How to break the civil/military divide, an advanced discussion.

My earlier post on starting the conversation between vet and non-vet eluded to some advanced questions to broach once you’re more comfortable with each other. I think we’ve gotten to that point and it’s time to revisit the original concept. Again, the inspiration for this came from this post by War on the Rocks. As in the first part the questions from WotR are in italics and my responses are in normal text.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your service? – I learned the value of each individual human. This was touched on in the first part but I’ll take some time to elaborate. My Franciscan education taught me that each human holds equal value and we all deserve to be respected as a basic right. I still held some prejudices though that were ingrained on me at a young age. While I had grown out of some and started to shed others, I cannot deny that some still lingered. My experiences during my service broke down the hang ups I still had around gay men. A big reason for that was that there just weren’t many gay men that I had met while growing up. Meeting different people who I’d never come into contact with before dispelled ugly stereotypes and the lies I’d been told as a young boy in a way that nothing else could have.

The same could be said of my view of the greater world. You have to understand that I grew up in a small town in western NY, which is to say I grew up in an isolated bubble. Growing up somewhat poor we didn’t take a lot of road trips, the first time I flew was when I was 15, and I can count the number of vacations we took on one hand. Bumpkin could have applied to me quite fittingly. So imagine what impact 5 years of living in different places for no more than 12 months at a time would be. In my first year on active duty I lived at Fort Knox, Fort Benning, Fort Bliss, back to Benning, and then went off to Korea! That was a pretty intense education on the culture of America’s south and also a southwest border town (Ft. Bliss is in El Paso). Followed by going right into the deep end of cultural adjustment by living in Korea for a year. The analogy of teaching a kid to swim is apt here. In order for me to enjoy living in these places I had to adjust my expectations and how I interacted with the local population. I had to broaden myself and open my mind. Anyone in such situations who refuses to open themselves and learn new ways becomes closed off and insular. They hate their time spent in said location and have nothing good to say about it.

So the most important thing I learned from my time in the Army is that life requires an open mind willing to continuously learn. And that no matter where you are in the world, people are people. We all have the same intrinsic value, we all need to be shown respect, and all anybody wants is to be safe and free. I came out of the Army a greatly changed person. For the better I think.

What made you most proud of being in uniform? – First, there are plenty of things to not be proud of. Things I did myself and things that I share moral injury for by association. But if I think of what I’m proud of it’s that I did something that so few do. Growing up I had a pretty laser focused concept that I would serve in some way. I didn’t really have a thought of not serving, it was just a given. That’s a pretty broad idea of what to take pride in. If I had to think of specific acts its more difficult. I did nothing heroic, I was never in a firefight, I didn’t save anybody or help a village of little kids to go to school. I do think I served honorably and treated others with respect, especially people I outranked. That may not be something that people would typically think of as a point of pride, but the best thing I can think of is that I did my job to the best of my ability and treated others well. Maybe somewhere in there my actions and example made an impact on a young soldier, maybe I’m full of shit. I hope it’s the former.

How did the United States change while you were gone? – Tricky, I was never gone from the US for more than a year at a time. Some important things happened while I was gone though. I was in Korea from June 2007 – June 2008. So while the worldwide economy was burning like the Joker’s pile of cash I was just doing my thing as a PL and hoping that my joes didn’t show up on Monday morning with news of marrying a Juicy Girl or ending up in the hospital after a bar fight (spoiler, both happened). The effect of this is that I was again living in a bubble, this one built by the DoD, and couldn’t really grasp what the Great Recession was and how bad it was. In retrospect I was not unlike a Wall Street banker (LoLz).

The other major event happened while I was in Basrah. This was the first shooting at Fort Hood by Dr. Nidal Hasan. I had been stationed at Hood before my assignment to a transition team, so this gave me an odd feeling of being safer in Iraq than if I had still been at Hood. This is a memory that still brings up a discomforting sense of surrealism. My hands are trembling as I type and my body is tense. I was so afraid that one of my friends had been shot back home, where we were supposed to be safe, and I was half way around the world watching the news on a TV in our team’s TOC. I was the one who was safe, and they were the ones being shot.

On the lighter side I missed a couple of major sports events (for me at least). The first NHL Winter Classic featuring Pittsburg playing in Buffalo happened while I was in Korea. If you’re a hockey fan you’ll understand that I may never get to see the WC in Buffalo again. Then again, my NYE in Seoul was pretty fucking fantastic too. The other event I missed was the last Yankees World Series win when I was in Iraq. I didn’t really have a chance to watch any of that since I was living at a remote location. Since then, while I’ve been able to follow baseball again, the Yanks were on the decline for a bit and I’ve had to tolerate the Red Sox’s success.

To strike a more metaphysical tone, the whole time I was on active duty I really was ‘away’. The bubble that you live in is ever present. While civilians were facing economic ruin we were all safely employed and receiving annual raises that outstripped our civilian counterparts at an obscene rate. Another aspect of the civil/military divide. There truly are tangible differences in these two parts of American society. I can hardly be upset at a civilian who would’ve begrudged my pay raises from 2007 – 2011. Debates over deserving or not deserving the raises are irrelevant. The fact is many people were losing their jobs, houses, and lives while we were secure in our housing, jobs, and increasing pay. So the country that I came back to after being in a bubble of alternate-DoD-reality for five years was unrecognizable. I didn’t understand what everyone else had gone through during that time and they didn’t understand what I had gone through. We were two strangers separated at birth trying to enjoy a family reunion as if we’d known each other all along. Honestly, there are times where I still don’t understand my place in my community. As I wrote last week I’m not at home at the VSOs, and while I’ve tried to reintegrate to The World, my success in that has been spotty. America changed so much while I was gone. So much so that being ‘gone’ again can seem like a comforting option at times.

Would you do it again? Why or why not?” – This is a question that cannot be treated lightly or given and off the cuff ‘ABSOLUTELY!!!’ Military service will change everyone in such fundamental ways that this question deserves considerable meditation by any vet. I’ve kicked this around a good deal, sometimes thinking it was a mistake to serve. When I see my college peers having more success it’s easy to think that they were the smarter ones for going the traditional route and dedicating themselves to a career path.

But then I remember this. Please do listen, The Kinks say it in a superior way to anything I could hope to.

Now, the romantic notion of the great, unique individual railing against the machinations of conformity is a bit of sentimental horseshit. That being said, at heart I’ve never stopped being the angry punk rock kid I was and that has driven me, in part at least, to detest following set paths. I love freaks. I have Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” tattooed on my left thigh FFS! Doing things on my own has bitten me in the ass at times. I remember a day during my time in the command group with 69th ADA where the brigade deputy commander came out of his office and sang Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way’ to me to point out my counterproductive impatience. Point well taken, Brian.

In the end I know I would do it again. I may even have stayed in longer had some assignments gone differently. Had I been selected for Civil Affairs that would have changed things dramatically. If I had recognized a career as an Acquisitions officer was possible that may have kept me in. Those things did not happen though. To grind my teeth over those lost possibilities would be fruitless and very un-Stoic. I have a lot to be grateful for as a result of my time in the Army. Hopefully I made it clear in my above comments that I became a better person as a result of my service. If not for this path in life I may still be much more like my 18 year old self, a self that I’d like to punch right in the yambags if I could.

 

Well, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed this. Please use these posts as a conversation starter. The whole point is to provide a model for how a non-vet can approach a vet with some certainty of their questions, or for the vets to be open to these questions. One thing that dawned on me while writing these two posts is that it was like interviewing myself. The value of this exercise cannot be overstated. This introspection is great for mental health. It gave me a deeper understanding of myself, and a greater perspective on my own life. It’ll be great if my writing catches on to a large audience. If that doesn’t happen I’ve still gained much from the exercise of writing. I’d encourage anyone to do the same.

Until we meet again.

My year with the Dragon, Part IV

Alright, let’s wrap up this series of posts focused on my time in Korea. This has been a difficult series as there are so many things I could include, but at the same time I don’t want this to be an incoherent ramble. I also don’t want this to come off as a stroll down memory lane with rose tinted glasses. I’ve mostly written about some good experiences and the posts have had a mostly positive tone. Well, today I’ll bring the dreary, the bored, the dark……  Aren’t you excited now?

Really though, it’s important to highlight these things. I’m sure some people have read the previous three parts and wondered why I didn’t stay in Korea. I certainly had the opportunity to volunteer for another one or two years, and it was tempting. So I’ll explain that decision today as well. If we are to dissect this we will need to look at two main points – expat life, and honor.

The expat life was pretty amazing. That much should be clear from what I’ve already written. It was also exhausting, often lonely, and terminally temporary. The pace at which I was living started to wear me down by month 10 and by month 11, I was losing perspective. After months of living like this and thinking it was just the greatest way to live I began to see the murky cheerlessness of expat life. The pattern of transience which kept gifting you new friends and then taking others away. The abject lonesomeness of being a LT at Camp Casey with little or no chance of having any kind of meaningful relationship when the people whose company I enjoyed were people I only saw on the weekends (with a few exceptions). If I stayed past my 12 months the few friends still at Camp Casey would also leave. I would be like the old guy hanging around college bars long past his time.

I also started to examine the life of my friends who had been in Korea for a few years but knew that they weren’t going to be there permanently. It was an odd sort of limbo. You are in a semi-permanent state of life. You start building a medium-term life where you want to create some more comforts, you accumulate more things, you establish relationships, but the whole time you know that these things cannot all be taken with you, the relationships won’t last so you don’t invest too much into them, and the comforts are still only temporary. You want to build something more than just a short-term life but you know that you’ll only get so much out of it. This quasi-permanence and superficiality wasn’t how I wanted to start my adult life, especially after spending my first year out of college moving 6 times from one temporary duty to another. I was ready to start something more meaningful.

When I think over all the people I met and the oddity of this life one example stands out among all others. I ended up at a Halloween party that my rugby friends in Seoul were going to. It was at this strangely western style two story house in a dank corner of Itaewon. I assumed it was just another English teacher’s home. It looked so much like the crumby apartment houses that I’d go to for a house party at St. Bonas. Nasty carpets, filthy bathrooms, mishmash of furniture, tons of beer and booze, and it was all topped off with the festive lighting and fog machines that Halloween brings out. I was stunned to find out the guy who lived there was a major stationed at Yongsan Garrison. This guy was running around in a bedsheet, laughing the kind of obnoxious laughs of someone who got too drunk too early. A squirrelly kind of man, he reminded me of Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now. Lost in hubris, living a hedonistic fantasy. I was curious and horrified at the same time. This was not a future I wanted for myself. Mid-30’s, single, living like I did at 21. I may have been too harsh in my judgement, I probably shouldn’t have made a judgement at all other than to know I didn’t want to be him. I enjoyed my night and drank a lot of his beer. So it goes.

When people ask me what Korea was like I usually give a short answer – I loved the weekends and hated the weeks. This was 2007 – 2008. The Army’s priorities were Iraq, Afghanistan (sometimes), followed by Korea. Trying to keep vehicles maintained and working was a daily battle. This made any training we conducted far more difficult than it should have been. Nothing went smoothly. The monotony of garrison life would drag on, the same struggle day after day. Sometimes this would be broken up when the battery would be on ‘red phase’. Each month some units would be designated to take care of garrison duties, so regular training ceased while a portion of your soldiers would be tasked out to do things like guard the ammunition holding area (AHA) or for gate guard duty. I’d have to go out on courtesy patrols of the Ville some nights. That meant that some weekends were used up having to stay local and at night put on a uniform and walk around the Ville, checking out all the juicy bars. The point was to provide a soft deterrent to soldiers getting out of control. My battery was in this red phase in December and in order to give the soldiers a break on Christmas the PSGs, PLs, first sergeant, and battery commander rotated to cover the AHA duty, which is a 24 hour thing. The LTs got stuck with the overnight shift, so Christmas night 2007 was spent with the other PLs sitting around ‘guarding’ a large stockpile of ammo.

A handful of units took their work seriously but many people looked at Korea as a vacation from the real Army.  This leads us to the part about honor. An ugly truth that many people would rather ignore is that people were hiding out in Korea, dodging deployment. Many were open about it, NCOs and officers. So how does a young LT keep motivated and keep his soldiers motivated when so many other ‘leaders’ are so brashly open about how they are in Korea to avoid going to Iraq or Afghanistan? It was a sick sort of bragging. Laughing about how they’re pulling one over on the Army by staying in Korea, collecting extra pay allowances and parting up, and all the time they’re just hiding while other men and women are, at that time, going on their third, fourth, and even fifth deployments. The combat dodgers infuriated me. Being around them and having to work with them made me sick. Having to maintain a professional front and not undermine them while they didn’t deserve an ounce of respect was intolerable.

By the end I had become so jaded and cynical that I couldn’t recognize myself. My drinking was out of control, but I couldn’t think of any other way to cope with anger from work and the despairing loneliness I felt each night. The Neil Diamond song ‘Captain of a Shipwreck’ became a nightly theme song to belt out in a drunken haze. In many ways I was a wreck myself. I needed change.

Talking about the combat dodgers and my own future with my friend Paul was the single  most important factor in my decision to leave Korea instead of staying for another year. Paul’s view on it was that it’s all well and fine for someone to want to spend a second year, get experience in another position and soak up all you can from the uniqueness of being in Korea. But for someone to do it when their right shoulder was still bare was nothing but cowardice (right shoulders are where combat patches are worn). This wouldn’t be the last time I would consult Paul on matters of career decisions. I made up my mind that I could not stay in Korea and maintain my honor. As much as I loved the country, as much potential as there was for a new assignment in-country, staying another year just was not something I could do without turning my back on my values. A life changing decision in many ways, but I still think this was the right thing to do.

Looking back now there are many things I miss and many I do not. I’m grateful for the experience of living in such a foreign country, experiencing a culture so different from what I grew up in. The unbridled adventure is something to cherish. If I could have any of the things I had in Korea I would want the sense of community, the sense of belonging, that I got from my circle of friends. And a goddamned Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Is that so much to ask for?

Until we meet again.

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…

My year with the Dragon, Part I

June has been an eventful month for me over the past dozen years or so. Facebook memories have popped up that reminded me just how life altering this month has been for me over the years. I was promoted to captain, got engaged to my wife, and reported to Fort Riley, KS to begin training as a military advisor in June of 2009. I also had 3 PCSs that fell in June. I began terminal leave in June 2011, and moved back to NY at that time. My first active duty assignment began on June 1, 2006.

Two of those permanent change of station movements were my assignment to Korea and my departure from Korea. Those happened on June 4, 2007 and June 3, 2008, 366 days that were the most impactful on my life out of any other year. Exploring Korea, broadening my mind and growing as a person, meeting people from so many different countries through rugby, and most importantly, being a platoon leader made for one busy year. The apprehension, excitement, fear, anger, enjoyment, and raw exhilaration of being 23 and half way across the globe are difficult to sum up in words. I’ll give it my best….

But first, let me address the 3 month gap between posts. I truly strive for consistency here, both in quality of my writing and in timeliness of postings. March and April brought on a brief spell of depression. I couldn’t bring myself to really do much of anything, and would then become frustrated over being so unproductive. Not just here but with simple things around the house. Everything was just too much to take on or not worth it. Apathy is the worst part of depression to me. It’s a black hole. I shook it off after a few weeks, but by then so much had piled up that it has been hard to find the energy to sit down and write, even as more and more topics came to mind. Lots of other things have been going on as well and it’s been very hard to block out some time to get back to writing. In short – life gets in the way. I apologize for the inconsistency and length between posts. I hope you’ll find this worth the wait.

Alright, so I spent one year in Korea. Originally my orders had me going to Osan Air Base, which was a really posh gig for an Army guy. In the end I spent one day at Osan. Through an odd quirk of timing I arrived at Osan about 13 months after those orders were cut. Following graduation/commissioning I was on temporary assignments for a year, mostly schools, and so when I got to Osan the 35th ADA brigade had just gone through a reorganization where the brigade HQ was under permanent orders to Korea (roughly 150 people) but the subordinate battalions were on one year rotations from their permanent homes stateside. So the majority of lieutenant slots within the brigade were not slots that I could be assigned to and there was no room for me in the HQ. The only air defense unit that I could go to was the Avenger battery up at Camp Casey which was recently moved from under the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade (that’s field artillery). After sorting out all this HR mess I was put back on a bus and sent up to Casey, 11 miles south of the DMZ.

My first week in Korea consisted of an 18 hour flight, being bused from Inchon airport to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the next day getting some briefings and inoculations for smallpox and anthrax (a 6 shot series), the next day getting bused a couple hours south to Osan, the next day being turned around and sent a few hours back north, and finally on day five reporting to my first line unit. One upside to my reassignment being so oddly done is that I got in under the radar and avoided a two week orientation to Area 1 (the US bases north of Seoul) which was at Camp Red Cloud if I remember correctly. So that saved me some annoyance and another temporary move while I lugged around a ton of baggage with me.

The rest of June and July were mostly spent getting to know the men in my platoon, building a relationship with my platoon sergeant, and spending the weekends exploring the local area around Camp Casey – Dongducheon- or partying in Seoul. One of the other LTs who was getting ready to leave showed some of us around and introduced me to his suit guy in Seoul. Jokeman was the kind of tailor who you needed to be introduced to by a current customer. His shop was in the basement of a nondescript building in Itaewon (the area right outside Yongsan Garrison). It gave you the feeling of knowing a great secret and being a trusted insider to walk down those stairs and into Jokeman’s place. He made fantastic ‘Armani’ suits and would always say that his dream was to be a great comedian like Jim Carey. That was kind of odd though as he was older than Jim Carey. Whenever you stopped in Jokeman gave you one free joke, and he had a map of the US hanging up so you could show him where you were from. Over 12 months I bought three suits, 2 cashmere overcoats, and 2 handmade scarves from Jokeman, because single LTs have more money than sense.

The single best thing I did during this time was spend time with my platoon sergeant. Clester Slater was a recently pinned sergeant first class in his first gig as a PSG and close to the end of his time in Korea. That combination would probably be terrible with most people, but Clester was the best NCO I ever worked with. The couple months I got to share with him leading our platoon had more of an impact on me as a young leader than the other 10 months I had with two other PSGs. There were a couple of really simple, seemingly insignificant things I did that helped build a good rapport. One was showing up for a uniform inspection. It wasn’t something I thought twice about doing along with the rest of the platoon, but Clester seemed surprised that I participated and that my uniform wasn’t all messed up. The other big thing in hindsight is that I spent time in the motor pool talking to my guys, having them show me around their Avengers, and just shooting the shit with Clester. We’d pass Mondays sitting in a conex (storage container) in the motor pool just talking. It allowed him to teach me about maintenance programs, all the paperwork, how to spot when someone was bullshitting you, and to watch over the platoon without micromanaging. Lots of fundamental knowledge was passed on from him this way. I was fortunate.

All these things seemed like no-brainers to me. I couldn’t think of what a PL would do otherwise, but I saw plenty who didn’t. The simple things made big impacts. That’s something I’ve kept with me over the years and I’m thankful that I learned it early on.

August came and brought with it being detailed out to a joint US/Korean exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens. About once a quarter there are big joint exercises that are largely computer simulations. These are the exercises the North Korean dictators are always complaining about and are currently suspended. It was pretty boring but I got to meet a couple more LTs that became friends. The extra special facet was that as soon as this three week exercise ended my battery was rolling out for a semi-annual gunnery exercise. So for three weeks straight I was working 12 on/12 off shifts and then had to take my platoon out for my first gunnery exercise. These are make or break kinds of things for a PL, and I was able to get released from the UFL exercise a couple days early so that I could at least make sure my platoon was prepared.

This gunnery was the first big field exercise I had with my platoon. I wanted to show that I was competent and I wanted to impress. This exercise was for our Avenger crews to qualify with the .50 cal machine guns and it took place at a Korean facility called Nightmare Range. The range itself was actually beautiful. The .50 cals are so powerful that you have to have a range complex that is several square kilometers in size. Nightmare Range was essentially a valley where you would shoot from one side to the other. If it wasn’t being used for military drills it could probably be a national park. The real nightmare was in getting there. We always drove at night to minimize the risks of mixing with civilian traffic. The roads we had to take were the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. Blind turns, barely any light, sheer cliffs with 100 foot drops. Riding shotgun I could look out my door window and peer into a pitch black bottomless pit. But that meant the terrifying part was out of the way up front.

The rest of the range went off with no major snags. It was a good introduction to how field exercises in Korea went. Every time you went to the field a ‘Field Ma’ would show up and set up a tent and cook. It was kind of like having a food truck follow you out to work. Ma (short for ajumma) would make things like ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and stocked tons of candy and cold drinks. The peach water and Mr. Big bars were my favorite, red bean popsicles are no joke either. As long as you were on Korean military land you had a Ma nearby. Luckily for me my unit never did much field training on American installations.

The fall rolled on and into winter. Camp Casey is on roughly the same line of latitude as western NY, so with the exception of the monsoon season in summer everything was pretty familiar. There were some trips to Busan, which entailed riding the bullet train and violating several command directives about local travel and curfew. Busan being at the very southern tip of the peninsula and a couple hours from any US installation meant that there was no way to go there without violating curfew. It also meant that you could feel like a normal person. The beaches of Busan were salvation. This was another circle of expat friends that I stumbled upon through mutual Army friends.

The expats in Korea were usually from English speaking countries who were in country to teach English. I met a lot through playing rugby, something new for me in Korea. I fell in love with the sport and its focus on hard competition and sportsmanship. Enjoying the game was only part of it, the post-match socials were what made a community. We sometimes hosted the Seoul Survivors up at Camp Casey, other times we would travel, and sometimes I’d whore it up with the Survivors. There was a women’s side named the Seoul Sisters too. Between the Survivors and the Sisters I made great friends that I still talk to today. They were always welcoming and happy to help me when I needed a place to crash. They were a collection of expats from the US, Canada, UK, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. Through my club, the 2ID Warriors RFC, I also met a South African who joined the Army.

The connections I made through rugby were stronger than those I made from work. Camaraderie in the Army is highly touted, but within my unit there were only a few guys I really hung out with. Even when we weren’t playing I’d pop down to Seoul for a few pints at Pub Scrooge’s and maybe head out to Hongdae, an off limits section of Seoul. There were holiday parties (Halloween and Christmas stand out!) and dodgeball tournaments. I learned about Aussie and Kiwi culture and gained a more international outlook on life. My rugby friends, both Army and expat, were who I spent most of my weekends with. They’re the friendships that helped to shape me, some of them are people I still look up to, a few made life altering changes on who I am. I owe a great debt to these people. If not for rugby I’m not sure I’d be quite the person I am today.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a break. I didn’t realize at the beginning that I’d have so much to write just about this one year. There’s more I could have included here, but maybe that’s best left for print instead of blog. If you haven’t already, check my post about my Thanksgiving in Korea. I hope this entertained you and gave some more insight into Army life by the DMZ. If there’s anything you’d like to know more about leave a comment or shoot me an email through the Contact page. Next week – Part 2, I promise.

Until we meet again….

Becoming a Bonnie

March Madness is here and it’s raised up so much emotion. I really enjoy college basketball, but what’s caused this recent rollercoaster isn’t the tournament itself, getting to see St. Bonaventure playing in the Big Dance and the outpouring from fellow alumni has been a tidal wave this past week. In an example of Facebook’s fundamental value, an alumnus started a group specifically around the March Madness run of the Bonnies which quickly grew to about 4,000 alumni. The group shared support of the team, but also many stories of why they decided to go to Bonas, why it is such a special place, and we all got to see the Bonaventure Bond in full court press as people who didn’t know each other felt that special connection.

So today I want to share my own story of coming to Bonas, how it changed me, and why I am eternally grateful to call myself a Bonnie. I’ve written in general terms about Bonas when explaining my route to commissioning, but today I’m going to share some not often shared stories to explain why I ended up at Bonas and how it remade me.

I had strong feelings about fairness, justice, and defending the defenseless formed at a young age. A steady diet of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles combined with adoration of my Uncle Joe’s service in World War II molded my young mind. So much so that when I was about 7 I decided that it was my job to protect the neighborhood. One summer morning I packed up my backpack with toy handcuffs, Ninja Turtle weapons like sais, nunchucks, and Leonardo’s swords, and probably some toy guns – my crime fighting kit. I tied off my bandana and set off to patrol the neighborhood. Walking the beat on the blocks surrounding my HQ (house) and finding no bad guys I returned after maybe 15 or 20 minutes to find my dad losing his mind. I got yelled at pretty good for leaving the house without telling anyone and how worried he was that I’d been kidnapped. I calmly explained I was just out on patrol and couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong – but that was the last time I did that.

As you probably guessed, I was a weird kid. I was also perennially undersized and socially awkward which led to a lot of bullying. In what was probably an overprotective move my parents switched me from the local public elementary school after second grade and I started at the Catholic school. How anyone would think that would result in less bullying kind of amazes me in hindsight. I never fit in there, partly because I also didn’t want to be there. Some of the kids tried to be friendly, but over the course of the year I just felt isolated and never fully part of the class. Fortunately I would be with the same group of kids as long as I was at this school! So I coped by keeping to myself, being suspicious of anyone who approached me, never really trusting others. This ebbed and flowed, but it was mostly pretty crappy.

Like most elementary school classes there were two or three kids that were just absolute douches. These guys were my tormentors. One morning during 5th grade one of them approached me by the coat rack. He was about a foot taller than me and had me cornered as he made weird moaning noises and thrusted his pelvis at me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and something just snapped. Without thinking I just punched him in the gut as hard as I could. That knocked the wind out of the kid, his face turned red and he was completely shocked. The teacher came to sort things out. I ended up getting after school detention that day, essentially punishing me for defending myself. Again, with hindsight that kind of makes sense for a Catholic school.

That’s more or less how early childhood went for me. Lots of isolation and feeling like an outsider, never really finding a place I fit in until I discovered punk music in high school.  Still though, I had no personal connections. I felt no great pride in my hometown or high school, friends and social circles were always fluid. I protected myself by walling myself off. JROTC was what saved me from being a total failure in high school. A few recent graduates had gone on to St. Bonaventure, winning ROTC scholarships. My JROTC was an informal feeder for Bonas ROTC, and this was my path. This was my hope for escaping a hometown I hated and finding my place in the world.

So in August of 2002 I arrived at St. Bonaventure. A place that, in the early unchecked days of Wikipedia, was described as being widely known to be the greatest place on Earth (it is). Boy was I a mess when I got there, that much should be clear by now. On top of the social problems I had growing up I was also raised in a very traditional Catholic worldview coated in a healthy dose of racism. While hanging out in the punk scene helped correct some of that, it’s fair to say I got to Bonas still thinking homosexuality was a repugnant defect and looked at minorities with suspicion. Those things that get ingrained in you from birth are hard to overcome.

Secured in the Bona Bubble, those ugly aspects of my character faded. I had finally found my place, safe and at peace. Bonas immediately felt like home, it’s what made up my mind to go there during a campus visit. The first time I drove in, seeing the Spanish tiled roofs appear as the car crested a hill there was a sense of serenity. I had my bumps during freshman year, but eventually found a group of friends that I could trust. I let my guard down and felt normal for the first time, knowing that I could be myself without fear of ridicule. These same friends also called me on my bullshit. They helped me see how wrong the views I was raised on were. This was the family that I’d always needed.

Ask me where my home is and who my family is and I’ll tell you my home is Bonaventure (Townhouse 33 specifically) and my family is made up of Bonnies. My roommates are my brothers. The bonds made with friends from Bonas are tighter than those I have with most blood relatives. That’s why when I find out a friend from Bonas has a baby, and is without any baby Bona gear, I happily drive the 75 miles to campus to buy a onesie to mail out with my congratulations and love.

I have no greater affinity for anything in my life than St. Bonas. Not my hometown, not my high school friends, and not even the Army. Bonas is the sole place in my story where I felt so right. Bad decisions may have been made every weekend, but never a bad memory. Bonas is where I left behind the shy, stand-offish kid I was and became Timmerzzz. A nickname that I reveled in given to me by some of my stoner friends. I decided to spell it with three Z’s solely so that when someone asked me why I spelled it that way I could then say ‘Because I roll Three Z’s Deep, motherfucker!” A long way from who I was at 18.

Bonas also turned me into a more thoughtful and compassionate person. The ideas, biases, and worldview I entered with were not the ones I left with. At Bonas I was exposed to new ideas, new people, and was forced to expand my critical thinking. The changes were dramatic in scope and swiftness. A liberal arts education is often looked at as needless. I’d argue it’s absolutely necessary if you want to be a complete person. Classes in critical thinking & writing, philosophy and logic, studying the classical world, and majoring in history all combined to give me essential skills for understanding the world around me. I was able to see my own flaws and confront them.

True, this happens at many universities. What makes St. Bonaventure special is the people. Sitting along the Allegany River, the campus’s southern boundary, and overlooked by the Enchanted Mountains with Merton’s Heart guiding you, there is no place more peaceful. St. Bonas is a Catholic Franciscan school. For those unfamiliar with this tradition Franciscans are often called the Hippies of the Catholic Church. While they aren’t promoting Free Love, they are the most friendly people I’ve met. Full of joy and love for nature the friars were a gregarious group that wanted nothing more than to share their happiness with you. What I felt there was the same safety and comfort that I’d known at my Uncle Joe’s house.

The people. That’s the heart of this place we Bonnies love so dearly. The tranquility of the campus is infectious. You cannot help but be happy when you’re there, and that attitude feeds off itself. Walking around campus you are greeted with smiles and warmness, even when the wind chill is below zero. You bond in the shared isolation of St. Bonaventure’s geography, basketball, and beer. Bonaventure, basketball, beer. It seems simple and lacking, yet the simplicity of it is what brought us together. These were the things that mattered, the essentials. Anything else didn’t matter. You’re a Bonnie? Awesome, you’re my friend. Any other label you can put on a person disappears. If they bleed Brown and White you’re family.

So why was this chance to Dance so important? In the 2002-2003 season, my freshman year, there was a scandal that nearly destroyed the basketball program. The proud legacy of Bob Lanier and the 1970 Final Four team was overshadowed by a coach, athletic director, and university president who signed off on a junior transfer who had only a welding certificate and not an associates degree. This blew up with two games left in the season. All wins were vacated, the remaining players refusing to play, coach and AD fired, university president resigned, NCAA post-season ban (5 years I think?) and lost scholarships. During that summer the president of the board of trustees hanged himself. These were dark times for what had been a point of pride for the Bonaventure community. The team didn’t have another A-10 victory until my junior year (against Rhode Island) and that got us to storm the court. There had even been talk of dropping to a lower conference or out of D1 all together. Part of what bonded us so tightly was now something you’d rather forget about (like 4 straight Super Bowl losses).

So this past week when SBU was back in the Big Dance, all of us in the Bona family were dancing. Redemption is sweet. Sharing it with such a large family makes your chest swell and your eyes well. Both are happening as I write this.

We all love St. Bonaventure. I love it because it saved me. It took a scared, untrusting, and angry kid and turned him into a man who is thoughtful and compassionate. No longer ignorant and hateful but aware of the world around me and accepting. I’m not always the person that I strive to be, but I am proud of the person I’ve become. While I’m no longer Catholic, St. Bonaventure and St. Francis still guide me.

The spirit of Bonas molded me into a good person. That light is the gift that each of us Bonnies brings to the world.

Pax et bonum. Go Bonas!

Where it started

Nearly 17 years later how does this make you feel? My stomach still knots up. My skin turns clammy, mouth dry, hands turn into vices. My eyes well up and my chest burns. I still cannot watch videos of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then again, I saw that scene replay on CNN and Fox News on that prophetic day so much that it’s burned into my memory. Every camera angle, over and over again. Each time hoping that the plane would turn away. Seeing the grotesque collision belching flames and broken glass shattering everything that I knew.

I was 17.

I grabbed the books I needed for my next two classes, closed up my locker, and walked on to math class. My normal routine since senior year started the previous week (the school year starts after Labor Day in NY). A friend stopped me and asked if I had heard the news. He said terrorists had crashed a plane into both of the Twin Towers in the City. I shrugged it off because making up a joke like that would’ve been normal for him. As I walked the few hundred feet to math I heard some teachers talking about the attacks, trying to keep their voices quiet. By the time I got to class I realized it was true. Still, I hadn’t seen it yet. TVs were only in a few of the classrooms, most were only set up to play VHS tapes anyway. The day went on with updates trickling in. It wasn’t until after 3:00 when I got home that I finally saw the full scale of the horror.

More than 2,700 dead when the Towers collapsed. Another 200 plus at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. The towers burned and then gave out under their own weight. People who were cut off on floors above the crashes jumped to their deaths. Hundreds remained trapped in elevators they rode at the time of the crashes until the buildings fell upon them. Cable news mercilessly replayed the crashes in the corner of your TV while their live coverage continued. We relived the trauma of planes gracefully gliding in the air and then slamming into buildings dozens of times that day. We saw the sickening implosion of the Twin Towers and people fleeing on the street, covered in dust, blood, and tears.

I had known that I was going to apply for an ROTC scholarship before starting senior year. If no scholarship was offered I would enlist in the Army. Camouflage was already in my future, now conflict was too. Senior year of high school became an exercise in passing time. I knew what was ahead of me and just wanted to get there.

A scholarship was won and the following August I began four years of education and training to become an officer. I became part of Year Group 2006, which would become the first year group of officers to have been cadets in a war time Army for all four years of college since the Vietnam War. The suddenness of our transition from peace time to war time was quite queer.

The group of seniors at Bonas who were about to commission in 2003 seemed larger than life in some ways. It was clear that many of them were exceptional and would become great leaders. One would go on to be awarded the Soldiers Medal for his actions during the Fort Hood shooting in 2014. That group set a high bar for my class. We were fortunate to have them as role models. This was something I took for granted, only later realizing how uncommon this was.

St. Bonaventure was a serene place to find yourself. It was safe and welcoming. I became more confident, less introverted, more outgoing. There was tremendous personal growth. The whole time the specter of 9/11 hung overhead. Constant reminders of what caused our current conflict drove me, fueled deep seeded anger. That anger and hatred of our enemy clouded my judgement around the build up to invading Iraq. I was a typical American in that regard. Still stinging from the terrorist attacks and wanting a grand battle, something that Afghanistan could never be, I went along with the excuses to invade and initiate a regime change.

I remember being issued a Kevlar helmet shortly before the invasion started. When news broke of the first bombs dropping on Baghdad I strapped the helmet on and started running around the dorm floor. As the bombs fell I saw my future and grew excited at the prospect of getting my chance to get there to do my part. Shock and awe gave me a hard on. I was fanatical. I suppose that’s what you’d expect from a sheltered 18 year old. Oddly, being a freshman at the time of the invasion provided enough time to sour on the decision and become cynical by 2006.

Seeing the war in Iraq become a muddy counter insurgency and the floundering of our hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan made me wonder just what was waiting for me after commissioning. The incompetence and outright stupidity of so many of our military and political leaders left me feeling helpless. I could see the futility of war playing out, but at the same time I knew that it would become my job to execute those plans. I did my part as a good future leader and kept studying doctrine and field manuals, reading all the right books about grand strategy and foreign policy, working out twice a day (mostly). My duty was to prepare myself and then do my best in whatever assignment was handed to me. Being a cadet at that time was an odd mix of having the freedom to be critical and speak freely while knowing that I would become part of the machine executing and promoting a failed strategy. Kind of like wearing a helmet with ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on one side and a peace symbol pinned on the other side.

All the while the anger born of 9/11 remained, compounded by the anger over the administration’s failures. Keeping busy with school and looking forward to what parties were in store each week made the time pass. Allowing my chest to puff and head to swell off of the lines fed us about our greatness and bravery for volunteering during war time built up an unhealthy ego. Added to that was an unrealistic idea of what life in the Army would be like. Our ROTC instructors had a completely different experience of Army life, having 10 – 15 years of mostly peace time service they painted a picture based on that experience. By the time we all got out into the real Army it was a rude awakening to the realities of an Army that had been in a war footing for 5 years.

Disillusionment was a foregone conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any possible future for us that would end any other way. We were excited, patriotic, driven to serve a higher purpose, defend freedom. These things were not what we would end up doing. To make matters worse for me, the Army branched me in Air Defense Artillery. The Taliban and al-Queda didn’t exactly have air threats that needed to be defended against. The branch had been marginalized, it amounted to about 2% of the Army, and there was no real shooting mission for it in the Global War on Terrorism. CRAM did become operational towards the end of my tenure, but SHORAD – the more traditional soldiering part of ADA – was dying when I commissioned.

I had a difficult time accepting all this and kept looking for a way to get in the fight. I tried to transfer to Armor branch (tanks and cavalry) but ADA wouldn’t release me. I applied for Civil Affairs, only to get the rejection letter on my birthday. Finally I called my branch manager (they’re like career advisors) and said my separation packet would be coming to his desk if I couldn’t get an assignment to a Military Transition Team. Another odd twist of timing, the MTT assignments were winding down, with only two more cohorts planned. My branch manager had to make a deal with Field Artillery branch to swap out slots so that I could get the assignment, but he came through. Three years after commissioning, 8 years after 9/11, I finally had my piece of the fight.

The MTT assignment turned out to be a BTT – Border Transition Team. The Army had decided that few Iraqi Army units still needed embedded military advisors and had shifted focus to the Iraqi Border Police and the National Police to help build up those aspects of the Iraqi civil defenses. Our military advisor training started at Fort Riley, KS in mid-June and lasted about 90 days. In September we boarded planes in Topeka and headed to Kuwait. Stepping out of the plan the nasty air smacked me. Early morning local time, I was finally in the shit. It was September 11, 2009.

The 11 man team that I was on would be military advisors to a Border Police academy in Basra. The cadre of the academy all had more experience than any of us. Most had served the Iraqi military in some form for 20 or more years. I was paired up with a colonel who was in charge of the academy’s training plans and doctrine. Most days I just drank chai with him and talked about our families. We both knew that there was little I could offer. Fortunately my advisee did not begrudge me. I probably learned more from him than he would ever learn from me. It was another chance for me to grow through building an understanding of the Iraqi culture and history as related by this colonel. We would occasionally exchange gifts. He knew I liked the native dates and I knew, from the captain I replaced, that he enjoyed blue Gatorade. I also found the English/Arabic Koran I had kept from one of my classes at Bonaventure and gave it to the colonel. He was studying English and I knew he would appreciate the book more than I would. These days passed slowly.

Eventually one of the other BTTs from our cohort got reassigned and we picked up their responsibilities in Basra. We began advising a battalion of Border Police commandos. They were kind of like a SWAT team for the Border Police. Not long after this Iran seized a small oil field on the Iraq/Iran border. It fell within the area of responsibility for the commandos and they started rotating units out there in what was essentially a Mexican stand off with the Iranian Army. Finally a chance for us to get in on some sort of real action! We looked at several options for transport out to the oil field, with the only feasible option being helicopters. In the end there wasn’t leadership support for this, so we remained in Basra and continued with our limited engagement with our partner units.

Then the deployment ended. My T.E. Lawrence dreams faded. Any thoughts of doing something of meaning were over. Just one more exercise in futility. Youth wasted. Anger remained.

As I typed the first sentence of this post, it shocked me to realize that as many years have gone by since September 11, 2001 as had gone by in my life before 9/11. That 9/11 effectively marks the half way point in my life, and the beginning of my adult life, is distressing. Knowing that the post-9/11 world will forevermore be the majority of my own life is a hard thing to swallow. Every new day makes my pre-9/11 existence seem smaller and smaller. The innocence of youth all that more distant and unknown. Barely old enough to know the world before the world was torn down.

I imagine these are the same feelings that veterans of World War I must have felt. Plucked from their sleepy lives, far removed from any notion of globalization, they were tossed into a cauldron of boiling blood and severed limbs. Before they could understand what was happening, it was over, and then they were supposed to get on with life. Over the years WWI and the interwar period began to make more sense to me than the post-WWII years. The demons haunting Hemingway seem more real than the V-E/V-J day euphoria. The desire to dive into Gatsbian gaiety because the only thing that makes sense is absurdity feels more visceral.

Howdy Doody, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith – are you fucking kidding me!? More like Aunt Bee gives Barney Fife a Cleveland Steamer while Wally and Beaver double team Miss Canfield and Buffalo Bob turns Howdy Doody into a fleshlight that pukes white. That seems more recognizable having grown up in a post-9/11 world.

A memory often comes to mind these days. Sitting at the kitchen table with my Uncle Joe, (who manned the top turret of a B-17 in 1943 – ’44) when I was in my early teens, talking about Vietnam. I said to Uncle Joe that he was lucky to have been in WWII since it was a good war. Uncle Joe simply put his hand over mine and calmly said “Timmy, there are no good wars.”

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?