Tom J. Werner

                             Interview with Tom J. Werner

               Veterans’ Memorial Hall Oral History Program

                                   Duluth, Minnesota

                                    October 31, 2014


Veterans’ Memorial Hall is a program of the St. Louis County Historical Society.

© October 31, 2014 by the St. Louis County Historical Society

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Veterans’ Memorial Hall Oral History Program

Interview with Tom J. Werner

Duluth, Minnesota

October 31, 2014

Nancy Rubin, Interviewer

Tom Werner: TW

Nancy Rubin: NR

Track 1


NR:  Today’s date is October 31, 2014 and it is one o’clock in the afternoon. My name is: N-a-n-c-y  R-u-b-i-n. [spelled out] Then, if you could please state your name, and spell it.

TW:  T-o-m W-e-r-n-e-r. [spelled out]

NR:  Thank you very much. Just to begin, if you could give us a little background on your family.

TW:  The Werner family has a long history of service. My grandfathers on both sides served in World War II, one in the Pacific and one in the European Theater. My name sake, Tom Werner, my grandfather, served in the Pacific Theater. Ah, my father John was a 41 year veteran of the Army in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. My brother is a fellow veteran of the Global War on Terrorism. So we have a family that has been integrated into service to the country for a long time. I am married to my wife Tiffany and I have twelve year old twins, John and Courtney.

NR:  Thank you. So when you had decided to enlist, how did your family feel about that?

TW:  My family I think was very supportive of it. I was a relatively late enlistee in the service. I came out of high school and went directly to college. I wanted to try my hand at some other things and ultimately felt like that wasn’t a very good fit for me and so at late in, when I was twenty, I went and enlisted. I went off to basic training that fall, so, yeah.  I enlisted a little bit later than some but now twenty years later it’s been a rewarding career.

NR:  So, tell me about basic training. What was that like for you?

TW:  Well I went to combat engineer basic training and so I went and committed to learn how to do things like set mine fields, build and blow up bridges. I worked with a lot of demolitions. I worked on other—setting obstacles for the Army, also destroying obstacles. A lot of what we call now mobility and counter mobility operations for the Army. The unit that I was with at the time was a light unit, meaning that we did a lot from trucks and what we could carry on our backs. We did a lot of, you know, doing with whatever we could, carrying stuff on our backs more than putting it in the back of a tracked vehicle and moving on down the road. It was a time when in basic training you needed to be extremely physically fit and we spent a lot of time out in the field doing our thing. So it was a very, very rewarding and challenging experience.

NR:  Where was your training?

TW:  Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

NR:  And how long was that training?

TW:  Eight weeks of basic training and then I immediately went onto what they called your initial entry, I’m sorry, it’s where they teach you how to do your job. So after that was another six to eight weeks of strictly again, working with demolitions, with mines, learning the craft of military engineering.  I was down there for four to five months.

NR:  And so, then, after that, you received your orders? Is that right?

TW:  You get placed back in the unit that you had worked with a recruiter to get placed in. So for me, I was then transferred out of the basic training environment to Company C 367th Engineer Battalion, here in Duluth, Minnesota, on Park Point. That’s where I spent the first nine years of my military career, practicing all the things that I had learned at Fort Leonard Wood.

NR:  And then after that?

TW:  Well, then about year seven in my career was 9-11, so for many of us the whole situation changed. Prior to that time our career was largely focused on fighting the diminishing Cold War. A lot of the tactics and processes that we had and the enemy that we trained to fight was a Cold War based Soviet Bloc enemy. When the terrorists attacked us on 9-11 then all that changed and warfare for this country changed dramatically.

Two years into that, the Army Reserve was a very, very big part of this nation’s response. Instead of maintaining our traditional role of being a strategic reserve where we would only basically come out, participate in that active warfare under very, very serious conditions. We were then mobilized on a much more frequent basis, because the Army was constrained with some of its resources. We became what’s called an operational reserve. So deployments picked up, units were going overseas to support not only the Afghan mission but also the start of the Iraq mission very, very early on. There was also a program within that because reserve units aren’t always at full strength in terms of having enough people to carry out those missions.  They are hometown based and if you are able to recruit and maintain a certain level of competency and strength, you are able to do that. For some units though, that’s too hard. They have a program by which they were doing what’s called cross-leveling, pulling trained reservists out of units to back fill against positions in other communities, units that aren’t already programmed for going out to support the war. I was one of those people and in 2003 they had already started that program and some individual cross-levels were getting picked up with very little notice. This was happening very, very quickly, as there was a ramp up towards the Iraq war.

TW:  I was one of those people. I had a week’s notice to basically close up my affairs, if you will, prepare my family, and make sure that my employer was able to deal with the impact of me leaving. So from that perspective, at that time, ah, there was no set deployment structure. I basically was under the impression that I was going indefinitely, might come back in a year, and might come back in four years. We just didn’t know. There was no end to that. They’ve since improved that to give a lot of predictability to families and employers. But back at that time we were still operating under a legacy structure that said, “We’re giving you the orders to go and we’re not sure when you are going to come back.” So you can imagine in that environment, what that does to an employer or a family in terms of just, you know, packing your bags and leaving and all of that.

My family at the time, my immediate family, my wife Tiffany and I were new parents at the time. My kids were six months old and so as we were learning how to be parents, I needed to take a pause from that to leave, and she needed to carry on by herself at a time when the kids, being twins, were starting to crawl. Twins don’t ever crawl in the same direction.

NR:  (laughs)

TW:  And so you can just about imagine the tiring days, becoming virtually a single parent at that point. I said it many, many times, not to get too far off on a tangent, but my wife is just as much a veteran as I am. She is absolutely in all this because of what she needed to endure, as a new mother, for that period of time. God bless her for it, very, very difficult.

So anyway I was transferred in my ninth year, with that one week notice, to a unit in Iowa. It was Company C 389th Engineer Battalion. I went down to a small city in Iowa, we trained there for a couple of weeks and then moved down to Fort Leonard Wood to train as a unit, because there was other people like me who had been brought in around the country to back fill this unit, get it ready, up to strength, so we could go overseas. We trained at Fort Leonard Wood for a couple of months and then eventually got the word, as the battle of Baghdad was going on in 2003 that our number was called and we were getting ready to go. So we hopped on a plane and went to Kuwait from there to start our journey.  

NR:  And you were able to talk with your wife to let her know? Were you able to let her know where you were going to be?

TW:  You know initially that was the case, so when I was in Iowa for a couple of weeks it was—we were able to talk. I was able to call her at night and tell her what I was doing during the day and all this. We didn’t know anything at that point, you just knew you were on orders with your unit and you were training to go. You didn’t know what that looked like. There wasn’t a lot to talk about other than just catch up, what’s going on at home, and reassure that I was ok and all that.

As I got down to Fort Leonard Wood, that became a little more sporadic, because we were working hard. We were training 24/7 in order to get up to a certain level of sufficiency as a team, to be able to do what we needed to do overseas. But even then, we still didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. The writing was on the wall, if you will, we knew what was going on in the world, but at the same time, at that point, you still didn’t know. It really wasn’t even up until the last minute, um, where we knew that we needed to board a plane, but we still didn’t even know where the plane was going.

NR:  What was that like?

TW:  Well, you know, after doing it for a couple of months, this kind of business of going through your daily work that you didn’t know what was behind in the next corner, in terms of that long term future. You kind of get used to it after a while. And so, that was just part of it. I think everybody was very accepting of that, and again, I think it’s harder on the family in those instances than it is on a soldier. It was interesting, I had—I was able to get a two day pass and the drive from Fort Leonard Wood to Duluth; I could do it in exactly twelve hours.

So I rented a car and was able to make it home, spend about twenty four hours at home and see the kids and all of this and go back. Not knowing that when I got back, literally got back within two hours, got the word to “pack up your stuff, you’re getting on the plane.” So it was interesting timing, you just wonder if God didn’t have a hand in all of us being able to go and see our families one last time.

But we did, we left in the middle of the night and didn’t really understand where we were, until we landed in Kuwait and the desert sun was doing what it does. Then we were told, “Yes, you’re in Kuwait and we’re getting ready to go to one of the northern desert camps to prepare to go into Iraq.” It wasn’t until really that time that we fully understood what we were doing.

NR:  And then did you spend any amount of time in Kuwait before you moved on?

TW:  We did. The Army with the military had set up several staging camps in the northern dessert camps of Kuwait. Most of the built up areas of Kuwait revolve around Kuwait City and small towns around the coast of the Persian Gulf. When we flew into the airport there, you trucked and bussed people up to these northern camps. They are out in the middle of the desert, sand dunes as far as the eye could see, and all of that.

That’s where they had you set up and you would further refine some of your training. It was meant to be a temporary staging area for units to launch into Iraq. We were subject to that for a few days, we weren’t there long. There again, it was more of an exercise making sure you were taking care of yourself in 130 degree heat, because that was how hot it was, and making sure our equipment was running and doing all of that. So you kind of got into that mode day after day, but still there wasn’t a lot of high intensity activity to take your mind off of what was going on. That just wasn’t conducive to that environment.

NR:  Were you wearing a lot of heavy equipment, protective equipment?

TW:  Not at that time, we weren’t wearing body armor or this type of stuff. There were times when we needed to be in our, what we call our Kevlar helmet, and we always had our weapons with us. But when you are in those northern camps you are in a secure perimeter, while there is a heightened level of security, it wasn’t such that you needed to be in full armor to protect against attacks of any kind. Now that said, one of the protective measures against the sun, counter to what people would think, is that you actually are fully clothed. Long sleeves, all of this to protect against sunburn and it actually does keep you cooler.

But I tell you, the mental games that play on you, the fact that you’ve got long sleeves and long pants in that type of heat, when you just want to be in shorts and a T-shirt. It is counterintuitive and it takes a while for guys to get used to that.  So we did wear that type of protection against the sun and you really limit your time in the sun the best you could, while still getting the work done that you needed to.

NR:  So did they plan for that? Did they plan breaks that you were able to be inside and not having to be out all day long?

TW:  Well, so you know, basically how we work in a company structure of 150 engineers is, within that structure you have platoons, you have squads and it’s up to the noncommissioned officers to manage what’s called a work/rest cycle. So that was one of my duties for my folks at the time, was to make sure that we had a list of things we needed to accomplish or we knew needed to get done, and just managing those people so we could still accomplish it, yet make sure that they were safe and well rested and all of this, the best we could. So we would manage those rest cycles and make sure that we were rotating through to accomplish something or managing it in a way that people were being taken care of.

But there was no question when you think about it, we’re people from the Midwest of the United States, the Upper Midwest in some cases, and there is no way to prepare you for that type of heat until you get in it.  I mean drinking gallons of water every day and forcing guys to drink it. You can get into a dry heat like that not knowing your sweat is evaporating and you can get yourself into serious trouble in a hurry.  So making sure, monitoring that guys were drinking enough, it’s very, very important to a noncommissioned officer’s role, making sure that their people are available to do their mission because they are taking care of themselves along the way.

NR:  So as far as even seeing all of those sand dunes, tell us a little bit more about what it is that you saw.

TW:  Well, for a guy who spent almost his entire life in northern Minnesota, with all of its blue water and green and all of this, it was a culture shock. The land is brown, the sky is brown, it’s not even crystal clear blue sky, you get so much dust and sand because of the dryness. The entire sky is brown as well, and then there is the oppressively intense sun. That’s all burned into me literally, for the rest of my life; it’s just kind of that scene. It’s hard to walk in sand, it’s very granular and sugary and so it was just difficult to maneuver in all of this. Then the heat, it was nothing like I’d ever experience before.

They’ve got their own interesting critters, camel spiders that chase people and are poisonous. They got the snakes and other things, and you talk about living in that type of environment. Any time you put a bunch of people together like that there is the propensity for litter and food snacks and other things that attract rodents. Then after the rodents come the snakes. So there is always this constant trying to police people to clean up after themselves to keep the snakes out of there, because they will come eventually. So there is just a lot of getting used to that type of environment we certainly don’t have to deal with back here, so much.

I’ll never ever forget the amount of brown and it just never ends, it’s just always brown, in fact, when we skip ahead a little bit, when we got into Iraq after our stay in Kuwait, when you come across a small oasis with palm trees that are green. What an amazing sight that was just to see something different, so anyway, just a lot of brown and very hot.

NR:  So then, after those days then you did get to Iraq?

TW:  After a week or two in Kuwait, we convoyed up to the capital of Baghdad, Iraq. That was a long, long trip through the desert, but we eventually made it to the Baghdad airport. That was the site of a large base, it was called BIAP for short, but it was the Baghdad International Airport. We were on the western side of the airport and it was nothing more than a field at the time, with a kind of a stone brick wall that was the perimeter of that side of the airfield. We occupied that area, it still wasn’t fully secured. We had just literally taken the capital not too long before that and so many of the Iraqi forces were still running around in some ways. So we set up our own perimeter inside this larger perimeter, which was semi-secured on the airport. There was nothing there. It’s not like deployments that have been up until recently. You deployed into already structured billets, showers and a mess hall, chow hall, there’s nothing there.

So in that way my first couple of months in Iraq were very, very synonymous of earlier conflicts where there was no mail system, no hot food, there was no way to get a shower, no cover over your head for sleeping. I spent the first couple of weeks laying on the back of my flatbed truck out underneath of the stars, which had its own peacefulness to it.

We had taken the capitol and with that a lot of the power was shut down. So you don’t have this light pollution of the stars, it’s very, very clear. Oh, that’s another thing I’ll never forget, is just the clear crystal images of the stars as you’re lying there contemplating your fate a little bit, as you’re trying to get some rest. But, yah, we slept out under the stars for a couple of weeks, as we were building our camp. From there on, we, you know, we got some tents up and improved our area a little bit.  Initially, those first few months we had to burn out latrines, and again being synonymous with past conflicts, you just can’t go to the bathroom wherever you want. We had built these latrines and everyone took turns burning the feces. That’s how you disposed of that type of thing, there isn’t a service to pump out a porta- potty. So there was a lot of that.

Mail, you know, you’d send a letter and you had a mechanism through the supply chain to get mail home. It would take 30 days or longer to get a letter home, and to get any from home. Once we had a mailing address within the Army system, it would take the same, thirty to sixty days to get a letter or a package or this kind of thing. It was a much, much different feel that first year in Baghdad than it has been since. There was no emailing, there were no computers. Initially there were no phone calls. There was no way to make a call, so it was letter oriented and very reminiscent from what some past generations have experienced.

NR:  What did you eat?

TW:  We ate meals ready to eat, or MREs [meals ready to eat]. They are a packaged meal in the modern version of what soldiers have carried for a long time in terms of rations. They are high in calories; don’t taste very good and ah, high in preservatives, because they have to have an amazing shelf life. So, I mean, you did the best you could with that. It was three square meals a day for a couple of months. Eventually we did get a mess hall and as the supply chain became more robust from the Gulf Coast, then you’d get some fresh food in and have a hot meal. We ate those types of rations for quite a while and you got used to it. If your meal was maybe spaghetti and meatballs maybe you’d trade that with your buddy or do whatever you could to spice it up a little bit.

NR:  So they did have some variety?

TW:  Oh, yeah, they had some vegetarian meals, spaghetti and meatballs, hamburger patty fresh out of a zip lock bag. I’m trying to think what else, chicken breast.

NR:  Were they freeze dried?

TW:  No.

NR:  Were they heated? Were you able to heat them?

TW:  You can. They are sealed in a package, there is liquid in them kind of sealed up with like I said, liquid preservative and you take that and you put them into I think it’s a magnesium pouch where you take it, put it in there and fill it with water. The water interacts with the chemical inside this larger pouch, creates a boil, you could warm this package up so that it was warm. Not sure it improved the taste any and they are made to eat cold as well. So you had the option to do either, and frankly when it’s so doggone hot, they were warm anyway. It was interesting. Then you would get crackers and peanut butter and all that in the package too, but it’s not the same stuff you buy in the store. That’s what we sustained ourselves on for quite a while.

NR:  You said you were in Baghdad, for a year is it?

TW:  Yeah, we were in Baghdad for a year then, so by this time I’d already spent two months getting to this point, whether it be in Leonard Wood or Kuwait or whatever it was. Then we spent a year actually in Baghdad, Iraq doing our mission. Early on it was very much about…we had a few weeks to kind of get ourselves settled and our neighbors settled, because we had other units on our right and left as well, before we got to our much larger mission.

Back in 2003, our mission for our Battalion was very much about setting up bases around Baghdad, so that we could maintain order in the city. There was no order, much like after World War II, when there was a “denazification” process, right, wrong or indifferent, it took all the structure out. Well, we did the same thing with the baths in Iraq, they were taken out of the system, so there was nobody running the electrical grid, there was no police force, and there was no sanitary system. I mean, just nothing.

So we very much had to build from scratch and do a lot of that stuff, and so building up these bases around Baghdad allowed for a base of operations to conduct all those things and rebuild the grid and get, you know, sanitary systems going, local government going again, and all these things. So, that’s marginally what we spent the year doing. Eventually that also ah, trickled out into other parts of the country, Tasi, that is just north of Baghdad, that we spent significant time building up a presence there for I think, an aviation unit. We did some other things too, but largely the camps around Baghdad were our mission.

NR:  Let’s see, did you see many civilians or locals around?

TW:  All the time. So, couple things that were going on that first year. We hadn’t done what’s called, nation building before, or at least not on this level.  There was a concerted effort as, we kind of a got built up,  we have taken the structure away from these people. A lot of people are unemployed and one of the things that we can do to kind of keep unrest down, is allow these people to feed their families in some way. You do that through having a steady job. We would employ a lot of locals and a lot of different functions to allow them to have an income and make sure they were providing for their families. Unemployed Iraqis, and this would be true for any country, but unemployed Iraqis, are still going to find a way to feed their family and if the insurgency offered more money to build plant IEDs, they would do that.

You know, it was very much in our interest to start a civil structure for employment, so we did that. They performed a variety of functions, even down to instead of—you know, we were military engineers able to do a lot of construction functions, build schools, build roads, do a lot of different things. It was better if we infused money into the system by contracting with a local construction company and oversaw their work, did quality assurance and that type of thing. That largely became how we did quite a bit of the work over there. Work side by side with an Iraq contractor engineer to develop a lot of these things.

One of the early projects I had a chance to work with somebody on, was an Iraqi engineer, he was a civil engineer or I think with a little bit of a structural background. But we had a bridge that we needed to widen. It was a stone bridge and it wasn’t wide enough and military vehicles in the U.S. are quite a bit wider than the small cars that they drive over there. We were on this project and you get to know each other very well. He was a fluent English speaker and was so excited that the Americans were there, and kind of liberated them from Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. We worked together side by side every day and he brought me some of his lunch one day. It was unleavened bread with some lamb and some greens and all of this. You know you were always worried, we were taught to try not eating the local food because of some of the dysentery and other things, because there just wasn’t a good way to keep all that clean and they live differently in that regard than we do here.

But, the other side of it was this guy didn’t have anything. He was trying to support his family, had very little to give, yet he wanted to share with his new friend, a sandwich, if you will. It would have been so insulting to not sit and partake with him. It was really gratifying to me that some of the principles that we hold dear in terms of friendship and trust and all that stuff, that’s universal. There are good people all over the place and there certainly was in Iraq as well, and the locals there, they just want to feed their families just like we do here and carry on and have a good quality of life. That was a very gratifying relationship for the time that we were able to have it. There were many opportunities like that.

NR:  So the Iraqis people were not at all upset that you were there, they were appreciative that you were able to be there?

TW:  I would say, I never talked to one civilian; I had the opportunity to talk many. They never said that they were disappointed or upset that the Americans were there. They all felt that it was a positive. Early on they all felt that um, it certainly was much better than the regime they lived under before. It was really heartbreaking to round that out, I think every one of them, maybe except one or two, had some sort of story to share where they had lost relatives, relatives had disappeared, were imprisoned under Saddam Hussein, for a variety of some of the silliest things, or for no reason at all. That just was the way it was, and so most of them, we never saw them again, but everybody had a story like that. That was very, very hard to grasp the scope of that, but they were happy to be out of that.

NR:  So, while you were even there it sounds like you made some friendships.

TW:  Yeah, certainly the interactions I think with the locals that I was able to deal with for the vast majority were very positive. That’s not to say that were wasn’t unrest from time to time depending on what was going on, but, for the most part, very, very positive.  I remember later in early 2004, was the rise of a certain cleric called, Muqtada Al-Sadr, that was in the Baghdad area. He was arousing a lot of unrest, especially under those that maybe haven’t been able to take advantage of the infusion of employment that we were able to offer, or maybe had a variety of other gripes. But there was a lot of rioting in certain parts of Baghdad that weren’t as well off or progressing as well. There certainly was unrest that dealt with that time frame and kind of his messaging that was counter to that. The vast majority of the relationships were positive.

NR:  So did you feel in danger while you were there?

TW:  Every day.

NR:  Every day.

TW:  From the very beginning the insurgency was very, very active on a couple of fronts, one, they were rocketing us every night, mortars every night. I commonly talk about how every night you said your quick prayers and talked about your blessings with the Almighty, because you just didn’t know if you were going to wake up the next morning, and some didn’t. They would lob them in at night, ah, off the back of a pickup truck, many, many miles away. Their accuracy got really, really, good. You know, that was just a constant occurrence. I can’t tell you that I ever had a good night’s sleep; I mean you’d always be waking up from explosions as they hit our bases as our soldiers slept. We needed to be careful about some of them that we employed, because they would come in under the guise of being a contractor in some way and be working for the insurgency, only so they could pace off distances between the high value targets. We actually caught a sanitary worker.

Eventually we got porta-potties and they were there to empty them and one was pacing off distances to our headquarters buildings and our compound. That was just a common occurrence. We knew the enemy was all around, but you’re trying to win the hearts and minds, if you will, so you couldn’t always keep them at the end of a gun point. There had to be a certain level of trust, and showing them value that came with that process. It was a very, very tenuous, nervous situation and the bombing was every night. The only nights I got an honest to goodness night sleep, was when the F16s were roaring over our heads, because we knew that close air support was getting the bad guys at the points they were rocketing us. That was the nightly stuff.

In terms of other situations, there was…one of the main routes between the Baghdad airport and the “green zone” which is basically downtown Baghdad. It’s where the U.S. Embassy is now and a lot of other State Department functions were in those early days, Baghdad University is there. That is a series of freeway, highways to get from the airport down there, much like downtown Duluth and the “can of worms” or the I-35 area expressway that’s down there now. So that is what it looked like and you had buildings, you had civilization on all four sides. We had to drive that route often, and during 2003 to about 2005, because of the IEDs, the ambushes and all that. It was the most dangerous highway in the entire world. If you were going to take casualties, it was going to be on that highway.

The equipment that we had at the time when we convoyed out, as then Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld said, “You roll with the military you have at the time.” We still had Cold War vehicles and equipment. I had a Vietnam era flak vest that I wore; it wasn’t the state of the art stuff that has come since.    It had minimal protection, ballistics protection. We had canvas skinned vehicles, and didn’t have all this “up” armored business that they’ve got now, so the mentality when you are driving in those areas for IEDs is much, much different. Tactics have changed much differently, but back in those days, you literally took and stripped your vehicle down to nothing.  You wanted to be fast, you wanted to be very mobile and much like, you know the settlers of the late 1800’s, you filled the back of your wagon or truck with every gun you could find. So we wanted to look as aggressive and mean as we could in terms of just having guns pointed out in every direction. Because the tactics of the time show that those are the people that don’t get hit. The people that were complacent were the people that didn’t show that strong aggressive posture, the ability to react to contact, that took the most casualties. My philosophy and the philosophy of many of my soldier brothers, when we drove and had our people out on the road, was that we wanted to be mean, we wanted to be agile, and we wanted to have enough fire power to end the conflict very quickly.

So that is how we dealt with the IED threat on the road, but it was very, very dangerous. Each trip was taking your life into your own hands. You tried to be smart about it. I think the times when the intelligence said it was best to travel, but even then it was still a “crap shoot” and you did the best you could with what you had.

NR:  So there were many casualties then?

TW:  Not so much in our unit, we were very, very blessed, not to suffer those. I’d like to think smart in how we drove, and how we postured ourselves in terms of the amount of fire power that we would bring with and all of this. During our time there, units were getting hit multiple times a day, driving that route. It was extremely dangerous.

NR:  Can you tell me how many people were in your unit?

TW:  We were in a combat heavy unit that was Company C 389th. That unit was about a 140 some soldiers, ah, they had the mission and the capability of not only doing what we call vertical construction building buildings, but also had a portion of the unit that also could build roads and do excavations and all of this type of dirt work. So it was a multi-functional unit that could provide the combatant commander with a lot of functionality. So we did, we built buildings, we built roads, ah, worked at all of that while we were there.

NR:  So do you still stay in touch with any of the people that you had been in your unit with?

TW:  You know, that’s interesting. No, I don’t. It’s one of the things that always kind of bothered me, as I progressed in my career since and analyzed how the Army reacted to its need to transform and get soldiers out the door quickly in response to this. So, the way deployments are handled today are much, much different. They are much more structured and what I went through likely won’t be repeated any time soon. I was the only person from my area that was sent down to this other unit and so—I mean just even simple cultural differences.

I was hanging out with a bunch of guys from the backwoods of Missouri and southern Iowa. Being from up here, we live differently, we think differently, we talk differently and so in terms of just that’s very natural relate ability, it wasn’t there. That’s not to say that I didn’t have good relationships with people down there. You need to build a trust in the team, but it wasn’t like um, you know, most of them kind of being from the same home town, kind of had that natural kinship of knowing each other as neighbors and other things. That was a little different. The other thing that really frustrated me, ah, especially early on, about the whole process is, as somebody who grew up for nine years in the unit that I did here in Duluth, it was a combat arms unit.

We were trained for combat engineering in a way that much like an infantry unit did, very, very high on making sure that the team was family. That was really ingrained in everybody from the top to the bottom. I spent a lot of years training my team, my squad, and my platoon to be that family and be close knit. To rely on each other even when we weren’t in uniform and do all of this because, it would pay dividends when we ever had to go and support each other with our lives on the line.

So imagine under those conditions and investing time and years into that process only to be ripped away from the team you built, infused in a new situation that you haven’t had time to integrate with, you haven’t built a family with and “Oh by the way, you’ve got a couple weeks and then we’re going to put you in a war zone.” That was hard to “wrap my head around” for quite a long time, but you make it work and all of this. So it was fine, but no, I don’t keep in touch with any of those folks. My second deployment to Afghanistan was a much, much different story. There are some lifelong friends that came out of that, but that was a much, much different deployment and handled differently than that first one.

NR:  Okay. Would you like to talk anything more about this experience, or would you like to talk some about the Afghan experience?

TW:  Well, let’s see, I think just to kind of finish up the Iraq time, eventually in May of 2004, there was this period where they were kind of figuring things out. The larger Army was trying to figure out how they were going to move units in and out of this persistent conflict, because as I said earlier, they didn’t have a plan. They just got us over there, kicked Saddam out of power, and started rebuilding the country. Then there was this kind of—well then what? We were at this point where they started to rotate some of the units out and it looked like it was going to be just a yearlong thing. You really couldn’t know that with folks back home, but we knew that it was possible that we could rotate out.

There was a period of weeks where we didn’t know what was going on and then all of a sudden we got the word that we might be able to move. We moved back to Kuwait at that time, and even then, there was still a possibility that we might move back north and you’ll recall I told you a little while ago, Muqtada Al-Sadr, was creating a lot of unrest. This really bolstered the insurgency and this was about the time that we were leaving. So even when we got to Kuwait, there was always this sense and word from our leaders, well we could just as soon turn back in a couple of days and go back up if things get too “hairy” because we are already here. There’s always that sense.

The other thing that’s interesting about that time in the spring of 2004, there were a couple of interesting conflicts. You know I talked about the rockets, I talked about when we kind of leave the confines of the airport for some of the projects in downtown Baghdad or other places, and how you were in danger on the road. We did take a couple of instances of small arms fire, where they engaged the west side of the Baghdad wall. One of the times was on Easter Sunday.  I’ll never forget that Easter where all of a sudden there was gunfire in you know, into our area from outside the wall. There was a farm right outside and one of the check points out there and our western wall folks had entered in to that engagement. We literally mobilized everybody behind a berm. We didn’t how big the enemy force was or what was going on, so that was an interesting day, as well. It ended probably an hour later and they had taken out a small force of insurgents at that time. We hadn’t experienced that type of action on our side of the perimeter of that facility. We had seen the rockets and had been engaged outside that area, but never at the wall, so that was interesting at that point.

Not too far away from that time, I remember seeing about five miles away, a lot of smoke and gunfire outside the western wall too. There was a highway that leads to the airport to Fallujah, and that was being traversed by a transportation outfit. At the time they had been absolutely ambushed and decimated by an insurgent force and they had taken some prisoners. What was interesting about that was, it was an Army Reserve unit as well from the Midwest, Matthew Maupin, one of the earliest missing in action from the Iraq war conflict, who was taken during that engagement. It still is very eerie to me to think that how helpless you are. You’re sitting inside this compound and you can see the smoke, you can hear all the gunfire that comes with it, and yet soldiers were out there being engaged, taken captured and there is not anything you can do about it.

That was a very eerie feeling, much like the other time that same spring when there was an aircraft that took off, a cargo aircraft took off from the airport, and one of the tactics at the time was to kind of cork screw up in the air. Typically when you take off in an aircraft you go up at a rate, an angle to get up to altitude. In a war zone you do all this in a cork screw method coming down and going up, so that you stay within a safe confined area, because you are subject to ground fire, rockets and other things. Planes would take off doing one of these numbers, and then we got used to it after a while.

One day, the enemy had gotten a hold of a pretty sophisticated rocket, and I remember I was standing out with a mug of coffee at the time. I was walking over to another tent, watching this aircraft cork screw up, just as I had watched several others. I saw this smoke trail come across the sky and hit one of the engines and then you know, a few seconds later, because of the sound delay, you heard a muffled boom. Then the plane came back down under a controlled emergency and it did get hit by a rocket. And again, you’re watching this plane get hit by a rocket out of the sky, it’s such an eerie and helpless feeling.

There’s just stuff like that which will always be kind of burned in my memory. So much of the conflict there isn’t much action, but the nights were rather intense. When there was intense action either on the road or at the camp, like on Easter, or watching the Matthew Maupin convoy from the distance. It’s very intense for a very short period of time, but that’s what I learned war is about. It isn’t all hours and hours of gunfire, they’re very short and intense engagements and   that’s very much what our deployment was like.

NR:  Can I ask you Tom, how is it that you, how do you handle those and carry those memories?

TW:  Well, you know I—in terms of how I handle them, I think back on them I guess under this umbrella. That was probably one of the hardest years of my life, for many, many different reasons. You know I talked so much about the military side of this, but the other hard part for me, was being a brand new father. That was very, very difficult as well, it being one of the hardest years of my life, intensely challenging on many, many different fronts. It really tests your intestinal fortitude on many levels, your courage, tests your leadership. I was a leader of soldiers and so you’re tested in that regard too, your principles of leadership. Stand the true test and all of this. It was the hardest year of my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It changes you forever. There’s no question that it’s a character builder and if you can internalize it in a way that you are learning from it, and stronger because of it.  I think it can be a positive, if there is such a thing. So, I wouldn’t trade it for the world; it changed me and my family forever. I think we are better for it.

You know on the family front as we kind of close out the Iraq piece, you know my wife; she’s told the story in the past how with two babies at the time, and how she was trying to do this on her own. She’s a Brainerd girl, so when we met in college and we moved into a house, she didn’t know a lot of people. She would go to the grocery store with baby carriers under her arm, and when you put them in a grocery cart, the carrier takes up the whole middle piece of this thing and then there’s the seat. So you don’t have a lot of room for big grocery runs and literally at times she would tell me she picked up milk today, because you can’t wheel this cart through the ice and snow of northern Minnesota out to the car. Other times she’d go and get bread and do her thing and she did this for a year. You know I talked about the infrequency of letters and stuff like that.

Anyway when I finally got back, she drove down to Fort Leonard Wood to pick me up and it was amazing seeing her for the first time. I got released one day to go see her from my duties, but she was at the hospital. When she got there she needed to seek medical care for an eye infection.

She was so run down, that her immune system was just gone and so she was susceptible to these other things. I remember seeing her in the exam room and giving her a big hug and she looked just tired and just worn out. The amount of emotions after that amount of time, and some of the uncertainty that came with that year, fourteen months and all of this. She looked like she had been through the worst of it, quite frankly. It was an amazing, amazing experience for her as well, so when I say that deployment was a character builder for me, it most certainly was for her as well. She one of the strongest women I’ve ever seen in my life for what she had to endure.

You know, we got home and I see my kids now for the first time, because I didn’t take  leave or anything, for the first time in fourteen months. They were just over a year and a half old, so they were walking and doing a little bit of jibber jabber and this type of thing.  I sat down with them on the floor and they’re playing and doing their thing and my wife Tiffany says, “Where’s daddy?” Because there was this ritual of everyday she would remind them of who their father was and there’s pictures and all of this. We had one family picture on the mantel of the fireplace and I was sitting right there playing and she says, “Where’s daddy?” and both of them pointed up to the picture on the mantel. That was an interesting, interesting experience as well, you know. I was a new father when I left and basically took time out for fourteen months to go do something else, but now I needed to come back, not only reintegrate with her, but learn how to be a father for the first time, despite my kids being that much older.

It was an interesting reintegration, very difficult on many, many different levels and the military at that point still wasn’t used to soldiers reintegrating after these long deployments. There weren’t a lot of resources out there and Tiffany and I needed to figure a lot of it out on our own. So we trusted in God and worked hard and it wasn’t easy at all. But eventually it came out on the other side with a very, very strong marriage. So that’s some of the aftermath of that type of deployment, it was very, very difficult.

NR:  It’s got to be. And then were you home long, before you left again?

TW:  I got home in 2004 and reintegrated back into life, went back to work and saw success at the airport, been there for fifteen years, so I was doing some things there, as well. Then through my military career which is going back to a somewhat normal you know—some weekends annual training type of mode for a bit, promotions and other things. I ended up a brand new unit, it had just been stood up and I had volunteered to join it in late 2007, it was the 372nd Engineer Brigade. It was a headquarters unit, was going to have many, many engineer units underneath. I felt with my varied experience in military engineering, both in the combat and construction side, and a recent deployment, that I had some value to the unit.

I went down there, and we were standing up this brand new unit from scratch. So we pulled in, you know, what I’d like to call an all-star team. We picked the best people we could find in their functional area and brought them in. We had a wonderful, wonderful team. I would even dare say a very, very close knit family if that’s possible at 120 people. We had a general officer in charge, and we then deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. We were there for twelve months, and you know, that deployment was so much different than the first one. We had been in Afghanistan since 2001, a lot of it was built up, you know,  many of us had been on previous deployments earlier to Afghanistan or to Iraq, so for many of us that was a relative Shangri-La compared to our previous times.

I had a roommate, in a hard stand building with heat and air conditioning. We even pitched in some of our money for satellite TV. It was just a different deal. (both laughing) And because, you know, it’s a headquarters unit, there’s a lot of rank there. I was a master sergeant and had a much, much different role. My role as much as it was outside leading people on certain efforts, it was also very much inside tied to a computer. So there it was much different in that regard as well.

Then in Afghanistan you see all, you see a couple seasons anyway, it can get hot in the summertime and when we were up at 7,000 feet, so it also got cold and we’d see some snow. And then there was the monsoon season and I’d never seen one like that. So it was interesting that way, as well. My time in Afghanistan, we came in right before President Obama announced the troop surge in 2009 and so our initial thought of what our plan was there as a unit, was much, much different than it ended up being. In preparation for the troop surge that was coming in 2010, we were stressed to the max just in terms of the amount of construction projects we were going to try and execute in the northern half of the country, in order to prepare for this amount of new soldiers that just had never been there before.

For me personally, one of the neat things about being an Army Reservist is, they often talked about how your civilian skills could really be a benefit in these situations over there. For some people you’d hear that they were able to be a city planner or something over there because they brought that skill. Well for me as soon as they found out I managed an airfield, that was really valuable to them, and so I was a senior aviation advisor on airfield planning for the northern half of the country. That was a very enriching experience for me, it wasn’t our normal function as an engineering unit, but we had that ability and so we did it. It also translated into management of the Sharana Army Airfield at the place where we were based. That was one of my functions too.

Not only was I performing my engineer role as an aviation planner and planner of other projects, but now I also had the responsibility over managing planning pre troop surge of an airfield that would match us growing from a population on that center of less than 3000 soldiers to a soldier city as big as 10,000. We grew from basically a small township up to a city the size of Hermantown, and we had to do it in months, not years. With all of its infrastructure and all of this. Supplies moved in and out in Afghanistan through the year. Roads were virtually nonexistent; there were too many mountains, so the airfield was extremely important.  We needed to increase our infrastructure in a big, big hurry. That was a very gratifying effort for me, very, very rewarding and I was pretty proud that I was able to do.

NR:  I’m sure.  Can you tell me a little bit too about exactly what your role was both in Iraq, and now you have mentioned now what your role was there.

TW:  Sure. The Iraq deployment, when my official title started out, I was a section sergeant of a heavy equipment section. I had twelve to thirteen team people initially when I was sent to Iowa and when we first got to Iraq. So that was my role. Shortly after getting there I was promoted from E-6 to E-7 Staff Sergeant to etc. First Class. With that promotion and getting to know my Iowa leaders better and them getting to know me, they immediately moved me. They moved me into the Operations Sergeant roles as an Operation Sergeant.

I was doing all the coordination, and planning of all the constructions projects for that company and the company commander. That’s where I spent the bulk of my time, during my deployment. In some cases it was visiting project sites to ensure that the information and reports that we were getting back were good, they were progressing. The materials that we had that we needed in order to keep on schedule were progressing in a way that needed to happen. It also included an element of prior planning to set future missions up for success. That was the bulk of my role in Iraq.

In Afghanistan my official title when we started out with this, was G-7 Non-Commissioned Officer in charge, and the G-7 was our engineering cell. Within an engineer brigade headquarters, if you are in the engineering cell, this is where your civil, your structural, mechanical engineers all set. It really was the heart of our engineering planning effort. I had 30 people that worked for me and those people included surveyors, engineer planners, and licensed engineers. As I had stated earlier, I also had other responsibilities because of some of my unique skill sets. I was also in charge of the local airfield and also contributed quite, quite heavily to aviation planning, as we were increasing our aviation posture across the northern half of the country.

The 372nd Engineer Brigades mission went from something that localized from the eastern side of Afghanistan in terms of managing and commanding all engineering efforts in that area, to something that was on the northern half of the country. It was very, very big, we had thousands of troops underneath our command and control structure and it was very, very busy. I spent a lot of long days fourteen, sixteen hours making sure that all of our projects were where they needed to be in preparation for the troop surge. In preparation for the second deployment, um, you know, in preparing my family. It was a much, much different experience than it was the first one.

The first deployment was very much last minute notice, didn’t have time to prepare the family, the employer. This one was much different; we knew that we going shortly.  I was able to kind of bring my employer along in terms of helping them understand we need to prepare the company for my leaving. I was no longer just in a position they would back fill with a temporary employee. I was in a management position and so having a transition plan with somebody that could come in and fill that role for a year, because we know knew it was going to be a year. It was important and I felt obligated to that, so I was able to convince somebody that I trusted in the aviation industry to come out of retirement for a year. And take over management of the airfield at Duluth International and you know set a pretty good plan and we had a transition period in place. They carried on and were able to do that, I would say flawlessly while I was gone. I was just so proud of my folks, my people there as well as my friend, who was able to come out of retirement and do that for me. That was just as much service to the country as anything, to help folks carry on. So that was that piece of it.

In terms of my family, you know, my kids were now older and going into school now. They were in first grade, I believe. So it was a different preparation for them, they were babies  before the Iraq war, there wasn’t much to prepare them for at that point, in terms of what does that mean that Daddy’s going to war. And how do you rationalize the length of time we’re gone, the danger and what do you talk about, so it was much, much different.

We tried to do the best we could, my wife and I, to help them understand that I did need to go away, and that it was important work and give service to the country. Even at that earlier age, that they understand that it was a life calling, worthy of someone’s time, let alone their father. My wife again, while I was going, with the kids at a new stage in their life, I just can’t say enough about the amount of stability she provides without me there. She just does a wonderful job. You know, in terms of our marriage, we had been through it once and been through all stages of it and so this one—just keeping her informed and talking about things were are going to do differently this time and our interactions. We had access to the internet and this new thing on the internet called Skype was out there.

If I had a stable internet connection we’d try to see each other’s faces once in a while when we could. We tried to do these things. That was kind of our plan, I’d call whenever I could, and there were phones now and the ability to do that. We took advantage of those opportunities. I’d try to talk to the kids on the phone when I could and all of those things. It was a much, much different thing.

Then on the back end when we got home, the integration was much, much different too. I knew I couldn’t walk into the family and start just being the father and help. Even taking up a normal role of some of the decisions, I would defer to my wife for a while. Not just for her, but for the kids. You don’t just walk in one day and say well—it’s now blue and not green. That’s not how it works. We didn’t try to fight that process, both of us were extremely patient with each other. It was, a much, much different time for us this time. I would say largely successful.

NR:  So you are still involved with the Army Reserve?

TW:  I am. I just completed in September, twenty years, I’m in a training unit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the 86th Training Division. However, I’m actually going to retire before the end of the year. My career is coming to an end.

NR:  Okay. And you, that was good to you?

TW:  It was, I could have seized on opportunities to more and, take on other levels of responsibility, but I made a decision two years ago when I accepted the Executive Director’s position at the airport. I was going to concentrate on some service to the community that was a lot more local than some of the stuff I was doing in the military, so that was going to be my focus. Now I am comfortable with that decision.

NR:  And I understand that you also are a Bronze Medal Recipient.

TW:  I am, for the Afghan deployment.

NR:  Can you explain, I also know it’s two, three ways that a person can become that, but I don’t know.

TW:  Sure. The two main ways, one, you can receive a bronze star for meritorious service and leadership. And then the other way, which to me is always the more important of the two, if you will, you can receive it for valor and heroism of that type. Mine was for leadership, and just some of my efforts in the Afghan deployment, because we really did do a lot and our team—we set all sorts of production records as a brigade headquarters.

We got more built and did more for the northern half of that country than any of our predecessor brigades before us.  And you know, again, I think that some of my skills in aviation I think, also contributed to that, because I was able also to fulfill a need that they wouldn’t have filled otherwise. So that’s what the bronze star was about.

NR:  Well, congratulations, that’s wonderful.

TW:  Thank you.

NR:  Is there anything else that you would like to—have we missed anything?

TW:  Not that I can think of. It’s been a very rewarding and challenging twenty years. You know I’ve seen the military change in twenty years, some good, and some bad.  You know I sometimes wonder whether or not we’re repeating some of our same mistakes. I did a paper for the Sergeant Major’s Academy, about four years ago, where I looked into this idea of what’s called war weariness of the country. What happens typically is in a democratic society like ours, people can get fed up, for lack of a better term, of persistent conflict and war.

You know, certainly we are there now for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the amount of money that gets poured into this and not other programs that people feel are important. We’ve been down that road before. We’ve been down it several times and every time we’ve been down that road since World War I, we downsize the military in response, because that money needs to be reallocated elsewhere. When we do, training suffers, equipment allocations suffer. So the next conflict that comes along, and you can march through every one of them in history, we go and don’t do so well, first time out. Then there are a lot of lives lost. That happened in World War II; it happened in Korea, and it happened in Vietnam.

Fast forward now to today, they see a military that’s coming out of this persistent state of conflict. They’re at least trying to do the downsizing, getting out of Iraq when they did, getting out of Afghanistan and now they are downsizing the military once again. Money is becoming constrained; money that I think will ultimately go to training that isn’t where it needs to be. I just hope that we aren’t repeating the same mistakes that are ultimately going to cost people lives, next time soldiers are called on to do what they need to do. Some of that I think is just a byproduct of being a democratic society and doing that type of thing. I don’t know what the right answer is, just it’s sad to see things go through those cycles. But, when all that’s said, it’s been a rewarding twenty years.

NR:  Thank you so much, Tom.

TW:  You’re welcome. Thank you.

NR:  And thank you for your service, for everything that you have done for all of us in America, and Afghanistan and Iraq. Thank you, thank you, thank you, so very much.

TW:  Oh, thank you. I was happy to talk about it.   

end of interview

Track 1

Transcribed by Helen Hase

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