I visited Fort Riley last year. I visited the First Infantry Division Museum and Camp Funston. I was flooded with memories long forgotten – some painful, some peaceful, some still vague, all of which define me in a unique way. This is one of the worst and best part of having Traumatic Brain Injury.
These memories are like being tethered to a kite. Sometimes the kite is far away and other times the kite pulls at you. Today I am being pulled along.
FORT RILEY, KS- July 27, 2016
Fort Riley is nestled in the middle of Kansas, a lonesome area that
locals call “out there.” It sits 100 miles west of Kansas City, MO.
It seems a lot more like the Far West than the Middle West. The day
has a hard blue summer sky. The air is hot and muggy. I stop to get
gas. I am greeted with the flat, twang of the plains. Men wear
straight-leg, boot cut jeans, Stetsons and ball caps, and high-heeled
boots with pointed toes. I see lots of churches and pickup trucks.
Driving west the land went from flat to rolling plains. As Interstate
70 makes its way west business parks and strip malls give way to lush stretches of farmland. I see old white farmhouses, rusted silos and the occasional Confederate flag.
Driving west slowly the civilization of business parks and strip malls
give over to rolling, green prairies with huge swaths of farmlands,
mainly corn and soy. I see horses, herds of cattle, and a cluster of
grain elevators, and green John Deere tractors.
I am on my way to visit with some old memories.
Coming over a hill you are hit by the majestic sight of Fort Riley.
Helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles take the places of barns and cattle. Fort Riley is a wonderful old frontier army post. A lot of the old buildings on post reflect military life on the western frontier
during the Indian Wars.
It has big stone buildings from a bygone era. Historic limestone
buildings mark the main post with beautiful tree-lined streets. A rush of memories come back.
FORT RILEY, KS- January, 2008
Citizen-soldiers have played a unique role in the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The long deployments in combat zones have changed the towns and states they are from. Our deployment was no different.
In January 2008, I joined a team of 17 Oregon National Guardsmen that deployed to Afghanistan to train an infantry battalion of Afghan
soldiers. Our mission started out at Fort Riley, KS, where we trained
for two months.
In March we went to Afghanistan. We started in Kabul, where we picked up our battalion. In May, we took our Afghan battalion to Helmand Province- a place famous for opium production, but also a stronghold for the Taliban.
My team was in some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
We trained Afghan soldiers. We drove desolate IED infested roads. We patrolled and fought out of remote combat outposts alongside British, Canadian, Danish and Afghan soldiers. It was the adventure of a lifetime.
Of my 17-man team one would die, three would be severely injured in combat and several more were wounded in action. All of us were changed by the experience.
We were not special forces or an elite team of commandos, we were
average national guardsmen. Most of the team were part-time soldiers who drilled one weekend a month and two weeks a year- traditional national guardsmen with regular lives 28 days a month.
Our average age was 35. We were all experienced soldiers with over a decade or more of service. In our regular lives, we were teachers,
mechanics, policemen, fathers, sons, and husbands.
What makes their story so exciting it that a group of regular men did
The BRO Patch
Fort Riley is the home of the First Infantry Division, a proud, tough
unit that has been fighting our nation’s wars since World War I. It’s
the oldest continuously serving unit in the United States Army.
In World War II, the Big Red One fought from North Africa to Sicily.
On D-Day, the 1st Infantry Division spent nineteen hours penetrating the beach at Omaha. It pushed through France and the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge and finally into the Rhineland.
The Division fought in some of the fiercest, bloodiest battles of the
Vietnam War. In Desert Storm, the Big Red One made a 160-mile assault into enemy-held territory in less than 100 hours. The division was part of the initial IFOR mission in Bosnia in 1996. The division deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom in 2004. Its brigades were ready for war.
The first brigade had been set to deploy in June 2006. It was “off-ramped” with a new mission. The brigade was transformed into a
training organization to build, train and deploy military transition
teams that would embed with Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
Preparing advisory teams made up for national guardsmen and reservists that would train and fight with Afghan and Iraqi security forces was not a mission that active-duty soldiers liked.
The deployable units at Fort Riley are all headquartered on the main
post. Ironically, it’s named Custer Hill. It was where the 7th Calvary
was stationed before its fateful rendezvous with Sitting Bull in 1876.
We were down the hill at Camp Funston. During World War I, Funston’s main purpose was to train soldiers from Midwestern states to fight overseas. During World War II it was again used as a deployment site.
Funston looked more like a small city than an army camp. It contained old buildings from World War II and many wood-frame barracks. The entire camp had 20 to 25 buildings on it.
All the buildings were laid in city block squares with main streets
and side streets on either side.
The three active duty training battalions were not in the historic,
old, drafty buildings, but in tan double-wide trailers that made up
the camp. This was the commander’s office, supply room and small
Our barracks were tan, two-story steel-frame buildings that were
shaped like a block letter U. The barracks front door opened to a long hallway that led to a dayroom. It had a reading lounge and coke machine.
On the right, just past the coke machine, was an orderly room. Up a
flight of stairs, on the second floor, was the same layout.
Past the orderly room was a 40 man open bay barracks. Our 17 man team was scattered throughout the room. Each sleeping space had a bunk bed partitioned into separate areas with a double row of wall lockers.
This was our “home” at Camp Funston.
It was impressive and simple.
There was another double-wide trailer that acted as the mess hall. It
took only a few minutes to walk there from our barracks, but the
blowing and drifting snow with subzero degree temperatures made it seem a lot further.
The First Infantry Division asked us to wear the BRO (Big Red One)
patch. We did so proudly. They made us a part of the unit and a part
of the amazing tradition of the First Infantry Division.
It is the only combat patch I’ve ever worn since. Of all three of my
deployments it is the one I am most proud of because of the men I was with.
I remember being wet, miserable and tired in training, but I really
remember the cold.
I don’t think I have ever been as cold as I was at Fort Riley. I was
stationed in Korea and Fort Drum, NY. Both places are known have
punishing winters, but Fort Riley was really cold.
We had overpowering, wind gusts of over 30 miles per hour. It was
bone-chilling cold for with temperatures in the teens and twenties. It was easy to get frostbite or hypothermia.
Any cold wind that hit your exposed skin turned it frozen solid. Your
body fidgets from it and you start jackhammer shivering, trying to get warm. Misery loves company and the harsh training conditions made the team bond together.
One day after being a gunner in the back of a truck I was so cold and
shivering so hard I thought I was going to pull a muscle. I couldn’t
get warm enough.
I couldn’t feel my fingertips to button up shirt. My buddy Paul had to
help me into a new set of clothes after getting back to the barracks.
My teeth are chattering, I’m shivering and I feel like my insides are
made of ice.
Paul looks at me and says, “Do you believe we volunteered for this?” I can’t help but smile through my chattering teeth. It was brutal and
fun. Long days, great training, cold weather and my buddies are what I remember.
By the time we arrived at Funston in January 2008 the training had
really changed. Initially, the focus of the training was getting the
transition teams through their pre-deployment requirements.
Now the training was focused on helping the teams to work with a
coalition partner once they arrived in-theater.
The mission of our embedded training team was to advise, teach, and mentor Afghan security forces. Besides advising them, we gave them direct access to coalition capabilities like air support, artillery,
medical evacuation and intelligence gathering.
We would embed full time with our battalion, training, and fighting
with Afghan soldiers. The mission of transition teams is to help the Afghan Army build its own capabilities to enable them to secure their own population.
We started training in January just after the New Year, we graduated early March. The training was a boot camp for combat advisors. It was two brutal months of classes, workouts, night driving, shooting ranges, and marathon hikes carrying heavy packs. The end result was worth it.
Our team was preparing to go to war. We could not possibly imagine the adventure that awaited us. Conditions would be extreme. Training for hard work and misery is simply hard and miserable.
We got language classes, culture classes and had a chance to meet with real Afghan soldiers as part of our training. All of it helped us get ready. The training was a real eye-opener for us on what we were going to do and what could happen.
As the weeks went on we did more stuff: weapons qualification,
drivers training, the Combat Life Saver course and some specialized
training for fire support, military intelligence and logistics. Tons
of PowerPoint but most of the learning was hands-on.
We met with newly returned advisors. They gave us lessons fresh from the battlefield. They told us the cruel truth about what we could expect as combat advisors- little or no support from big American units in our battle space and a culture shock when dealing with Afghan soldiers.
For us, it was a reality check. We were all accomplished soldiers, but
were we ready for the brutal toll that combat could impose? I hoped
For eight weeks we qualified on individual weapons, worked as vehicle crews, fired heavy weapons like the M2.50 caliber machine gun, the 7.62mm M240B machine gun and automatic grenade launcher. We sat through 40 hours of rudimentary Dari (a dialect of Farsi and a language of Afghanistan). Our team really came together during the training.
Our team really came together during the training. It was hard, exhausting work. We worked six days a week with Sundays off. After training nonstop all week, Sundays was a welcomed leisure time.
The training mixed the officers in with the senior enlisted men. I was a captain. At first the men called me “sir” or “Captain Oto” but
over time I simply became “Dom.” We came to know each other in a very intimate and special way.
Our class had 100 soldiers in it.
The training allowed us to make the transition from part-time soldiers of the National Guard to full-time warriors about to go to war. We learned never to leave home without our weapons, water, medical kit and a plan.
We practice what to do if a machine gun breaks, jams or overheats to the point of uselessness. We learned how to load and operate the
radios. It prepared a team of lions to go to war. It put the final polish we needed to get ready for combat.
We learned that shooting is not just a violent act. To shoot
effectively you have to control your breathing, control your heart
rate, trigger squeeze, and focus on your front sight. All of this to
make sure you are stable shooting platform.
The team became aggressive and fit. The dynamic of the team added to our combat effectiveness. The training made us a warrior brotherhood. It was a different culture than I had ever been a part of. We learned to take care of each other.
FORT RILEY, KS- July 27, 2016
I am standing in Victory Park. I am standing in front of the Wall of
Honor. It’s in the north field, just outside the First Infantry
Division Museum on the main post.
There, rising before me is are black marble towers and granite
pentagon base. The monument symbolizes the sacrifice made by soldiers since 9/11. The tower was dedicated in 2004 and names have been added every year since.
The monument was erected to honor First Infantry Division soldiers who gave their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
A walkway leads around to engraved marble plaques for service members who made the ultimate sacrifice. On the base of the statue is constructed of granite; framing a quotation from Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as Psalm 91, verses 11 and 13, “The Soldiers Psalm.”
The Soldiers, Marines and Airmen who gave their lives will always be remembered. [Fort Riley’s Fallen Heroes]
No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First!
“For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your
ways. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” Psalm 91 Verses 11 and 13 (The Soldiers Psalm).
I circle the monument looking by year. There, midway down I see his
name, “Bruno G. Desolenni.” Seeing his name chokes me up. I start to
cry for reasons I cannot explain.
In neat silver letters, his name is written under the year 2008. These
are the names of the fallen. There are just names, no rank, and no
sign of where or how they died. These names of heroes span over a
decade of war.
There is nothing to provide even a hint as to their identities- no
month or day of death, no country or continent where they fell, not a
word to suggest to their mission. All there is a simple name and year.
It was the notion of the simplicity of just his name up there that
bothered me. Bruno is one of thousands of soldiers who died in Iraq
and Afghanistan, all of them a hero.
My father, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam, used to say, “What more can you give than your life.”
I will tell you about one hero- Captain Bruno G. De Solenni. I want to
tell you his story. Bruno was my friend. I will do this because he died while I lived.
I will tell his extraordinary story of courage and sacrifice, how his
last days were spent far from home in a faraway land on a noble
undertaking most Americans know nothing about.