Archive for Thursday, November 15, 2007

Soldier’s weapon in Iraq: spreadsheets

November 15, 2007

The military journey of Lt. Col. Brad Pippin has come full circle.

From being in the Pentagon when it was struck by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, to volunteering for a six-month duty during the War on Terror, Pippin has been there from the beginning.

In June, he returned to Lansing from his deployment as the senior analyst with the Joint Fires and Effects Cell in the Multi-National Corps - Iraq Headquarters in Baghdad. While there, Pippin and his team built and maintained a database that allowed senior leadership in Iraq to make informed decisions about progress being made in the war.

Lt. Col. Brad Pippin, center, is back in Lansing after serving six months in Baghdad. Pippin, flanked by his daughter, Rebecca, and son, Wes, was in the Pentagon when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Lt. Col. Brad Pippin, center, is back in Lansing after serving six months in Baghdad. Pippin, flanked by his daughter, Rebecca, and son, Wes, was in the Pentagon when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We don't fight with a weapon," he said. "We fight with spreadsheets and databases."

Stationed at Camp Victory, near the Baghdad International Airport complex, Pippin spent his 15-hour days shifting through thousands of pieces of data that would go on to be used by people such as Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Pippin said it could be a frustrating job at times because people usually don't understand how complex the system is. He said asking "How's it going in Iraq?" was like asking "How's the economy?" Both are loaded questions, he said, that require a complex system that tracks hundreds of indicators. For the war, those indicators could range from causalities to inflation rates to even the amount of electricity being produced.

But the frustration was minimal compared to the honor he felt from doing a job that he said made an impact on the strategic level rather than a tactical level. The information Pippin provided the senior leadership in Iraq helped them make better decisions regarding the focus of the war, he said.

"If you can't collect data, it's just shooting from the hip," he said.

In a way, he said, his mission gave people a peace of mind. When Gen. Petraeus stood up in front of Congress and gave a compelling statement that the situation in Iraq was improving, Pippin said, people couldn't attack that argument because it was backed up by "good science."

"Without support for that mission, congressionally, the administration supporting it, the public supporting it, you're going to come back," he said. "They're going to pull you out."

And in Pippin's opinion, that's the last thing America would want.

If forces pulled out of combat, Pippin said in the short term there would be a lot of violence, but in the long term, the exact same threats America faces today still would exist.

He said Iraq could be "phenomenally successful" as a democratic nation and become an important industrial and economic power.

"If we can make it work (in Iraq) then your children are facing a totally different Middle East than what we've looked at, and perhaps it's not a breeding ground for guys that will fly our planes into buildings," Pippin said.

The dangers of war

Despite his job of primarily working in an office all day, Pippin was still in a war zone and faced serious threats that endangered his life. Camp Victory was a hotbed of insurgency attacks from just over the wall of the neighboring Jihad neighborhood.

During his deployment there were reports of snipers shooting at soldiers during runs around several man-made lakes in the complex. On one of Pippin's daily runs around Lost Lake, he said he heard shots fired in the distance and then saw rounds impacting at the lake's edge.

At one point, Pippin's boss asked that no one run around the lakes anymore because of the danger and instead use the treadmills provided in the gym. A day later, while running on a treadmill, another soldier stationed in the complex was hit in the leg by a stray round, reminding Pippin that nothing was ever completely safe.

His scariest moment, however, came during his team's weekly celebration of cigars on the patio of Al Faw Palace. The complex's alert system, known as "Big Voice", came on repeating "Incoming, incoming, incoming..."

At first Pippin said he wasn't concerned because the alert sounded often and the sheer size of the complex meant the likelihood of being near the attack was small. His group then heard a "boom" in the distance, which he thought was the rocket hitting but turned out to be the actual launch.

The next thing he knew he was "hitting the ground" as a rocket's path came within 40 meters of his location. He said the noise was so loud he couldn't even think, but just reacted on instinct and "hit the dirt." The rocket ended up hitting one of the lakes and failed to explode, but Pippin still remembers the fear he felt at that moment.

A family left behind

Back at home, wife Lynne, son Wes, 11, and daughter Rebecca, 9, were doing what they could to stay busy and continue as normal lives as possible.

"It was very challenging," Lynne said. "This is his first deployment, so he'd been away for short periods, but not for this long."

She said her family was lucky because they were able to speak with Pippin over the telephone on a daily basis and even had four video-teleconference calls during the deployment. Despite that, Lynne, who is the school nurse for Lansing Elementary and Intermediate schools, admits that she and the children leaned on each other for support through the upsetting time.

Wes was the one to take it the hardest, Lynne said. The father-son duo was extremely close and did many regular activities together, their favorite being hunting. Lynne said she didn't actually realize how much time Wes spent with his father until he wasn't there.

Becoming a single parent all of a sudden was a big adjustment for Lynne. Getting the children to conflicting sporting events or even getting them to school and herself to work in the morning was a challenge, but family members carried on and did what they had to do.

Lynne said having a set routine helped her get through the day-to-day responsibilities that were solely on her shoulders. She said if she had to do it again, she would remember to take more alone time for herself to lower the stress.

Pippin wasn't completely out of the picture, though. Through Lansing school district's Web site, he was able to track his children's progress in the classroom through a feature called Power School. He said he would wake them up in the morning asking about grades or assignments he'd seen online, which he said helped them stay connected.

Freedom Flight

When the time approached for his return home, Pippin began thinking about his transition from a combat zone to a regular family life. He decided a long family vacation would help smooth the transition, and he booked a Disney cruise while still stationed in Iraq.

"Things seemed surreal to be sitting over there calling 1-800-Disney-Cruise," he joked.

As June rolled around, Pippin scheduled his Freedom Flight, which is what the Army calls a soldier's flight from Kuwait back to the United States. The return home was filled with excitement for both sides of the family.

At Kansas City International Airport, Lynne, Wes and Rebecca stood at Pippin's arrival gate barely able to contain themselves.

"He was last person off flight," Lynne said. "We were waiting and waiting. We had posters and flags, and were just waiting and waiting."

Eventually Pippin made his entrance, and immediately Wes and Rebecca threw themselves into his arms.

"I couldn't get to him because the kids were all over him," Lynne joked.

Pippin had given his camera the man sitting next to him so the family was able to capture every tear and smile that came with seeing each other after the long absence. Pippin said his first thought when he saw his children was how much they'd changed since he had left them back in Nov. 2006.

There was one family member, however, that almost seemed more excited than all the rest. Zak, the family's 2-year-old golden retriever, was beside himself after seeing Pippin return. Pippin said the dog was jumping around like crazy, giving him a wonderfully warm welcome home.

Back into the swing

Both Lynne and Pippin agreed that getting their lives back into a routine was a smooth process. Lynne handed over a few of the household responsibilities and the children got used to having two sets of eyes watching them instead of one.

Pippin said he doesn't think being deployed to Iraq changed who he was, but it did make him more appreciative.

"Its educational being deployed," he said. "When you've spent some time in a country like that, you realize how fragile what we have is, and it's very easy to lose touch with that. People have no idea how fragile peace is or how fragile freedom is, but when you see devastation and the killing and the violence and everything else that just lies right beneath the fabric, it makes you appreciate what we have a lot more."

Pippin has returned to his job at the TRADOC Analysis Center at Fort Leavenworth. He works on the same data analysis as when he was in Iraq, but now for the Army at large.

He said his time in Iraq was rewarding professionally and personally. If it hadn't been for his children, he said he would have stayed longer and continued working for the cause he believes in so strongly. He has pride for his country and said he was honored to have the opportunity to serve it the best he could.

"It's part of the psyche, part of the culture," he said. "When you're not involved, you feel like you should be. That's the draw that got me over there in the first place. I just felt like I needed to be there."

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