Crash & Bang

Crashing, banging, feeling queasy & nearly fainting. These are some of my impressions of the crash-bang course I completed yesterday. I hope I never need to most of what I learned, and I am happy to report that I have never needed any of the more dramatic lessons yet. Much of the less dramatic lessons are good sense. Stay away from bad situations. Don’t make yourself predictable to crooks or nefarious types. Be aware of your surroundings. Common sense too often not commonly applied.

Security is central to all our success, but I do worry that we make a fetish of security to the detriment of other parts of our important work. Diplomacy means getting out, meeting and talking to people. Most of these people will be good or at least okay, but some will be questionable or even nefarious. Most of the places we go will be benign and even pleasant, but some will be unsafe. Even with the most circumspect and careful diplomats will run risks if they are doing their jobs right, and even if we do all the security right, some of us will be hurt and some of us die.

My colleagues and I, we look preposterous in our body armor and oversized helmets. We are awkward when we wear the gear and clumsy putting it on. We don’t do well crawling under the simulated smoke and some of us feel light-headed even looking at pictures of horrendous wounds. I know that I quietly closed my eyes when they showed bloody stumps or sharp objects protruding from parts of the body they do not belong.

But I am proud of my colleagues and proud to be among them. After they learn all the risks, they are still eager to go out and do diplomacy, meet those good people are risk meeting the bad. Some are going to the high-risk posts like Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan or Yemen, but there is always some risk. Nobody expected the embassy bombings in Kenya or Tanzania. As long as I am on this topic, let me emphasis the contribution of our Foreign Service National staff. They are also State Department employees of contractors. They work in their own countries for us. They are often truly on the front lines and when our facilities are attacked they are often the ones injured or killed.

And the kids are okay. Most of the people in the classes are younger than I am (it is hard to be both older than me and still in the FS), and many are new officers. I don’t like it when they are called snowflakes. Old people always think young people are not as good as they were. They are wrong. Every generation has its heroes and this one is responding to its challenges too.

Well, that is my editorial comments. Now for a little of the personal impression. I won’t go into detail, as we are not supposed to.

The part that sounds the most exciting, but I do not much like is the driving. It is okay when I am driving, but I get motion sickness when I am a passenger with all the weaving, fast accelerations and abrupt stops. It was fun to ram other cars. When I did it before, it hurt more because I did it wrong. You have to accelerate just as you hit the other vehicle. That way inertia is on your side. You are being pulled back by the acceleration and so when you hit and are thrown forward it is just kind of equalized.

The emergency medicine was scary. We are not trained treat most wounds, but just preserve life until competent people come along. The key to this is the tourniquet. Most of what I learned about tourniquets is wrong and much has been changed in the last few years. The misinformation came from good sources based on experience in World War I. The thought was that cutting off the blood supply caused gangrene. Doctors observed that many of the wounded with tourniquets developed gangrene. Their problem was with the sample. The ones they saw had lived. The ones w/o the tourniquets were dead. The gangrene came from infections. It is true that a tourniquet can cause damage by starving the tissues of blood and oxygen. But it is not like the blood is likely to get where it is needed anyway. The reason you need the tourniquet is because the blood in coming out through a wound. It is not going to nourish the tissues if it spills out onto the ground.

We learned that the ugliest and most gaping wounds are not always the most important and that internal bleeding can be at bigger threat than the blood we can see. They showed a picture of a guy who died from his heart being impacted by a fast stop and his seatbelt. He seemed okay but died the next day from internal injuries. The lecturer said that old guys like me didn’t have to worry about such things. That begged the question, and somebody asked why. The answer was the old guys are too fragile. We don’t die the next day, because the initial impact kills us.

Now for the bang part. The impact of the shock wave, even from a small explosion, is impressive. I could easily tell the difference between the Glock, AK, M-4 and shotgun when I heard them right after each other, but I don’t think I could do it just hearing one of them in isolation. It is also very hard to tell the direction.

One thing that is clear – and I think something they want to as a take-away – is that it is a lot easier to imagine what to do than do it. Under time pressure and stress, the world is a lot different. It was hard even when we knew the threat was not real and the stress was artificial. Consider if you had a real physical wound. I have never been under angry fire. In Iraq I heard distant bangs a few times and once observed “celebratory fire,” a crowd shooting into the air, which can be dangerous since what goes up must come down. But I was often nervous walking on the streets, even with armed and trained Marines all around me, or riding in the armored vehicles. I know it affected my judgement. They want you to think about the danger before the danger is manifest, since it is too late after.
I took a variation of this course way back in 2007 when I was on my way to be a PRT leader in Iraq. This is what I wrote about it back then. I wrote the above before rereading the below. Some things are different; a lot is the same.

September 23, 2007
A Car Sick & Melancholy Resident of the Twilight Zone
September 20, 2007
Today was the kind of day I will look back on with some fondness, but it was not a good day. I can liken this experience to going to the amusement park and getting to ride the roller coaster – ALL DAY. I am in W. Virginia for evasive driving training. It was good at first. We did some driving on slick surfaces. It was fun to skid around and not too hard for me. Next was also fun, driving around the racetrack dodging orange plastic cones. I did that well too. But then one of my car mates got sick and threw up out the window. I figured that if he was sick, there might be a reason. After that I felt sick myself for the rest of the day.
Of the 28 people in my class, about half of us got sick. It was very jarring. We had to avoid objects and break rapidly. It did not like the smell of exhaust and burning rubber. Hardest for me was driving backwards. I have never been good at backing up and doing it at high speeds is scary for me. Suffice to say, I drove over a few cones. We also had to crash into other cars and ram them out of the way. This was interesting. It is not something you get to do very often w/o pushing up your insurance rates. Tomorrow the bad guys will attack us and we will have to respond by evading driving out of danger. Like so many things relating to Iraq, it will be good to HAVE done, but not good to be gonna do. I think this will become my catch phrase.
September 21/22
It was more fun today. I did not get sick. We had to evade and escape. I did that okay. I enjoy it a lot more when I am not sick, but I am really glad it is over.
At the end of the day, the instructor blew some things up, including an old car, to show us how the different explosions look, sound and smell. That was cool. It is interesting how you can feel the shock waves. Once again my joy in seeing such strange things was mitigated by the knowledge that such things may no longer be so strange in my future life.
Going to these courses makes you a little paranoid. Security guys take some pride in their ability to stimulate unease. They kind of look down on us ordinary guys who do not find the world so immediately threatening. I understand that the situation in Iraq is dangerous and I admit that there are times for vigilance even in America. But I am glad that most Americans can live most of their lives in a state of general unpreparedness. Isn’t this what we want from security? It is a great advantage to be able to walk down the streets of home lost in our own mundane thoughts. I hope that we can help the Iraqis get that back soon and we have to make sure Americans do not lose it – the right to be distracted, the right not to pay attention, or maybe just freedom from fear.
I also called to confirm my milair flight from Amman to Baghdad. They are efficient there. I am on. They said they will inform me of the “show time” when the time gets closer.
I am in that funny twilight zone right now between my former and future lives. I still have to do a few things for IIP/S and I still am the director. People are asking me for decisions and I still have authority. But there is not much left. I will be in Iraq by the end of next weekend.
Now I am going through all the “lasts” at least for a long time. Mariza came down for her last visit before I leave. I went to Arthur Treacher with CJ for the last time this morning. Tomorrow I plan to run for the last time along the upper bike trail. On Monday, I will ride for the last time to work on my bike. Unfortunately, I will not have the time to go down to my forest. I think it will be a lot bigger when I get back. Those trees grow really fast. It is a melancholy time. The feeling has nothing to do with Iraq. This is always the case before a PCS move. I think of all the things I have become accustomed to doing that I will not do for a long time to come, maybe for years, maybe forever. Iraq will be quite an experience no matter what. It will be good to have done it.