Enduring The Soldier Readiness Process
NEAL CONAN, host:
When civilians think about training for war, we envision long, hard marches with full equipment crawling under barbed wire as machine guns fire overhead and hurtling over obstacle courses. Veterans know that SRP, the Soldier Readiness Process, involves a lot of waiting on endless lines to get shots or filling out forms and, of course long, hard marches with full equipment.
Roman Skaskiw went through SRP when he served as an officer in the 82nd Airborne, and then again when he was recalled after three years as a civilian and wrote about it in the New York Times' blog "Home Fires." He joins us in a minute. We want to hear from those of you who have stories about readiness training and SRP. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site too, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Roman Skaskiw served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. He later deployed with a provincial reconstruction team to Afghanistan's Kunar province, and joins us now from the studios of member station WISI in Iowa City.
Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. ROMAN SKASKIW (New York Times): Pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And you write that you've heard soldiers say they would rather get an extra bunt in Afghanistan than go through SRP.
Mr. SKASKIW: That is the case. That is the case, especially when I went though for the third time as a reservist because it's full of confusion, you're not even with a unit. You're just surrounded by a bunch of uniformed strangers. It looks pretty stressful.
CONAN: What's the most stressful part?
Mr. SKASKIW: Oh gosh, what's the most stressful part? Well, for me personally it was - my third time through, I sort of lost a little bit of faith very slowly and reluctantly but very decisively in our efforts. So the whole - it was just the whole thing about rolling the dice again.
Mr. SKASKIW: I was very reluctant to go back.
CONAN: So in a way it was just counting off the days until you left SRP and headed back to Afghanistan.
Mr. SKASKIW: For sure.
CONAN: Yeah. But it does involve long marches?
Mr. SKASKIW: Well, SRP is independent of the marching. SRP is strictly the medical and all the paperwork which is quite a bit, includes filling out a will, it includes filling out a power of attorney, so your loved ones can take care of your affairs while you're gone, and then you do a little bit of training and then you go through SRP again, hopefully - hopefully not a third or fourth time, and then you deploy.
CONAN: And then you deploy. And you do tell stories about waiting in line for vaccinations. You should - describe this exchange you had with the clerk there.
Mr. SKASKIW: All right. Well, this is from the Home Fires blog, and it just points to the - you know, you're a very small cog in a very vast bureaucracy when you do this, so it's easy to feel like you're just - like you're not even human. But she asked - she said, where are you going, just very abruptly to me. We were running between different stations, and I replied, I'm going right here to station number seven or whatever it was for immunization screening. And she says no, where are you going? And I didn't know what she was talking about. So she sighed and said, when you deploy, where are you going?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SKASKIW: And I explained to her, I said, well, they told most of us that we're going to Iraq, but they're not 100 percent sure, some of us maybe going to Afghanistan or to the horn of Africa. And she was - then I got threatened with, well, if you don't know, you've got to get all the immunizations, yellow fever, everything.
So it was just a little back and forth like that. I eventually had my will broken and I resigned and I said, okay, put me down for Iraq just like everyone else had been saying.
Mr. SKASKIW: But these are not - these are not bad people, but they do this 24/7, just the endless flow of reservists mobilizing for war, so it's easy for them to just get the blinders on. And...
CONAN: And easy for ire to rise at the frustrations of their jobs, which they visit upon the poor people that have been working on a slow boil while they've been waiting in line.
Mr. SKASKIW: For sure. And combine that with the stress of having to put your life on the line again.
CONAN: Which you know is coming up. And I guess that's the elephant in the room.
Mr. SKASKIW: That is certainly the elephant in the room. And some people handle it genuinely well. You know, I saw - I really admired some people who kept a genuine sense of humor and a pleasant attitude the whole time. But I'm afraid they're better people than me, because I was seeing red for much of the time.
CONAN: And are these, for the most part, soldiers?
Mr. SKASKIW: Soldiers and sailors, yes, yes.
CONAN: Oh, no. I don't mean the people who are obviously there in the soldier readiness.
Mr. SKASKIW: Oh, oh.
CONAN: I mean the clerks who are - the bureaucrats.
Mr. SKASKIW: Oh, the bureaucrats. It's about half and half, soldiers and civilians. Part of it was also a culture shock because I grew up in the 82nd Airborne Division, which is a very tough unit. And when we went through this, we went through it as a unit. Everybody already knew each other and, you know, we were a team and it went very efficiently. So going through it again as a reservist, I sort of saw this whole side of the army that I never knew existed.
CONAN: Because you, well, you'd obviously been through it with a different -with a coherent unit and just going through as a single soldier was quite a change.
Mr. SKASKIW: Quite a change.
CONAN: Yeah. And would you think that your experience with the 82nd Airborne was more the rule or was this?
Mr. SKASKIW: Well, that's difficult to say. I don't know what the breakdown is. But I think combat units have a certain esprit de corps and a certain responsibility that they feel between themselves and a certain fraternity. And I think that helps quite a bit.
Mr. SKASKIW: Whereas, the reservists are people who do not work together day to day, you know, who do not know each other that well. In my case, I was just an individual surrounded by strangers. And the - just the discipline, the bearing, it's something that I really came to appreciate that I - I came to appreciate the 82nd Airborne's qualities after going through again as a reservist.
CONAN: We're talking with Roman Skaskiw who, as he mentioned, served with an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, then after three years as a civilian was recalled to service and served as part of a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
We'd like to hear from those of you who also went through SRP. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
And John(ph) is on the line calling from Remsen in New York.
JOHN (Caller): How are you, Neal?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you. Well, I got a terrible cold, but I'm lying.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: Well, you'll get over it. We all do, right?
CONAN: Yup, yup. Absolutely.
JOHN: The SRP process is unbearable, but it definitely does serve a purpose. I'm a reservist. I've been activated twice now. The first time around was very slow, redundant. You go and talk to the same person over and over again. We do stuff that probably should've been done stateside in one of our yearly or monthly drills.
Now, we've learned that lesson. We learned that last time we went through, we had a lot of the stuff done before we got there. But it's still a monotonous process that, as you said before, dotting the I's and crossing the T's. It's...
CONAN: But I thought this was supposed to be the new digital army.
JOHN: Well, it is. And, you know, there is a lot of digital advancements that helped us out before.
And, you know, your guest talked a little bit about the discipline in the reserve and I think, you know, maybe he had a bad experience because our soldiers went into it knowing that the quicker we got the SRP done, the quicker we were going to the field, the quicker we were going to be in country doing our job.
So I really have to hand it to hand it to my soldiers, personally, that they really got it done and, you know, you have to grin and bear it and you have to joke and make it funny because it's the only way to get through it. And you realize, hey, another month down the road. We're going to be overseas doing what we love and what we want to do. And, you know, it's part of your job as a soldier to do paperwork, unfortunately, and it gets worse the higher you get up in the echelon of rank. So...
CONAN: John, what unit are you with?
JOHN: I'm with a reserve unit in Oswego, New York.
CONAN: In Oswego, New York. Okay. And you went to Afghanistan or Iraq?
CONAN: Iraq. Well, we're glad you - hope everybody made it home all right.
JOHN: Oh, we did. And we did well.
CONAN: Oh, good. Glad to hear that. Thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: It does sound, though, that - Roman Skaskiw - that the biggest exercise that you get during this SRP process is your eyes get very mobile from all the rolling.
Mr. SKASKIW: That's certainly the case. And you know, I think the - like the best time as far as morale is in a mobilization and a deployment, is about two weeks after you've gotten on the ground, because, finally, the thing that you've been anticipating for so long has finally arrived and you're doing your job and you're learning that you can do your job. And then that's kind of the high point shortly after you arrive in country.
And then slowly the stress of being there, you know, and maybe you've seen a little fighting and all those stresses start wearing on you and starts going down. But finally getting over the SRP hump and over the pre-deployment training and arriving there, though, I remember that being a good time, without exception, in all my three deployments.
CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get another caller in. This is John(ph). John with us from Charlotte.
JOHN (Caller): Yes, sir. Hi. Yes, I am a United States Marine. And I guess my question is, is it seems very different, his SRP, and I think what we call it is actually IO-LOCK(ph), its initial location, running from table to table. We do that, as well, but in my experience, the three times I have deployed as an Individual Augmentee with 2MEF, Second Marine Expeditionary Force...
JOHN: ...is that we do first what's called an SRP inventory, soldier's record -our service record book in a medical jacket. In other words, we have to then identify what shots we need, if any. And so the process of going - getting the shots and all that stuff, things that aren't part of the combat readiness, such as intel briefs or country briefs took us three days, both times I've done it.
CONAN: Hmm. That sounds a lot quicker than what you went through, Roman Skaskiw. In fact, he was saying, eventually, you had to keep your own vaccination log to remind people what shots you'd gotten.
Mr. SKASKIW: That is correct. But as I said, these aren't bad people doing it. They've just been doing it for a long time. And I think I saw the worst of it because I was going through at the same time that the whole civil affairs aspect of the army was growing as we adjust to our new rule of nation builder.
There was this huge influx of people who were being retrained in civil affairs. I was one of them. I came from the infantry, originally, so I think that put a real burden on the system. But, yeah, I was - it was a big circus. And it's kind of fun to look back on and laugh. Although at the time, I wasn't laughing.
CONAN: Not so amusing. Yeah, true.
Mr. SKASKIW: Yeah.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: Oh, okay. Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. It's interesting also, you noted that perhaps spending much of the previous three years - the last time you went through this - spending much of the previous three years studying fiction did not prepare you for this exercise.
Mr. SKASKIW: No, it certainly didn't. I had such a wonderful leisurely life for those three years - it was great - and then suddenly being back in the grind again.
CONAN: We're talking with Roman Skaskiw who served with the 82nd Airborne and later with a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan. He's with us from WSUI in Iowa City. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this is Brad(ph). Brad with us from Le Grand in Oregon.
BRAD (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
BRAD: I just wanted to give a comment from the side of a - as a medic who helped process people through the SRP. And I can relate to how he feels. People kind of process them as cattle, per se, and now we're personal with them. And I know on the active duty side, my unit, we tried to be personal with them because we knew they're going to harm's way. And now I am in the National Guard, and I just went through an SRP last month, and I felt like a - very cold from the medical personnel processing me. And I didn't appreciate it quite a bit.
CONAN: Hmm. It was a little bit - you were not getting the same treatment from them that you would have liked - you thought you gave to other people when you were in that position.
BRAD: Yeah. That's correct.
CONAN: Yeah. And there's a lot of the military - you always here, hurry up and wait, and I guess this is the classic example.
BRAD: Oh, yeah. I waited around quite a bit of lines. And I guess when you work in a medical field and then you go through this, you see all the problems and how people are being treated and everything. And it makes you cringe a little bit.
CONAN: Indeed. Well, and I hope we can all get some improvements. But I wonder, and I'll ask you both, I mean, was there a sense that, you know, Julius Caesar's legionnaires were doing the same thing all those years ago?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Maybe not (unintelligible) vaccinations, but they probably had to fill out forms.
BRAD: I've heard some old-timers talk and have the ease to keep all his military records on an index card. This is an old-timer, I believe, from the World War II era. And everyone had an index card in their breast pocket, and everything they needed to know about them was on that card. That's pretty hard for me to imagine.
CONAN: On one card.
BRAD: On one card.
CONAN: All right, Brad, thanks very much.
BRAD: I don't know. Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can go next to Ed(ph). Ed with us from Beaufort in North Carolina.
ED (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
ED: I just wanted to talk about, for a minute, the reverse SRP process, when you would come back from deployment. And in that process, you're screened for PTSD and TBI and things like that. But all the waiting in line, the poking and prodding and questionnaires really served to exacerbate the symptoms.
CONAN: TBI is traumatic brain injury.
ED: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Right. Just to explain that. And of course, PTSD is posttraumatic stress disorder. So if you had any symptoms to begin with, by the time you got through being prodded and poked at, you're probably ready to start raving(ph).
CONAN: Did you go through that, Roman Skaskiw?
ED: Yeah. Oh, excuse me.
CONAN: Go ahead, Roman.
Mr. SKASKIW: Yes, I did. I think - maybe it was a reaction to all the publicity about the failures at Walter Reed or elsewhere. But when I went through, I thought they were very, very comprehensive in all kinds of questionnaires to screening for posttraumatic stress and TBI and other things as well. For me, personally, though, I was on easy street. I was at a harm's way, so I would have stood on my head for those three days if they needed me to.
CONAN: All right, Ed, thanks very much.
ED: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And you said that you were dubious about the mission by the time you were being called back. Well, I guess, partly because you're being called back from three years as a civilian, unwillingly, and sent to Kunar Province. In retrospect, did you think you did any good there?
Mr. SKASKIW: Well, we definitely make - we helped the Afghans that are immediately around us. There is no doubt about that. We also make many Afghans very rich. But I have slowly and reluctantly concluded that there are too many contradictions inherent to military occupations. And now I think we're putting ourselves at greater risk by being there, not only from terrorism, but also from debt and from tyranny at home.
CONAN: And by making them rich as contractors or as - how do we make them rich?
Mr. SKASKIW: I've heard one fellow cynic say that foreign aid of this source, the transfer of wealth from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.
I want to acknowledge that there are many well-intentioned people who have dedicated themselves to the mission there have nothing but good intention, and sacrificed themselves for it. Many of them are my friends. And it's for their safety that I initially hesitated to be as cynical as I have been on the - as one voice among others on the Home Fires blog. But, you know, I think there have been good people dedicated to both sides of every military conflict in human history, so that reason alone is not enough to avoid scrutiny.
CONAN: Roman Skawskiw writes on the Home Fires blog for the New York Times, thanks very much for your time today, we appreciate it.
Mr. SKASKIW: It's been my pleasure, thank you.
CONAN: And thanks for informing us about one part of military life most of us knew nothing about - SRP, Soldier Readiness Process. He joined us today from the studios of WBSUI, our member station in Iowa City.
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