War Horses

Adviser units were pick-up teams by military standards, cobbled together out of odd specialties from the different branches of service, mostly comprised of personnel who had never before deployed.  At Camp Clark, we had Navy, Air Force, Marine, Army, civilians, and soldiers from two or three other countries.  Army personnel were both active duty and National Guard.  The National Guardsmen came from umpteen different states.  At any one time, about 10 of the military personnel were women and so too were maybe a couple of the civilian contractors.  Except for Guardsmen from the same state, none of us knew each other until we went through training at Fort Riley, or even until after we arrived in-country.

Somehow we had to get it together and keep it together.  I was in charge and responsible for the team’s success or failure.  Most of my day was spent working with my Afghan counterpart.  I also did the bulk of the coordination with our higher headquarters and the big Army units in our sector.  I planned and usually led the tactical missions that took us out the gate.

To keep things straight on the team and camp, I needed help.  Fortunately, I had two stout deputies—the team Executive Officer and team Sergeant Major.  Both were regular Army infantry, as was I, with years of service in good units.   Both were loyal to me, which was great.  More important, though, they were loyal to the Army.  They didn’t care if we were in the middle of Afghanistan or on the back side of the moon.  If they had anything to do with it, and they did, Camp Clark and the Roughrider ETT team were going to be squared away.

Sergeant Major was the highest ranking enlisted service member on Camp Clark and the best soldier, period.  Long tours in Ranger units and other high-speed line units made him, as the Army likes to say, “technically and tactically proficient” and intolerant of those who weren’t.  At Camp Clark, I never had to worry about soldiers dropping their uniform and haircut standards or forgetting the niceties of military protocol.  Sergeant Major was a standard-enforcing machine, and just wouldn’t let such things happen.  And when we headed out the gates, he ensured the crews, trucks, weapons, and equipment were ready.  The trucks were loaded per the SOP, battle drills were rehearsed, and everyone knew their jobs.  And yet he had a soft touch, and he understood he couldn’t be on everyone’s case day-in, day-out, in close quarters for a solid year.  Much of his leadership, therefore, was by example.  When the rest of us saw the rigor with which he lived up to the demands of duty, we couldn’t help but do the same.

The Executive Officer, or XO, was the second-in-charge of the team.  He also was offended by military incompetency and even more vocal than the Sergeant Major.  “OH-NO, HELL-NO,” he used to bellow at the first sign of sloppiness, stupidity, or selfishness.  But the XO had other strengths, too.  Primarily, he was a mission-accomplishing marvel.  His ability to turn the merest trace of an order or suggestion into a plan and then organize and motivate people to execute it was off-the-chart.  He was just endlessly relentless and resourceful when a task was at hand.  A good example was after Camp Clark early on took two direct hits by insurgent rockets.  The XO took it upon himself to improve our internal defenses.  Within days he had a half-dozen agencies and units outside our command building a more formidable barrier system to protect the barracks and other buildings.  Even more impressive, he began to scrounge electronic equipment that would give us some early warning and tracking ability of rocket attacks.  I can’t divulge details, but the fancy equipment that soon filled our Tactical Operations Center was all obtained back channel at no expense.  Nothing illegal, the XO just knew well the value of connections and persistence when it came to getting what he wanted.

What really distinguished the XO, though, was his magical ability to persuade people to happily perform hard, miserable jobs.  He wasn’t afraid to make anyone work, that’s for sure, but he tempered bluntness with a consideration and savvy that made people insanely eager to please him.  For instance, he eschewed military rank and last names and called everyone “Crazy,” as in “Hey, Crazy, here’s what I need you to do” or “Slacker,” as in “Hey, Slacker, I’ve got a mission that only you can do.”  Apparently, there’s something about being called “Crazy” or “Slacker” that causes soldiers to swell up with pride and grin goofily, as if some inner identity they cherished had just been recognized.  I saw it work hundreds of times, just like honey.

“Hey, Crazy, I need you to fill sandbags for the next ten hours.  Don’t even THINK of shamming out of it,” he might say early in the morning.  At sundown, Crazy would still be working, a mountain of sandbags by his side.

The XO was smart about people in other ways, too.  He knew, for example, when one soldier needed to be taken off a mission to take care of an issue, and when another needed to be told to shut the fuck up and stop making excuses.  When new women team members arrived, the XO would counsel them to be circumspect. “Watch out for the guy who says he just wants to talk or just be your friend,” he would say, “That’s the one who’s going to get you in trouble.”  They seemed to appreciate that, and he was right, too, as demonstrated by a couple of cases where the advice went unheeded.

There’s a lot more I could say, but I think you get the picture.  Sergeant Major and the XO ensured military order  and high morale prevailed on Camp Clark, and preserved our good reputation across Khowst and Paktya.  Well done, gentlemen, well done.

2 Responses to “War Horses”

  1. anvi hoang Says:

    awesome post! you can make a movie out of these vivid characters. hat off to these hard-working, smart and funny soldiers. they are cool to hang around with and easy to relate to!
    thanks for sharing.

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    Thanks, Anvi. I haven’t written much about the soldiers with whom I served, which means I haven’t written much about what made the year memorable. But I had to honor the XO and Sergeant Major.

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