With the exception of family, the one single consistent thing in my life has been the United States Army. It started first in Junior ROTC as a Freshman in high school, but was really cemented when MAJ Dave Pearson convinced me to join Army ROTC in the early 1980s. At the time I left my position as a civilian attorney earlier this year, I had a direct and regular connection with the Army for approximately 44 years!
Like so many other things in my life, the Army took quite some time to stick with me. It was precarious for a while, but eventually it really stuck! I previously detailed my challenges with JROTC in high school. College ROTC took a similarly slow path. I think I failed my first physical fitness test. I don’t know if I’d ever done more than ten push-ups at once. I’d never been a runner. After remedial training, I finally was able to (barely) meet the standard. In addition, many of my peers started ROTC two years ahead of me (due to my 2-years exemption due to JROTC), so I started a bit behind the curve.
The first turning point for me was the ROTC Summer Camp prior to my Senior year of College. Summer Camp is a six-week, mini-Basic Training, that all officers need to endure. It is complete with Drill Sergeants, push-ups, long runs, sleeping with weapons, and all the other fun of Basic Training. Mine took place in sunny (NOT!) Fort Lewis, Washington. It was pure hell for me for many reasons, one big one being the 4AM wake-up calls every day. My slow eating style was turned upside down. Finally, I had strep throat for much of the six weeks, and only survived due to antibiotics and cold medication.
Two things really turned Summer Camp around for me. First, I caught a break when our tech sergeant had a soft spot for me. He was an active-duty Soldier assigned to St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota. Being the only person in our platoon from Minnesota, I was his “homeboy.” Second was my writing ability. Sometime near the end of our training, we were assigned the task to write an essay about ourselves and about how we saw ourselves fitting into the Army. Now writing was something that always came relatively easy for me. I penned an essay with what I thought was a good mix of self-degradation, requisite seriousness, and a good dose of humor. My leaders thought it was hilarious and determined that I had a good future in the Army. Their final report on me back to the ROTC program put me ahead of many of my peers. Assuming I continued to do well during my Senior year, this set the path for me to make the cut for active duty service upon graduation.
When I got back to the University that Fall, the Army ROTC Cadre now saw me in a different light. I was given more leadership opportunities and ultimately was chosen as “Mr. Vice” for the end of year “Dining In.” This selection provided me, a relatively shy cadet, an opportunity to shine. This further set the stage for my active duty service. All of us were commissioned as Second Lieutenants upon graduation, but only about half of the graduates were granted active duty status. The day the active duty list came out, I was overjoyed to find myself on the list, but wasn’t too sure yet about my assignment to the branch of Air Defense Artillery.
My next steps were Graduation, Commissioning, and starting on Active Duty. In the meantime, I had proposed to Amy and we planned our wedding for July 28, 1984. I had graduation on June 6th and Commissioning on June 8th. What the heck was I supposed to do on active military duty between Commissioning and our wedding in late July? Most new officers left immediately for their Basic Officer Training. My friends in the ROTC department provided an answer. I would enter active duty immediately upon commissioning and serve as a Gold Bar Recruiter for the ROTC program. That meant linking up with high schools in the state, attending college fairs, and whatever else I could do to encourage new college students to join ROTC. I would hold this job until September, when my Basic Officer Training course began in El Paso, Texas.
Our time in El Paso (Fort Bliss), was very much a blur. We arrived in early September and by the following February, we were already off to our next assignment. Still, it was our first real taste of Army life. Highlights included the Texas “blue laws” every Sunday (we often drove just across the New Mexico border to shop in the mall on Sundays); an inch of snow shutting down El Paso; and our cozy apartment just outside the gates of Fort Bliss. We were initially intrigued by the courtyard pool, but our bedroom window faced an alley. Directly across the alley was a “sauna” and a busy porn shop. Inside of the apartment wasn’t much better. I’ll never forget the day Amy woke up screaming when she spied the large cockroach scurrying across the ceiling above our bed.
At Fort Bliss, newly minted officers learned about our trade. That included review of basic Army tactics, but also focused heavily on the branch-specific training. For me, that was Air Defense Artillery. I was further assigned to Short-Range Air Defense, which at that time included study of weapon systems such as the Vulcan, Chaparral, and Stinger. We also received high-level instruction in the long range weapons that included missile systems of Hawk, Hercules, and Patriot. Every other branch had their own Army Post that they called “home.” Officers in Infantry started their initial training at Fort Benning, Georgia; Armor at Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. That typically meant that you would be back to your home post for the next phase of training, Officer Advanced Course. Next step, though, was a first assignment to a “line” unit.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was assigned to 2/59 Air Defense Artillery, a unit of the 1st Armored Division in Schwabach, Germany. We were hoping for an overseas assignment and Germany was our preferred destination. I was to be a platoon leader – 3rd Platoon, Delta Battery, 2/59 ADA. More on Germany and 2/59 ADA in another story.
During my three-year Germany assignment, those of us not “Regular Army” had to sit for a board for retention on active duty. ROTC students were not automatically assigned to Regular Army. That status was reserved mostly for the graduates of the United Stated Military Academy at West Point. Mere Reserve component officers needed to regularly seek continuation on active duty. I was retained, but in doing so I was reassigned to a new branch, the Quartermaster Corps. Quartermaster is the Army’s logistics branch, so this was an entirely new field for me.
The home of the Quartermaster Corps was Fort Lee, Virginia, so that was our next destination after Europe. Fort Lee is just outside of Petersburg, Virginia, and about an hour from Richmond. It was back to the classroom for my Officer Advanced Course. Though I was one of the least experienced of all my classmates, I tied for the top score in the class. It certainly wasn’t easy. Competition had increased since so many of our peers either left active duty after their initial tour or otherwise were not retained on active duty.
I felt like I was just figuring out Air Defense Artillery and now I had to deal with warehouse operations, fuel supply, dining hall operations, field feeding, water delivery, and other less interesting things such as mortuary affairs, laundry operations, field showers, and parachute packing. All this was new to me – plus was the addition of women in our corps. Air Defense is a combat arms branch, which at the time did not admit females. Quartermaster was much different. The biggest difference for me was that we actually had showers when we were in the field. I can only remember one field shower in my entire three years in Germany. That was just not a part of life I was used to in the combat arms.
Following graduation I was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. This is in the middle of Kansas near the college town of Manhattan, Kansas. Fort Riley is an interesting and historic Army fort, but is truly in the middle of nowhere. The worst part about Fort Riley, though, was that shortly after our arrival, my new unit, the 937th Engineer Group, was deployed to Honduras as a part of an operation entitled Ahuas Tara. We were sent there to build airstrips, schools, medical clinics, and provide other humanitarian aid. The real reason, though, was to build a military-capable airstrip in southern Honduras as part of President Reagan’s attempt to counter the Nicaraguan Communist Government.
I mostly enjoyed living in and seeing Honduras, but timing was horrible. I left Amy home at Fort Riley with two young children. Jimmy was only about two and Kathryn was still an infant. I missed them terribly. Even worse, I was assigned to the unit as the “expert” in logistics. Unfortunately, I was far from an expert. They had expected someone who had at least several years of experience in logistics and then attended the Quartermaster Advanced Course. While I had the latter, I was a novice putting any logistical training into practice. Now I was thrown into an actual deployment where supply and resupply were critical.
We lived in a “base camp” near the Nicaraguan border in southern Honduras. We basically build our own base. It consisted of a large collection of tents, surrounded by barbed wire. We (by “we” I mean the engineers assigned to the unit) built flooring for our tents, built the dining facility, built the outhouses and “piss tubes,” and provided for everything in our small town, including power. As the chief logistician, not only did I need to ensure supplies for our construction projects, but also for our base camp. That included fuel and maintenance for our generators, procurement of water (utilizing Army equipment to purify, store, and distribute the water), and ensure that our food supply ran smoothly. We even had to contract with the local Hondurans to burn our refuse, including that collected from the bottom of the outhouses!
Fortunately, I got a LOT of help. I was not particularly happy, though. I felt like a round peg in a square hole and I did not get along well with the leadership of the unit. I appreciate engineers, but my experience in Honduras suggested to me that they were not necessarily the best leaders. There were HUGE morale problems in Honduras and the entire deployment was quite negative for most of the Soldiers. We left just after Christmas and returned over four months later with chips on our shoulders.
Between this experience, my transfer to an unfamiliar branch, time away from my young family, and too many failures in leadership, I’d had enough of the Army. Several months after returning from Honduras, I left the Army with visions of law school and a future as a lawyer. At that time, the Army was clearly in my rear view mirror. As suggested above, I soon reconnected with the Army, but that, too, is fodder for another story.