Fort Benning - It was a short question: “CRC?” The answer from the military liaison at the Columbus, Georgia airport was almost as short. White bus outside. Says CRC on it.” We waited on the white bus outside until the last person from our flight had his bags. There were fifteen of us. Then began the twenty minute drive to Fort Benning. Our destination was the CONUS Replacement Center, hence the “CRC”. “CONUS” is itself an acronym meaning “Continental United States.” The military has this strange habit of making acronyms into words and then making second-order acronyms out of the first acronym.
The bus driver was an interesting fellow: unkempt hair, dirty teeth, and a big smile. I was watching him in the mirror above his seat. The mirror was for the driver so that he could watch his passengers, but it worked in reverse as well. He had a peculiar tick I’ve never seen before. He chewed on the butt end of a disposable lighter as if it was a big cigar. Beside the mirror in which I watched the driver was a sign saying, “NO TOBACCO.” I imagined that the driver’s strange addiction was his way of dealing with a policy that wouldn’t allow him to smoke on the bus. He couldn’t put a cigarette in his mouth; instead he chewed on a cigarette lighter. I’d seen the driver’s type before. He was a retired serviceman. Every military town has hundreds, even thousands, of them working in some capacity around post. For twenty years they look forward to retirement but as soon as they retire they still work for the same boss. Just a different uniform. And different grooming standards. Old Soldiers often find comfort in the familiar. They also find worth in supporting young Soldiers. Driving the bus was how this old Soldier contributed.The driver’s curious habit served as a metaphor of what I was about to experience during the next week at Fort Benning. Here was an old Soldier prevented by new rules from doing what he had been allowed to do before. But now he couldn’t. Neither could the Soldiers on his bus. They couldn’t smoke or dip. But to most of them it didn’t matter. They had never acquired those habits. And because of that they were healthier and better prepared than were previous generations of Americans going off to war
The total size of our group at the CRC was about 400. Not quite half were Soldiers. The eighties and the nineties saw outsourcing strike the business world. In this decade it is the military’s turn. Joining the military members were contracted civilian security guards, cooks, translators, and maintenance personnel. Lots and lots of maintenance contractors. Over the years the same thing that had happened to civilian mechanics has also happened to their military counterparts as well. Mechanics in the Army no longer “fix” mechanical problems. Instead, they diagnose which component is causing the problem and then swap it for a new one. Someone else fixes the component. Oftentimes that somebody is a defense contractor. It’s a system that makes sense. Soldiers on the battlefield don’t have time to diagnose and repair which circuit board or what connection in a wiring harness might be the source of a malfunction. Their purpose is to return the vehicle or weapon system as quickly as possible. Swapping components is how they do it. It also makes sense that contractors and not Soldiers do more of the rear area repairs. As much as the Army pays contractors it pales in comparison to what it costs to make a Soldier. All the training, all the years of investment in the individual Soldier is not something to be “wasted” on a mundane task like replacing circuit boards in the rear.
There is another reason why this change in how business is done in the Army makes sense: it enables people to do what they do best. Let’s face it, soldiering is for the young. I’m in my 42nd year and even though I am in good shape—I run five or more miles several times a week—I’m not nearly as strong, nor do I have as much energy as I did half a lifetime ago. This change enables the young to soldier and the old Soldiers to support them.
So who are these contractors upon whom the Army now so heavily relies? The vast majority of them are prior military. At least one was a Vietnam veteran. Like their active military counterparts, most were on their second or third assignments to Iraq or Afghanistan. Volunteers all. Sure, they were being paid a lot of money, but don’t begrudge them that. After all, they have volunteered to perform a valuable and potentially dangerous mission
The contractors weren’t just in my CRC group. There were also Fort Benning-based contractors who taught us. This was my first introduction to that concept. In the past, active duty noncommissioned officers would have led the training. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new system worked. Most of the instructors were retired NCOs. Most of them were veterans of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. They now taught others what they learned there. They covered subjects from IED recognition, battlefield first aid, and short range marksmanship. All of these have changed significantly in just the last few years. For example, the Army’s first aid training and equipment is vastly improved over what it used to be. Our first aid kits instead of being only a single large gauze pad, now include a better device that is a hybrid between an ACE bandage and a thick gauze pad. It is much easier and quicker to apply. It also includes a new bandage containing a rapid clotting agent. There is an improved tourniquet that can be put on in seconds with just one hand. You could even put it on yourself if you had to. There is also a nasopharyngeal tube to keep an airway open. Most impressively the new kit contains a fourteen gage needle and catheter. Its purpose is to puncture the chest cavity in order to repair a collapsed lung. Five years of fighting have taught the Army that if you can stop the bleeding and keep the casualty breathing then you can keep him alive. Those five years have also taught the Army that breathing and bleeding are often decided before the medic can get there, so the focus is on training and equipping everyone to do whatever it takes to help their fellow soldiers live. The fact that this is a volunteer Army much better educated than the draftee ones of wars past means that soldiers are able to be trained and equipped to perform such advanced first aid skills.
The Soldiers, too had their different roles. The first sergeant in charge of readying our group of 400 had survived an IED attack. He didn’t show the scars—physical or mental—but they were likely there. He was my age, maybe a couple years older. Too old, probably, to be running around on the battlefield with young Soldiers half his age. This was how he contributed. His job was to put Soldiers and civilians on a plane—400 a week. They arrived every week and left seven days later, having received shots, military clothing and equipment, and having processed the enormous amounts of paperwork. Even in the computer age the Army is still an institution that doesn’t march without paperwork
I’ve observed one thing about this group which may surprise some. During the entire week I heard not one complaint. In our seventh year of war, after multiple separations from family, even in wake of the recent Sadr uprisings, no one ever said “woe is me.” Just five out of every ten-thousand Americans are now serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Out of every thousand soldiers deployed there, about four of them will die during the year. This is a war with a better than 99.5% chance of survival. Still, it’s a different kind of war, one where there are no “safe” jobs. Yet not once did I hear that fear voiced. I couldn’t help but to contrast the lack of complaint from those actually willing to sacrifice in this war with what I’ve heard from so many of whom nothing is asked.<
Actually, I have heard several people complain about one thing: the food in the mess hall. Even with new Soldiers some things never change.