The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Six
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Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force.
Something that happened another time on that trip to the Mile High City quite literally changed my life. When I was growing up, my parents were in the music business. They had a popular local event band and made a good living at it. Not good enough that they didn’t have real jobs, but they were booked somewhere most weekends. Dad was the MC and sometimes drummer (drummers are flaky) and mom was the front man. My mother and I did not agree on very much, but the woman had the voice of an angel.
Dad had a room set aside in the house as his ‘music room.’ If it were today, we’d call it a man cave. It was one of my favorite places. Their band played all sorts of stuff in their rotation. Dad even did Michael Jackson’s cover of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” in a comical falsetto. It was his thing, and it always got laughs. I miss that guy. Anyway, Dad loved the old country stuff most. Ferlon Husky, Jim Reeves, Sonny James, all the old straight-laced stuff. I recognize vocal talent when I hear it, but it just wasn’t my kind of music. And I thought of it all as “country music.” But I was hanging out with Dad. And he did introduce me to some music I really liked. I still love Delbert McClinton. Listen to “Lie No Better” and you’ll understand.
One night, Bo had suggested we go to a country bar outside the city. After the protests and bawling fits on the floor about ‘country music,’ we finally agreed. We got Bodhi to drive because he wasn’t a big drinker and me and Bo were planning on getting deep into some barrel or other. It was a really big place. Looked like an Old West town, with boardwalks all around the perimeter fronting stores selling cowboy hats, boots, and other accoutrements tourists think cowboys like. There was a huge dance floor where a line dance lesson was taking place when we entered. Not too crowded. Yet. I thought ‘Well, at least it’s only a few hours. I’ll probably survive. Yee. Haw.’
And then the place started filling up. Bo had said there would be women in skin-tight jeans and that it would change my thinking. I never thought Bo was stupid, but on this he was positively brilliant. I was watching an attractive young woman in the aforementioned painted-on jeans climbing a staircase to the balcony (to ensure her safety, of course… she might have tripped and fallen and… I was nowhere near close enough to help). Anyway, Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” was playing. I had never heard it before. I walked into that cowtown a hair band guy with metalhead tendencies. I walked out a country fan. And I still am. Start strumming any George Strait song and I will sing it. Fair warning.
Back at Seymour, I was preparing to go to intel school in western Texas (the Air Force likes Texas. A lot). I had hoped to get assigned back at Seymour Johnson after intel school, and had jumped through many hoops to get them to allow TRIJtM and the kids to stay there awaiting my triumphant return about 6 months later. Base housing has a lot of rules, and since my future PDS / duty location was an unknown, I ended up having to get a waiver just to not have to move my family either back home or to Texas with me for 6 months. They were from the government and they were there to help. As it turned out, I got an assignment to Germany while in intel school. And the government there to help immediately evicted my family (this is only a slight exaggeration) from the base in North Carolina and they moved to Texas. For just under 3 months. Without me being there to help. Because we were going to Germany. Which is the other direction.
So I found a place to rent for a couple months, spent some quality time with my family, and then we went to Kaiserslautern. My orders were to Ramstein Air Base and the headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). My first HQ assignment. I was only assigned to an HQ (albeit a geographically separated unit - GSU) once more, as things turned out. More on that later.
When we arrived at Ramstein AB, it was the peak of the spring Permanent Change of Station (PCS) season. Available off-base housing was scarce and we ended up staying in the family version of VAQ for 70 days. At least there was a stove in this one.
In the first couple of days after we got there, I was talking to the SNCO leading the section to which I was assigned and learned he spoke German. I asked him how to ask for directions because we were going to be driving all over the surrounding countryside trying to find a place to rent. I forgot to ask him how to understand the answer. I was looking for a place and had gotten off the Autobahn in the wrong village. Couldn’t figure it out, so I pulled up by an old guy in Lederhosen walking on the sidewalk. ‘Bitte, wie komm ich nach’ wherever it was I needed to get, I asked. And he answered and pointed. He was very helpful and animated. I had no idea what he had said.
After I dropped TRIJtM back off at our billet, I returned to my spaces. While I was out, someone had put a flyer on each desk which advertised a college course in German offered by the Goethe Insitut, which was going to send an instructor to the base a couple nights a week. You didn’t get college credit for it, but it was free. I enrolled on the phone before I ever put the piece of paper back on the desk. And soon enough, we found a place in a village about 30 kilometers or so from the base. Not very far, but it was a different world. I encountered maybe two other Americans in the roughly 1.5 years we lived in that village, and met three or four locals who had varying levels of command of English (two were fluent). We lived in an idyllic German village and I was practicing my skills every day. And TRIJtM complained one day ‘Why can’t Star Trek (ToS) be in English?!?’ I don’t mean to disparage her; it was charming. God bless her. We made a lot of good friends in that village.
My first years as an intel guy were busy. But then, military intel is always busy. Si vis pacem, para bellum. Semper vigilans.
My first year at HQ USAFE, I worked the watch. This is a 24/7 shop which monitors events in the command’s area of responsibility (AOR) and briefs leadership on major events in near real time. Have you ever called a general at his house at 03:00? It is never fun, and not just because you aren’t calling to wish him good morning.
The European theater at that time included Africa in its AOR. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) had not been thought of yet as a place to store generals, so European Command (USEUCOM, of which USAFE is a subordinate command) answered the calls to the Dark Continent. Another reason USAFE even now covers Africa in some ways has to do with the Air Force having the longest-range land-based aircraft in theater, and that those planes can move a fair amount of people and stuff quickly. And if you need to get planes with small fuel tanks somewhere, USAFE has you covered with flying gas stations. Again, more later.
After that first year, my professional life changed significantly. HQ USAFE was standing up an Air Intelligence Squadron (AIS). This is a support unit usually subordinate to a Numbered Air Force (NAF, the next lower level to a Major Command (MAJCOM), which USAFE was). In this case, the AIS was collocated with the MAJCOM, so it was subordinated directly to the larger HQ. In fact, it was literally right across the street from it. I was lucky enough to be one of the people selected to man up this new outfit. And after a year of working the watch, I was happy for the new adventure. And more day shifts.
I was selected for promotion to Technical Sergeant (E-6) just after we stood up the AIS and was assigned to lead the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) section. I was still an analyst, briefer, and issuer of various intelligence reports; I just had more paperwork and personnel issues. Nature of the business. This was 1994 and we were enforcing no-fly zones (NFZ) in both northern and southern Iraq. I spent most of my time on Iraq and environs with a minor focus on Africa, mainly Somalia and Algeria. I gave one of my guys, SSgt ‘Underhill,’ lead on the Horn and all things Africa. He was a good man. We talked every day and kept each other in our respective loops. No man is an island.
The AIS was in a bunker, the provenance of which is unknown to me. Imagine a (really) big quonset hut inside very large hill reinforced by a lot of concrete and earth and surrounded by trees such that it wasn’t visible from any main road. The facility was brand new (or more likely, newly renovated) when we moved in. So new it wasn’t even completely finished inside. The spaces to which my team (and the entire analysis section, among a few others) was assigned were not yet available for occupancy. So we figured out places to work. It was not altogether comfortable, but when you got a job to do, you gotta do it well. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
As we got the unit up and running, a series of events leading up to what is now known as the Rwandan Genocide was occurring. Since this was my team’s AOR, we were very busy in these cramped circumstances. This was Underhill’s area of primary concern, so he spent most of his duty days working the problem. As always, I tried to stay abreast. But Saddam had a lot of airplanes and oil (and chemical weapons – come at me bro), and he was a homicidal fruitcake. I’m implying I was also busy.
We had started ramping up for a potential deployment to Rwanda in the not-too-distant future. As such, the regional NAF commander, a 2-star general with whom I would become acquainted over the next couple years, was detailed to lead an exercise gaming out how our expected humanitarian aid mission would play on the day. This exercise was conducted in Stuttgart, which is where the NAF was located (hey, he was a general. RHIP). I tasked Underhill to take this one since he was the lead Africa guy on my team. He did all the work building the brief for the general, his staff, and all the other decision makers who were going to be there. This wasn’t a regular exercise; we were ‘war gaming’ for a mission we knew was coming. Everybody likes easy but challenging TDYs and I wanted to go. But I needed the most expert guy I had on this, and in that regard I was only my second-best guy.
As it happened, Underhill had a family situation back in CONUS that came up a couple days before he was scheduled to move out to the planning drill. It was serious enough and close enough a relative (did I mention there are rules?) that he was granted emergency leave to go home to CONUS and be with his family. It happens, and I really felt for the guy. That story ended happily, I’m pleased to report.
So I found myself in Stuttgart helping plan missions to deliver much-needed assistance to the Tutsi people of Rwanda who were being oppressed (by which I mean “slaughtered”) by the Hutu government in Kigali. If you want an example of man’s inhumanity to man, look this one up. I can’t. I watched it happen. There are things I refuse to revisit.
A big part of my job in this exercise was ‘targeting’ refugee camps and figuring out as best I could what it would take to deliver needed supplies to support as many of these poor doomed people as possible given the resources we expected to have. I wasn’t trained as a targeteer (yet) and we weren’t really targeting in any case. But that was my job, and I had made a promise to America to always do my job as best I could. At the end of the exercise I got a nice little certificate from the O-5 who was leading my cell. She was a nice lady. Alright, she wasn’t. But I thought a little better of her after that.
The briefing Underhill had prepared and had been practicing to deliver also was now my baby, of course. I did not sleep at all the night we got there because I was figuring out the charts and how to get things moved around a very large geographic area. After that I had to start cold learning a briefing I hadn’t researched or written. I hadn’t even had a chance to skim it. But I read it. Learned it. Even practiced a little in my 2-man room while the other dude was out showering the next morning.
And then I was in the base theater in front of maybe 150 people, including the 2-star NAF commander, the Defense Attaché Officer (DAO, an Army O-5) stationed in the region (in Cameroon), and many other links in the chain of decision making. A lesser man might have been intimidated up on that stage. I kid, but I was strangely not at all nervous about how I would perform. People were literally being destroyed because of who they were. Some things matter more than others.
I went through the briefing, using imagery and bullet points in a presentation on the cinema’s screen. The crowd was listening intently and asking appropriate questions to clarify things they needed to make the decisions they had to make. The United States military is really, really good at what they do. Trust me on this. And you’re welcome.
I came to the part in the briefing about the weather’s effects in rainy season down around Rwanda and Burundi. I said that the monsoons made some areas impassable in the rainy season, which as far as I knew was accurate. Underhill’s research had indicated this was true, and I had no reason to disbelieve it. The DAO who lived in Cameroon immediately (and very authoritatively) stated ‘Uh, that is incorrect. It gets muddy and wet and nasty, but you usually can get down the roads in a Hummer or 4WD truck.’ I thanked him for the information and finished the briefing. At lunch, the DAO approached my table and apologized for ‘shouting me down.’ I was nonplussed. I thanked him for helping make sure we got it right. No man is an island.
We sent some people down to eastern Africa and did the best we could to help. Our best was really very good, but there was no winner in that situation. Fucking Africa, man.
While working my shifts on the watch, I had ‘met’ several colleagues via something akin to internet relay chat, but secured for classified information and isolated from this new thing everyone was hearing about by then, this ‘world wide web.’ One of these people was a young officer at a small fielded intel unit in the command. I never met the lieutenant in person, but we knew each other from working mids together, apart. When I was moved to the AIS, her unit was also being eliminated and she was soon to move to Ramstein and the AIS. In fact, she was going to be my direct supervisor when she returned from a deployment she had just been ordered to at Incirlik AB to support U.S. efforts enforcing the northern NFZ in place in Iraq back then.
The lieutenant was aboard one of the Blackhawk helicopters shot down in the NFZ by F-15s in that tragic fratricide incident. Her fiancé had also been assigned to her former PDS and was already working at the AIS with us. These were dark days.
A memorial service was held at the base chapel on Ramstein AB and the lieutenant’s parents had flown in for it. As I said, I never met the lieutenant in person. I met her parents that day in the chapel. This is the second time I remember crying in the presence of people to whom I was not related. RIP lieutenant.
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