Service members who fail to complete flight training rarely go on to spectacular careers – at least that was the common wisdom I picked up prior to being assigned to Officer Rotary Wing Aviators Course 44-79 in August of 1979. That “common wisdom” came back to haunt me when I received a medical disqualification the following April. I was passing all the academic courses and could hold my own in the cockpit, but had developed a vision problem during training that could possibly mean trouble during flight during darkness or instrument conditions. I was left hanging for three months before getting a final notice and while I made all sorts of jokes about seeing-eye dogs in the cockpit there was nothing to laugh about when I got the official word that I was not going to be spending a career flying helicopters.
I was angry. I was sad. I was depressed. Even though I had no reason to believe so I imagined all sorts of negative comments bandied around behind my back …but as I was juggling all of these emotions about I knew one thing for certain: I was not going to develop a bad attitude like “all those other guys”. If I was going to get back at the Green Machine it wasn’t going to be accomplished through half-a**ed work. I was going to get SO good at my job that it would hurt the Army when I left. It never occurred to me that the Army was so large and monolithic that the departure of one lieutenant would be hardly noticed, but it did keep me fired up to do a good job.
I needed the motivation because I was in a hard situation to deal with. I was fortunate to be assigned to a support unit at FT Richardson (AK) located about three hours’ drive from my home-town. Unfortunately it was a difficult time to be in that unit – or in any unit in the Army. We were still grappling with the post-Viet-Nam ”hollow army” syndrome and if the Cold War to suddenly turn hot we were too few expected to do too much with too little to do it with . Resources were so tight that training was handled in the same way Popeye’s sidekick Wimpy would score a dinner appointment: “Come on over for a duck dinner – you bring the duck.” It was so bad that I had to complete a budget control sheet for the two wooden splints used in a first aid class.
One of the most critical missions our battalion was tasked to provide Airfield Arrival/Departure Control Groups (AA/DCG or“AG/DAG” for short) for any Brigade Alaska units traveling by Air Force military airlift. Co-located with a similar Air Force control unit, an AA/DCG is tasked with gathering, preparing and documenting Army passengers, vehicles and cargo prior to being loaded and transported by the Air Force. In richer times a dedicated AA/DCG unit from the lower 48 would deploy to Alaska to accomplish that mission but as a budget-saving measure an ad hoc “AG-DAG” was organized out of local personnel.
It seemed straightforward enough – we had the manuals and most of the equipment but getting people and equipment through the barely controlled chaos of a remote assault air strip was one of the major choke-points in our major field exercises. The previous seven (7) lieutenants had all been relieved for cause on the first day of their particular operation. In each case the relief was extremely unfair as the officers in question had had little or no training and were reduced to running operations with a radio handset in one hand and a field manual in the other, reading up on each phase of operations just as they got to it.
So – No pressure!
I was fortunate beyond all belief my first time out. I was assigned to shadow another lieutenant given another chance at the job. It gave me a chance to learn the ropes and make some mistakes before I was in the driver’s seat. Consequently the first time I ran an airfield on my own I was thoroughly prepared and the whole operation went smoothly –without a hitch. The second airfield I ran went even better and eventually the A/ADCGs were running so smooth that my counterpart at Elemendorf AFB would question the need for coordination meetings if he knew I was in charge of the Army side of things.
I had no idea such a job existed before I entered the Army, but I found it to be the best job of all. It was the very essence of logistics with C-130 Hercules aircraft constantly landing, getting unloaded, getting loaded, taking off and circling above. It required leadership and diplomacy at every step/ every level and during the course of the seven AA/DACGs I led I received maximum scores on my Officer Efficiency Reports and was awarded both the U.S. Army Achievement and Commendation medals.
…but none of that compared to what was given to me in November of 1982. I was flying into FT Greeley (AK) the dress rehearsal for JRX (Joint Readiness Exercise) BRIM FROST 83, scheduled for the following January and February. I was a passenger in the first “chalk” (the first flight in the airflow) along with Brigade TALO (tactical airlift liaison officer) and best friend CPT Bill Griffin (USAFR) and our respective jeeps and “dog-robbers” (enlisted drivers/radio operators). Severe high winds had caused our aircraft to divert from the assault landing strip at Donnelly Drop zone to the permanent field at FT Greely, which was also plagued with high winds and turbulence but that location was just within allowable parameters.
It was stuffy and miserable as the plane bounced around and I felt my stomach start to gurgle and protest. Bill laughed – he’d heard my stomach – then mused on the possibility that the C-130 interior was deliberately designed to be hot, stuffy and “sick-making” as a stimulus for quick exit, be it by parachute at 1000 AGL or by ramp at 5’. The plane alit in what was best described as a “controlled crash” and we made our exit as quickly as possible in hopes of setting up shop in a corner of the terminal lobby and re-directing air-landing operations so the logistical flow would continue uninterrupted. Unfortunately we were so busy we failed to note the approach of LTC McGruder, the brigade S-3/operations officer.
“Hello Dave. Hi Bill. How are you guys doing?”
So informal. I didn’t know LTC McGruder that well so I had no idea what his leadership style was like. Was he being sarcastic? In near-unison we gulped out “Oh fine/good/OK” in perfect Tim Conway impressions.
He went on: “You know, I have no idea what you guys do. What I do know is that when you are running things the airflow works right and everything gets moved on time, so whatever you’re doing – keep doing it and if anyone gives you a hard time send them to talk to me”
At that he shook our hands and walked off – which was just as well because neither Bill or I moved for a couple of minutes. When I could finally get my lips to work all I could say was “Wow, just like a movie” to which Bill’s witty riposte was “Yeah, a movie”.
I had the opportunity to put LTC McGruder’s words to the test two months later while running the ADADCG for JRX BRIM FROST 1983. It was the most challenging airfield I had ever run as we moved several thousand soldiers in and out of the Delta Creek assault strip. On one occasion it was much more than challenging, when the executive officer of one of the infantry battalions extreme exception to procedures his unit had to perform before boarding aircraft to fly home. He was new to the brigade and didn’t know me and kept pushing for shortcuts in the process until I finally told him that I would be glad follow his orders as long as they were put in writing. He turned three shades of crimson and stomped out of the operations tent, snarling something “smart-a** lieutenants” and “we’ll just see about this…”
He was back within an hour – all smiles and “Hey Dave” and “Sure thing buddy”.
He had gone to see LTC McGruder.
I never saw LTC McGruder again. Our paths rarely crossed when we were back in garrison and I left the service two months later. I was pleased to see his name pop up in TIME magazine several years later and to find that he was a two-star general in charge of army operations and personnel in the Panama Canal Zone. Given the leadership skills he demonstrated all those years before I wasn’t surprised.
I went on to other assignments while serving in both the active and reserve components of both the United States Army AND the United States Navy Reserve. I made it a point to do my best no matter the position I was assigned to or the task I was given – and in the process I earned high efficiency ratings and numerous awards, medals and badges. I confess that wearing the ribbons and badges brought a measure of pride, but I’ve always wished there was some sort of ribbon that accompanied LTC McGruders remarks all those years ago when he so skillfully rolled such excellent leader’s guidance into such unconventional but effective praise.