Having spent a couple of weeks now embedded in the 82nd Airborne Division -- where I have been granted everything from sensitive information in classified battlefield briefings to valuable insider tips on how to find a clean privy -- I can testify that airborne generals and colonels are not stand-offish, conference-center commanders.
Maj. Gen. Chuck Swannack informs me he'll be the first one out of an airplane if the brigade does a parachute assault. Lt. Col. Christopher Gehler, who commands the division's attack helicopter battalion, will himself be flying regular combat sorties into potential antiaircraft fire.
The infantry commander, Col. Arnold Bray, will likewise jump into the thick of battle if it comes to parachute assault, and he's in a particularly aggressive frame of mind these days. The brigade battle briefings he runs are hard as ice, and each ends with all of the roughly 50 officers present jumping to their feet, then flinging themselves to the tent floor, where they fly through 82 wide-spread push-ups and 82 four-rep leg flutters. (As you might expect, 82 is a favorite number in this division.)
I've run into Bray repeatedly during my days in Camp Champion, and the interactions are always interesting. Once, I walked into the shower trailer near midnight and who was there washing his socks in a bucket but the commander himself.
I smiled inside, thinking of the criticisms of military "authoritarianism" I've often heard from the lips of professors and TV news anchors. Funny, I don't remember any professor or media celebrity ever wash-boarding his underwear among his students or studio assistants.
Privates and corporals have told me of being grabbed around the neck by Gen. Tommy Franks or some other high commander inquiring how they're doing. And the openness of our military leadership goes much deeper than this. I've observed remarkably brisk give-and-take among infantry troopers and officers during combat training.
In one daily battlefield briefing bringing together the brigade leadership, a sharp debate opened up between the chief medical officer and the head chaplain over what risks should reasonably be taken to retrieve the bodies of dead soldiers. There was no sign of sycophancy or intimidated silence in this war council.
Rank is respected in today's U.S. military, but competing ideas are free to contend. In both the physical and intellectual realms, arm-wrestling might be thought of as our armed service model. May the best concept, and biggest bicep, win.
As Col. Bray twists laundry in his soapy bucket, and I shower and shave, we shoot the breeze about our kids, movies, college and the like. After brushing our teeth, we step out into the light of a full moon. As we stride along, the colonel frets about the security of secret information and explains to me why he would launch a "very personal, very harsh vendetta" against any journalist who releases advance intelligence that could endanger the lives of his men. The ghostly forms of two paratroopers approach us on the road. Suddenly the colonel stops them.
"What are your names?" Replies dart back. "Where are you from?" More replies. Outlines of individual lives begin to form. These are two human beings unlike any two others; somebody's son, someone's friend.
Then Bray turns to me. "They are why I take this so seriously. Men, carry on."
I am struck again by Bray's sheer volume: huge hands and a racing tongue and mind. I feel as much refreshed by his raw bluntness as by my shower.
Those who claim that "embeds" have fallen under the mystique of the military may dismiss my view, but this man I see before me is very much a leader rather than a ruler. A vigorous defender of decency and fairness. And an unapologetic killer of tyrannical men.