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WEST OF FORT APACHE BASE CAMP FOR 2ND OF THE 13TH INFANTRY SOUTHWESTERN SLOVAKIA MORNING, FEBRUARY 4
The coming of dawn brought little warmth to the cold, desolate countryside. Turning his face toward the east, First Lieutenant Nathan Dixon sat on the hood of the battalion S-3's Humvee. With his feet planted firmly on the vehicle's front bumper and his arms held tightly across his chest, he watched as the pale sun grudgingly began its ascent into the eastern sky. Like everything else in this part of the world, Nathan thought, even the sun is dragging its tail.
With a sigh, the young officer closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and slowly rotated it in an effort to get the kinks out of his neck. The day had hardly begun and yet he had been up and on the road for better than three hours. Breakfast, and Fort Apache, his unit's basecamp, was still an hour away. Opening his eyes, the young battalion staff officer looked out over the abandoned farm fields that surrounded them. These liaison trips back to brigade, he decided, were no longer much of a diversion from the daily grind that had come to dominate his life. They were six months into their deployment with nothing to look forward to but another six months of doing the exact same thing, day in, day out. He, and the rest of the 2nd Brigade, would have to go through the motions of performing a mission that no longer made sense, using rules of engagement that kept them from having any effect, in a country no one much cared about, while living among a people who weren't particularly interested in having them there.
Assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 13th Infantry just as it was in the throes of deploying to the Slovak Republic, Nathan Dixon was sent to the place where all surplus combat arms officers are dumped, the unit's S-3 shop. Chiefly responsible for planning the operations of a unit, S-3 sections are notorious for being the home of an eclectic collection of officers and NCOs. In just about any unit's operations section, you'll find one or two stallions, primarily officers, waiting for a chance, any chance, to charge off to a new, more challenging assignment somewhere else. Working side by side with these are the nags of a unit, officers and NCOs who had not quite measured up to the demands of their last duty position, but were not bad enough to warrant elimination. Holding this mismatched assortment of personalities together is the primary function of the operations sergeant. This man, by necessity, is something akin to a miracle worker, expected to do anything and everything, with absolutely nothing, by yesterday. If stress, frustration, overwork, and too many demands put forth by too many people were the primary cause of baldness, the head of every operations sergeant in the United States Army would be as smooth as a cue ball.
At first Nathan didn't much mind being thrown intothis mix of professional fast movers and has-beens. Having just left an airborne unit, the young first lieutenant was somewhat out of his element in a mechanized infantry battalion. Distances that had required his footborne parachute infantrymen the better part of a day to march were covered in less than an hour by soldiers mounted in Bradley fighting vehicles. Even the sharpest young officer required a bit of time for his view of the world, and in particular the battlefield, to make this sort of adjustment. So his assignment to the S-3 shop had been, even in his own opinion, not all bad. Slowly, however, as Nathan mastered his duties and became familiar with the idiosyncrasies of mounted warfare, the limitations of his post began to press in upon him. Like any young eagle that had learned to fly, he did not take well to being caged.
The people he worked for, having been there themselves, helped make Nathan's stay in staff purgatory as painless as they could. Major Jon Sergeant, the operations officer, was quick to see that Nathan had a keen eye for terrain, an intuitive grasp of tactics, and a habit of being brutally honest. Whenever he needed someone to check out a reported incident, to recon a site for a new checkpoint, or to run to brigade or other units, the S-3 sent young Dixon. On occasion, he even allowed the energetic officer to slip away and attach himself to one of the line companies as they went about trying to enforce a peace accord that only the peacekeepers seemed interested in. Yet these diversions from the daily routine were only that, diversions. At the beginning of each day, Nathan found himself right back where he had been the day before; a third-echelon staff weenie commanding nothing more than a folding chair and half of a field desk.
Glancing over into the field where his driver had wandered in order to relieve himself, Nathan was about to ask if the man was having problems when he heard tracked vehicles coming down the road. Sitting up, helooked to the front, toward the east, to see if they were coming from that direction. When he saw nothing, he stood up, carefully balancing himself on the Humvee's fender and looking to the rear, over the roof of the vehicle. There, off in the distance, he saw a squat, full-tracked vehicle headed down the road toward them. Behind it were several trucks, two, perhaps more.
"Hey, Harvey," Dixon called out to the driver, "you'd better pick up the pace and finish whatever it is you're doing. We have company."
Turning his head, the Humvee driver looked over at Nathan, then down the road in the direction his passenger was staring. When he saw the approaching column, the young soldier began to do his best to bring his business to a conclusion.
When the lead vehicle was about a thousand meters away, Nathan recognized it for what it was, a BMP. Hopping down off his perch, he walked over to his side of the Humvee, reached into the vehicle, and pulled out the hand mike to the radio. Keying the radio by depressing the push-to-talk button on the side of the mike, he called brigade operations. "Foxtrot niner seven. Foxtrot niner seven. This is Kilo eight five Bravo, over."
Releasing the button, he waited for the NCO on duty at brigade to acknowledge. "Kilo eight five Bravo, this is Foxtrot niner seven. Send your traffic, over."
"This is Kilo eight five Bravo. Are there any Slovakian Army units scheduled to be operating or moving about in sector today, over."
"This is Foxtrot niner seven. Wait one, over."
While Nathan waited for the radio telephone operator, or RTO, at brigade to pass the question on to a duty NCO, Nathan reached into the Humvee to fish out his rifle. Even though the Slovakians showed American soldiers little in the way of respect, they were even more contemptuous of one who was unarmed.
From the speaker, the voice of the RTO at brigade called out. "Kilo eight five Bravo, that's a negative. Noauthorizations have been approved for the movement of any Slovakian units in our sector, over."
Drawing in a deep breath, Nathan keyed the mike as he contemplated what he knew would follow. "Foxtrot niner seven, be advised, we have a column of Slovakian Army trucks, number unknown, led by a BMP-1, moving east on the road at grid ..." Then, realizing that he hadn't bothered to check their location before starting his report, Nathan quickly added, "Wait, over."
Leaning inside the Humvee, the young officer looked up at the GPS that was attached to the frame of the windshield. Hitting the display button for their current location, Nathan watched as the letters and digits representing their location on the ground flashed across the tiny screen. These he passed on to brigade. In return, the RTO dutifully read off instructions as to what Nathan was expected to do. "You will halt and detain all violators of the Munich Accords. You are to provide this headquarters with the name, rank, and unit of the senior officer in charge of the force violating the Accords. In addition, you will provide this headquarters with the number of troops present, how they are armed, and the vehicular composition of the unit in violation of the Munich Accords and await further instructions, over."
Without bothering to use the call signs, and with a bit more sarcasm in his voice than he meant to use, Nathan came back, "I do hope you realize that it's just me and my driver out here."
To this, the RTO came back with, "Vaya con Dios, amigo."
Angered by the stupidity of their standing orders as well as the hopelessness of enforcing any sort of peace in this region, Dixon threw the hand mike back into the Humvee just as Harvey, the driver, was climbing into his seat. "I see brigade gave you the standard 'Hold until relieved' spiel."
"Yep," Nathan replied in disgust as he watched the column draw closer.
"So what do we do, LT?" Harvey asked as he prepared to start the Humvee. "I hope it's pull pitch and get the frog outta here."
Drawing a deep breath, Nathan began to make his way around to the rear of the Humvee.
"'Fraid not, GI. We got our orders."
"If you ask me, sir," the concerned driver went on as he followed Nathan's movement around his Humvee, "the poor shmucks who followed Custer had their orders too. But that didn't mean they were smart to follow them."
"Well, Harvey," Nathan said as he stepped out into the road, "I didn't ask you. Now, get on the radio with brigade. Stay with them, and keep alert."
The driver was still trying to think of a snappy comeback when the lead BMP came trundling up to Nathan. As with so many incidents like this in the past few weeks, the driver of the BMP continued forward, refusing to hit his brakes until it became clear that Nathan wasn't going to give way. High risk games of chicken such as this, between the Slovakian Army and the NATO peacekeepers, had become the order of the day. For the NATO troops deployed in southwestern Slovakia, it was the only option they had under rules of engagement that had done nothing to keep the Slovakians from carrying out their program of ethnic cleansing. For the Slovakians, it was their way of demonstrating their total disregard for the NATO troops and their mission, a mission that had, to date, failed to accomplish any of its stated goals.
Nathan, like his fellow American peacekeepers, had no desire to lay down his life trying to enforce an accord that his own government was anxious to see fade away. Unlike Bosnia, where a one-year commitment had become an albatross that hung around the Army's neck for the better part of a decade, the American role in this NATO mission to Slovakia would be for one year and one year only. If, in that time, the conflict betweenthe Slovakian government and its ethnic Hungarian minority had not been sorted out, the Americans, at the behest of their Congress, were prepared to walk away from it and leave whatever else needed to be done there for the Europeans to finish. Still, while they were there, soldiers like Nathan were expected to carry out their assigned duties, no matter how ridiculous, or hazardous, they sometimes became.
When the BMP finally came to a full stop, it sat little more than a foot away from where Nathan stood. For his part, the young battalion staff officer, having been prepared to leap out of the way, relaxed, but only a little. The commander of the BMP, hanging out of his open hatch, waved furiously at Nathan as he ordered the American to get out of the way. Sprinkled in with his demands were threats and a few curses that Nathan was able to pick out. This only reinforced Nathan's resolve to stand firm, presenting his own demands in English. "This troop movement has not been sanctioned by NATO. I demand to see your commanding officer." Ignoring Nathan, the commander of the BMP continued to wave his arm wildly, adding more and coarser expletives to his dialogue.
This pointless exchange continued for several minutes, until a Slovakian officer, flanked by half a dozen soldiers clutching AKs to their chests, stepped out from behind the BMP. "What seems to be the problem here?" the Slovakian captain demanded.
"Sir," Nathan stated in a crisp, commanding tone. "This troop movement has not been sanctioned by NATO. If you are the commanding officer of this unit, I must have your name, rank, and the identification of this organization."
The Slovakian captain forced a smile. "I think not, lieutenant."
"Sir," Nathan insisted, "these demands are not negotiable. They are spelled out in the Munich Accords and must be obeyed."
"If you had bothered to study those Accords, lieutenant," the Slovakian officer explained, "you would find that not a single official of my government affixed his signature to them. Therefore, your precious Accords have no meaning to me. Now, you are blocking the road. You will step aside."
"I cannot do that, sir."
The smile disappeared from the Slovakian's face. "Then you leave me no choice but to remove you."
Seeing that the moment of truth was at hand, Nathan tightened his grip on his M-16. This action caught the attention of the six soldiers who were backing the Slovakian captain. In response, they took one step closer to their officer, lowering the muzzles of their weapons as they did so.
From behind him, Nathan heard his driver call out. "Sir, brigade is on the radio. They need to talk to you right now."
Nathan stood there, glaring at the Slovakian captain for another moment before pivoting about smartly on his heels. Hoping that the other officer hadn't seen the beads of sweat that were beginning to form, the young staff officer walked away from the Slovakian and his consorts. Taking his time, Nathan walked over to the Humvee, going around to the passenger side. Taking advantage of his absence, the Slovakian captain signaled the commander of the BMP to move out.
At the Humvee, Nathan stuck his head into the vehicle, but made no effort to take the hand mike from his driver. "Does brigade really want to talk to me?" the young officer asked quietly.
Shaking his head, Harvey whispered, "No, sir."
Nathan smiled broadly as he looked out the rear window. The Slovakian captain and his men had already mounted up and were preparing to follow the BMP. "Good move, Harvey. I owe you one."
AFTERNOON, FEBRUARY 4
By the time the convoy made its way past the sandbag bunkers that flanked the main entrance to Fort Apache, Second Lieutenant Gerald Reider's spirit had pretty much been beaten to death. Thus far, nothing he had experienced during his long journey even came close to matching his expectation. The infectious high that had inflamed Reider and his fellow officers after they had completed the rigors of Ranger training had been followed too closely by their introduction to the "real" Army.
The long road that took Gerald Reider from Fort Benning, Georgia, to the gates of this battalion outpost in south central Slovakia had been slow and tortuous. It started with the charter flight that transported Reider and some four hundred fellow soldiers, airmen, and their families from the United States to Germany. While the young second lieutenant of infantry had no delusions that he was about to become a rather small fish in the overall scheme of the military universe, Reider was not prepared for the indifference, bordering on disdain, that he ran into as he began his travels. It seemed that no matter what line he stood in, Reider found himself waiting between a mother with small, impatient children and an enlisted soldier who had somehow managed to make it though basic training without even learning how to wear his uniform properly.
While there was absolutely nothing he could do about the kids, Reider felt no compunction about making on the spot corrections whenever an errant soldier strayed into view. This continued, despite the glares his efforts earned him, until a major pulled him aside. "A word ofadvice, lieutenant," the major stated in an easy, friendly sort of way. "Take it easy on the uniform stuff. This is going to be a long, uncomfortable flight for all of us. There's no need to make it more miserable for the enlisted men than it has to be. Save all that gung-ho stuff for your platoon."
Though he felt like standing up to the more senior officer, Reider said nothing. He was too shocked to respond. Instead, he just stared at the major as the older, experienced officer smiled, turned, and walked over to where his family was waiting for him. Just what kind of Army, Reider thought, was he joining? Only the fact that the major was an aviator kept the young lieutenant of infantry from sinking into total despair.
They were a good two hours into the flight, after a meal that made Reider long for an MRE pork patty meal, when he began to see the light. Crunched between a maintenance warrant officer who had somehow managed to evade the Army's overweight program and an unaccompanied mother and her two small Ritalin-deprived children, Reider broke down and loosened his tie, unfastened the top button of his shirt, and slipped his shoes off. Though this did nothing to hush the three-year-old next to him who chanted the words to "Itsy Bitsy Spider" until Reider wanted to scream, it did make reclining in his seat a bit easier.
Arrival in Frankfurt, a way station along the long and tortuous road to 2nd of the 13th Infantry, brought little relief and no comfort. There, waiting for the plane load of tired, bedraggled soldiers and family members, were more lines, more briefings, and for some, like Reider, no ride to their units. Most of what Reider and his fellow wanderers heard from the personnel who greeted the plane passed into one ear and went straight out the other without making the slightest impression. All Reider wanted to do at this point was find a place where he could lie down, in peace and quiet, and get somesleep. The fact that this was still somewhere off in the distant future was disheartening.
As bad as it had been to be reduced to a mere manifest number and absorbed into the faceless mass of newly assigned personnel headed to Germany, the idea of arriving in country to find that no one cared enough to be there on time to pick them up was even more devastating. Though he tried to fight the feeling, Reider's sense of self-esteem and worth was beginning to ebb. He was even beginning to believe the cynics in his graduating class who had warned him that West Point was not the Army. "No one in your platoon is going to give two shits that you were a cadet battalion commander and wore academic stars," a classmate who had never managed to stay off academic probation during his four years warned him. "The little gold bar you wear isn't going to shine any brighter than mine and your ability to solve complex math problems isn't going to impress your troopies. You and me," his classmate told him with a broad smile, "will be starting out all over again, at ground zero, the day we walk into our first company orderly room."
At the time, Reider had chosen not to believe his classmate's words. The man was obviously jealous and bitter that he had not been able to excel during his four years at the Academy. Yet now, as he sat slumped down in a plastic chair, blurry eyed and feeling as rumpled as his uniform, Reider found himself wondering if there wasn't some truth to his classmate's bitter prediction.
The continuation of the trip, from Frankfurt am Main to division headquarters in Würzburg, did nothing to brighten Gerald Reider's outlook on his immediate future. The rank of the sergeant who drove the van didn't seem to match his age. Even at West Point, Reider had come to learn that a staff sergeant with gray hair was a sure sign that the man had, somewhere in the past,screwed up badly. Either that, or the man was somewhat less than brilliant. It didn't take long for the young officer in his rumpled uniform to figure out that the latter was the case here. A friendly and amiable man, the staff sergeant quickly struck up a conversation with one of the enlisted men. The man, who wore the blue disk around the brass infantry insignia on the collar of his uniform, had been one of the individuals whom Reider had reprimanded for a minor uniform violation the previous day before their departure from the States. Taking their cue from this soldier, the other four enlisted men in the van did their best to ignore Reider, which, the young officer thought, was fine by him. He wasn't in the mood for conversation, especially with people he really didn't have anything in common with.
Talking fast and using street slang, half of which Reider didn't understand, the enlisted man Reider had reprimanded began to pump the older NCO for information. In the beginning the soldier's inquiries were innocent enough, and the sergeant's responses quick and quite informative. But slowly, the nature of the interrogation changed. The subject of women, drinking, and, eventually what Reider thought were references to drugs, popped up. Each time a new and potentially sensitive subject was broached by the enlisted soldier, the man glanced over to Reider immediately after asking the question. The staff sergeant, sensing the delicate nature of the matter, would look up, into the rearview mirror at Reider before answering to see if the young officer showed any sign of reacting to the soldier's question. Only when he was sure that the only officer in the van wasn't going to, did the sergeant reply, as cryptically as he could manage.
For his part, Reider continued to ignore the pair, as well as his other fellow passengers. Instead, the exhausted and bewildered young man, who had yet to have an opportunity to use his commission and authority in any meaningful way, pretended that he was dozingoff. As he did so, two thoughts kept spinning around in his mind. The first was the hope that this long and excruciating odyssey would soon be over. The second one concerned the soldier who was engaged in a nonstop conversation with the driver. "Dear God" Reider found himself praying. "Please don't assign that man to my platoon."
Arrival in Wurzburg brought a bit of relief, but not much. Since the duty day was just about over by the time they arrived, the van driver dropped Reider off at the BOQ. With little more than the sketchiest of directions and a time that he thought the young officer should check in, the van driver bade Reider adieu and took off to deliver the enlisted men to their temporary quarters for the night.
With the division deployed in Slovakia, the in-processing of newly arrived personnel was consolidated at division level. For Reider and his fellow travelers, this meant several more days of filling out forms, turning in records and orders, and drawing personal field equipment that included everything from a flak vest and protective mask to a sleeping bag and wet weather gear. Along the way, Reider was subjected to another battery of shots, most of which he thought he had received at Fort Benning. His efforts to inform the medic at the records desk came to no avail. "Well, sir, if they did, they never marked it in your records. We can't send you forward unless you have all your shots, now can we?" The medic's innocent smile did little to hide the mischievous laughter Reider thought he detected in the man's eyes.
These shots, coupled with jet lag, and the mind-numbing running from one station to the next with no clear end in sight, did nothing to boost Reider's flagging morale. In the back of his mind, Reider began to wonder if this wasn't some sort of test, a perverted effort to see if he was as dedicated to his profession as he claimedto be. In a demented sort of way, it sort of made sense. West Point had its plebe system, during airborne training there had been zero week, and Ranger school had, well, Ranger school. In every instance the cadre had intentionally applied unreasonable and unremitting pressure in an effort rapidly to weed out those who were weak in either body or spirit. Though he refused to believe that the Army would resort to this sort of thing this late in a young lieutenant's journey, the alternative was to accept the obvious, which was that the system used to process, move, and integrate replacements was totally screwed up.
Of course, it wasn't. Like all large bureaucracies and institutions, the United States Army suffers because of its size and complexity. Created to accomplish big things, like winning wars, the Army tolerates minor inefficiencies in the process. Organizations operating with unlimited funds and dealing with fewer individuals, like a corporation, can tailor the personnel services it must deliver. They can also contract such services out to other corporations. Microsoft, AT&T, Citibank, and GM don't need to worry about setting up and operating their own systems of hospitals to care for their workers. They have no requirement to move their employees every few years. And when they do, they simply buy the tickets and pay the bills for any expenses incurred in such moves. Few corporations and companies have the requirement to equip their employees with everything they need to survive in a barren, hostile environment, let alone one in which other people are hellbent on killing them. And corporations have the ability quickly to shed antiquated computer systems and programs without staffing requests for new systems through layer after layer of bureaucracy and begging for funds from a tar-conscious Congress. Like its sister services, the Navy and the Air Force, the Army does the best it can during peacetime to meet worldwide commitments operating with funds that are inadequate and relying on equipment that isaging, overused, and often begging for spare parts. When all is said and done, it is nothing short of a miracle that the Armed Forces of the United States actually accomplish what they do.
Such grand and philosophical thoughts did not even occur to young Gerald Reider. With all the narrow focus of an inexperienced infantry officer equipped with what the Army considered the bare essentials necessary to lead a platoon, Reider was concerned with only one thing: reaching that platoon and taking charge of it. During the long train ride from Wurzburg to Bratislava via Munich and Prague, and then in the cab of a truck that was part of an armed convoy, Second Lieutenant Reider rehearsed, over and over again in his mind, exactly what he was going to say and how he was going to make his presence known. Everything, including four years at West Point, better than half a year's worth of military schooling, and the ungodly ordeal of his journey from the States to here, was but a precursor to that event. It was all a prologue written by others that would be the start of a career that Reider fully expected would carry him to the stars.
Of course, like all too many new second lieutenants, Gerald Reider hadn't learned from his military experiences to date. Nothing, not even those things one is trained for, ever really unfolds as one expects. And that, for an officer like Nathan Dixon, is what makes the military such an exciting profession to pursue.
Copyright © 2000 by Harold Coyle