The Sand in My Rear

I was in the motor pool on September 11, 2001. Forward observer. My unit was on DRB-1 (Division Ready Brigade. Forgive me, paratroopers, if I remember any of this wrong), bags packed and ready to be wheels-up in two hours in the event of war. The dumbest officer I ever worked for drove up in a Humvee and very dramatically told me what had happened. He said:

“Come with me to the guard shack, they’re listening to it on the radio.” Trained in the leisurely art of media-driven readiness.

I said “Shouldn’t we be getting ready to deploy, sir?”

We got nervous. Our stomachs knotted up while we waited in our barracks for the word. We started hearing about the roads on post being blocked off, the post being closed, searches for bombs. We watched the TV. And we sat and sat and sat while we very definitely received no order to deploy. The greatest ramification for the 3rd Battalion of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment was that for several days it took off-post personnel 3 hours to get to work. Every car was being checked at the gate for bombs, underneath and in the engine bay. Ft. Bragg ground to a halt from the intensity of action.

I tottered off to Arizona a year or so later, training for a new job, and leaving the likelihood of combat almost certainly forever in my past. Say what you will – I was relieved to have gotten out alive, for all literal purposes. People I know did not. Few, thankfully, but enough. There was Jared, of course.

In 2008, the entire 82nd Airborne Divison was deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, erasing its distinction as the Army’s only unit with a Division Ready Brigade. Odd to think of the mighty 82nd as just another unit. They never will be, of course, no matter how hard Congress tries.

The dumb officer I mentioned up there inhabits my memory in one other infamous episode. After 30 July and August days in the desert of Ft. Irwin California, my RTO and I sat idle while all of the brigade’s After Action Reviews dragged on, wrapping up our rotation at the National Training Center. We were a COLT – Combat Observation Lasing Team – lugging around a giant device used for painting targets for smart munitions. The actual smart munitions are ridiculously cost prohibitive, so they were never actually used in training. The laser was just a very large and very expensive set of binoculars.

Over the course of that rotation, my RTO and I called more fire missions than the rest of the brigade combined. We went somewhat rogue, getting permission from our infantry platoon leader to seek out targets on our own. When we called in our location so that we could direct some fires onto enemy targets, the response from the Fire Direction Center was “What the hell are you doing all the way up there, COLT 1?” SSgt Monti was out there, too, I remember, and our Battalion Fire Support Officer joked later that he could never get through on the radio because Monti and I would not stop calling for fire. Those were good days.

The officer of infamy, who I will name only by the nickname I gave him – Captain Sand-in-my-rear – approached us as we leaned against our rucks, waiting to redeploy to Ft. Bragg. He showed us a nice, shiny coin with the wings of a full Colonel on it and told us: This came from the Brigade Commander, for the good work we did here at NTC, but specifically for the job you two did out there. Well done.” He then put the coin in his pocket and walked away. Asshole. I hope he doesn’t mention us at all when he tells of how he got it.

Those were good days, to be sure. But they were make believe. They were games and laughs, a steady flow of frustration, and a lot of physical distress. But none of it was real. People like Jared Monti never forget the purpose of all those games, and in the end he proved what it meant to him.

 

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Monti on the left. Around 2001

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