If you read my last post “Chemical weapons and clay,” you’ll know that I enjoyed a brief stint as a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. Twelve weeks serving on the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) did wonders for my knowledge of the U.S. Army. Granted, the bar was, ahem, low.
Further into the fellowship (I believe we’re in week 5 here) I traveled with two other BAST staff members to Fort Bliss. One might imagine that Fort Bliss is in an exotic location, perhaps a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. Nope. Fort Bliss is in El Paso, Texas.
El Paso sits on Texas’ western border, less than 20 miles from Juarez, Mexico. Juarez…it sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t place it. A quick call to my mother went something like this:
Sarah: “Hey Mom, what’s Juarez all about?”
Mom: “JUAREZ MEXICO? Oh my God, Sarah, do NOT cross that border. Do you even have your passport? It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Do NOT leave Texas while you’re at that army conference.”
Juarez, as it turns out, is infamous for crime, violence and drugs. Hmmmm…let’s put an army base beside it and name the base Fort Bliss! I give the U.S. Army a gold star sticker for nomenclature (this means “naming”) humor here.
One aim of the Fort Bliss BAST meeting focused on learning about new technology. A significant portion of the money annually dolled out to the Department of Defense funds army research and development, i.e. army science and technology. Just like in a university or at a private company, scores of scientists and engineers conduct basic and applied research under the auspices of the Department of Defense.
At Fort Bliss I watched soldiers plow through computer-based training modules, fighting virtual enemies of all shapes and sizes. Soldiers spend several weeks on a team, sitting together in one room, gazing up at a huge screen that depicts their battlefield. The soldiers advance their skills and knowledge, stage by stage, until their virtual training is complete.
Besides time spent on the main army base, we visited soldiers in the field at their training site, located an hour away near the base of the mountains. At the training site I had a crash course in unmanned aerial and ground systems, robots, monitoring devices, and practice attack strategies.
After one morning out in the field we broke for lunch. One dozen soldiers had just finished a practice attack, complete with green smoke bombs as diversions. Let’s just say that if I had a do-over, I would spend less time watching the green smoke spread slowly across my field of vision and more time tracking the attacking soldiers.
For lunch we ate soldier food: Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. An MRE comes in a thick, brown plastic wrapping that you open with your army knife or whatever weapon(s) you have on hand. I met a soldier from my hometown of Cary, North Carolina, who opened my MRE and gave me an extra for the road. I love Southern hospitality.
An MRE is calorie-rich to keep a soldier well-nourished for battle. The calories, however, do not come from tasty food, but rather from strange food-like substances only identifiable from their labels. After eating one such meal, I was less excited by the Southern hospitality than I had initially been. Below is some of the “food” I got:
Mushy greenish puree = pears
Brown chunky liquid = beef stew
Purple powder = grape juice
Little white disc = gum
I was impressed by the army’s technological progress to integrate information for its soldiers. Theoretically, better technology leads to better-equipped soldiers, which, in turn, should result in more successful missions.
Soldiers will soon have (if they don’t already) a smart phone with databases of friendly and enemy faces, locations of safe and unsafe places, and GPS-style navigation capabilities. Imagine a map of the Afghani desert, complete with information on where to go, and, more importantly, where not to go.
The most enjoyable part of my trip was chatting with the BAST experts. These experts included retired military generals and majors, engineers of several types (no, not clay) and physicists. Those folks were chock full of information about military technology, so I networked my way through the group. Besides scoring business cards I reveled in the free drinks.
After returning to D.C. I wrote my new contacts thank-you notes, beefing up my D.C.-based contacts list to include DARPA (the Department of Defense’s innovative technology research arm) and the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Will I ever work at DARPA or The Heritage Foundation? Likely not. But one can never have too many contacts. Mark my words!