Army Major Joel Huft is that rare officer who since 9/11 has served in Uzbekistan/Afghanistan (2003), Djibouti (2007) and Iraq (2009). In this December 2012, interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, you can sense that the 20-year logistician is so in love with life, with the Army, and his mission that he turns his beans-and-bullets billet into equal parts Monty Python and War and Peace.
We’re sure that for every reader who’s outraged by what he has to say, at least two will be delighted. That’s a true force-multiplier for you. Highlights:
[Tell us about your first deployment in the war on terror.]
I was in the corps support command (COSCOM) in the 530 Service & Supply (S&S) Battalion. I had just transferred in and had pissed the battalion commander off really bad and I was there two weeks before he found an individual augmentee (IA) assignment for me and I went with the COSCOM to Afghanistan.
I enjoyed Bagram and I spent about a month down in Mazar-e-Sharif, which was a wonderful little assignment. There was a Jordanian hospital that we were supporting. So, the Jordanian military had brought in group of doctors and a little security force, actually Jordanian Special Forces. I have to tell you, at the time, the Jordanian Special Forces were easily on par with any US mall security or maybe the Boy Scouts. They were that good. [Laughter]
While I was there, I got to see the neat operations they had. Primarily it was medical service to people in the area of Mazar-e-Sharif, so it was a “trail of tears” every morning. They would come in through the gate and it was a small military enclave, really, a couple of tents and some Hesko barriers was about all we had inside of the Jordanian base. We had our own internal perimeter. Every morning they would come in, this “trail of tears,” people pushing old people in wheelchairs with only three wheels, and every day they would leave, again a kind of “trail of tears.”
The reason I initially came down there was I led a convoy down there. This was back in the – – this is why I loved Afghanistan, at this point it was kind of like the old west. This was the no-shit mission I got, “Hey, we need an officer to go down on this convoy and this would be great experience for one of your officers.” It was somebody else’s unit going down there. They were all non-tactical vehicles. They were five non-tactical vehicles. They gave me a non-commissioned officer (NCO), so it was me and an NCO from my organization, three vehicles.
Three of the other vehicles were from two different organizations and then the fifth vehicle had some civilian government agency people that I don’t know anything about other than they were on the convoy with me and that is really all I know about them. Having said that, their translation skills did prove useful several times.
That was my convoy. They only communication (comms) devise I had was an iridium cell phone with a secure sleeve, and the subsequent little antenna piece that you can hook onto the top of the vehicle. If you have ever tried to use one of these in the mountains of Afghanistan, you will know that this is not a very effective comms devise. We were pretty much out of comms from about two-hours out until about two-hours into Mazar-e-Sharif.
While on the convoy we had a series of wonderful experiences driving down, crossing the border of Afghanistan, then driving on these roads, trails, mixes. Sometimes, there was one part just south of the river that was very deserty and there were literally these sand dunes that would cover the roads, so you would have to Baja around them, through just pure sand. You couldn’t stop or slow down because it was such a soft sand that you would stick. It was literally pretty much just as fast as you could go bouncing through the sand.
At one point the container, we were carrying down a large propane, very large, filled the whole inside of one of these trucks, with propane, because they had just built an incinerator device for the medical waste. It had been building up.
There was a twenty-foot container express (CONEX) full of amputated parts and gauze that had been sitting all summer that they needed to burn. That was the most important thing that we had. It was in my vehicle and as we are bounding along and bounding along it breaks free of its restraints. It really wasn’t tied down that well and I didn’t know well enough to check.
So as it is bouncing around back there I am like, “Ahhh, what are you, ahhhh.” You can’t stop. It hits the roof and I hear a “pink, sssssssss,” so now I have leaking propane in a closed vehicle. You can’t open the windows because the dust is just so intense. It is bouncing against the roof, putting dents in the roof, and spewing, sparking, it is a bad situation.
I literally had to put my body on top of this propane tank, to prevent it from metal on metal and sparking until we can get to a piece of hardball where we could stop. There’s really nothing I could do but toss it out of the vehicle. So, the most important thing on the entire mission, this is one of my lovely stories for mission command, but the most important thing on the convoy, I had to abandon.
This was early in the war and you are very uncomfortable abandoning things.
Later on in Iraq, people left everything they could imagine on the side of the road. But, I was still part of that garrison mindset that I agonized over leaving a fricking propane tank. You think about what we have left since then.
So, we get into Mazar-e-Sharif and find out the most important thing on the convoy wasn’t the propane tank, it was the rubber hosing on the propane tank. They could get the propane in town; they couldn’t get any of the hosing. So because I didn’t know to but [sic] the hosing off the tank when I threw it out it was another month before they could burn all that medical waste.
Such wonderful mission command, too…My maps, there were no maps. There were no compasses. What I was given was black and white photocopied images from previous photographs of intersections with arrows drawn on them, left or right. It was taken during a different season and it looked to be at least a year old.
Multiple photocopies, so it was kind of hazy too. It was okay, because they gave me somebody who had been on the trip. He knew the route. When I did my convoy commander brief, he had been on the route once and that was six-months ago and he was a translator, he hadn’t been paying attention.
That is primarily why I think of Afghanistan very much like the Wild West.
There we are, we end up going to Baghdad, Iraq to be the first Advise and Assist Brigade (AAB) in Baghdad. When we arrived we took over the footprint of two brigades, one in the north, one in the south…
Baghdad still had Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). It still had all these numerous little FOBs with subsequent units and they all still needed to be supplied. Being that the combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB) left, so after the corps support units left, our BSB was the only support, battalion-sized organization in the entire area and we supported God and everybody.
That was a fun, fun year. Again, I am sure you have heard about a lot of people in Baghdad. The neatest personal experience was – – I was a G3, so I went out of my way to make sure I went on convoys. I went on at least one convoy a week and I rode with every convoy commander, because we had gun truck teams. The convoys would rotate in and out, but I had three gun truck teams that I managed, so I went with them pretty much once, twice a week.
God bless him, he didn’t do a good enough recon and my intelligence officer (S2) had kind of failed too. They had some route closed. Here we are going into a FOB and it was one we didn’t normally go into. It was over by Camp Liberty and ends up taking the wrong, not taking the wrong road, but taking a road that we shouldn’t have went down.
So, now I have all these 40-foot trucks stuck on a very narrow small street, downtown Baghdad, not exactly spitting distance from some very bad neighborhoods, but yet we’re not where we should be. I have about 20 trucks that I have to back up out of this narrow alleyway. I have five gun trucks, so that means you have got truck drivers, and generally most of our trucks by this point were KBR trucks that we were escorting. They didn’t have truck commanders. There is no assistant driver.
Now they were great drivers, but still you have to put some people on the ground to back them up and if you have people on the ground you have to have security. So really, I had five gun trucks and basically one or two extra person per truck. So, at the time I was training my replacement, so he and I actually got out and stood on the streets of Baghdad providing security so that we could back these trucks out. I can say I have stood alone and unafraid on the streets of Baghdad. It was a very interesting experience.
Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (JTF-HOA) is a really neat assignment…at this point [in Germany] I was working in the G1 [personnel shop], even though I am not a personnel person. Not even remotely good at it, that is how I found myself in Afghanistan, honestly…
I volunteered for it. It turned out to be the most amazing experience. When the Army said, “We are going to deploy you to Africa,” but what they really said, “We are going to send you on a safari.”..
I fly through De Gaulle Airport [Paris, France], which is the craziest place ever. I, of course, had to transport weapons through there and the French were a little silly about the weapons, but at any rate, I fly and I get there.
I will mention that Ethiopian Air is much better than it sounds. The government does not always pick the cheapest carrier I am sure. Regardless, I arrive in Djibouti, step off the airport, no one is there to meet me. IA, I have all these duffle bags and really, I had gone to the tuff boxes, so I had a couple of tuff boxes, and I had to make sure I got my weapon.
Nobody has probably mentioned this to you, but you wake up fearing you have lost your weapon. It is an intense experience, especially like when you come home on mid-tour leave or right after a deployment. You wake up and think, “Where is my weapon?” It is one of these things they kind of ingrain in you.
So, I get all my stuff together and there is nobody there. Nobody there to meet me. I knew there had been prior coordination. Again, this is a tiny – – it is called an international airport, because it is an international airport, but it is really one terminal.
You walk off the plank, down the steps. You walk through this old un-air-conditioned building. They have metal detectors, which I know for a fact won’t pick anything up, because I walked through, several flights later I’d gone through with numerous different weapons, not a problem.
No security that I could even really notice. Again, former French colony, the Djiboutian are pretty laid back for the most part. Their entire economy seems to exist off of the French forces there and our forces there. A little bit of shipping, they provide a couple of fuel dumps that the country provides, but it is primarily a drug-based economy.
The khat, if you heard, they chew this stuff and it is a basically a mild narcotic. At the time, the cartel that ran it was the president’s wife. The khat plane came in in the morning with fresh cuttings and then everyday they flew khat in from Ethiopia or whatnot. The experience was kind of – – here I am, I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what I am doing.
Again, mission command, I love mission command, throw people, throw money, throw anything at a problem. I see a Sailor and I am like, “Hey, are you part of a ship here or part of a base.” He’s like, “Yeah, we are over at Camp Lemonnier. Nobody’s here to meet you? We’ll take you.” Because they were waiting on somebody else who was flying in. So here, I am faced with a decision, “He looks like a Sailor, in a uniform. They have a vehicle, yeah….”
That is how I arrived at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, was catching a ride from a Sailor and a small group of folks. When I got there, before I went down there I talked to my predecessor about, “Okay, this is the first time I have been in a real joint environment.” I mean I had kind of done some joint stuff, but this is joint. “What do I need to do to prepare myself?
What kind of joint publications do should I bring?” He said, “Ah, don’t bother; we don’t use any of them anyway.” This is 2007, we still weren’t paying attention to joint operations and I got to see that quite a bit over the course of the time I was there. I was working in what they called the J4, which is like any other kind of 4, it is the loggies (logistics officers).
It was such a neat environment. At that point, the Marines had transitioned to the Navy, so the Navy was controlling the FOB. They had some interesting rules. The Navy had this thing they called “liberty.” Liberty means, for like weekends of passes, you can pretty much go in to town and as long as you don’t break any of the specific rules and have a battle buddy, you can go into town, have a dinner. You could drink in town. You could go to a couple of neat shops, but there was things you could do.
At the same time, they also had cantinas on the FOB. Here we are in US Central Command (CENTCOM), technically it was still part of CENTCOM. This was before US Africa Command (AFRICOM) stood up. AFRICOM stood up in 2008, right at the end of my time there. They had cantinas. They had two cantinas, with a three-beer limit. I promise you never more than three beers [holding up five fingers].
They even gave me a card. It was amazing. Here I am in this pleasant hot desolate country, working in the most joint environment ever. I mean there were Marine security forces. There were Navy folks operating the FOB. There were numerous Army units there, to include – – this is in 2007, if you remember this is during the surge, so while many of my brethren were suffering in Iraq, we had scraped the bottom of the barrel.
Some of the Army units that were in Djibouti for, not even just security, but also to conduct tasks that are traditionally Special Forces (SF) tasks – – train, advise and assist, train some military (mil)-to-mil training, were being conducted by the Guam National Guard and the Old Guard out of Washington, DC. That is a ceremonial unit if you are not familiar with the Old Guard. It is an INF unit, but it is the guys who wear the wigs and the old uniform stuff. Good times…
Some of the things I learned most about the Navy, their supply guys are better than ours. They are good. They are very, very good. I can’t, it is mind boggling how well they are tailored to their job, but they just don’t get inland operations. I mean that by understating, when you get on a ship, now granted it is tough. You have to figure out how to pack everything inside of that ship, so that you have enough stuff for six-months.
If you miss something, you’ve got all the movement pieces, the FedEx, the DHL and you got all the widgets down to get it to you. But you are all going to the same place. You’re all traveling in the same direction. You don’t have to worry about the minutia of the op order with people flying all over the country, various different locations. You know trying to make everything sync in the end. Really, it was good to have that joint environment, because they have a certain expertise and I got to learn a lot from them…
My area of operations (AO) straddled US Pacific Command (PACOM), US European Command (EUCOM), and AFRICOM. Anytime I dealt with anything in those countries, I not only had to deal with the higher combatant command (COCOM), but I also had to deal with the defense attaché and their teams in each of their countries.
A neat thing about a joint environment, embassies tend to be very, they have to be, they have political concerns that we have to take into consideration. So they tend to be very insular. They tend to be very protective. Knowledge management with them – – and they worst thing you could possibly do is have your joint task force’s commanders goals anyway deviating from the embassy’s goals, because it makes anything done in the country practically impossible and we had that happen quite frequently.
That’s all kind of good and moot for me. I am a supporter. I am a logistician. I will do anything I can to make sure that Soldiers get mail, they get food, they’ve got a roof over their head or at least something to keep them dry. We had all these little, at one point in the entire AO there were 47 different little installations, some of them were small as a five-man CA team up in the far reaches of Uganda, up past Lira, working with the Ugandans, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was very active at the time.
Then the Karamojong, the Karamojong are these neat people; they just kind of go all over north central Africa. You have got southern Sudan, northern Kenya, and these are cattle people and they believe that every cattle on the face of the earth belongs to them. Whenever they see cattle, they take the cattle.
They are kind of rustlers. We had been trying to work with the government to do a guns for cows. You know, “You give us the guns and we will give you the cows. We will give you cows.” Which is all fine and good except from the Karamojong perspective, “If I have a gun, why do I need you to give me a cow?” Fun times…
Contentions and contracting was another very valuable lesson there. One of the problems we had was there wasn’t a lot – – being joint and being so dispersed and not really having a central theme or effort, at least not that I could tell at the joint staff level.
We had units coming in doing things and we had no idea about them. I remember one time, I had a team that had gone into Ethiopia and they had set up a little safe house and they had done all that with field ordering officer (FOO) funding, FOO ops.
When they came back, they asked, “Hey, we would like some things.” I am like, “Sure, what do you need?” “Okay, well we are going to need regular food. We are going to need electricity. We are going to have fuel brought to us.”
“Okay, when are you setting this place up?”
“Oh, we have been there a month.”
Those were the kind of challenges that you had. One of my initiatives that I really enjoyed was the newcomers brief. I just made sure that I stressed, I had this – – I like talking, so I had put together a fairly fun brief to cause people to remember that, “When you are going to do something, you may need something, come talk to the J4.” “Because you may think you need tents, but then would you like lights for the tents, would you a generator for the lights, would you like cots?”
Because it is just one of those things. I have lived supporting maneuver people, I truly do. There is no body better to be able to tell you actions on the objective. They can, down to the minutia, they can tell you where every Soldier is going to be. They can tell you how many rounds they are going to expend. Where they are going to use what. They know actions on the objective. They may even know how they are going to get to the objective.
They may know that, but five minutes after they have taken the objective, they are clueless. [Laughter]
Helping people realize what they need or what you need from them to tell them I’ll provide them what they need has been a great, great challenge and joy for the last twenty years…
[Did you know going into Djibouti what you were going to be doing?]
Not a fricking clue. Could not have told you what I was going to do.
[Nothing like, “Here is my job description. Here are my responsibilities. Here is what I am going to do.”]
Nope, nope…There was a position on a joint manning document and there was no real descriptor there. I kind of made a job. It is not that there weren’t things to do, but I kind of had to make a niche for myself. Fine, fine, supply…
See the Navy, there supply people only focus on supply. They don’t focus on anything else. That is their job. They are not what they call line officers, so they can’t command. The Army’s got a philosophy that everybody needs to be able to lead, so we don’t get to specialize near as much as the Navy really does…
There was a rotator [aircraft] and then occasionally we could get a special move in. The rotator pretty much came out of Bahrain and it was one flight a week. We got one C-130 a week and we had to use it very, very carefully. Generally, it would hit Djibouti, then it would hit Kenya, and then depending on the timeframe it might hit Uganda and then Tanzania every other month or something like that. We got it up to once a month for certain. Then when we had to do special Seabee missions or something like that we could get some extra birds.
I retrograded some stuff out of there so I got a C-5, because it was too big. There were some well drilling trucks that I couldn’t get rid of. That was a fun time too. Again, such a chaotic place. Never got shot at while I was there, there were some instances, but I never got shot at while I was there. At the same time, there was no rhyme or reason.
There was a National Guard well drilling unit that had left prior to me arriving. They had turned all of their equipment over, this is home station unit equipment, they had turned it all over to a Reserve well-drilling unit. You can’t just give equipment from one Title 22 to another Title 22 organization and not to a Title 10. The National Guard cannot, a unit cannot chose to give equipment to the Reserves and vice versa. But, that is what they did.
Then I couldn’t get it back to the original unit, because they had taken well-drilling completely out of the National Guard. It could have been Reserve to National Guard or vice versa, I don’t remember which. One of them no longer has any well drilling. So then what do I do with this? It is a national level thing to transfer this equipment, because of the title of the money. I finally got Army Forces Central Command (ARCENT) to weigh in and they sent me an old sergeant major and a chief to help me get the stuff fixed and running.
We were going to ship it back to, first to Kuwait, because we didn’t have to worry about any environmental things, so they could clean it up and send it back to the States and refurbish it and so all that good stuff. Using the big Army, I managed to make that happen. My single greatest joy is we tried to ship it out of there. We tried to do all sorts of stuff to get it out of there. I spent four months probably working on this stupid thing. They were big ugly messed-up trucks. This unit had left their weapons in a CONEX when they left.
They left one poor staff sergeant (E6) to handle everything before they went ahead and went back, so he stuck around as long as he could and no solution for him, so he left. Again, it’s just not knowing who to talk to and having to go back and dig through all the records to try to figure this stuff out.
I have long hated the Air Force and it is not just a like a personal grudge, it is a passionate hatred for the Air Force. In Afghanistan, everywhere I have been, they have done some really stupid, fucked-up stuff. Because they don’t want to stay in one country, the will do anything they can not to break crew so they don’t have to stay in that country – – to include fly off without delivering fresh food and vegetables.
How can you leave 3500 people without any fresh fruit and vegetables for a week? You know, lettuce gets pretty moldy after a week. Just so they can go back to Germany and get a nice hotel room. Same thing down in Africa too. They would do anything to get out of Djibouti.
Djibouti, I can’t tell you how nasty that place was, but if you got into Kenya it was this lush, verdant, beautiful place. You would fly into Entebbe and you’ve got the big Lake Victoria there. Because there were security requirements and there are no security forces, you had to stay in hotels that had security guards. So, to have armed guards, you were pretty much staying in four- and five-star hotels. Yeah, of course, they wanted to break down in Kenya versus Djibouti.
At any rate, here is one of my few great chances at revenge. We have a C-5 coming in there. I know for a fact that these trucks will start, but once you turn them off they weren’t starting again; they were done.
So, we kept them running [Laughter] to get them on the C-5 and that was it. We turned them off and it was there problem on the other end. [Laughter]
I actually take great pride in having done that. I know it is wrong. It’s wrong on so many human levels, but I can’t tell you the number of times the Air Force has dropped a load on me. Pushed the, to the left… In fact redeploying from Afghanistan, they held out entire unit overnight because a general officer (GO) wanted to fly on our aircraft, but he wanted to get rest first before flying back for a meeting in Germany.
I get it. GOs have got important stuff, but we were on the bird when they cancelled the flight, redeploying after, at that time they were shorter deployments, we were only nine-months, but still. Yeah, I am not going to go into all that. And, my brother is Air Force. The things that he takes great pride in are things that I as a Soldier feel shameful about. If that makes any sense.
Now don’t get me wrong that is a great organization, it really is. There is a need for it to be separate. But, they are, with the exception of some fighter pilots, who have their own multi-zipper, sun god issues, they really are the bus drivers of the air.
They are more technicians than they are Soldiers, that is for sure. They can outsource those pilot jobs to drones now a days…
Then we periodically, 90 percent of what was being done in Djibouti in 2007 was really on the, in the full spectrum scheme, it was really humanitarian aid. It was mil-to-mil training, that kind of stuff. There is about a ten percent kinetic piece. There were some SF guys, of some form, that would periodically disappear and then somebody else would disappear and they would come back. Supporting them was sometimes very interesting. I remember one request, they came to me, “I need as many non-tactical vehicles (NTVs) as you can give me.”
“When do you need them?”
“How many do you need?”
I had to go around the FOB and pull vehicles from people just so I could give them enough vehicles with no notice, so that they could do and do whatever they were going to do. It was probably a party down at the embassy. I don’t know. [Laughter]…
[So you have some challenges. What were your successes? Besides getting rid of the well drilling equipment.]
I got to tell you there was a poker team. It was a poker club, because we had the cantinas. There were two lax periods, there were half days on Sunday and on Friday, because Friday was the Islamic day off and Sunday is kinds of ours. Thursday night and Saturday night were poker nights and I got very, very good at seven-card poker. I got very good at that. [Laughter]…
[Did you have much interaction with civilians in Djibouti?]
In Djibouti, yes. There were a number of vendors we worked through to get local materials. One of my biggest frustrations is there are certain laws for contracting. There are things you can and cannot contract, the things you can and cannot buy. Somebody has mentioned to you about containers and about leasing containers by now, I am sure.
Okay, when I was in Afghanistan in 2003, I said, “Why don’t we just buy these containers?” Milvans, civilian 20, 40-foot containers.
We couldn’t buy them, so we have been leasing them. Eleven years now. We have paid for these things five, six times over.
We were leasing cars because we couldn’t buy NTVs. We were leasing cars at $50,000 a year for a beat-up SUV. Could have bought two or three trucks for that.
“Well, it’s got the maintenance package included in it.”
[Any other specific memories of Djibouti?]
My predecessor was a National Guard guy and he ended up having a little bit of linger, [Laughter] go home. So he spent about another month on the ground after I got there, so him and an Air Force guy, they were big bikers.
Djibouti, just on the south side of the city is where Camp Lemonnier is. You are about ten miles from the Somali border. So, he, I and I can’t remember the Air Force bubba’s name, took out some MWR bikes and we rode down to the border of Somalia, just so we could enter Somalia.
Now granted, this part of Somalia is not like Mogadishu (Mog).
This is the old British Somaliland. These people are humans. [Laughter] It wasn’t quite like the Mog, but we did kind of sneak over the border and back once. That was a very unique experience.
I had a Navy chief petty officer and he was from the Philippines and the Guam National Guard was there and they had a connection. Somehow, they managed to go out and fish, so they would come back and we would occasionally have a good cookout with like some fresh fish.
He was a supply guy, he was a chief, so somehow he got the – – it wasn’t KBR, it was a different contract down there at the time, a Navy contract at the time – – he would get some fresh fruits and vegetables. We had the cantinas. You had a three-beer limit, by the way I am holding up five fingers. [Laughter]
Every so often, you would have a lot of fun. That was it was a very interesting experience personally and again, I just kind of fell into it. I have led a charmed life. I truly have.
I have been in some nasty places in Afghanistan early on and I would literally, I would have – – at Bagram, I was inspecting the fuel delivery. We had established an assault hose line so the trucks could stay outside and download through a 500-meter hose versus bringing a potential bomb inside the FOB. It was a good thing. I was inspecting it. The very next day a guy had to go out the gate, I was no body armor at that time, it was flak vests if you wore them. So, I was outside the front of the gate wandering around. The very next day, somebody got shot doing something similar.
In Baghdad, at Ur, right outside of Sadr City, that place was always getting hit. I went and spent three days there, nothing happened. They had had a firefight the night before I got there. I was there for three days, nothing happened while I was there. They left and one of the contracted security guards took a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). I will literally land at a FOB that had just been mortared.
In the HOA, bad accident in front of me. They don’t have quite the same standards. You know, there are piles of dead bodies on the road in front of me. Thirty-seconds is all it would have taken for me to have been involved in the accident. I have truly led a charmed life.