Twenty Years - a Reflection on the War on Terror

Sweaty Revelations

The morning was cool in the high southern dessert of Arizona. We were not too far from the Mexican border. We were two weeks into our training as 97B Counterintelligence Agents for the US Army. On this Tuesday morning all the new Advanced Individual Training (AIT) students were taking the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). It was a big morning for all of us, because passing the PT test meant that for the first time since we entered Basic Training and then moved on to AIT, we would be free to have privileges. We could wear civilian clothes nights and weekends. We could leave the base on weekends and get passes at other times. We could have a break from the regimented group-oriented barracks life. For some this meant the opportunity to leave base and party on the weekends. For me it meant I could attend Sunday worship services without going through a whole ordeal.

I passed my test with plenty of room to spare. I was about forty seconds longer on my run than I had been at my best at Basic Training a few weeks earlier, but I ran my two miles in 13:45, which was well within standard. I’d get down sub 13 minutes once I reacclimated to the elevation. I maxed out my sit-ups and scored over 80 points on my push-ups by doing 59 pushups in the two minutes allotted. My push up score meant that I wasn’t going to be a PT stud with extra respect from Drill Sergeants and extra consideration for top student honors. I was a bit disappointed by that, but overall was ecstatic to have the test behind me and freedom ahead. I was one of the first ones done with my run. I waited for a few of my friends to finish and then we headed as a group to grab a shower. We had about 90 minutes before we had to line up to march to class, so we could clean up and get a good breakfast.

We walked into our building to see some of the students from the older classes gathered around the television in the lobby. They had finished their PT, like us, and were heading back to their dorms.

“What’s going on?”

“A plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York.”

“Was it an accident? What kind of plane?”

“We don’t know, it’s just all over the news right now.”

Most of us forgot about our showers and just stayed there, gathered around the television watching the smoke billowing from the towers while the commentators tried to get a handle on what was happening. We had been watching for about five minutes when we saw the second plane hit the South Tower.

“Bleep!” (Insert your favorite cuss word here - all of them were said by the 20 or so of us in the room.)

“This is an attack.” One of our drill sergeants was standing in the back corner watching. I hadn’t noticed him earlier. “This is going to get ugly.”

Everything Has Changed

I enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard in September 2000 without much thought. My older brother had suggested I look into it as a way to pay for school and upcoming marriage - I had just gotten engaged to my wife. My brother had joined the National Guard in California while I was a missionary in Ukraine and had become a recruiter after completing his training. Utah had linguistic units, so the thought of getting paid to keep up with my Russian, to do some service to my country, and to get some extra help with school were all appealing. I started drilling with my unit in October, but wasn’t scheduled to attend Basic Training until the following May once classes ended. Between Basic Training and my 20-week AIT, I would only have to miss the Fall 2001 semester at Utah State University. I knew when I signed up that I would spend at least six months in the Balkans - our unit was slotted in for a Kosovo rotation sometime in the next three years - but I figured that would be interesting and I might be able to pick up some new language skills. The calculations were all pretty straightforward.

The National Guard is pretty much here in case we have another world war or something major. You might need to do some disaster clean up or flood control.

That was my understanding and thinking. I knew that the National Guard had been called up during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, but what were the odds something like that would happen again? As a 22-year old who was pretty plugged into world affairs, I didn’t expect any major conflicts during my six-year enlistment. I was patriotic enough that if something did come up, then I was happy to my part. It was like pre-answering the call to service.

By the early afternoon of September 11, when we were finally sitting in class after spending the morning glued to the television, it was clear that we were going to war.

We didn’t get any freedoms until early November. All of us - even the older students with privileges were locked down on base. The War on Terror had begun.

Missing the Boat

My two best buddies from my unit - the other good Russian speakers - were both 97E interrogators. They were both a few years older than me. By October they were in Uzbekistan as linguist support for the base that the US set up there as part of the initial SOF response to 9/11. By the time I graduated from AIT a few days before Christmas 2001, they weren’t pulling anyone from the National Guard for support to Afghanistan. The US was at war, avenging the attacks of 9/11. We were certain that Bin Laden would be killed or captured soon. I had missed the boat to defend the homeland.

So life went on. I met my fiancée at the airport the day after graduating from AIT. She was coming from Russia to marry me. We broke up less than two weeks later (a story for another day). I re-enrolled in school. I was a civil engineering student at USU. I went back to my job at the transportation lab on campus. Utah was hosting the winter Olympics. After 9/11 there was an increased emphasis on security, and so the National Guard was called up to support that. Naturally they put the Field Artillery in charge of in-person security at the events and kept all the trained linguists (the only dedicated linguistic brigade in the Army) locked up in armories preparing to do crowd and riot control in case something crazy happened. Nothing did. I had to drop out of school again because 3.5 weeks was too much work to miss in all of my advanced math, physics, and engineering courses.

My ex-fiancée and I started dating again and got engaged and eloped the day before she had to return to Russia on her visa. I got a new job at a call center so that I could get more hours and benefits. My wife asked me if I liked engineering. She was worried that I was not well suited to it as a career (some mishaps with some home repairs gave her insight into my engineering thinking). I was 23 years old, just married, and at least two years away from any degree and probably close to four away from an engineering degree. I switched my major to business and signed up for summer classes. I was promoted to Sergeant (E5) as part of my Civilian Acquired Skills Program (CASP) enlistment contract once my security clearance was finalized in early March.

My friends returned from Uzbekistan after about six months and drill with the guard resumed. Drill took on a comfortable rhythm. Saturdays were language training. We did some grammar, did some exercises, and then watched a movie in Russian and discussed it with our instructor. Sundays we did basic soldier tasks (first aid, navigation, pt, briefings, etc.) Because most of us were LDS, we had a 45 minute service on Sunday mornings before the day began. In October, I got to spend a week in Sacramento at a planning meeting for an exercise in Ukraine the next summer. I really looked forward to going to participate in it the following summer. The government was going to pay me to go back to Ukraine! Sign me up.

October was also the month that the war machine started rolling. Colin Powell spoke to the UN to make the case for Iraq and WMD. Congress made a show of voting to authorize the US of force. We started hearing rumblings that things were afoot. During finals week in December I got a call that I was an alternate selection for a deployment of 26 intelligence personnel from the Utah Army National Guard to support the buildup of troops in Iraq. I had to report to National Guard headquarters and go through the mobilization process. One of the other young NCOs in my unit, a Chinese Linguist, was losing his Dad to cancer. I volunteered to go in his place. I had an interview with the Battalion Commander. She told me that she was sending him instead. My wife wasn’t happy that I had volunteered without consulting her. That was fair. It’s one thing to be told you’re going to war. It’s another when you volunteer without telling your wife. Lesson learned.

I had missed the boat. Everyone was expecting that Iraq II would be like Desert Storm. A few days (maybe weeks) of lopsided fighting and then some waterskiing in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and home. I’d missed the boat again.

Snow Storm

After my failed attempt to volunteer to go with the 26 PAX, life went back to normal. I was enrolled in 18 credits for winter semester. One of my classes was Russian. USU had a Russian minor. Four advanced classes all taught by the same instructor. Yulia had gotten a job as her TA. I would take the bus to school in the mornings that Yulia helped teach and work in the language lab tutoring students in Russian. Yulia would drive up for her shifts and we would go home together at the end of the day. I had taught her to drive during the summer, so she wasn’t a completely confident driver yet. On February 10th Yulia came to the door of the Russian class about halfway through class. She peered through the glass looking shaken. I was certain that she had wrecked the car, since it was a very snowy day and the first real stormy day she’d had to drive in.

I got up and met her in the hall.

“You forgot your cell phone today. You need to call SFC Mallard (my platoon Sergeant) right now. You are being activated.”

I made the call. Two more groups from Utah were being mobilized to support the Iraq buildup. I was with a group of 30 counterintelligence agents. The other group was 98 interrogators and support staff. I was to report to the armory with all of my gear for inspection at 0600 the next morning. On Thursday we would all report to Camp Williams to begin our full mobilization process.

I was on the boat.

Aftermath

For the third time in two years, I dropped out of classes at USU to do Army stuff. I spent the afternoon taking a leave from my job, speaking with my congregation’s leadership about my absence (I was a scoutmaster working with the youth), and did some shopping for additional items to take with me. Mostly I bought books.

Three days in Utah was followed by two weeks at Fort Carson in Colorado. We flew out to Kuwait on March 4 and arrived in Kuwait on March 5. We had just settled in to our tents at Camp Victory when I was told that I was being reassigned to the 3rd Infantry Division and would need to pack up right away. Within a few days of being assigned to the 3rd ID, we left the camp we were in and took up position in the desert. My first anniversary was spent in a sandstorm in the Kuwaiti desert fighting all night to get a 5 minute patchy phone call with my wife.

Through a series of events, by the time the 3rd ID was in Karbala, I had been assigned to a frontline mechanized infantry company (along with an Arabic translator - a civilian contractor originally from Libya). I was part of the initial Thunder Runs and the first group of US soldiers to spend the night in Baghdad. Once the Marines made it into their positions in Baghdad, 3rd ID was planning on rotating home to the US. They had been in Kuwait for nearly a year before the invasion, so they were going to be replaced by incoming units. I was reassigned to the 101st Airborne Division just South of Baghdad in Iskandariya. Just a few days after that reassignment, the 101st was reassigned to Mosul, so we made the drive North to Mosul.

It was clear that Iraq II was going to last a lot longer than Iraq I by early summer. We had been told that we should expect to be in country no less than a year. We made it out just two weeks shy of a year at the end of February 2004.

The forever war and the new reliance on National Guard meant that I was not as active of a soldier as if I’d enlisted in “Big Army.” Intelligence was needed. The DoD began planning for the new reality. We could expect to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan every 3-4 years for the foreseeable future. After traveling for a few months with my wife, I returned and re-enrolled at USU in Fall 2004. In May 2005 I got a job working full time (but on short-term contracts) for the National Guard as part of an open source translation project. I finished my B.S. in December (after starting a Masters in August) and spent the next two years working.

In 2007 I was ready for a change. I decided I’d go to graduate school and picked political science because it combined elements of history and statistics and I thought that would be useful for work as a government analyst (DoD, CIA, etc.) The only problem was that I decided too late to apply to any programs. My unit was scheduled for an Afghanistan rotation in 2008. The local field artillery was deploying in summer 2007 as part of the Surge in Iraq. I talked them into taking me to work in the S2 (intelligence) shop on their deployment to Camp Bucca to guard all the detainees from all over Iraq. That way I could deploy and be back in time to start my PhD in August 2008 and not have to deploy again before my (extended) enlistment ended in September of 2009.

I applied for PhD programs from Fort Bliss Texas in the summer of 2007 while learning how to be a prison guard. I was accepted to the University of Iowa PhD program. My wife sent me the letter as an attachment to an email in February 2008. When I got home for the birth of my twin daughters in late April 2008, we began the process of moving to Iowa for me to study Political Science for the first time.

My PhD education led me to want a career in the academy rather than the government because I fell in love with teaching.

The “forever war” of Afghanistan ended this summer, right before I started my 9th year as a professor. 9/11 changed my life, and the life of my family, profoundly. I used to regret not having gotten to do a tour in both the major GWOT theaters. The past month I’ve been grateful that I haven’t had to relieve the pain and guilt of seeing the aftermath effect on those that had gotten to know. I was selfishly able to compartmentalize that pain years ago when we left Iraq.

I fear that we as a nation will continue to compartmentalize war since so few of us actually have to bear the deepest costs of it.

Related