Category Archives: Leadership

Happy Belated Birthday, Devil Dogs

I love Marines. They are America’s Spartan warriors. They are always ready to do battle. They are closet idealists and pessimists.

Marines have an intense feeling of identity. They have almost a mystical connection of belonging to an elite fighting force of nearly invincible warriors.

Some of this attitude comes from their brutal and efficient training. Another part of that comes from their deep confidence and pride in their mission and leaders.

There is no better friend and no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine.

The Emblem of the USMC

 

Who are the Marines?

The United States Marine Corps is an all-purpose military strike force that can mobilize quickly and fight anywhere. Marines can be deployed almost anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. The Marine Corps protect United States interests whenever a crisis flares up.

The Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy, but the Marines are still considered a separate branch of the armed services. The Marine Corps is the smallest branch of the armed forces. As of 2017, the Corps has around 185,000 active duty members and additional 38,500 reserve Marines.

What is the Marine Corps history?

The United States Marine Corps was created by the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775, during the Revolutionary War. America Marines first served on Continental Navy ships to protect them. The Marines also used amphibious assaults to attack ground targets, enemy ports, bases, and cities from the sea.

From 1800 to 1934, the Marine Corps landed 187 times in 37 countries “to suppress lawlessness or insurrection.” Marines saw constant action in countries as close as Latin America and as far away as the shore of Libya in Tripoli, as the “Marines’ Hymn” from the Marine Corps Hymn.

Throughout American history, the Marines have been American presidents’ force of choice when they send troops to fight in faraway lands. In 1805, the Marines fought Islamic Barbary pirates and captured the North African city of Derna, Tripoli in present-day Libya. In 1847, during the Mexican-American War, Marines were the first troops to storm and enter Mexico City, the enemy’s capital.

Throughout the 20th century, Marines have fought small wars in colonies or third-world countries: Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The Marine Corps had a long tradition of fighting small wars.

In World War I, the Marines earned their tough reputation in several battles like Belleau Wood in France. During World War II, the Marines spearheaded a series of amphibious assaults in the Pacific. The Devil Dogs defeated the Japanese in legendary battles such as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In Korea, the Marines froze in the bitter battle of the Chosin Reservoir. In Vietnam, the Marines fought through the siege of Khe Sanh, the worst battle of the war.

The United States Marine Corps War Memorial

In the 21st century, the Marine Corps has been deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, the Marines fought two fierce battles against insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq. In 2010, the Marines fought in the campaign of Marjah, Afghanistan to re-take Helmand Province from the Taliban.

What is Marines boot camp like?

Marines undergo 13 weeks of intense training at boot camp at recruit depots in San Diego, California or Parris Island, South Carolina. Recruits are transformed into Marines by becoming physically fit, receiving first-class combat training, and learn how to respond instantly to orders. They hone their bodies and their minds by learning highly valuable leadership skills.

The Marine Corps places great importance on infantry combat. One of the Corps’ important mottos is “Every Marine a rifleman.” All Marines, no matter what their job is, are well-trained soldiers in combat skills and specialize in shooting rifles and other weapons.

Today, the standard rifle of the Marine Corps is the M16A4 assault rifle and M4A1 carbine, a compact version of the M16 rifle. Marines are also well-trained in the use of the M9 pistol, M203 grenade launcher, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), M240B light machine gun and the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun.

How do Marines fight?

Marines specialize in amphibious assaults, attacking land targets from the sea. The U.S. Navy transports the Marines to get them close to combat zones. Then the Marines can attack their objectives by using amphibious assault vehicles and support aircraft.

The Marines have a variety of vehicles that they use to fight. The Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV)-7 is a tracked, lightly armored vehicle. The AAV-7 can travel through water and on land. The AAV-7 can transport 21 combat-equipped Marines or 10,000 pounds of cargo.

The Marines use a version of the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams main battle tank. The M1 weighs 70 tons and fires a 120mm smoothbore cannon that can destroy most enemy vehicles.

The Marines get dropped into combat zones by several aircraft. Marines use the CH-46 Sea Knight and the MV-22 Osprey, a plane that has propellers that rotate like helicopters so it can hover.

What other missions does the Marine Corps have?

In addition to combat duties, the United States Marines Corps has the honor of standing guard at the White House and Camp David. Marines also operate Marine One, the helicopter that transports the President of the United States. Also, the Marine Embassy Security Command protects U.S. embassies and consulates in more than 140 foreign posts around the world.

Proud, marching Marines

What is the future of the Marine Corps?

The Marines are a quick-strike force that can fight anywhere. They are America’s Spartan Warriors capable of doing the hard work of protecting American citizens and interests around the world. With the best-trained infantry riflemen and technology available, the Marine Corps is prepared for whatever the future holds.

 

Veterans Make America Great

The older I get, and the more I travel- the more I love America. One of the things that makes America great is our celebration of patriotism and the love we have for those who served in our armed forces.

Our country is not perfect. Yes, we have our problems and issues, but we have more unparalleled freedoms than any other nation on the planet. We may disagree on many things, but we can all agree America is the greatest country in the world.

America is not based on ethnicity but on an unprecedented idea of liberty and self-government. Independence Day reminds us patriotism means that despite our differences, we can all look at something more significant, an ideal that transcends us as individuals, but unifies us as Americans. A unifying spirit of patriotism and strong defense is vital for the United States to continue to exist.

Tomorrow we celebrate what is good, heroic and true in our great nation- our veterans. We understand that to love our country is something noble and to remember our veterans is something honorable.

Veterans are the ultimate patriots. Their service allows our nation to exist. Veterans do the dirty work of a great nation- they fight our wars and help others in times of crisis. In a time when patriotism is almost obsolete, veterans are a reminder of America’s best version of herself.

On this upcoming Veteran’s Day, I wanted to thank all the amazing Americans who defend this great nation. I am very grateful for every generation of brave Americans who fought for our country. From the militiamen in the Revolutionary War who won our independence to the brave soldiers in this generation who fought against oppression overseas.

I am the grandson of immigrants. My dad’s family came from Italy, and my mom’s family came from Austria. My parents were from working-class neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. My parents raised me to love America.

My father fought in two wars. He never talked much about his service, but he did tell me stories of soldiers suffering, sacrificing and dying for America. My dad never let me forget that freedom is not free.

Last 4th of July I had a life-changing moment. I was on a ferry boat in beautiful Frankenmuth, Michigan. While on the boat, I saw a Marine on shore salute our boat as we passed. The Marine was in full dress uniform, blue pants with red stripe, starched black jacket, full medals with a white hat, white gloves holding a salute as our ferry passed. The Marine sentry was silent. The gallant Marine held his salute to the world.

Someone yelled, “Thank you, Marine, for defending our freedom!” That Marine sentry standing guard was a life-changing moment filled with emotion.

The sight of that stoic Marine sweating in the hot sun in his full dress uniform, saluting us, on that joyous day gave the moment a poignant context. That Marine represented every veteran who sacrificed for our freedom. His service allows us to celebrate Veteran’s Day in the greatest country in the world. It was then I realized how much I loved my country, and felt shame for ever taking her for granted.

There is an Italian proverb that says, “If a man does not boast about his house, it will fall on him.” I love writing about what makes our country great. What really makes this country is the people who love and defend it- our veterans.

two veterans embracing

Thank you, to all veterans, you make America great. Happy Veteran’s Day.

 

Major Kent and Overcoming Obstacles

Intro

There is a bond between friends you make while serving in a war that is as strong as a brother’s love, an attachment that lasts until eternity.

Even in the most elite groups there are those who are more elite- and even within the innermost circles of excellence, there is the chosen one, the golden boy. I have never been that person. In the last group of men I served with it was a hero named Bruno.

Major Kent

Within a collection of Special Operations Warriors I worked with at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan one is a Green Beret Major named Kent. In the Special Forces Community Kent is somewhat of a legend.

Kent has a face and build that belongs on a Special Forces recruiting poster- he is charismatic, constantly smiling and reassuring others with his easy going manner. He is a leading man capable of awing audiences, easily portraying the hero he really is.

With his mane of golden hair that sweeps back from his face he always reminded me of the actor Brad Pitt, especially when he was trying to talk you into doing a “death run” with him.

Standing five feet ten inches tall he is immensely athletic even more impressive when you consider he has only one leg. He is lean from long endurance events, very fit from hours of working out and a robust build from never missing a day in the gym.

He is a compact, powerful man who exudes confidence and authority. Although his speaking voice is always calm, almost gentle, modulated only by a faint Southern accent from the assortment of army posts he has been assigned to all over the American Southeast.

Kent’s most annoying and enduring habit is breaking out into popular songs from the 80’s where he only knows a handful of the words. His singing is something that tends to bring to mind cats congregating on a backyard fence.

All that being said he one of the greatest friends I have ever had and in a sense saved my life by an example of his own courage.

Operation Volcano II

On July 27, 2007, Kent participated in an operation designed to capture a senior leader of the infamous Mahdi Army (High Value Target) in the city of Karbala, Iraq. Kent’s team “fast roped” from helicopters into the area. The insurgents attacked the American forces from three sides with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s.

With the insurgents targeting one of the American positions, Kent aggressively maneuvered his men to reinforce the beleaguered soldiers. It was then that he noticed an insurgent armed with an RPG, less than ten meters away from his position.

Disregarding any concern for himself, he bravely charged forward, shot and killed the insurgent, saving the Americans in the nick of time. Realizing that the US forces in the building were in grave danger, Kent exposed himself to enemy fire in order to gain a better position to cover the other soldiers in his unit.

From this location, he managed to limit the insurgent fire on his team. In the final moments of the engagement he rounded a corner and he found himself face to face with an AK-47-wielding Mahdi fighter.

Kent made a split second decision, firing at and killing the insurgent. However, as the terrorist fell to the ground fatally wounded, he let loose one last burst from his AK-47, which wounded Kent in the legs and back.

Despite being wounded in both legs and his back, Kent shot three enemy soldiers in the encounter and his actions earned him the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor.

He is one of the most talented leaders I have ever met. When most people would have given up or faced depression with losing a leg Kent saw it as simply another obstacle to overcome.

Overcoming Obstacles

Impossible to dislike, he has lived a charmed life, and his very presence in the unit has raised morale. People enjoy being around him, especially our Afghan Soldiers because he has the sunny aura of a man to whom even though something bad has happened to him he has not let it define him.

Although he would love nothing more than to be fighting dug-in entrenched insurgents alongside indigenous soldiers in the badlands, he used his knowledge to teach a new generation of Afghan and American soldiers.

His nickname is “Captain America” because he is the epitome of being a perfect soldier. Being decorated for bravery in the face of the enemy has led to some modicum of recognition.

But for Kent more anything else it has become the motivation to volunteer for dangerous assignments and protracted combat. His true gift comes in training soldiers and again, Kent uses his extraordinary talents to do just that.

He is an expert in preparing perspective Special Forces candidates for the rigors of combat. His calling seems to be training young men mentally for the brutality of what they could expect in combat and how to survive.

He stresses in each class he teaches that the horror of war and combat are survivable, that his students need to look at each other when the going is rough and in that process, there is a lasting bond that is developed, a bond of brotherhood of facing the worst circumstances and coming through it together.

He is on his fifth combat deployment and has a solid reputation as an operator and a shooter, something that is hard earned in the competitive world of Special Operations Warriors.

Leading By Example

An apostle for fitness, Kent is a running and lifting enthusiast and being his workout partner is a practice in torture and pain. His prodigious feats of strength and endurance include running over the two mountains we have the line the base.

Kent’s motto is that to lead soldiers in combat you have to lead by example. He believes the best example of your mettle is planning and conducting intense, grueling physical training.

He thinks that no worthwhile Soldiers would follow a boss who couldn’t demonstrate the tremendous and psychological prowess of a Combat Leader. The one large indicator of that ability to lead elite Soldiers is physical fitness. He looks at in two ways.

One was that it makes him feel good both physically and mentally, but in another way, it was like any trade smith practicing his craft. His vocation is leading men into battle and to do that you had to have physical, emotional and mental endurance.

The best way to practice and develop these traits was long, hard workout sessions where you test both your mind and your body. All of this is made more impressive because Kent does it all with a prosthetic leg.

Kent as a Teacher

Kent has a keen sense of humor and his full-time hobby is giving me a hard time. With his acerbic wit and anarchic temperament, even in the worst of circumstances he is always fun to be around.

But at his bedrock what makes Kent really tick is his understanding instinctively about balance in his life; without being able to articulate the why or what of a situation he knows what to do in almost any scenario.

Kent’s most enduring quality, the one that makes him a real hero, is that he is a far more honorable man than he’d ever admit; for him, there are some things that are fundamentally right, as there were some things that are fundamentally wrong.

Kent will be the first one to tell you that life is not fair; citing the loss of his leg as an example, but that has never stopped him from believing that life is what you make it.

Kent leads not mostly with just impressive bouts of endurance, but with his heart. He is loved and admired by Afghans and Americans Soldiers alike. In one cause Kent is a true champion.

His helping wounded Afghan Soldiers who have been crippled or hurt while serving with American Special Forces to get follow-on medical treatment in the States.

Watching Kent use spare parts from his own prosthetic leg to rebuild the artificial leg of an Afghan Soldier named Rahim, who survived a roadside bomb that killed two Americans, Kent is in his element.

Smiling as he re-tooled the leg and added a few pieces he explained to me the intricacies of prosthetics. Rahim is headed to the States in a few weeks, largely due to Kent’s lobbying on his behalf to Fort Bragg.

In typical, modest fashion Kent simply said, “We owe this to them. They fight and die beside us, it’s the least we can do.”

Haunted by Memories

I have suffered for a long time with some memories and times better left forgotten. War devastates not only our physical being but our very soul. In war, chaos overwhelms compassion, violence replaces cooperation, fear replaces rationality, and instinct dominates the mind.

When the mind and conscience is drenched in these conditions, the soul is disfigured and you can seem lost. It seemed like there was a removal of the center of my mind, and always there was the presence of my wartime experience and it affected everything I did.

For me the haunting of my memories from Iraq and Afghanistan were something I never really got over. I felt like I was trapped in a limbo where the past and present seemed to intermingle without differentiation or continuity. Nothing felt right until Kent helped me place my experience into perspective and helped to rejoin my body and mind.

What was once separate now felt joined. Kent’s own experiences far eclipsed anything I had been through, but over the last four months of us talking about what we had both seen and done in both life and death it help me to come to terms with what I had experienced.

He was unlike any other therapist or counselor because his own time in combat was so much like my own but far worse. From talking about what we had been through it took the mythic arena of war from something epic into the mundane.

We talked about the friends we lost, on more than a few occasions we came to realize we had known some of the same men but in different times of their lives. We talked about what had brought us to this point in our lives, to examine its nature and discover its truth.

I told Kent about how both Phil and Bruno had died. How those brushes with death had changed and lived with me. He told me about the loss of his leg and his countless months at Walter Reed and about coping with only one leg.

We both talked about why we had returned to Afghanistan after no one would have faulted us for not coming back. We focused on the spiritual dimension of combat for therein lies the great sway that allows young men to be drawn to what they think will be the glory of war.

In this effort, we went back the beginning of our careers and we talked about other warriors we had known who had fallen. Mostly we talked about the landscape of the inner self and how the soul is forever changed by the experience of war.

Kent summed it up best, “You never really get over the war. You always want the excitement and camaraderie that comes with being in combat. But the damage it leaves behind is something epic. In time, you just learn to live with it.”

What makes Kent a hero, in my mind, for evermore is how he listened and taught me ‘how to live with it.’ Bro, you will never really know how thankful I am for you giving me back my tomorrows when for so long I only lived in the todays.

 

Platoon Sergeant Jack Arnold

Intro

When I was a young cadet I had a great mentor in a gentleman named Sergeant First Class Jack R. Arnold. He was a three tour, Vietnam Veteran who had served as a Radio Operator with a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP- pronounced “LURP”) Unit. His first two rows of medals were all medals for valor.

Jack was a character to say the least mesmerizing with his thick eyebrows, erect bearing and bulging muscles he seemed like he stepped from central casting to make boys into men into killing machines for the army.

He would address you with unblinking eyes and an iron voice giving you rigid commands in a machine gun staccato of verbal abuse that makes you wonder, “Is he serious?” It seems almost funny and nutty until you realize that this is really how he was, not acting a part but a man who lives “to soldier.”

He comes across when you first met him as utterly malevolent brutalizing you with his tirades and his astounding command of profanity. He crushes you at first and in time you learn he is secretly benevolent and there is a purpose behind his actions and it was to teach young men to survive the cauldron of war he lived through in Vietnam.

Jack would be unrelenting is his long, obscene abuse of the human language. His favorite was to stand at rigid and erect attention and to take his hand fully extended and chop it through the air to emphasize his point. His tirades were always drawn out descriptions of how messed up you were and the results of your stupidity and incompetence were going to, “… put young Soldiers in bodybags.”

To get an ass chewing from Jack was almost an assault of open eroticism in his description of the Soldiers he trains as “ladies,” “queers,” and “maggots.” His message was always very clear and he said to you (in effect) “By submitting to me, you will become men.”  After a time you came to believe him.  He was a sight to behold watching him “making corrections” on young Cadets.

August 1995, Kemper Military Junior College, Boonville, MO

The first time I ever saw Jack was when he was talking calmly to a football player. He told the boy to do pushups.  The urban raised football player looked at Jack like he was some sort of alien asking him to make an obscene gesture. At this point Jack begins to pivot back and forth in his jungle boots -which are perfectly bloused into his boots with the iron creases of his uniform.

And so begins one of the greatest moments of my military career as Jack looks at the football player and says, “Son, you were brought here, to Kemper Military Junior College to play football,” without pausing for a breath, he continues, “and football is a metaphor for war!”  He begins to dress down the shocked ball player, “You are a disgrace to this football program because you are not ready to be made into a warrior to fight on the gridiron. I was attempting to instruct you, but you failed in that mission as well,” like a car wreck you just couldn’t look away.

Jack then did something totally unexpected. He began to count the heads of all the people in the room. He took off his uniform top and put his feet on a table and knocked out 50 incline pushups. We all were transfixed by this awesome display Jack’s athleticism.

He cranked out those pushups like a piston in a machine and kept exhaling as he pushed up and down. After the last rep he bounced up on and looked menacingly into the eyes of the football player who just stared at Jack with his mouth open. Jack took a second to catch his breath and said, “Do you know what just happened here, son?” in a slightly malevolent tone.

The stunned jock could only shake his head back and forth not saying a word. Jack paused for a second, letting the question resounds throughout the room. I was thinking to myself, “Does he mean his yelling or those pushups?”

Jack brought out his hand in a flat arch to the boy’s chest, letting the middle finger of right hand stop dead center in the boy’s chest and said, “I will tell you what just happened here, son. I did two pushups for every person in here because it would take TWO of you to make one of ME!”

This last point he emphasized by pointing directly at himself. He would finish his verbal assault on the dimwitted jock concluding, “You boy, are an insult to your parents, to this school which has given you a scholarship to play football and most of all to yourself. I have given you a chance to prove yourself on the field of battle and you were weighed, tested and found wanting. But I, Platoon Sergeant Jack R. Arnold, will help you to become the man you need to be.”

Again, there was a pause and all these words were given the opportunity to sink in. “Now get out of my sight before I have a flashback of Vietnam you begin to get yellow skin and slant eyes.” Just like that he dismissed the chastised boy.

We all left in a hurry thoroughly impressed with our first meeting of Sergeant First Class Jack R. Arnold. As we left my buddy Julio turned to me and said, “Do you think that guy is serious?” I responded I didn’t know, but I did know was that I had found the mentor I was looking for to turn me into a Spartan.

Jack as a Mentor

Everything about Jack was intense from his workouts to his long conversations about the motives of fighting men. So much of what made him a person of almost superhuman stature in my memory has faded over time but never the lessons. He would wake up every morning at 5am and be in the gym by 530am and would lift for the next hour and half.

Every afternoon at 4pm, regardless of rain, snow and sun, he would ruck three days a week, 6 to 12 miles with a 65 pound rock. Every other day he would run 5 to 10 miles the other three days, Sunday was for Church because Jack was a heavy-duty Mormon.

In the end his body had been larded into an indomitable punishment-taker like a heavy duty truck with thick, knobby tires. With the physique of an amateur bodybuilder and the endurance of an Olympian, he was a sight to behold and emulate. What really made it impressive was, Jack was 45 years old. When most men his age were getting fat Jack almost seemed to be reversing the cycle.

He would explain this by starting every sentence with “Mr. Oto…” he would begin, because above all else I was a gentleman in training to become an Officer in the United States Army, at least the way Jack saw it. “Mr. Oto, your body is an extension of your will. You must train it the way you do men, relentless and with passion. To do this you must get the attention of men and how you do that is through the use of profanity.”  I have stored up tons of Jack’s gems but you get the idea.

What I loved about Jack the most was how uncomplicated he was. He talked openly about his experiences in Vietnam calling it “.. the best time of my life. All other experiences would fail after it.” He said to me once, “You know the reason I don’t have any problems from my service in Vietnam is because I never did anything there I either regretted or was not proud of.”  I came to believe his time there changed him in a lasting way.

After having been through several tours overseas I have come to understand just how profoundly such an experience does change you and haunts you for the rest of your life.

I did like one way Jack told me about his dealing with memories of Vietnam. We were running once down the Katy Trail- an interstate hiking trail that ran behind Kemper and goes all the way across Missouri.

As we were running he relayed a story to me from his third tour he looked at me and in his monotone robotic voice said, “Do you see the left side of my face, son?” I nodded that I did.  He continued, “When the Marines were fighting in Hue, you know that scene from the end of the excellent war movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’?”  I said yes.

We stopped running for a minute so I can tie my shoe and he looked at the far horizon, seeming to be lost in the moment of his memory. “A North Vietnamese soldier came out around a corner and caught Corporal Arnold half-stepping.  He took his rifle and butt stroked me to the left side of my face collapsing the left side of my face and breaking my jaw.”  I was shocked at the violence of his story.

He paused and said, “I was dazed by the blow, but through the pain I could see he was fixing his bayonet to his rifle and he was going to stab me in the guts.” I just gasped at this and asked, “Well, what did you do next?” anxious to hear what happened next. Jack simply a malevolent smile and said, “The only thing I could do.  I took that rifle away from that little gook son-of-bitch and I beat him to death with.” I was left awed by the story.

 

In 1995 when I returned from Airborne School Jack was relieved from his job for field stripping a .45 Caliber Colt Commander in the mess hall during dinner while everyone around him continued to eat. This was the last straw in a series of outrageous acts.

 

Right before leaving Kemper, he simply went to the position attention and saluted me and said, “Mr. Oto, I only hope that in whatever war you fight in, that war YOUR war will be as good to you as MY war was to me.” Not really knowing how to answer Jack’s bold statement- this happened a lot- I simply saluted.

October 2008, Fort Bragg, NC

13 years later I was walking out of the PX at Fort Bragg and literally ran into Jack. He looked at me for a few seconds, smiled and said, “Mr. Oto, how are you? No doubt you have fulfilled my prophecy for you and you have had the honor and privilege of leading men in battle?”  I laughed at this and smiled and told I was simply a Captain in the National Guard proudly serving while working as a school teacher full-time.

A scowl set in on his face and he asked how many tours of duty I had done overseas. I told him two, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.  He asked if I had been awarded any medals for valor or the Purple Heart for wounds received in closing with and killing the enemy.  I laughed at that one…. same old Jack.

He didn’t look he had aged a day. You could still see he was pumping weights regularly and at nearly 60 years old, he had just completed his second tour overseas to Afghanistan. We had dinner a couple of more times while I was at Bragg and caught up and it was good to see something never change.

Jack in his tough as hickory way had never made it passed Sergeant First Class. When I asked him why, he said, “Son, a computer is only good for two things: a paperweight and a place to set off a thermite grenade.  What does using a computer have to do with leading men into battle?”  I smiled at his answer and was glad to see some things never change.

Jack really was a character that seemed larger than life and almost as silly as George C. Scott in “Patton” but like Patton you find his over the top act enduring and if nothing else entertaining. I never doubted Jack was what he said he was but he did sometimes seem like he was an actor playing a role, an immensely entertaining and colorful role.

Ironically, Jack’s Birthday is July 4, 1950 but if asked “when he was born again- born again hard” his answer was April 1, 1967 the day he joined the army and later was sent to Vietnam. What an answer!

 

Major General Major General Raymond “Fred” Rees

Intro

One of my heroes is Major General Major General (MG) Raymond “Fred” Rees.

There are few American generals with as long or as distinguished service as MG Rees. Only three come to mind.

John Galvin

The first would be General John Galvin. Galvin started his career as an enlisted man in the Massachusetts National Guard, graduated from West Point in 1954 and served for 45 years in a variety of key assignments including division and corps command.

John Vessy Jr.

The second would be General John William Vessey, Jr. Vessey started his career in the Minnesota National Guard when he was 16 years old.  He received a battlefield commission during the battle of Anzio in World War II and went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

As a Colonel, he attended the Army helicopter school at the age of 48. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three years later when he retired at the age of 63 he was the last four star combat veteran of World War II on active service.  He retired with over 46 years of military service.

Douglas MacArthur

The last would be General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. He graduated from West point in 1903 at the top of his class. He served in World War I as the Chief of Staff and acting Division Commander of the National Guard’s famed 42nd Rainbow Division on the Western Front.  He was a Brigadier General at 38 years old.

In World War II, he commanded the Allied Forces in the Pacific. He oversaw the occupation of the Japan after World War II from 1945 to 1951.  During the Korean War, he was commander of the United Nations Forces until President Truman fired him.  When he retired from the military, he had served for over 52 years and had joined the army before the turn of the century.

Major General Rees

MG Rees was born in Pendleton raised in the small town of Helix in the northeast corner of Oregon. In the 2010 census Helix had a population of 184. Four of MG Rees’ uncles served in World War II.  The son of eastern Oregon wheat ranchers he graduated second from a class of seven from Helix High School in 1962 (Collins 2005).

MG Rees graduated from West Point in 1966. Of the 579 young men who received their commissions as second lieutenants at graduation four years later 30 of them would be dead (the highest number of casualties suffered by any class in Vietnam) and another one-third were civilians- the highest resignation rate in the history of the Academy (Atkinson 1989).

MG Rees’ classmates killed in Vietnam-7 percent- was almost identical with that of the academy’s classes that had served in World War II who had died fighting Japan and Germany. Yet they were hardly regarded in the same esteem (Atkinson 1989).

MG Rees commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Armor and completed Airborne and Ranger Training before being assigned to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in West Germany.  In 1968 he served in Vietnam as the Assistant Training and Operations Officer of the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and later as commander of D Troop.

1968 was the most violent year for the war in Vietnam. At the end of January, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive.  U.S. troop numbers peaked at almost 600,000 and with it the numbers of American casualties rising to almost 16,600 killed. Troop D attached to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade served as a Recon Element.  Its job was to search out and engage the Viet Cong.

After returning from Vietnam, he served briefly on staff at Fort Lewis, WA. He completed training as an Army Aviator in 1971.  From March 1972 to August 1973 he served as an executive officer of an air cavalry troop and in a variety of staff assignments at Fort Bragg, NC.

In 1973 MG Rees entered law school at the University of Oregon and joined the Oregon National Guard. He practiced law in Pendleton from 1976 to 1978.  After 18 months in practice his father died and he took over his family’s 2,200 acre wheat farm (Collins 2005).

In the next several years MG Rees held several command and staff positions in the Guard such as commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 162 Infantry Regiment and 3rd Squadron, 116th Armored Cavalry Regiment.  In 1986 as the commander of 116th Armored Cavalry Regiment, he made Colonel.

In May 1987, MG Rees was appointed the Adjutant General (TAG) of the Oregon National Guard. This was the first of several times he would serve in this position. Promoted to Brigadier General in 1988, he was the first of the class of 1966 to reach that rank (Press 1991), and Major General in 1990.  After four years at the helm of the Oregon Guard, MG Rees became director of the Army National Guard at the National Guard Bureau (NGB) in 1991, then vice chief and acting chief of the bureau in 1994.

In 1994, he returned to Oregon for five years as TAG of the Oregon Guard, then again served alternately as vice chief and acting chief of the NGB, and from May 2003 until June 2005, MG Rees was chief of staff of the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado (Collins 2005).  In July 2005, he became TAG for the third time.

National Guard Readiness in the 1990s

MG Rees’ contributions to both the Oregon Army National Guard and his nation are many. By serving at the state and national level, he was able to affect National Guard policy decisions five to 10 years out. As the acting director of the NGB in the 90’s he helped to lay the groundwork for several key projects that revolutionized and modernized the Guard for the 21st century.

One development was the Lavern E. The Weber Professional Education Center (PEC), on Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, Arkansas, is the national training center for the Army National Guard. It has a 75 acre campus consisting of 25 buildings and a total staff of approximately 420 military, civilian contractor personnel.  PEC annually provides instruction to over 20,000 members of the military force.

Another project was the Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, GA which trains over 6,500 Soldiers in six courses each year (Little 2009).  The program started in the late 1990’s with the Army National Guard Pre-Ranger Program and by 2003 became the Warrior Training Center.  The program has grown each year, especially after the Guard become more involved in the GWOT.  The program’s six courses, which range from five to 17 days in duration, are Pre-Ranger (958 students in 2009), Combatives levels 1 and 2 (238), Air Assault (4,913), Pathfinder (209), Pre-Bradley Master Gunner (71) and Bradley Crew Evaluator (90) (Little 2009).

Under the leadership of MG Rees the program has been steadily been staffed with Soldiers and Officers from the Oregon Army National Guard as instructors and students. This has helped to fill gaps in Warfighter development by providing NCOs and officers with skill sets outside the Army’s traditional training venues for National Guard Soldiers.

During the 1990’s era, by participating in key missions the Oregon National Guard gained national recognition for achieving excellence in training and its ability to support civil authorities as needed.

In June 1998, the 41st Separate Infantry Brigade spent two weeks at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. In 1999 alone, Oregon Soldiers deployed to over six foreign countries and 15 states.

State Partnership Program

MG Rees was the director of the NGB in 1991, when the fall of the Soviet Union and its old empire fell apart almost overnight. U.S. government officials looked for ways to reach out to the new democratic nations in the former Soviet Bloc without seeming like they were threatening Russia.

Latvia’s government made a request to develop a military based on the American National Guard. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army General John Shalikashvili, the Commander of the NATO European Command embraced the concept of building a partnership with the small country and reached out to the NGB for help.  Under MG Rees’ direction the National Guard played the lead role in the military liaison teams.  By 2001 the National Guard had almost a decade of liaisoning with foreign countries and their militaries.

All over the nation Guard Soldiers helped construct roads, trails and buildings in many of the State’s National Forests and Parks and provided assistance during times of natural disaster and state emergency. These state missions and international partnership missions changed and modernized the Guard. When the nation went to war, the National Guard was ready.

Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)

Traditionally, the Guard’s role has been both as a state-level security force and a ready reserve component of the U.S. combat power for overseas commitments (Christ 2009).  With the Global War on Terrorism that role changed.

During the 9/11 terrorist attacks, MG Rees was serving again as TAG of Oregon. He was also second in command of the National Guard Bureau, which was responsible for putting 700 Guard members in 440 airports within seven days after the terrorist attacks (Collins 2005).  The NGB helped with supplementing border security at a time before the Department of Homeland Security existed.

During, the GWOT Oregon Soldiers have deployed all over the world and responded to natural disasters. In September, 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, most of the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) deployed as part of Task Force Oregon in relief and security efforts near the French Quarter in New Orleans.

By the end of the month, when Hurricane Rita wreaked havoc again on the Gulf Coast, the 41st took the lead of the newly designated Joint Task Force Rita to help in all disaster-related needs in Texas and Louisiana.

“This led to initial call-ups in the war on terror,” MG Rees says. “It was evident that the Oregon Guard could respond.” As another example, he points to the rapid response after Hurricane Katrina, “We were able, from a cold start here, to get 2,000 people ready to go in 72 hours” (Collins 2005).

In the spring of 2006, 41st IBCT went to Afghanistan, marking the first major deployment of the brigade to a combat zone since World War II. In 2009, the 41st IBCT deployed to Iraq.

By 2009 almost half of the Oregon Army National Guard 6,500 Soldiers would serve in the Global War on Terrorism, including Rees’ own son Christian as the commander of the 2nd battalion, 641st Aviation Regiment (Quesada 2009).

Conclusion

Major General Rees’ service as a transformational leader has truly been extraordinary. His most important legacy will be that during the GWOT demonstrated to the Regular Army that the National Guard was prepared when America needed its “ready reserve.”

The National Guard being involved in international projects and large army exercises increased federal funding for training and equipment allowed states to spend a greater part of its military budget on facilities and training areas. All this accomplished in a time of fiscal constraint.

The period of the 1990’s saw an extraordinary transformation in the National Guard. Improvements in facilities, training and evaluation produced a well-trained, well-equipped military force, which could be could be confidently called on to support the Regular Army in any future crisis.

At the state level MG Rees commanded the Oregon Army National Guard as it fought in two of America’s longest wars. At the national level MG Rees’ long-term strategy for modernizing the Guard made certain that the National Guard was ready when America called after 9/11.  MG Rees’ vision inspired trust, loyalty and international recognition for the National Guard by creating partnerships with key allies throughout the world.

At both the state and national level MG Rees carried a strategy he had planned while he was at the NGB. He had fine-tuned it as Oregon’s military commander.  MG Rees created a plan that both colonels and privates could grasp. It is a rare thing for a general to relay the character of the blueprint of the strategy for waging a military campaign for modernization on such clear terms and during times of crisis and budget constraints.  It was a case of applied, intellectual leadership, of getting big ideas on paper and communicated throughout a large organization.

When Major General Rees retires tomorrow he will have served his nation for 47 years. His service spans three of our nation’s longest wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq), a multitude of peacekeeping operations around the world during the most historical modernization of the National Guard in its 400 year history.  He has been at the center of it all for nearly half of a century.  His selfless leadership and extraordinary devotion to duty shows MG Rees has led by example living up to the ethos and values of the institution to which he graduated from: Duty, Honor and Country.  His legacy will be felt for generations to come.

Bibliography

Atkinson, Rick. The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 . New York : Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Christ, James F. The Bone Yard: Book One of the ETT Series. Ogden, UT: Mountainland Publishing , 2009.

Collins, Cliff. “Maj Gen Raymond (Fred) Rees: General Rees.” Profiles in the Law- Oregon State Bar Bulletin, 2005.

Little, Vincent. “Warrior Training Center’s ranks growing.” The Bayonet , 2009.

Press, Associated. “Oregon general gets Guard post .” Eugene Register-Guard, 1991.

Quesada, K. “Nearly Half of the Oregon Guard off to war in 2009.” The Oregonian, 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captain Phil Esposito and Iraq- Part 4

This is a series I had started on my buddy Phil. He was killed in Iraq, 10 years ago. We have driven halfway from Kuwait to our destination of Tikrit, Iraq. We are about to enter Baghdad.

How Did I Get Here?

Baghdad, February 1, 2005– I made a Faustian bargain to go to war. I volunteered to deploy as an active-duty augmentee to a National Guard unit.

The Headquarters, 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard was a great unit. It fought with distinction in both world wars and was among the first responders of 9/11.

When I reported in to the unit in the summer of 2004, it was light years from where I wanted to be. If I controlled my fate, I’d be blazing across the Iraqi desert atop an Infantry Fighting Vehicle, raining hate and discontent on Islamic insurgents near some unpronounceable village.

I would be wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge that I earned leading my company to glory, while defending America from evil. I’d be smiling from ear to ear like a kid who just scored a date with the prom queen.

Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard Division Staff. One of a dozen Captains assigned the boring job of studying maps, making coffee and useless PowerPoint Slides. I was bored to death, until now.

The Unit

The unit was mostly made up of cops and firemen of New York City. We had a healthy mix of mechanics, teachers, and even a few lawyers in the mix. Like most Guard units they came from every walk of life. Phil was a Wall Street stockbroker from a working middle-class neighborhood.

They had seen a lot and done a lot since the war started.

Most of the men were in their late 30’s to early 40’s and had 20 years or more in the National Guard. Most were Irish, Italian, Black and Puerto Rican or a mix of all four.

With receding hairlines and a little overweight, it seemed more like a class reunion of over the hill football jocks than a unit at war, I fit right it.

The distinct New York City accent filled the air with sharp edges and lots of “Fuhgeddaboudits” first thing in the morning as we got the vehicles ready. It felt like “The Sopranos” in Iraq.

They were direct, opinionated and confident. They talked a lot and loudly. They were streetwise, kind and self-aware. They came to Iraq to do a job.

Now the job required us to drive north. We were about to roll into the once forbidden city of Baghdad, the center of the war.

Getting Ready

The 3/7 CAV commander was a slender, soft-spoken man with a sharp New England accent. With his retreating black hairline and clipped phrases where he forgot his “r’s” he seemed more like an academic than a military commander.

He and Phil were pouring over a military map that took up half the hood of a Humvee. It laid underneath a plastic lamination cover held to a large clipboard with alligator clips.

It looked like a four year old’s painting gone bad with lines and scribble marks in different colors. The map has no civilian markings, no neighborhoods, and no exit signs just numbers and grid squares.

The Lieutenant Colonel had been here before, two years ago. In 2003, he had been a major blazing away in a tank on the 3rd Infantry Division’s famed “Thunder Run” to capture Baghdad. He remembered the route into the city.

We planned on cutting through the southwest corner of Baghdad.

He points to a jumble of twisting overpasses and off-ramps on Baghdad’s western border. He says, “Here, at this Spaghetti Junction,” pointing to the center of the maze with his pen, “this will be where we head east and you head north.”

Phil agreed and said to roll in 30 minutes.

It was 3:30am. We were 30 miles south of Baghdad and about to get our war on.

Baghdad

The black night sky gave way to the harsh glare of the desert sun as dawn approached. In a vast desert landscape Baghdad was an oasis of flowing rivers and green trees. We were back in civilization.

The training wheels had come off. We were on the edge of one the largest cities in the Middle East.

Baghdad was a world unto itself as it began to wake-up. It was a relentless visual blitz of new sights, sounds, and smells all competing for your attention. The city was coming alive with the activity of a new day, call of pre-dawn prayers and vendors opening shops.

It was a spectacular mix of sounds, eye-popping new sights and cringing smells.

We past blue Arabic signs with white English writing on the bottom. The pungent smell of the dead hung low mixed with the sick, sweet odor of burning garbage. You could taste, burning plastic.

The men wear colorful head dresses of red and white wrapped across their faces, it can’t keep out the smell. We see families digging through piles of rubble and debris.

On the edge of the city we pass, low-built clay houses. In the pre-dawn light kids are carrying buckets of water and the houses are dark, so they have no running water and no electricity.

The remains of a dead loved one are placed in a pink floral comforter and carried off down the road. Kids play with makeshift toys made from cans and leftover items from trash on the side of the road.

A bulldozer beeps in the distance.

IED!

Suddenly there is a loud explosion in the southbound lane. A parked small car the size of a Toyota Corolla bursts into flames. A fireball erupts, sending a big cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky.

Our convoy slows from 40 mph to 20 mph as we maneuver around a collision barrier. The steady chatter on the radio grows frantic and speeds up. Instantly there is a loud burst of machine gun fire. It’s all training and adrenaline as we react.

The sounds of combat are like industrial sound effects. Reviving of engines and loud unexpected noises. The only constant sound is the rat-a-tat beat of machine gun fire resembling a metal press and men yelling over chaos.

We have no casualties. Phil’s calm voice on the radio urging everyone to push past the burning car.

This was war in living color. A blur of suspicious eyes, push broom mustaches and upraised hands, screaming in Arabic while drinking steaming cups of tea. We pass them quickly, shocked looks cross their faces.

Cars in the southbound lane screeched to a halt or drove onto the shoulder and abruptly stop. Iraqi cars are leaking fuel, spread a trail of liquid following them as they drive down the road hurrying to escape the confusion. This is nothing new for them.

We pull over to the side of the round half a mile away from the explosion. Gunfire has died down, shots released in pent up rage and fear.

At the head of the column Phil hears from me and the other serial commander that we have no casualties or damage to our trucks. I am still pinned to my seat. The explosion was less than a minute ago, but it seems much longer. So much has happened, so much has changed.

A Blackhawk helicopter flies over and we hear another, smaller explosion in the distance. I look around where we pulled over, I see more clay houses. Squat, one story buildings with beige walls. Shards of broken glass at the base of the buildings from blown out windows.

There are flip-flops, shreds of clothes, broken clay blocks, and pieces of twisted metal caked with dirt. Explosions are nothing new for this small corner of the war in Iraq.

In the courtyard I see black flags and light brown colored walls with groves of date palms and thick underbrush but no people. I am trying to slow my breathing.

Welcome to Baghdad

A complicated, academic argument of why we’re in Iraq has is reduced to the mind numbing terror of survival.

Without excitement each day of a deployment is an eternity. I got what I wanted- the high octane mix of adrenaline, excitement and ceaseless action and now I want to go home. I am scared witless with no idea what to do.

All thoughts of a brave, calm response left my brain and body with the confusion and noise of the explosion. I am deeply ashamed at my lack of courage. I remind myself I have a job to do. Thank God, no one was hurt.

I assure myself, it will be different next time. The only difference will be the size of the explosion and the country. My cowardly response is always the same.

Not for the first time I think, “What I am doing here? This is not the place I should be.” This is a constant mantra throughout my military career.

The blinding, white heat of the sun just popped over the horizon. The sun is so bright it makes the grass yellow. This experience, although small and unromantic, had seared itself into my brain. We rally and continue to drive north.

“Welcome to Baghdad,” I thought.

Captain Phil Esposito and Iraq- Part 3

National Guard vs Active Duty

Camp Buehring, Kuwait, January 28, 2005 – We linked up with 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, GA. The unit was headed to Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah in southeast Baghdad.

They joined us, taking our convoy from 64 trucks to over 90, stretching a mile long. 3/7 CAV had a storied history. Two years earlier, in the initial invasion, it was the lead element of the 3rd Infantry Division’s charge across Iraq, ending in the capture of Baghdad.

Now, the Squadron was “light cavalry,” replacing their tanks with trucks. The combat veterans of the Battle of Baghdad were not happy “escorting” a National Guard unit.

Just out of earshot, they called the citizen-soldiers “the Nasty Guard.”

The active army thought the part-time soldiers of the National Guard were only half as good as “real active-duty soldiers.” Controversies over the Guard state of readiness and active-duty double standards for mobilized Guardsmen fed this impression.

The National Guard had an inferiority complex. They felt they got little recognition for their sacrifices when, on short notice, they were uprooted from the civilian lives to serve as soldiers. Both stereotypes had grains of truth.

Very Different Units

The two units were very different.

The new trucks of the 3/7 CAV had only a dozen miles and seemed to sparkle with freshness in the desert sun. They had modified Humvees with improved armor, high-grade steel plating, ballistic glass and .50 caliber machine guns.

The Guard had hand-me-down trucks with tens of thousands of hard miles. Armed with wielded scrap metal doors, Kevlar vests, sandbags and plywood we looked like Mad Max cars headed to a demolition derby. We had 6 gun trucks for over 60 vehicles.

Everything had was begged, borrowed and “found” at Camp Buehring. Despite running the same dangerous missions, incurring the same casualties the National Guard got antiquated equipment that was inferior to our active-duty counterparts.

Just across the border of Iraq, 3/7 CAV’s vehicles started to break down. One of the Humvees was left at Camp Cedar, our first stop. The batteries weren’t keeping a charge, the truck was losing communications.

Another 3/7 CAV Humvee had problems with its transmission. As we started to move again, another truck overheated.

Phil led a group of “Nasty Guard” mechanics over to the vehicle. The vehicle couldn’t drive. A Guard Humvee hooked a chain to the broken 3/7 CAV truck to tow it and we were off again.

Maintenance issues, morale problems and boredom were taking their toll on the “Liberators of Baghdad.” All our secondhand trucks kept on driving.

I heard the radio chatter of different voices. The dialogue was straight out of a war movie. “Bravo 1, sees a man on the side of the road.” Phil answers back, “Roger, Bravo 1.”

The constant babble of the early morning was now clipped and crisp. We were learning and getting better.

Camp Scania

Shortly after 4pm, we pulled into Camp Scania. We had been on the road for nearly 12 hours on what should have been a 6 to 7 hour drive. We were exhausted.

Scania had the ambiance of a landfill. It was a walled community, like a prison, but here the guards faced out instead of facing in. The camp was only the size of three football fields. One side of the base was the fuel point and the other side was the logistics center.

It existed only as a truck stop along MSR Tampa on Iraq’s main highway. American convoys stopped here to refuel, use the small PX, take a short shower, sleep and get on the road again.

No luxuries like candy bars or cappuccinos.

We pulled the vehicles into a vacant large and parked side-by-side. Some soldiers slept on vehicles, others on cots. We looked like a Gypsy camp spread over a field.

Our temporary parking lot took up a third of the camp. We refueled, set up cots next to our trucks to sleep out in the open, under the stars. We grabbed a quick dinner and settled in for another grueling day tomorrow.

I looked around and saw soldiers shaving, talking and heating coffee on small fires made from old MRE containers. We were here for a few hours so everyone was prepared to move on a moment’s notice. I sat on my cot with the sound of the engine ticking and cooling beside me.

The War Movie Experience

Phil came by. Without his helmet and body armor he looked small, almost frail, the exhaustion and the grime on his face made him look old. He had a big smile.

He said, “How do you think today went?” I smiled back and said, “It couldn’t have been better.” I was impressed, by Phil, by our soldiers and how well things were going.

I marveled at what we had done. We were here, in Iraq, we had seen it and done it. It was hard to believe. We felt like a group of salty, grizzled, combat veterans who had survived our first battle.

The truth was we had only driven 200 miles into Iraq, something that hundreds of thousands soldiers did every day. But at the moment we felt elated.

It was strange that a group of Guard soldiers would travel 4,000 miles to experience this. It seemed like a war movie, surreal and exciting but disappointing with boredom and heat.

We jumped from civilian life into the army. A quick shift from a daily life of families and a job, to uniforms, guns and Iraq. Now the comforts of home were long gone. Your ear had to reacquaint with the foreign language of acronyms the army loves. Sleeping out in the open with a gun made it real.

As our small parking lot got dark you heard the sound of deep, loud snoring of exhaustion.

We were 60 miles south of Baghdad. From Baghdad, we would head north for the last 85 miles to Tikrit.

 

 

Captain Phil Esposito and Iraq- Part 2

The Plan

As the convoy commander Phil planned our adventure according to a schedule set far ahead of time. He knew it had to be timed, for everything to mesh.

The first part of the plan was tough. We had started with 70 soft-skinned trucks and Humvees. By the time we got done cannibalizing for parts we ended up with 64 vehicles in the convoy, dived into three serials.

Outfitted with “hillbilly armor,” our trucks had an add-on of steel-plated doors and “Gypsy racks”- steel cages to protect the gunner. A lot of our material came from a local landfill where we found scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to armor-up our trucks.

We put sandbags in the foot wells to stop any debris from explosions. With the armor, our bags tied to the outside of the vehicles we looked like a dozen versions of the Clampett truck from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Every third vehicle in the convoy had heavy machine guns for protection.

As the plan came together Phil said, “This is some Mel Gibson ‘Road Warrior’ stuff.” I had to agree.

We were bound for Tikrit, 85 miles north of Baghdad. We would use Main Supply Route Tampa, the military’s main supply route in Iraq, passing through Iraq’s largest cities including Baghdad.

He thought of every detail on a timetable from fuel, to rest times and ammo. He got ideas from everyone- his mechanics, his men and, most important- his First Sergeant.

Lance was a grizzled, salty soldier, a bear of a man who talked like a truck driver, straight and profane. Later, he would be one of my greatest friends.

Moving Out

It was a 20 mile stretch of unpaved, bumpy road from Buehring to the four lane super highway leading to Iraq. We moved to “Navistar.”

The ride from Camp Buehring took about an hour. The excitement about going to Iraq came to a halt while we refueled.

Navistar is the last stop in Kuwait before going over the border to Iraq. It looked like a huge American truck stop in the middle of the desert with dozens of fuel pumps, wash racks and tire changing stations.

The terrain surrounding Navistar was just more desert located about a half mile from the main highway.

Phil and I went into the Navistar Office to pore over last-minute reports. We got updates about roadside bombs and ambushes in the last 24 hours.

We set the trucks in a long line. It reminded me of waiting to pay a highway toll. The soldiers got out of the trucks and took off their body armor and adjusted gear that had shifted on the drive from Buehring.

“Get some sleep. We’re leaving at ‘O Dark Thirty’,” Phil said, using the army’s fictional time for the middle of the night. We grabbed some chow and laid down for a nap.

Everyone dug into their packs for the keepsakes that soldiers always carry with them. They took out Bibles, notebooks, novels, toothpaste and razors to take care of hygiene and pictures of loved ones.

The Shia in Southern Iraq

Our convoy stretched for more than a half-a-mile. Phil set a pace of 30 mph to conserve on fuel and allow for a reaction time if anything happened.

The war was almost 2 years old when we crossed from Navistar, Kuwait into Iraq. Anderson, my driver, said, “This place looks like a beach with no ocean.” Driving through pitch darkness in the middle of the night is tough. You can’t see anything in front of you or out to the sides.

As dawn hit flat, empty desert turned greener as we traveled north. Southern Iraq is brown, dusty and barren, but not as desolate as Kuwait. At first, we saw nothing but the occasional shepherd and flocks of sheep, goats and camels.

This is where the fleeing Iraqi Army was destroyed on the “Highway of Death.” Burned out hulks of trucks and shell-shattered vehicles with personal belongings were strewn all over the sides of the roads. There was garbage everywhere.

I smelled burnt kabobs, burning plastic all mixed in with the sick, sweet smell of a landfill. I wore a bandanna around my nose and mouth to keep out the dust and odor of the place, it didn’t help. The air tasted metallic like diesel fuel that made it hard to breathe.

 

The convoy had to dodge rocks, mounds of garbage, blocks of concrete and tires all placed in the road to slow us down. Not to blow up, but for us to pass stuff out.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, shoeless, dirty Iraqi kids lined the roads with hands out as though on drill. They greeted us with smiles, peace sounds and screams of, “America is Number 1,” or “We love Georgie Bush,” as we drove past.

Anderson said, “Look at their feet. These kids don’t have any shoes.”

Women approached, but were almost completely covered, the only thing you saw were small parts of their dusty faces. Men walked by wearing red and white checkered head scarves, full length threadbare white gowns and tattered sandals. They were missing teeth or fingers giving us thumbs up or smiles up as we went north.

Dogs were everywhere. They wandered around pitifully looking for food. They trotted back and forth sniffing old garbage. Sprawled grotesquely on the roadside were bodies of dead cats and dogs in the sand or half hidden by garbage and sparse grass just beyond the road.

Two hours into the drive, we hit Camp Cedar, the first stop just outside Al Nasiriyah. Here we saw palm trees, bright green bushes and larger, healthier farm animals with fewer kids begging for water. We passed mud huts and torn tents large enough for a family.

Al Nasiriyah is where Jessica Lynch was captured and the Marines fought a hard battle in the beginning of the war. We stopped at Camp Cedar, for fuel and took a small break before heading north to Camp Scania near Babylon.

Baghdad is where the fun began.

Phil

Phil was a modest man. He thought of this mission as the most important thing he would do, a small step on the long staircase of getting his soldiers home.

There was real nobility in what Phil did. It seems that war denotes nobility, yet in his actions deep nobility was there. It was about caring for his soldiers, making sure they came home with their bodies and minds intact.

Captain Phil Esposito and Iraq- Part 1

Camp Buehring, Kuwait- January 2005

Writing about Phil so many memories have crept in. I want these posts to be a gritty, uncompromising account of my time in Iraq and a way to remember a friend.

I admired his ability to plan and motivate soldiers who were in the same situation he was. He could relate to everyone. He had the common touch.

Phil was an everyday man, an ordinary man living in extraordinary circumstances. He was a stockbroker born and bred in New York City. He had a young family of a loving wife and little girl. He was a modest man who did something important and impressive.

Remembering the Fallen

Sometimes we place the dead on high pedestals. Grief, time, and the adding of heroic virtue all blur the memory, flatten out the flaws and sharp edges. Phil was brilliant and hard working. He was also quiet and had a stoic gentleness.

Phil was never a guy to stand-up and beat his chest. He was the guy you almost forgot about while he worked hard. With the job done, he shook your hand in his bone crushing grip, smiled and went on to the next task.

Camp Buehring, Kuwait- January 2005

Camp Udairi was named Camp Buehring when we arrived in Kuwait. It was located 40 miles from the Iraq border. The sprawling desert camp is far from home and the friends and families back home. We feel like we are on the far side of the moon in the middle of nowhere.

Since opening in January, 2003, it has been a busy hub for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Camp Buehring had a transient feel to it. The chow-hall is one of the largest facilities on the camp. It feeds several thousand troops at every meal. The line nearly always extends several hundred feet beyond the entrance and, despite six food lines. Sometime you endure a long an hour long wait to eat.

Vehicles sat in about a two dozen single-file lines on a sandy staging behind the camp. Despite waiting to go north to Iraq, we were never idle. While at Buehring we use the time to conduct briefings about upcoming missions in Iraq, do some training, and stock up on stores and ammo.

What I remember most about Phil is his idealism and earnestness. While looking at a parking lot of broken down Humvees and trucks in Kuwait he told to me we were driving them north.

We were to fly to Iraq. I looked at him and said, “Phil, you a have a company of clerks, mechanics and cooks, not infantrymen. You cannot take them north in these pieces of junk trucks. They can’t do the mission.”

He looked at me solemnly and said, “Dom, this is the mission. We got to do it and we got to do it with these vehicles. I need your help. You can sell ice cream to Eskimos.”

Phil was asking a friend to help him in a tough mission, but also a company commander using all his resources. A war gaming session with Phil and a handful of key NCOs made an initial inventory of what resources we needed, and a roster of personnel. After four hours we had a plan to drive to Tikrit.

At first, everyone was against the plan for the same reasons I was. Phil let everyone have a say, he addressed their concerns, made lists and talked out each point.

By the end of the meeting he didn’t just have everyone’s buy-in, he had us all excited about the amazing adventure we were on. He said, “This is the first and most exciting thing we will do in Iraq. The rest of the tour will be downhill.”

What we planned made me excited and scared. We all knew once we got to Tikrit, we would be pushing paperwork. Phil had set the tone for the whole thing.

A True Believer

He wanted to keep his soldiers safe in Iraq. Iraq was to be his last mission. Once he got home, he was going to leave the National Guard.

Phil and another man named Lou Allen were murdered on June 7, 2005. I never knew Lou but I loved Phil.

My admiration for him made me take his awful job as Company Commander of HHC, 42nd Infantry Division when he died.

I charged the man who murdered him and I oversaw his company for the remaining six months in Iraq. In 2008, his murderer was acquitted at Fort Bragg, NC.

It was a devastating blow for both me and the families of those brave men. It made all the sacrifice in Iraq seem almost worthless and all for nothing.

Phil’s Story

Phil took a National Guard company of clerks, cooks and mechanics in broken down, second hand vehicles through Iraq. This was not an elite unit of the “tip of the spear” soldiers, but a group of American citizen-soldiers far from home.

It was the Headquarters Company of a National Guard Division. He did it with style, grace and a little bit of luck.

Phil got his entire unit 500 miles from Kuwait to Tikrit, Iraq in 4 days of harrowing adventures and close calls. He did it because he was a great leader.

The Why

This is a retelling of the war people hardly ever hear about. The point of view of the National Guard soldier on the ground: the non-commissioned officers and company grade officers doing a vague mission with inferior equipment.

Phil’s story is a universal war tale, it captures the heart of what it meant to be a National Guard soldier in Iraq- a good man swept up in a violent conflict in a turbulent era of our country’s history.

The nature of the war changed dramatically the year we were in Iraq. We faced indicators of what was to come: insufficient supplies, conflicting orders, unknown enemies, a growing insurgency with civilians caught in the middle.

Phil’s story is particularly impressive. He was an every man who came to stand for the qualities that I associated with universal man at war- brave, tragic, idealistic, and dedicated.

By writing about him I am attempting to find meaning in my own experiences. My time in Iraq almost mirrored the war itself in 2005- a constant change in strategy, a few days prep time in Kuwait, a hell-bent drive north, the atypical use of National Guardsmen.

This is not about politics, it has no purpose here. Phil’s story is about how the brave men and women of the National Guard to respond to the crisis, just as they have done since 9/11.

The Drive Up

Our drive to Tikrit was like a dysfunctional family road trip. Phil was the dad who kept the road trip on schedule. I was the mom who chattered and nagged. The rest of company were our kids, impatient to get to Tikrit and get “their war started.”

There were fears and humor as I reflect back on our Gypsy way of life heading north in our collection of Clampett trucks from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Humor was the coping mechanism for the extreme situations we faced, it’s how we beat boredom mile after mile in the heat and the desert of Iraq.

The Army’s School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)

Intro

I always wanted to command an Infantry Company in combat. I thought it was the pinnacle of an Infantry Captain’s destiny. I went to Iraq in 2005 with the 42nd Infantry Division, a storied and proud unit of the New York National Guard.

The unit had fought with distinction in both world wars and being among the first responders during 9/11. But when I reported in to the unit in the summer of 2004, it was light years from where I wanted to be.

America was In Iraq trying to put a country back together after overthrowing a long standing dictator. In the summer of 2004 at Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division- the most deployed unit in the army, the war was seen as long overdue.

I was an Active Duty Infantry Captain assigned to the mighty 10th Mountain Division, the workhouse of the 18th Airborne Corps. I volunteered to go to the cold, isolated post of Fort Drum, NY to make sure I went to war. Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard unit about to head to Iraq. Worst yet, I was on staff.

If I had controlled my own fate, I would have been at that moment, in the first year of the occupation of Iraq, blazing across the desert atop an Infantry Fighting Vehicle, raining hate and discontent on Islamic insurgents near some unpronounceable Iraqi village.

I would be wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge that I would have earned leading my company to glory while defending America from evil and smiling from ear to ear like a kid who just scored a date with the prom queen.

Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard Division Staff. One of many Captains assigned the boring job of studying maps and giving recommendations to the G3, the Operations Officer, making coffee and useless PowerPoint Slides. I knew it was an assignment I would be bored to death with.

Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Michael Hamlet

LTC Mike Hamlet was another active duty “augmentee” assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division. He was mischievous and charming in equal measure. He was a charismatic jokester who loved telling Monty Python jokes.

Hamlet was 45 years old and had a large forehead, a receding hairline that was cut into a high speed high and tight, and a thick muscular torso that looked like he did dips and pull-ups all day. He came to us with a very impressive resume.

As a platoon leader he had jumped into Panama with the 82nd Airborne Division in 1989. As an Infantry Company Executive Officer, he had spent five freezing months in the Saudi Arabia desert waiting for the ground offensive in Desert Storm. He said of the experience, “All that waiting only to have it be over in less than 4 days.”

Throughout the 1990’s as a Captain and a Major he had split his time between various hardworking units in the army. The 82nd Airborne Division he was a Company Commander in Bosnia. The 101st Airborne Division as a strategic planner. When he said, “planner” my young, impressionable mind thought, “Now there is a job I wouldn’t brag about?” How wrong I was.

Command and General Staff College

In 1993, after returning from Bosnia, as a senior captain Hamlet had been chosen to attend the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It is where the Army sends the top 50 percent of its officers for advanced training.

Although the school is usually reserved for Majors, but Hamlet one of a handful of officers selected to go early. It was here that Hamlet’s career took on a new direction.

The school followed a 10 month long curriculum that schooled the Majors on strategy and doctrine. Hamlet ate the teaching at the school up. He ended up graduating first in his class, ahead of more than a thousand other officers, most of them already majors.

School for Advanced Military Studies

Hamlet’s instructors took notice of his agile mind and his ability to help his classmates through teamwork and encouragement. He was asked to stay on for an additional year that would immediately follow the 10 months he had spent at CGSC.

The course he volunteered for was called the School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). It is the army’s intellectual version of the Army’s Ranger School, a two month commando course which is famous for pushing its students to their absolute physical limits.

By design SAMS would provide a broad, deep military education in the science and art of war at the tactical and operational levels beyond CGSC in terms of the theoretical depth and application.

Huba Wass de Czege

In 1981, then a Lieutenant Colonel, Huba Wass de Czege published an article that examined the conventional military education approach of mid-career field grade officers. The paper created a debate over the CGCS curriculum. It was the genesis for SAMS (Olson, 2012).

Huba Wass de Czege, an Army officer descended, unusually enough, from Transylvanian nobility, had served as a captain and major in Vietnam. As a Lieutenant Colonel, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, he observed the Army’s premier warfighting manual FM 100-5, “was confined to the science of tactical engagements only,” (Ricks, 2012).

The manual was an attempt at putting the army back on its feet again after an exhausting decade in Vietnam.

Wass de Czege had been pondering the Army’s lack of strategic ability for more than a decade, since he was a young Army officer “on a hill in Vietnam wondering why all the field grade officers above me hadn’t a clue about what they were sending me out to do,” (Ricks, 2012).

In January 1982, Wass de Czege was selected to attend the Army War College. He applied and was selected to be an Army War College Fellow with duty at Fort Leavenworth.

During his Fellowship year, he researched and wrote a thesis that documented the need for an additional year of intermediate level education for staff officers within the Army.

His thesis said, “For nearly ten years we have attempted to train CGSC [Command and General Staff College] graduates of the ‘First Battle’ and for virtually nothing beyond that yet-to-occur confrontation.”

They did so by designing a second year of intense academics designed to address the previous year’s shortcoming and move a small group of students into a higher level of knowledge and capability.

Fulfilling a Gap

SAMS fills a critical niche in the Army. When implementing change, the rule must be “first” do no harm.” However, as the Army executes is final missions in Afghanistan and begins a new mission in Iraq, SAMS planners are at the forefront of these efforts.

The US is the sole superpower in the world. The international environment will continue to be uncertain. Ill-defined threats that elude the state

Today’s leaders cut their teeth in the cold war, in the contest between nation-states. They’re not comfortable with thinking that the world’s greatest power can be threatened by a couple of Arabs with long beards, squatting around a desert campfire in Afghanistan. It doesn’t register in their state-centric paradigm of a uniformed enemy.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the US Army force structure struggled with changing from a military trained to carry out short and decisive conventional operations against a uniformed enemy in formations. It fought Desert Storm remarkably well, but almost failed to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

It is highly probable that the US military will continue to be called upon to conduct short duration operations that entail high risk. As the future unfolds the military may not fit the contingency, and forces will need to be tailored, formed, and trained to execute specific missions.

This will require an officer corps, and especially planners, that are mentally flexible, comfortable with developing technology, and educated across the breadth and depth of military art and science (Olson, 2012).

Bibliography:

Olson, S. E. (2012). A Comparative Study of the Advanced Military Studies Program and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Leavenworth, KS : School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College.

Ricks, T. (2012). The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: Penguin Books.