Thursday, February 12, 2009

Walking the Line

Time's Mark Thompson is a skilled reporter, and a veteran of the military beat. That's why his most recent article is disappointing, because it doesn't capture the subject, or his legendary accomplishments in Iraq.

For the magazine's 7 February edition, Mr. Thompson offers a brief profile of Army Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger. Readers of Michael Yon's war dispatches know CSM Mellinger as iconic figure of the Iraq campaign. He served there for 33 consecutive months, as the CSM for General George Casey and later, General David Petraeus.

As Mike Yon describes it, the mission of Command Sergeant Major Mellinger was both simple and dangerous. His job was to "walk the line," serving as the eyes and ears of his commander. Get out in the field and talk to the troops (wherever they might be), then report back to the boss. Give him the straight skinny on what was going on, not some PC version of the truth.

By all accounts, CSM Mellinger excelled at the job. He had a reputation for popping up in the most dangerous locations when things were hot. During the most difficult days in Iraq, Mellinger and his small team criss-crossed Iraq, usually in a small convoy, facing the same dangers as any other solider or Marine.

As you might expect, Mellinger's convoy presented a tempting target, though there's no evidence the insurgents knew who was riding inside. During their travels, CSM Mellinger and his staff were routinely targeted by IEDs:

One young sergeant, a team member on CSM Mellinger’s crew, told me the CSM’s team has been hit 26 times so far, and when I asked the CSM, he shrugged and said, “Sounds about right.” Five of his Humvees have been destroyed by IEDs, two that he was riding in at the time. Astonishingly, nobody in his crew has even been seriously wounded. He goes into combat, but you’d have to see how he rolls to understand why nobody has been killed so far. Experience multiplied by luck.

Yon's three part series, based on his journeys with Mellinger, can be found here, here and here.

Unfortunately, you won't find much about the Sergeant Major (and his experiences in Iraq) in the Time account. Mark Thompson summarizes Mellinger's extended tour in a single paragraph, choosing (instead) to focus on his other claim to fame, as the last draftee still serving in the U.S. military.

Thirty-seven years ago, Mellinger was working as a dry wall hanger in Oregon when he received a notice from his local draft board. The future Ranger was a bit surprised, having been previously rejected when he tried to enlist in the Army and Marine Corps ("I was not a perfect child," Mellinger observed). Informed that the draft notice was no joke, Mellinger reported for basic training and developed an early dislike for the military. A conversation with his company commander--and a chance to go to Ranger School--kept him in the Army.

As the only remaining draftee on active duty, CSM Mellinger is the last embodiment of a conscription system that produced millions of "involuntary" soldiers during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts. While Mellinger's draftee status is historically significant, it is little more than the product of time and attrition.

On the other hand, CSM Mellinger's many career accomplishments--including those in Iraq--are indicative of an outstanding soldier who has performed with distinction for almost 40 years. Long after Mellinger retires to Alaska, he will be remembered as an exceptional leader who rendered invaluable service to the Army and the country. His former boss, General Petraeus, is squarely on target in describing CSM Mellinger as a "national asset."

That's the real measure of the man--and his career.
ADDENDUM: Also missing from the Time account is Mellinger's standing offer to members of the press corps. During his long tour in Iraq, the CSM repeatedly invited journalists to get out of Baghdad and ride with him, to get a better feel for conditions in the country and the work being done by U.S. troops. Only one journalist took Mellinger up on the offer, a guy named Michael Yon.


OmegaPaladin said...

I saw that article. Man, I thought the guy was impressive before knowing he was out inspecting the troops under fire.

The reporter really missed the big picture.

lgude said...

A perfect example of the difference between an established media that fundamentally does not have any understanding of, or affinity for things military and our new journalists. Yon told Mellinger's story brilliantly by catching what was remarkable about the man at both the personal level as well as in his critical assignment that only a very few highly experienced and perceptive NCOs could hope to take on. "The sergeant who is the general's eyes." Instead it turns into a small town meme of the retirement as the last Normal School graduiate still teaching in the state. The MSM is averse to ever putting the military in a positive light. The story doesn't give the Time reporter any opportunity to discredit the military so he trivializes Mellenger.