Saturday, August 19, 2017

Review: Separated @ Birth / Twinsters

As the title implies, Separated @ Birth is about Korean twin sisters who were, well, separated at birth and grew up in different countries. Is also demonstrates the power of the Internet, as one (Anaïs Bordier) initiates contact with the other (Samantha Futerman) after watching her in a kevjumba YouTube video in 2012.

It’s an astounding story – Anaïs was adopted by an upper-middle class Parisian family and was an only child, while Samantha was adopted by a middle class Jewish family in New York as the youngest of three children. At the time, Anaïs was in fashion school in London, while Samantha worked in Los Angeles building an acting career in Hollywood.

The book follows a sort of she-said, the-other-said kind of format that builds up around several key events:
  1. Their first meeting (how’s that going to go?)
  2. Confirmation they’re actually twin sisters (is it true?)
  3. Meeting each other’s families (how are they going to take it?), and
  4. Traveling to Korea together for an adoptee conference
I think the most touching and poignant part of the book comes after the Korea trip, when Anaïs reevaluates some of the insecurities she’s dealt with all her life. It’s a recurring theme I’ve seen in the other adoptees I’ve known: “Who’s going to love me if my own mother didn’t love me enough to keep me?”

This moment is even better in the documentary film version of their story, Twinsters. Samantha was savvy enough to realize early on that she was in a very marketable position, and involved a circle of friends to help film the experience. While the book is upbeat and interesting, the movie is compellingly emotional. What you’re watching is not a recreation – you’re actually in the room as everything unfolds.

The only thing I didn't like about the movie was the stress it put Anaïs through. While I'm sure she consented to everything, she’s an introvert and her family is much more private, so she wasn’t quite as used to all the cameras filming all the time. It felt like I was intruding on an intensely personal experience, and didn't belong there.

My recommendation: read the book first (at least half-way) and then see the movie. It’ll help explain the whole “pop” thing.

Twinsters is available on Netflix’s streaming service.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Missile marksmanship

My grandfather left behind a box of military stuff. Some of it was pretty rare, like his Korean Service Medal (IAW AR 600-8-22 §5-9a) and Army of Occupation Medal-Germany with Berlin Airlift clasp (IAW AR 600-8-22 §5-11b). Others, like a spare Good Conduct Medal and some oak leaf clusters, you can buy anywhere.

And from his time with a missile unit in Pennsylvania, he had one of these -- a Marksman Badge with Missile component bar. Just like with "Flamethrower," you don't see too many people with the "Missile" component bar these days. For me, personally, I've never seen a single person with one on active duty, but that may only be because I don't work in that part of the Army.

Most people that I see with marksmanship badges have "Rifle" or "Pistol," or maybe even "Grenade," but I suppose it's theoretically possible to qualify with missiles even today -- AR 600-8-22 Table 8-2 still permits those qualified to wear this component bar.

I had to laugh, though, that he just a "Marksman," rather than "Sharpshooter" or "Expert." When you're at an M4/M16 range, that means you hit only 60-74% (23-29 out of 40) of your targets. Now, I don't know what the qualification process was for missiles, but I chuckle at the thought of him hitting only 28 targets out of 40 missiles fired.

I guess it's true: "Almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades -- not when qualifying with missiles.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Old money, lasting lessons

My grandfather collected several kinds of things: coins, hats, German beer steins, and -- believe it or not -- pens. This box was just one of two pen boxes that he left behind.

But it was his coin collection that I remember most from my childhood -- not his uncirculated coins, but the ones he'd gotten from the places he'd been. Some of them were from before the war; it was like looking back in time....

Now that I'm older, I have an even great appreciation for them -- coins from countries that no longer exist (South Vietnam), former colonies (Hong Kong with Queen Elizabeth on them), and ones who've since adopted the euro (Portugal, Italy, etc).

He even had some Series 641 (1965-1968) Military Payment Certificates left over from his time in Germany, and a few Weimar-era Reichsbanknotes -- the stuff people used to wallpaper their houses when hyperinflation destroyed the German economy. According to a 1924 Los Angeles Times story (via Wikipedia) banks "turned the marks over to junk dealers by the ton" to be recycled as paper. To this day, inflation is anathema in Germany because of stuff like this.

Yet the thing with most poignant lesson is this 1942 French coin. It doesn't say "Republique Française." It says "French State." And it doesn't promote such liberal notions as "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." Rather, it reads "Work, Family, Country."

The difference in mindset is striking -- in defeat, Vichy France had turned inward and distinctly more conservative. So the question arises -- even 150 years after the French Revolution, was Vichy France an "isolated, exceptional phenomenon or one rooted in often long-standing traditions of public life"? [Source]

It's a question I find myself asking about the United States today, as we undergo this period of conservatism following the developments of the past 8 years (our first black president, LGTQs serving openly in the military, and de-criminalization of marijuana use). Are these attitudes something isolated, or have they been there all along? I regret to say it, but it definitely seems like the latter.

In many ways, the similarities between 1942 Vichy France and the U.S. today are striking. Marshal Pétain led a traditionalist government with strong ties to the aristocracy and the church. President Trump has touted his business acumen, filled his cabinet with the very rich (business elites being the closest thing we have to an aristocracy) and -- despite being in his third marriage -- drew strong support from the social conservatives of the religious right.

Pétain drew on Gallic imagery (such as that double-edged axe, the labrys) to build legitimacy, emphasized a return to "the true France," and promised to regenerate a country suffering from la décadence of the Third Republic. President Trump has promised to "Make America Great Again," consistently contrasted his performance against President Obama's (even when it's no different), and touts mediocrity as success to build legitimacy.

Pétain also spoke directly to the French people frequently via national radio, calling them to turn inwards and withdraw from the world, which he always portrayed as a hostile and threatening place full of endless dangers for the French. [Source] Similarly, Trump frequently uses Twitter to reach directly to the public, and has withdrawn from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Fortunately, Vichy France didn't last long. By 1944, the country was liberated and the Fourth Republic would soon begin. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité retook its place on the nation's coinage, and the fear of Germany would be replaced by partnership in the European Community.

I'd like to think our present mindset, with all its incumbent fears, will also pass quickly.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

VItal, but not that vital, pt. 2

The Army's Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program has been suspended due to concerns about enlistees' loyalty. That's a shame -- it's been around for 8 years without incident and produced some outstanding soldiers, but conservatives' fears seem to Trump the program's merits. It has since been defunded for FY 2018.

For more details about the program and how it worked, International Student Voice Magazine has a great article (Source), but basically "MAVNI gave the opportunity to certain legal non-citizens who were fully licensed health care professionals or who spoke one of the 44 sought-after languages to join the U.S. Military. In return, they were naturalized as U.S. citizens. This program was developed because the Army had a difficult time recruiting qualified healthcare professionals and recruits who could speak certain languages."

So, let's say, you were a Chinese citizen here in the U.S. on a student visa -- not necessarily a permanent resident -- and you wanted to earn U.S. citizenship. Chinese is (or was) a critical needs language. The MAVNI program would have allowed you to join the U.S. Army, and with honorable service, contribute to the U.S. economy for the rest of your days. [Source]

But one problem the Army couldn't seem figure out was how to properly utilize all the MAVNI enlistees.

Take Saral Shrestha, for example -- the 2012 Soldier of the Year. He qualified for the program because he spoke Nepalese and Urdu, a language common in Afghanistan and used in Pakistan (India, too), and enlisted in 2009. How did the Army make use of his skills?

They made him a mechanic. As he explained, "During my deployment in 2009 I mostly worked as a mechanic, but I did get a chance to translate and help my command." It's nice that he got to translate a little bit, but why recruiters bring him in as a mechanic instead of a linguist? My guess is because that's what his recruiter's office needed to focus on that particular month.

So while the Army felt that he was of vital national interest because of his language skills, recruiters saw him as a way to meet their particular quotas. It's an agency problem.

The MAVNI program's not the only the only example I can think of where the Army drops the ball on utilizing soldiers' language skills. There's also Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus (FLPB). With this program, it doesn't matter if you're in a language coded billet or not, the Army will pay you for simply maintaining proficiency in a "critical needs" language.

I've written about the supposed merits of the FLPB before (Link), but there's another consideration I hadn't thought of before:

Does FLPB help assignment officers put the right people in the right jobs? Unfortunately, the answer this question -- like all the ones in that post -- is a great big No.

Assignment officers have a great many factors to take into account when assigning someone, but a soldier's language skills (apart from filling language coded billets) don't matter a single bit. When I was assigned to Korea, it had nothing to do with the fact I spoke Korean -- it had to do with the fact I was a logistics captain and they had a shortage. The Korean thing was mere icing on the cake.

As another example, consider someone I used to work with: a Haitian-American logistics platoon leader at Fort Hood. At the time, the U.S. was taking part in an earthquake relief effort in Haiti. She would have been an ideal officer to take part in that mission.

But was she ever called up? No. Why not? Because the Army isn't going to try assembling an ad hoc team of folks who've never worked together before for a particular mission -- it prefers to maintain unit integrity. And even if there's a particular need for a translator, the Army will scrub the files of enlisted people already in the unit rather than bring in some outside officer. It just doesn't work that way.

Sadly, the Army's talent management systems seem incapable of tracking and properly assigning language-talented soldiers to utilize their skills. The MAVNI program, like the FLPB, could have been wonderfully useful to the Army and the United States in general. It's a shame we couldn't get our act together to make it work.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

VItal, but not that vital, pt. 1

Ten Army Reservists are suing the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. They enlisted under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program because they possess valuable skills sets, but have not shipped out due to concerns about how the program is managed. [Source]

Concerns about the programs surfaced in an Inspector General report from late June, called "Evaluation of Military Services' Compliance with Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest Program Security Reviews and Monitoring Programs." The report is classified, which makes evaluating its problems difficult. [Source]

The program has been around since late in the Bush 43 administration, but according to Fox News, "concern over management of the program has grown over recent months." [Source] I read this to mean that concerns have only popped up since the beginning of the Trump administration.

The conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies opposes the MAVNI program, asserting that "It is unnecessary to meet recruiting goals, most aliens would not meet the educational or background standards of our modern fighting forces, and it introduces needless risk into the equation of national defense and security." [Source]

That may be the case, but that's not the newly enlisted reservists' fault. The program was started when there WAS a problem with recruitment, and from what I can tell, the issue is that candidates are enlisted, then expected to support themselves while their clearance is reviewed. It's only been recently that immigrants' applications have come under heightened scrutiny.

So while, yes, the program can be better designed, it seems excessive for Republican Congressman Steve Russell to say -- and for Fox to highlight in its article -- that "The program has been replete with problems, to include foreign infiltration." The Fox source acknowledges that the program has had many success stories, including the 2012 Soldier of the Year, Sgt. Saral Shrestha, who from Nepal. [Source]

Plus, Fox reported that "independent analyses have found MAVNI recruits out-perform non-MAVNI soldiers in critical areas," and admits that "as of yet there is no evidence in the public domain that ISIS, Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist groups have penetrated the MAVNI program." [Source] To the extent we've been infiltrated, we've been infiltrated with some stellar soldiers.

I hope the Department of Defense can find a way to improve and continue the program. As I read about Chinese students willing to join the U.S. Army (Source), I can't help but feel proud that my employer has the same kind of global mindset that I do.

After all, it'd be a loss to the nation's vital interests to shut the door on them, and lock them out.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

I wrote a book

When I took command of an Army company back in July 2014, there were two books that I relied on heavily for guidance: Company Command: The Bottom Line and Taking the Guidon. They were good books, but they were dated -- the former was from 1996 and the latter was from 2001. While the Army was migrating its inventory processes from the old PBUSE system to the new GCSS-Army system, these books were still talking about the legacy systems in place even before PBUSE.

In addition, the Army had moved on from its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies, which made some of their advice flat out illegal. Yet because of the Army's education system, they remained the best texts out there for comprehensive advice about company command. Surely, I thought, we can do better than this.

So after finishing up with the JLOTS exercise in the summer of 2015, I contacted the publisher and asked if they had anyone working on a revision. They said no, so I offered to do it myself. They accepted, and we signed a contract to develop "Mechanics of Company Command."

To start, I developed an outline based on my experience in the job. Because I was the commander of a logistics battalion headquarters (which was a difficult enough as a first command), in Korea (which experiences high turnover), with no XO for the final 12 months (which was a handicap), there were a lot of things I had to take care of myself. But by codifying what I'd learned, I had a framework for how the book would be organized.

Over the next year (and particularly while I was in the Philippines) I took it chapter by chapter, submitting each one as I completed it and making revisions as my editor/publisher recommended.

I finished the text of the book in late 2016, and went through a couple rounds of editing and layout adjustments. By January 2017, the first printing was finalized, and I received my first copies on February 2nd. Today, I finally saw it at Schofield Barracks' Military Clothing & Sales store.

It's also available online through Mentor Military publishing.

Being able to do this has been very meaningful for me. On paper, I didn't have a very successful command -- I received two center-of-mass evaluations without any enumerations despite finishing with no property loss investigations or Inspector-General complaints against me. By comparison, my predecessor lost accountability of about $72,000 worth or property, and yet still received a top block in his final evaluation.

Over the past year and a half, I've gone though periods of anger at how unfair the Army is. I'd catalog all the ways my job was harder than everyone else's -- that I had to move down to Daegu with only two weeks notice, that I wasn't even assigned to my company when I took command, that I was selected by one person but had to work for someone else whose priorities I often didn't understand, and that I didn't get a chance to do the company commander's training course until after I'd done the inventory.

But in the back of my mind, there was always the fear that I was just a barely mediocre captain who wasn't measuring up. And with my attempts to transfer to the Foreign Area Officer branch not working out, those fears seem to be confirmed.

So the book's been fulfilling on three counts:
  1. It allowed me to codify all the stuff I'd learned over the 19 months I was in command -- something I'd struggled to grasp at the beginning.
  2. It has allowed me (hopefully) to help others in their command time, so that they can have an easier time than I did.
  3. It's dispelled a lot of the insecurity that I've felt about my competency.
So the way I see it now, if the Army doesn't need a guy like me, that's cool -- it's just means there really are a lot of very high quality officers floating around out there who are more than capable at defending the nation.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Insert this end up

I didn't see what the big deal was, but thought, "OK, I'll play along."