It’s February 14, Valentine’s Day, 2013. We’re here in the studio of the West Point Center for Oral History talking to Captain Justin Toole.
Captain for two more weeks.
So Captain, I understand that you come from a sort of a military family. Can you talk to me about your family and where you grew up, in terms of the role models of the military men in your life?
Sure. Father served, and I don’t have very many memories of him in the service, because he got out. He was an Officer as well. He got out after about seven or eight years, and so I was born his last two years in the service, so I don’t have any vivid memories. I was born in Savannah. He was stationed at the time at Hunter Airfield down there, and so after he got out, we moved away from that. But my uncles, both uncles, served for some period of time. I have a cousin now who just retired. But really, probably as far as an impact, other than like I think some of the ways that the Army might’ve changed my fathers my two grandfathers both served, of course both in World War II. And I had the pleasure of interviewing my grandfather, for an eighth grade kind of an oral history project, talking to someone above the age of 60 or something. And I got to find out really what it was like for him growing up. He grew up in south Georgia, you know, at the time of the Depression, and he talked through the War.
He met my grandmother, who was British, in England at the time he was in the Navy. My other grandfather passed away when I was in high school, but he would periodically tell stories. He was an Infantryman, and he would talk about being in Europe and some things. He didn’t care to talk much detail, but you know, I kind of felt like those were people I respected well. I thought that, you know, whether it was directly the fact that they served or not, there was a very, you know, great sense in my family of patriotism and things like that, and, you know, serving your country and things like that. And that’s how we were raised, and so even though my brother and sister didn’t go into the service, you can expect at the Toole house to this day a flag being flown. And I think that kind of pushed me towards that direction, and I’m happy, you know, I pursued the route that I did.
So when did you start thinking about ROTC, I guess? When did you start thinking about the Army as an option?
I visited the college I went to where I got my commission is North Georgia College. It’s actually a military college that no one’s heard of, most people who aren’t from Georgia haven’t heard of. Commission, you know, 75-ish Officers, Second Lieutenants, into the Army only, every year. And so my father and mother both went to this college, and that’s where my dad got his commission. So we would take trips up there. They would have kind of alumni events every now and then. It’s a beautiful area of the country. I grew up, really, after my father got out of the military, we moved south of Atlanta, but we’d go up to the north Georgia mountains, see the college. And I kind of fell in love with the area, I think, even as a young child, and you know, when you’re 17-18 years old in high school, and you know, I like playing soccer, I like playing sports. I was pretty good at school and all that. But it seems like most anybody who tries at all kind of can get through high school okay. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I felt like that was like an easy answer, almost, because I said to myself, you know, “I think I would enjoy it.” And I applied for an ROTC scholarship out of high school, and got accepted to several different schools. And I wanted to go to North Georgia because it was a small university probably a lot because my parents went there, of course but it had a great program, great history.
And so what was ROTC like?
I can tell you that it’s different than a lot of other ROTC experiences, because like West Point, you go through summer training. Their beast, it’s called frog week, for freshmen orientation, and you know you’re a frog instead of a plebe or whatever. You’re in a Company with, you know, maybe 16 in the Company or something like that I can’t remember at the time. And you know, they do a good job of physically smoking you, of course, and mentally making you feel like you don’t know what’s going on. And they do that right before you’re ready to start your first classes, and they shave your head, and you kind of go through all that inculcation. And so it’s a lot different than maybe other ROTC, but it was great, because it was the first experience I had really being pushed to my limits, I think, you know, kind of mentally, at that time in my life. You know, I played sports, and you push yourself, but it’s a little different, you know? And so my now-wife actually was she went to that school, not as ROTC, but just as a civilian.
And so I think she helped me get through that first semester with the shaved head, and no memories, and everything. It is different from West Point, so I look at North Georgia as kind of in between most ROTC experiences, where you put on a uniform once a week on Thursday, you go to some event, or some Lieutenant Colonel or Sergeant First Class gives you a class on map-reading or something. We really lived in a barracks every day, like they do here. We would do PT in the morning as a Company, or as a Squad at least, and you begin to rely on the people around you and everything. You have that same type of atmosphere, maybe more like the Regular Army. But at the same time, on the weekends you weren’t bound to stay there you had more freedoms to go away, and if your grades were good enough, you didn’t have to do the mandatory study time. So it’s kind of in between an environment, I think, in terms of how much they keep their thumb on you, the regular ROTC and West Point. And I really appreciated that I think it let me do a lot of things. You know I think you’re at that age when you’re 18 to 21 where you benefit from not being under someone’s thumb at all times. I don’t know maybe not. I did, I think.
So I’m also curious as when you called it a military school, a military college.
Like VMI or something like that?
That’s right. There’s six senior military.
But your wife, now wife, then friend, girlfriend, whatever.
Was a civilian there.
So did she were there two tracks there?
Right. So I don’t know what distinguishes it’s one of the six senior military colleges, VMI, Virginia Tech, Norwich, Texas A&M, The Citadel, and North Georgia College. Those are the six. You’ve heard of all the others. They required at that time now it’s different. At that time, if you were male, you couldn’t live on campus unless you were in the ROTC program, if you were in the Corps of Cadets there. So that led to a predominate population of women. And if you were female, you could go there like any other state public school, and so she did that, and she lived in a dormitory like any other school. But all the males and some females who were female cadets who decided to go to ROTC lived in barracks. And there was a couple barracks, and you were in a Company, and you did everything academically the same way. You were in classrooms with probably more civilians. You just wore a uniform every day, and we wore the Army uniform every day.
Okay. So I also wanted to talk to you about what you majored in there, since you’re now teaching.
Here at West Point. Was this chemistry always an interest, or was.
I think the sciences were always an interest for me. I knew I didn’t want to write papers going into my senior year, I can tell you that much, and so I’d taken chemistry. I had an excellent high school chemistry teacher. I get there after orientation week, and they ask, “What do you want to major in?” And everyone thinks they know what to answer, and I just knew that I didn’t want certain things. And so I narrowed it down to physics or chemistry I had never taken a physics course, and so I just said, “Chemistry,” and I stuck with it. Honestly, it stuck, and so I took some AP classes, so I started my freshman year with organic chemistry, did okay in it, well enough, so I stuck with it. I’m glad I did. Maybe it’s something within me that knew that I should do that or something, but maybe I didn’t know any better. Maybe I could be a physics teacher now, but I teach chemistry now because I applied to come to West Point to teach it. I know that’s what my passion’s going to be. After I get out of the service, I want to teach college chemistry, absolutely, so I’m happy I made that decision when I was a young 18 year old. But I was able to get a master’s degree in chemistry at University of Georgia just last year, and so now I teach basic general chemistry here.
Right. So I’m interested in when you entered college, which was I think 1999?
The United States was at peace, relatively. And it was while you were in school.
That 9/11 happened.
So I’m wondering, how did you feel, being on this career track when 9/11 happened, and what were you expecting out of your Officer career before 9/11, and then after 9/11?
I honestly don’t think well, first of all, when it happened, of course, we all remember when it happened. It was right before it was roughly 10:00 in the morning or so. I think I had like a 9:30 class, or somewhere around then, and a friend of mine came to me in my dorm and said, “Hey.” He always watched CNN. I never did I didn’t care but he said, “Come check this out.” We didn’t know what happened, of course. We see a burning building. This is before the second one had collapsed, or even been struck by the plane, so. But then there was visuals and there was things happening, and honestly, through all that, really, it never connected. We knew as the facts started coming out kind of what the implications were, but I never really felt it. And I think that kind of carried through to me. I went to CTLT before I commissioned. You get to go kind of shadow a Lieutenant, and I went to Fort Carson, where.
What is CTLT?
To be honest with you, I don’t know what the acronym stands for some sort of leadership.
Some kind of training, leadership.
Leadership training, or.
Cadre, or something like that.
Correct. At Fort Carson, there was Third ACR, the Armored Cavalry Regiment. It was a great unit. Got to go there and go through a spur ride as a cadet, you know, and they just loved picking on me, ’cause my name’s Toole and everything, of course yeah. And I remember the Squadron Commander kind of talking to everyone after, and talking about the importance, ’cause this was the summer after 9/11, and talking about how things were going to change. I think that’s the first time it really hit me, the impact to the Armed Forces of what this implied. Of course, this was at the time where troops were being geared up to go to Afghanistan. But you know, it was one of those things like I didn’t change anything I did. I didn’t really look at it in a new light. I think my parents were considerably concerned, and other people I know in my life, and I could see that a little bit, maybe. But me, it was like you know, you’re a 22 year old, 21 year old ready to go, and that was it. Like if anything, a lot of people felt like this is what you’re there for, so.
So it wasn’t that you were unaware of it. It was more that it was actually what you were training to do.
Right, absolutely, absolutely. I don’t think that it you know, I look back at a lot of my experiences in the Army, and sometimes ignorance is bliss, maybe. I don’t know. Like you look back and say, “Wow,” you know how naïve you were. But no, I mean I wouldn’t have changed course, knowing what I know now absolutely not.
So when you graduated in May of 2003, I guess, May or June.
I think the mission was accomplished at that point.
There was that famous shot of the President on the ship.
So what were you thinking then in terms of the possibility of being deployed to one of the theaters of war, or not? I mean.
Again, I think it was mostly naiveté. I got married right after I commissioned that fall. I did a quick stint at college, doing recruiting for the school. Went to OBC, the Officer Basic, there in October, so war had been accomplished I remember when Saddam had been pulled out of the rat hole for sure that was November-December of 2003, right. I remember that. And even through all that training, there were so few people who had gone downrange and come back and that is to Iraq, ’cause very few of us had gone to Afghanistan that I don’t think it had quite the impact, you know? I think it really becomes more telling when you go to, you enter a place where people are just come back from a combat zone, and you start hearing the stories. Then you start putting yourself in that. You start saying, “That’s what I’m going to do.” So but yeah, I don’t think that, looking back, I was at all concerned whatsoever. Again, I think my family members, my new wife, they were the ones who were more concerned, you know? And so I was concerned that they were concerned, you know it’s like the second order effect. I didn’t want to leave her, ’cause I knew she’d be upset, but you know, I was ready to go. I thought I was trained well throughout OBC little we knew at that time.
So after school, you did this recruiting?
And then what did you do where were you assigned?
After I did well, I did recruiting first, then I went to Officer Basic. I was an Engineer Officer, so I went to.
Right. And that was where?
Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in the Ozarks, south central Missouri. I say you drive down the old Route 66. When you pass the Missouri wine country on the right you’ll see meth country on the left, and then you’re pretty much at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. But it’s not too bad of a place, honestly. I like the outdoors, so the summers were good. The weather’s not too nice, and there’s not a whole lot to do during the winters. But I was actually stationed there almost the entirety up in this point, at either training units as an Engineer training, or as a Lieutenant in the Fifth Engineer Battalion. And that’s the only like unit I’ve essentially been in, besides training units.
So you were at Fort Leonard Wood, and you were helping train the recruits or what were you doing?
Right. My first assignment as a Lieutenant, I did a quick stint in a training unit after I got my engineering training. I went to Fifth Engineer Battalion and I was a Platoon Leader, Combat Platoon Leader, and then we deployed. So I got there early 2004, and then stayed in that unit until 2006 or excuse me, 2007. The deployment was in the middle of that, 2005 to 2006, and then after that, I went to Company Commander or Captain Training the Captains Career Course for Engineers, staying there at Leonard Wood. That’s where the home of the Engineers are. And then I did my Company Command at a Basic Training unit that trained initial-entry soldiers civilians, that is in the first nine weeks of Basic Training, and did that for two years before I went to graduate school for chemistry.
Mm hmm. So at Fort Leonard Wood, before you deployed, what were you you were getting ready to deploy?
Right. I think that’s when the magnitude really started to sink in. When you start seeing, again, the soldiers who’d already done one deployment were in my unit at this point. You’re getting told by your chain of command that this is going to happen. You start to have key training events, FTXs, you go to went out to Fort Irwin National Training Center for a training event. Those types of things, that really is when it starts to hit home, and you get told essentially what your mission is going to be. And they said and you start to have an idea where you’re going to go. A lot of it can’t be told to you. You never want to say exact date, for security reasons, but we knew we were going to go to Iraq. We then found out we were going to go to Baghdad. We knew we were going to do a route clearance mission, and I was going to be a Platoon Leader, one of several Platoon Leaders in the Battalion, and we would support the entire Division in Baghdad, searching and clearing the roads for IEDs, essentially.
So you went in 2005?
5, correct, late 2005.
And so would you go out every day to clear the roads?
Sure. The Battalion normally the route clearance equipment was kind of what drove the ability to accomplish the mission, because this time we were just building the mine resistant type vehicles. The Buffalo is a 13-foot, enormous, beastly, has a Mack Truck engine. It’s a wheeled vehicle, and it has a large arm that’s attached to it so it can actually manually probe sites, you know. Let’s say you see something it can actually dig in the ground, so it kind of has a claw that can interrogate a site. And then also mine resistant smaller vehicles that were wheeled, that had a better chance of taking a blast from an IED, for example, than a traditional Humvee that were in use. So these were being fielded, and just being purchased by the military, so this was the equipment necessary to really get close enough to determine whether or not something was a threat. And then we would work with Explosive Ordnance Disposal, EOD folks, to blow up the IEDs, either in place or do whatever it is that they wanted to do with it. So, when I got there, there was only one set per Company, so with essentially two Line Companies, two Regular Combat Line Companies.
Can you tell us about it?
Platoons in each Company, it was more or less on and off a week or so at a time. If you had missions, you would either have a day set, or a night set, usually, and so you’d have one mission a day. Missions would last and that’s when you’re outside the wire, so to speak, you know, anywhere from like four to six or seven, eight hours, maybe, at the most, usually. But there was a lot of prep involved before, and getting back. So again, my naiveté you don’t realize the danger when you start doing that. Either at that age, or you know, even after some brushes with death, like you don’t I don’t know what it is you really don’t think about it, ’cause you just kind of keep your head down. You’re like, “Hey, this is my mission. This is what I’m doing,” kind of look after your guys. When I came back when I left that for R&R, that’s when it really started to hit me, when I see other people, and you know. But it was a long eight months until I took R&R. During that time, basically every other week, maybe two or three weeks out of the month, I would do route clearance missions. One month, my Platoon got attached to an Infantry unit at Abu Ghraib prison. It was kind of an alternate tasking. We just did security there. It was a nice break, to be honest with you, from being out on the roads every day.
So I’m curious. So you would go out with your guys, with these vehicles?
So how many guys were you in your Platoon?
In my Platoon, so I was Platoon Leader, had a Platoon Sergeant, and there was a total of usually five vehicles that went out, so more or less myself, the Platoon Sergeant, and three other NCOs would be in charge of their respective vehicles, but we’d work together and stay together through the duration of the mission, and have roughly 25 soldiers on the mission at any one time.
And these were mostly guys that you had been at Fort Leonard Wood with?
Yes, they were.
So you had known them very, very well, then.
Absolutely. Absolutely. These are my soldiers. So right. You start to realize that the war being fought was really being fought, or at least from my perspective, at the Platoon level. I mean we were the ones conducting the missions. And this is for route clearance, but also for Infantrymen, even, or anybody out there. If you ran into somebody else on their mission, it’s Coalition Forces, whatever, another unit, the guy in charge was usually a Lieutenant, and you’d have a Platoon Sergeant. Sometimes you’d see Company Commanders, something like that. But generally, especially for our mission, we were supporting the land owners. All the Infantry units that had areas of operation around and including in Baghdad, we would go out to the main supply routes and try to free them of at the times of day generally where there was the highest threat, and the locations where there was the highest threat. Or if they were special missions, then we would go down and support them, you know, if there’s a larger kind of mission going on and they want us to kind of clear a certain area, we would do that as well.
So I was curious, when you said that you would be out for six to eight hours at a time.
And how much road do you cover in that amount of time? I would imagine this is a very tedious.
And careful procedure, so I was just wondering.
You can imagine doing it at night, too. In order to see, we would have lights on, which is like tactically, somebody would tell you you’re insane, and it kind of was. I mean you had to be able to see it, so you would literally drive down the road at night well, it didn’t matter, day or night. And so we would have lights on, like floodlights on vehicles, going several miles per hour, like five miles an hour, I’d say. No more than probably ten miles an hour, usually, depending on the area you’re in, so that you could see it for you know, it could be detonated, hopefully. Or if it does, you’re at least far enough away that everybody inside is okay. So if you get to an area where you know, historically, there wasn’t much there, then maybe you go faster. If you go to an area, you know there’s different decisions being made to that regard, but generally you’re always going very slow, so maybe under 100 miles, absolutely. Absolutely, 100 miles, and that’s full coverage. Maybe you only cover 10 or 15 miles in that time. Of course, if you find something, or you’re sitting there and you’re dealing with an IED, then a lot of your time is used in that. But I went on some missions that were up to about a day usually less than a day, always, but that was about the most I actually was outside of the wire, so to speak.
So tell me so you would drive slowly down the road, and then somebody would spot something? I mean.
Can you give me a specific example, even, of like the first time you saw one?
The first time so you do a right-seat ride. You go down to the unit who’s been there doing that mission before you, and you go out on missions with them, and so one, for example there’s different ways of detecting them. You can visually detect them, and then there’s other pieces of equipment that might be able to detect them under the ground. Generally, it was visual detection, and so you drive down a route. You tell your soldiers what to look for essentially, maybe you show them historical events. And then at some point, everybody has access to a radio inside the vehicle, and they would broadcast that they see something usually the lead vehicles. And then this vehicle with the arm on it could go and interrogate it, and that would be a chance for it to really get closer maybe than the others would want to, and have enough stand-off with the Buffalo’s interrogating arm so that they could ascertain whether or not they think that it is an IED. And if it was, then we’d call in our units, typically, to either blow it in place, or if they wanted to take it, they could.
So for example, the first IED we found, we’re driving down a main supply route. It’s a hardball road. It looks like an interstate highway, except you’re the only one on it, because the locals aren’t allowed anywhere around you. You have gunners on top of your vehicles and such, but the first or second vehicle, somebody in there says, “Hey, we think we see something on the side of the road.” And then the people in the Buffalo respond, and they slowly approach it. They see what the person sees, and usually it’s not out in the open it’ll be concealed in some way. The arm goes out, they roll it over, they poke it. It’s like a tire tube, inner tube for a tire, and inside of it is an artillery shell. And so at that point they’d move out. We’d continue scanning for the area, to see if there’s any other devices, but generally we’d call Explosive Ordnance Teams to come out. They’ll see what we do, usually with something like a robot, place a charge on it, blow it in place, and then you move on. So before the mission starts, you generally have a route. That’s what your mission is, to cover this route. And then if you can get down and back in time, and it’s only been two and a half hours, you might do it multiple times. But you didn’t want to do the same thing twice. Even if you got the same mission the next day, you always wanted to change things up to keep yourself unpredictable, ’cause the last thing you wanted is for someone who wanted to hurt you to know exactly what you’re going to do at a certain time.
Right. So the IEDs, they obviously could go off if you ran over it, but could they also go off if there was just a lot of noise, or a lot of rumbling could make them go off?
How did they work?
So that would be primarily some way in which you could run over it, connecting a circuit. For example, the pressure of your vehicle may be connecting the circuit. Those tactics depend considerably on whether or not you’re on an interstate highway type of road, or you’re on a dirt road. It also depends a lot on how much, what affect it has on your vehicle, whether or not it’s directly underneath you, or on the side, or the distance you are from it. And so at that time in Baghdad, our mission being primarily hardball roads, the interstate roads, usually we were looking for things on the side of the road, so. But there was other initiation systems, more sophisticated or whatnot, but generally, you have to remember that the enemy had to know you’re there in order to, in one way or another, to detonate it, usually, unless it was one of these victim operated ones unless it was buried with some sort of like pressure sensitive device. So that was usually you know, to be honest, that was something we obviously knew of, and we knew very well, is how you know, you learn the enemy by these devices, and you see what they do, and their tactics, and you try and this is the cat and mouse game.
And so everything so far is the areas where they typically place them, to how they place them, to very small details that soldiers start to pick up on. Things that look out of the ordinary, or small wires I mean they become really good. The individual soldier, every soldier was you know, you needed every man, because every set of eyes was valuable to see it. Not even necessarily just for us, but we think our mission was to clear the road for other units, so they wouldn’t, you know. So logistically, we could get the supplies that we needed to the different bases. But yeah, typically, we’re going down the road. To be honest with you, like you weren’t as scared unless you were in an area where you knew the devastating effects of certain types, and that’s where you really you know, the pucker factor, we’d say, would go up. Once you’re in an area that wasn’t or basically, there was more sophisticated devices, maybe.
So you saw Hurt Locker, I assume.
Which is not you guys, but the Ordnance guys who you would call in.
You know that movie to me, it was sort of an amazing thing. Here you’ve got this movie that has won best picture and all.
And almost nothing happened in it, except they would go and meet with these bombs and figure it out.
It was the most suspenseful movie with so little happening, you know.
Of a plot nature, so I imagine that this really was a very stressful task that you guys had, this kind of and I understand that some areas might be more dangerous than others.
As you said. But I mean is it one of these things like at the end of the day, it’s like or how did you was it stressful for you and most of the guys, though?
It’s it doesn’t it’s again, I felt so naïve when I first started doing the missions, and it really gets stressful when people get hurt. That’s what I found out really quickly. And so yes, when you go to an area where you know that there’s a higher threat, that’s when you start to get more concerned. And unfortunately, that means that when you’re in an area where there’s not much threat, then you feel somehow safe, so. But it was nice that we could go back to a FOB. Kind of a secure area, take off your uniform, or your battle armor you know, your helmet and everything and watch an episode of The Family Guy, or some video, or anything. And it really allowed you an opportunity to kind of get reprieve. Comparing that, I’ve heard stories, and I’ve seen Band of Brothers 2. You know you get this sense that like they have this stress, and it’s because sometimes, as they show in the movie there, for a week at a time or something they’re involved in some combat operation. It’s very stressful, and it is. But then in between they had months between another battle. And I felt like it kind of nickels and dimes you throughout, and you get really exhausted. I mean I might be six hours on a mission, but I was working 18-20 hour days. There’s so much more involved maintenance to the vehicles, getting intelligence. I mean as a Platoon Leader, so I think not sleeping, and being kind of high strung about that. But all that is very small in comparison to the stress level you feel when someone in your unit gets hurt, whether it’s there while you’re at it, or someone else doing a mission similar to you.
So that’s really when it the first mission where we were supporting an Infantry unit in a certain area, and unfortunately, the Lieutenant who we were there with and one other soldier gets killed by an IED on a mission that we were with. It was you see the physical aftereffects, and that’s hard, but and you know your soldiers are seeing everything you are. And you go back, and you’re able to just say to yourself and this is how I I remember my Battalion Commander coming back, ’cause this was early on, and I was the first Platoon to kind of really be around any casualties. And he came to me after the mission was over this was a long one and he said, “Hey, Justin, how are you” I could tell he now I see what I was doing. He was really seeing how I was. He was testing me to see how I was coping with it. And I just remember telling him, not in an insubordinate way, but almost blowing him off, saying, “Hey, sir, I’ve got to get this mission brief done and get it to the S3 Operations.” And it was like I kept blinders on, and that was kind of the way, so that stress didn’t really hit me immediately then. And then a couple days later, a soldier in our Battalion gets killed, and we were going to go out on the mission after him. And I was told, “You’re not going to leave yet” this is at the Battalion level “because we’re still recovering his remains,” or something like that. And that happens, and okay, now this isn’t just an Infantryman in some other unit this is somebody in your unit. But all in all, like until it becomes personal until you have, I found out and this is like kind of what I learned a lot about human nature.
Until the closer you are to that person who gets hurt, that’s when you really start to hurt, and start to really get stressed. Around May so we’d been doing it several months another unit was doing the same mission we have, and an NCO and two of the other soldiers ended up getting killed in one incident. And that’s when it really became hard, and I noticed in my soldiers really changing, because I think they finally because early on, you feel like you’re trying to learn the mission. You’re so focused on just trying to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. Then when you start seeing these things happen, then it starts to become personal. And so then you start to be more concerned, so I could see the morale, even though this was a different Company, it was one of the best NCOs in the Battalion. And he wasn’t invincible. No one’s invincible. It doesn’t matter how good or bad of a soldier. Sometimes you feel like this could be you, ’cause it could be, ’cause you’re doing the same mission. And even through all that, I never really got unusually stressed until at the end, towards the end of deployment, I finally had a chance to go home for R&R. And I actually subsequently, or at that time I got promoted, and so my Platoon was being passed off to another Lieutenant. And when I came back, it really finally hit me. I was becoming stressed for my soldiers. I started to feel all this, because it’s like I had no frame of reference or something when I was down there.
I had blinders. I was just doing it, and maybe that was a way I cope with it, or maybe that’s just natural. But the stress, you know, when you have people who are close to you get hurt or killed, that’s really when people start to change. And that’s when it becomes that’s what leadership I tell my cadets now, I’m like, “This is leadership. Anybody can lead when everything is going well, right? Even a horrible leader can go into a situation where they have great people under him, and they will look like a great leader.” I said, “When everything is the worst possible scenario, that’s really when you find out.” The Lieutenant who got killed on that mission in December, his Platoon ended up we ended up supporting him some months later. And he obviously wasn’t there he hadn’t been replaced. Every Lieutenant in that Company had been wounded and sent home, or killed, and the First Sergeant had been killed, too. And this was in a very bad area, and we went down to do a mission. We found an IED. And as I’m calling it up, I’m talking to like their Company or whatever, “Hey, we found an IED on this road.” And they said, “Well, we have soldiers out there at the observation point. We have somebody right there at your location.” “Really?” Well, we find out that the building right next to where we’re at—a couple raggedy soldiers come out. They look weary. They talk to my Platoon Sergeant, they get in his vehicle. We clear the IED, and then I say, “Who’s in charge—who’s running the show?” And it was a Platoon Sergeant. At that time I talked to him, and you’d see kind of the fear in his eyes a little bit, and he was uneasy being in charge, because I think they’d had several soldiers at this point killed. And he said, “Hey, sir, here’s what I’m trying to do. What do you think?” And he really wanted to talk to somebody. And I just remember saying, “You had two soldiers on this, supposedly over watching this point for the past however many hours, and there’s an IED right here. Granted, it could’ve been there before they got there.” But I was like, “When they came out, they obviously weren’t watching the road.”
I ended up talking to my Platoon Sergeant at the end of the mission, and he said, “I think those soldiers had been getting alcohol or something.” He made it he said, “Those guys were not they weren’t focused on doing anything. “Maybe in self-preservation mode, maybe because some very close people of them, they feel like that it doesn’t matter or something.” But I didn’t do anything about it. And then towards the end of the deployment, I find out about an investigation in which an Iraqi family had been burnt alive, and a girl had been raped, and that was the same Platoon that we had gone out with earlier. And it really hit me hard, because I felt like I didn’t do anything about it. And people look at soldiers, and they’ll look at these war scenarios, and they’ll say, “Oh, this is horrible. Was it just this rogue psychopath who did these things?” And I learned at the end of that, that this is the way humans are.
And given certain circumstances, granted, not everyone would’ve done something like that. Given certain circumstances, people will do things that seem like the last thing you would ever do. But in these types of moments, when you’re really in a position where you’ve seen very close friends of yours get killed, it’s hard to take on this mission, and take a local Iraqi’s hand, and work with them, when you feel like they’re the ones who just killed your best friend. It’s so difficult. And so I wonder what would’ve happened had that Lieutenant still been alive, ’cause he was a great guy. He was a West Pointer. I only knew he was from Texas. He was out there doing everything a great Lieutenant I would expect to do, and after he got killed, I wonder if that evacuation of his leadership, if that’s really what drove those events. And I think that’s true it could’ve. And so, if nothing else, I realized how powerful people feel like they don’t a lot of times you underestimate what influence you have, and I did at that time. Now, having, looking back, even at my Company Commander, I realize how much impact every individual has on the unit, the morale good or bad, setting an example. And I think that there’s different I read the book that was written about that some years later. A friend of mine said, “Hey, weren’t you down there when this such and such happened on Route Caveman?” I said, “Yeah. Why are you asking me?” “Oh, I just read a book, and it was discussing” so I read the book, and it was great. It was a good the journalist did a very good job recording events in a fair
What book was it?
It was called Black Hearts. I think it was something like A Platoon’s Descent Into Madness, or something like that, was the subtitle, and to be honest, I can’t remember the author. But it was well-written, and the author absolutely interviewed, and you could tell he was really not showing any sort of bias towards the situation. He was just kind of documenting the effects. So I think it was fair, and you learn a lot about, again, how much individuals can influence a unit. I just felt like something about just these random events that kept tying me to this Platoon, you know? After that event, the horrible event happened, two of the soldiers down there ended up getting kidnapped, essentially mutilated and murdered, and it was a huge event. And some people say that was retribution for the events that happened I don’t know. I’m sure certain groups of people in that area, terrorist types, would’ve done that regardless. But I always see this interconnectedness between what all happened down there, those initial days to the end, and I felt like it kind of tracked. It really developed me in my understanding of war, I’ll say that much. It really showed me a lot about human nature, and I stopped placing blame on anybody in a war time. It’s really easy to look objectively at events that happened and place blame, but you know.
So you mentioned that you thought you could’ve done more, but it sounds like you did talk to people about it, and I’m wondering what you feel you could was there something you could’ve done?
Well, I mean.
Even theoretically, even if it wasn’t.
Sure. I mean when the Lieutenant got killed, like his Company Commander was ordering him to go like we got basically rocketed. My vehicle nearly missed this rocket, or the rocket nearly missed us, and we thought it was like somebody with an RPG, and I’m like, “Oh, this is not good for them, because we have these weapon systems that are about to kill this guy.” And then we realize, “Oh, it’s not” it was like an IED where they had set up a rocket remotely. So the Commander says, “You need to go and get that rocket,” to the Lieutenant, and he was hesitant. It was on the other side of a canal. We couldn’t access it with our vehicles, and so he came in and we discussed it, and I said, “I wouldn’t go.” I was like, “Dude, don’t.” I said, “Let’s clear” and then later one of my vehicles gets damaged and mortared, and so I was like, “This is not a good area to be in right now.
This is one of those areas where you don’t want to find yourself without key pieces of equipment.” So I said, “Let’s go back to the start point, and maybe we can clear or do something else.” And so we moved back, ’cause essentially, some of my key vehicles are disabled. And we move back, and then you hear an explosion, and you go down there and you see that he’s been killed. And so I felt like, yes, I could’ve—maybe I should’ve said, “I don’t care what your Commander says, you need to stay on this side of the river,” ’cause that—and been explicit-like. But I didn’t think about it you know, this is my second week, maybe. And so I feel that amount of guilt. It’s not like I can’t sleep at night over it or whatever else, but I know that I could’ve had that change. And then I think of what changes that could’ve happened, at this interactional relation level you know, this one incident. I think back, and that’s why I feel bad about it. I can’t imagine how the Company Commander feels, ordering the soldier over there to do that. I think about him, and now he’s got to cope with that.
Yeah it’s horrible. Have you ever read a book by a guy named Jonathan Shay does that name mean anything to you?
Doesn’t sound familiar.
He wrote a book called .Achilles in Vietnam, and he’s sort of a visionary on PTSD. But one of the things that he’s very interested in is this policy of replacing soldiers
Who are injured or killed, rather than replacing the whole unit, because he gives the example of a tank crew, where you got these four guys who are operating the tank. And if one of them gets hurt, they just put a new guy in.
And there’s no developed or evolved communication, trust, and all that stuff.
So that that tank unit, which maybe have been crackerjack.
Is now compromised to some extent. And that’s kind of when you’re talking about leadership, the role of leadership, you just can’t.
When he knows he told the Lieutenant says, “I don’t know,” he’s pushing back, and he says, “No, you need to go.” And then two soldiers get killed. I mean can you imagine? I mean.
It’s not just that they lose their leadership. It’s almost impossible to replace that leadership.
And it’s as you said, it’s sort of about the parts are not interchangeable. They’re humans who have these specific skills, and you understand them, and I just it’s hard to imagine.
Right. So yeah I liked I remember watching a History Channel documentary on World War II, before I deployed. And it was some of the initial units I think it might’ve been a Glider unit, I can’t remember maybe it was a Brit, too. The mission was to maybe paratroop in you know, one of these classic “don’t let the Germans cross this bridge” type scenario or whatever. And they’re armed with like these light rockets or something. And he talked through “here comes a German tank.” He’s like, “I knew that we were going to be taken, but I fired the rocket. We ended up disabling the tank,” or whatever, and the whole German whatever, Company or whatever, stops. But then he talked about how he remembered the German soldier who got wounded, who might’ve lost a leg or his lower half or something. And he witnessed him basically bleed and die and cry and those types of things. And then I go to combat, and I end up seeing the same documentary, and when I heard that, it was a completely different effect on me. Now I know, you know. I see what this guy has seen, and I can see in his eyes. I see, you know. And that’s something that you’ll never get in any sort of you can’t get that at West Point. You can’t get that anywhere. And so I don’t know how important it is that we so much as we just warn the leaders about the potentials of what humans can do, or whatever else. But ultimately, you have to experience it.
And I learned recently how there’s been more research on post-traumatic growth, and how certain people are able to move out of these trauma. And I look back and I think, “Maybe that’s more like what I’m able to do, compared to some other people,” ’cause again, I was pretty fortunate. I consider myself like immensely lucky. My unit was lucky. The whole time I was a Platoon Leader, not one of my guys got injured, my guys got injured, and I think how lucky I was. But even despite that, they could have been emotionally had a lot of wounds. It affects everybody differently. And yeah, so I think that I look back at it ironically as a very positive experience in life. It made me live my life completely differently, I think, and it made life somehow easier for me, or something it’s unusual when other people could kind of go the other way. I don’t know. Maybe ’cause I just kind of held it in I don’t know, but.
Well, or maybe you saw that life was easier compared to war.
Maybe you got perspective.
Yeah, right, sure, you come to America, and you see. I saw a 12 year old boy get I didn’t see him, but we found an IED on another mission. He comes up to us on this little donkey cart. He’s probably 12, 13 years old. He talked to one of my other guys, and they throw him an MRE, one of the packaged meals. They throw him an MRE, “Hey, thanks, guy,” whatever barely speaks English, he’s trying. And I say, “What was that all about,” ’cause I’m watching this happen. He said, “Oh, he says that he’s seen some guys, and they think there’s an IED at such-and-such location,” or whatever. “All right, cool.” He goes around the corner and he gets shot in the back. This is a 12 year old boy who spoke to some American troops, and he gets shot in the back. To this day, I don’t know if he lived or he died, or whatever else, but this is the place where a 12 year old lives, and he grows. And then coming to the States, and I think, “My God, how easy we’ve got it.” And he goes, and all these other things just having power and they’re human just like us, but it makes you appreciate things, for sure, you know, being an American, for sure.
So it’s amazing a lot of what you say really was stuffed into Hurt Locker.
You know, a lot of these I mean they.
It was in Baghdad, right.
Kind of well, the kid who gets killed, and so.
So when you stopped, when you left Iraq for good, was it hard to readjust? I mean not necessarily post-traumatic stress, but just the fact of like what you’re saying this kind of unbelievably intense experience, and now you’re back to what was it like? I mean you came back to you were married.
Right, I was married, no kids at that time. So I did go to R&R, like I said. I got promoted to Captain towards the end. A new Lieutenant took over. Like one quick story. So I’m at home, I’m with my wife. We’re going to go to the mountains to go on a vacation, just her and I, we’re going to go do the, you know, have my time. And then I get an e-mail that says some of my soldiers have been wounded, and it was like really, really painful. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I was back in the States, so I wasn’t with my unit, and all I could think about was that Lieutenant who took over for me, and how I want to wring his neck, you know? Like, “Are you kidding me?” Like I made it so far incidentally, the guys were fine. I mean, you know, one of them got shot, but it was fine. The other one lost kind of a piece of his leg, but he’s probably going to be able to recover. And I went back, and I realized how angry I was at the situation. I found out how happy I was because they did everything that we’d been training to do, like in the time when something like that would happen. So it really made me, again, understand the influence that you have, even when you’re gone, and also how amazing the things the guys do. Like literally putting their bodies on top of other wounded soldiers in the time when they’re receiving gunfire heroic acts by any account. Amazing things and it makes you really proud.
So when I came back, though, after that, I had a few months, and I was in a Battalion Staff position, so I think that helped me decompress a lot, because it was like I was still there, but I wasn’t going out on patrols with them every single day. But I’d still see my soldiers, but I’d hang around the other Lieutenants who’d been promoted like me, who were working staff positions, so it helped me really I think kind of like as an interim. And then when I got back to the States, it wasn’t usual. But I think I held a lot of stress in, but I don’t think that it was that again, it goes back to I think I somehow was able to grow out of that, or something. This was my low point at some times, but I just kind of came out of it. And so it was a good time to be in. I was kind of upset I couldn’t go directly to school or whatever. The Battalion Commander made me hang around the Battalion to do maintenance job or whatever you know I wanted to do my own thing. But at that time, too, I was considering getting out of the service, ’cause my wife wasn’t too keen on me deploying, and that was kind of tough. I realized at that time, though, I wanted to teach. And we discussed the ability to come to West Point, and so that’s absolutely part of the factor why I stayed in the service, too, because I knew this was something I would want to do, and I had the opportunity to get school paid for. What a great opportunity, you know? Go be a Captain getting your salary, go to school again, and then you get to teach people that’s what you want to do, right? Well, it is, so go pursue that, so I was pretty fortunate.
So before I ’cause I do want to talk about that so I’m just wondering, were you able to talk to your wife about the experience of war? ’Cause I know even when I’m well, I like to make documentary films.
And even talking about that with my wife is not always so easy, ’cause it’s such a totally different world.
I mean is that something that you were.
You know, to be honest with you, I tell her almost nothing. And it’s kind of bizarre, ’cause I’m able to tell you, and I don’t even know you, right? I’m like, “Oh, here’s Dan. I met him 15 seconds. I’m telling him.” But it’s not because I don’t it’s like part of and I think about this a lot. I absolutely do, because I realize I would talk to my friends who were there, and even other people in the Army, without similar experiences at all. And I realize it wasn’t because I didn’t want them to know, because I think she always wanted me to tell her so that she would make me feel better about it. I only wanted to tell her you know, tell someone else just to tell someone else. And I knew if I told her, she would be more worrisome, and so I never really even to this day, I don’t understand why I should have to tell her those things. I’m sure she can get on the internet and watch, and somebody could tell her. And yeah, if she wanted to talk to me about it, I would, and I’d be candid, I’d be honest with her, but it’s absolutely because you see these things. She e-mails me and says, “Oh, so-and-so’s Platoon,” you know, one of our friends gets hurt, or whatever, and all she knows is he got hurt, and he’s a good friend of ours, and she knew him. And some of his soldiers get killed, and she says, “Well, aren’t you doing the same thing?” And I’m basically lying to her. I’m like, “No. Yeah, we are, but don’t worry.” You know, I’m like and so like she’s just different than I am.
She inherently worries more than I do, so I felt like I was protecting her by not telling her, because I think, honestly, what she wanted most is me to be okay. And I felt like me telling her wasn’t going to make me any better than if I told anyone else. So why not tell someone else and make me feel a little better, and prevent her from the next time I deploy, her thinking nothing other than these horrible stories. But I think we’ll talk about it more, as I think it over. I think back to my grandfather, who was in the Battle of the Bulge. He talked to me so little about it, or even when I ask my mom about it, he never told anybody about it. And he would tell funny stories and things here and there, but I know he had some incredible stories. I don’t think I’m going to go to my dying grave without having told her anything, but it’ll sure make it easier when I get out of the military to tell her, ’cause then I can tell her, “This is what I’ve done, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I just don’t want you to worry about me being in the military.” Because after this job, I’m going to go to an Engineer Battalion, probably, be an Operations Officer, and I’ll tell her the truth, that I’m not going to be on these Platoon missions every day, but you never know. It’s just I felt like I was protecting her.
So you came back, and then you were back at Fort Leonard Wood.
Training others who were going to do what you had done, presumably.
The Basic Training, sure. I did Captains Career Course school. That was a time in my life where it was not a really good time in my life. Not because of the coming off of the deployment or anything, but my wife got pregnant, and that was good, and then we found out that our child was going to have a disease called cystic fibrosis. And so that changed everything again. It was like, “Hmm I thought I knew what I wanted to do.” Now I’m saying, “Well, I’m glad I’m staying in the Army ’cause I have medical care for this child.” But it was like I wasn’t in a really comfortable spot. I felt like the people I met at the school weren’t really not that they weren’t sincere. I just felt like I couldn’t get as close to them as maybe like other units or something. But so I talked to my Branch Manager, the person who’s going to assign me, and I said, “I want to go home to Georgia. You have anything at Benning?” He said, “I can get you a command here at one of these training units.” I jumped on it. I said, “I’ll stay here in Missouri,” ’cause I was comfortable at the time. And so I started she had the baby, right, and a couple weeks after I had my first child, I took command, so it was a really stressful time. And these training units, it’s not as glorious. Like anybody who would tell you if you want to be a Brigade, a Battalion Commander, you want to go off if this is your hope in life, this is the last place you’d want to be. I’m not saying it’s a career-ender for a Commander, but you want to go to a regular unit. You want to go to Engineer, do these things. And I was like, “No,” and I was happy to take this, because at the time in my life, that’s what I wanted to do.
So I thought it was going to be kind of easy compared to these other jobs, and then I realized I put it a lot on myself, but you work six days a week, ’cause you train Monday through Saturday. You don’t get holidays off ’cause you train through holidays. When I got there, we were like 75% staff of my Drill Sergeants. My First Sergeant wasn’t there yet. I didn’t have a XO. And I’m doing everything it was insane. I worked more in that first six months probably as much as I did probably almost on a deployment almost. And I had a brand new baby. I can’t imagine I think back on how I didn’t even know my daughter. Even though they don’t do much at that age, I was working incredibly hard. It was really tough, dealing with soldiers doing ridiculously stupid things, like going AWOL, reporting that they’d been kidnapped. I mean at the hand grenade range you’re like worried that somebody it goes on and on. And not just like the stupid stuff like someone sneaking in a candy bar, but like things that took a lot of my time.
It was really tough, so I kind of didn’t appreciate that job, to be honest with you. I look back, and I was like, “Man, if I was doing myself a favor, it probably would’ve been better to go get stationed at Fort Campbell and been deployed the whole time than this.” I’d have probably been happier, I don’t know, but. But yeah, it did put things in perspective in terms of I found out there why I love the Army so much now, and that’s because you get to meet all these different people from all over the United States, but also all over the world. And I don’t know what it is about that. I just love learning about like human nature, like different people. And so in every class of 200 plus new trainees, you rest assured that 35 of the 50 states have been covered. You’ve got men and women. You’ve got guys who want to do all sorts of different jobs in the Army, all sorts of different backgrounds, all sorts of different ages. And I just thought it was really cool. I really enjoyed talking to them when we went out in the field here and there, and learning about them. And yes, and these are the ones who are eventually going to go on to units and be soldiers for that next Platoon Leader, and I knew that. It was kind of cool, I thought, to show them. I always felt like it was my responsibility too, ’cause I was basically the only officer there, to kind of give them a good impression of an officer, you know what I mean? Not just some figurehead, somebody to be scared of that you have to go talk to, but to actually show them that I was human, too. Set a good example.
So did the guys go AWOL ’cause they were just clueless, or was it ’cause they didn’t like it, or was it nothing?
You’d have to ask them.
They’re the ones who always just have trouble to reach their doorstep. They’re the same one who bad things always happen to them, and honestly, sometimes you ask yourself, maybe these people put themselves in the situations, on purpose or not, I don’t know. But yeah, if they went AWOL and they never came back, that was an easy open and closed case, because you just filled out some forms and said, “Hey, when a police officer pulls you over, you’re going to be thrown in jail, and I actually don’t ever have to see you again.”
If they went AWOL and they came back, you had to deal with it, so you wanted them to stay gone, you know. But this was the time where the pendulum swings. We need soldiers, and so it’s more important that we have very low attrition rates through these training events. And if the pendulum swings the other way, and we don’t need as many people, then it becomes easier to discharge from the Army. But they’re discharging a lot of people from the Army, these new soldiers. And of course, any Commander in that position would people who just want to quit. I mean you can’t you try your best sometimes, but I was always of the mentality that if you get there, and you can’t deal with these stresses at this Basic Training and albeit, it’s stressful. If you can’t deal with that, something’s telling. And you can talk someone into staying, probably, but I kind of am concerned that that person who you keep in I’d like to see their career path, and where they go. You know what I mean? All these marginal people who barely get through these training events, let’s track them in a documentary and see what they’ve done. And I’ve of course suspected maybe not nearly the things that everyone else, who was just disciplined enough to suck it up, or be tough, or help their teammate out, and things like that. So yeah, but funny stories by the end of it, it got easier. I never did get an XO. I mean we just didn’t have the personnel. So I did a lot of the administrative work. I worked extremely hard. It took a lot of time out of my life, so.
Sounds very hard, actually.
Yeah. I didn’t have anybody else to worry about. It’s different, though. It’s stress in a different way. You know you talk about stress I probably felt more stress in that position, but maybe I shouldn’t have been as stressed, right? I should’ve said like, “Hey,” put it back into perspective, like I said before. I felt like I was a Platoon Leader doing these things I wasn’t even that stressed, you know? And now I’m having to deal with someone who’s getting punished or something because they’ve done these ridiculous things. The list goes on and on, and I’m worried about that maybe I shouldn’t have been.
You don’t like administrative work, per se.
I think that’s it. Yeah, I did like being out in the field, that’s for sure. That was a good job, as a Commander. As an Officer in general, you don’t get to you move through these gates as a Platoon Leader, Commander, whatever, and then you quickly realize you’re relegated to some sort of administrative job. And so this was a way to actually be out there with troops a lot longer, and maybe that’s why I like this job so much, ’cause I’m with cadets all day, you know? It’s good. It’s refreshing.
Good. So you reminded me of something else I wanted to ask you, which was did you have women in your Platoon in Iraq?
No. At that time you could there was female Medics in my Battalion. In fact, one of the Platoons that we replaced, I remember them having a female Medic. And of course, other female personnel throughout the Battalion, but on these missions that I was on, it was only male. But there was females out there, occasionally you’d see them, doing the job, so to speak, as anyone else. Absolutely a female could’ve done some of the things that we were doing. Absolutely.
So I interviewed a woman who was on one of these ordnance decommission, whatever the.
Right, EOD teams, right.
In Afghanistan, so. So then you went and got two master’s degrees.
Right. Right. I got a master’s degree when I was at school at Fort Leonard Wood.
And then you did this chemistry degree.
So that’s just going to school, right?
You moved back to Georgia, and.
Right. That was a great time in my life. That was the last two years I was at Athens, Georgia, not even wearing the uniform every day, going to classes initially, but then doing research in a research lab, working on a thesis. And then getting paid the whole time, living on the economy living it was great.
So what is your thesis what is “Reducing Uncertainties in Aerosol Optical Properties Using Cavity Ring Down Spectroscopy?”
To the layman, spectroscopy is I guess probing using light in this case, it was with a laser to learn about particles in the air. So aerosols affect how sunlight reaches us down here on Earth. Imagine like all the a volcano erupts or something, and there’s aerosol, these particles, these small things that are really hard to see. Some of them, really, individually you could never see, but they affect how the sunlight reaches Earth, and that affects things like climate models, the impact. So car soot and things like that, industrial soot goes up in the atmosphere. Some of it actually reduces the amount of warming, actually, because it scatters the light more. And some of it increases the warming, and so there’s a large uncertainty on these things, so scientists make claims about how well they know certain things. I get fulfillment in searching for these truths and not listening to what other people tell me, and finding out scientifically what’s happening. So I set up a new instrument to help measure with better certainty a certain type of liquid particles. That’s essentially it. So I worked on just kind of improving a system that had been done. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I can see myself being a research scientist or something, if I could have a dream job it’s fun to me.
You could probably have that dream job.
Are you thinking about getting a PhD at some point?
Right. I will get a PhD at some point, yeah, absolutely.
Do you know what you’ll study?
It’ll be chemistry again. It’s the specifics I’m not sure. When I say “will,” it’s not like anyone’s told me I can now. It’s just I know that’s what I’m going to do. That’s my goal, and I’ll get to it, so hopefully I’ll consider applying to teach here again. A lot of people come back to West Point as a second-time rotator, get a PhD, and then stay for some years. Some of them are indefinitely staying here as Academy Professors. I don’t know, good or bad, if I really prefer that. But I’m definitely going to get a PhD, ’cause I know after I get out of the service that I want to teach. And so I think to open certain doors, you need to have a PhD to teach at a lot of universities, or even small colleges. So I’m going to pursue that. It’ll be chemistry for sure. My old advisor really wants me to come back to work for him because I’m free. It didn’t cost him a dime, and I got a lot of work done it’s good for him. But he was a great guy, so it’s going to be a hard decision. I chose that school, too, because it’s in a lot of research programs.
I hope you’ll see this thing, like I really care about people. I care about the human. You go to other big schools like I remember going to Georgia Tech, and they accepted me and said, “Hey, why don’t you come on down? You can come here and get it.” And by all standards in terms of whoever reviews these chemistry rankings, it was a “better school.” But you see the people who go there, and they go there more for other kind of reasons than the fact that they get any sort of fulfillment out of going there. And I went to the University of Georgia, and I realized really quickly that these advisors will actually talk to you. They care about you. Not all of them, necessarily, but especially the one I worked for. That’s where I’m going to go to get my PhD, wherever I can find something that fits in well with me, where I can work for or with somebody who really cares about me, and is not using me as a tool, right?
So is part of your interest in science at this point animated by climate change, since you mentioned that, or.
It just happens to be one of the.
Applications of this.
I like I’m kind of argumentative in some regards, so I’m going to find a problem that people seem to not agree with. And I like to provide clarity scientifically, ’cause I feel like these observations that scientists often make are hopefully absolute, or at least give some sort of clarity to the situation. So I’d find fulfillment in just researching anything that we didn’t understand, absolutely. It would probably be a physical chemistry type problem like that, as opposed to like an organic one, ’cause I don’t really enjoy that aspect of chemistry as much. But we’ll see. It would be easier to go back into that type of a research group, because I have a couple years of experience dealing with the terminology, but I’d have no hesitation to go somewhere else and do something completely different. Maybe that’s why I like research if it stays new, then I can do it.
Mm-hmm. So when did you come to West Point?
This May I arrived. I started teaching in August. So I’ve taught one semester of general chemistry, and I’m just starting the second semester.
And you like it?
Absolutely. It’s great. It’s a great opportunity, again, seeing the cadets every day.
So are you seeing mostly plebes, or.
Yes, the plebes take chemistry. Some are yearlings, the sophomores, you know, and they are the ones who either elected to do it, or they’re usually often foreign language majors, so they kind of change up their schedule. But by and large, they’re all plebes, which is interesting. You know 18 year olds sometimes I ask myself, “How can you do that,” and I’m thinking, “They’re 18,” maybe. I try to tell them stories about how I was, how horrible of a student. I was a horrible student in college, too I’ll tell you that much. As much as I enjoy learning things, and I see myself as kind of a lifelong learner, I didn’t take my grades very seriously at all. That didn’t come to a head till I was applying to graduate school, and somebody asked me about one of my grades, and I took it personally. And they said, “Hey, well, you have these good test scores.
But you got this grade back in 1999,” and I was like, “Are you kidding me? Did I mention that I want to teach chemistry at West Point, and this is what I’ve done? “I’ve been in the Army, I’ve worked these jobs, and this is what I” and I realized like I really was selling myself short. So I tell these cadets now, “You’ve got all and some of you have a lot of potential. You’re selling yourself short. And though you might not see it now, 15 years from now it might come back, so just keep that in mind.” But again, you get to meet people from all over the country, right, so that’s cool. And I know almost none of them are going to be chemistry majors, and that’s fine with me. I try to set a good example, make them interested, make them understand that even if they don’t get a degree in this, they have to understand, have to get these skills of problem solving. Of reading between the lines when they see these scientific they read the paper, and this doctor of fish tells you how fish are being killed in the Hudson. And to really say, “Let’s read into what’s being said here, and what do they know. Where’s the data? Where are the facts? That’s where the answer’s at. Otherwise you’re just relying on your own supposition you’re just feeling comfortable with whatever you thought in the first place.” So I think they hopefully are getting that out of the class, whether they become a chemist or not.
So you mentioned that having an advisor that you could actually have a relationship with was important to you. I don’t really know that much about how things work here. My wife teaches at Columbia, actually she’s a literature person. Do you have those kind of relationships, those kind of mentor mentee relationships with the plebes, or is it not.
’Cause you seem to have that ability to care, and to reach out, and stuff like that. Has that been an aspect of the job here?
Not particularly. I sponsor you know, you drop your name in the hat and say, “I want to be a sponsor for the new plebes,” and so I have some that I sponsor. So really, in that regard, I’m doing that with them. In terms of the class, not so much, because I honestly feel like you know, someone told me the cadet time is one of the most fought-over resources, second only to like oil and diamonds maybe like their schedules are very packed, and so they just honestly don’t have that much time. So I use the classroom as an opportunity to develop them for things outside of the classroom, but I really don’t get to know them too terribly much, unless you spend time with them outside of the classroom. Because I only have this block of time is 80 minutes to cover some complicated things, maybe, and so unless they have a passion for chemistry, which again, very few of them do, I don’t speak to them much outside of the classroom. But I do, the ones I sponsor, I love having them up to my house, and talking to them about things that I’ve experienced just letting them take a break from Castle Grayskull over here, you know. Especially this time of year it’s like all you see is this stone. It’s gray, it’s foggy. All they see is in. I can see the out they can’t see that yet. They just look in and they keep their head down. They wear their wool pants and they drive on, so maybe just making them laugh every now and then is good enough for me in class.
Right. And you mentioned where you’re going to probably go next, after the West Point. Where will that be?
I don’t know specifically. It’ll be in two and a half years, so it’ll be an Engineer Battalion. I’ll be probably an Operations Officer for an Engineer Battalion. And so six months out, they say, I’ll find out we’ll see. But I’ll go back to Mother Army, so she can have her way with me. But as an Engineer, I could be at a Construction unit, or a Route Clearance unit. Now there’s actually fielded equipment that I was using in Iraq in 2005, updated, modified. But there’s actually now Army units that have the mission of purely route clearance. Before, we didn’t train on that with that equipment, ’cause it didn’t exist at that time. I could go to Combat Engineer, like kind of a Light Engineer unit. There’s lots of different places I could go. It’ll mostly be based on the availability, and who needs, what slots need to be filled.
It doesn’t look like we’ll be too active.
I mean you never know.
You never know, right.
Right. I haven’t been deployed. See, I’ve done one deployment. I consider myself fortunate in that regard. Mostly has to do with the fact that I took command of a training unit, so you stay in the United States. But most anybody else who’s been in the Army as long as I have, eight plus years, is at least on two deployments. Some of the friends I know have been three or more. So I’m on a list where you’re absolutely looked at based on how long it’s been since you last deployed, so there will be contingencies. There will be deployments out there which I will be discussing with my Branch Manager at that time because he’s obviously going to prioritize someone like me who hasn’t been deployed in as many years to go. So that might limit my decision. I just hope I don’t go to a kind of an individual type deployment, tasking. I’d rather just go back to a Regular unit, where I can be an Engineer in unit. Not like, “Oh, we need a guy in Saudi Arabia to work on this construction project,” or something, or some staff guy to work with oh, man, that’s not for me. I don’t get much fulfillment out of that. Send me back to a Regular unit again I’ll be happy looking forward to it.
So I have just one last question, which is just to provide closure a little bit. Were you, when Osama bin Laden was killed, like you were in college when 9/11 happened.
And then a few years ago.
I was in college.
You were in college?
So how did you react to that?
You know…there’s no closure to me. There is no it had very little impact. There was obviously big impact when 9/11 happened. You could’ve told me just about anybody had died that day, you know what I mean, outside of my family, and it wouldn’t have very much impact. I know, of course, it was something that this is a man who wishes these things, horrible things, and is orchestrating certain things, and so yes, like there’s some degree in which I’m like, “Okay, good,” like I don’t have to worry about that. But I know there’s somebody else out there who thinks just like him, and I know that you don’t change things with that person. You could have these missions downrange, and you can take care of all these bad guys, but you’re still going to be fighting the same fight. It’s much bigger than that. And so you learn that because when you start to realize it’s really troubling when you find out how much someone wants to hurt you and your family, and you don’t even know who they are. That was something I learned about war. These people don’t know who I am, and they want to hurt and kill me. I finally figured that out, and it kind of blew me away. It made it easier to do my mission, in some regards. Like given the opportunity, they would kill you. They would kill your soldiers. They don’t know who you are. They just know you’re something else, and that’s what they disdain, or whatever. That put things into perspective. So I don’t know Osama bin Laden, but I’m saying the same thing I know what he’s done, or whatever, so I guess it’s different. But I don’t think those types of actions really make you feel any better at least don’t make me feel any better. But yeah, not that I wouldn’t try, you know what I mean? Not that I would stop searching out for these types of folks.
Well, so what you said now provokes another question.
Okay, one more last one.
Who did you conceive of in Iraq as the enemy? I mean it was obviously a very complicated.
Military situation how did you think about it?
Yeah, that’s a good question. In the area south of Baghdad there were terrorists. There were absolute terrorists there. Undoubtedly, the guy who killed the Lieutenant and the soldier on that mission I talked to you about terrorist. Other countries in the region, spoke different language, they trained, they practiced, they tried they were planned and calculated in their efforts to kill soldiers, so that was the enemy there. I was on a mission, and I went out, and on the way back, I remember looking around, and looking at the buildings and something didn’t seem right. And as we got closer to the city, I saw a mosque, and it was smoking. This was the day that the Golden Mosque had been attacked. And that’s really when it sparked a lot of the sectarian violence, so I realized really quickly, in those circumstances, there in Iraq, at that time ‘cause thereafter, bodies started showing up everywhere vans full of bodies. Gunshot wounds to the head type of thing all over the place, and the American soldiers felt kind of uneasy about this, because we didn’t feel like we should get involved, ’cause it was like their thing. But at the same time I realized kind of that’s the enemy right now. This intolerance, whatever it is, at all these levels, that’s what’s causing this country not to get back on its feet, and kick these people who are doing nothing for them out. That was the enemy. So it’s definitely not a person, per se. But at different levels, there were those enemies, like I said those al Qaeda members and those other terrorists they were there. And so I was concerned about them, but you hear about it in the news, but when you see it, you know. And you hear about people getting tortured, and these horrific things, and you say, “How is this helping anything?” If we can get there, then I think the enemy has a harder time doing what he wants to do, you know what I mean? It’s hard to set the conditions to tolerate these types of activities. If Baghdad looked like it did by all measures, up until, I don’t know it used to be a prosperous place, right? The Fertile Crescent used to be a beautiful place, gardens and everything, and it was. And then somehow, something changed, and people just couldn’t get along any more. And that unbelievable willingness just to like, at everyone else’s expense, push your own belief, or whatever it is. Like that intolerance is what’s going to prevent us from really you know what I mean in my opinion, kind of get to some closure.
Well, thank you very much.
|topics||Military Techniques Leadership Military Families PTSD Returning from War|
|date||14 February 2013|
|institution||North Georgia College|
|unit||5th Engineer Battalion|