Monday, October 17, 2011

Nightmares of Katrina 6

The unit with which I was deployed to Louisiana was in transition at the time.  Some might say confusion rather than transition.

The old 33rd Area Support Group was changing into the new 108th Sustainment Brigade.  The deployment put the transition on hold and we moved out as the Area Support Group.

We had already turned in all our old equipment.

We had already started to align our people for their new roles.

We had to take a faltering step backwards.  Slightly dazed and rattled.

Actually, I was deployed only with the Headquarters of the Area Support Group.

An Area Support Group is a very large unit, roughly equal to a Brigade in size.  A Group is an Army unit that is less well defined than a Brigade to begin with, but both are around 1,500 soldiers when at full strength and with all assigned units.  Combat Brigades are commanded by a one star General.

We were just the Headquarters of that larger unit.  The HQ was less than 150 soldiers and it had no vehicles, no equipment, no resources.  The HQ was the coordination center, the organization.  Our equipment was computers and communications, our resources were planning, experience and knowledge.  An Area Support Group, by the manual should be able to provide logistical support for an area roughly equal in size and population to all of Afghanistan.  The HQ runs that logistical support, and in a perfect world does it using Just-In-Time methods.

In order for modern logistical support to work it relies on analysis; planning; throughput coordination and control; and input and output communications.  We had all been trained for that, but we were a black box, unknown and unable to relate that ability to those outside the system who had no idea what we could bring to the table.

I should say, most of us were trained and competent in this kind of logistics.   

The connection of this black box to the outside world had to come through two channels, our command using personal contacts, and me as the communications officer.

In modern military units the staff is divided in certain set offices, each with a letter-number designation.  At our level the staff offices start with the letter S.  I was the S6, Communications.  My counterparts in a staff with a General commander were G6.  For LA's state staff (a joint services staff) it would be the J6.

I found many S6s and G6s, but never the overall J6, never an overall coordinated Signal effort.  The security was piecemeal.  Equipment was questionable.  People tried, I will say that.  We had Air Force help for our land lines.  We had help from the Infantry Division for our security.  We had help from the LANG for field phones our own Illinois National Guard provided radios and sat phones on a temporary basis.

The reason I say "the Infantry Division" is because I can't remember who came in and became the senior command.  That's part of the fog of that month.  Try as I might, I can see their faces, but I cannot remember the names, not the unit or the men.

Somehow the fog, the confusion of the situation, the whole month, affected our satellite phones as well.  The fact that what should have been our most reliable and flexible form of communications, our link from the Earth to space and back was hobbled and warped.

Communications was essential to the whole operation, not only to us who were trying to make sense of it all and to predict what would be needed and arrange for it's provision, but for those providing direct support.  In hindsight, that we were the ones who had to have that overall, underlying intelligence, that we had to make sense of it all meant that we would be the ones who ultimately came in touch with the super-reality of what was happening, of what would have had happened.  I moreso than anyone as my need to relay all this information, to communicate it meant that the horrible truth was sure to go through me.

The physical logistical units began operating as soon as they hit the ground, and they supplemented the efforts of each disparate unit's organic logistical assets.  Namely, they dumped supplies on everyone.  It was like the cargo cults of World War II's Pacific Theater, or the huge supply depots through Europe in the Cold War.  The idea was to provide enough food and consumable goods to keep any number of soldiers and civilians supported for any amount of time.  Since there was no real knowledge of how many, where or how long, this seemed the best approach.

At one point there were nearly enough MREs for all the residents of the city for 100 days supply out in New Orleans.  Small convoys of trucks would patrol the city with MREs, toiletries and sundries, giving them out to whomever approached and asked, like a big camouflaged Good Humor truck.  In fact these were called Ice Cream Truck runs.

Our unit, the ASG wanted to find out who was out there, where they were and what they needed.  We wanted to start providing hot food, collecting up the huge hordes of supplies and distribute them to those who needed, not just those who asked.  But to do it we needed communications and intelligence, two things that seemed to be lacking, confused or sporadic.

I struggled for weeks to get what communications I could and it seemed to be getting better by two weeks in, some cell service was returning, the lines seemed to stabilize.  Then as Hurricane Rita developed, grew and threatened it all went wrong.  Not all at once, it became spotty and erratic, unreliable.  The hurricane itself was only a coincidence, a microcosm of what was happening in the wider world, the wider universe.

A storm of universal proportions was boiling, brewing, churning, rising.  The shadow talk on the land lines, field wires blowing, satellite phones cutting out and even my dreams were the merest shadow of what we were headed for.

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