Michael's Dispatches

Colors

A military watchdog gets it wrong on the debate over camouflage.
By Michael Yon

Some things are not as they seem. Many people, for instance, seem to think Stars & Stripes is a military lapdog, but this is untrue. If Washington had a yearbook, Stars & Stripes might be voted “most apt to slam the military.” Stars & Stripes is a watchdog.

Drew Brown is a Stars & Stripes writer with much battlefield experience. Drew’s stories on Iraq have always rung true, as have his stories on Afghanistan. However, his recent story from Afghanistan about Stryker camouflage left room for respectful disagreement, or perhaps a “context adjustment.” One might suspect that the editorial process changed the tone.

The story begins:

Army to phase in tan-colored Stryker vehicles
By Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Monday, October 26 2009

ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan — More than six years after sending the first Stryker armored vehicles into desert combat, the Army has decided that it’s probably a good idea to start painting them tan so they will blend in with the environments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The tone here is off, depicting the situation without the context or dimension that it deserves.

Long-time readers are aware that I do not hesitate to bite the Army when the watchdog hat is on. Given my frequency in combat with our folks, any lack of gear, or poor gear, is as bad for my health as for the troops’. Hence I have been yelling at Washington that we need more troops in Afghanistan, and more helicopters.

However, controversy should only grow in fertile ground. And having spent more time in combat with U.S. forces than any writer/journalist/photographer during the Iraq War — something likely to be duplicated in Afghanistan — my observation is that the U.S. military, on the whole, is incredibly well resourced. I have probably spent more time with Stryker units than any journalist living or dead, and the fact is that while it may now be the case that Strykers should be painted brown, there are good reasons this wasn’t done earlier.

The story is datelined to Zabul Province, Afghanistan, and true enough, the color out there should be desert brown. (Or perhaps, in some places at some times, white.) But elsewhere in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, civilians mostly live near water, so colors around their homes generally are green during the green months. In Afghanistan, the “Green Zone” (GZ) is the area around the rivers and lakes, and much or possibly most of the fighting occurs in these green areas. The enemy fights more when the GZ is green than during the winter brown.

Just as important, predicting camouflage needs for Strykers can be incredibly difficult. Stryker units tend to get moved around more than other combat units because Stryker units can project so much force quickly. Afghanistan’s geography doesn’t help: Down in the Helmand River valley where Brits, Danes, Yanks, and others are fighting, you can go from strict GZ to 100 percent desert-brown conditions in just a few seconds. The border between verdant and seemingly endless cardboard brown is usually only the width of an unpaved road — literally, a line in the sand and rocks. One side of the road can be dry as bone, while just meters away on the other side of the road, the mud tries to suck the boots off your feet. (The Brits have the opposite problem; they have very good desert-brown camouflage, but do most of their fighting in the GZ.)

Also, even if brown is a better overall camouflage for Afghanistan — though this is unclear even to many experienced soldiers and me — it is unfair to imply (by datelining the story to Zabul Province and referring to more than six years of Strykers in desert combat) that the Army has had Strykers there during the entire war. The first rotation of Strykers to Afghanistan arrived only some months ago; before that, they were in use only in Iraq.

In Iraq, Generals Casey and Petraeus wisely used Strykers as their “QRF” (Quick Reaction Force) during the severe fighting of 2006–2007. Stryker soldiers fought all over the place. They moved constantly. The brigade commander would have needed ESP and the vehicles chameleon skin to keep up with the changing environments.

Drew and I both covered Operation Arrowhead Ripper with Stryker units during the scorching summer of 2007. We spent far more time in the cities than in the desert. Some Stryker soldiers might have had different experiences, depending where they fought.

Also, Stars & Stripes’s insinuation that U.S. military leaders would leave our troops without appropriate materiel does not square with those leaders’ recent performances. I am confident that if commanders were screeching about getting those Strykers painted, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would get it done, and bets are on that the next rotation will be brown if that is what commanders want. General Petraeus, meanwhile, is the boss of CENTCOM, where all Strykers in combat are operating. In Iraq, it was common to see General Petraeus on the battlefields, and he rode in a Stryker on at least one occasion during Operation Arrowhead Ripper. I saw him there. And though I don’t know Gen. Stanley McChrystal, he has a solid reputation. He wasn’t shy about asking for more troops, so it’s hard to imagine he would hesitate about getting some buckets of paint.

Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger, an ex-Ranger like McChrystal, is the senior NCO at Army Materiel Command. AMC oversees all Army materiel ranging from bandages, night vision, and weapons to tanks and helicopters. CSM Mellinger has seen a lot of combat, and I have done countless missions with him in Iraq, including missions in Strykers. Never once during that time did I think that Strykers should be brown, and if CSM Mellinger thought they should have been brown, he would surely have told his successive bosses, Generals Casey and Petraeus. CSM Mellinger still regularly travels to Iraq and Afghanistan and would not hesitate to recommend a change if soldiers on the ground were asking for it.

CSM Mellinger knows more about Army gear than anybody I know, and he’s my number-one source for advice on what to wear during fighting. When I asked Mellinger about camouflage, he said that “what works today won’t work tomorrow,” and that “there is no perfect camouflage.”

The CSM for the Strykers now in Afghanistan is Robb Prosser. I’ve done probably 100 combat missions with Robb in Strykers in Iraq, and now he is the senior NCO for those Strykers in Afghanistan. Never once did I hear Robb say that Strykers needed to be brown.

The Strykers currently in Afghanistan probably should be painted brown, but it is not true that the military dragged through these years without noticing, or that Gates, Petraeus, McChrystal, Mellinger, and Prosser didn’t ask for something they needed. Stars & Stripes plays a valuable role as a military watchdog, but this time, they’re barking up the wrong tree.

 

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