headed step child of the command” – me. We had to load our gear on a semi-trailer on Wednesday. We were told to bring one of our duffle bags with us and the list had certain things to put in the bag. Well I got the “great” idea to go ahead and put both bags on the trailer so I wouldn’t have to carry it on the plane with me. Boy I thought I was smart. For some reason, I had the delusion that the truck would get there in two days. Where was I ?

Well, after the truck had left, I came to the realization of my ways. My “great” idea finally came back to bite me in the butt when we were told last night that we would be having a mandatory PT (physical training) session this morning. Of course, my PT gear was in my duffle bag that was on the truck. I was able to get to the PX (post exchange – convenience store) and buy a pair of shorts and t-shirt, but no shoes. Well I was not to be allowed to get out of PT so I was told to appear in my shorts, t-shirt and combat boots. Needless to say, I got plenty of ribbing for that one and probably will for the next little while.

Anyway, this has been a long entry and I’m sorry for the length. I’m sure I could have written more but didn’t want to bore you too much with a lot of details so I’ll stop here.

The internet cafĂ© is across the parking lot from our quarters so that’s a nice benefit. I’ll try and keep this updated as we go through training. We have all-day briefings tomorrow – Sunday, June 11, 2006. They start at 7:30 a.m. and go until 5:00 p.m. Not a fun day. Monday is our document/medical review day. After that we get into weapons training and who knows what after that. I told you that I was going to stop so I finally will.

Hopefully from my “epistle” you’ll be able to understand all the pictures.

Thanks for reading and have a great day.


Friday, June 09, 2006

Today's the day!

The day to leave for Shelby has finally arrived. I can't believe it. I only hope the deployment goes this fast. As you can imagine, the last few days have been a flurry of activity. We had to have our stuff packed and on the truck two days ago, but of course, that didn't mean that I had everything ready to go. Even after I got my stuff "packed" I kept finding things that I needed to take. It's a good thing I've got a ruck-sack and my back-pack as I've been able to cram everything into that.

The three days we've spent at Camp Williams have been busy, but not so busy that we weren't able to leave a decent time each day. We spent the time becoming familiar with our weapons - the M-4 and the M-9. We also had to make sure our gas masks fit. Here's a picture of me going through the testing to make sure mine fit and was air tight. And yes, there as claustrophbic as they appear. I would hate to have to wear one in the heat for any extended period of time.

Yesterday, Janae came out with me and we sat through several hours of briefings. We got everything from legal issues to health insurance. The common consensus was, "why are we getting the health insurance briefing the day before we leave?" Leave it to the military.

As this day has approached, it's been with a degree of excitement and trepidation. Now, this morning at 6:10 a.m., I just want it to start so that we can get it over with. I'm going to call home tonight and say excitedly that "we've made it through the first day." Can't wait until I can say we've made it through the first month, the first year and the first (and hopefully the last) deployment.

I should have done this last night, but had so many things to do so I'm sorry that this is not very long, but then, maybe that's a good thing. I'll try to remember the funny things that happen, the poignant things and be sure and share them.

Love to all.