I’m most fortunate to have had the privilege of spending over 30 years as an infantry officer in the US Army. That experience allowed me to meet thousands of veterans—those who chose to serve their nation in uniform. I watched them in danger and out of danger, when it was hot and when it was cold, in conference rooms and on battlefields, when living a joyous life and when they willingly gave their lives in that service.
To say I love American veterans--those with whom I served--is to be superficial about my feelings. I have the deepest and abiding respect, affection, gratitude, and admiration for them all. If there’s a fitting word for that attachment, I don’t know how to say it. We’re stuck with “love” until that better, more descriptive word becomes apparent to me.
We celebrate these veterans and all those like them on this Veterans Day 2023. Here are a few stories about those that I love.
I wish I had a suitable award to give the handful or two of mid-grade NCOs I knew in the 80s and 90s who never sewed their rank onto their uniform collars. It was expeditious for them not to sew on their rank because it changed with sometimes alarming frequency. They would go from Staff Sergeant to Sergeant and back again. Let me put it this way: They knew how to get in deep dodo and repeatedly proved they were good at it.
Many of them—when they were wearing a Staff Sergeant’s rank—would be in a Platoon Sergeant’s job, one normally held by an NCO one grade of rank higher. These leaders were never going to be on a recruiting poster and would likely have to retire as a Staff Sergeant, but they could fight and they knew how to lead. I wish they had broken a variety of rules less often, but I was sure glad to have learned from them and called them my teammates.
When you travel into a fight as an infantryman in a helicopter with 10-25 other troopers, it’s a unique experience. Unlike Disneyworld rides, you have to earn your spot flying “Nap of the Earth” into battle in a H-60 Blackhawk. Once you make it aboard, though, you have little control over your destiny. Also unlike those Disneyworld rides, there are never any rails. Almost anything can happen.
Others are at the controls, Soldiers you will never know are suppressing anti-aircraft threats enroute, and leaders somewhere else are making decisions about whether you land where you planned or not. You quite literally put your life in the hands of others. (…and there could always be that one SOB nobody sees who gets off a lucky shot and hits something critical—like you.)
Unless you are the most senior person aboard, you don’t get a headset. It’s so noisy, you’re lucky if you can be understood by the person next to you if you yell at your highest volume. It’s always very dusty or very wet, too hot or too cold, and at some point during the flight I’ve always panicked a bit when I find I’m not sure whether I still have control over that one critical piece of kit that’s needed for the mission.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a GREAT ride. Skilled pilots can do things with those aircraft that would leave Newton doubting several of his laws. It’s almost enough excitement to make you forget your death could be minutes away.
Here's a shout out to the Soldiers of Headquarters and Headquarters Company and my fellow Company A teammates who flew with me for over 100 miles into the Euphrates River Valley on February 25, 1991. About twenty of us sat crammed into that aircraft, sitting on five-gallon water cans, metal cases of small arms ammunition, plastic tubes of mortar rounds, wooden boxes of TOW anti-tank missiles, and a myriad of other weapons and explosives. I remember how calm that group was, even though we’d really all only first encountered an armed enemy force a few days before.
Anyone who’s been there knows their body is highly capable of producing vast amounts of adrenalin when the doors open, the birds flare, and they leap or, more likely, tumble out. I recall that exhilaration; the heady challenge of confronting an armed enemy who will try to kill you. That evening, we piled out onto a cold, wet, and slippery landing zone. The lead company for our battalion had already made contact, our radio communications were disappointingly sporadic, and we literally had miles to go before we rested. However, those into whose hands we’d placed our lives had performed superbly.
I still see those young men who’d left the helicopters gathering in a disciplined manner, straining under their loads, and moving out together, willingly headed under significant stress toward unknown hazards they would confidently meet head-on.
The utmost respect goes out to every Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) ever.
Back before the late 90s, dismounted infantry units were forced to carry radios that weighed over 20 lbs (before you added in extra batteries) that were the size of about four notebook computers stacked one on top of each other. We kept our adversaries from intercepting our transmissions by attaching these PRC-77 radios to another device that was about half the size of a shoebox. They were connected together by a cable that always seemed as fragile as a glass figurine. (Ever jam a glass figurine into a ruck sack? Guess what happens.) Unlike the rest of us who merely packed into our rucks ten or twenty pounds more than we could reasonably carry, RTOs carried all that crap, too. Oh, and it all had to work.
Whether I was a platoon leader, commander, or operations officer, I made clear to “my” RTOs that when I extended my arm with open hand, I better damn well have a handset placed in it expeditiously. (Oh—and I think I mentioned—the handset, radio, encryption device, and any glass figurine cables had to work.) In addition, I expected them to stay in tune with whatever was taking place, something about three to four echelons above what we’d expect of them if they were in a rifle squad.
You’d wish that a role in which one had to carry a heavier load, maintain a finicky system all the time, and that was in many ways harder than that of their peers, could be assigned to someone who deserved a bit of pain. But, no. You need the best and brightest as RTOs.
I recall vividly walking several kilometers in a sandstorm in Iraq during Desert Storm with one tough RTO. Our company was scattered around the battlefield, with our attached TOW platoon man-packing two TOW systems and ammunition about four kilometers from the landing zone, another platoon clearing a route, and the rest of the company preparing a battle position. (If you don’t know what man-packing even a single TOW system is like, it’s probably better than way. You may not want to know.) Our battalion operations officer called on the radio and made it clear to me that he needed to talk with me in person. That meant walking about three and a half kilometers back to the battalion headquarters. Off we went.
This great RTO and I—like everyone else—had sweated through what little of our uniforms had not been drenched by the rain the night before. That meant that the 60 minutes or so of sleep each of us should have gotten the previous early morning had really been more like horizontal shivering instead of slumber. Now, he and I were walking in what seemed like a dark, small, dusty, swirling closet. It was way too hot, we were uncomfortably wet, and we were being very effectively sandblasted. Dante had little on this.
Neither of us could see more than a few meters in any direction and we couldn’t hear anything above the storm. Our brigade was the deepest in Iraq—the allied unit closest to Baghdad. We could have walked through the middle of a battalion of Iraqi Soldiers and no one involved would have known. It was him with his M16 and radio and me with my pistol and an AT4 anti-armor weapon. We were guided only by my compass using dead reckoning to make our way to our higher headquarters.
Those were a tough few “clicks” we traveled. I never heard a peep of complaint or fear from that trooper. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I ever heard a complaint from any RTO. Thanks, Brothers.
I owe some special love to a platoon sergeant at whom I “went off” as a means to get his legitimately exhausted platoon reenergized.
Near the end of that sandstorm journey with the tough RTO, the sandstorm momentarily became just a bit less intense. We could now see for a hundred meters or so. Rather suddenly, I saw one of our platoons almost entirely laying down on their behinds next to their rucks in a circle of about 50 meters.
The Soldiers in that platoon were quite reasonably near the limits of their physical abilities. They had landed with the rest of us the night before, been engaged by and maneuvered on an enemy force, cleared an airstrip where we had expected more contact, dug fighting positions for a hasty defense in clay soil from hell that weighed something like lead, got (at best) an hour of rather fitful rest, and had just finished clearing a route (largely during this damned sandstorm) of about 20 kilometers of one of the few paved roads in the area to a sister battalion. I was fatigued and I’d been tested less than they had.
I paused for a moment. If life was fair, these Soldiers deserved a break; they had earned a rest. I felt bad for them. This was a good group of troopers and leaders. It was cruel fate that their commander had stumbled upon them in this state. In all likelihood, they would recover shortly and be on their way out to our company’s battle position and dig new fighting positions.
I suppose I could have changed my azimuth slightly, trusted that all would be made well, and kept moving toward our battalion’s command post. On the other hand, they were in a hazardous location, reclined within small arms range of the road they had cleared that was a high speed avenue of approach. Perhaps most importantly, everyone in that company was racing against the clock. They had kilometers to move and a deliberate defense to construct so that our company would have an integrated defensive position.
Their platoon sergeant was outstanding. He was a great Soldier and a great leader. We all wanted to be as much like him as we could. He was tough on that platoon, but his approval was a reward they all—we all—sought. I recognized him, between waves of the storm, inside the platoon’s perimeter.
I moved toward him purposefully. I was in front of him in what seemed a fraction of a second…and I let loose with a torrent of profane admonition loud enough for his entire platoon to hear, even above the din of the storm. I tried not to make it too obvious, but I watched the platoon while I ranted. They were surprised to suddenly see their commander emerge from the storm, but they began moving with quite clear a renewed purpose as they realized that their beloved and respected platoon sergeant was taking what he was based on their undisciplined posture.
The platoon leader dutifully came right there and into my line of fire when he saw what was happening. Both were good men. I stopped the tirade when I thought it had achieved its purpose. As I disengaged, they both used the power of the moment to induce even more urgency into their unit.
I immediately began considering—as I do to this day—if what I had done was the best thing to do. I wish on that day I’d have come up with something else that would have been that effective and would not have put that great platoon sergeant in the position in which I put him. I love that guy.
The RTO quickly caught up to me as we resumed our lonely journey to the battalion command post that lay still farther into that sand closet in which we were again traveling. I hoped that, if he saw them, he figured that the tears in my eyes were a result of the sandstorm.
I enjoyed being teamed with a bevy of great smart asses. This was not a universal preference among my fellow officers. Although I generally found that truly effective and well-timed sarcasm was a force multiplier, I had one boss who admonished a peer (who had just attempted some humor) that prudent Soldiers left humor to their superiors.
I’ve also found that the smart ass comedians in the bunch are generally pretty dependable folks. On more than one occasion, I’ve either figuratively or literally bumped into one of them in the darkness, told them that our team needed action X, completed to standard, by Y time, to achieve purpose Z. Even when they were not very senior, it seemed they would nod, disappear back into the darkness, and accomplish just what was needed. (Periodically, as they were turning to go produce military miracles, I would detect some mumbling to the effect that perhaps the officer with whom they had just spoken might not the sharpest knife in the warrior drawer.)
One of those guys remains a friend today, almost thirty-five years later. His story bears telling.
He and some of his buddies wanted to pull a fast one on someone new in their platoon. They took out a mirror and began cutting and distributing amongst themselves talcum powder, all the while saying how great a high they were going to have. The focus of their prank was aghast. He left quickly, apparently with an astounded look on his face. The group erupted in laughter. This was just the effect they’d wanted.
Unbeknownst to the pranksters, the Soldier who left the room went straight to the First Sergeant, who then brought him to me. After some discussion with the Soldier and the lawyer assigned to provide us advice, I directed one of the lieutenants to conduct a search of that room for illicit drugs.
The lieutenant arrived at the barracks room and stated his purpose. The group inside had a hard time controlling themselves. This was better than they could have hoped for—somehow they’d been able to get the officers involved in their prank! They wondered if it could possibly get any better. They wondered that until the lieutenant found the shotgun hidden in the ceiling tiles that should have been stored in the arms room.
My friend and I periodically talk about the “Article 15” disciplinary hearing and his punishment that resulted from that find. He went on to retire as a senior NCO. I’d take him on my team any day. I hope he’d take me on his.
I think most junior officers are strongly shaped by the first battalion to which they are assigned. Most importantly, if an Army Second Lieutenant is in a branch where there are platoons to which they are assigned, they are teamed with their first platoon sergeant.
The Sergeant First Class who was our platoon sergeant in Company A, 3rd Platoon was harder than woodpecker lips in an ice storm. He was a Vietnam veteran who had stayed through the very tough years in the middle and late seventies. I think he was one of those who saved our Army from itself during that time.
He had watched our Army evolve and once observed to me that, as a leader, one has to change with the times. To illustrate the point, he said, “It used to be that if someone was a real problem, you’d stuff them in a wall locker and throw them out the second story window.” (He paused for a moment or two, perhaps considering the parabolic flight of some past wall lockers.) “You know,” he continued. “You can’t do that anymore.”
I never saw a wall locker fly out of any of our windows, with or without occupants. He didn’t need that to maintain order. I don’t think it was any fear of him doing that that kept our team orderly. He set the example in everything that we did. He was tough, equitable, and demanding, but as soon as the Soldiers in our platoon were far enough away that he couldn’t hear them, they were bragging that he was THEIR platoon sergeant.
The Staff Sergeant who was the platoon sergeant teamed with me in the Support Platoon was also one of those great smart asses I mentioned above. Also, as I mentioned above, his humor did not always endear him to some of the officers—a few of whom were in our chain of command—with whom we came in contact. I recall a few times I was chewed out for something he’d said or done that I found hilarious. It was probably worth each reprimand.
That NCO told me one of the most profound things I ever heard in the Army. On one particular day, I was strangely annoyed at the sight of Soldiers in our platoon saluting a rather worthless officer. I knew that I was episodically hosed up and that didn’t relieve Soldiers from the requirement to exchange salutes with me. However, that day, the situation really got under my skin. I asked him if it didn’t really get to him that here he was, experienced, promoted several times, had seen a thing or two, and he was stuck calling me, a twenty-something newby who could apparently not grow a reasonable mustache, “Sir,” and saluting me.
He paused a moment, looked around, and then smiled slightly. He said, “You know, ’Sir’ means something different to you than it does me.”
From the hundreds or thousands of junior, mid-grade, and senior NCOs with whom I was teamed to the five Command Sergeants Major who were my battle buddies, I love them all.
I know. This is way too long. I still have stories to tell about the veterans of America’s military, several of which are more recent than three decades ago. I’ll save those for another day.
Some of our veterans no longer walk among us. I get to visit several hundred thousand of them in Arlington National Cemetery from time to time. Yes, you guessed it—I love them.
Children of veterans also serve, even if they’re not on the payroll. I love our daughters, particularly when they use the phonetic alphabet and don’t have to subtract twelve when I say I’ll meet them at 2000 hours.
We owe military spouses more than we can ever repay. My wife will someday collect double. Not only was she a military spouse for 30 years, but she served on active duty for over twenty years herself. I REALLY love her.
Take some time this Veterans Day and each day in the future by doing more than simply offering a veteran your thanks. Show them you love them. Get involved helping veterans who need your assistance.
If you don’t know how you can help, contact us at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Foundation. You can find us at https://www.tomboftheunknownsoldierfoundation.com/ or you can send us an email at email@example.com .
Oh, by the way, if you’re ever at a get-together of the Desert Storm veterans of Company A, 1-187th Infantry, ask to hear more about the talcum powder and shotgun story. Last time I was there, I learned a whole lot more than I knew beforehand. I understand there’s more to be told.