Michael's Dispatches



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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig Maefs · 12 years ago
    Strykers are what, 10' tall. You could paint them day-glow orange and it would not make a difference. THe enemy is not engaging from the air or frim 000 meters away, They are within RPG range and color of the vehicel will not make a differenct in detection at that range. Color of the vehicle is a tempest in a teapot argument. OD Green or Brown is not goin to make a signifant difference on vehicles beeing seen or engaged.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ms. Tamara Montgomer · 12 years ago
    Again, those who aren't in harms way critiquing how the government should outfit it's soldiers without the input of those commanders (or soldiers) who are actually in the battlefield. They then complain about how much it costs to outfit and the military.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt von H · 12 years ago
    Craig Maefs is right, Strykers stick out like a sore thumb no matter what color they are. Having them painted tan, or OD green, most likely makes zero difference. I am a HUGE fan of Michaels but any more I'm starting to wonder why A. This warrants a blog posting, B. Why Michael has to constantly remind us that he's covered more combat than any other journalist in Iraq and A-Stan. For a former Special Forces guy he seems to have been lacking modesty more and more over the past few months, starting with that British embed situation. Michael's done a lot, he shouldn't have to beat his chest. Just my opinion.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rob Ferguson · 12 years ago
    In the British Army we use a lot of cam nets on our vehicles. They are cheap and easy to change depending on the situation, you can also make up mixed brown and green nets as a kind of all purpose cam when going in and out of the green zone. The texture and change of shape that the nets give really does make the vehicles blend in surprisingly well.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Slee · 12 years ago
    I couldn't agree more about Star's and Stripes. Not sure if I would characterize them as watch dogs... at times just Dogs. More times than not I have found myself at odds with their depictions of what just happened. Next to you Michael I have probably done the second most mission in a Stryker. In fact I will be back in Iraq the following week with... you guessed it. Another Stryker Battalion. Personally I think they should be painted like NASCAR race cars. Give the boys something to do in the off time. Because it is an Urban combat vehicle and most of the time the color doesn't matter. The power of the Stryker is its speed and ability to deliver the Warrior at the critical point of battle faster than the enemy can react. Taking the initiative in any fight and destroying them at a time and choosing of the commander in charge.

    How do you like me now Drew? The battlefield commanders have more on their minds than picking out the drapes and accessories. Find something else to write about. This isn't a body armor story.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    xoxoxoBruce · 12 years ago
    "my observation is that the U.S. military, on the whole, is incredibly well resourced. "
    But evidently not with boots.
    That's ridiculous.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J. F. Sucher, MD htt · 12 years ago
    I can only say thank you. You back up your well written piece with actual facts. Bravo! I hope that your piece is read by more eyes than Stars and Stripes.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Weirich · 12 years ago
    Matt von H it's his blog. He can write whatever he wants to in it. Not all of his stories are going to be of interest to everybody, but it will to those that care. I am sure some Stryker team would have a fit if their vehicles were painted day-glo orange. The enemy doesn't always get within RPG range. Camoflauge does serve a purpose in the military, even on vehicles and aircraft!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 12 years ago
    That's a context-free photo. It doesn't tell us anything about why those boots are in that condition, or how normal that is. For all we know, they were replaced the second he got back from patrol. Or, maybe, they're that guy's 'lucky boots' that he refuses to replace! The point is, that photo in itself is meaningless.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mick · 12 years ago
    Agree Stars and Stripes is a rag not a watchdog. I glance at it in Iraq or Kuwait only because it is free. Most stories are from LA Times or AP (we think that means anti-American Press) and is surprisingly anti-military and will lead with any story that puts the military or the war in a bad light. Anyone wonder why stars and wipes has never published one of Michael Yon's dispatches? They ain't interested in anything positive about the ground-pouders or the Generals. Keep it up Michael
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Boat Guy · 12 years ago
    If someone think (or it's their "opinion") that Michael is "chest-beating" when he mentions the fact that he knows two of the most senior NCO's currently responsible for Strykers, it's hardly "lacking in modesty". In other words, Michael has access to two guys who a) know what they're talking about b) will talk to him about the relevant subject then it's merely responsible to cite sources. In a field where most "sources" are anonymous, it's refreshing to have people like CSM Mellinger and CSM Prosser go "on record". It ain't chest-beating; it's responsible journalism and bloody well hard to find these days except in these pages. I haven't seen it in Stars and Stripes (at least the European edition I used to read) since Bill Mauldin was their cartoonist.
    One has to wonder about the current tone about the Afghan theater found in most media and the "elites".
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James · 12 years ago

    I just read a fairly troubling article in the Washington Post about a former Marine and Iraq combat veteran who resigned from his State Department post in Afghanistan in protest of how the war effort is being conducted. The article is available at the following link:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR200910260 94.html

    There is a link within the article that leads to a PDF of Koh's resignation letter.

    I know that your researching energy sources for Afghanistan now, but would you consider a dispatch with your take on Koh's resignation and point of view? I am a tremendous fan of your work, both dispatches and books. Keep up the great reporting!


  • This commment is unpublished.
    casstx · 12 years ago
    jic, That's the norm for some areas of operation, the photo is not meaningless. We are the best funded, most highly trained military in the world, and I just saw $7000 disappear out of my account for replacement gear from my husband because not all members of the Army are getting what they need. That was part of McChrystal's point, and Congress just raided the defense fund for earmarked memorials and stuff. I'd rather have had it go to better quality ammo, replacement clothing, and food. The photo has meaning.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leonard · 12 years ago
    While we're on the subject ofocolor schemes, maybe we should be taking a different approach, say by projecting optical illuisons that make the vehicle appear farther or smaller than it actually is. I saw a t-shirt once that you couldn't look at for more than a few seconds because the optical illuison played havoc with your vision. The netting idea makes perfect sense also, since it can be changed readily and is simple to adapt. Ghillie suits are remarkably effective. But to be perfectly honest I don't see how any paint is going to make a difference under 100 yds. with someone shouldering an RPG at you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    I hate ACUs · 12 years ago
    So we're going to paint our 2-ton vehicles a color that actually blends in with the surroundings while the troops on the ground who actually need to hide from the enemy at times have to keep wearing the assinine ACU pattern? This makes total sense.
    How about we quit worrying about trying to hide the strykers and start worrying about a good camo pattern for our personnel!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    I hate ACUs · 12 years ago
    Or better yet, since the ACU pattern is so great, why dont we paint the strykers digital ACU colors?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim · 12 years ago
    Who give a fat rats what color. The Taliban seems to know where they are and when they're going to be there, troops and vehicles.
    Tempest in a teapot.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    E · 12 years ago
    Painting the vehicles tan is actually good for another reason than just camoflage, namely temperature. Other nations have done this and the temperature inside the vehicles dropped 10-20 degrees Celsius. White would be even better, but ISAF vehicles are no longer allowed to be white.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lewis in Orlando · 12 years ago
    Better yet, it's Michael Yon's blog so he can write about whatever he wants to write about. If Stars and Stripes writes a 1 page article about the color of Stryker's, then I'm pretty sure anybody else can voice their opinion about the color of Strykers too.

    Energy?? I'm big onto that. They should go wind turbines for sure.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 12 years ago
    I said that the photo *in itself* was meaningless, because it was without context. Thank you for giving us that context.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gismo Fly · 12 years ago
    World War Two lasted half as long as this one and produced 500% more innovation, invention and technical ability. What's gone wrong over 60 years? Why is the scientific community now so slow in offering solutions to problems which have solutions? Is it money? Is it stupidity? Is it plain bloody bone laziness?

    As far as Strykers go - why havn't we got paint that changes colour to suit the immediate environment? Don't give me 'Star Wars'! To produce 'chameleon paint' should be no more than a weekend home work project for a sixth form chemistry class. Ye Gods!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Belasarius · 12 years ago
    I would guess that soldier is real proud of those boots. You have to do a lot of walking to get boots to look like that. You know who has nice boots? Ans: New guys and people who live inside a safe area.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joanne · 12 years ago
    Now, I'm not a soldier. I'm an engineer who does video work and is an omnivore for learning new information.

    If you consider the mission of the Stryker the first message in this topic probably got it right. If Strykers sit and wait most of the time them a good job of camouflage might do some good. I'm not sure how you could camouflage it when you consider the enemy really KNOW the local terrain so a new Stryker sized bump would attract instant attention no matter its color. Then consider what my dim imagination considers as the Stryker's mission, move around and project power, protect occupants, and kill the emeny. "Move around" is the operative phrase. If it moves and perfectly matches the background in one place the human eye picks it out instantly. It's the way the eye is built.

    Basically there is no way to hide a 9'x9'x22' block of metal on flat land from people who know that land like they know their right hand. A Stryker's protection is not melding into the background. Its protection is its presence, its bulk, its armor, its shape, and its speed.

    It might actually be a good idea to paint it some power projection color rather than camouflage. "I'm here. It's time for the enemy to evacuate." I suspect something in between might be good. Then it would look "official".

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mad Dog · 12 years ago
    So now that we have them there, the problem is how do they survive IED's not how much they stick out. This is the kind of stuff the Mujihadeen used to do with the Sovs, pin them down with a mine on their APV's and then let all hell break loose. Are Strykers more vulnerable to IED's in Afghanistan than in Iraq due to the paucity of paved roads?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    DataMonkey · 12 years ago
    Reading these comments for the first time...I'm from UK and these are a soldier's perspective on soldier issues; just a few points to get them off my chest:

    1. Michael Yon. Widely respected, reports well and unambiguously from a soldier perspective. The fact that some in UK MOD don't like what he says speaks volumes about how much under the control of the censors the outflow of information has become. The UK public in general have no idea what's going on in Afghanistan...most probably don't know where it is..nor do they care. Michael has become noticeably a bit self-righteous since his embed was terminated, but what the heck, it's his blog.
    2. Boots. The UK soldiers' boots fall apart too....just like the ones in the photo. Mind you ours fall apart a long time before the soles wear out!
    . Innovation in wartime. Most scientists working for the MOD (and probably the same in the US) don't have a 'we're at war' mentality, so work gets done between 9am and 4. 0pm. There's no need to hurry.....it's a long time to retirement and the regular monthly paycheck doesn't get any bigger (or smaller) if we work harder or more productively. War? What war?
    4. Camouflage. The CSMs have got it about right and so has Michael in his assessment of how change is implemented at the top level in the US military. Unfortunately the UK military doesn't have a concept of CSMs and too much influence and decision-making is vested on those with no (real) combat experience. Hence the failure to provide a decent boot for the UK infantryman, and a decent load carriage system, and a wearable/fightable combat body armour solution.........
    5. Stryker v IEDs. Yes they'll get hit - everything will get hit, so prepare yourselves for the worst!

    Always happy to engage!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter Montbriand · 12 years ago
    Michael found the solution himself. Some enterprising folks are probably working on something of this sort right now. Too bad I know nothing about producing paint and how chameleons actually do their trick...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Phonics · 12 years ago
    another great post--remineded me of my studies of WWII.

    In the early years of WWII planes were camo'd up--starting in/around 1944 bombers and fighters were touched up with squadron colors on nose/tails but the skin was naked--bright silver--shinning in the sun. Rational--why add more weight to the plane in paint that could be used for gas, ammo and bombs. The enemy then could see you coming--why hide--engage.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ellie · 12 years ago
    So true and very sad....

    " . Innovation in wartime. Most scientists working for the MOD (and probably the same in the US) don't have a 'we're at war' mentality, so work gets done between 9am and 4. 0pm. There's no need to hurry.....it's a long time to retirement and the regular monthly paycheck doesn't get any bigger (or smaller) if we work harder or more productively. War? What war?"

    I agree, new arrogance is present, but hey, he is the one in the **** putting his life on the line. I quit giving money when he started doing visits to Thailand and such. Not where I want my money spent, or on Michael Yon post cards sent to my home asking for money. Marketing is not what I had in mind for my donation.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sean A. Fowler · 12 years ago
    Paint 'em up Road Warrior style... Or WWII style, nose art and shark teeth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Juanita R Williamson · 12 years ago
    I just wanted to say Thank - You Michael for all your reports, I have learned a lot from them. As for the one who said it appears your beating your chest - I don't think your boasting on yourself,..Infact when I first visited your magizine, I was glad to see your "stat's" so to speak. It showed me that you have creditability in what your speaking about.

    As for colors,..I agree, it wouldn't matter what color they are, however the netting seems to be the best bet so far. I think the most important thing is, having them in the best working condition as possiable and having enough of them to get the job done.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    neil w. mccabe · 12 years ago
    In the same issue of Stars and Stripes that carried the story about the death of Father H. Timothy Vakoc, a chaplain injured in Iraq, the paper ran a photo of two men dressed at Catholic priests in a race carrying an outhouse with a sign: "Holy Crap." It still bothers me five months later. Given the new tone of the paper, I cannot believe it was a coincidence.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jake · 12 years ago
    You know the Talibs just laugh at us when we chase our tail arguing about what color to paint our vehicles. They actually laugh at all the rest of the shit we carry in our battle load to and how we gripe about our boots and our body armor and the rest of it. If this war is to be won it will be because we have more guts than our enemy, not because of the color of our IFVs, the type of body armor or boots we have. 40 years ago the Viet-cong rarely defeated us tactically but they whupped us strategically with bare feet and a sock full of rice and a fishhead for chow. The Talibs don't have to WIN, they only need to TIE because a tie goes to the home team. Always has always will.

    Give me infantry squads lightly armed (read: highly mobile), highly motivated and taking the fight to the enemy. Instead we have a force which is primarily FOB'd up and arguing about whether we should lace our boots right over left or left over right. Get a f'n grip on the reality of warfare. To date the Taliban have shown more guts and determination than us and in war, short of nuclear annihilation guts is enough to win. Equipment is not our problem, what we have right now is 2 full generations better than what our enemy has arrayed against us. But they do have the only thing that matters in war and that is the INITIATIVE.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    cowboyfive · 12 years ago
    Those who say the color does not matter are mostly right, depending on the mission, the season and the enemy. The real giveaway is the sound of the vehicles and/or the presence of air cover loitering around your position if it is available. They are so loud that everyone knows you are coming or that you are there. For short term defensive work, having a well camoflauged vehicle leager to operate out of is helpful, while you are on the go, not so much. The ideal vehicles for much of the fighting are big fourwheelers with weapons mounts or even motorcycles in come cases. The casualty figures in A-stan are 'chunky' that is to say they tend to come in groups of or 4 or 5, the number of people that tend to ride around in our ridicoulous MRAPS. The MRAPS make great targets in that they are enormous, lack manuverability, reduce situational awareness, isolate the soldiers from the populace and cannot go 99% of the places you need to go to properly fight a counterinsurgency. They are little mobile FOBs that give the impression of getting soldiers off the bases when in fact, they allow the soldiers to bring the bases with them. The enemy just builds bigger bombs to destroy them and it takes an army of recovery assets to go pick up the pieces when the MRAPs break down. We need to stop playing the enemy's game and fight where they are not. Get out of the MRAPs. 4 Wheelers make much smaller targets, much less noise, are less likely to trigger the heavy duty crush plates buried underground and less likely to get groups of soldiers killed than MRAPs. They give the ground commander the manuverability of light infantry with the speed and equipment carrying ability of being mounted. This is where we shoul dbe headed. not into mobile IED magnets like the MRAP.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Quentin · 3 years ago
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