Following in the Footsteps of Greatness, From Iowa to West Point to Iraq

Beth Behn
  • 0:00:00
  • Interviewer:
  • – with an introduction. I’m Professor Greta Bucher, interviewing MAJ Beth Behn. And MAJ Behn, I’d like you to start off by talking to me about being a cadet at West Point in the years that you were here.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Okay. I was here from 1990 to 1994. I was in 4th Regiment. I was in Company R4 for the first two years, and then C4 for the last two years. My cadet experience was generally very positive. Academically, the first two years were very hard for me because of the math and science requirements. I was hurting in calculus and chemistry and physics.
But once I got – I was a history major. And so once I got into my major, the last two years, life improved considerably. I still had to take – we had to take five engineering courses as part of our engineering track, so those were still somewhat challenging, but it was much better academically the first two years, for sure.
  • 0:01:04
  • I played lacrosse while I was here, all four years. And being on the lacrosse team was great. Our season was in the spring. We were not a __ team. We were a club team. So we got – I was able to leave the academy to go on trip sections. And the camaraderie and the support – it was a fairly large team for a women’s team. There were 26 on the team. So that was great. That was very important to me. And when I look back on my cadet experience and think what were the – what were some of the real highlights, certainly playing lacrosse and being part of that team was one of the big highlights.
I also look back pretty fondly on my academic experience in my history classes. I mean, I enjoyed the history classes a lot.
  • 0:01:58
* {:.text} I feel like overall my academic experience was excellent at teaching me how to manage my time. There was always way too much to do and not enough time to get it done. And so part of the four-year process, for me, was learning how to prioritize and plan my time and make lists. And when I look back at my experience in the Army and think what at West Point really prepared me for that, I think those time management and organizational skills were huge.
When I got to graduate school and I sat around in my first history seminar in grad school, I questioned whether I had learned as much history as my civilian counterparts at their schools because I’m – I don’t have anything to compare it to. I only went to West Point. But it seemed like maybe some of them had more history. But I think I had much better time management and organizational skills than a lot of them had done.
  • 0:03:05
  • And just the – the Army is constantly throwing you into new positions that you haven’t had any training for in a lot of cases or very little training for and asking you to do things that you just don’t think you can do. But West Point did that to you every day. So that’s, I think, the best thing that I got out of the academics here was just being pushed harder than I – I thought – I always thought as a cadet, “Oh, my gosh, I’m never going to survive this. I’m never going to get it all done.” 
And I see that with cadets. They think the same way, so that’s good. I think it’s good that we continue to – that we push them harder because they’re – they can do a lot more than they think they can. I learned that here.
  • Interviewer:
  • Do you think that maybe you felt like the people in graduate school learned more history because they were coming right out of undergraduate and hadn’t had as much time to forget their history?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Well, it could be.
  • 0:03:57
  • Although my – I wasn’t the oldest person. I mean, I was older than some, but I think the median age in my – I ended up being on the grad school admissions committee, and I did all these statistics for them, so I happen to know the median age of the graduate students – was 27. And I was 30. So I was a little bit older than the average but not that much. There were certainly people that were older than me, so that could have been part of it too. But I had been away from school for a while by the time I got to grad school.
  • Interviewer:
  • What about low points? Any low points you want to discuss?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • During my cadet time?
  • Interviewer:
  • __ math, but other than that.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Yeah, well, I already mentioned the real low points, which would be chemistry, physics and calculus. There were – it was frustrating. I mean, certainly experienced frustration with being a 10 percent minority, and I think 10 percent minority group would probably be able to talk about some of those similar frustrations.
  • 0:05:03
* {:.text} I don’t think there was a whole lot of – I did experience a whole lot of overt sexual harassment, but there were subtle – and sometimes even not so subtle – issues in the air. And there’s just sort of a – there’s a culture, and it’s a culture of 18 to 22-year-old males. And some of my roommates and I – and I was very fortunate to have great roommates, particularly the first two years, and they’re still two of my best friends.
And we used to laugh about it’s like spending four years in a men’s locker room. That’s sort of what the culture here is. And that culture is not necessarily bad, but it’s very male, and it’s very testosterone oriented. So there were times when that was particularly frustrating.
  • 0:06:00
* {:.text} I knew that, coming here, that that was going to be part of the deal. But I – even knowing that in advance sometimes doesn’t change the fact that it’s not particularly pleasant.
I remember one time my – it was the summer before we went out to Bucker. So the very end of my plebe here we were getting ready to go spend the summer out, our whole class, going through cadet field training, second summer. And I think that summer – you could probably get this from a lot of grads – that’s a difficult summer because you’re in a field environment, and so the physical differences between men and women are particularly pronounced. 
You’re segregated in your barracks. You’re in these little Quonset huts. And the women are all kind of stuffed into this part that they’ve carved out up in the front, and so there’s the constant. If you want to go back and talk to the guys, you have to yell “female on the floor”. So there’s all sorts of communication issues, and that’s complicated.
  • 0:07:00 
* {:.text} But we’re getting ready to go out and spend that summer out there. And they all of our – our whole plebe class in Robinson Auditorium. They were giving a briefing, and it was the cadet regimental staff that was going to be in charge of us out there, so the firsties. And they would – they were doing a slideshow. These are some of the highlights.
So they’d show a training site, and they’d show cadets doing the rope bridge or doing assaults or whatever, but in between each of these slides, they had inserted pictures of bikini-clad women on beaches. The theme was it’s the best summer of your life, which is a standing joke about Buckner, which of course it’s not usually the best summer of your life because it’s eight weeks of field training. But the joke was it was the best summer of your life.
So in between each of these real training slides they had inserted these bikini-clad women. So we’re in an auditorium, 1,000 people in the class roughly, 900 guys and 100 women.
  • 0:08:00
* {:.text} And every time one of these pictures comes up, everybody’s hooting and hollering and clapping and cheering, and if you’re one of the 100 women, what do you do? Do you cheer as well? Do you just sit there and feel uncomfortable? And I remember that being one of those moments where I was, like, “Man, this place just doesn’t – just hasn’t quite gotten it yet.”
I think that’s probably gotten better. I think people know better now. That was pretty overt, and I said before there was not a whole lot of overt – that was an overt occasion. I think the subtle – some of the subtleties of just the 18 to 22-year-old male culture, I think we catch guys at their worst during the four years that they’re here. I know they get better because they’re my colleagues now, I mean, the same guys that were cadets. And they’re great.
  • 0:08:58
* {:.text} And the Army is so much better because it’s not this culture where they’re all peers. The Army – I tell women cadets that all the time, that if they’re frustrated here, I promise you the Army is better, and I believe that.
  • Interviewer:
  • Okay. How do you think – what – when you did your first deployment or you went to your first post-graduate posting, did you feel like being a West Pointer was something that made you stick out or something that helped you out? Once you hit the Army, like your initial contact.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Let’s see. Not really. I always try – I think it’s important – I think we get quality officers from all of our commissioning sources: OCS, ROTC and West Point. And so I tend to minimize my commissioning source. I try to.
  • 0:10:00
* {:.text} And just if that comes up, it comes up, but it’s certainly not something that I – when I introduce myself to the unit, it’s not something that I stress.
I think some people have preconceived notions about West Pointers, and those run the gamut. Some soldiers have had bad experiences with West Pointers, and so they have an idea about what a West Pointer is like. Some other officers sometimes are cliquish, or either they’re not a West Pointer, and so they don’t like West Pointers, or they are a West Pointer and they have this kind of – they try to create a clique thing.
For me, I haven’t seen a whole lot of that. And I think any of that usually goes away if you don’t make an issue out of it, and you just do your job, and you don’t talk about commissioning source.
  • Interviewer:
  • Do you think it makes a difference about your – what branch you’re in?
  • 0:11:00
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Could be. Again, I’ve only been in – I can only speak in my branch and it’s just –
  • Interviewer:
  • Which is transportation.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Transportation Corps. Right. Not a big issue at the TC. You just have such a mix of people.
My OBC class was predominantly West Pointers. I think there were 50 of us in my basic course, and over 30 were West Pointers. And that was kind of interesting because we all knew each other, and then these other people from various commissioning sources and schools didn’t know each other. So that was kind of an interesting dynamic there, but that was only a six-month experience, and it doesn’t really reflect what a regular Army unit is anyway.
I certainly felt well prepared to be a platoon leader and – coming out of West Point. I mean, I thought I had been – I knew what was expected of me.
  • 0:12:01
* {:.text} I didn’t know the branch-specific stuff, but that’s what the basic course is for. And I think West Point has changed to have cadets select branches earlier and learn more about their branches before they get to the basic course, which is probably a good thing.
But I thought in terms of basic troop-leading skills and what is the role of the platoon leader, that I had been fairly well prepared by my leadership positions here. I was a 1st sergeant in my cadet company, and I did some – when I was the 1st E1 semester, I was an assistant brigade staff officer. And those were good – I mean, those were good learning experiences.
Probably the best leadership learning experience I had here as a cadet though was being the captain of the lacrosse team, co-captain of the lacrosse team. Because trying to herd 26 girls and to get them – I mean, that was really – that was a more significant leadership challenge than being a company 1st sergeant with 130 cadets.
  • 0:13:02
* {:.text} Both of them were great, but really that lacrosse position was – it was huge in leading your peers, which is no small task.
  • Interviewer:
  • So what – can you just kind of give me the timeline of your career, and then we can kind of go back and talk about the different sections?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Sure. I graduated in ’94. My first duty station was Fort Eustace, Virginia, which is also the home of the Transportation Corps, so I went there for the basic course, and then stayed there as my first duty station.
I went to this very small section of the Transportation Corps, which is already a small portion of the Army. I went to the Army watercraft field, and so I was in the 7th Transportation group. I was a boat platoon leader, and so my very first unit was LCU 2000s landing craft. They each have a crew of 12.
  • 0:14:00
* {:.text} Self-sustaining vessels, meaning we could be underway for 14 days without needing to come into port and resupply. I had four of those in my platoon. I had eight warrant officers because there are two on each vessel, a vessel master and an engineer, which is a pretty unique experience for a 2nd lieutenant to have a platoon with eight warrant officers. A warrant officer is more senior.
So I sometimes joke because I was raised by wolves because these warrant officers taught me everything, and they taught me a lot of good stuff, and they took very good care of me. But I learned later that some of the things they taught me weren’t widely held beliefs in the Army. There were some sketchy things that I learned, some inter-warrant business.
But in any case, that was my first platoon leader assignment. I found out while I was still in my basic course that as soon as I got to my platoon, we were deploying to Haiti.
  • 0:15:01
* {:.text} So, in fact, while I was in the basic course, I was leaving to go qualify on my weapon, get my will and power of attorney done, and this is before I had even met my platoon.
The first time I actually set foot on an LCU 2000 was going underway, shipping out of port to Haiti. And that, again, turned out to be a great experience. I deployed with my platoon to Haiti. We were only there for about four months, but I didn’t have – it was just me and my platoon. The rest of my company and my battalion and the group were back at Fort Eustace.
So the next person my chain of command was a Marine colonel with the Joint Task Force. And I would drive from the port – through Port au Prince into the Joint Task Force Headquarters every day, get our missions, come back and dispatch the vessels. And it was – I had just a ton of responsibility.
  • 0:16:00
* {:.text} And really, I’m not sure I had earned the right to have that much responsibility, but it was a sharp learning curve.
  • interviewer:
  • It must have been pretty intimidating.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • It was because I had just – but again, I had those warrant officers who were senior. Most of them had just – had spent a year in Desert Storm. They were between 12 and 20 years in the Army. And they didn’t let me fail, and I appreciated that.
And, again, what did I learn at West Point? I learned that you need to make sure that you build a relationship with your platoon sergeant, acknowledge that you don’t know anything, and learn from them. And so I had a platoon sergeant, but I also had these warrant officers, so it was a whole other relationship to form.
But a great experience. I learned a ton about actually doing the mission. I mean, we were moving stuff. The roads in Haiti were such a mess that you couldn’t move heavy equipment over a lot of the roads.
  • 0:17:03
* {:.text} And so we used the vessels. We just took things all around the coast. It would come into Port au Prince. We’d load it up on the vessels, take it up north or down south, and it was terrific.
I had to go – we redeployed, and then I had to learn what life in the Army was like when you’re not deployed later. I only knew what it was like when you deployed, and it’s very different. And there’s this whole garrison mentality thing that I learned kind of secondhand after being deployed.
  • Interviewer:
  • How long were you deployed for?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • About four months, and then I came back for three months. I went back to Haiti with my sister platoon, which had a brand-new platoon leader. I went down there for a month again that same year. This was in ’95. I kind of got him up and running and showed him how to do the – use the supply system and pick up the missions and all that.
I came back – I moved around within that battalion.
  • 0:18:00
* {:.text} I was the executive officer in a light-boat company, smaller vessels, little landing craft. Did that for ten months maybe. And then I was the detachment commander for a detachment of 140-ton cranes. They’re important in port operations to have cranes. So we had 140-ton cranes. About 40 soldiers in that detachment. Great. It was my own unit.
I was lieutenant. I didn’t have a company commander. It was me to the battalion commander. It was a great unit. A good bunch of guys. I say guys because it happened to be all guys, and they’d been together for a long time. Really strong – nobody on the overweight program. No PT failures. Didn’t get DUIs. Just a real tight, well-performing, high-performing unit. And I was rocking with them for almost year.
  • 0:19:00
* {:.text} And there was another detachment in the battalion that had a – it was the complete opposite. I mean, drug problems and discipline issues. And the lieutenant that was in charge of that detachment was relieved for a number of issues, and the battalion commander took me out of my dream unit and moved me over to be in charge of this other detachment, which I was deeply saddened about.
But a new challenge, and that was good as well. I’d been with that unit for a month, and we got a very short notice tasking to – for our battalion to send a taskforce of 55 soldiers to Korea to support the 1st Cavalry Division with an exercise Full Eagle. They were going to deploy a brigade over and do maneuvers and kind of last minute figured out they needed somebody – a unit to be there at the port to receive their equipment and do the link-up piece. People forget about the loader stations all the time.
  • 0:20:01
* {:.text} So we had ten days to get this task force put together. And it was 10 soldiers from my little cargo documentation attachment, and then 40 from the terminal service unit, 88 __ __. So we got those guys together in ten days, and then we were on a plane off to Korea.
We were in Korea for, I don’t know, about two and a half months. Another great experience. Another experience where I was a lieutenant and I was attached to the brigade we were supporting. And so kind of just got a seat at the table with people who were actually much more important than I was, but there was just nowhere else in the command to put these 55 dues from Eustace, which is what they kept calling us.
So anyway, great experience. I really enjoyed working with the 1st cavalry division. Much more mainstream, regular Army than my previous experiences.
  • 0:21:00
* {:.text} And that’s what made me think I really wanted to go to Fort Hood for my next assignment. I wanted to be in a division and be in that sort of mainstream Army thing.
So I came back from Korea right before Thanksgiving in ’97. Was supposed to go to the advanced course in March of that following year. I already was going to go to the advanced course when I got moved over to the other detachment. So I deferred going to the advanced course once. I was supposed to go in March.
In January, we got another short notice tasking to send five people, one lieutenant and – I’m sorry, six people. One lieutenant and five soldiers to the Middle East to help support the retrograde of a bunch of equipment from a training mission in Egypt.
So we were going to go to Bahrain and then work also in __ and Kuwait. And so I had to defer it. We were going to be gone for – well, two months, but I still wasn’t going to get back in time to get to the advance course.
  • 0:22:03
* {:.text} So I deferred again. Off we went, went to Bahrain. And this was in January of ’98. This was about seven-day notice we got on this one. So off we went. Took this team of soldiers over there.
We were doing fine. We were working, moving around to these different ports, doing these retrograde missions. And then Saddam Hussein kicked the weapons inspectors out in February. And we happened to be staying at the hotel in Bahrain where the weapons inspectors came when they got kicked out of Iraq, so that was kind of fun to be at breakfast with the exiled weapons inspectors.
And then CNN flew in because this was going to become an issue. So you’d get a breakfast at the hotel in the morning, and there’d be the weapons inspectors and CNN and us.
So I’m in my hotel, and I get a call from the battalion commander back at Fort Eustace. And he said you need – you and your guys need to get on the next flight to Kuwait.
  • 0:23:01
You’re going to be the advanced party for our battalion, which is deploying over, since you’re already in country. And so I flew to Kuwait. My battalion S3 was there, linked up with us, and I became the assistant S3, the plans and operations officer, for the battalion instead of my – because my detachment was back at Fort Eustace. So we were there –
  • Interviewer:
  • This is the detachment you were supposed to bring into shape that you never actually got to work with.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Yeah, right. So that didn’t really work out that well. Well, I got a career with part of them. But anyway, so I was there February, March, April. We thought we were going to war. Third ID flew in. We were running the port and the airfield and did all the reception piece for the 3rd Infantry Division as they came in, and got them linked up with their equipment and moving forward.
As it turns out, we didn’t go to war. Not then. So we – an agreement was reached, and we just sat and made sure the agreement held.
  • 0:24:02
And then finally the end of April we came back from there. That was another working with a division, very good experience, very good learning experience for me. Again, made me want to go to a divisional post for my next assignment.
So came back there from April, and then I left Fort Eustace in June. Finally I went to the advance course __ __. Went to the advance course in July of ’98. That was at Fort Lee. I was there for six months. Went to Fort Lee, Virginia. Then went to __, which at the time was Fort Leavenworth for six weeks, and then went to Fort Hood, which was my next duty assignment.
Went to the 180th Transportation Battalion. My big hope of going to Fort Hood and getting to either the 1st Cav or the 4th ID didn’t work out. Instead I went to the core support command, which is the logistics units that supports all of the – both of the divisions, plus all of the non-divisional units in the Corps.
  • 0:25:07
So but it worked out fine. I went to the transportation battalion. I served as the S4 in the 180th for I think 15 months, and then I took command of the 96th Trans Company, which was a HET, heavy equipment transporters, Army’s biggest truck.
It was a huge unit. Three hundred soldiers, 96 HETs and all the support equipment, fuel trucks and humvees and wreckers and contact trucks and maintenance vehicles. My maintenance platoon had 63 people in it just in the maintenance platoon.
Had a great experience with company commander. I mean, company command was everything that everybody said it would be. It was the hardest thing I ever did, and it was by far the most rewarding position I’ve ever held.
  • 0:26:02
I loved – I had six platoon leaders, six lieutenants, and it was like a mentoring dream, and most of them got there right when I took command. And so I really felt like I got to put my fingerprints all over these young lieutenants.
  • Interviewer:
  • And you were a captain by then?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • I was. I was a captain. And so I had been – I took command in June of 2001, and our very first thing we were planning for was operation – Exercise Bright Star, which is a joint training mission with the Egyptians. It happens every year, and I was sending two of my platoons over to do that.
And we were in the – in fact, I was in a T&P van getting ready to drive down to Beaumont where our HETs were being loaded on a ship to go to Egypt when we were heard on the radio about September 11th. It was September 11th.
  • 0:26:58
* {:.text} And we were just getting ready to leave the motor pool, and I said to the driver, I said you’ve got to take me to battalion headquarters because this isn’t going to be good.
So we drove up to battalion headquarters, and of course we were going into full alert mode. And so I didn’t go to Beaumont that day. We – nobody knew what was happening, and so they closed down Fort Hood. We – everybody drew weapons, and we’re guarding the motor pool. And my unit at the time was – had this standing mission of if the 1st Cav was the ready – had the ready brigade if they were going to send somebody off immediately on a deployment, we had the mission of going and loading their stuff and taking them to the airfield.
And so we revved that up, and that was a significant mission for us. So we had 45 guys on standby 24/7 for a couple of weeks in the wake of that because just nobody knew for sure what that was going to be.
  • 0:28:02
* {:.text} It was a real turning point in my command because I had all of these things I sort of thought we were going to do, and most of those got turned upside down. I had a platoon tasked out to do gate guard for the rest of the time I was command, which makes training difficult. Just a lot of things changed as a result of that.
The first fight was in Afghanistan, and we were heavy division, so not a significant role for many of the units at Fort Hood. Not a lot of HETs moving around in Afghanistan, so we sort of – that didn’t have a big impact on us. But you felt the ripple effects of that certainly the rest of the time that I was in command.
So finished command there in – let’s see.
  • 0:29:00
* {:.text} No, you know what? I took command in December. I changed command 18 months later, the following July, so July of 2002. And – that’s right. December of 2000 to July of 2002. And then right – and the October before that I’d gotten a call from the history department. Colonel Doty called me and said we’d be interested in having you come back and be an instructor.
And I thought long and hard about that because I knew the – what that meant was stepping outside of the Army really for five years, and I really loved the Army. I loved what I’d done. And it just seemed hard to think about being away from it.
I mean, even though I was smoked. When I was a company commander, I left my house at 4:00 a.m. every day, and I got home around 8:00 usually.
  • 0:30:00
* {:.text} And that’s when we weren’t in the field. Those are the good days, when you’re not in the field. So 18 months of that, I was thinking maybe it would be good to go to grad school for a couple of years. And it was just hard to see what the writing – it was just weeks after September 11th, hard to know what was going to happen with any of that.
Got advice from my __ commander, my battalion commander. You absolutely should do this. It’s a great experience. Both of them had taught here. Neither of them were graduates, but both of them had come back and taught here.
  • Interviewer:
  • In history?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • One in history and one in chemistry.
  • Interviewer:
  • Oh.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • And so I don’t know. Had I not had those people saying this is a really good thing, I’m not sure I would have done it. I was flattered to be asked to come back. It’s a sweet deal. Two years in grad school and then three years teaching here. But I just didn’t know. I wanted to do the best that I could do in the Army, and so I wasn’t sure.
  • 0:31:04
* {:.text} But I took the deal. Deal or no deal? I took the deal.
So when I finished command, I went to graduate school at UMass Amherst. And if for nothing else, that made the deal worth it. My two years in grad school were awesome in terms of – I was mature enough to get the most of out of the experience, I think. I don’t know how people go straight from undergrad into grad school because when I was done with undergrad, I wanted nothing to do with school. I needed a break.
But I was ready to come back, and I just soaked it up to – I went to every optional lecture. I mean, I was the geeky grad student to the extreme. Had great advisors and just had a really good grad school experience. It was a big culture change going from Killeen, Texas to Amherst, Massachusetts. You can’t get much further apart there. The bumper stickers were very different.
  • 0:32:01
  • Interviewer:
  • Did the university – did they – was there any stigma attached to being in the Army?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • I didn’t get it.
  • Interviewer:
  • They had not had anybody for a long time, maybe ten years before. But I certainly didn’t get that sense. I thought people were interested to know what my experience had been and what sort of things I had done and where I was going. I was sort of an enigma to other grad students, probably. Some of the faculty too.
They could never quite figure out – what baffled them, what really got them was they couldn’t figure out that I was only going to come to West Point and teach for three years and then go back out into the Army. Their mindset was you’re going to get a graduate degree, and you’re going to teach, and that’s what you’re going to continue to do.
  • 0:33:00
* {:.text} And they were sort of always amazed that that’s how West Point does it with the rotating faculty thing. So I had to explain that a lot. But, no, I didn’t feel a negative stigma. I mean, certainly, almost all of them were very liberal in their political beliefs, and they didn’t make any attempt to mask that, which was part of the culture shock. 
Because I think despite what people probably think, at least in the officer corps, people don’t wear their politics – I found people don’t wear their politics on their sleeve. It’s just sort of behind closed doors and people that you’re close to. But, man, the faculty at UMass, I talked to them for about 20 seconds before you knew where they stood on issues. It was just out there. So that was kind of interesting to get used to.
But great grad school experience. Got a master’s degree in American history and then came here to West Point and taught World History, which was a change that happened while I was there, and that was fine.
  • 0:34:04
* {:.text} That ended up being a good thing too. And so then I’ve been back here teaching. I’m in my third year.
In the summer before my second year, an email came out to the department saying there was a unit deploying to Iraq that had positions that needed to be filled. And one of the positions was a – it was an engineering slot in a field artillery brigade headquarters, but the position said terrain manager. And somehow, to me, that sounded like something a logistician could do. I wasn’t sure what being a terrain manager was, but I thought that maybe I could do it.
And I had been trying everything within the bounds of being respectful to the people who had brought me here, to try to deploy because I just – this is what we do.
  • 0:35:00
* {:.text} And our Army was at war, and I just felt it was very difficult to not be able to contribute in a direct way. And I know that teaching cadets is a contribution and it’s an important role, and we need to be doing that. But just for me personally, I had trouble sleeping at night not being able to contribute in a direct way. And I know that teaching cadets is a contribution, and it’s an important role, and we need to be doing that.
But just for me, personally, I had trouble sleeping at night not being able to contribute in a more direct manner. So that email came out, and my division chief said are there any volunteers for this, and I immediately said yes. And he said you’re not an engineer officer, and I said, well, I know, but maybe there’s something we can do here.
So it took a long time to sort of get that figured out, but in the end the unit still had the requirement and hadn’t been able to get a real engineer to fill it, so they accepted a pseudo engineer. And so I deployed to Iraq in January of 2006, and I was there with the 17th Field Artillery Brigade from January through July.
  • 0:36:02
* {:.text} I got back here this past July, and now I’m in my third and final year here. And then I’m, in all likelihood, going to Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
  • Interviewer:
  • Okay. Well, I think there are two directions we can go. We can talk about what you think maybe has changed about West Point, and whether that’s good or bad in terms of application to the Army, and particularly the way the Army has changed or is supposed to have changed in the last five years or so. Or we could talk more about Iraq, your deployment to Iraq. Or we could do both. But which one would you like to do first?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • I’ll tell you about my Iraq because it’s sort of simple. I was there for six months. So I ended up in the – the unit I was attached to was a garrison command doing all of the base life support and base operations for the victory base complex in Baghdad.
  • 0:37:06
* {:.text} And that is where the Baghdad International Airport bi-op was and in the area all around that. It’s a collection of about ten forwarding operating bases lumped together into what we call the Victory Base Complex, the complex of ten bases. So all – one secure perimeter around all of these separate bases.
So my job – so my unit’s mission was to provide all of the life support and road maintenance and housing and feeding of the 34,000 people that were there, which was a mixture of about 60/40 military to civilian. A hundred and fifty different civilian contracting companies on there, in addition to fifty separate military units. So it was a huge task.
  • 0:38:00
* {:.text} And so within that, my job was to manage that space, where those 50 military units were, where their chunks were, where the different civilian units came, and to just keep an eye on how much space do we still have, who is leaving, who is coming.
So the day-to-day sort of managing those tenants, is what we called them, was not very exciting work. It was important work. It needed to be done, and I was glad to do that. The part that became interesting were some of the side projects that I got involved in, one of which was working with the Iraqi Ground Forces Command there. There, the Iraqi Army’s headquarters was at the Victory Base Complex. And when I first got there, they had about 60 officers in that headquarters, but they were projected to grow to 600 in their headquarters and another support battalion of another 650.
  • 0:39:07
* {:.text} So up to 1,250, and that growth was going to happen over the course of the next year. So the first six months but while I was there. So I became our brigade’s lead planner on how are we going to accommodate this growth. And that was really interesting. I attended weekly meetings with the Iraqi Army staff, and a lot of times it had very little to do with what I needed to know from them. But just being in there and seeing the stuff that a fledging army was trying to work through, the issues of trying to build an army in the midst of a very difficult war and a very violent insurgency was fascinating.
So another project that I worked on was an economic zone. We were trying to create a space – hence why I was involved in it – a space on the Victory Base Complex for Iraqi businesses to come in and setup.
  • 0:40:10
* {:.text} We – almost all of our support – civilian companies that were providing support were third country nationals. They were not Iraqis. And when Prime Minister al-Maliki took off as – he said the number one issue facing Iraqis was unemployment. And so we were trying to assist in that somehow.
This is a project that I spent a ton of time on, and in the end it didn’t happen.
  • Interviewer:
  • What was the problem?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Security. There was no way to create a safe place either for the Iraqis or for the Americans that were on – the coalition forces that were on the base.
  • 0:41:00
* {:.text} No way to quickly screen. The problem was getting on and off the base and screening and getting through the checkpoints. It would take Iraqi workers four hours every day to get through all of the checkpoints. And you’re looking at me skeptically. I know that seems amazing, but one car that the dogs, as they’re sniffing it, sit down, shuts down the entire entry control point. Any sort of curfew out on in the streets would shutdown the control point.
And I got there in January of ’06. The Samarra Mosque bombing was in February. And you can see it on the front of The New York Times today. There’s a chart, and they’re measuring the level of chaos in Iraq, and there’s before and after Samarra. And after Samarra, everything is on this side of the chaos chart because that ignited the sectarian strife beyond anything that the people had anticipated.
  • 0:42:03
* {:.text} And so it changed the way we did business. It changed, I think, the atmosphere in Baghdad significantly so that everything was just that much more difficult. So I worked long and hard on that with a lot of very interesting other agencies that were trying the same thing, and we just couldn’t make it happen.
I left there in July, and it was still maybe we can make this happen. And in July and August, things in Baghdad took a turn even worse. And so I stayed in contact with the people that were working on it and heard that it’s just been – maybe in another place in Iraq, maybe later in Iraq, but just not now it’s not going to happen, which I think is too bad.
But so those are two of the things that I worked on that were very interesting.
  • 0:43:00
* {:.text} My time in Iraq is sort of like what I was saying about the Army. It’s constantly throwing you into positions that you don’t know anything about. And I feel like I’ve been well prepared for that. Maybe I’m just used to it.
But I sort of think back to that West Point experience, and the first time you’re a plebe and they say your platoon is in charge of delivering laundry, and you don’t have any idea of what that means, and you’re not given a whole lot of explanation. But it’s got to get done, and so you figure out a way to get it done.
I mean, I really think that West Point taught me to be resourceful. And if you hit an obstacle, that’s not when you stop. That’s when you start figuring out how to get over the obstacle. So I certainly felt like those skills helped me in that assignment in Iraq.
  • Interviewer:
  • So did you feel like – I mean, other than the West Point skills that helped you out in Iraq, did you feel that – keep my necklace from sitting on the microphone.
  • 0:44:07
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Yeah.
  • Interviewer:
  • Did you feel that the overall mission was starting to get shakier after the bombings that you mentioned?
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • I think everything was harder. The other interesting thing that I got involved in was sort of the strategic planning from how we would eventually drawn down from this huge presence, particularly at the Victory Base Complex but in Iraq overall.
So I attended the weekly __ for Iraq meetings, which is the plan for how are we going to close __ and get closer. That took me back and forth across Baghdad to meetings in the green zone on a fairly regular basis, which I appreciated because it was – not that I craved convoying through Baghdad.
  • 0:45:03
* {:.text} But I think it’s important for the people who are planning to be in touch with what it’s like. That you’ve got to be in a minimum three-vehicle convoy, up-armored, gunners out, and that it’s a nail-biter all the way through. It tells you something. It tells you that you’re probably – your drawdown timeline probably shouldn’t be too aggressive because it’s just the security situation isn’t there yet.
So I always thought about that when we were going through Baghdad to get to a meeting in the green zone to talk about how we were going to get out of there. And you drive through Baghdad, and you’d just see trash piled up all over the place. And Iraqi Army and Iraqi police and U.S. checkpoints every 350 meters on Route __. I think, you know, whatever we do at this meeting, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
I don’t even remember what your original question was there that just took me on that tangent.
  • Interviewer:
  • If you felt like the mission got shakier after this.
  • 0:46:00
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • I think for sure that the Samarra bombing was a turn back – I don’t know if it had to be the Samarra bombing. I mean, maybe that sectarian strife was there, and it just needed to be ignited, but that was certainly the ignition.
Yeah, there were some high points after that. The Iraqi government formed a unit government, and they came to terms on how the ministers were going to be. I mean, those were big deals, things that gave us hope.
I saw reconstruction projects happening. I also saw them not happening at nearly the pace that anybody wanted them to. I mean, everything was just so hard. You know, to get raw materials from Baghdad out to __ Province, you know, the security required for those trucks and – one convoy gets hit, and civilian truck – Iraqi and civilian truck drivers get killed, and then nobody will work for a week.
  • 0:47:05
* {:.text} And that happened all the time. And so being there, I learned why reconstruction was so hard. You can read about it all you want, but then you’re there and you see it every day. And, oh, why didn’t the contractor come to do this today? Oh, he got kidnapped. Oh, I get it. This is why things are hard over here. Or his nephew got kidnapped, and the family is trying to raise the money to ransom him.
I mean, it was that sort of thing all the time. So I would like to be hopeful that some of that stuff is going to – I went through phases of hope while I was there. And I mean, I am still maintaining some hope, but until they get the security thing fixed, none of that other good stuff can really happen.
  • 0:48:02
* {:.text} I mean, a unity government is great, but if it can’t provide security for the people, it’s not a very effective government.
  • Interviewer:
  • Also, given the nature of the mission over there and now you’ve been back at West Point for, what, two years basically because the half a year was gone, do you think that the academy is preparing cadets for that? Inaudible comment.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • Yeah. I don’t know. Junior leaders are certainly – I’ve talked about being a platoon leader and having all of that responsibility, but nobody was shooting at us in Haiti. So it was a lot of responsibility. And now those platoon leaders have the same responsibility but it’s life and death every day. So I think we’re trying hard to prepare them for that.
  • 0:49:00
* {:.text} I’m not sure – psychologically, I’m not sure anybody’s ever prepared for some of the stuff that our junior leaders are facing. But I had the opportunity to spend my whole second summer here out at Camp Buckner working with Operation Highland Warrior, you know, the field training they do in the summer.
I thought the training was tough. I thought the cadets were pushed. I thought the leaders – not the cadets going through the training so much as their squad leaders and company commanders, were pushed really hard. And there were times where I thought, man, we’re asking too much of these guys. But that’s a great question that you ask.
I really don’t think they’re – I don’t think we can do anything where we ask too much of them in training because much is going to be asked of them when they get out to be platoon leaders for sure.
So I was impressed with the training here. I think the academy has tried.
  • 0:50:03
* {:.text} It seems to me – and I’m not on that side to the street where the commandant and the __ officers are among this side of the street. But it seems to me that there’s been a push to have the training be focused on what’s going on in the Army and not West Point-isms so much. And I think that’s a good change.
I know that in their first and their second – in their first summer in particular, I think the incoming new cadets, they’re in their fatigues almost the entire summer doing field training. Like, this is not about parades and __ __ in full dress. We’ll do that in the four years here. But this is really about serving in the Army. And that’s important for them to know that very first summer because it’s not – you know, there’s no full dress. There’s no Saturday parades in the Army once you get out of here.
  • 0:51:00
* {:.text} So I think there have been good changes. This whole thing that’s going on in terms of creating officers who are pentathletes, I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure there are really five things. But I think that means adapt – being able to adapt to any situation, and I think West Point has always done that. We’re calling it something different now, and I think we’re maybe codifying exactly how we’re trying to do that. 
But, again, I feel like I was pushed hard and put into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations all the time as a cadet, that by the time I left here I was confident. I had a ton of confidence that you could throw things on me. And if I didn’t know right away what to do, I could – I’d figure it out. Or working with other people in West Point makes – forces you – and it’s not the people that you choose a lot of times. You get put into a platoon. That is the – those are the people that you’re with and make it happen.
  • 0:52:03
* {:.text} So I think the academy has always done that. I think we’re continuing to do that, and that’s the best preparation that I can think of for whatever situation. You know, we’re not going to be in Iraq forever. So we hope it’s going to change. We’re going to be somewhere else. But those skills of being able to adapt, those will work anyplace.
  • Interviewer:
  • Okay. Well, we’re just about out of tape.
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • All right.
  • Interviewer:
  • Do you think we’re done, or do you have more you’d like to –
  • MAJ Beth Behn:
  • I have nothing further. I think I’ve talked plenty, so thanks.
  • Interviewer:
  • Great.
  • End of Audio


LTC Beth Behn reflects on her experiences at West Point and in Iraq.


name Beth Behn
institution USMA
graduation year 1994
service Army
service dates 1994