1983: David Ralph 2.0: Where Are You?

He has to be at least thirty-two years old – maybe thirty-three. He probably became a solider just like his father and for all I know he could be stationed here at Fort Campbell. He’d have no idea who I was if we were to meet, if nothing but for the fact that his skin is a rich mahogany color while I am a old pasty-faced white man, but if we were able to talk for a couple of minutes he’d understand where his first & middle names “David Ralph” came from.

It was the spring of 1983 and my battalion commander didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with me either.  I had just a month left before I left the active Army  needed something involved enough to keep me busy but not so involved that I couldn’t tie all the loose ends up before my date of separation. Luckily the eminent arrival of the battalion’s annual Inspector General visit (known simply as ‘the I.G.’) gave me an important task. I had to get rid of a bunch of stuff, and by stuff I mean equipment that I had amassed while leading the brigade A/DACG for the previous two years.

(Acronym alert: A/DACG (“pronounced ‘dag’) stands for “Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group”. Whenever the Air Force provides airlift they provide just the planes. The transported unit – be it Army, Navy, even another Air Force unit must provide a control unit drawn from their own personnel to provide an interface with the squadrons doing the flying.  These control groups manage the movement of vehicles, cargo and passengers from their original locations to the actual airhead where they set up an airport terminal under canvas. Functions include inspecting/weighing/marking cargo, verifying load-plans, providing shelter for passengers awaiting transit, and co-coordinating between various units and commands.)

Running the (A/DACG) was an exciting job – logistics in its purest form, but it was a hard job as well. The pace of tactical air movement is unforgiving and the slightest mistake could mean a bottleneck holding up thousands of troops. That pressure meant the job was avoided like the plague and it usually trickled down to a junior officer too slow or not imaginative enough to figure out a way to duck the assignment. Training available usually consisted of reading the pertinent field manual so it is no surprise that the assignment had chewed up seven lieutenants in seven operations. By sheer luck I was able to observe another lieutenant in action before my first time running things; that small “leg up” insured survival through my first A/DACG assignment as well as ever-increasing levels of success commanding the half-dozen airfields that followed over the next 24 months, all of which culminated in a U.S. Army Achievement medal for leading the ADACG for JRX BRIM FROST 1983.

Normally upon separation from a unit an officer just signs keys over to the replacement but in this case there was a problem: The A/DACG unit that I had masterfully led for two years didn’t really exist. It was a provisional unit cobbled together out of soldiers detailed from the battalion’s individual companies. It was the same situation with the equipment: all the vehicles, tents, stoves and stuff were listed on the property books as belonging to other units. Confusing? I gets even more complicated. I had a lot more “stuff” than I was supposed to AND my storage facilities didn’t officially exist, most of them consisting of various lockable places located on the loop –  a group of small Korean War vintage warehouses arranged around a circular stretch of track and road on the far side of post – that I had “acquired” from helpful NCOs in the battalion.

Where did the extra “stuff” come from?

As a rule units are well-prepared when they are deploy from base to the field. Everything is carefully packed on vehicles or standard 463L pallets, all documentation is in order and the troops are clean, rested and ready to go. Coming out the field is a completely different story with most of the units looking like Napoleon’s Grande Armee during the 1812 retreat from Moscow – especially during the winter months and especially-especially when there was bad weather during the retrograde.

  • Everything and everyone was dirty from heating stoves that left a film of soot over everything.
  • Load plans were essentially a wish
  • Items would be thrown onto vehicles and roped down where it fell
  • Items were stacked haphazardly on 463L pallets where they resembled piles of building blocks kicked over by a giant two-year old.
  • ….and a lot of items and equipment were just abandoned on the field and soon covered with snow.

Troops coming out of a mid-winter exercise would ditch anything slowing them down in the same way my horse Frosty would start bucking when she smelled a bear. Since my vehicles were the last Army loads to depart the airhead I would have my people collect the discarded items and store them when we got home.  I would use such items to supplement our own issue but it had other uses as well. Early on in my tenure  saved a career and kept another solider out of jail when we turned up a weapon on one occasion and an encryption module at another time, both of which I promptly turned into the proper authorities.

These salvaged items were the source of all my “extras”

It wouldn’t have been that much of a problem had the materiel in question been just a couple of tarps and some ropes but I had considerable stores of durable items like Coleman lanterns, expensive items like PRC-77 radio batteries, and often-pilfered items like cases of C-rations. As 90% of it was stored in undocumented facilities it made for an easily misunderstood situation that could make me look like the biggest black-marketeer since Milo Minderbinder of Catch-22 fame.

So there I was, the clock ticking down until my end-of-service date,  loaded down with tons of go-to-jail stuff and due to be replaced by another officer unlikely to keep the covert A/DACG supply rooms a secret. At the same time the notoriously long arm of the Army’s CID (Criminal Investigation Division) meant that I could forget just walking away from the mess. I was hanging on the horns of that dilemma when news of the IG came down from brigade, bringing with it my salvation.

Santa Claus came early and wore BDU’s that year. I went around to all the supply sergeants and made up their shortfalls with my unofficial stock.  As a short-timer my presence around the office was not exactly “mission essential” so I would quietly disappear for an hour during slow time, making my rounds of the individual supply rooms to assess situations and then returning to deliver items. As a result the battalion ended up with some very happy supply sergeants because there was /a lot more at stake with this inspection than usual.  More than two years had passed since last full-blown IG and during that time there had been multiple personnel changes, several major training exercises and of course the regular deterioration you get in documentation over of time, so it wasn’t just a matter of correcting a few shortfalls.

All of the company supply sergeants were lacking, but the one at most risk was the Headquarters Company supply sergeant SSG Roosevelt. In addition to all the other factors I’ve mentioned, his unit had been recently been reorganized from a detachment to a company which meant using a different table of organization and equipment. SSG Roosevelt wasn’t in risk of a reprimand – he was facing a ruined career and prosecution for major problems he was not responsible for.

As an artist I like to think that I know anatomy and facial features well, but I have never seen a face change expression and character to the degree that SSG Roosevelt’s demeanor changed on the day I showed up with my extra items.  It was reward enough for me to be able to make up almost his entire missing inventory  – but when he finished unloading my car he turned with an even bigger smile and said:

“Sir, you’ve just  saved my career and kept me out of jail. There is nothing I can to repay you for that – but I am going to try. My wife is expecting a baby later this summer and if it’s a boy I am going to name him after you”

I made a feeble joke, thanked him for his kindness, and then drove back to battalion headquarters forgetting his promise during the drive. Three weeks later I exchanged my I.D. card for a bundle of currency then embarked on a journey to that strange land called Civilian Life. SSG Roosevelt’s words probably would have never come to mind again were it not for a telephone conversation with my then-former battalion later about a year later when I called to ask for help getting my service records transferred to the Reserve system.

At the end of the conversation he asked if I kept in touch with anyone else from the battalion. Then he went on:  “How well did you know SSG Roosevelt  – the HHC supply sergeant?”

My face warmed flush with nervousness and said a silent prayer thanking God for the lack of video feed on telephones. “Oh. I knew him. Not real well. Nice enough guy and fairly competent from what I heard. Why do you ask?”

He replied: “Around the time I transferred to the Pentagon his wife had a baby – a big strapping boy about 8 pounds six ounces. They named him David which seemed OK to me at the time but when I found out that his middle name was “Ralph” I was surprised. There aren’t too many of those around –in fact you’re the only person “Ralph” I’ve ever known”. I mumbled something about coincidence and synchronicity and changed the subject as soon as I could politely do so.

…so please forgive me if I tend to stare at the name tags of the throngs of soldiers I when I am out and about in Clarksville.  Statistics show there to be a very high rate of enlistment among the children of career soldiers and the rate among African American soldiers is almost twice the Army average. I’m eventually going to run into David Ralph Roosevelt, and when I do will I have a story to tell him!

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