By Tom Philpott: Military Update
Lt. Joseph “Max” Ernest is a Navy Reserve intelligence officer with 11 years of law enforcement experience and two as a counterterrorism analyst for a defense contractor. Yet last April, when Ernest mobilized to Iraq as an individual augmentee or “IA,” the Army made him a logistics officer to Iraq’s interior ministry.
“I had no experience with logistics, let alone logistics in a combat zone. So I was frustrated,” Ernest said. He spent two to three months just learning basic terminology and how logistic systems are run. Later this month, he will go home with mixed feelings about his time in Iraq.
“My skills could have been better used,” Ernest said. “But I also have to thank the Army because they have given me a new level of confidence. If I can do this, here, when I get back to my world I can pretty much handle anything.”
Two days before Christmas, Ernest was among several hundred “sand-box sailors” in Baghdad’s Green Zone to appear at “all hands call” with Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations. The Navy’s top officer was on a week-long trip to visit sailors on ships at sea in the Persian Gulf and on the ground in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Djibouti. He invited Military Update to come along as he shared the holidays with deployed sailors, thanked them for their service, answered questions and got comments back on how policies — in theater and in Washington — are impacting Navy careers and families.
Uppermost on the minds of many, Mullen knew, was the Navy’s changing role in the war on terrorism, particularly expansion of its combat support mission for Iraq and Afghanistan, an expansion Mullen vigorously has endorsed.
Sailors, families and parent commands say they are being impacted particularly by assignment of individual augmentees for training and year-long deployments “in lieu of” Army and Marine Corps forces. Mullen tried to reassure sailors that the big challenges tied to these changes can and will be addressed and are far outweighed by what Navy people are bringing to the fight on the ground.
Ernest’s complaints echoed what Mullen had at the top of his own list.
“The feedback that is worrisome on this trip (involves not) doing meaningful work. And some of them are telling me that sitting behind a desk, producing power point slides, is not what they anticipated,” Mullen said.
The Navy is pressing Central Command and the Army for more precise billet requests so skills and seniority can be better matched to actual needs.
The Air Force, which also is providing individual augmentees, faces a similar mismatch issue. In Afghanistan, for example, an Air Force captain with degrees in chemistry and math, and a course away from a master’s in system operations, was made a junior protocol officer at Bagram Air Force Base. The concern, said Mullen, is “matching the right pay grade, the right skill set and making sure that the (initial) intent is actually carried out.”
More than 10,400 sailors are serving on the ground in U.S. Central Command and more than 4,300 are assigned to Iraq. About half, Mullen estimated, are IAs filling gaps in combat support billets with solo assignments away from parent commands. Mullen and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Joe Campa, who joined him on the trip, said commands need to support IAs and their families more aggressively.
An initial “request for forces” from Central Command came to the Navy before Mullen became CNO in July 2005. But he has encouraged widening Navy’s contribution on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that it’s the nation, not just the Army and Marine Corps, at war. Sailors, he said, bring a different perspective and some additional skills to the theater.
“I just sat through a half hour with our electronic warfare guys who basically have dramatically reduced the number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) of a certain kind because of their expertise,” said Mullen during a break between stops in Baghdad.
Mullen has revised some key personnel policies to try to shield deployed sailors in theater, and their families, from any unintended consequences of the Navy’s expanded wartime role. He learned on this trip that more adjustments and perhaps closer auditing of how commands adhere to policy might be needed.
Commanding officers, for example, have been directed to provide “great people” for IA deployments, Mullen said, but there’s resistance.
“They don’t like to give up their best people. I understand that. I was a CO. I just want them to understand the guidance that’s coming from the top,” he said.