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The Combat Patch: Binary Indicator or Something More?
Saw two senior NCOs this morning wearing ACUs with “slick sleeves.” Not sure how this can be, given that we have been at war for over a decade.
—Colonel Scott Nestler, July 31, 2012, Facebook status update
One morning in July 2012, I observed two Army non-commissioned officers (NCOs) wearing Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) at a nearby table in a restaurant. I was in civilian clothes, so they had no way of knowing that I was an active-duty Army officer. On their left sleeves both wore the “USA Star Logo” patch indicating assignment to Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA) or the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). On their right shoulders, where I expected to see a combat patch, was … gasp … nothing. This caught my attention because at that time our nation had been at war in Afghanistan for 11 years, and in Iraq for 9. Over one million U.S. Army Soldiers had deployed to these countries and the surrounding area; roughly one-third of them had completed two or more deployments. I found it surprising that these two NCOs (a master sergeant and a staff sergeant) had not yet deployed. Later that day I posted my observation as a Facebook (FB) status update. Soon thereafter, a friend and respected colleague emailed me about my post,
Your recent post on ‘slick sleeves’ is easily the most offensive and inappropriate thing I’ve read on FB this year. ...You are publically marginalizing the contributions of lots of soldiers who, for a variety of reasons, have not deployed. ... Coming from a senior officer, your post helps to perpetuate an absolutely dysfunctional culture that treats with contempt the opinions and contributions of a significant number of us. Two kinds of people will read your post; one kind will think you’re a fool for posting it, and the other kind will mimic (or exceed) your behavior – both are bad outcomes for the future of our Army.
After some contemplation, I realized that there was merit to his emotional critique. I retracted my FB post, thanked him for being candid with me, and began a period of introspection on the meaning and value of military service, especially for those not serving in direct combat roles. This essay attempts to provide one perspective on how, in a time of war, many contribute to the mission in ways other directly engaging the enemy. Clausewitz writes, "The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time [original italics]." However, the right place, time, and way need not be the same for everyone.
More recently, I observed some fellow officers making disparaging remarks about Soldiers who, like me, have largely been in the Institutional Army (IA), or generating force, for most of the past decade. The IA provides the organization and infrastructure needed to raise, train, equip, deploy, and ensure the readiness of all Army forces. In contrast, the Operational Army is the warfighting side of the Army; it consists of corps, divisions, brigades, and battalions that conduct full spectrum operations around the world. An officer with multiple deployments to Iraq at brigade level and below belittled officers who have “deployed only once, maybe for six months but feel they have done their part.” The same officer said mockingly that Assignment Incentive Pay (AIP), originally designed to reduce the high turnover rate in South Korea in the 1990s, had now become known as “Avoid Iraq Pay.” I cannot blame them too much for their perspective, and am not trying to take anything away from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians who have spent as much time over the past decade in combat zones overseas as they have at home with their families. In retrospect, it took little time upon my return from my most recent deployment (in 2009) for me to think, “OK; it’s somebody else’s turn.”
I critically examine how the Army (and by extension, the military in general) values and recognizes various types of service, sacrifice, and experiences differently, and the implications of these actions, especially during an extended period of wartime. The other military services deal with similar matters-- sea vs. shore duty for the Navy, the dominant culture (fighter vs. bomber) in the Air Force, etc. While a focus on combat experience is understandably central to the military’s purpose, perhaps we (both as an organization and as individuals) take it too far at times, especially with regard to visible signs of differences in contributions. Combat experience is invaluable for a number of reasons, including Tim Kane’s recent finding in Bleeding Talent that, “Officers with combat experience were less perfectionist and more tolerant of failure.”
There is an internal struggle faced by those who do not feel that they are contributing to the core mission of their organization. This is something I experienced more strongly over time during the past decade while serving in the IA. This tension is an enduring challenge for the Army. As such, we must consider the implications of these issues as we enter a period where the likelihood of large overseas contingency operations (OCO) appears to be diminishing, and the percentage of those in the force with combat experience decays toward historic norms.
Although primarily focused on the IA, these vignettes are representative of those serving in comparable organizations of the other services during the past decade, and contain more broadly applicable lessons. The goal is to increase awareness that the contributions of all who serve in the military are important, and to increase understanding among those who may not fully appreciate the full scope of service and sacrifice made by members of the armed services.
In Army 101, military correspondent David Axe opines, “A soldier’s uniform is uniform in only the most general sense of the word. Few wear the same combination of patches, badges, and wings. Every soldier’s uniform is like a pressed, camouflaged, wearable resume.” When a service member walks through the airport in uniform, many civilians with thank them for their service, but does not pick up on further cues about where they have been and what they have done. However, to those currently serving or some veterans, the wearable resume is read in greater detail.
The simple meaning of a combat patch is as a binary indicator of combat service; a Soldier either does or does not have one. In the case of the ACU, the combat patch may be the only available clue about wartime service. When observing a Soldier in the more formal, blue Army Service Uniform (ASU), there are other useful indicators to provide amplifying information. For example, on the right sleeve near the wrist, each Overseas Service Bar (OSB) indicates six months of service in a combat zone. More can be inferred from wear of the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and newer, Combat Action Badge (CAB), as well as other special skill badges and awards.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of right shoulders were bare, as only very senior officers and NCOs had combat patches from the Vietnam War. Over 200,000 Soldiers earned a combat patch during the Persian Gulf War (DS/DS), but over time most of these veterans left the Army. By 2001 combat patches were relatively rare once again, but over the next decade this would change dramatically so that Soldiers with a combat patch were “virtually ubiquitous.”
A study done in 1998 on students in the now disestablished Combined Arms and Services Staff School (CAS3) at Fort Leavenworth indicated that the possession of a combat patch was significantly correlated with the average judgments captains received from their classmates. Interestingly, the study showed little evidence that past achievements represented by medals, badges, and combat deployments, affected self-evaluations. Even though individuals did not consider themselves to be more effective leaders based on these accomplishments, others did consider them to be indicators of value with regard to performance.
A mid-grade officer writing on 21st century strategic leader development contends, “Little emphasis is placed on what particular skills or attributes officers develop during the wartime experience. As long as an officer gets a combat patch, what he or she did to get it is not thought to be critical.” That is one perspective; however, others would argue that there are differences. A friend with a background and experiences similar to mine made the following observation:
While you and I are not ‘slick-sleeve’ soldiers due to Desert Storm and an augmentee rotation under our belts, we are not far above that in the eyes of the combat arms officers that have been … in combat. It is just the way things are…these battle-hardened officers have a view about the institutional Army and I am not sure that there is anything anyone can do to change that view.
Observing what an organization mocks is one way to tell what it values. Military humor has been around in a variety of forms for some time. In World War II, Bill Mauldin’s cartoon strip Willie and Joe was popular. The Facebook character Doctrine Man and the weblog The Duffel Blog are two examples from recent wars. In a recent entry, titled “Garrison Sergeant Major Swears He Wants to Deploy,” The Duffel Blog parodies the issue at hand. This short satire relates the story of why a fictional Sergeant Major has not deployed during his 28 years in the Army. He presents a variety of reasons (or possibly excuses) such as health issues, and assignment to Korea or the training base. All of these may be valid reasons for not deploying, but when viewed collectively over nearly three decades of service, can be construed as something different. However, as with most things, it is not quite that simple. In the words of Colonel Lou Henkel, Deputy Director of Enlisted Personnel Management at Human Resources Command (HRC) in 2007, “Giving Soldiers the chance to earn a combat patch is a part of what defines Army readiness, but the absence of a combat patch does not necessarily tell a Soldier’s full story.”
For the first eight years of my Army career, I was an Air Defense Artillery (ADA) officer. I served as a platoon leader in a PATRIOT missile battery during Operations Desert Shield and Storm (DS/DS). Less than one year after starting my military career, I was officially a combat veteran of sorts. This was largely due to luck and timing as only 30% of the active Army (and less than 20% of the total Army including the Reserve and National Guard) deployed for DS/DS and it only lasted seven months, although the awarding of combat patches did not end until two years later. With a few exceptions (e.g. Somalia), those who entered the Army a few years later did not have the opportunity to serve in combat until 2001 or later, if they were still in the service after the significant drawdown in the 1990s. I recall numerous top-notch officers who felt that they were at a disadvantage for promotion and choice assignments because of their lack of a combat patch, only due to timing or the vagaries of the assignment system for junior officers.
After two more operational deployments to Southwest Asia (SWA) and commanding a PATRIOT missile battery in South Korea, I made a significant career change within the Army. After attending full-time graduate school for two years and a teaching assignment at West Point, I requested and received designation as Operations Research / Systems Analyst (ORSA), or Functional Area 49 officer. I knew this meant that I would be given the opportunity to contribute to the Army mission in a different way in the future. This choice also meant that I would likely not command Soldiers in higher-level tactical and operational units. I was fine with my decision at the time and am now, but there were some other implications of this career decision that would not become obvious until years later.
After the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, those of us in uniform who were teaching at West Point realized that the events of that morning would change not just our lives, but those of our students and families as well. Although some colleagues were mobilized and/or deployed, most of us continued teaching cadets whose own prospects for combat leadership had changed dramatically. We wondered about when and how we would be able to contribute more directly to our nation’s efforts and when or if we would be leading Soldiers into battle in far off lands.
The combined Army Staff and Secretariat office I joined a few months later had been among the first occupants in the newly renovated wedge of the Pentagon where the plane had impacted. At the August 2002 dedication of a memorial (on the 2nd floor, at the intersection of the E-ring and the 4th corridor) I learned that an officer with whom I had served in Korea, Major Ron Milam, was among the 29 Soldiers and civilians from my new organization who had been killed that day. Although he and I were not close friends, learning of his death that day shocked me. While I had previously mourned in broad terms for those who lost colleagues, friends, and loved ones in New York and Washington, DC, the attacks took on a different meaning for me that day-- the terrorists had killed someone that I knew.
While working in the Pentagon, especially after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in March 2003, my contributions to the GWOT seemed ancillary to me. While I was going home to my family at night, many of my brothers and sisters in arms were halfway across the world, fighting to keep us safe. I struggled to be satisfied with my role by throwing myself fully into whatever it was the Army asked me to do -- directly related tasks like working overnight shifts in the Army Operations Center (AOC) and more peripheral analyses for the transformation of the Army from a division-centric force into modular Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to send to theater. In retrospect, I believe that I was learning how some of my peers who were in the Army but not deployed for DS/DS had felt.
In 2004, the Army asked me to return to graduate school for three years to earn a PhD. I wrestled with the decision to be a student during a time of war but chose to do so, partially because I (and most others) did not expect the conflicts to continue as long as they actually did. After learning that a colleague had terminated his doctoral studies, I briefly considered asking the Army to release me from the student detachment and send me to a deployable unit. While some mentors and friends suggested that I remain in school, the decision to do so was mine alone. To compensate for a growing feeling of guilt, I focused my class projects and scholarly research efforts on topics of interest and utility to the Army as opposed to just subjects of interest to me as an individual.
Upon completing my studies, I returned to teaching duty at West Point and again found teaching cadets to be rewarding. As a senior military faculty member, I now had a role in the development of junior faculty members. I also conducted research of interest to the Army using my newly developed skills. While I knew that my responsibility “to train, educate, and inspire the Corps of Cadets…” was necessary, I continued to believe that I was not truly contributing to the Army’s mission. This is somewhat ironic because, during my time at West Point, between classroom teaching, cadet sponsorship, and mentoring of athletic team and club members, I had the opportunity to influence more of the Army’s junior leaders than a battalion commander comes in contact with during a 24-month command.
In 2008, Army Chief of Staff (CSA) General George Casey responded to a military spouse’s question about equity and sharing of the deployment burden by saying, “We need to do a better job of getting everybody into the fight." At that time, about one-third of the active-duty Army had not deployed. A number of these Soldiers were in units preparing to deploy; others were non-deployable for a variety of reasons, e.g. in basic training or other schooling, medical or legal issues, or serving in the training base.
At General Casey’s direction, the Army’s Human Resources Command (HRC) identified roughly 37,000 active-duty officers and enlisted Soldiers (or 7.2% of the force at the time) as not having been to a war zone since 2001 but being eligible for deployment. However, this percentage varied dramatically by branch and specialty, based on differing demands for various units and capabilities in theater. The Army’s force structure did not match the operating environment, creating the need for improvisation to spread the burden of combat among all in the military. The retraining of field artillery battalions to provide wide area security, using air defense artillery units to provide route security, Navy officers and NCOs serving on provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), etc., provides further evidence that the Army truly was “out of Schlitz” (or at least infantry, armor, and military police units).
The challenge the Army faced in 2007 is similar to the situation seen in sports, where there is a need for many players of particular specialties and talents. Often, there are not enough of some types, and those few spend much more time on the field than desirable while others remain on the sideline. Just as the football coach requires a variety of specialists, the Army needs officers and Soldiers with various skill sets. An offense comprised of 11 outstanding quarterbacks and running backs would likely not fare well on the field of friendly strife against an opponent’s balanced defense with hulking linemen, agile linebackers, and speedy defensive backs. As highlighted in the popular book and movie The Blind Side, some of the players in less glamorous positions (in this instance the left tackle, who protects a right-handed quarterback’s “blind side”) are critical to the team’s success.
The previously mentioned CAS3 study indicated that individuals from the high-status service branches (combat arms) received more favorable evaluations than those from the lower status branches (combat support, and combat service support). However, an Army that only includes individuals in combat arms specialties would likely not succeed on the battlefield. Those in the Army’s “tooth” need to be supported by many in the “tail.” While some of these supporting personnel (e.g. combat support and combat service support branches and units) are required in theater, others can and should perform their supporting roles from back in the United States, including some in the IA. One colleague suggested a set of guidelines for assessing whether a particular Soldier or function needs to be deployed in the modern era. Essentially, those who do an office job involving paper or virtual work that is the same when deployed as in garrison are candidates for providing support from outside theater. Some examples include: military intelligence analysts (other than human intelligence and collection personnel), many in adjutant general (human resources) organizations, staffers working in headquarters above brigade level who have no role outside the wire (off American bases) and no required interaction with the host nation. Do all staff assistants making PowerPoint slides at various echelons need to be physically present to do their job or could they work from stateside on a reverse cycle? These types of positions can and do take away from operational units; when a brigade of 4300 deploys with only 3000 to stay under a theater force cap, the commander may need trade off between fully manned squads, logisticians, and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams.
Two business professors at Harvard highlight that the attention paid to star performers can lead us to underestimate the vital importance of the supporting actors. Although their examples are from the corporate world and the entertainment industry, the analogy works in the military as well. Similar situations exist in education, where teachers are the stars and the custodial and administrative support personnel are treated like a sub caste. While focus is on the superstars, organizations’ long-term performance and survival depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players. In the Army, the focus is rightfully on the combat arms, those that close with and destroy the enemy; however, those in supporting roles of combat support and combat service support are necessary for accomplishing the mission to those in the “leading roles.”
In Max Hastings’ discussion of military heroism in Warriors, he observes that the physical courage of the type one sees in combat is much more common than spiritual (or moral) courage. However, those in supporting roles that may commonly be viewed as safe and comfortable jobs face situations requiring this latter type more often. Moral courage is more difficult to develop because it has no direct counterpart to muscle memory, which assists with the development of physical courage. Also, moral courage is more essential to leaders at the strategic level, but the path to leadership values evidence of physical courage. While deployment during wartime, as indicated by a combat patch, may be a demonstration of physical courage, does it say anything about moral courage? Serving in a supporting role provides the opportunity to develop a different type of courage, even though others may judge you harshly. Part of self-awareness is having a strong sense of your role in the organization’s overall mission and not caring about uninformed judgments of others. A colleague suggested to me that, “some serving in support roles, who don’t get the publicity, glory, book deals, and trips to the White House, but go about their duty quietly and in unheralded ways, may contribute as much or more to the military mission and securing the nation’s safety.”
It is imperative to understand that most Soldiers do want to get into the fight, regardless of where they are in their career. This applies to both individuals and units, and is not just a recent phenomenon; examples can be found from nearly every war. During World War One, three battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) went to Bermuda to replace British units joining the fight in Europe. Their men became impatient while conducting drills, watching for German submarines, and patrolling the beaches, because they had enrolled for active combat, not humiliating garrison duty. The 1955 movie Mr. Roberts is an example from World War II. Navy Lieutenant, Junior Grade Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) repeatedly asks for a transfer from the cargo ship USS Reluctant, commanded by an uncaring Captain (James Cagney), to a ship on the front lines of the battle in the Pacific. Lieutenant Amy Dietrickson, of the Michigan Army National Guard, expresses a more recent example of this sentiment. In 2011, she wrote a short piece entitled, My Story: I Have Not Deployed. Because deployment has been central to the recent military experience, civilians often assume that she has been to Iraq or Afghanistan. Not having deployed made her feel like she had not done her part as a Soldier. She also reflects on her internal sense of obligation and need to serve as being self-centered. As a single parent, she also feels the pull to stay safe at home and care for her son. She is clearly conflicted about which of these two desires is more selfish. The Lieutenant’s emotions matched my growing frustration from 2001 to 2009 as I heard my own call to serve and looked for an appropriate way to bring my unique skills to bear in the war.
I discovered that it is not as easy as one might think to grant an individual officer’s request to deploy, even during an extended conflict. In May 2009, about one year after I started asking in earnest, the Army sent me to Iraq to be the Deputy Chief of Assessments for Multi National Force-Iraq (MNF-I). My job was to help U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill and General Ray Odierno, the MNF-I Commanding General answer the question, “So, how are we doing?” by assessing the effects of our actions in lines of operation (or effort) other than security, namely political, diplomatic, economic, and rule of law. After completing this deployment I felt proud of having served again overseas, this time as a deployed analyst. Afterwards, I did feel that I was treated differently, i.e. with more respect, by fellow officers and cadets alike because of my recent “combat experience.” Six months after returning from Iraq, I jointed the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). While I once again found myself “on the sideline," I no longer felt that I was not contributing to the Army’s mission. Deployment to Baghdad, where I employed the skills acquired through years of education and experience as an analyst, fulfilled my desire to serve in theater.
The mix of Soldiers in the Army who have combat experience is constantly changing. After large-scale and/or long wars, the percentage of Soldiers with one or more combat patches is fairly high, as it is now. Then, as they leave the service through the end of their service obligation or retirement, the proportion will decrease to where those with a combat patch may once again be a small minority, as was the case in the late 1990s. The current defense strategic guidance makes it appear that once operations in Afghanistan end, we are heading into a period of reduced overseas presence and increased partnering with allies and other nations. The Army will likely have to rely increasingly on live, virtual, constructive gaming (LVCG) in training that is a surrogate for actual operational experience. While useful in preparing Soldiers and units for war, this form of experience provides no visible indicators (i.e. combat patches) of having “seen the elephant” in the form of an actual enemy. It will be interesting to see how perceptions regarding different types of service changes in the coming years.
I have enormous respect for folks who have deployed, be it one time or five. I also have admiration for those who have not deployed, just for volunteering to serve our nation by wearing the uniform of one of our military services. While I have no doubt that there are some who have actively sought to avoid deployment to a combat zone, I am personally aware of Soldiers who have not been to Iraq or Afghanistan for good reasons, e.g. medical conditions that prohibit deployment, low demand for their specialty in theater, etc. At a fundamental level, comments like my Facebook posting about Soldiers without combat patches are corrosive and counterproductive, especially when they come from senior officers. We do not need to belittle the accomplishments of others to celebrate our achievements. To those two NCOs I observed last July, I offer a simple “I’m sorry,” even though it is probable they never knew what I was thinking.
There are many different ways that Soldiers can serve our Army and nation. The fact they have not deployed does not mean that they are not contributing to the mission; we should not devalue their service for this reason alone. This will be increasingly true in the coming years, as the percentage of serving Soldiers who are combat veterans declines. I have attempted to illustrate that the absence of a combat patch is not simply an indicator that a Soldier actively sought to avoid deployment, but instead indirectly reveals a contribution of a different type. The next time you see a Soldier without a combat patch, instead of reacting in a dismissive manner like I did, I encourage you to engage him or her and get to know a little bit about him or her, or simply thank him or her for volunteering to serve.
 Dave Baiocchi, Measuring Army Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013).
 Email from confidential source, August 31, 2012.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. & trans. Michael Howard & Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1976), p. 95.
 Email from confidential source, August 17, 2011.
 Tim Kane, Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 36.
 David Axe, Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 49.
 Eliot Cohen, “The US Military After Iraq: A Speculation,” RUSI Journal 151, no. 1 (Feb 2006): 20.
 Monica Biernat, Christian Crandall, Lissa Young, Diane Kobrynowicz, and Stanley Halpin, “All That You Can Be: Stereotyping of Self and Others in a Military Context” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no 2 (August 1998): 301-317.
 James Hardaway, Strategic Leader Development for a 21st Century Army (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), May 2008), 13.
 Dennis Day, email message to author, January 29, 2013.
 “Garrison Sergeant Major Swears He Wants to Deploy,” Duffle Blog, http://www.duffelblog.com/2013/01/garrison-sgm-swears-he-really-wants-to-deploy/ (accessed January 25, 2013).
 Gina Cavallaro, “If you haven’t deployed yet, stand by,” February 24, 2008, linked from the United States Army Home Page at http://www.armytimes.com/news/2008/02/army_deploy_080225w/ (accessed January 25, 2013).
 U.S. Department of the Army, War in the Persian Gulf, Center of Military History (CMH) Publication 70-117-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Army, 2010), 69.
 The United States Military Academy's mission is to educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army. http://www.usma.edu (accessed January 15, 2013).
 Cavallaro, “If you haven’t deployed yet,” 2008.
 Michael Lewis, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006); John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side, DVD (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2009).
 Biernat, Crandall, Young, Kobrynowicz, and Halpin, “All That You Can Be.”
 Niel Smith, email message to author, February 12, 2013.
 Thomas Delong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan. “Let’s Hear It for B Players” Harvard Business Review (June 2003): 96-102.
 Jim Hazen, Personal interview by author, Carlisle, PA, February 9, 2013.
 Max Hastings, Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield (New York: Knopf, 2006), xvii.
 Charlie Dunlap, email message to author, February 12, 2013.
 Jean-Pierre Gagnon, “Canadian Soldiers in Bermuda During World War One,” Histoire Sociale (Social History) 23, no. 45 (1990): 9-36.
 John Ford and Mervyn Leroy, dir., digital media, Mister Roberts, (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 1955) http://www.amazon.com/Mister-Roberts/dp/B000VZHLCY/ (accessed 25 January 2013).
 Amy Dietrickson, “My Story: I Have Not Deployed,” PowerPlay: A Journal of Educational Justice, Vol 3, No 2 (2011): 105-108.
 Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 5, 2012.
 Juan Carlos Llorca, “Tanks, Aircraft Interact for virtual Training”, March 3, 2013, Army Times, http://www.armytimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013303030301, March 3, 2013 (accessed April 18, 2013).