In their own words: Serving

MPR’s Public Insight Network has been asking people to contribute their stories about their personal connection to the war in Iraq, which as you may have overheard, started five years ago today.

Thomas P. Dunne of St. Paul did us one better; he sent a poignant recollection of his years in the military and, in particular, his role in sending others off to war.

tom_dunne.jpgI have served on and off since 1966 when I joined the Marine Corps. I did two tours in Vietnam as an infantryman. I was a staff sergeant when I got discharged in 1972. After a 12-year break in service I re-entered the military as a Minnesota National Guardsman, drilling once a month and going away for two weeks every summer. When Desert Storm began I was recalled to active duty, and served in the U.S. until it was over. I then transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve and was involved in Somalia (91-92), Haiti with the UN for 6 month in 1995 (90 miles from the U.S. with a benign, but ineptly corrupt leadership we couldn’t fix in two years, or 42 years if you count the gunboat days in the ’20s and 30s. What made us think six years later, we could repair a thoroughly corrupt, well-armed nation thousands of miles away among our enemies?), the Kurdish evacuation from Northern Iraq in 1996-97. My final active duty assignment (2006) was in the Horn of Africa.

In 2002, I became the command sergeant major of a Wisconsin Army Reserve battalion that sent most of its troops of to war after 9/11. It was difficult for me as a Vietnam vet to do this as I was very much aware what they were heading into; it would have been much easier to go than stay .

(More after the jump)

One sad weekend, I and my colonel had to inform one of our full-time soldiers of the death of his son in Afghanistan, a duty no one volunteers for and none refuse. Every month since the war began, my battalion sent off soldiers — one, two or three at a time — to fill out units that were deploying. Right after the invasion of Iraq, one entire company was sent, later when they returned, another company was deployed. I found it particularly hard to watch the women being deployed, though they were as eager as most, and for obvious reasons, could have avoided it much easier than any men.

In the end, if nothing else comes out of all this, we will have shown the Arab/Islamic world the true value and capability of women. I can only wonder and hope that young girls in those areas, looking out from the folds of their mothers and older sisters voluminous dresses, see these smart, capable, confident and tough American women, many in command of men, and think to themselves “I could be like that.” Maybe that will change the world.

During a Christmas inspection visit to one of the battalion’s companies in Lacrosse, Wis., I was introduced to a new private in the unit, an older man with prior service. During our conversation it came out that he was a former Navy aircrewman who had been discharged in the ’80s, completed college on the GI Bill, and was now a successful co-op manager. He was so good at co-op management that he had been sent to the former Soviet Union as an advisor by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help them transition to capitalism. He had a request and wanted me to help him if I could; he wanted me to get him transferred to a Civil Affairs Unit that was deploying soon.

Civil Affairs was at that time an element of the Army Special Operations Command (ASOC). ASOC is tough and demanding; they deploy with the Special Forces and live and operate in austere conditions. ASOC was at that time serving primarily in Afghanistan. I pointed out to him how noble it was for him to re-enter the military and that if he was just patient he would sometime in the future be deployed with the La Crosse unit. He insisted that he wanted to transfer and that he wanted to get to Afghanistan as soon as practical. He was transferred and may still be serving there. I was glad to do it.

The La Crosse company 1st sergeant told me the back story later that day. This unmarried successful 40-year-old executive had a brother, an Army major who had been killed in an ambush in Afghanistan the previous Christmas eve.

I was called to active duty in 2005 and assigned to a program to test the readiness of the Army Reserve to work with the Department of Homeland Security. Our objective was to work the command and control “bugs” out of the response to “a mass casualty event.” This did not go badly, though it soon became apparent that everything that we had learned and perfected during the Cold War had been lost, forgotten or allowed to atrophy. Civil Defense, as it was called then, was a straightforward working entity and while it wasn’t going to save everyone, it would have mitigated much of the worst and maintained a trusted infrastructure.

Lessons were relearned and reapplied, new guidebooks written and distributed, notes taken and everyone left feeling like we were better off for the effort. Katrina hit later that year and it was like someone had just invented hurricanes; nobody knew or remembered anything

In January 2006, my request for an assignment in the war zone was approved. I was to be a trainer for a battalion of the new Iraqi Army (retraining or untraining is closer to the truth). I had done similar duty during my last tour in Vietnam when I served in the Combined Action Program, and had since then, performed liaison duty with various NATO and other allied armies.

I was relieved to not have to send anyone anymore, but to go instead. I was also apprehensive. I know only too well the randomness of death or injury in war, and the often necessary crudeness and cruelty of those engaged in this terrible work . I knew more than anything that I was no longer a 20-ish Marine sergeant capable of falling uninjured, sleeping unsoundly and responding unthinkingly. I was afraid, and the dying might not be the worst of it. The failure or inability to do what might have to be done because of age, ability or will was terrifying and the worst fear of all was the likelihood of causing someone else’s death or injury. Above all this I felt that somehow I might contribute something from all my experience and knowledge, make something somewhat better or somehow keep bad from becoming worse.

My wife was not happy. We had since 9/11 been anticipating my being called up. She had worked with me as the “sergeant major’s wife” on all the dozens of issues within my battalion that arise when husbands or wives are deployed. Illnesses, injuries, sick kids, good kids gone bad, bad kids gone worse, missed birthday calls or cards, missing allotments, the heartbreak of the faithful, and the anguish of the unfaithful, thankfully no one died, at least not in the war. We had sold our house and bought a condo, gotten our papers in order and had come to an agreement that if I was called, I would go, but she sure as heck wanted to see everyone else that hadn’t done anything , or gone in the way of danger yet, go first.

When I told her I had volunteered, the ceiling for unchecked emotions blew out. I was selfish, I was stupid, I was foolish and I was crazy . Of course this was the woman who years ago often woke next to me as I trashed through the hell of my dreams past terrors. I was down to only having it happen every couple of years or so by now.

My orders came, but there was a change. I was no longer needed, or maybe wanted, in Iraq. I was going instead to CJTF-HOA (Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa) a counterterrorist base in Djibouti where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean. I was somewhat happy, my wife less unhappy. Horn of Africa is not the best place in the world, but is not bad, especially if you have been places where the heat and terrain are similar and someone is determinately shooting at you. It was, as much in life is if one goes far enough to seek it, interesting, thrilling, inspiring, and heartbreaking.

I would brief the then-young senator from Illinois on the situation in Darfur, spend a month in northern Kenya, weeks in the mountains of Ethiopia, lose my luggage in Yemen and my passport in Sudan. Airports are considered international if the wreckage of aircraft from two or more countries litter the taxiways. Control towers are all sandbagged, one has to worry only if the sandbags are new. It was a good finale…..and I was finished

Wars are terrible, even the ones with the best of intentions and the most noble justification. There are, much as we do not want to admit it, sometimes good reasons. Before you go to war, or send someone else, you have to know the real and true total cost, something best learned or at least appreciated when seen and felt firsthand. This maybe what got us into this one, it also might go some ways towards explaining the phenomena of middle class white kids living out their video fantasies with real guns and ammo while justifiably enraged desperate poor, are more discerning in their use of violence; it’s not for lack of ammo.

  • What an intelligent and thoughtful article.

    Watching Ken Burns’ “The War” last winter on PBS, while fascinated by the sacrifice and bravery, the biggest conclusion I came to was that it is through war that humans create hell on earth.

  • John Barclay

    Like an older brother, I can still hear the ridicule the author gave me, on the south-side of Chicago for volunteering for the draft and serving in the Infantry in Vietnam. Neither of us were middle class and we pre-dated video games. He obviously must have been tongue in cheek with his cynicism; as he was in boot camp before I graduated from mine. A gifted writer and freedom loving patriot, I am profoundly taken by sacrifice and leadership. Losing one like him or those he leads seems unfair regardless of the never talked about ratio. A sadder phenomena would be for a world controlled by 8th C. beliefs.

    Unfortunately, I sense that in 40 years there will be another similar reflection written about the futility but necessity of war.