Major Charlie Wilson deployed twice to the Iraq war: first, into Kuwait in 2003 and 2004, and then to Balad in 2005 and 2006, both times as an S-1 — personnel officer.
In that slot, he got to see a lot about what makes military life compellingly frustrating: misleading superiors, inane training, perpetual rumors and undeserved medals among them. He spoke of his tours with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in this March interview. Excerpts:
I was a 13 Fox, a forward observer. My recruiter, who actually turned out, unbelievably enough [Laughs] to be a very good liar, told me that I was going to be a FORT observer.
I asked him what that was and he said he did not know. He assumed it would be just going out to observe forts. I told him I simply did not want to walk anywhere so don’t put me in an Infantry unit.
It turns out that a forward observer walks everywhere, they’re associated with Infantry units, and they may not have a ground vehicle to even move around it.
I was assigned to a mech Infantry unit, a National Guard unit out of South Carolina. It was very funny; I ended up calling up that same exact guy who had lied to me — although it turned out that I enjoyed it — but I actually had him be my senior enlisted to render my first salute to when I was commissioned in 1997. Yeah, he lied [Laughs]…
We were an Aviation unit [getting ready to deploy to Iraq], now there is going to be some requirement to do ground efforts and so forth but first of all, we were mobilized for a period of three months before we deployed.
During that timeframe the Reserve and National Guard units — there was some issue because we fell under Fifth Army during mobilization — of units not meeting their actual deployment dates. This is the story that came down as to why the next action was taken and that was, during mobilization, you were locked down on to a post.
Even those people who lived 15 minutes off post like I did, or even on post, had to move into barracks and leave their families for a three-month period sitting in the barracks. Could not leave post to go eat lunch with them, nothing. We could not leave post for any reason. During those 3 months we had to be locked down, not for anything we did but just because we fell under Fifth Army and it was Fifth Army rules.
It caused a lot more heartburn and problems than was intended. A lot of people left their civilian jobs and so forth. You’re talking about people who are trying to be professionals but truthfully, they’re part-time workers so they’re coming in off their civilian job and a lot of them are carrying senior leadership positions in their civilian jobs regardless of the rank they hold in the military.
They may be specialists but may be CEOs. They may have doctorates and be teaching professors. A lot of them in the Aviation world may be flying for the airlines. They might be captains for American Airlines etcetera. Now, they’re getting treated like five-year-olds because they can’t meet a deployment date.
They are just punishing everyone because of the problems of a few. That’s what it came down to. Bottom line, we had a three-month lockdown and it was a trying time.
To go back to the original question, some of the things we had to do in order to get prepared, it required us to go and demonstrate that we knew how to conduct fat cow missions and sling load operations.
Fat cow operations, just so you know, is putting external arranged fuel systems in the back of the CH-47s, the Chinooks, the aircraft we flew, and putting POL [petroleum, oils, lubricants] fuel handlers in the back and essentially running a mobile fueling station.
They’d go to a remote location, set down, put lines out the back of the Chinooks — shut down the aircraft of course — and refuel vehicles etcetera.
On a limited basis, maybe some Kiowa Warriors that take less fuel, but certainly not other aircraft. Fat cow missions weren’t even being conducted in country nor did we ever do them.
Not only that, but sling load operations that we were also training up on and trying to prove proficiency on, which is something we do in the Continental United States (CONUS). They decided by the time we got there in May — they were doing them prior to — by the time we got there in May they said it was too dangerous to do them due to the sand and dust conditions that existed in Iraq.
By the time you got low enough to drop the sling load you were enveloped by so much stuff you couldn’t see making it a more dangerous situation that it was worth to sling load.
All the loads by that point were done internally, which took a whole lot longer to get — high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) for example, loaded into the back of a CH-47.
One other example, they wanted to evaluate us on a field environment. We had to go set up tents and so forth. We get to Iraq and tents are already set up for us so why are we doing that? It was that sort of thing…
We should have been focusing on developing night vision goggle (NVG) crews.
We should have been focusing on flying tactics, which we were already doing. It was part of our Army training program (ATP), we were flying tactics and so forth but we did not. We did not have enough pilot in commands (PCs) nor did we have enough NVG rated crews.
That became a huge issue when around October of that same year a Chinook went down west of Fallujah. It wasn’t ours but because of the operations at that time were nothing but day operations and it got shot down during the day, now we’re all going to be flying at night.
A limited number of NVG crews means that now we’re flying 25 percent of our crews because nobody else could fly…We’ve gone from 100 percent crews to 25 percent crews because we focused on FTX field work, fat cow missions, and sling load missions and not NVG missions…
Essentially you wasted valuable time with a part-time force that has limited assets and limited time. You locked them down, ticked them off, and sent them out the door and hoped to God they didn’t die. That’s not a good time…
Essentially now you have people who want to fly and we have the assets to fly but we’re not getting the missions to fly because we’re so limited as far as — can’t sling load, don’t have NVG crews. It just became one of these scenarios where we had all the stuff on the ground and a lot of people were just incredibly upset at the fact that, “We’re away from home. We’re away from our civilian jobs. We’re away from the things we want to be doing and we can’t even do the stuff we’re here to do.” That was the overall general feeling during that time.
I would say that feeling continued on for about five or six months; about half of the deployment it was like that. By that point, by the end of that six-month period, we were now working on trying to put in requests for awards and so forth because that’s kind of a driven thing.
You have to have a deadline to meet. We have to get these things in so they can be processed before we leave country, so that became another source of contention. “Why is so-and-so getting these awards and why am I getting this?” It just became a source of contention. Our previous higher headquarters had apparently put people in for awards who didn’t necessarily deserve them but because of their rank, got them.
The standing order from them, “Staff sergeant (E6) and above? Don’t care what you did, you get a Bronze Star.” If you flew north of the berm, it didn’t matter if you flew or not, you get an Air Medal.
I worked personnel (S1) for a number of years, more than I would have liked. The reg has never changed. You’re supposed to write it basically identifying roles you played or events that transpired and how you acted in those events that substantiates that level of award. There was a lot of exaggerations that were put into these awards to make them fly…
By the time December rolls around we’re back flying during the day and by this point they’re playing with the idea, “Maybe we shouldn’t be flying at 50 feet ROE,” because our biggest threat at this point, or has been throughout this entire deployment, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire.
It can reach you at 50 feet. The RPGs weren’t so much a threat because at the same token there were reports that the Iraqis or insurgents or whatever, weren’t familiar enough with that weapon system to arm it before they fired it.
They’d fire it, and there was a report where there was one RPG that had gone into a Chinook, not one of ours, but had gone into a Chinook and didn’t explode. It just pierced and landed inside the compartment area and I think there were a lot of people who found Jesus. Damage was done but recoverable. It wouldn’t have been had they known to arm the RPG before they fired it…
There were a lot of rumors that were flying in 2003, so many so that it was hard to track what was truth and what was not…People were so tired of all the negativity that was going on and one more caveat to that negativity was, “Oh, we’re going to go home on such and such a day.”
It turns out it was just rumor after rumor, hopeful, wishful thinking, lending credence to these rumors and it made a bad situation worse. It really did. When word finally came out that we were going to go home, nobody believed it. People were reluctant to believe it until not only when we were on the plane but when we were home. “That’s when I’ll believe it.” When we landed in CONUS that’s when people believed it.
We actually watched 3rd Infantry Division (ID) get on the plane and get taken back off the plane. They came back throughout base from Camp Udairi.
The direction we were given at the time was to not go near the 3rd ID folks. “Don’t joke with them. They won’t find it funny.” There were some people who would have said, “You know what would be funny,” but we actually sat everybody down and made sure it was known, “Talk to them, fine, but don’t joke with them. It’s not funny.”
There was actually a sign that was put up in front of the dining facility (DFAC) at Camp Udairi that said, “Welcome back 3rd ID.”
I don’t think it was meant as a joke. I think they were trying to be nice about it but I don’t think it was received that well from the 3rd ID folks but it stood. I really thought it was going to be shot, the sign, not a person…
Q: When did you find out you were going to have another deployment in just about a year?
It’s sad to say that I essentially chose it as a means to lesser evils. I was at Fort Eustis, Virginia since 1997…When I went to the Advanced Course I was in contact with HRC [Human Resources Command] and I said, “Look, I’m ready for follow-on assignment.”
They asked me, “Where do you want to go?” I said…”Anywhere but Fort Eustis.”
My thought process was that I’d been there, I’d like to see something else, I’m single still, and I’d like to do something else.
The guy said, “Huh. Okay. No problem.” He comes back and says, “We got you a good job.”
“Logistics officer (S4).”
I’d already been doing S1, essentially it’s still working in the same realm. S4 is working in the Administrative and Logistical Operations Center (ALOC).
“Okay, where is it at?”
“Seriously? That’s not even out of the same building…that’s right across the hall!”
I told the guy, “I will get off AGR [Active Guard and Reserve] status before I let you do this to me again.”
“Really. Find me something else. I don’t care what, just not Fort Eustis. Seven years is just too long.”
He came back and he said, “Well, we found you something else.”
“Where’s it at?”
“It’s at Fort Hood, Texas but they’re already deploying. They’re getting ready to deploy right now.”
“Fine, what’s it doing?”
“Are you serious? Whatever, I’ll take it.”
It wasn’t Fort Eustis. I really had low standards at this point. I wanted to do something else. I was looking for experience and for me it was a career ender although they assured me it wasn’t. Bullshit. Sorry. It was BS. You ask anyone else, it’s a career ender. You’re going to do the same job at the same place year on and year out. How is that not a career ender?
[Back in Iraq, rumors continued to persist, as they had on Wilson’s first deployment.]
My means to mitigate those rumors from my previous deployment was to create a rumor board. This actually became a whole lot more popular than I thought it was ever going to be.
I had my corporal, he was an E3 at the time, pick me up a nice plank of wood, paint it, and we started tracking rumors. My thought process here was to not just put rumors that were flying around but to locate the source of the rumors.
If somebody came in and said such and such, I would post their name right alongside the rumor and what date it happened. If you’re going to be stupid enough to pass around a rumor, I’m going to get you on it.
I didn’t mind what rank you were. I was a captain at the time and I had a major walk into my office and say, “Rumor has it S1 has a laminator.”
I told him, “Rumor is wrong and guess what, sir? You’re on my board.”
He conspired with the S4 to get me a laminator so they could prove my rumor wrong, which is fine because I got a laminator…to disprove it as a rumor. Yeah, I got a laminator out of it. If all I had to do was put it on the board to get it, okay…
Rumor of this rumor board got around. I had people coming from the other side of Logistics Supply Base (LSA) Anaconda, Balad, to check on my rumor board as a news verification report.
Q: Did you get to put that on your officer evaluation report (OER)?
I considered it. I even considered putting myself in for an Army Achievement Medal (AAM), which I did do for meeting a ridiculous deadline for putting in all of these awards for everyone else.
I meant it as a joke. My boss actually thought it was pretty funny. He actually wrote on the routing slip — that was the XO by the way — “Lucky he didn’t go postal on us.” The joke being that I handled the mail also. The company commander also signed off on it and said, “Freaking great.”
I meant it as a joke, right? I took it into the battalion commander just to continue on with the joke to see, “Who is the approval authority for that low of a level of award?”
He looked at me and said, “Are you serious?”
“Sure, why not?”
I’ve got an AAM for doing awards…