By: Dave James
WARNING! These are the random brain-droppings of an old man and the veracity of my recollection is becoming suspect… I DO, however, tell a good story. So any inconsistency from actual occurrences, even in the face of video evidence, should still be taken as fact because I invoke the full, legally-binding,
aspect of “No shit… there I was…”This Tuesday did not seem unlike any other Tuesday. If it moved we saluted it… If it didn’t we painted it. It was a nice September afternoon and the platoon was already standing loosely in the people-box the Army likes to call ‘End of Day Formation’ even though the First Sergeant was nowhere to be seen yet. I owned a squad so I looked down the line of my guys to make sure they were all there and remembered to count myself before I asked who was missing… again (I had a habit of forgetting about me while taking care of them). In my mind, I was already going home, getting my wife and our two young’uns, and going out for dinner to a little place we knew that made a schnitzel the size of a manhole cover. Such was Army life in Germany. Then cell phones started to ring… a lot of them… almost all at once… it was a bit eerie.
Wives and girlfriends were all calling with the same story… plane hit the World Trade… oh hell! A second one! My wife is an awesome woman. She was completely calm as she related to me, over the phone, the goings on in NYC. She barely broke stride as she corrected our youngest, my son all of 6, that it was not 35 planes… they just keep showing the same thing over and over on the news and he should stop counting even though he was very good at it. I knew she was in a bit of shock, but she was not going to let it degrade her abilities in any way – she may fall apart later, but for now she needed to be a rock. She understood I may only get a minute to come home to grab my gear, so she would pile it all near the door. I love her…
After I hung up, I hollered at all my guys to ‘tell em you love em and turn off your phones before formation.’ I looked them all in the eye and reminded them that this moment, right here, might be why we have been training. I also told them that we may not be ‘off’ in the classic sense, for quite a while… tonight may turn out to be a very long… month.
The company was silent as our two leaders approached. The First Sergeant came out, called us to attention, turned around, and relinquished us to our Captain. He related what most of us had already heard, ordered us to get chow and grab our gear, and we would have another formation in three hours. Lastly, he called me out by name. I’ll never forget, “Oh, SSG James, you need to go to the Battalion Commander’s office right now.” I was the battalion’s Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection (AT/FP) NCO…
I got to the commander’s office on the double and heard the strangest words come out of his mouth after I knocked, entered, and began to report… He said, “SSG James, come here, have a seat.” One does not just come in and have a seat in a Lieutenant Colonel’s office! He had the ‘impact’ credit card, used for emergencies, in his hand and he wanted to know what we needed to protect our little kaserne. I pulled my program binder out of my ruck and we went over the plan I had written to see if parts needed to be adjusted for present conditions. This took about an hour as we hashed it out, then he began to call Company Commanders to give them instructions.
By the time I got to my apartment in our housing area, my poor wife had seen most of the other husbands come and go. She was very happy to see me. Everything I needed was right where I could get it. I remember telling her everything would be alright. I remember telling my kids the same thing, and to be good – I might have to ‘go to the field’ for a while. My boy was kind of oblivious… my daughter was 15 and seemed to be more aware that things were going to change in all new and painful ways. My wife hugged me and kissed me just as hard as I hugged and kissed her… then she pushed a shopping bag of wonderful-smelling food into my hands telling me there was some in there for my guys too, if they were good. Jokes! I DID mention that I love her, right?
I took over an entire motor pool and started to set up shop. I was informed that I would be getting an ‘Officer In Charge’, a Lieutenant… Normally an LT is as useful as a football-bat, so when they told me the first one on duty would be my LT from my platoon, I was a bit relieved – he was a pretty good kid and would end up helping quite a bit. The first order of business was organizing the gang I had been given. We needed to shore up the guard force on the gates, inspect vehicles entering the kaserne and set roving patrols. Full gear and loaded weapons were the order of the day – I could not emphasize enough how serious things had just become. Because of some flight-school-rejects, we now had ‘Rules of Engagement’ if we saw anyone attempting ‘non-standard base-entry procedures’. The expressions on my troop’s faces said it all.
We set three shifts. Two hours on the gates/roving the perimeter, two hours down-time (the motor bays were now covered in cots), and two hours training. I sent the group that I thought had a clue down to the gates first, and immediately began intense training for the rest of them, both shifts together. We covered the positions that needed to be manned on a gate, how to search a vehicle, and how to spot surveillance outside the wire scoping out new gate operations. My LT scrounged mirrors for looking under vehicles, got us a computer dedicated to ‘guard stuff’ in the office, a TV for the bay, and volunteered to make all the meetings that might need attending to tell the higher ups that we were secure. I said he was a pretty good kid, didn’t I?
We did not allow ourselves to dwell on ‘what does this mean for our country?’, ‘will the world stand with us?’, or ‘how did this happen?’ We had a job – we focused on ‘what is in that vehicle?’, ‘who did this to us?’, and ‘when are we going to go whoop some ass?’ I had troops from NYC and I made sure we got through to their families as soon as we could to find out if they were all ok. I had one Muslim… I didn’t give a shit about his beliefs – he was mine. My whole squad was like-minded. My instructions were clear, if anybody fucked with him – they would answer to us. I might not be able to prevent him from getting jumped downtown, but if anybody gave him grief on-post – I was not above ‘wall-to-wall’ counseling.
There were only two incidents I remember now, over a decade later. One involved our Command Sergeant Major…
I was checking the posts on the morning of Wednesday, the 12th, and my boys were tired, but vigilant. There were two guys at the gate proper, a ‘traffic cop’ (the guy with the flashlight directing vehicles to either search or pass), two teams searching vehicles in designated areas, and two guys with loaded rifles… do you see it coming yet? The ‘traffic cop’ was trying to be as random as possible so no one could try to slip through working out a pattern. All of a sudden, he directed a car to the search and the driver waved and continued to drive through. The car was a ‘hooptie’ and the traffic cop did not recognize the driver right away. He yelled “Hey!” and turned waving his flashlight. I was standing between the two riflemen, observing the operation. I spotted that it was our CSM, driving his wife’s car, not his Jaguar. The two men leveled rifles at the ‘terrorist’ that just blew-off their buddy and was trying to ‘run the gate’. I saved his life by grabbing muzzles and pushing them skyward as I stared into his eyes, now the size of coffee saucers, and he continued on his way. Then I got on the radio… I informed our OIC, my LT, that the Sergeant Major just ran the gate. He just acknowledged me – nothing more. What I did not know was that my LT and the Battalion Commander were standing next to each other out front of the battalion when I called. The MP’s had followed the CSM to his parking spot to have a word, and the LT & BC were watching the whole thing. My relationship with the CSM changed after that day…
We ‘improved our fighting position’ eventually taking over an abandoned barracks and working out a sustainable rotation that wouldn’t burn out the troops. The grind started to show. They tried to gloss over the training – I wouldn’t let them. Procedural mistakes on the gates were dealt with quickly by the sergeant. Trying to keep the guys from complacency was difficult when faced with the mind-numbing repetition of ‘wave the flashlight / search the car / hold the weapon at low-ready.’
One calm evening a month or so after the attack, a nondescript vehicle came onto post and pulled into the search area. The driver got out as instructed. Hood and trunk were opened for inspection. My teams had investigated every vehicle entering the base at least ten times by now and no bombs, no terrorists, not even an argumentative driver. Suddenly the trunk inspector yelled, “GUN!” and ‘feces hit the rotary oscillator!’
“Hande hoch!” “Get your hands up!” “Heruntersteigen! Runter auf den Boden!” “Get down! Get on the ground!”
Weapons came up. No one crossed in front of a rifleman. The search of the suspect was methodical and thorough. Then the sergeant in charge came over and looked in the trunk… These fine warriors had uncovered an ‘arms cache’ of four weapons that were known the world over by their street name… “Daisy BB Guns.” The capture of the ‘international arms-dealer’ known as “The Boy Scout Troop-Leader” would, no doubt, make the headlines – who knew he had been hiding in plain sight as a lowly post chaplain…
After things calmed down we laughed and laughed – so did the chaplain. I did get them all unit coins – their response was tactical and measured. They did just as they were trained. I served for 22yrs and I have dozens of examples that PROVE this axiom – your soldiers will react just as they are trained… and every day, every word you speak, every action you commit – you are training them, sergeant. Never forget that.