Friday 29 October 2010
It’s been an interesting week. I have spent it demobilizing at the CRC (CONUS Replacement Center) at Fort Benning, Georgia. Inasmuch as CONUS is an acronym for “Continental United States”, CRC has the dubious distinction of being an acronym within an acronym. I wonder how many more of those there are in the language?
Fort Benning is a large Army base in central Georgia, known as the “Home of the Infantry”. Among other things it houses the Infantry School, Airborne School, Officer Candidate School, Infantry AIT (Advanced Individual Training), Third Infantry Division, U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, U.S. Army Sniper School, and the School of the Americas (or whatever they call it now). The CRC is kind of a mini post-within-a-post at Fort Benning. It’s a fenced-in area out in the boonies that basically consists of barracks, a DFAC, an MWR building, a gym, a PX, and some administrative buildings. It’s a self-contained life support and command-and-control area for individuals and units deploying to and redeploying from the theater. Its presence here is what makes Fort Benning a so-called “Force Projection Platform” from which the army can launch expeditionary forces overseas.
When I mobilized and deployed in 2006, I didn’t come through the CRC like many other people. I mobilized through the 641st MTC, which was located on main post. We only came out to the CRC for some classes a couple of times. My impression then was that the 641st was for individuals and small groups, and the CRC was for larger groups of people. It seemed cumbersome and crowded, and I was glad to be at the 641st instead. They were nimble and flexible, and got us through the process of mobilization pretty quickly.
When the time came to demobilize, I found out that the 641st was no longer in operation, having been disbanded. Their mission was folded into the CRC, which now handles everybody. Based on my earlier impressions, I was not looking forward to the process at the CRC.
I flew into Atlanta on Saturday, and got here on the shuttle from Fort Benning about 1730. Groome Transportation had a shuttle from the airport to downtown Columbus, and then from Columbus directly to the CRC for about $35 or so. I signed in with the Staff Duty NCO, got assigned a room, drew linen, and asked what came next after I got settled in. The staff duty told me there was a formation at 0530 on Monday morning. Monday?? What about Sunday? Sorry, nothing going on on Sunday – Sunday is only for “Freedom Flights” coming in from theater. I was what they call a “walk-in”, and so no services for me on Sunday. Lesson one: Don’t bother to get here on Saturday unless you want to waste a day.
I went to my room, got settled in, and then went to the DFAC for dinner. After dinner I explored around a bit, then went to bed. Since it was six hours later for me, jet lag was catching up.
On Sunday I walked around and took a few pictures of the place:
This is the pavilion where we were to have our formation on Monday morning to get started.
This is the little PX at the CRC. It is surprisingly well-stocked, as these little PX’s usually are. I like the signpost out front, telling how far it is to various hotspots around the world.
This is the main street of barracks buildings as seen from the PX. There is another row of barracks (out of sight in this picture) on the right side of the road.
This is my room. I guess I should have made the bed in a more military-like manner for the picture. Oh well, give me five demerits.
This is the next road over showing the back of our barracks on the right. On the left is one of several gazebos, the gym, the MWR facility, and the DFAC. In the far upper left is Delta Company, which handles redeployments (people returning to demobilize, e.g. me).
I spent most of the day Sunday at the MWR center. It’s a nice little building with a bit of everything. Computers, cubicles with electrical outlets if you want to use your own laptop on wireless, telephones, a couple of pool tables, and several different TV rooms where movies are playing pretty much constantly. The internet computers are free, but if you want to use your own laptop you have to pay for wireless services. It’s not too bad - $9.50 a day, $24.50 a week, or $39 a month. About the same as it was when I was here in 2007 at the WTU. I paid for a week, as I didn’t think I’d be here longer than that (knock wood!)
The overall first impression I got was of a well-run, well-maintained little operation. The rooms and latrines are clean, people seemed to know what they were doing, and the civilian support staff was very friendly.
I had been a bit worried about the beds but was pleasantly surprised. While they are the typical mattress-on-a-spring military bunks, they are pretty solid and the mattresses are firm. I had no issues with back support, which was a big relief. A week on a crappy mattress can make me very uncomfortable these days. I guess I’m just not 19 anymore…
Monday morning I reported to the pavilion. There were a couple of other people there, but no formation. After a few minutes I went up to Delta company to see what was going on. Sure enough, the staff duty had told us to go to the wrong place. So I went back and got the others and we went to the company, where the process was starting. This was the first of many minor missteps.
It is worth pointing out here that many (perhaps most) of the people I was with had not seen the CRC website before coming here. Somehow nobody told them about it, and they had not read the instructions or the projected schedule of activities. They were significantly handicapped by this, because they were at times missing essential documents which they had to scramble to find on short notice. So if you are coming to the CRC, read the website:https://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/197th/crc/
It's best if you have an idea what to expect before you get there, because there are a lot of people and you don't want to get lost in the shuffle and miss things. In our particular case, we were only the second group processed by this rotation of cadre, and they were still sorting themselves out. There was a noticeable improvement in their organization as the week progressed, but there were still some issues with coordination. If you know what to expect, have all the documentation you need prepared in advance, and stay on top of the process, you will be much better off.
We all got a folder with a clearing checklist on it (sound familiar?). The idea is that you have to go to all the stations or have all the briefings, and have each one signed off on before you can leave. The folder also contained a lot of forms. I was ahead of the game, because on Sunday when I was looking for something constructive to do, I had come into the Delta Company building and saw the folders on the table. I took one for myself and filled out all the forms. I thought this might buy me some time through the week. If you’re the first one at a station to have your form filled out, sometimes you can go first. If you are done at a station early, sometimes they take you back to the company and let you keep going. I really wanted to be out of here on a plane by Friday!
A point of clarification – when I say “stations”, these are actually different places around Fort Benning, outside of the CRC. They are far away, so you have to travel there on a bus or a van, process as a group, and then come back to the CRC to check in before going on to the next activity. The CRC staff has to coordinate with all these activities to ensure that we are cleared to go there before they send us, so we can’t just go willy-nilly to wherever we need to go next. There is a lot of down time because of this, but it is essentially unavoidable.
First stop was the CIF (Clothing Issue facility). I had already turned in all my stuff and cleared in Germany. I had a printout of my clothing record that showed “No items issued, no items outstanding”, with a red rubber stamp that said “Cleared CIF”. This, however, was not good enough. I still had to go to the CIF at Fort Benning so they could make sure. We rode out to the CIF in a bus, went through the briefing and prep (Buggies are inside on the right, go all the way down, dump your gear in the farthest open buggy, remove all tags, tape, disassemble your helmet, etc, etc). Everybody complied, and the three or four of us with no gear to turn in stood on the sidelines and watched as the others began to turn stuff in. Eventually they told us to go ahead to the other side, to “Final Clearance”. These people printed out a copy of my clothing record from their computer. It said “No items issued, no items outstanding”. They stamped it with a rubber stamp that said “CIF cleared”… Oh, that’s *so* much better. *Now* I understand why I had to come all the way out here…
We waited quite awhile for the other people to finish turning in their gear. I was not optimistic about the process, because nothing else was scheduled for the day but CIF turn-in. I asked what we would do and they said that would be it for the day. It was not even 0930 yet, and we were supposed to be done?! Great. The one thing we had going for us was that we were a pretty small group – less than 20 people. So each station didn’t take nearly as long as it could have. The fact that we got done relatively early let them move us along faster.
When we got back to the CRC, they told us that we would be having a series of briefings that afternoon. We sat in a big room and started knocking out the briefings on the checklist. We had a legal briefing on our rights as returning servicemen, as well as the legal resources available to us. We had a chaplain’s briefing that included post-traumatic stress, family reintegration, and suicide prevention. We had a briefing on transition assistance such as job search, education, and VA resources. There were some others, but since I don’t remember them offhand I guess they didn’t make much of an impression. But at least the people in Delta Company were making an effort to move us along in the process. The sooner all these briefings were done, the sooner we could leave.
Tuesday morning we had to go to the “Med Shed” to begin our medical processing. The first step was to get a TB test if we needed one. I knew I didn’t need one, as I just had one and had not been exposed to any risk factors since. But of course I had to go out with the group and show them the documentation to prove this. That’s the process. After that we went to audiology for hearing tests. The Army does this at the beginning and the end of every deployment both to ensure your hearing is up to snuff and also to document any potential hearing loss during active duty. This took a long time because the equipment was malfunctioning, but we eventually got through it.
After that we went to Dental and had a cursory dental exam. The Army has a new policy of not releasing anyone with serious dental problems before they are fixed. By doing this they raise the odds that the people will remain deployable. My teeth were fine, so I was done there as well.
During all of this waiting I was using every spare moment to read my Nook. I started the WEB Griffin “Brotherhood of War” series again (I read it about 20 years ago, but had donated the whole set to the Camp Grayling Officer’s Club.) It’s *way* too easy to buy and read books on the Nook – I’ve read more in the past three weeks than I had in the six months before that…
That was pretty much it for Tuesday. They couldn’t send us anywhere else until Wednesday morning. When we got back to the CRC, I continued looking into a matter that had come up when I read one of the forms on PDMRA leave. I had thought I would be required to sell back my accrued ordinary leave when I got released from active duty. I learned here that this was not required – it is also possible to get an extension to active duty orders in order to take the leave. This is a very advantageous approach, because you stay on active duty, collecting all applicable allowances, retaining eligibility for benefits, and accruing retirement points. If you sell back your leave all you get is the base pay. Furthermore, you are only allowed to sell back a total of 60 days in your entire military career. If you go over that, you just lose it.
The official policy guidance is that commands are supposed to let you take all your leave while you are assigned to them. If a reservist approaches the end of an assignment with accrued leave remaining, they are supposed to release you early so you can take it before your orders expire. This has several negative effects, however. If, like me, you are working on continuous back-to-back active duty tours, you rarely have extension orders in hand in time to make that decision. Furthermore, units in the field are always short of people and overworked on their missions. It’s hard enough for them to get a replacement assigned in time to have any overlap (what the Army calls “left seat/right seat time”) when you can teach the new person your job. If they have their people leaving early to take their remaining leave, it becomes almost impossible to do effective handovers, and impacts the mission. So many units simply don’t let people depart early to take their leave, and they arrive at the CRC with excess leave accrued.
There is a pretty straightforward process in place to request an extension to your orders, but it requires a memo signed by an O6 (Colonel) explaining why you were not able to take your leave during your tour. With that memo, the CRC sends a request in to HRC (Human Resources Command) and your orders get extended long enough for you to take your leave while remaining on active duty.
Because I had three tours in the combat zone where you are limited on the amount of leave you can take, I went into USAREUR with leave accrued. Although they were generous in allowing me to take leave there, I accrued still more, and ended up with almost two months of leave. So this was a significant issue for me.
I used their example O6 memo, modified it to reflect my personal situation, and sent it back to my section in USAREUR with a request for signature. The people here at the CRC said that it could take anywhere from 72 hours to a week for HRC to process the request once it was sent along with the memo, so this automatically meant I would *not* be out of here by Friday. It was worth it, though, considering the difference it would make financially.
Wednesday morning were headed out to take care of the rest of our medical processing. Before we left, I saw that I had a response from my section that they had sent the O6 memo to the G3, because that is who handles all reservist affairs in HQ USAREUR. This was a disappointment to me, as I know those people and knew they would give me problems. They were the same ones who had denied our extension requests. But my O6 did not want to sign it, for whatever reason, so I would have to rely on the G3. I went on to the day’s activities with a feeling of foreboding.
So we went to finish our medical processing. We had to go and get our medical records checked, answer a bunch of questions on a PDHA (Post Deployment Health Assessment), get our vital signs and blood taken, and get our immunizations and TB test checked and updated if necessary. I got a prescription refilled so that I’d have enough to last until I come back on my next set of orders.
Wednesday afternoon we were supposed to go to Finance, but I could not go with the group because I did not yet have my extension order from HRC. Until that is resolved they cannot process you through finance. So that part of my processing was on hold. In fact, that was my official status: “Admin Hold” for leave processing.
Meanwhile, when we returned to the CRC on Wednesday, I had an email from the Major in the USAREUR G3 who handles reserve affairs. It was about what I should have expected – a skeptical and supercilious note questioning why I hadn’t planned ahead and left early enough to take my leave. He knows exactly how it happened, but nonetheless took the position that it was unjustified. I wrote him a reply, and then called him on the phone to ensure he’d gotten the email. The conversation was not encouraging.
As much as I’d like to, I will not name names because of OPSEC. But I will say that the officer in the HQ USAREUR G3 who handles reserve tours, who I will call “Major X”, is a (expletives deleted due to family considerations) slick-sleeve with a “can’t do” attitude. We’ve all met people like him in our professional lives – he’s one of these people whose first response to anything you ask him is to come up with reasons why it can’t be done. I could tell just by talking with him that his primary objective was to avoid any responsibility for the situation and that he would do absolutely nothing meaningful to try to get the memo signed.
Note to anyone in a position of authority in HQ USAREUR, USARC, or HRC who might read this: Major X has been in his comfortable office at HQ USAREUR for four years, which is about two years too long. He desperately needs to be deployed to Afghanistan. This will not only remedy his slick-sleeve condition by permitting him to wear a combat patch, but it might also help him begin to get a clue about how somebody serving in the combat zone could manage to accrue excess leave. Another beneficial effect would be to get somebody in there who could actually take care of reservists instead of doing whatever it is he does all day now.
Fortunately for me, someone I ran into here had a proposed solution that sounded like a good “Plan B”. The requirement is for a memo, signed by an O6, which explains why you did not take your leave at your last assignment and requests an extension so you can take it. It does not seem to matter who this O6 is. If you can find an O6 who will review your documentation and sign the memo substantiating your reasons for needing the extension, that seems to meet the requirement. In anticipation of my own command jerking me around and eventually not providing me with a signed memo, I executed “Plan B” and submitted the request for extension that afternoon.
Thursday morning I wasn’t supposed to do anything because I was finished with all the other stations, and was just waiting for my extension request to be approved before I could continue. When I went in to Delta company in the morning, the first thing they handed me was my request for extension, approved by HRC. They had processed it literally overnight – HOOAH! That was a totally unexpected bonus. This meant that I could go to finance that afternoon, and perhaps be out of here by Friday after all. Some others also had gotten their extensions. We were told to be back by 1215 to go to finance.
I checked my email during lunch, and sure enough there was an email from Major X. He said that Colonel K “was not supportive” and would not sign my memo. Surprise, surprise. I called one of my counterparts back at my section in HQ USAEUR to tell her about “Plan B” so that she could let the other reservists know how to get around this jerk when their time comes to leave.
After lunch we went to Finance. Their building had no air conditioning, and it was HOT. Other than that, it was a very pleasant experience. We got a briefing on the requirements for filing our travel vouchers, and then we each sat down with a finance specialist to go over our financial records, compile a leave record, and prepare for our final out-processing at AG. It was quick and efficient, and we were out of there in less than two hours.
Friday morning was our final processing through AG (Adjutant General). This is the final station where they look at our service record and prepare the DD 214, the discharge certificate. This is an essential document for a number of purposes, and it’s important that it be correct and complete. My most recent DD 214 was from 1985, when I was last released from active duty. A lot has happened since then, so I had spent some time when we were in between appointments printing out information from my online permanent record (awards and decorations as well as service schools attended) so that they could be included on my DD 214.
That’s right, I said printing it out. It’s online, stored on a computer system at US Army Human Resources Command. But if you want it on your DD 214, you have to show up in their office with printed copies. They cannot or will not look at your online record. If you don’t walk in with a printout, it doesn’t go on the form. You’d think they would have some sort of online compilation of the things that go on a DD 214 so it could just automatically be printed out for you, but they are not that sophisticated. So now I have a folder with all that stuff in it on paper.
We went through the process of preparing the DD 214. It was a bit tedious, and was complicated by the fact that they were having computer problems. But we got it done, and I now have a DD 214 releasing me from active duty on 27 December 2010, as well as a leave form putting me on transition leave until that time.
We are completely finished and released. I have my DD 214 in hand, and am scheduled on a flight home. Overall I have to say that my initial concerns about demobilizing through the CRC were misplaced. The cadre was conscientious and did a very good job, especially considering that they were still in learning mode when we arrived. It was about as efficient as something like this can be.
Because of the uncertainty about when I’d be finished getting my leave sorted out, my girlfriend and I had changed our plans. Because she was here in Atlanta for the week on business, we had originally planned to try to fly home together on the same flight on Friday. When it looked like I’d have to stay here until next week, we changed her flight to Sunday so we could spend the weekend in Atlanta. Now that I’m released, we are still planning to spend the weekend in Atlanta, and we are flying home together on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it, and to getting home.
Music: Nena: Ich Bin Hyperactive