Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches

Mysterious Places

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02 May 2009

A quick email Borneo Island:

Jungles are mysterious places.  There was a small, round stone on the ground.  The coarse grey orb was larger than a marble but smaller than a golf ball.  Two strips of tape were fastened around it.  One strip was fastened around the stone’s “equator,” and the other was fastened “pole to pole.”  A small tail of monofilament line was taped to the stone.  Five yards away was a skinny tree, maybe thirty or forty feet tall.  A strong cord was looped over the top branch, and the two ends of the cord were tied to some wood down by my feet.  Up in the branch where the cord looped over hung a small sack which looked like a tea bag.  “What in the world is that?”  I asked.

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May Day

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01 May 2009

Borneo Island

Day thirteen of tracking was a live fire exercise with assault rifles.  All seventeen students have repeatedly demonstrated that they can track other men through miles of varying sorts of terrain, including heavy jungle, and a nearby town.  During the last several days, no group of students have lost the quarry.  Sometimes the students track sign for hundreds of meters, or even a couple of miles, before seeing an obvious footprint.  In a mere dozen days, tracking skills have increased dramatically.

And so today, a new branch of tracking knowledge was being grafted onto the trunk of combat skills the soldiers already possess.  Most of the students have been in firefights and other dramas – all are highly trained – which is helping the grafting process to go easily.

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Saving Lives and Winning Battles

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Excellent American soldiers visit the folks who keep the Strykers coming.  And look at that!  Captain Brad Krauss and Devon Hoch on the ends.  I knew them from the fighting in Iraq and can verify that they saw a lot of combat, and their lives were saved by their Stryker on numerous occasions, such as the time that Brad Krauss got blown out of the vehicle.  That’s why I called him “Superman.”

And a thank you from this writer to the civilians who keep those Strykers coming.  Strykers are incredible vehicles, and the civilian maintenance crews that I’ve seen in Qatar and Iraq have been outstanding and highly dedicated.

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The Swamp of Death

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30 April 2009

Borneo Island

Day twelve on the tracking course was a smoker.  My fingers are tired from the jungle and so this email will be short.

It all started with classes this morning, then we headed into the jungle for a bit of tracking fun.  The school is enjoyable because the instructors are enthusiastic and equally competent. All the students see it's value as it applies to their previous combat experience.  I believe that only two of the fifteen British students are not combat veterans.

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A Beautiful Track

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29 April 2009

A quick email from Borneo:

The fact that the United States Army has not created a large tracker-training program is a stunning failure in our combat preparations.  There is no doubt in my mind that some of the Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would be here today if all of our soldiers conducted even ten days of serious tracking training.  Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that more enemy would have been hunted down.

Day eleven of training was more interesting than day ten.  The morning started with classes on urban tracking.  Some of the students, including me, were skeptical that we could track someone who was walking down roads, sidewalks, parking lots and so on.  Urban tracking sounds like dog-work, and there are four tracking dogs here.  Megan is a ten year-old black lab who has gone out with us on numerous occasions, including early this evening for night tracking.  The classes with Megan are designed to familiarize us with dog capabilities and limitations.  She tracks like a rocket.  Her handler, Sgt Matt Ball, was bragging about her one day, saying she got a medal for catching a murderer.  Even Megan is a veteran.  But we are learning to visually track and so it wouldn’t do anyone any good to put Megan on point for us.

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Veterans vs. Veterans

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28 April 2009

A quick email from Borneo Island:

Day nine of the tracking course was the most interesting so far.  We started with classroom work then headed to the field.  We spent all day in an area that closely resembles many parts of Afghanistan.  It was plenty hot, too.

Unfortunately, I cannot write much detail about today’s course due to the sensitivity of the subject.  The little bit that can be said is that we were training to address the IED threat.

In broad strokes, today’s training involved a team who put out a “mechanical ambush” very similar to those we see in the war.  I went out with a team of four British soldiers who set up the ambush.  All are Afghanistan veterans.  The only difference between today’s ambush and what I have seen in the war is that the British are far more proficient than the enemy, and so the ambush was much better constructed than most of the real ones I have been through.  For instance, the British soldiers used better deceptions than the enemy normally uses, and so in that regard today’s course was actually, I believe, more difficult than what the soldiers will face when they return to the battlefield.  Otherwise, everything was dead on.

The ambush was set and a tracking team moved in to try to detect it.  And so, I saw the ambush being put in, and then tagged along with the soldiers who were trying to detect it without getting flattened in the process.

Read more: Veterans vs. Veterans

Scientists Must Get to the Front

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27 April 2009

Now is a moment when we need the scientists on the frontlines:

  • WHO has declared Public Health Event of International Concern; EU has encouraged Europeans to avoid travel to Mexico or US.
  • Canada has confirmed 6 (not 20) cases, is evaluating other patients.
  • No new US cases; 1 has been admitted due to other medical conditions.
  • Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have announced they will be screening passengers arriving from US and Mexico.
  • 3/4 cases in France now cleared; 1 confirmed case in Spain and others being eval'd; 2 suspected cases in Scotland; 1 in Israel; numbers in New Zealand unclear; Mexican case numbers continue to vary depending on source.
  • Google has app plotting reported cases.

Quick email from Borneo Island II:

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27 April 2009

We just finished day eight of tracking school.  Part of the day was spent in the hot jungle, but there is also scattered terrain here that resembles Afghanistan.  Needless to say, the British Army probably has found every speck that resembles Afghanistan because it’s good for training.  So we spend a good amount of time on sand and rock.

The students’ ability to track has improved dramatically in just eight days.  Of the seventeen remaining students (four Dutch were jerked out by their government), none are struggling.  This supports claims by the instructors that just about anyone with good eyesight can learn to track.

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Quick email from Borneo Island:

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26 April 2009

We just finished day seven of a twenty-one day tracking course.  The instruction started with a little classroom work on surveillance and deception tracking. All of the instructors and nearly all of the seventeen students are combat veterans.  This is helping the instruction go very well.  The students who are combat veterans are especially keen on becoming trackers; for them it’s a no-brainer that every infantry soldier should have a level of tracking proficiency.  An instructor pointed out this morning that all those UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are nice, but how often do you really get those?  Not to mention that even the best UAVs can’t see most tracks/sign.  Since nearly everyone here has fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, everybody knows that the reality of UAVs is that, although they are incredible assets, UAVs have severe limitations.  And usually they are not around.  High-tech is not a replacement for basic soldiering skills, especially when the high-tech isn’t around much of the time.

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Tracking Update

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25 April 2009
Brunei, Borneo Island

This quick email from Borneo is an update about the combat tracking course conducted by the British military.

Tracking is a lost art in the British and U.S. militaries.  Even among the most highly trained forces, you’ll seldom come across anyone who can honestly track a man or interpret signs.  Many times in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve seen combat forces come up on signs of the enemy – and our folks do set to work analyzing ever smidgen they can find – but only in a single case did I see soldiers who started tracking on a very subtle trail that was less than obvious.  Not surprisingly, those soldiers were “good old boys” from the 278th Tennessee National Guard.  Where those soldiers learned tracking I do not know.  Presumably they got it from growing up in the boondocks, and they probably got it from their granddaddies.  We didn’t get any enemies that day, but the 278th soldiers definitely were able get on what I thought was the right trail, and they tracked quite a distance (after a bomb exploded).  They weren’t playing around.  More recently, I was with some American soldiers in Afghanistan and there was a very minor shootout wherein nobody got hurt.  At least two Taliban were seen going over a hill after the bullets were swapped.  Our boys closed the gap as fast as they could and tried to get them, but we never picked up their trail and the enemy escaped.  I believe that the British and Gurkha trackers I am seeing in this school in Borneo might well have picked up that trail, and nailed the Taliban that day.

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On Track

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Borneo Island

25 April 2009

The plan was to be back in Afghanistan by now.  Yet there are issues beyond my control that have kept me in a holding pattern.  And so I came down to Borneo to keep reading up on Afghanistan while practicing photography.

Borneo, which straddles the equator, is home to incredible amounts of wildlife.  I greatly enjoy bird photography which – believe it or not – I find is technically far more difficult than combat photography.  Like writing, photography is not a skill that can be put in the closet and pulled out when needed.  You’ve got to practice.  This is especially true for combat because the photographer must think fast while bullets are snapping around, and so the camera work needs to be instinctive.  Writing about combat is actually very easy.  On the subject of writing, this message is just a quick email that I’ve sent to my webmaster to publish for you.  The only editing it will get is a spell check, so I ask forgiveness.

Read more: On Track

Torture is Wrong

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24 April 2009

From Borneo

The British Army runs various jungle training courses in the friendly country of Brunei, on Borneo Island.  I am with a British Army Gurkha battalion and am going through 21 days of combat tracking training at one of the best tracking schools in the world.  Most of the students and all of the instructors are combat veterans.  Very good group to be with. There are Dutch, British and Gurkha students.  This course is about combat, so it’s doggone clear that the Dutch are serious about fighting in Afghanistan.  Nobody would need this course unless they were planning on tracking down bad guys.  (Part of the training deals with preparation for Afghanistan.)  Obviously the Brits/Gurkhas are serious about Afghanistan, so no more needs to be said on that.

We are very busy with the tracking training, so I've got just short periods at a time to write.  It's refreshingly hot and humid in Borneo.  Sweat is the scent of the day.  Last couple of days was all jungle time and had one good overnight in the jungle so far.  The jungle is very nice here, not like some jungles I’ve seen.  Only a few mosquitoes, for instance, but some other jungles are like mosquito farms.

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Rifle and Pistol Club

13 Comments 19 April 2009

Brunei, Borneo Island

Monday morning I plan to visit some natives in a jungle in Borneo.  They still hunt using blowguns and poison darts, I’m told.  And their ancestors were headhunters.   The Iban are said to be very friendly these days, but make no mistake: Borneo is wild country.

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Achilles' Heels

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15 April 2009
From Kuala Lumpur

Violence has dramatically declined in Bangkok.  Touch wood that tensions continue to abate.  Only time will reveal.

The effort in AfPak has more than one Achilles' Heel.  Pakistan supply routes are definitely a weakness.  Please see this story in CSM:
 

NATO, US seek alternatives to Pakistan supply routes
By Anand Gopal / Correspondent
04.12.09

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Militants attacked a supply depot Sunday in Pakistan that serves Western forces in Afghanistan, increasing the pressure for US and NATO officials to find alternatives to their beleaguered supply lines.

In a predawn raid in the northwestern city of Peshawar, scores of Pakistani Taliban guerrillas torched trucks stationed at the supply terminal. The assault is the latest in a series that have targeted the Western supply convoys that run through Pakistan to replenish forces fighting in Afghanistan.


Perfect Valor

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14 April 2009

On May 16, 2009, Citizens United Productions will premiere “Perfect Valor” at the GI Film Festival in Washington DC.

Peabody Award winning Producer, David C. Taylor and noted contemporary author and military historian, Richard S. Lowry, (Marines in the Garden of Eden) have worked tirelessly with the talented production staff to create a compelling tribute to all the men and women who served in Iraq.

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Thailand Cracking?

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Posted from Malaysia
13 April 2009

[This dispatch is in the "RUBS" format.  (Rough, Unedited and Barely Spell checked.)  I can convey much more information and more timely by occasionally bursting out via stream of consciousness.]

Back in October 2008, I emailed Dana Lewis, an interesting journalist who was traveling between Afghanistan, Dubai and Moscow:

"This is odd in Thailand.  Nobody is saying much about it, but there is a vague chance, I think, they could go to war.  Emotions running very high.  On the surface, if you were a traveler, all would look fine.  But I know a lot of Thai people and for years they never brought up politics.  I was out with some bankers on Saturday, and the politics came up.  I was out with a very high ranking policeman yesterday, and politics was coming up even though I was with his family.  Would be sad to see this place start to falter."

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War Council

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10 April 2009

General Raymond Odierno undoubtedly has greater understanding of the current state of the Iraq war than anyone in uniform or out.  I am one citizen who will wholeheartedly support President Obama on Iraq so long as he acts on the expert council of General Odierno.  We can fumble Iraq.  Listening to Odierno is absolutely crucial to avert that disaster.

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Mis-link

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10 April 2009

A reader correctly pointed out that I mis-linked a story.  In fact, we seem to have swapped links during the editing process.  Going into our 5th year, this appears to be the first time this has happened, and we greatly appreciate that a reader pointed out the error in the dispatch titled: Classic

There were no actual misquotes or misrepresentations, just an address incorrectly hyperlinked to a related story.  Still, that is too much, and the reader feedback is greatly appreciated.

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Thailand Unrest

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Spot Report

10 April 2009
(1615 Thailand time)

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

The growing unrest in Thailand is difficult to decipher.  When I attended peace rallies (that turned violent) in the United States, I never had the feeling that the United States was about to erupt in violence.  Underlying stability was obvious.  Here in Thailand, there also seems to be widespread basic stability, but this is more difficult to estimate.

I do know that national bank offices were practicing yesterday for possible emergencies today.  They were preparing for emergencies such as arson, robbery/looting.  Yesterday, Thursday, the banks were still deciding whether to open today.  Today the banks are open and I walked into a branch just a short distance from protesters in Chiang Mai.  There were many customers and all seemed normal.

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More Photos for You

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09 April 2009

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

This morning some monks performed a ritual under a tree near my door.  I did not want to intrude upon their tranquility with a camera, so I modestly enjoyed the moment, knowing that in just a few days I would walk into another, very different land.

In Laos, a few days ago, I awoke before sunrise to photograph monks collecting morning alms in Luang Prabang.  Perhaps a hundred monks from the local temples collected alms from the people.  After the transaction the monks and the people dispersed into the cool morning.  In the great book of days, people were busy writing the pages of their lives.

Read more: More Photos for You

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