Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Notional Caffeine

There are many events in the military that you will never see in the civilian world, such as 200 people wearing identical clothes and no one being embarrassed. “Oh great, look he’s wearing camouflage, too. How embarrassing!” But more interesting than common clothing is the “alert”. This is basically notional and controlled panic. It is when everyone in a given unit or installation takes a day at least and physically practices what to do in a given contingency. That contingency could be a terrorist attack or a plane crash or a civil emergency of some sort. Last week we had what is called a NEO alert. While it may seem difficult to believe, the Army has devised a plan for saying Noncombatant Evacuation Operation. And last weeks exercise gave everyone lots of opportunities to say “NEO”. Another interesting thing about emergency situations in the military is that they never take place right after lunch. Usually, Army style emergencies occur within mere moments of attaining REM sleep. Our NEO exercise was no exception.

Bright and early the horns of hell sounded. To the seasoned Camp Bonifas dweller this sound means, “Get up and move quickly to your place of duty!” However, to those of us new to this place, the early morning siren meant our alarms were probably going off and if we would just hit it hard enough it would stop. But it didn’t and approximately 23 minutes later I found myself in a briefing indicating that the North Koreans had just begun to move south and we were in imminent danger. This was of course notional but it was sobering nonetheless. The entire camp was to be evacuated along with the DMZ Village of Tae Song Dong. Each section and platoon had a very distinct task that had been planned and briefed months and years in advance. The plan was in effect, all that was required was to execute it.

My role in this alert was to go through the motions like everyone else and do notionally what I would do actually were there to be an actual attack. After the meeting, I headed back to my office area and linked up with my assistant and a cup of coffee. Our vehicle was already loaded with our rucksacks, duffle bags, religious supplies and plenty of cold sodas. The idea is to be able to survive 30 to 60 days without resupply. If required we may have been able to pull it off, too, except for the fact that we had only one meal each. So while 30 to 60 days may have been something of a stretch, I truly believe we could have gone say, 30 to sixty minutes. Had this been a real alert and not just an exercise, we probably would have been over run by North Koreans quicker than you could say, “Did you start a pot of coffee?” Also we would have actually done some ministry. But since it was notional and since it is difficult, based on the nature of the business, to do notional ministry, we just kind of hung out for a while and talked about what we would be doing in different circumstances. After the ups and downs of imaginary ministry, we got the word that some or other event had notionally taken place that would normally precipitate a move for us. So we moved. We grabbed our coffee, jumped in the van, and drove to the aid station, which if the roads are clear and the weather is accommodating is approximately 28 seconds from my office. Quickly we rushed inside, pretending to be reacting to emergency situations, and in our most simulated voice of panic said, “Where’s the coffee?” The aid station is an ideal place for me during this kind of a situation because it is where one would normally find victims of a war situation and those looking for coffee. So we fit right in.

After hanging with the docs for a while, again a code word rang out over the radio indicating that we were to move to a central point where everyone left on camp would evacuate after the simulated destruction of all assets remaining behind. Here it is a good thing this was notional because had the Angry Pink Hoards come rushing up the road they would have found us standing around, sipping the last vestiges of the wonder brew and complementing ourselves as to how well this thing was notionally going. Finally the convoy formed up and we headed out along the preplanned escape route.

Just as we were preparing to cross the bridge to freedom it was notionally destroyed, and I notionally soiled my notional self. Plan B went quickly into effect and we all headed down to a predesignated point on the bank of the river. Once there, all were accounted for and we began to cross the river to safety. This was not notional. That is to say, we did not actually pretend to notionally cross the river. In other words, our crossifying was unnotionalized. We got in rubber rafts and really went over the river after coming through the woods. I got a little wet, about up to mid thigh. This would include my feet, which were in boots at the time, which happened to be filled with water. For the soldier in the US Army, having wet boots and feet is not really a problem. The difficulty comes during the slow, painful drying process. As the water slowly seeps out of the boot the pants stick to the legs, the leather boots begin to constrict ever so slightly, and madness begins. One can loose ones mind within minutes due to the drying itch. This is when, as a result of the clothing drying slowly, all skin begins to itch. Victims become irrational as they scratch and loose all modesty as they try to strip off all damp items. At least I do.

Once across the river, approximately 7 hours after it began at way-too-early o’clock, the exercise ended. We loaded busses strategically filled with sleep dust and tried desperately to stay awake for the long ride back over the Imjin River to Camp Bonifas. This was no easy task as the ride took approximately 15 minutes. I’m still not sure how we took 6 hours to go 15 minutes, but we managed swimmingly. Once back on Camp Bonifas the day was over…or so I thought (insert diabolical laughter and thunder clap here). The final part of the day was the ever-popular After Action Review. This is when all key leaders in the battalion sit around for about 12 hours and tell each other how well they did and what they thought of the exercise overall. This takes a very long time as each person complements every other person on what they saw during every phase of the operation from their perspective. It’s making me tired just thinking about it.

I need a cup of coffee.