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Top enlisted man in Afghanistan gets down to business

KABUL — The ascension of Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill to the position of top enlisted adviser for U.S. forces in Afghanistan continues a military relationship with few parallels in American history.

Hill served with Gen. David Petraeus through three tours in Iraq, including stints as the 101st Airborne Division command sergeant major during the initial invasion and as the country’s top NCO during the surge in 2007 and 2008, before following Petraeus to Central Command and now Afghanistan.

While Petraeus is widely credited with having led a revolution in the military’s strategic culture — turning a conventional army into one focused on counterinsurgency — few people have had as much influence over the day-to-day lives of troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as Hill.

Stars and Stripes sat down this month with  Hill at his office in Kabul, less than two weeks after he rejoined  Petraeus, to talk about his plans, his thoughts on the mission and the challenges facing U.S. soldiers.

While at CENTCOM, he pushed through changes in the military’s leave policy that gave troops deployed to war zones two weeks of free, or “nonchargeable” leave. Earlier, he launched a “battlefield promotion” program for enlisted troops already serving in positions above their pay grade.

Petraeus, said he relies heavily his “air assault buddy” to gauge morale, enforce standards and advocate for troops.

“In Iraq, I think his convoy was hit something like eight or nine times, but he always insisted on being out on the road and spending quality time with the units,” Petraeus said. “I think our troopers will find that he is someone who has walked many miles under many rucksacks over the years, and will very much understand their concerns, issues, emotions and challenges.”

After a quick visit to southern Afghanistan, Hill recommended one change in policy: revoking a ban on fast food restaurants and an assortment of concessionaires at U.S. bases that, Hill said, gave troops something of a taste of home. He said he remains open to considering other changes.

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“My focus is on three things: standards, discipline and morale,” said the Memphis, Tenn. native. “We give standards and discipline a lot of focus, but in an environment such as this one we can ill afford to discard the importance of troop morale. I plan to do a lot of things, I really do.”

While the military continues to meet recruiting and retention goals, other measures of morale are more troubling. A spiraling suicide rate has led to soul-searching, but few clear explanations. With the punishing deployment schedule of recent years likely to continue, units returning home face a litany of problems, from high divorce rates to drunken driving arrests and crime.

In a wide-ranging interview, Hill addressed those issues and others:

Stars and Stripes: You’re planning on bringing back some of the extra amenities on some of the bases, like the fast food restaurants. But a lot of troops serving in Afghanistan are living in very rudimentary conditions. Some are in tents with no electricity. They’re not worried about Burger King. So what’s your sense of morale out there in the field?

Hill: Back in 2007, I was down in Tallil (Iraq) on one of my battlefield circulations. That’s where most of my good ideas come from, by the way, on battlefield circulations with the troops. Anyway, I was talking to some troops about morale and this private first class told me, he said, “What builds my troop morale is a hooah mission and outstanding leaders.” And that stuck with me for a long time. I use that as my marketing campaign, if you will ...

If you give troops a hooah mission, something they can brag about to their folks, something they’re proud of doing, and then you give them some outstanding leaders that care about them, they can move. They can drive on. And you can’t replace that. You can’t put five Burger Kings on a FOB with a crappy mission and think that troops are going to be motivated.

Those other things — the laundry service, the Internet, the ability to call home and what have you, they can add to morale. But they can’t replace those first two things.

Stars and Stripes: Do troops identify with this mission? Do they see it as a “hooah mission?”

Hill: I think so. To use a little slang I heard somewhere, I think when I was home on leave: This is the new hotness. In other words, this is the place to be. This is the place where troops feel, if they’re going to make a contribution, they want to make it in Afghanistan. At one point, in 2007, Iraq was the new hotness. Now Afghanistan is the new hotness.

Stars and Stripes: But in a lot of cases, day-to-day missions aren’t that hot. Troops are waiting outside while their leaders hold meetings. They’re waiting for the Afghan police to get ready. They’re trying to convince Afghan police to come on missions at all. Do they identify with that mission?

Hill: I mean, you got troops who would rather do it themselves. You got leaders who would rather do it themselves. And if they want to be here until 2026, that’ll almost guarantee it, to go out and do it themselves. Partnering is the answer. Buy in or no buy-in (from Afghan security forces), partnering is the answer ...

Gen. Petraeus and I have a very unique perspective on this in that we’ve served in the same position both here and in Iraq. So I can recognize progress when I see it. To see the commitment that our guys are making in standing up, manning, training, equipping and employing Afghan security forces, it’s hope for me. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and what I need to do is articulate that to our troops.

I hear troops saying, you know, ‘These (Afghan security forces) guys don’t get it. They’ll never get it. They just want us to do.’ And so on and so forth. But people said the same thing in Iraq, and the day I assumed command here was also the last day of combat operations in Iraq, so they did get it.

We are getting much better at putting an Afghan hand in the solution. You’ll often hear people talking about putting an Afghan face on it. But it’ll never have an Afghan face on it until you put an Afghan hand in it. What I see is a lot of Afghan hands in what’s going on out there. Partnering is really making a difference.

Stars and Stripes: The suicide rate in the military has become a serious concern. Do you think this is something that can be addressed through counseling or things like that, or is it just a sort of fact of life given the pace of deployments and all the stresses that come with them.

Hill: Counseling is important. Some of the signs and signals probably can be caught during counseling. One thing we can’t measure is how many people we’ve saved during a counseling session from a young sergeant to a private. But I bet you we’ve saved hundreds, just giving them something else to think about, making them think about tomorrow or next week or next month.

I don’t think it’s a fact of life. It’s a phenomenon that we just can’t explain right now. I just think we have to get better at having foresight. In hindsight, we get it every time. Maybe there are a few cases where people say they never would have seen it coming, but most of the time, in hindsight, leaders can see the signs. So we have to get better at foresight.

And we have to make sure that something like that has no glamour associated with it whatsoever.

Stars and Stripes: Do you think it does?

Hill: Well, you look at television and things like that. We have a visually stimulated formation out there. Suicide in high schools … it’s not just in our formation. We’re getting our formations from society, and I think there’s some tad bit of something out there. Glamour might not be the right word, but there’s some tad bit of something associated with it that’s making it popular. And I want to make sure there’s no glamour associated with it here.

Stars and Stripes: You’ve been leading troops in war since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What kind of general changes have you seen in the culture over that time?

Hill: I do know this: They are no longer thrilled about a combat patch. They have been there and done that. We have a very seasoned and combat hardened force. And I’m talking all services now, not just the Army and Marines.

Our troops now, if I were to make a general statement about them, they expect to deploy. And before they redeploy back from Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re already preparing to come back. That’s the reality to them.

And even that may make them live on the edge a little bit in some of their off-duty activities. They think, “I only have 11 months, or 12 months back here, so I’m going to ride this motorcycle as much as I can and as fast as I can.”

Stars and Stripes: Right, or ‘I’m going to go get married to this girl I’ve known for two weeks.’

Hill: Exactly. Or ‘I’m going to take all this money I saved and spend it all on this truck — I’m going to go home and drop $30,000 right there and then — because I know I’m going to deploy again and I’ve seen ramp ceremonies and memorial ceremonies and all of that. So I’m going to live on the edge.’

From what I’ve seen, a group that’s formed out here — that’s lived together, that’s fought together and shared hardships and joys together — when they redeploy it is hard for someone else to get inside that circle, whether it’s family or friends or community workers or whatever …

The bottom line is that after they redeploy, that squad or that platoon still remains that squad or that platoon. They do stuff on weekends together, they hang out together, and that guy who should be home with his wife and kids is still hanging out with Jones and Smith at the barracks. That’s a concern. Leaders, when they get back and do their reintegration training, they almost have to force some of these guys to get away from the barracks and go spend time with their families and friends. Because otherwise it becomes their crutch.

Stars and Stripes: You’ve been with Gen. Petraeus a long time, through three tours in Iraq, one at CENTCOM and now here. Are there days when you look at him, or look in the mirror, and think to yourself: ‘Aren’t I getting a little old for this?

Hill: (Laughs.) My wife does. She does.

But actually, as long as I feel that I contribute positively, that I’m making a difference, that there’s a need for me to serve, I don’t feel like I’m getting any older. When you get e-mails from troops, after they announced that Gen. Petraeus was coming over, and you start getting e-mails from troops in Afghanistan asking, ‘Are you coming?’ That puts a little bit more pep in your step.

But there is an end-date. I just don’t know where it is.

Stars and Stripes: You mentioned standards. One thing I hear a lot is frustration with some of the standards, and especially with what a lot of people see as creeping garrison standards out here. PT (Physical Training) belts is the one I hear about a lot. I think a lot of people feel like they’re going out on missions and then coming back to base and getting in trouble for not wearing reflective belts or eye protection to chow, and they resent it. Do you hear that?

Hill: I do. And it’s something I’ve heard before and have had to deal with before.

Different [Forward Operating Bases] have different challenges and risks. FOBs with high vehicle populations have far greater challenges and risks than those that don’t. The ones that don’t may not have a PT belt policy, but the ones that do, they have that for a reason.

I know that’s a frustration for troops. But I’ll tell you, I’ve been on Camp Victory in Iraq, where even with a PT belt it was a challenge to see people walking.

So, I hear 'em. And I will be talking to leaders about some of their internal policies. If a standard doesn’t make sense or has outgrown itself, there’s certain things we can do to adjust that standards. But we do know that standards in combat save lives.

Stars and Stripes: Any other changes you might also be re-examining?

Hill: I’d like to see units a little timelier with awards. Pin it where you win it.

There are some that are better at it than others. Units that rotate over as a unit, they’re a whole lot better at it. Units that come over piecemeal – pick-up team, if you will, that come from all services all around the globe – some may not be as good at that.

When I go out, as I’m presenting coins of excellence to troop, some of the things their leaders are telling me about these troops are valorous – are valorous acts. And I would just like them to finish it up, round the bases and bring it on home with a valorous award.

Stars and Stripes: There have been concerns from troops over the last year that the Rules of Engagement have grown too restrictive -- that avoiding civilian casualties have left troops open to greater risks for their own safety.  What are your thoughts on that?

Hill: This was pre-deployment for me, but since I’ve arrived I’ve kind of sparked those questions. And troops have asked me whether it was going to be loosened up.

I think now they’re getting a clearer understanding of rules of engagement. That’s always a troops concern. They’re doing small unit training, talking about it constantly, asking about this or that situation.

They know, I think, that they have the right and not only the right but they’re expected to defend themselves and their buddies.

Stars and Stripes: Last question. I saw, in one interview, Gen. Petraeus was asked what was on his iPod. He said Enya. I don’t know if you know Enya. That’s like electronic new age music. So I’ll ask you the same question. What’s on your iPod?

Hill: Isley Brothers. The Isley Brothers. 

gisickm@estripes.osd.mil

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