Alamo Honor Flight

I’m happy to return to Mighty Marine Mom after a long sabbatical. I’m planning many more posts about the US Marine Corps and my experiences as the mother of a Marine. I hope you’ll join me (or rejoin me).

ambassador

The hat might look silly, but it makes us easy to find in a crowd.

I recently signed up as a volunteer Ambassador at the San Antonio Airport. We provide Texas-style hospitality to those leaving from and arriving to the airport, answering questions (most common: “Where are the bathrooms?”), showing them where they need to be, providing directions to their destination….all in all, whatever help they need.

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On my very first shift, I had the privilege of participating in the final Alamo Honor Flight. Honor Flights take World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to tour the WWII Memorial and other sites (at no cost to the vets). Alamo Honor Flight has operated for four seasons, taking nine groups (with 300+ vets and their escorts) to D.C. Their final flight was August 16. The dwindling number of vets are simply getting too old and frail to make the trip.

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As the escorts walked (or wheeled) the vets into the departure area, lots of supporters clapped and cheered. Once through security, over 100 active duty military lined both sides of the concourse, from all four branches. A color guard (complete with snare drum) led the procession down the concourse. As the color guard approached, the active duty troops were called to attention. Let me tell you….seeing two long lines of troops snap to attention is a moving sight.

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I would love to know how tall he really is.

Many travelers waiting in the concourse (or arriving from other flights) stopped and asked what was going on, and many of them stayed when we told them.

The vets and their escorts spent the weekend in our nation’s capitol, touring the sites. They experienced an equally grandiose welcome home in the baggage claim area when they returned (see the linked article from the San Antonio Express-News).

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I’m proud of my Marine son, but equally proud of these brave men (and women) who fought 60+ years ago to preserve our freedom. My father-in-law is one of them (US Navy vet who fought, as it happens, in the Battle of Okinawa). Many thanks to the many veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

Bad Eggs

Our Marine lives and works on Camp Hansen, mid-island. (photo courtesy militarywom.com)

I prefer to stay positive in this space, but recent headlines compel a departure.

The Marine Corps commandant has cracked down of late on Marines behaving badly (what he calls “jackassery”). Embarrassing news headlines (often in Afghanistan) don’t do the “winning hearts and minds” campaign any favors.

Okinawa has experienced its share of incidents over the years, leading to protests and bad feelings amongst the locals. And now, it has happened again…..twice.

About a month ago, two sailors traveling through Okinawa allegedly raped a Japanese woman; they’re now in custody awaiting a hearing. The incident justifiably generated outrage, and the commander of all 26,000 troops on Oki quickly instituted one of the toughest restrictions yet: an 11:00 pm curfew for all troops (regardless of service or rank), “whether they live in, are deployed to or traveling through Japan.”

And last week, I read news of another assault (an airman allegedly broke into a Japanese home and assaulted a 13-year-old).

It appears that this airman broke the curfew order, and that alone will land him in a whole heap of trouble.

CNN quoted US ambassador to Japan John Roos as saying that commanders are “undergoing a complete review of the liberty policies and other policies that will minimize, if not eliminate, any such incident in the future.” Unless no one is allowed off-base (except for official business), I don’t see how “elimination” of such incidents is possible. Do they plan to post MPs at all the gates?

Glueck at an all-hands meeting aboard Camp Futenma (USMC photo by SSgt Ken Melton)

The III MEF commander made the rounds of Marine bases on Okinawa for all-hands meetings to reinforce core values and expectations. All incoming Marines and sailors receive cultural awareness training soon after arrival. During one of the recent “all-hands period of reflection” meetings, Glueck said, “Demonstrate that we are good stewards, neighbors and ambassadors and that we respect the customs, traditions, and the people of Japan.”

It frustrates me no end that the actions of a (very) few young men, whose parents obviously failed to provide adequate instructions in manners and respect, can affect the lives of my son and the others on the island. Everyone suffers from the consequences due to the actions of the very few. Totally not fair.

Our Marine scuba dives…an activity threatened by potential off-base restrictions

The Pentagon announced that many Okinawa troops will relocate to Guam, but the facilities on Guam aren’t ready to accommodate such a surge. Some troops will remain on Okinawa. I hope that the military soon figures out a workable way (i.e., not overly restrictive to everyone) to control their “bad eggs” so as not to further abuse the hospitality of their hosts.

What the Heck is a Cutting Score?

A promotion ceremony (USMC photo by Cpl. Bruno J. Bego)

Bruce served in the Air Force for eight years, so I easily fell back into the pattern of military jargon. But I’ve had to learn a few new things. “October cutting scores released,” read the headline in Marine Corps Times. A what score?? As the primary driver in promotion process (from lance corporal to corporal and from corporal to sergeant), I wanted to learn as much as I could (even though the chart’s font size menaces 50-year-old eyes).

Every member of the armed forces, regardless of rank or service, enters the service with a specific career field. In the Army and Marines, that designation is called the MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty.

Some career fields ring a bell, such as a refrigeration mechanic or radio repairman. Other sound downright martial, such as rifleman or field artillery man. Sean works with computers. The Marines have sent a lot of new enlistees through tech school for this high-demand field. He has lots of similarly-asked company in his “shop” on Oki, and units have limits on the number of promotions to grant.

Rifle training (USMC photo by Cpl. Michael Petersheim)

The lower the cut score, the easier the promotion. (At this level, once a Marine makes his cut score, promotion is pretty much automatic, except for extreme circumstances.) Right now, “high” cut scores hover in the 1900s (for a rifleman, for example); the lowest was a 1446 for a landing support specialist. (So what do Marines do? They get off boats, onto launches, and onto beaches. This guy gets stuff off the launch and onto the beach.) Most cutting scores, right now, are in the 1700s.

Sean’s cut score stood in the mid-1600s in October.

A fairly complicated formula determines the cut score (drill instructors, recruiters, and a few others receive bonus points):

  • Rifle score: all Marines (with a few exceptions) must requalify on rifle every year. “Every Marine is a rifleman.”
  • Physical Fitness Test: another annual test that includes a three-mile run, pull-ups, and crunches. The requirements for “class 1” go down a bit at age 27, a good thing for our relatively “old” lance corporal.
  • Combat Fitness Test: the annual test that includes a combat carry, an ammo-can lift, a sprint, and other tasks.
  • Average proficiency marks: his job evaluation.
  • Average conduct marks: how he comports himself, both on and off the job.
  • Time in grade: how long he has been a lance corporal.
  • Time in service: how long he has served in the Marines. (These two are pretty much one in the same at this point, but they begin to differ as Marines advance in rank.)
  • College and other courses: I’m not sure his college degree counts here, or if he has to take new classes to earn points.

Combat Fitness Test (USMC photo by Cpl. Andrew D. Johnston)

Lance corporals generally serve a year in that grade before even becoming eligible for promotion. Sean is about to reach that point. I have no idea when he’ll pin on corporal; I’ll be watching the monthly charts until he does.

State of the Corps

Marines participate in urban combat training in Australia (USMC photo by Cpl Jacob Barber)

This year’s Marine Corps Times (MCT) special report, “State of the Marine Corps,” features two issues of great interest to this Mighty Marine Mom. “On nearly every front,” said the lead article, “the state of the Marine Corps is in transition.”

  • Shift to the Asia/Pacific: I’ve already covered this, but it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this shift. After over ten years in the Middle East, the Corps (and the entire military) now shifts its focus to the next regional hotspot, the Asia/Pacific. Plans for Afghanistan continue to evolve, but fewer and fewer Marines will deploy there. Instead, Marines will go to the Asia/Pacific “to build partnerships.”

Marines will also prepare for disaster relief in a region where “about 70,000 people die…each year due to earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.”

Training opportunities in the region will also increase. The Marines will send a second infantry company to Darwin, Australia, and they’re “forging new relationships with military powers like India,” the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

No word yet on whether our Marine will visit any of these places. I know he would love to.

  • The Drawdown: “The service is a year into its gradual descent from an active-duty force of 202,100 Marines to 182,100,” said MCT.  Our Marine works in a high-demand, computer-related job, so I’m not too worried about his job security. But just like any business, a 10% reduction in force affects everyone, as they are asked to do more with less.

I also follow news on promotions and cutting scores…..but more on that next week.

“May You Live in Interesting Times”

The Economist Sept 22 Cover

The disputed Senkaku islands lie about 250 miles due west of our Marine—the distance from here to Dallas. And the turtle at the bottom right answers, “Sadly, yes.” Yikes. The above proverb could just as easily read, “…in interesting places.”

I posted earlier about “The New Global Hot-Spot: Asia Pacific.” Tensions have only risen since then.

photo from Getty Images. A Japanese coast guard vessel at right sprays a Taiwan boat with water cannon.

And now, Taiwan has entered the fray, also lodging a territorial claim. Similar claims swirl in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.The Economist article makes several good points:

  • • They draw a parallel between today’s situation and the rising nationalism in imperial Germany a century ago. “China is re-emerging after what it sees as 150 years of humiliation, surrounded by anxious neighbors, many of them allied to America. In that context, disputes about clumps of rock could become as significant as the assassination of an archduke.”
  • “Asian politicians have to start defanging the nationalist serpents they have nursed; honest textbooks would help.”
  • They suggest three “immediate safeguards:” one, “to limit the scope for mishaps to escalate into crises;” two, “to rediscover ways to shelve disputes over sovereignty, without prejudice;” and three, “to bolster deterrence.”

(A related article observed that when a Chinese policeman invited a local journalist to participate in a protest, she asked if she could also shout anti-corruption slogans. “He told her to stick to the approved anti-Japanese ones,” said the magazine. Herein lies my previously expressed doubt about the spontaneity, or lack thereof, of such demonstrations in totalitarian regimes. Anyone remember the excessive moaning and wailing when Kim Jong Il died?)

Photo from AFP. Funny title on “Economist” blog: 58,000 tonnes of coincidence

Adding fuel to the fire, China recently unveiled its first aircraft carrier—although the first flight won’t leave its deck for years.

US allies in the region continue to build ties with the military in general and the US Marines in particular. Already, US Marines are based in Darwin, Australia, and recently the Pentagon announced a training partnership with New Zealand. The Philippines are also interested in increased cooperation, and the US military hold regular exercises with both Japan and South Korea (all mentioned in my previous Asia/Pac post).Again from The Economist: “A century ago in Europe, years of peace and globalization tempted leaders into thinking that they could afford to play with nationalist fires without the risk of conflagration. After this summer, [incoming Chinese leader] Mr. Xi and his neighbors need to grasp how much damage the islands are in fact causing.” I’m paying close attention to headlines coming in from this part of the world.

Prepping for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

Typhoon Sanba kicks up a mean wave (NBC News photo)

Military exercises don’t always hone wartime skills. They also practice disaster response, so when the “real one” hits, everyone knows what to do.

At the beginning of typhoon season (see my earlier post), III MEF (Sean’s unit) prepares Okinawa residents for a bad storm. (Good thing, too, since two “super typhoons” have pummeled Oki in the last month.) They publish “disaster kit” lists (bottled water, batteries, flashlights, etc.), inform everyone about the different levels of typhoon warnings, and post frequent updates to their Twitter and Facebook accounts when storms approach.

“The critical thing… [is to] have a discussion about what to do and where to go should an event occur,” said the regional installation emergency manager. So far, so good. The Japanese know how to build for such storms. I haven’t even heard of any injuries or serious property damage (other than electrical damage to a camp fieldhouse) from the last two storms, much less deaths.

As if typhoons weren’t bad enough, they must also deal with the potential for earthquakes and tsunamis. III MEF recently installed a new tsunami warning system and tested it during their annual “all-hazards” exercise. This system will “significantly improve the safety of personnel who live or work in low-lying coastal areas….and improve their ability to safely and expeditiously evacuate those in harm’s way,” said a recent issue of the base newspaper. NOAA says that Japan has experienced the most tsunamis of anywhere in the world.

Sometimes, Marine units hold joint disaster exercises with local Japanese officials. This year’s exercise simulated a large earthquake, and the local authorities asked the 12th Brigade to assist with response operations. “As Marines, we are always ready to do humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations when asked by Japan,” said a local commander.

CBRN exercise (USMC photo by LCpl Daniel E. Valle)

Not all disaster exercises plan for natural events. Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit recently held a CBRN exercise, where they practiced mass-casualty decontamination procedures. I try not to dwell on the meaning of CBRN: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear.

So far, our Marine hasn’t participated in any of these exercises, but there’s always the potential. It sure would put his emergency management degree to good use. Stay safe!

Where in the World are US Marines?

US Marine global deployments

In a word……everywhere!

In addition to over 30 US installations and permanent overseas bases in seven countries, Marine units deploy frequently to countries around the globe. Marine Corps Times publishes a weekly map listing all known deployments; as you can see, units are currently working in Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia.

Recent trips have included Norway for Exercise Cold Response, Uganda to train the Uganda People’s Defense Force, and the USS Iwo Jima as a quick reaction force, ready to address any “hot spots” in the area. Okinawa hosts the Jungle Warfare Training Center, which holds frequent exercises to train Marines for the challenges specific to jungle warfare.

US Marines in Uganda (photo by Cpl Jonathan Wright)

Many of the missions to foreign countries involve training local forces in specific skills. The mission in Uganda, for example, includes training in marksmanship, small unit tactics and engineering to prepare Ugandans for their deployment in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia. Talks are underway with the Philippines to increase the presences of US Marines there.

And sometimes, the Pentagon quickly sends Marines into crisis areas. Just this week, in response to the attack on the US consulate in Libya, 50 Marines from Rota, Spain were sent to Tripoli. According to the Associated Press, these Marines are “members of an elite group known as a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team….whose role is to respond on short notice to terrorism threats and to reinforce security at embassies.”

As the Marines draw down their presence in Afghanistan, the Pentagon will continue to redeploy units to address other problem areas around the globe (see my last post on the Asia/Pacific). It’s probably only a matter of time before our Marine ends up somewhere other than the US or Okinawa.

For more of my thoughts on being a military mom, see the August 2012 issue of “American Legion Auxiliary” magazine (look for the “Faces of Freedom” story).

The New Global Hot-Spot: Asia/Pacific

As US troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is gradually shifting its focus to another region of the world—the Asia/Pacific basin. Our Marine lives and works smack in the middle of this current global hot spot.

Recent news headlines sound ominous:

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen James Amos (photo courtesy USMC)

The Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. James Amos, and Sgt Maj of the Marine Corps Michael Barrett recently visited Okinawa (and other Asia/Pacific countries) to build relationships and visit the troops to stress the importance of their mission. “This is a very important part of the world and we want to make sure that we’re here to talk to our Marines,” said Amos.

Amos also spoke about the importance of III Marine Expeditionary Force, to which Sean is assigned. “There is nobody further west, there is nobody more engaged…than the III Marine Expeditionary Force,” he said. “This really is the tip of the warfighting spear.”

Location of disputed islands (from Google Maps). Naha is on Okinawa.

While territorial claims fly fast and furious in the South China Sea (between China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others), regional tensions have also flared recently not far from Okinawa.

A recent Marine Corps Times story outlined how “the Marine Corps’ plan for future deployments in the Pacific is solidifying.” The Corps plans to reduce its Okinawa presence from the current 14,000 troops to 10,200 in coming years; how this will affect Sean’s unit (if at all) is not yet clear.

We often joke that if the Russians are Klingons and the Chinese are Romulans, the North Koreans must be Tholian. (Apologies to non-Trekkers.) What’s the old proverb? “May you live in interesting times.” He certainly joined the Corps during just such one of those times. Rest assured that this Mighty Marine Mom will closely follow developments in the coming months.

Typhoon Season for Our Marine!

Tracking Typhoon Bolaven

The promised typhoon post is timely….because Okinawa just suffered its worst one in 50 years. (Our Marine, and everyone else, is fine. This isn’t the first rodeo for the Japanese; they know how to plan and build for these stinkers.)

Typhoon Bolaven didn’t receive a lot of coverage here, since everyone was busy getting acquainted with Isaac in the Gulf. But Bolaven made a beeline for Okinawa, and they experienced 50+ knot winds for something like 72 hours. Sean’s only comment so far (on Sunday evening) was, “Storm slowing but still at 1E.”

1 what? Over in those parts, the military uses a system called TCCOR (Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness; hey, it’s the military and they love their acronyms). TCCOR 1E (for “emergency”) is the worst, when winds are 50 knots or higher. Everyone is restricted to their (well-built) homes and barracks until the “all clear” is given.

The bases remain in TCCOR 4 throughout the typhoon season, which coincides with the US season (June through November).

The region between the international date line and southeast Asia hosts the most hurricanes/typhoons anywhere on the globe. Whereas our hurricanes form when the Sahara belches a blast of really hot air over the Atlantic, typhoons come from the “monsoon trough” in the western Pacific. Bolaven was the 18th named storm of the year. We’re only up to #9 here. The Navy (who has, as you might imagine, a passing interest in storms at sea, especially of the dangerous variety) operates the Joint Typhoon Warning Center and issues regular updates (much like the National Hurricane Center) for anything in the region.

AP photo of a Bolaven wave crashing over the seawall on Okinawa

A typhoon is exactly the same as a hurricane, just in the Pacific. They rotate counter-clockwise just like ours, and they often throw off tornadoes just like ours. NOAA has an interesting FAQ about hurricanes and typhoons.

I also keep an eye on earthquake activity, since Okinawa sits right on a tectonic plate boundary. Since he arrived in March, several small earthquakes have occurred in the seas around Okinawa. Several small earthquakes are much better than one big one.)

I suppose anywhere one lives, one must cope with forces of nature. (I’ve heard that companies move data centers here to San Antonio because we don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes or earthquakes as frequently as other regions.)  At least the Marines are prepared for such situations and know what to do.

Our Marine’s First Exercise

Soldiers participating in the exercise (photo courtesy US Army)

The typhoon post (promised at the end of the last post) has been, as they say in the military, OBE (“Overcome by Events,” a frequent phrase in this household). Exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian has begun. According to Wikipedia, “The exercise is the world’s largest computerized command and control implementation which mainly focuses on defending South Korea from a North Korean attack.” Given our Marine’s IT job, he’s knee-deep in the exercise, whose purpose is to strengthen readiness (of both US and South Korean forces) in a critical area of the globe.

I am *not* talking out of school or endangering operational security (OpSec) here; it’s a well publicized event. US Forces Korea even issued a press release. And the news media picked up on it, since China and North Korea are having their annual apoplexy over legitimate military exercises. (Does anyone else smile when protesters in a foreign country hold up signs in English?? Pandering to the media, anyone? From www.globalsaskatoon.com)

Protesting a disputed Japanese island

He’s adjusting to a 12 on/12 off schedule….and he drew the night shift. He posted to Facebook recently, “So I think I’m finally used to this crazy 12 on 12 off night shift.” He returns to a normal working schedule (and a normal sleeping schedule) when the exercise is over.

To complicate matters, the Kadena AFB weather station on Okinawa is monitoring the approach of yet another typhoon. (He has been barracks-bound this season at least twice.) If it heads for Oki, it’ll arrive smack in the middle of the exercise.

As US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Pentagon has shifted its primary focus to the Asia/Pacific region, as China gets stronger and North Korea makes ever-more-outlandish claims and challenges. While not related to the exercise, the recent news story on the disputed island (just “down the street” from Okinawa, figuratively speaking) visited by Japanese activists illustrates the tensions in the region.

This Marine mom will quite diligently be watching news stories from that area of the world over the next year or so.

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