Mail, Medals and Condolence Letters…

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Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Nathan Doza

An airman hustles packages at the U.S. military's postal facility in Balad, Iraq, in 2007. Mail --even in these days of Skype and cell phones -- is critical to keep troops' morale high in a war zone.

Army Major Kenneth Gettinger served as a planner with the 3rd Corps Support Command (COSCOM) at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, and Joint Base Balad, Iraq during 2003 and 2004, supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Such personnel are part of the tail in the military’s tooth-to-tail ratio – the guys and gals who keep everything running behind the scenes so the folks with the guns – the teeth – can do what they need to do.

People are surprised to learn that the tooth-to-tail ratio in the U.S. military has hovered around 10-to-90 for decades: it takes nine troops armed with tools, personnel charts, JAG manuals and bandages to support each actual combat soldier. Increasingly, contractors are hired to do many of those jobs: it lets more soldiers into the fight, and keeps the total troop deployment numbers down. Gettinger spoke of some of the tail challenges – mail, medals and condolence letters among them — in this recently-posted interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Highlights:

I was one of the planners in the 3rd COSCOM G1 [personnel] shop, so we had tried to think through a lot of the things that we would do and how we would do them. What you find is that the process and the plans that you go through, when you actually hit the ground, they may be a 50 percent solution of how things are going to happen.

Part of the reason is that no one really knew the size of the force that we were going to take in to Iraq. When you’re trying to do planning and you don’t know whether you’re supporting 4,000 people in your formation or whether you’re going to end up supporting 15,000 people in your formation, it has a big impact on how you plan to do things and to what level of assets you’ll need — personnel in your section, support requirements, equipment requirements, and things like that.

That was very problematic. I can tell you that in the 3rd COSCOM, and this will surprise a lot of people, we went from a 3,000 to 4,000-man garrison unit to close to 17,000 once we were task organized and we had units attached to us in a deployed environment…

We probably went from 3,000 to 4,000 to 17,000 in the first 120 days. It was very rapid…we essentially went from this very small COSCOM in garrison to an element of 17,000, which was actually bigger than some of the divisions that were over there. We were still mostly in our sections; for example, in the G1 shop I must have had eight or nine guys where I should have had 30 or 35 since I was basically supporting numbers of personnel that were bigger than a division, and I was only manned for a COSCOM G1 shop that was typically in support of about 3,000 or 4,000….

For us as HR [human resources] specialists, the first thing we do is establish the personnel accountability on the ground. We actually got on the ground and went to Camp Virginia, but when we were trying to brief the commander on what our strength reports were and what our numbers were so he could see what kind of combat power we had on the ground, we didn’t have a lot of AG [adjutant general] personnel there to actually roll the numbers up from the subordinate units.

That was problematic in trying to get good numbers to the boss. One of my recommendations was to get brigade S1s [personnel officers] and G1 personnel on those flights to be some of the first personnel on the ground so that whenever the commander is asking for combat power, which is one of the first things he needs to establish before he can start identifying tasks for subordinate units and see what his fighting strength is. If you can’t give him numbers, he can’t do a lot of planning. We didn’t have the personnel on the ground from the AG community in those first flights to even be able to roll up the numbers to give the boss…

Another big issue upfront was postal. The reason I say that is because I can remember the chief of staff the first few days asking me where the heck all the Soldiers’ mail was…It takes a lot of effort to move the mail, and you need transportation assets to do that, so it becomes very complex. I can tell you with postal, the commanders all wanted to know where postal was.

It’s typically not going to happen immediately or as soon as you step into an immature theater of operations. That was a problem that we had. Anytime you move to an immature theater of operations, systems are not in place…

Wartime awards came up really quickly. A lot of people didn’t have a good understanding of wartime awards. You have to understand that awards under peacetime criteria and conditions are different than awards under wartime criteria and conditions. That started with everything from people thinking that as soon as they got there they could put a combat patch on their uniform.

What you have to know is that everything has to be approved. You can’t just go into a theater of operations and say, “Hey, the combat patch is approved,” and start putting it on your uniform. Usually everything has to be done in writing and be approved, to include the awarding of Bronze Star medals, the awarding of Army Commendation (ARCOM) medals.

The best example I can give you is a brigade commander in garrison has the authority to be able to give out an ARCOM. They’re first thought when you get into a wartime environment is, “Well, I give out ARCOMs in garrison, so obviously I have the authority to give you an ARCOM medal in wartime.” However, that’s not the case. In wartime conditions, the authority for who can give out certain awards changes, and it has to be approved.

The way it’s approved is that the senior Army commander in the theater of operations has to actually submit to Human Resources Command (HRC) for the approval authority for wartime awards to be activated. Until that happens, no awards are to be given out under wartime conditions, and believe it or not, when that turns on and the wartime approval authorities are activated by HRC, something as simple as an ARCOM actually starts at the senior Army commander in theater level, a lieutenant general level of a separate command.

Now, it can get delegated all the way down to a colonel (O6) commander; however, that all has to be done in writing and it has to be delegated from those senior commanders down to those brigade level commanders. This all has to be done the first few weeks that you’re in a combat environment.

Most commanders did not understand, nor did a lot of HR personnel because we hadn’t been to war in years, that the peacetime awards system and the wartime awards system are different, and that everything has to be re-authorized, basically, to include the approval authorities and the types of awards that you can get. They have to be authorized before they could be given out…

You could in theory have a commander that gives a guy an ARCOM, and finds out a week later that he does not have the authority to give out an ARCOM, even though he’s already given one out to a Soldier. What would probably happen is that that one would have to be revoked and at some point re-issued to the Soldier with the correct order number that covers the period when he was actually eligible to give the award.

Those things affect the morale of Soldiers, so we always wanted to do things correctly upfront before we’d have to tell a Soldier, for example, that he didn’t really get his promotion or didn’t really get his award because of something that we did erroneously…

Honestly, it was months into the deployment and we still had no idea how long we were going to be there. I can remember being in the COSCOM and there was talk about getting things contracted and then we’d probably be home before Thanksgiving.

With us being Logistics support, the way we get out of a theater is by turning things over to contractors that can provide those services to the civilian population that we’re doing as the military. There were a lot of discussions about working to get things contracted and that maybe we’d be home by Thanksgiving and Christmas, with possibly nobody replacing us.

People just didn’t know. When we went into Iraq, people had no idea what the reception was going to be from the Iraqi people, and what the magnitude of the operation was going to be, or how long it was going to take to get to the point where we were able to leave Iraq. We had Reserve personnel with us that were planning on going home, and up until the last minute in OIF I they thought they were going to be going home early because they were handled a little bit differently than Active Duty guys. They were told probably maybe weeks before they were supposed to return, that no, they were going to stay.

We found out it was going to be a full year and that a COSCOM would come in to replace us. We all figured out eventually that this was not going to be a short-term thing where we were all going to go home in a few months like we all thought initially. It was going to be long-term, but no one had a clue how long-term it was going to be…

Once they started up the R&R program, that was an indicator too. There are requirements that you need to have; Soldiers have to be deployed or on orders for 365 days before you can start those types of programs up, so when you started seeing those programs pop up along with other indicators, like huge logistical bases being built up, and improvements being made to installations, we knew we were going to be there for the long haul…

Initially people are always going to be disappointed and are going to want to come home. A lot of probably told their families that they weren’t going to be there long, I would imagine, and that they would be home soon. I think initially there was probably a letdown and it was a little disappointing, but the Soldiers were motivated and the morale was outstanding the whole time I was there. Soldiers were second to none and once they got over that initial disappointment, they were ready and focused on the mission…

Probably the last thing that I have here that was problematic downrange was we had a lot of casualties in the COSCOM. I probably did about 150 WIA/KIA, and out of that 150 about 18 were KIA, the rest were all wounded, of the ones I was involved in processing casualty reports on.

We didn’t really do a good job of properly doing letters of sympathy and letters of condolence, and I think the reason we didn’t do a good job was because at the time of a casualty, a commander is very emotional, and he’s got a lot of things going on to include setting up the downrange ceremony and making sure the family is okay.

There are just a lot of things that weigh on a commander at the time of a casualty, and as HR personnelists, one of the things we’ve got to do is help the commander write that letter of sympathy or letter of condolence. Obviously, he wants to do the right thing and get that to the family as soon as possible, but sometimes he gets tied up with operations and emotions, and it may not be the top thing on his mind.

However, getting that thing done didn’t always happen quickly when I was in OIF I, and sometimes at the G1, I had to really pull from the subordinate units to get it done. Then when I did review it, they often weren’t written properly. For example, some commanders would talk about personal relationships, like Soldiers possibly having a crush on another Soldier in the unit, talking about religion and things that are forbidden by regulation, in a letter that’s going to the family.  All of these commanders meant well, but sometimes emotions can overrun the commanders.

We’ve got to get HR personnelists to help the commanders with these letters and try to take that emotion out, and write them according to the casualty program regulation on how they’re supposed to be put together, the things that you can and can’t talk about in those letters that go back to the families.

You don’t want to put anything in there that may be upsetting to the family. For example, if you’re talking about the religion of a Soldier, you don’t know the religion of the mother and father. They may not be happy that the Soldier is a certain religion that may not be the same as them. There are things that you want to be careful about putting in letters. Most of the letters that I reviewed needed to be adjusted before they were sent out to the families. Some of the things that commanders wrote by regulation should not have been put into those letters.

The HR personnel down at the subordinate units really didn’t do a good job of helping their commanders write those properly. You’ve got to remember too, when we talked earlier in the interview about military jargon, when you’re writing to a civilian you don’t want to put a lot of things in there that have military jargon that they have no understanding of what you’re talking about.

When you write the letters out, they’re more of a civilian style letter, with a civilian style date, with civilian style titles for the personnel in the unit you’re talking about and not military duty position titles. Those letters are very important to families, because it’s something that they’re going to hold onto for the rest of their lives, especially on the KIAs, so it’s very important that we get those right.

There was a lot of work that needed to be done there. My recommendation would be for any HR personnel to break out the casualty program regulation, and understand how to do those properly.

They always say that doing the casualty program is one of the most important things that HR guys do, because it’s the one thing that we can’t afford to get wrong. I did 150 of these downrange, and it was tough. You’ve got to get it right.