From the low point of my exile from Germany and the XO declaring my career was over, there really was nowhere to go but up. Strangely, this change slowly changed the arc of my life in the Army. That isn’t to say that there were no more hard times, but somehow my entire perspective changed.
The start of the directional change was my arrival at the logistical staging base at Taszar Airbase in Hungary. It was my understanding that I would spend a couple of days in Hungary before hopping on a follow-on flight to Slavonski Brod, Croatia, or Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the bus I ran into a Chief Warrant Officer I knew, Andy Tuthill. He was headed to the G-4 (logistics) shop in Kaposvar, Hungary. Upon arrival at Taszar, Chief Tuthill reached out to his new mates in the G-4 Office for transportation to Kaposvar. Master Sergeant Hurst arrive to pick him up. Since it was unclear where and when I was heading out, I figured I’d tag along with them to the mess hall. There I learned that the G-4 was woefully understaffed. MSG Hurst hurried off to call his boss as Chief and I finished our breakfast. MSG Hurst came back with the idea that I join their office in Kaposvar instead of going further “down range.” His boss apparently agreed. I hung out at Taszar as they worked out the details.
As it turns out, my new boss, Major Chuck Burden, was able to make his case and get me added to his staff. I’m sure my 19th CMMC leadership was overjoyed to be “rid” of me. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. MAJ Burden reported through a separate chain of command. He also had no visions of further promotions, so COL Hubbard and LTC Harrell had very little influence on him. For me, that meant a clean slate! MAJ Burden simply wanted someone who could help the logistics flow in and out of the “combat” zone. I was more than willing to do my best.
The whole G-4 section lived in the same room. Yup, my new section not only worked together, we lived together. At times it got annoying, but we got along quite well. As the newcomer, I got an upper bunk. With me and Chief Tuthill, the room quickly went to eight occupants — all in a size room smaller than the one I had for myself in Wiesbaden. There was barely room to move around, much less store gear. The bunks were stacked three high, but the third level was used to store equipment. Each room was heated by individual, ancient kerosene heaters. Contracted local Hungarians filled the heaters with kerosene daily.
There were two shower stalls in the building, but the water only got lukewarm. In addition, the building bathroom smelled awful because the sewer system apparently didn’t work too well. Fortunately, we had showers and toilets in a trailer outside the building. These did have hot water, so that is what we primarily used. The only bad part was that the water pressure wasn’t too good and it got rather cold walking to the showers every morning, especially when it snowed. All in all, though, it wasn’t too bad.
Our office was in a small one-story building that was about a three-block walk from our barracks. The mess hall was roughly on the way, so we pretty much had everything we needed The “office” was one large room that held all eight roommates, plus a contract specialist and a Hungarian interpreter. No cubicles here, so I guess we were ahead of Google for an open office concept! Our desks were lined up against the walls and we had a big conference table in the middle (it was actually a homemade picnic table with benches). We had several computers and printers. In order to print something I needed to take a floppy disk to one of the computers connected to a printer and print from there.
My desk faced a window. Due to security, all the windows were painted over or covered with paper. The furniture was stuff that was left here by the Soviet when they abandoned the post, so it was very old. Some of the desks were so close to the ground that we raised them up with wood blocks. We had several phones in the office: three civilian phones, three DSN (military network) phones, a fax machine, and three military field phones. The phones seemed to ring all day long and well into the evening. About the only other thing in the office was a kerosene heater that sat in the middle of the office.
Besides the mess hall, we had some other niceties on the small post, including a chapel, laundry service, a very small gym, an even smaller PX store, and a small USO center. It goes without saying there was no alcohol and we couldn’t leave the post, so most of us simply worked 16 hours per days. There was just not that much else to do. Some people call the place “Kaptives-are-us,” a play on the name Kaposvar. It was a fairly appropriate name given the fact that we were literally locked on post and had bars on all the windows. Another interesting fact about this post was that it was completely surrounded by a cement wall on all sides (about 7-8 feet high). That, coupled with the occasional guard tower and barbed wire, lended to the prison atmosphere. Unlike most, though, I had the opportunity to get off post! The only people allowed off post were those whose jobs required them to leave. Mine did!
My primary duty in Hungary was to manage various part of our logistics system. That meant tracking supplies for both of our bases in Hungary (Taszar and Kaposvar), as well as ensuring flow of supplies into Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most supply “activity” took place at the Taszar airbase, but we coordinated all from our small base at Kaposvar. One key task that I really liked was my role as purchasing officer to support the Hungarian bases. It was up to me to find large quantities of things such as bottled water, charcoal, kerosene, and various other “specialty” products on the local economy. As a result, I had a van and interpreter. Together with a cash agent, we spent many hours and miles (actually kilometers) throughout Hungary.
Because this mission provided one of the few opportunities to venture off the installation, I constantly had “volunteers” wanting to tag along and/or assist. If I was heading North, I got multiple orders for McDonalds meals. Outside of Budapest, the only McDonalds in Hungary at that time was near Lake Balaton. This was about a 45-60 minute drive from Kaposvar. In between stops and other missions, it was often several hours before the previously warm meals ended up with the requester. Even so, Soldiers happily gobbled up their cold Big Macs, hamburgers, and fries without question. They were a taste from home that we all enjoyed.
One of the most poignant trips I recall was our search for charcoal. The mess hall was keen on providing “home cooked” meals as much as possible. That meant from time to time they would grill hamburgers, chicken, and rarely, even steak. Strangely, we couldn’t find charcoal off the shelf anywhere locally and it was not on any Army supply inventory. As a result, we had to find charcoal from the source. Chief Tuthill (the cash agent) and I, together with our interpreter, Mr Lazlo, set out to what Mr. Lazlo had found to be a charcoal “factory.” It truly wasn’t much of a factory that we found, but more of a coal mine.
Once Mr. Lazlo described what we were looking for, the owner summoned some workers to get what we needed. Those “workers” turned out to be kids who appeared to be not more than 10-12 years old. They were covered from head to toe in dark soot from working in the nearby caves. One of them carried coal nuggets in flour sack. We mulled and looked at the nuggets, while Mr. Lazlo tried to explain our use of the coal. After a time we determined that this might be the best we could find so we placed our order. I spent days agonizing over the sight we saw. I remember learning the history of child labor in the US, which included the coal industry. It felt like we’d lived through a live scene of early 1900s America or England. I just couldn’t get the sight of those kids off my mind and wondered of the lasting effects of that coal dust.
Touring Hungary for my job, even considering the above situation, was a great improvement from the easy life I had back in Wiesbaden. Though conditions and work hours were much tougher, I felt quite productive. Yes, we had a few snafus, such as when our bottled water suddenly turned green, but I was learning a lot, had a great job, and a really great team to work with. I also gained some wonderful new friends that I will never forget. More on that in my next post.