Department of Defense Joint Civilian Orientation Conference
by Susan M. Fitzpatrick
JSMF Vice President Susan Fitzpatrick is participating in the Department of Defense Joint Civilian Orientation Conference July 22nd - 28th. Read about her activities during this adventure with her daily postings below.
Friday, July 27 Evening – Return to DC
A small contingent of JCOC 84 departed at SEATAC. This in some ways made the fact that we were concluding our experience somewhat poignant. The group had grown close during our intense time together and we realized it would be hard to sustain these connections when we returned to the demands of work and home-life. The flight home seemed somber when compared with the trip out. Many of us napped or read quietly. I am sure that like me, many of my colleagues reflected on our experiences and what it was that would come next as we considered how best to put our experiences into actions. It was also a time to start our goodbyes.
We landed at Langley. As we waited to depart the aircraft we saw that we shared the tarmac with another plane. In stark contrast to our group – the other plan was transporting wounded soldiers to waiting ambulances. It was a stark reminder of the seriousness of all we had seen and heard during the past week.
We ended the evening with a visit to the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. It is strange to describe it as beautiful considering that it signifies a tragic loss of life – but it is. And it is surreally so at night. Again, a striking way to reinforce that we live in unsettled and dangerous times.
Another late night – to be followed by the typical early morning. The last event for JCOC was an optional visit to Walter Reed Hospital. I was not able to make this final part of the trip. But I was there in spirit and it is in helping our wounded resume their lives that I hope I will be able to contribute via work in brain injury rehabilitation.
Friday, July 27 (Day 5)
Up and out around 0500. Said farewell to our new Army friends. Boarded the bus for the ride to Coast Guard Sector Seattle under the command of our host Rear Admiral Keith Taylor, District Commander 13th Coast Guard District.
Of course, everyone has a soft spot in their heart for the Coasties – and it is more likely that the average civilian has interacted with the Coast Guard than with other branches of the armed services. As a member of Team Coast Guard (guided by our admirable team leader LT Felicia Thomas, USCG) I’d been looking forward to this day. And the Coasties did not disappoint! The port of Seattle is very large and very busy and managing transit of vessels in and out is an incredibly complex task.
We all had a great time getting underway (I was on a 47 ft patrol boat) and experiencing a view of the city of Seattle you only get from the water. It is pretty tight quarters onboard and I gained a healthy respect for the Coasties who call this ship home when underway.
We again were given opportunities to meet the very talented young men and women serving and to hear about the wide variety of jobs they fill from marine safety, to drug interdiction, to port security, and of course – what the Coast Guard is best known for: Search and Rescue. The group was given to opportunity to don “Survival suits” (tip: you do not want to actually ever have to wear these) – and get into the water. It was a subtle reminder that while the official CG slogan is Semper Paratus (Always Ready) – the unofficial one is “ You have to go – but you don’t have to come back.” Again, we were meeting men and women who willingly go to work knowing it could require them to sacrifice their lives.
The CG was our last visit prior to boarding the C17 and heading back to DC. I felt, and I know this was the experience of several others, that despite the law enforcement and military role of the CG (including serving on the front lines) the CG’s lack of warrior culture and commitment to life-saving was the perfect transition as we readied ourselves to return to our lives.
Before leaving the base we were treated to an elegant lunch and then it was back to Lewis-McChord to get on the C-17 for the long flight to DC.
Thursday, July 26, (Day 4)
Another early luggage drop – and back aboard the C17 with dawn’s early light. Destination: Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington. JBLM is part of the effort the DOD is making to integrate the different services from a mission-oriented focus. We were spending the day with soldiers training to deploy this coming October. I must be honest, although every day was remarkable in its planning and execution – Army Day was my personal favorite. Our hosts, under the leadership of MG Jeff Buchanan did a terrific job and used their time to give us an action packed day. We had the opportunity to meet one on one with soldiers and I thoroughly enjoyed my opportunity to talk with them not just about what they do – but where they were from, why they joined, and what they hope for the future.
The original plan was for us to be transported from the C17 to range via Blackhawk helicopters. But the weather had other plans and low ceilings kept us grounded. Yellow school buses! Thankfully the day turned brilliant and sunny – also giving us a spectacular view of Mt. Hood. We watched a live-fire demonstration of how our soldiers take and secure a site. The atmosphere made even more atmospheric by the ignition of a brush fire (the range had little rain for the past few weeks) that burned through much of our visit. The fire had some of the JCOCers a little nervous but several of us from the Midwest farm-country could tell the difference between a controlled and uncontrolled burn and saw that the fire fighters had it all well in-hand.
What I found of great interest was that in addition to the battlefield capabilities and technology – our hosts also showed us some of the more mundane aspects of fighting a war. The guys who build roads, deliver meals, and even the laundry guys. It was easy to see what it could do to morale to have a shower and clean clothes. And all these activities are under constant threat from snipers and IEDs. In Iraq and Afghanistan there are no safe jobs.
I want to thank all the guys who prepared and manned the “round-robin” static displays – I could have spend days with you all. The time was just too short.
For lunch – we were treated to MREs (meals ready to eat). Mine was labeled “pork steak” but inside was granola. I felt like I really lucked out! The Sergeant watching over us deserves special thanks for his patience as he saved me certainly from fumbling with all the packaging!
The next task was working the IED lane with 2 of the young men who volunteer to walk the lane clearing it of IEDs so that vehicles or members of their squads can transit safely. We all know the terrible toll IED’s have and are taking. One of the young men impressed me with not just for his physical bravery – but with the thoughtfulness and cognitive skills he brought to this incredibly difficult task.
We were then invited to don helmets and flack jackets and board a Stryker vehicle -- our transportation to the Leader Reaction Course.
At the LRC we had a chance to see how our Squad could select a leader and solve a tactical problem. A true learning experience about the potential pitfalls that can sidetrack a team when working under pressure.
The day ended with a really wonderful Northwest Salmon Bake and the chance to interact with soldiers and families. We were also able to learn about, meet with, and thank Gold Star mothers and widows.
We tumbled into the Army Lodge exhausted.
Wednesday, July 25th (Day 3)
Zero-dark-hundred. Board buses for transport to Marine Corp Recruit Depot, San Diego. Our schedule says, “Command Welcome and Breakfast with Marines.” Those words to not prepare you for what happens beginning with a Marine Drill Instructor boarding the bus and “welcoming” us with the same hospitality offered to new marine recruits showing up tired and apprehensive. Much like us. Everyone has seen a movie version of this experience. And in fact, to some extent it is theatre, but with a deadly serious purpose. Creating Marines. The Drill Instructors were very knowledgeable and gave us insights into the thought processes behind the barking, the intimidation, the confusion, the discipline, and the exhaustion. You can buy it or you can disbelieve it. But in 13 weeks they fundamentally change people.
A video of us marching in formation would absolutely race to the top of the charts for sheer hilarity. I am still trying to crack the code as to when you shout “yes, Sir” versus “Aye, Aye Sir.”
After breakfast participated in more training experiences – rope slide, rappelling, and obstacle course training. The rope slide and rappel exercise challenged me physically and mentally. I tend to avoid adventure sports but the experience was worth whatever cortisol overload I experienced. Perhaps what was most amazing was that we felt like we had put in a full day and it was only mid-morning. Back on the bus!
Our next stop: Camp Pendleton – where Marines are trained for the next mission. We engaged in numerous activities – including a visit to a mock Afghan Village equipped with impressive technological adaptations to provide and access training.
One of the things we had been discussing along our way was the different “cultures” of each branch of the military. Although each branch engages in and trains for war our day with the Marine Corp was, in my view, the first day we had really come face to face with the military’s warrior culture. There is no “action at a distance” for these young men (and because of the rules regarding women in combat and the way recruit training is segregated in the Marines almost everyone we met this day was male). These young Marines know what they are being asked to do and they know the price they may be asked to pay. Their older leaders know what they are asking of them and they know what is at stake – and training these Marines to be skilled warriors is the best thing they can do to try and keep them from harm. Regardless of how you feel about war, it is impossible to spend time with these men and not admire their courage, their commitment, and their skill at what they do. I found myself thinking – they do not ask to go to war, we ask them to go to war. It is a heavy responsibility. Sure they volunteer and they know what that means. On the positive side a volunteer army means no draft. In my view, no matter how you look at it – we are all in this together.
This was also the first day I worried that many of the young Marines will have some struggles integrating back into civilian life. Marine life is so disciplined, so Spartan, so intense. I think they might benefit from some step-down opportunities to slowly acclimate back to the reality that much of typical daily life is fairly mundane. This seems to me something that we should be able to help with.
We ended the day with a somewhat quiet bus ride back to our hotel in downtown San Diego. I skipped the group dinner and went for a walk, needing the time to decompress from a very intense day. One day.
Tuesday, July 24th (Day 2)
We spent night at the Air Force Lodge at Nellis AFB, getting into our rooms at around 11PM. Our luggage drop the next morning was no later than 05:15. The long days the JCOC staff had warned us about were underway. We bid our Air Force hosts goodbye over a quick breakfast and headed back to our C-17 for transport to Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island, San Diego, CA. Gorgeous day in San Diego. A welcome respite from the heat of Nevada (DC and many of our home towns). We toured the base, a mix of some beautiful older Spanish-style architecture and very new up to date facilities. We rec’d a comprehensive briefing on the services provided to assist sailors and families, particularly during long deployments at sea. And then – the long awaited moment: boarding the USS Makin Island and getting underway with the Navy. In the relatively short period on time we had aboard, the ship’s crew did their best to provide us with a sense of what is required to run a ship this large and complex. Lunch in the Mess gave us all a chance to meet and chat with sailors. I was impressed that the ship is equipped with very sophisticated medical services including a 17 bed ICU. The day’s high water mark: our ride back to mainland on a Jay Hawk helicopter. My first ride in a helo – take off and landing is like levitating – amazingly smooth. Back on the mainland we were lucky to have some time free while awaiting the second contingent of JCOCers and were provided a primer from the unit responsible for rescuing crews from disabled submarines. Our evening reception provided an opportunity to talk one on one with senior officers. We arrived at our hotel long after my usual bedtime – and our final briefing of the day ended with the reminder – luggage drop off the next morning: 04:15.
Monday, July 23rd (Day 1)
Started the day at the Pentagon with a high level briefing. We then flew in a C-17 to Nellis Air Force Base. Amazing day at Nellis. Every Air Force plane here is engaging in red flag training. Ended the evening standing on the flight line watching jets take off. Beautiful sights of after burners roaring into the dark. Met some of the most amazing young men and women.
Sunday, July 22nd
The 38 participants of JCOC 84 arrived at the Hyatt Crystal City Virginia for our orientation and "gear issue." We have badges, hats, water bottles, and of course our official JCOC backpack. The backpack will be a constant companion as it is the only bag we can carry with us during our days. It is great fun meeting the other participants and the military men and women serving as our team leaders. The JCOC staff are fantastic. We have already heard some thought-provoking stories, and I am sure there will many more as the week wears on. We begin our day tomorrow with a 0545 wake up call. I am part of team Coast Guard. So... Semper paratus!!!