My year with the Dragon, Part III

Hope you’ve enjoyed the first two parts in this series on my time in Korea. Looking through my pictures has been useful to jog and correct my memory. One thing that has stuck out is that in nearly every photo of me off duty I have a drink in hand. During senior year in ROTC we had to list out our top 10 duty station preferences for the Army to ‘consider’. I got advise from some of the cadre on this and one of our NCO instructors told me that Korea was where he became an alcoholic. Like a typical college student I decided that was for me and listed Korea second (Hawaii was #1). Little did I know but that would guarantee that I got sent to Korea.

Most of the pictures involve drinking party because weekends worth photographing often involved partying or cooking out. There was a stretch where I was drinking a couple bottles of wine a night during the week. Army culture feeds that in many ways. If you couldn’t go out, get totally fucked up, then wake up the next day and outrun your platoon you were a pussy of a PL. Hindsight makes that sound just as dumb as it is, but that’s just how things were. Most of us get to be a PL for 12 months max, many of my peers were getting even less time than that. That provided even more pressure to go balls to the wall every day. This is also why having a good mentor at the beginning is critical. In Korea I couldn’t really say I had one. My battery commander was a tool who was just marking time for his last 12 months in country. Knowing that he was only doing what he had to do I kept my expectations low and just focused on taking care of my platoon.

While it was a great PL assignment that allowed me to lead soldiers, something my OBC classmates weren’t getting to do in their Patriot batteries, it also set me back in many ways. Young officers need to have good mentors to set them on a successful path in their careers. While I had some fantastic NCOs mentoring me on taking care of soldiers, there was a giant void in officer-to-officer mentorship that left me floating in the wind. So when I needed someone to tell me I needed to slow down, that didn’t happen and I just kept going harder. By month 11 in Korea I was toast and needed a change.

The road to getting there was a blast though. I’ve written a lot about my off-duty time in the previous two posts. Today I wanted to bring things back to what the job was like. Both aspects are important in bridging the civil/military divide, the whole picture needs to be painted, but it’s time to get back to Army life. It was not uncommon to go weeks without a real break. I had one stretch of 30-ish days with only 1 day off. Part of what drove this was that my Avenger battery was tasked to provide air defense for two MLRS battalions. That was why the battery was moved from the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade. It was the only ADA unit organized as such in the whole Army. In Korea the go to war plan dictates everything. All our training revolved around a plan to counter a North Korean invasion. So while day to day we worked and trained with our battery, when field exercises were held my platoon (4th PLT) and 3rd PLT were attached to 6/37 (said as ‘six three seven’) field artillery battalion.

Sound confusing? Imagine that you worked in a group within your company that provided tech support specifically for another larger group within the same company. Day to day you went in to an office building used only by your tech support group, but on occasion the larger group that you support goes to a remote site for a job, so you and your team go with that group for actual job operations. That’s more or less how it works when your unit gets attached to another unit to provide some kind of support that allows them to do their mission.

Now, I loved this. We were treated well by 6/37, something that doesn’t always happen to attached units. That was due to their battalion leadership and staff, a great group of professionals – something uncommon in Korea at the time. After proving that I was reliable and knew what I was doing the battalion leadership gave me the freedom to do my job and didn’t micromanage me. My platoon benefitted from that as we weren’t treated like children who needed watching. When the battalion went on field exercises we would roll out with them. To provide proper coverage from air threats the Avengers needed to be kilometers away from the main assembly area that the MLRS battalion occupied. That meant that my guys got to work remotely from the rest of the group, and from positions that had really nice views (got to see a lot of airspace you know). Having 6 Avengers I would find 3 primary positions and 3 alternates, then have my crews do 12 hour shifts while rotating back to the main area so that they could always get hot chow for at least 2 meals each day. I’d have to do a lot of driving around to check on them and on the radar crew that was attached to my platoon.

In an odd twist, the other PL from my battery took a different approach and just pushed all his Avengers out to occupy fighting positions and stay there. Most got stuck in mud, never got a hot meal, and when I’d come across them their vehicles weren’t working properly and the crew would just be hanging out trying to pass the time. Often the soldiers said they hadn’t seen their PL for a couple days. I started taking a few extra hot meals for them when I made my rounds. I’m not saying one method was better than the other, but the two of us PLs had very different approaches to our work. The two of us often got compared, not because there was some competition between us, but because both of us got attached to 6/37 (the other MLRS battalion only got 1 Avenger platoon attached) and the two of us were very different in just about every way. It just naturally led to people taking note.

On one of these field exercises my platoon was scheduled to meet up with 6/37 a few days into the exercise. They were pretty good about not making us go out unless the training schedule was relevant to us. So we made the 30 minute drive out in less stressful than usual circumstances, only to arrive and be told the environment was MOPP 4. WTF it that you ask? MOPP gear is the protective suit for chemical attacks, so it’s it big ass pair of overboots, gloves, pants, blouse, and gas mask. That could have been communicated better while we were en route, but hey shit happens. It was annoying to have someone running up to us yelling to put on full MOPP gear and the stuff is a pain in the ass to put on, even worse to wear. Most of us grumbled and started to pull our MOPP gear out and suit up. Not long after the alert ended and we could take off our suits and get back to reporting in. One of my sergeants wasn’t having it though.

SGT McQueen was a monster of a man, about 6’ and 250 pounds of straight muscle. If he had 2% body fat I’d be surprised. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him launch his helmet at his Avenger and proceed to tossing anything he could while cursing about the lack of heads up on the MOPP 4 alarm. As you can see from the photo above, I’m not quite the same size. A tantrum like that would make us lose credibility (we were about dead center in the main battalion area) and I couldn’t have one of my NCOs acting like that in front of junior enlisted guys. So I got right up in his face as best I could just to get his attention. I gave him the grid coordinates to the most secluded fighting position I had found and told him to just head out there immediately. With that distraction taken care of I reported in to the battalion TOC and then sent two more of my teams out after briefing my platoon on the situation. Twelve hours later when those teams came back SGT McQueen was all smiles. I asked SGT McQueen’s gunner how it went and he said ‘Oh just fine, sir. SGT chopped down a few trees and calmed down.’ I made sure he also taught his gunner some useful things and chalked it up as a W. If a few trees getting cut down was the worst that came out of the largest guy in my platoon going apeshit I was happy.

Not only did my platoon have to roll out on these exercises, we also had our battery gunnery exercises. Twice a year we had to conduct a machine gun gunnery to have crews qualify with the .50 cal M3Ps, and once a year the crews had to qualify with Stinger missile gunnery. I already wrote about the .50 cal gunnery at Nightmare Range. It was a bit of a treacherous trip but otherwise smooth sailing. For our missile gunnery we needed to travel to a beach on the western coast. This required traveling around Seoul on a 5 hour drive, mostly done in the middle of the night to minimize traffic. The whole battery consisted of 4 Avenger platoons (7 – 8 vehicles each), a Sentinel radar platoon, a maintenance platoon, and headquarters element. We broke down into chalks for this drive (4 total if I remember correctly) with each Avenger platoon rolling with a radar towed by another vehicle, and a couple more vehicles from the maintenance and HQ sections. The chalks had staggered departure times, but each chalk leader (the PLs) had a dozen or so vehicles to track as we went from Camp Casey to a Korean Air Force base southwest of Seoul. I want to point out that most of those vehicles were made in the 80s and early 90s. Some broke down, but no accidents on either end of that trip so all was good.

Shooting missiles off of a beach is a pretty weird thing. Remote controlled drones provide the targets and off go the Stingers with an ear splitting crack (I mean that, I forgot my earplugs while standing 20 feet away from one). The whole time you’re trying to not get lost in how beautiful everything is. I’m not joking, right next to the Korean base was a hotel full of tourists. This was clutch at the end of the day when a few of us stupid LTs squeezed through a gap in the chain link fence and got ice cream from the sundry shop in the hotel. Totally worth it. There were also some great cliffs to explore and the sunsets were aces. Those cliffs provided us with the most excitement of the gunnery though.

Korean Coast Guard ships were helping us keep boat traffic clear the whole week. Stingers are heat seeking missiles, they go after hot engines. Now and then a Korean fishing boat would say ‘hey man, hold my beer’ and go charging across the bay. One popped out from around the cliffs just after a Stinger was fired. All of us in the control tower saw it in slow motion. The international incident that we all worried about in the back of our minds was happening. The Stinger went after its drone target at first, then after a couple seconds it started to veer off towards the boat that was darting across our range. Heart-stopping seconds went by as the Stinger got closer and closer to the boat. Shit was about to go real bad, real quick. We were going to have to explain why we blew up a Korean fisherman. Our careers were done and that dude was about to be in pieces. Game over man.

At the very last moment the Stinger did a 90 degree bank, picked up the drone’s heat signature again, and flew away to blow up the drone. By the time we realized crisis was averted the fishing boat was gone around the left edge of the bay. We all changed our pants.

 

That was kind of how work life would go for the whole year. Intense months with little or no time off, absolute crisis mode looming, and then super chill times where you could go party every weekend or enjoy being on a beach for work. No swimming, but there are few things I can compare to spending a day shooting off missiles and then taking an after dinner stroll on the beach, watching gorgeous sunsets while burning a stogie. Wondering if all of it is real, because taken all together it’s just too bizarre.

As much as I love trilogies, I think this is going to wrap up as a four part series. I truly hope you’ve enjoyed these stories so far. It’s always a trip to go through my Korea pictures. I wish I could share more of them with each post. If there’s anything you want to know about or if I’ve left something unclear please leave a comment or shoot me a message. As always, please SHARE, SHARE, SHARE. It’s good for me to reflect, and the book material is adding up, but the goal of bridging the civil/military divide only happens if more people read these posts. Please help me spread the message!

Until we meet again…

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