Thanksgiving in 3 acts

Last year I wrote about my Thanksgiving in Korea, this year I thought I’d talk about my other Thanksgiving experiences. Each was very different and ran a spectrum from worst Thanksgiving the some of the best. They covered the globe from one end to the other, and took me to one of the oddest places in the United States (El Paso). I hope you enjoy these memories.

My first Army Thanksgiving was in 2006. I was at Fort Bliss for my Officer Basic Course and very much unaware of what the holiday was like on active duty. In 2006, Fort Bliss was still just the home of the ADA school house. Soldiers going through their AIT (specialized schooling after Basic Training) and officers going through their OBC and the Captain’s Career Course. It’s changed a good deal since then, but at that time it was a fairly small post in terms of personnel.

Pretty much everyone on post was given a half day on Wednesday so that you effectively had a 4 1/2 day weekend. I had no clue about this and had decided to stay local instead of trying to get back to Buffalo from El Paso during the short break. Most of my OBC classmates however did leave. So there I was, El Paso, Texas, all by myself like a Green Day hidden track. Living in the annex of the post hotel I didn’t  have a kitchen. The hotel annex was an old barracks that had been converted to kind of look like a hotel suite. Two former individual barracks rooms were connected to a single bathroom. The way this layout was it provided a typical hotel bedroom, a squeezed in bathroom, and then another room that passed for a living room. Pretty sparse, really ugly, a heating unit that was centrally controlled, but at least the recliner was good for napping.

By dinner time on Thanksgiving I was stir crazy and went out in search of a passable meal. Unknown to me, all the dinning facilities closed after lunch. All of the enlisted soldiers who had stayed on post had been adopted for the day by local families. Nobody had thought to tell the OBC students about this. So stupid lieutenant me was left wondering how the fuck to get a Thanksgiving meal. Off post I went, starving and already sick of being by myself I stopped at the first place to sit down for a meal. That happened to be the Village Inn on Airway Boulevard. Slumped in a booth by myself, watching families enjoying their dinners I didn’t even feel like eating a normal Thanksgiving meal. I ended up ordering chicken parm, and it was easily the worst chicken parm I’ve ever tasted. That meal was even more depressing than it sounds. I ate out of necessity and headed back to my lonely room in the too hot and too dry hotel annex. There’s not much more of that Thanksgiving that I can remember. I think I’ve pushed a lot of that memory out of my brain. No doubt it was the worst Thanksgiving I can remember, but I know it could’ve been a lot worse than simply having to eat a crummy meal alone. At least I still had beer in my fridge.

The following year I was in Korea. If you’ve not read about that Thanksgiving check the hyperlink above. We’re skipping past that for now and heading to Fort Hood in 2008. My second opportunity to serve Thanksgiving meals to troops. Unlike in Korea where we wore ACUs while serving, this time it was dress blues – as it should be. While I noticed some of the other LTs shirking out of this detail, I was absolutely giddy. I mean, that damn dress blue uniform set me back $700 so it was nice to get some use out of it. The day itself was so much more though. Thanksgiving offered a rare opportunity to serve your soldiers, to show genuine love of those whom you led. It’s a really simple gesture. In practical terms I just stood around for a couple hours lumping  mashed potatoes and yams onto trays. It took more effort to square away my uniform and keep clean.

When my shift was done and I got a chance to grab a meal and sit with the soldiers it really sank in just how far that simple act went. It’s difficult to put into words. You had a group of strangers really, bonded together by their service to country, unable to go home to their families, some without families to go home to. We were all there sharing our Thanksgiving meal with each other, making up a family of misfits. These were the moments that made life in the Army special. For all the horrible memories, all the shit details that you had to pull, days like Thanksgiving were a chance to show our best. These are the days to remember.

This was the third Thanksgiving in a row that I was away from home. Just like my Korean Thanksgiving it was not spent alone thanks to some special people. Rhana, who was our brigade S-2, and her fiancé Sid invited me and one of the other single LTs who were in the brigade HQ to share Thanksgiving dinner at their place. They didn’t need to do that, but they were leaders in the true sense of the word. They were the only ones who seemed to have thought about Gregg and me. Thanks to them I had another great memory of Thanksgiving in the Army, rather than another lonely meal. Another meal where I got to experience the traditions and food of strangers who had become my family.

That brings us to Thanksgiving 2009. Basra, Iraq. The photo above is from that day. It’s the four captains of Team Sword with the DFAC manager in the middle (I’m the short one). Camp Savage, the small outpost we lived on, had maybe 30 American military personnel and then 50 contracted support personnel. That included the Ugandans who provided base security, their eastern European bosses, a few Iraqis working the fuel truck, and the DFAC staff was mostly Indians and Pakistanis. That doesn’t include the interpreters of our team and the PRT who we shared Camp Savage with. We easily had 8 different nationalities on Camp Savage, most of them unfamiliar with Thanksgiving.

Korea and Fort Hood were both normal, in that it was senior NCOs and Officers serving meals to junior enlisted. At Camp Savage we had our Border Transition Team and the Provincial Reconstruction Team, pretty much all NCOs and Officers. The PRT may have had a couple junior enlisted but my memory of that isn’t perfect. Still, we got behind the serving line and scooped up the finest foods our tiny DFAC could make. We served meals to all those contracted support personnel who kept us safe and well fed, and we served each other. With so few people on Camp Savage the serving part didn’t last too long, but we all took our time sharing Thanksgiving dinner with this queer assortment of people. Some were there for fortune, some for adventure, and some out of a sense of duty. It was a Thanksgiving that I am grateful to have experienced.

Basra and Seoul are about the same distance from Buffalo, NY. In the span of three years I had bounced from one side of the globe to the other. The holiday had become symbolic and powerful. It had become a day that I cherished and learned from. It became a day that I looked forward to in the same way I had once looked forward to Christmas. After that first abysmal Army Thanksgiving I had three consecutive Thanksgivings where I gained new family and grew into a better person. Now, every Thanksgiving I get too look back on those memories. I am infinitely grateful for those days, for those people, and for the chance to have made them part of my life.

 

Until we meet again.

Off to the Hood

After 12 months in Korea it was on to my next assignment at Fort Hood. I was fortunate to have been a platoon leader for my full stint in Korea. Many of my peers across the Army were getting less PL time than I did. Being a platoon leader can drive you nuts when you wake up on a Saturday morning to news that some of your soldiers got jumped outside a bar, with one ending up in the hospital and the other one was already confined to post. Still it was hands down my best time in the Army. Our Professor of Military Science at Bonas was fond of saying the tragic thing about being an Army officer is that your first job (platoon leader) is also your best. After being a PL nothing else was as rewarding.

I had no idea what to expect as I got to Fort Hood. I had a couple friends already there, including one of the guys I had met on my first assignment at Fort Knox and was with again at our ADA OBC at Fort Bliss. Still, my orders only showed me going to HHB, 69th ADA BDE. That meant that I was assigned to the headquarters element of the brigade. That specific unit had just relocated from Germany to Fort Hood, standing up only two weeks prior to my arrival. When units make such moves they generally lose a lot of personnel to reassignments (PCS). The brigade HQ was down to about 20% of their full complement, and I was one of only three lieutenants now with them. In an odd way that made me a bit valuable, but this turned out to be a case of high value backfiring.

Expecting to be assigned to one of the staff cells, which would have been a normal next step after being a PL, I was instead told I would be the new brigade adjutant. I didn’t even know what the fuck that was. I had always thought the S-1 was also the adjutant (S-1 is the equivalent of a company’s HR department). The Big Green Weenie got me and I ended up running the brigade command group. This was the office composed of the brigade commander, deputy commander, the command sergeant major, their drivers, and a few other odds and ends. As the Adj. my job was pretty similar to that of an executive assistant. Day to day it meant that I needed to control traffic into the Big 3’s offices, prepare transportation as needed, and keep a pot of hot water always ready for the commander’s green tea. Goddamn free radicals.

I went from being in the motor pool or the field most days to being in an office taking care of VIPs. Suddenly I needed to watch my language and keep up appearances. Keeping the boss’s travel books, to include local points of interest, and prepare conference rooms for big staff meetings were of utmost importance. Keeping printers loaded instead of machine guns was the order of the day. I was wholly unprepared for this.

My biggest adjustment though was having female subordinates for the first time. My unit in Korea had some female soldiers, but my platoon did not. I had female classmates in ROTC and in all the schools I attended as a lieutenant, but that’s not the same. I wasn’t too sure about how to interact with the female private who was a secretary in the command group, and I wasn’t even sure what to make of having a female NCO reporting to me. Better scrub all the joking about tiny dicks and giant, harry balls. This nervous aversion prompted me to get away from the command group whenever I could. I was constantly second guessing my words and replaying interactions in my head, hoping that I hadn’t done anything inappropriate.

This went on for a couple months before I finally started feeling comfortable with my new surroundings and subordinates. While I continued to hate the dog and pony show of the command group I developed a really strong relationship with my NCO. Jessica was one of the most professional NCOs I worked with. We became a good team, she was able to coach me in the finer points of being in the command group and watched my back. I made sure her and our soldiers were always taken care of. She even helped drive me to and from appointments when I had my eyes corrected. Jessica’s expertise made her a  steadying soul. She was the kind of NCO a lieutenant hopes for and needs. If she ever picked up on my initial prejudice she didn’t let on. She just did her job as best as she could every day. This humbled me and made me recognize how wrong I had been to harbor any doubts or to favor the male NCO (at least internally) who would eventually get reassigned for being a lazy bullshitter.

I learned how to lead young female soldiers too. PFC Wilde was, in spite of her name, one of the most timid people I’d ever met. She was normally the first person to greet whoever came into the command group. This meant that she would have to interact with majors and lieutenant colonels multiple times a day, and from time to time a general. It was physically painful to watch how uncomfortable and nervous she would get. Once day, after a general had come and left, I took her aside and said to her ‘Wilde, I get that those people make you nervous but they’re just people who eat, breath, and take big stinky shits like you and me. Show them the respect due their rank, but remember they’re just people.’ That got her to laugh and she seemed to eventually shake some of her nerves.

Being the Adj. sucked ass. No other way to put it, I just hated being that close to the sun. It wasn’t a good fit for me and I wasn’t good for it. Eventually a couple more lieutenants came in and after 6 months I was mercifully given a new job. Still with the HQ battery, but as the battery XO. I had been lobbying the deputy commander, a very empathetic man, for this job for months. Everyone knew that the HHB commander was a soup sandwich and needed tons of help. Being an XO is also the typical next job for a lieutenant after they’re a PL. The XO is second in charge, covers down for the commander when they’re on leave, and takes care of the administrative side of the house. It’s kind of like being a chief of staff but with guns.

What the deputy commander told me when breaking this news was to go and fix the supply system and the maintenance program of the battery. It was widely known that these were the two largest problems facing the HHB. These are typically things that an XO would focus on and the HHB hadn’t had an XO since moving to Fort Hood. It didn’t take too much prodding for me to discover the depth and breadth of my task at hand.

Talking to the supply sergeant I found out that there was never a 100% inventory conducted prior to leaving Germany or upon arrival at Fort Hood. My mouth hung open at that revelation. Such inventories are standard practice. How nobody had caught this lapse and corrected it was dumbfounding. Nearly two full years went by for this commander with no 100% inventory. These should happen at least once a year. So I had taken on a supply system that ignored some of the most basic tenants of best practices.

The motor pool was an equal mess. It was short staffed, but we all were. The biggest problem was a lack of oversight. The motor sergeant was good, but motor sergeants don’t carry much weight outside of their motor pools. Without an officer to take his concerns to people with decision making authority the motor sergeant might as well stick the lube gun up his ass and squeeze until it goes click. Out of the 40 vehicles and other pieces of major equipment like trailers and generators, 12 were deadlined. More than 25% of the battery’s mission essential equipment was non-functional. That meant that the unit itself was non-mission capable. While the supply system issues were systemic and would require tedious work to correct, the maintenance program was practically nonexistent.

Absorbing all this information and forming a plan to unfuck the battery meant I would need to be the shit hot LT that I fancied myself as. This was a true sink or swim moment that would test me. If I could pull this off I would do credit to my ROTC instructors and those who had mentored me since. If I failed I’d get some sympathy, but I’d be seen as average at best. That didn’t sit well with me, so I dove in like a maniac.

I knew I wouldn’t be in this position for very long as I would be promoted to captain in June and it was now February. The XO billet was for a lieutenant, so I had about 4 months to get something done. During this time I got one major lucky break with my new boss taking leave for about a 1/3 of my tenure as XO. With him out of the picture I had one less obstacle. Having to cover down on the meetings he would go to and reports he would send up was far less of a thief on my time. I usually prepared those reports anyway. It also made things less bloody when I had to break the news of the lack of inventories being conducted to the brigade commander, the same one whose green tea I used to make. Coming clean with this news instead of continuing to cover it up saved me from a serious chewing out, but my new boss sure got it when he got back. I had become so angered with his incompetence that it didn’t bother me one bit. I was the one having to clean up his mess, he could at least take an ass chewing.

So we got to business with slowly accounting for every single piece of equipment and property. In the meantime I went through every maintenance record with my motor sergeant so that we could make a plan for fixing all our vehicles. One truck was hopeless. It needed a new engine and that was an issue that would be taken care of many levels above us. As for the other 11, we methodically identified sources of repair parts. There was an intra-post transfer program that allowed us to essentially buy excess spare parts from other units instead of ordering through the traditional system. That cut down on wait time for parts and got some of our vehicles back up and running in short order. Other issues required some help from the warrant officer who oversaw the brigade’s maintenance system. He was the head maintainer, and warrant officers are the people who you go to when you need a drug deal. Not cocaine. I’m talking about a quiet deal between some old friends to get things taken care of without all the normal forms and red tape. After a couple months of this our truck awaiting a new engine was the only remaining deadline. We were also able to get a couple more mechanics assigned to us and were nearly fully staffed.

What stood out to me was that the supply sergeant and motor sergeant were outstanding at their jobs. They knew the faults of their respective systems and it tore them up. They needed help though, they needed someone to enable them to just do their jobs. I didn’t do anything special. All I did was talk to them, try to listen and understand their problems, and figure out what bullshit I could take off their plates.

Many times officers are the butt of lazy jokes, not always undeservedly. What I learned from the best officers I met was that they didn’t walk around with a sense of self-importance. They looked at subordinates as important people on a team. The officer might hold a higher rank but that didn’t mean much. Everyone had a job to do, and without each person doing their share the whole team failed. The best officers I knew stayed humble and sought out ways to help their people do their jobs. The approach essentially put everyone else’s job at a higher priority. Being more concerned about their subordinates’ ability to achieve than their own accomplishments and ego, these officers made everyone around them better and happier.

There is a good deal more to my time at Fort Hood, so we’ll revisit this. Reflecting on this assignment it becomes clear to me how important it was to my development as an officer and as a person. Obviously I broke down some unjustified biases. I also had experiences that reinforced my ideas of leading by putting your subordinates above yourself. I learned that sitting down to talk to people, getting to know them and show genuine concern was what would make or break you. The importance of communication and honesty were driven home during this year at Fort Hood. Above all else, what I came to know with complete certainty was that the only things that matter about a person are their competence and their character. Are you able to fulfill your responsibilities and are you ethical?