Military Life: An Aberration Story

December 17, 2009

Learning how to lead and then leading American soldiers has been the greatest privilege and honor of my life.

I was born on a naval base and was shipped off to Japan as a six-month-old. My family has a strong military history, yet as part of a downsizing in the 70's, my disappointed father was forced out of that life. I was about five-years-old at the time. His dreams of serving were cut short, and Dad went on to have a long and successful career as a high school administrator. Still, the memories and remnants of military service lingered for my brother, John, my cousins, and myself.

Have you ever wondered what military life is really like? My cousin, Army Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Hall, visited recently, so I had the opportunity to pick his brain. Despite the prospect of war, being an officer in the military sounded so attractive that I ended up trying to recruit my daughter and her boyfriend! Given today's poor job market and our global issues, if one is brave enough, it's a worthwhile and rewarding option.

With all that said, it's not easy. The one thing we all know about military careers is their potential to separate families for long periods of time. That's just one of the down sides. So who are these brave people who choose to take on separation and, in many cases, war? Why do they commit their lives to serving their country--to serving us? Are facing those built-in aberrations really worth it?

I'm sure there are a million different answers to these questions. But to get an glimpse into that world, I decided to ask Jerry to share his story. He agreed to help us understand some of the sacrifices and rewards.

You joined the military right out of high scho
ol, which shaped your life in a major way. What inspired you to take that track, and how did your recruitment play out?

Our grandfather (Air Force Colonel Felton Hall) and your father (Navy Officer Bill Hall) were major influences that inspired me to join the military, as well as what I think was a generational urge to serve. I say generational because I think a lot of us who grew up in the 70s and early 80’s did so with the legacy of the Vietnam War (or perhaps the desire to overcome the legacy of the Vietnam War) and the experience of living during the Cold War. I wanted to serve in the military from an early age as a result of all those influences.

Going back to my grandfather, one of my earliest memories I have is of him in his uniform, the insignia of his rank shining in the sun. I couldn’t have been more than a year or two old because I think this is when we still lived in Michigan; my parents have a picture of me taking a bath in the kitchen sink with a carton of milk on the counter from Selfridge Air Force Base.

Later I can remember going up in your attic with your brother, John, to check out your father’s old helmet, flight suit and ceremonial dress sword.

My “recruitment” was less a recruitment than me going to the Marine Corps Reserve recruiter between my junior and senior year of High School and enlisting! My recruiter convinced me to apply for a Marine Corps ROTC scholarship at the same, which I ended up winning and using at Texas A&M for a year.

Was the initial military training as difficult as civilians hear it is? As a young man, do you feel that it changed you or your attitudes? If so, how and why?

Because I had experienced a year in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M as a “fish” or freshman, which was basically sanctioned hazing, I found Army Basic Training to be a breeze. In fact, it was so easy the Drill Sergeants made me the trainee Platoon Guide, which meant I was in charge of my platoon when the Drill Sergeants weren’t around.

Military training and service dramatically changed me and my attitudes. I was always fairly intelligent and athletic. I had a lot of potential, but I did not understand how leadership is more about duty and responsibility to others than it is about your own desires. I learned to live the Army Values of Loyalty, Duty, Honor, Respect, Selfless Service, Integrity and Personal Courage while growing as a person in the military. Learning how to lead and then leading American soldiers has been the greatest privilege and honor of my life. It was also a great experience to be a part of the Army as it reinvented itself at the end of the post-Vietnam era (I enlisted in 1982 and went on active duty in 1984), won the Cold War, the First Gulf War, and then went on to become the great organization it is today.

You went on to become an officer in the Army. Can you share a little of your military experience and what you’re doing now?

Here is a summary of my officer career:

1992-1994: After the First Gulf War, I went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia and was promoted from Staff Sergeant to 2nd Lieutenant. After OCS, I went to the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY, then reported back to Fort Benning to be a Tank Platoon Leader (four M1 Tanks) in the Infantry Brigade stationed there. The last year, I was the executive officer for my Tank Company (three platoons of M1 tanks). This time was devoted mostly to training my platoon, then company, for combat, including many training center “rotations” to Fort Irwin in Death Valley and Fort Polk in Louisiana for mock combat.

1994-1996: For my last two years at Fort Benning, I was the Executive Officer for one of the infantry companies in the Parachute Infantry Battalion that teaches the Basic Airborne, Jumpmaster and Pathfinder courses. This was an awesome job! I have 65 parachute jumps and completed both Jumpmaster and Pathfinder Schools. I also got to go to the 1995 D-Day re-enactment, complete French airborne school, and then jump into the same Drop Zone that my battalion jumped into on D-Day. No matter what people say about the French, the ones in Normandy still love us!

1996-1998: After being promoted to Captain, I went back to Fort Knox for the Armor Advanced Course to prepare me for commanding an Armor Company or a Cavalry Troop. After graduating from the course, the Army let me go back to school to finish my BA. I got my BA in History from the nearby University of Louisville. I was lucky there was a visiting professor whose expertise was military history, so the degree was fun. Plus I was a much better student at 31 than I was at 18!

1998-2000: After finishing my degree, I went to Hurlburt Field in Destin, Florida for the Joint Firepower Control Class (learned how to call in close air support). I took my wife, Anne, with me to this class. Destin is nice! Then we moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado after begging, pleading, whining, etc. to get back to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the same unit I was with during Desert Storm, and the premiere armor unit in the Army. Anyway, I convinced my assignments officer to send me, so I worked for a year as the Squadron (Battalion) adjutant, then took command of F Troop (Fox Troop; a cavalry troop has 128 soldiers in two Tank Platoons, two Scout Platoons, a Mortar Section and the Headquarters Platoon) and deployed it to Bosnia for peacekeeping duty in Brcko, Bosnia-Hercegovina. That was a great experience. We did a lot of good there helping Muslims and Croats move back to areas they were driven out of during the war (some Serbs too, although because my area was largely taken over by the Serbs, it was the Muslims and Croats who needed help returning).

2001-2004: After coming back from Bosnia, Anne and I took a short vacation to the Caribbean on a Windjammer cruise ship (they are actually sail boats), which was a blast. Then I went for a short six week staff officer school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, followed by reporting to the University of Nevada, in Reno, to be an ROTC instructor. For one year, I taught the ROTC juniors leadership, and was the operations officer for the battalion (it included UNLV). After that I became the recruiting officer and taught US military history to the cadets and the university at large. Teaching the military history course was very enjoyable, and once I have recovered from getting my Master’s degree, I’ll probably go on to get a PhD in History so I can teach again. We had our daughter, Gillian, in 2002, which was nice because I was able to go to all of Anne’s doctor’s appointments and be there when she was born--which isn’t generally the case in the Army. Oh, and I got promoted to Major in January, 2003.

2004-2007: While I was in ROTC, I came to a point in my career where I could choose to do something different than my “basic branch” of armor/cavalry. This was a hard decision, because I loved being in a combat arms branch, and loved cavalry even more, because it’s truly the tip of the spear. Anyway, after a lot of thought, and because I felt it was time to focus on family, I chose to change my career path to Simulations Operations, a very new branch. So after ROTC, I went to United States Pacific Command in Honolulu, where I was responsible for running the annual exercise that trains the entire Pacific Command’s Commander and Staff, as well as all of the service staffs (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines). We use huge federations of simulations and simulators to put it all together, so we can simulate warfare from underwater to space.

This was a fantastic job, mostly because not only did I get to work with state- of-the-art simulations and simulators, but during the exercise I was also in the control (or umpire) group, and got to make up scenarios and, as Anne has observed, got to be the “Dungeon Master.” We also took vacations on the neighbor islands of Kauai and Hawaii (the Big Island) while we were there (the military has cabins on the beach on Kauai and in Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii). We were there for the earthquake in 2006, and the near miss by Hurricane Flossie in 2007 (no problems).

2007: So after doing simulations at Pacific Command for three years and getting joint credit (important for future promotions), I went to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth for a year to learn more about higher level Army leadership. I started my MS in Emergency and Disaster Management while I was there. It was a nice time, the school is more relaxed that it was in the Cold War because people are deployed so much nowadays that they changed the school so it was more like a break. In addition to the basic curriculum, I earned a certification in Space Operations (mostly satellites and ballistic missile defense), and took classes on China and Chinese, because the Army was sending me right back to Hawaii to work in a missile defense unit.

2008-present: We moved right back to Hawaii after my school at Fort Leavenworth. In fact, we live right next to the house we used to live in, and Gillian goes to the same school and even has some of the same friends. I will probably stay in Hawaii for as long as I can. We really love it here. Gillian has a medical condition that requires special care, and right now the Army Hospital here in Hawaii or the Naval Hospital in Norfolk Virginia, are the best places for her, so we’ll probably stay here two-five more years ... than maybe go to Virginia. I now work in the Pacific’s missile defense command, so I do the simulations and “Dungeon Mastering” for all of the major missile defense exercises here in the Pacific, including Japan, Korea and Australia, which is why I travel so much (about six months in the last year). I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and finished my MS in December, 2008.

In talking with you and learning more about the military, it seems that they take care of there own in many wonderful ways. How has this changed over the years?

The military has gotten much better about taking care of families over the 25 years that I have been in. When I first came in the joke was, “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one!” Now there are full-time family support specialists assigned to all units, and there are many programs and a lot of emphasis on taking care of soldiers and their families.

As expected, you've often had to leave your family for long periods of time. You've also had to participate and lead teams in combat. These are certainly aberrations of life; tough situations you've had to bear due to choices you've made. Has it been worth it?

Yes, it has been worth it, although I am glad that we had my daughter later in my career, especially now that I have switched to my new career field. Just the traveling I do for training and exercises has had an impact on her. I am in the Army and have deployed for combat and peacekeeping, but I have been amazed at the resiliency of our young soldiers and their families over the past eight years of constant war.

How to you cope with being away from your family? Do you have particular strategies for that or do you just sort of suffer through it?

Fortunately with modern technology, I can usually talk to my wife and daughter a few minutes every day on the phone or on the web. The military has “morale calls” where you can use military phones to connect to civilian lines from overseas and talk to your family for free. I also always try to bring home souvenirs and gifts from the places I visit.

How did you cope with combat? Is it something a soldier can ever get used to, or does it continue to be difficult?

I guess I was blessed with the “no stress” gene; combat did not phase me. But my combat experience was in Desert Storm, which was a very short war (only about four days of actual combat, although I was deployed for a total of seven months), so it’s hard to compare to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers have to put up with combat stress every day for a year or more. The good news is that Army has also come a long way in how it deals with stress and its effects on soldiers and their families.

Has it been difficult over the years to maintain close bonds with family and friends due to your military career?

Yes, although that may be more of an excuse on my part! When I first joined there were no PCs, Internet, cell phones, etc., and international calls were expensive, so I pretty much disappeared to all but my nuclear family. Case in point is you! We hadn’t seen each other for about 25 years when I visited last month!

Who are your heroes and why?

Tough…my wife and daughter, and every military family, are definitely heroes for all they do to support my service. Also every soldier, sailor, airman, marine and coastguardsman is a hero…because they choose to serve our country and others at significant personal sacrifice. Trying to pick individual heroes is hard because I know (and knew) so many, including many who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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