I was more concerned with getting to my final destination, wherever it was, and finally getting more than a few minutes of sleep after days of travel, than anything else. I left Ft. Benning on a Friday, flying to Europe first, then various countries within the Middle East, to make it to Afghanistan. It was Sunday evening before I was finally headed to Bagram Air Field, the military base where I was to report. I worried that my arrival was unexpected after listening to the conversations of other Soldiers also on their way into country. My orders clearly stated I was to report for duty to the 82nd Airborne Headquarters at Bagram, where I assumed I would in-process, before traveling to Kabul for the job I volunteered for, just months ago. But from what I was piecing together, the entire 82nd Division had left days prior, replaced by the 101st Airborne Division.
Shit, I thought to myself. These guys don’t even know that I’m coming.
During my trek across the world, I met other Soldiers in similar situations as I was. We quickly banded together, trading information to see if we could glean anything from our combined intelligence. Together, we were a ragtag of Reserve and National Guard E5s to Full-Bird Colonels, managing to somehow work together well enough to secure flights to our final destination. Someone in the group happened to have a phone number to a guy at the 101st, which was enough to warn them of our pending arrival.
The air was hot and dry as our plane touched down at Bagram Air Field. Having spent the year before in Iraq on another deployment, I was familiar with the summer climates of Central Asia. This time around, I had been talked into drawing even more military equipment than necessary (during mobilization) and was now lugging 6 heavy, duffle bags wherever I went. I kicked myself for ever taking the advice of someone who sat behind a desk at the issuing center and had never actually been to Afghanistan. But hey, I was impressionable. Walking out of the terminal, my ragtag group of part-time Soldiers was greeted by an enlisted NCO from the Headquarters Battalion. He had been tasked to find us bedding for the night and knew about as much as we did about our arrival. Thus, he could only provide information such as the location of the nearest dining facility (DFAC). Placing our bags into the bed of his truck and then squeezing into the front, we made our way over to the temporary holding tents named Dragon. The tents can best be described as insulated tarp huts, with large fans for air conditioning, and packed full with Soldiers on their way in or out of Bagram. After signing in, I slung my stuff on my bunk and made my way to the closest shower, sure that after a weekend of not bathing, my uniform was now grafted to my skin.
Sometime in the early afternoon of the next day, the same NCO that picked us up the evening before came back with more information. As suspected, no one in the 101st was aware of our arrival. This meant that we would be forced to sit and wait while the decision was made on what to do with us. Unlike me, most in the group did not have assigned duty positions and were clueless as to where they might go. Rumor had it, that due to the influx of American Soldiers in the Surge, “higher” was sending home any additional troops that were considered overflow. I admit I toyed with the idea of heading home after only having been in country a few days. I was home for only 45 days after leaving Iraq and spent most of those days travelling the world and partying. As such, I was now flat broke and probably needed to stay at least for money purposes. The enlisted Soldier stated that it would be 3 days before we would be provided with any further information. In the meantime, we were to complete the mandatory training requirements of rolling around in simulated MRAP vehicles(think Tycho PowerWheels but the size of a Transformer), and firing our weapons out towards an empty field to ensure they still worked…you know, because we had used them so frequently since landing…Those days could not have dragged on more.
On Day 3, we were escorted into the 101st Airborne Headquarters (called the JOC) to receive our duty assignments. The 101st Division is titled the CJTF-101 while in Afghanistan, or Combined Joint Task Force, in reference to the Division’s command (and partnership) over non-US entities in the region (it took me awhile to remember all of this, so don’t fret if you’re confused by any of this). One-by-one, we filed into the CJ1 (Combined-Joint) section to receive our job assignment from the Chief Warrant in charge. I sauntered in self-assured like, convinced that I knew what my job was, having memorized the description of duties when I first volunteered. According to this description, I would be working in Kabul as the liaison for the 82nd to other NATO countries, ensuring that all networked computer systems could communicate with each other. At this point, it should have been no surprise that this particular position was already filled and I was going to be placed elsewhere. Instead, I was to report to the Division Intelligence area, where I would be assigned a desk and given a menial task (they really did not have much to offer since the good jobs were taken). With that, I was whisked into the JOC Compound to start my new life with the CJTF-101.
My time within the CJ2 Division Intelligence section can be best described as short-lived. Though everyone there was polite and courteous, the fact that I did not have a high enough security clearance for most of the systems I was supposed to work on meant I was a problem child. This meant that I would either need an escort anytime that I worked in the office, or that things were just not going to work out there…I’m sure you can guess which option was chosen.
I am a Signal Officer…by military standards, at least. I chose Signal branch while in college because I somehow thought it related to the massive amounts of video games I played, as a child. Seeing how I liked reading about new technology and gadgets, I figured I would do well with the nerdy stuff in the Army! This thought process could probably not be further from the truth. On the first day of class at the Army’s Signal Officer Basic Course in Ft. Gordon, GA, I was inundated with mathematical equations, theories of wave propagation, and technicalities of spectrum analysis, none of which I had even heard of. When we were required to introduce ourselves before speaking, I would include a brief statement on my lack of education or experience in the Signal field, concluding that I should be forgiven for any mistakes made, ahead of time. It did not help that other than 3 recent college grads like me, the other 55 classmates were prior service enlisted from the Signal branch. Oh yeah, and they had Bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science or Information Systems. Mine was in Political Science.
After my dismissal from the CJ2 section, I was escorted over to the CJ6 section, or Communications Department (home sweet home, no?). They too, were not thrilled with my unexpected arrival. I was placed in a Conference Room for an hour or so, as they debated what to do with me. I can only imagine how that conversation went. After an hour, I found myself being job-interviewed by the section Sergeant Major. I have great respect for enlisted personnel, especially those with both years of service and time in grade. Enlisted Soldiers are truly the backbone of the US military, doing a job that most officers would refuse. The ability to learn a skill is difficult enough on its own. To be given the responsibility of ensuring ALL Soldiers are equally trained, along with the supervision of their overall wellbeing (and of their families), is a duty most Americans would balk at. But as an officer, I fall under a different chain-of-command system than our enlisted personnel. That being said, I was a little confused as to why I was being interviewed by someone who I had no real professional interaction with. But being the new guy and still in shock from the change in environment, I decided against raising the issue.
In Iraq, I worked as the Battalion S6, or Communications Director, for a Combat Engineer unit located in Baghdad. We arrived in the middle of the post-Surge massive drawdown, finding ourselves turning in equipment for use elsewhere (like Afghanistan) on a constant basis. Eventually, we could no longer complete construction missions without pooling our resources. In order to compensate with the decrease in work, we took on the task of training Iraqi Engineer units in construction methods used by the US. This proved a huge success and soon we were training the Iraqi military in areas such as First Aid and Computer Science (this is where I came in). The latter part of my Iraq tour consisted of flying via helicopter from FOB (Forward Operating Base) to FOB with my Soldiers, conducting classes on radio communications, network systems, and…Microsoft Office (don’t ask). This training also included the task of wiring the Iraqi buildings for intranet usage. And it was that last piece of information that the 101st CJ6 guys latched on to.
I was afterwards assigned to the 101st CJ6 Projects Section, a small cell of 3 guys (including me) tasked with tracking and supervising large-scale telecommunications projects across the eastern region of Afghanistan. Sounds like a big deal, right? And maybe it really is. But it’s also extremely boring! The job consisted of one weekly meeting where I was to update the CJ6 Director on the progress of projects that were months or years away. That was it. Most times during a meeting, I would stand up for my part of the brief and state, “Yes, the project is still scheduled to be completed on this date.” I would then go back to trying my best to stay busy for the rest of the day. But the keeping busy part was probably the most difficult. There were only so many hours a day that I could work out, browse the internet, or play video games. Within a month of arriving, I was miserable and regretting my decision to deploy. I even took to fixing up my hooch into the ultimate bachelor pad (which was pretty bad ass, I might add).
I waited a few more weeks before taking my complaints of boredom to the CJ6 Director. Somewhat embarrassed that I had set up an office call for the purpose of whining, I explained that though I was excited to be with the 101st, I felt useless and unnecessary. Having given up on any chance of playing a huge role or exerting any influence, I asked what the possibility was of going home early. But the CJ6 had taken note of my lack of duties and instead, had a better idea. Recently, the 101st Command Group had been having issues with their VTCs (Video Teleconferences) and voicing their complaints to the CJ6 for weeks. Though a few personnel were already thrown at the situation, several of the Generals felt bad taking out their annoyances on lower enlisted personnel. My job, were I to accept it, was to set up the meetings (sound/video checks, making sure PowerPoint slides were good to go) beforehand, then to sit in the meetings in case there were any technical difficulties. Was it a job requiring little brain power? Sure. But it at least gave me something to do.
The 101st Command Group was made up of several General officers, the Command Sergeant Major (CSM), and the Chief of Staff, each with individual meetings and calendars that needed coordination. Thankfully, the list of different schedules kept me preoccupied throughout most of the day. I would show up beforehand, do my checks, and then sit or stand in the corner for the next hour as each leader discussed their operations and plans. It was all very exciting to see the game changers at work. In Iraq, I had wondered who these “higher-ups” were that made the demands the rest of us were forced to follow. To see those people plan and task was exactly the experience I was hoping to get out of the deployment. The only problem was that being the proverbial fly on the wall eventually gets old too. As awesome of an experience that I was observing, it was just that: observing. I was still craving some sort of participation in the great game, some feeling of need that was still not being validated. I was now rubbing elbows with the big wigs and reminded even more of how insignificant I was.
I got fairly good at the tasks given to me. And since enabling the Command group the ability to talk was deemed more important than my previous job of telecommunications projects, the VTC coordination thing became my full-time job. Most of the problems that occurred in the meetings were due to some technical issue on the distant end, so I learned who to quickly call to fix it. Not sure if that constitutes as a skill but I was still getting credit for it. The new job also allowed me the free time to continue my…well…bullshit. I went to the gym every day, shopped for pirated DVDs at the local market, and played my growing collection of video games. When I first moved out of the transient tents (Dragon), I transferred over to a wooden bay meant for 6 Soldiers. I say meant because there were 6 bunks and only me to fill them. Alone, I took the opportunity of using every available space to truly enjoy my living area. The bay had been a good mile in distance from the JOC compound. But with the new job, I was required to move to the compound, into the cluster of freestanding buildings that housed two to a room (think shipping container but with a door and air conditioner). Now, if there happened to be any last-minute teleconferences, I would be readily accessible to set the up meeting and not the mile away. The moving to the compound did not elevate my status, but with everyone vying for a room there, I at least felt special.
Life like this didn’t change until mid-August. I had the VTC job down well enough that I could have done it blindfolded. From the strict dieting and exercise I had started, I was back to by pre-summer body (from working out twice a day in Iraq). Looking past my redeployment, I began spending time studying for a GRE test that was scheduled for later in the month. It was one of these mornings during my normal routine of sound checks, that I was interrupted from my work by the 101st SGS (Secretary to General Staff), Major Shinkle. I was already not the biggest fan of Major Shinkle due to his setting me down at the start of my new assignment and in better terms, explaining to me how frivolous my job was and that the only real reason for being there was to cover for the CJ6’s ass. From that moment on, I avoided him at all costs. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when he had cornered me into conversation.
“Is this all you do?” he asked.
Unsure on how much honesty I could get away with, I stuck with the truth. “Yes sir, this is about it.”
He seemed to ponder for a minute, then snorted, “Bring your OERs in tomorrow morning for a meeting with the Chief.”
And with that, he was off to terrorize the rest of the staff.
I was visibly shaken. Not only had my arch nemesis called me out, but I was being summoned to the office of the 101st Division Chief of Staff, Colonel Johnson. And for what?! I had sat in enough meetings to see this guy in action. Tall, brash, and extremely intelligent, Colonel Johnson could bring a man to tears after only a few moments of his searing criticisms. I was scared, shitless.
The CJ6 was inaccessible most of the time so I became accustomed to running to his Deputy, Major Miles whenever I had any problems. Major Miles was both bright and affable, and the “go-to” guy for many of the staff. I am sure I frequented his desk way too many times, but he was the only one willing to help out a peon officer not really part of the 101st Airborne. After the morning meeting was over, I sprinted down to his office to seek advice and protection. But to my surprise, he was aware of the conversation and had been told not to say anything. I was stunned. Was I being punished for not taking on more responsibility? I guess I could have asked for more menial tasks, but even those were hard to obtain in a place like this. Had the Command Group heard word that I had deployed to Iraq before coming here? I knew General Campbell was a stickler on Soldiers keeping to a one year dwell time in the US. Wanting to ensure Soldiers spent enough time with family, friends, and in a safe environment, he had mandated that all of his Soldiers stay in the US a minimum of 365 days before redeploying. Did that apply to me as well? I mean, I was not even part of the 101st! I didn’t sleep that night.
The next morning, I arrived at the Command Group office 20 minutes early. I made sure to change uniforms, shave with my newest razor, and brushed my teeth twice. In my limited career with the Army, I had received only 2 evaluations, or OERs. I was sure to bring the crispest copies. My OERs so far were phenomenal for someone of my pay and grade. So whatever I had coming my way, I was hoping this information would soften the blow. As I sat waiting, staff member after staff member trickled into the Chief of Staff’s office, all vying for attention and approval. In no time at all, it was 15 minutes after and there was still a line of 5 staff officers waiting to see him. Though his desk was in the same room as where I sat waiting, Major Shinkle completely ignored me. His Deputy, a female Captain, seemed to take pity upon me and excusing herself through the wall of waiting officers, placed me next to the door, in front of the line to see the Chief. I apologized to the staff officers as I passed them and stood at the door, fidgeting. Only a few minutes passed before Colonel Johnson’s massive frame appeared in the doorway, ready to take on the next victim…er, I mean person. The female Captain who had assisted me before, gave a quick introduction, ushered me into the office, and then left, closing the door behind her.
Great, I thought. Now they won’t hear my screams.
Colonel Johnson signaled for me to sit in the chair across from him before taking a seat himself. I blurted out a jumbled introduction before offering up my OERs to him. Without any conversation, he picked up the OERs and began browsing them for what I assumed was for proof that I was a dirt-bag Lieutenant. As minutes of silence passed and he continued to peruse my professional history, I rehearsed in my head the different rebuttals I had prepared for myself. I was not sure what I would have to justify but I was going to be ready. The silence went on for so long, the Chief of Staff startled me when he finally spoke.
“So you think you’re the man for the job, huh?”
I was speechless. I searched my mind for some sort of clue as to what he could be talking about
“Sir,“ I paused, carefully choosing my words. “What job are you talking about?”
“As the new Deputy SGS,” he replied, giving me a perplexing look, “replacing Captain Putnam.”
He was referring to the female Captain that had helped me before, Putnam. I did not know anything about her other than my brief contact from earlier, but I recovered quickly.
“Uh, yes sir, I believe I’m just the right person for the position….”
I do not remember much of the conversation beyond the first part, probably due to my nervousness and the focus on not pissing myself. But by the end of the “interview”, I realized that I had been wrong about Colonel Johnson and that he was a nicer guy than I assumed. With the interview over, I left Colonel Johnson’s office and headed back down to mine. So I was not going home…
It was almost a week before I received word on whether I was selected for the position. By word, I mean a sharp rap at the door of my room one morning, an enlisted Soldier from Command telling me I was to report to Major Shinkle, immediately. I threw on my uniform and hurried up to the Command area to where both Major Shinkle and Captain Putnam were waiting. Entering the office, Major Shinkle gave a silent nod of greeting and went back to burying his face in his computer, working. Captain Putnam on the other hand, was boisterously cheery and ready to teach me everything I was to know. Once I was trained, she would be departing for another job she had been selected for, far away from the Command Group.
No wonder she is happy, I thought to myself.
We went over simple topics such as who the staff section leaders were and where key offices were located, how to schedule office calls for a General Officer, and the purchasing of materials that Command requested. Most of the duties seemed miniscule and unimportant, but the fear of suffering the wrath of a General officer made failure a non-option. I learned most of the simple stuff almost immediately. What seemed more daunting was knowing where and how to access the different resources I might be called upon to use. Who would I talk to when a certain briefing was requested? Who would need to be notified if an event happened? How would I go about doing a specific task if I lacked other requirements? I was afraid to take the lead after failing in my first few attempts at being the new Deputy. Luckily, Captain Putnam left within a few days and I was forced to learn in the best possible way: by trial and error.
It did not take long to adjust from a schedule of having free time most of the day to barely having time to eat and shower before the onslaught of the next day. If you have ever wondered what it was like in the office area of an Army General, imagine a beehive that has been shaken. Being the traffic controller in a flow of officers that outrank me by several years is stressful. But the added answering of all phone calls, scheduling of meetings, supervising of subordinates, and instant memo producing had me pulling my hair out. Major Shinkle had been at his job for over a year. Not only did he have all the answers, but he knew everyone. I was secretly jealous of his cool, calm collective, even with his sarcastic wit. Sensing my frustration, he would sometimes walk over to my desk to provide bits of advice, in between his harsh critiques of my performance. I took it as him finally warming to me.
This barely keeping my head above water in my new job kept up like this for another 2 months. I had completely shirked my dedication to the gym and my alone time was now sleep time. It was November when I finally looked up from my desk and was able to take it all in. No longer was coordinating a Purple Heart ceremony a violent maelstrom in my already hectic day. I could schedule events and banter back and forth with foreign dignitaries without fear of tripping up on my words or stuttering. I had accomplished what I thought was the unthinkable, successfully learning a job that had meaning.
With the proficiency in my job, time continued to fly by and my deployment was finally coming to an end. And only at the end was I able to reflect on my time with the leadership of the 101st Airborne, probably the best Army unit in the US military. During my first few months, each of the Generals seemed like shadows of who they really were. Their dedication to the mission in Afghanistan kept them traversing the country on a near, daily basis. I was too afraid to attempt any conversation with them at first; I was the new guy, a reservist not really affiliated with them, and at the bottom of the military food chain in rank. But every one of them surprised me with their unique but friendly demeanor and the career experiences they were willing to share. Sure, they would tear your heart out and eat it if you briefed them bullshit, but their dedication to the success of the 101st Soldiers was so contagious, it became hard to accept failure, even for myself.
My deployment draws to an end and I find myself prematurely missing the people in the Command Group that I have come to know so well while here in Afghanistan. The overall mission for this nation is a daunting task. So many times did it seem that for every few steps forward we would be forced one step back. But is that not how life works in any situation? Do we not enjoy the highest of highs only because we can recognize and pull through the lowest of lows? These are the lessons I learned while walking with the pinnacle of US Army leadership and the forefront of the fight. I can only guess as to the stress each General felt on a daily basis: making the required decision to send a Soldier out on a life-risking mission, or to deal with the tragic loss of that Soldier while in combat. These are the heroes I read about as I child, wanting them to be real. The same heroes that I doubted existed when older, unwilling to believe that a common man would sacrifice so much of their life, time, and personal well-being, not only for the life of another, but for their country. The American leaders in Afghanistan bear a burden that no one but them will truly, ever understand. I can only hope that I too, can one day display the courage and heart that the leaders of the unit known as the Screaming Eagles did, while facing uncertainty and risk of death.