To commemorate Veterans Day, DoDEA Wiesbaden High School (Germany) students-Maria Pidgeon, Taylor Johnson, Carter Jorgenson, Magdalena Lee, Lennon Spakousky-in the AP Literature and Composition class of Ms. Nancy Harb Almendras interviewed Veterans about their experiences.
From Basic to the Field by Maria Pidgeon
As I walked into the warm office space, I noted the military decor, trophies, and awards filling the empty spaces on the walls. Shades from every color of the rainbow were present in the room, from a bright scarlet red to an army green, and as you finally took everything in, your eyes were drawn to the man comfortable at his desk, both professional and cool.
Sergeant Major Allen Ashton (Ret.) holds his head up high as he’s dressed in his blue service uniform, ribbons and decor perfectly aligned, hands clasped on his desk as if he’s in another conference with other instructors. And as I sit down across from him, the challenge coins on his desk glimmering in the light, and the smell of coffee wafting through the air, a silent yet proud atmosphere enveloping the room, emanating from him. And as we finish our light conversation about the most recent colorguard, I begin our exchange.
“How did you tell your friends and family that you were joining the military, and then what did they think?”
SGM Ashton shifted in his chair and chuckled a little as he answered, “I was a highschool senior, in March 1983, and I had already seen a recruiter about my post-high school plans, and I told my mom about it, and she said well, there’s just no talking me out of it.” He went on to describe his initial recruitment, the delayed entry at 17 years old, and then enlistment into the Army as an M1 Armored Vehicle Operator. SGM Ashton was stationed at Fort Knox, Fort Lewis, and Fort Hood, and also served most of his career overseas, in Germany in Aschaffenburg, Fribourg, Bremen, and finally retiring in Wiesbaden. As he talked about his start in the Army, the small grin he expressed was almost contagious, even giving a small laugh as he described all the small things that the soldiers used to entertain themselves. “Gameboy. That was a big thing while we were out in the field. No joke, I watched two young sergeants sit out on a curb and play about 12 hours of Tetris on Gameboy, like on two entirely different controllers.”
As we got onto the more serious topics, however, his eyes began to darken and he began to gaze down at his hands that had stilled from the previous excitable movement they had. The switch from a smiling NCO to a solemn veteran surprised me, but also left me with sympathy for those he had lost while serving his country. The amount of sacrifice that any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine makes for their country commonly goes unrecognized; the time they have with their family, their bodies and spirits, and even their lives are only some of the things that the military can take from them while they serve.
I knew that veterans often had a tough time speaking about their past experiences, so I decided to gently edge towards the darker side of serving in the military, “What was your first time experiencing combat like, if that’s all right?”
SGM Ashton paused, dropped his eyes, and blankly stared at the collection of items he had across his desk; ranging from pens and pencils from different veteran organizations, to colorful sticky notes littering his monitor with important dates, since he was also Wiesbaden High School’s JROTC Army Instructor. As he gathered his thoughts, his blue eyes that had been seemingly smiling, were now dull and gray. “Being out in the field was pretty much just training but with a lot less information. We only got basic instructions, there was a lot of unknown stuff, and you’re kinda just out there waiting for things to happen. The operations were orchestrated correctly, but you know, sometimes people get confused and in the middle of combat, if you make a mistake it very well could be your last.”
Ashton also expressed the lessons he learned from being in combat, such as tank versus tank combat. With it being such a high risk environment, it's really hard to replicate it in training or any preparatory school. Additionally, the Army also generally trains for one scenario, which is usually the one they've most recently won and analyzed, and has a generalized training plan in order to cover most combat scenarios. Additionally, he indicated his thoughts that the future military will become wildly different from the current military, mission wise, since we have competition in both war or weaponry and economics. SGM Ashton saw that America’s preparation has all been short term, giving examples of fiscal quarters or years while Asian countries, such as Japan, prefer to look at longer terms, such as centuries. This in mind, SGM Ashton believes that the U.S. will have a few issues in the near future due to short term planning versus countries such as China.
Although this may seem a somewhat far-fetched claim, Ashton has years of military and combat experience, and this knowledge couldn’t have been gained without multiple sacrifices for his country. The bright, young senior that stepped into the Army recruiter’s office in March of 1983 couldn’t have been any more different from the insightful and keen Non-Commissioned Officer, yet that high school senior, fresh out of graduation, managed to become the heart and soul of the Wiesbaden Warrior Battalion today.
Soldier: Raymond Johnson by Taylor Johnson
Being a soldier is one of the most difficult jobs out there. But, it becomes even more dangerous when soldiers don’t talk about it and civilians neglect to ask questions. So,
I was more than happy to interview my father on his experiences in the military. One of the most important questions someone can be asked is “Why?” That is the first question I asked my dad. “Why did you join the military?” He slumped back against the couch and sighed, making it clear that he needed to think about it for a moment. He recalled that his father, from a young age, had put it in the back of his mind, letting him know that it would always be an option. So, when he found himself without a clear path to set off on after college, he thought about what he could do with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and an Associate in Intelligence from Mercyhurst University. Thinking back to what his father had instilled in him, he decided to join the U.S. Army.
When I asked my father to think back to the day he enlisted, a smile grew wide on his face and he gave a small chuckle, “I remember being extremely scared.” He talked about how he knew it was a big step, a commitment he couldn’t escape for the next couple of years of his life. He was locked into something that couldn’t be broken, a promise of sorts. That made his heart race and his palms sweat. Although he walked into that recruitment center as a terrified young man without a plan for his future, it wasn’t a commitment he would regret. Here was a 20-something man pushed into a “whole new world” during basic training. Although it was chaos with drill sergeants yelling at him and moving him around every few minutes, the grin he wore never left his face while recounting his time at basic. “The fun and the camaraderie of the other people I was there with…the other guys in my company and our bunk…the fun we had was just crazy.” He concluded that in the context of basic training, crazy means both frightening and entertaining. That entertainment follows soldiers throughout their careers as they crack jokes and play pranks. I can’t remember ever seeing such a boyish light in my father’s face as he recounted one of his favorite pranks. This scene is set in Afghanistan in 2003. There was another soldier, Doug, who was deathly afraid of spiders, and Afghanistan is known for the screech-provoking Camel Spider. So, one night my father and a bunch of other soldiers had placed a paper cut-out of a spider on top of the bunk that Doug was staying in and shined a light above it. As Doug was rudely awakened by his fellow soldiers, his eyes were drawn upwards toward the light. When he came face to face with what he believed to be a giant spider, a shriek erupted from his lungs and he, as my dad put it, “cried like a little girl” while asking the other soldiers to kill it. Thirteen years later, my dad ran into Doug on a different deployment at the same base in Afghanistan. They greeted one another, hugged, and Doug chuckled yet spoke with a serious voice, “If I see one spider near me, I’m comin’ to find you.” As the memories of all the pranks my dad was involved in flashed through his brain, he gave me a good reason for why they are an important part of military life, “They are how we’d keep each other sane.”
While my dad was able to give me lighthearted stories from military life and deployment during his interview, he also gave me some heartfelt, serious answers. It is never dull learning about another country. What do people look like? What are their lives like? Their customs? My dad spent a good portion of his tours in Afghanistan and knows quite a bit about it. Now it is no secret that Afghan people saw a side of the war that we Americans did not. Sure, we heard about the horrors, saw a few newscasts, and read a few articles but that was nothing compared to the horrors those people saw every day. There was a constant fear that their homes would be destroyed or that they could be hit by a stray bullet. Whenever I asked my dad about his interactions with the people there, he frowned and his eyes darkened. He constantly referred to himself and his fellow soldiers as the “invaders,” talking about how everything he experienced was temporary and not on his home turf. He remembers the children more than anything. They would come to the caravans, some with smiles, and the soldiers would give them sodas or candy that they had on hand. When the children received gifts it brought a light, however brief and uncommon in times of war, to their faces. Not unlike the brief light that soldiers would get playing pranks on one another.
What soldiers learn in basic training doesn’t even come close to preparing them for the horrors they face overseas. No matter how much simulated chaos Drill Sergeants bestow upon their trainees, soldiers can never be fully prepared for the life and death decision that they have to make in the field. The split-second decisions are the hardest ones of all. “Hindsight 20/20” is what my father called it because you never know what the better option is and it will destroy you to obsess about it. Not to mention the mental toll it takes on soldiers and the fact that no amount of training can prepare anyone in the world to deal with PTSD. It is no secret that PTSD is present in every soldier who has seen combat. It is “...something that sticks with you, that you never get rid of.” PTSD takes various forms and in the case of my father, it was police helicopters, car backfires, or any other loud and quick noise. I see it myself all the time. My mom will drop a pan in the sink and he jolts forward with tense shoulders and wide eyes. When I questioned him about it, I could hear a small break in his voice as he mustered, “It’s a constant battle.” That battle is even harder when the family doesn’t attempt to understand and support soldiers.
Being a soldier is hard, there isn’t a doubt about it. Young men and women sign up to go to war, to aid their country in protecting itself. They grow close to so many people along the way. So close and connected that if they were to reunite after 13 years, they would joke about spider pranks as if there had never been any separation. Every deployment, patrol, and assignment brings two soldiers closer. As my dad recalled the connections he formed he gave a grin and told me, “There is an old saying. I am not a hero but served with many. That's how I feel about the connections I formed.” My final question for my father was, “What was one thing that another soldier told you that resonated with you?” He sighed and succumbed to our couch’s soft back. He looked towards the light on the ceiling with a puzzled look in his eyes, searching his memory for an answer. When he finally found one he looked at me and recalled a time when a Sergeant of his gave a speech and began, “Every day, everything that we do… it’s hard. It’s trying and tiresome. But remember, your family is going through the same thing.” So now when my father is away, whether it is for a couple-month deployment or a 2-week class, no matter how sad, lonely, down, or tired he is, he can think back to what his Sergeant told him. That his family is going through the same thing. So, there isn’t a reason to feel alone.
Memories Change a Person by Carter Jorgenson
Sitting on a small-sized bed in the middle of a bedroom, Mr. Daniel Jorgenson crossed his legs and patiently waited for a couple of seconds before I sounded out the first question from my mouth. When asked about his origins in enlisting in the army, he smirked with a comment, “Like my origin story?” before explaining his aspirations of being an architect. But growing up poor, he went into the job recruiter’s office after MEPs and walked us through his thought process. “I mean, I like cars… I get to use my hands. That’d be good…So I ended up signing up as a heavy wheel mechanic.” I sat there wondering what other duties he had when he reclassified. Question after question about jobs, Daniel’s (or Dan’s) eyes filled with passion, saying he wanted a more extensive challenge for his duties, so 20 years ago, he decided on microwave communications, saying, “That’s where I picked up all of my troubleshooting skills.” I could feel the passion as his grin started to spread across his face when telling his story. After a follow-up question about his current duty, Dan said his last assignment in the army was in a security center for all of South Korea. He was exposed to working with more civilians and was offered a similar job after retiring from the military. “I was extremely lucky.” Dan followed his comment with laughter. I could tell he was highly grateful for the opportunity that set up his life.
Everything was upbeat until one question: “Have you gone through an extreme situation, such as a war or deployment, that you would like to share?” The happy mood was overtaken by a darker, more painful feeling. In 1995, Dan was deployed to Bosnia during a conflict. His field artillery unit was part of a “show-of-force.” Dan drove most of the day, and his commander set them up in this abandoned building with blown-off bits. He described the night as “pitch-black and silent, nothing but possible housing with maybe a light or two on.” Three men would cycle every three hours to patrol a small perimeter check that would take at most 10 minutes per lap. Dan told the stories of men in his unit who lost a hand or life from field mines. An incident where a foreign man tried to trade his 12-year-old daughter for six boxes of premade food sent chills down my spine. I could hear Dan’s nervous breath as he expressed the scariest part of his deployment. “We had to drive to the east side of Tuzla to pick up parts. There were maybe five of us. Off to the side, we notice some guys hanging out, and one has a bazooka.” There was a second pause before he continued, “They quickly got back into an ambulance, and they started following us. That’s not good.” His voice got sharper, slightly more aggressive, asking himself, “A guy with a bazooka following our convoy?” His words became faster, telling how they radioed for backup, and in 5 minutes, two Bradley Fighting Vehicles trailed the ambulance. The ambulance steered off to the side as soon as they spotted the Bradleys. “Yeah, go get 'em.” joked Dan. A chuckle broke out between us. The same warm air returned as the laughter echoed in the room.
“How would you say your time in the army affected how you think, act, or view things now?” With this question, he cleared his throat and looked at me. “Going in as a mechanic first gave me a strong sense of troubleshooting problems and situations. They taught me how to read flowcharts and analyze errors and mistakes… Some of the stressful situations were character-building. I had to learn with many different people; every soldier is different…so you have to learn many different ways to communicate with people.” Dan nodded at his response, looking optimistic about life. “I guess experiences can change you as a person, for better or worse.”
Veteran Interview by Magdalena Lee
Donald Lee served in the first Gulf War 31 years ago in Iraq. He was the personnel officer for the signal battalion in Ludwigsburg, Germany and his job was to make sure that all people in the battalion were ready to deploy to the combat zone. He did specific paperwork and organization. He had to send his firstborn son back to the states with his wife’s aunt because he and his wife were also included in the deployment.
Nowadays, Donald Lee, a father of three children and grandfather of three enjoys his retirement from the military in his home in Niedernhausen, Germany along with his wife and youngest daughter. He works for a technology company on the German side and has also learned the language. He looks comfortable in his black cotton ranger shirt and LEE dark wash blue jeans. He tends to fidget with his jeans as he talks, breathes softly, and gives me his full undivided attention. As he answers the questions he looks deep in thought and his dark brown eyes are focused as if he can see and relive that experience.
Q: How did you feel when you found out that you were going to be deployed? And were you nervous at all?
A: I felt OK with it because many of my friends have deployed and I knew it was coming, however I was a little bit nervous because you have to make sure people are ok and ready to go.
Q: How did it feel to be in the war alongside your wife and why?
A: It felt pretty good and cool. It is called joint domicile and it felt like you can have someone there that you can speak with and share that experience with because at the end of the day she is my best friend.
Q: What were your thoughts during the war? Did you regret joining the military at any point or wished to go home?
A: No, no regrets joining the military however, I was a little bit homesick because you spend so much time in the tents and the desert makes you dry up and feel kind of gross so you start to miss things at home and I missed my son. I also got emotional because things did not always go right.
Q: Was there anything traumatic about the war?
A: No, from my perspective I did not have anything traumatic because I was on the signal that and that was not on the front lines. I did have some bad experiences such as seeing injured people, but it was not necessarily describable as traumatic.
Q: Is there anything you wish that you would have done differently in the war? Why or why not?
A: I probably would have tried to be calmer on the whole situation because getting excited and nervous did not help at all. It escalated the whole feeling and made my anxiety worse. Therefore, I wish I could have kept a cooler head since you have to always watch your back and someone else’s.
Q: How did it feel to come home from the war?
A: It felt good, it felt good to get out of that sandy environment. When we would hang up laundry, the sand would stick to the clothing and it would feel really itchy and weird. I also got tired of eating the rations and wanted a warm home cooked meal. It also felt good to be reunited with the family.
Interview Christina M. Longo by Lennon Spakousky
Christina M. Longo is a woman in the military, first joining in October 2011; she has had plenty of experiences involving the Army. She is a Major now, a year ahead of her peers, and has had the pleasure of holding many jobs in the Army.
During this time, she wore a black shirt and sweatpants, her pajamas as it was 21:00 and she was getting ready to go to bed. She also wore a nonchalant expression on her face, indifferent towards the interview and seemingly eager to get this interview over with. I asked a series of five questions.
“Why did you join the military?”
“I joined the military as a springboard for other things, and I didn’t want to be bored. I joined the military because it sounded fun,” she said. “ I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to travel by doing it. I knew I never wanted a desk job.”
“In your opinion, what has been the highlight of your career so far?” I asked, but it took her some time to respond.
“I guess being a company commander,” she says. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Chrisitna Longo was a company commander for a recruiting company in the area. “I oversaw 64 recruiting NCOs, eight facilities, 24 vehicles and 440 square miles of land. And at any one given point in time, I was overseeing 150 potential soldiers, all of whom had their own careers they were looking forward to, trying to get a leg up. We were known as the DIVA’s,” she explained. The job was challenging, but proved rewarding and fun to her, as it showed on her face.
“What has been the most challenging part of your time in the Army?”
In talking about the most challenging part, there seemed to be some difficulty. “It depends,” she said. “What kind of challenging, physical or mental? If I were going overall, I would again say Company Commander. They say that in the Army that your company commander is responsible for everything, everyone in the company. It’s very stressful and difficult mentally. But physically, Afghanistan was the hardest in that you couldn’t leave your tent without your weapon and body armor, or that you had to be in an outhouse everyday, or the fact it was always hot, and sandy, and dusty.”
“How is the military different now than when you started?”
“When I started, a lot of combat roles weren’t open to women, that's a big change, and we don’t have a combat mission anymore,” she said, meaning that for the first time since she joined, the U.S was not at war with anyone. “The people who recruited me are now retiring, these are the people who spent several deployments in the Middle East, but they are now being replaced with people without combat experience,” she said.
In response to this I asked, “Do you think this development has made the Army less battle hardened on a whole?”
“Yes, for sure,” she said. “Many of the people spent maybe one tour in the Middle East, but on the whole, the atmosphere is the same, just slightly weaker.”
“Lastly, what is your favorite part about the military, and would you advise anybody following you to do the same?”
“My favorite part of the military is the structure, in that you’re expected to uphold a certain standard, everybody’s sort of linked together by the same tasks. It is its own living, breathing thing that you fit into, and when you don’t fit into it, or you stop fitting into it, you know it's time to go,” she explained. “And for anybody wanting to follow this career path, every case is different and I can’t recommend it to anybody unless you feel like you do or could fit.”