American Warriors

Love in the Pioneer Cemetery

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The Civil War Memorial at Pioneer Cemetery. MacArthur Court, the University of Oregon’s old basketball arena is in the background.

Yesterday was my daughter’s seventh re-birthday. As a high school freshman, on January 7, 2013, she underwent neurosurgery at Oregon Health Sciences University to drain a cyst that was that was pushing her brain off its center line and causing her significant issues. She came through the ordeal with flying colors, finished high school as her class valedictorian, and is currently completing her B.S. in biology.

Each year on January 7th, we take the day off and go celebrate together. Part of that ce

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Renee and I yesterday at the Eugene Barnes & Noble. They had a few of our books! 🙂

 

Relebration includes a bookstore visit–Powells Books in Portland, or the Barnes & Noble in Eugene.  Then we go off and do something else fun. This year, we went and hung out with bald eagles, osprey, hawks and owls at the Cascades Raptor Center in south Eugene.

On the way, I stopped us very suddenly in front of a little house not far from downtown Eugene.

“What are we doing here?” She asked.

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The Johnson family house, purchased in 1936. This is where Gerald lived while going to high school and the University of Oregon.

I grabbed an advance copy of Race of Aces from the back of the car and answered, “Meeting the owner of that house!”

Very reluctantly, Renee followed me to the front door. I rang the bell. Renee whispered, “It looks like we’re missionaries or something.”Race of Aces_Sara Vladic quote[1]

A very kindly older woman answered the door.  I introduced us and said, “Your house used to be owned by the Johnson family.”

“Why yes, I’d heard that!” she said, surprised.

“Their son, Gerald, grew up here. He became one of the great fighter leaders for the Army Air Force during WWII, and Oregon’s top ace.”

I handed her Race and said, “Thirty years ago, I wrote a research paper in graduate school about Gerald and all his neighbors here and what happened to them during WWII. That start led to this book.”

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Gerald with his first (and only) car, a ’37 Plymouth he bought in 1941 as an Air Corps cadet. He’s in front of the house while on leave.

They were remarkable neighbors. John Skillern who lived behind the Johnsons, served in the 10th Mountain Division. Jim Bennet was killed aboard a PT-Boat at Iwo Jima. Marge Goodman lived next door. She joined the Navy and documented captured Japanese aircraft brought back from the Pacific. Her brother became Haile Selassie’s personal pilot. Many never came home. Others were blown to the winds by the war, choosing to make the military their career following VJ Day.

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Johnson as a cadet at Luke Field, Az.

 

In 1942, as Gerald headed off to war in his first combat deployment, his squadron flew through Oregon en route to the Aleutian Islands.  Gerald, piloting a Bell P-39 Airacobra, flew right down the street in front of his family’s house, pulled up and executed a mini-aerobatics show for his neighbors, who streamed out of their homes to watch the show.

His family missed it. They’d been off having a spring picnic north of town.

As Renee and I drove down that street, I related the story to her. Witnesses said he flew between the trees lining the sidewalks.

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The street Johnson buzzed in 1942. The trees were smaller 78 years ago :).

 

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Gerald in his P-38 en route to the Aleutians in June 1942.

Later that day, after we we met some of the coolest birds we’ve ever seen, I took Renee to Pioneer Cemetery that sits in the middle of the University of Oregon campus. In 1990, as a young grad students, I spent almost two years documenting the veterans who were laid to rest there.  It is a remarkable place, full of history. Including a small, but crucial moment for Gerald Johnson.

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One of the many Civil War vets buried beside the U of O campus. In 2017, while research Race of Aces, I stopped at Vicksburg and followed the 37th Ohio’s attack route in a pouring summer rainstorm. 

 

In 1939, Gerald was a freshman at the U of O, enamored with a girl he’d seen while hiking north of town a few weeks before. He asked around and discovered she was a senior at University High, which was acquired by the college years ago and became the education building. Barbara Hall lived southeast of campus, and each day she would walk through the cemetery on her way home.  Somebody told Gerald of her routine, and he dashed off after school to find her.

He caught up with her near the Civil War Memorial and introduced himself. It was the start of a romance that transcended distance, separation and war.  That moment the two met in the autumn rain, they became soul mates.

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Barbara and Gerald home on leave in front of the Hall family’s house in south Eugene.

 

Bill Runey was a classmate and friend of Barbara’s. He stayed in touch with her after graduation, then joined the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. He ended up in Gerald Johnson’s fighter group in New Guinea. In the fall of 1943, Gerald flew into Bill’s airfield, found him and introduced himself. They hadn’t known each other in Eugene, but Gerald had seen on some paperwork that Bill was from his town. He was delighted to learn that Bill was friends with Barbara. The two put the war on hold for an afternoon and sat under the wing of a P-40, talking of home and their mutual friends. Despite their differences in rank–Bill was a young LT, Johnson a Major, Gerald shared some deeply personal things, including the depth of his love for Barbara.  They became fast friends.

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Bill Runey at Gusap, where the two Oregonians met for the first time.

When I started researching Gerald’s life, I met Bill through Barbara in 1992. He quickly became like a second father to me.  For years, we met for lunch once a week, often with Barbara, sometimes with other veterans from Eugene. The Uni High grads stayed in touch all their lives, meeting once a month to chat about old times, grandkids and life in Eugene. I was fortunate to meet some of them through Bill.

The last time I saw Bill, he was dying at a local care facility. I sat beside his hospital bed and read part of Indestructible to him.

He’d always wanted to meet some of the Japanese pilots he battled against over the skies of New Guinea. I was never able to arrange that for him, but I did introduce him to the head of the Zero Fighter Pilot’s Association in 1999. We had lunch together, and the two warmed up to each other and exchanged letters for years, though they fought in different areas of the Pacific.

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Bill in the cockpit of his P-40N Warhawk.

 

On a trip to the USAF archives, I had found a diary and a POW interrogation report of a Japanese bomber crewman captured right near Bill’s airfield. Several crews were shot down during air raids on that American outpost. Some survived by stealing food from American supply dumps, until they were hunted down and killed or captured.

I read Bill the two reports. It was the best I could do for him, and he looked at me and said, “I think his plane was the one I shot down that month.”

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Bill and I in Eugene together in about 2003.

 

Bill passed two days later at 96. He was a great guy.  His family asked me to help lay him to rest. So on a day in August, 2016, we gathered at the cemetery where his dear friends Barbara and Gerald first met and fell in love. Only a few yards from the Civil War Memorial, we said our goodbyes.  He rests in peace, surrounded by generations of warriors, neighbors and friends.

In the winter rain yesterday, Renee and I visited Bill, and I told her the story of how Barbara and Gerald met. 81612547_10219242304385822_6329328411730771968_n

Not forgotten.

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Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Uncategorized, World War II, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , | Leave a comment

David Bellavia’s Medal of Honor Moment

DSC04824-2In the spring of 2006, literary agent, author and historian Jim Hornfischer introduced me to David Bellavia.  David had recently left the Army and was settling into civilian life–sort of.  Two months after we started talking every day on the phone, he returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter, traveling all over Anbar Province before coming home to work on a book together with me.

When we first spoke, he made it clear he wanted to write a “Themoir”–the story of his beloved platoon mates from Task Force 2-2 during their year in Iraq, which included heavy fighting against Shia militias in Diyala Province as well as during Second Fallujah. From the outset, he displayed a selflessness and determination to ensure his brother Ramrods would get the recognition they deserved for their service during an incredibly difficult deployment.

This is my kind of guy.  David and I quickly became very close. We sat talking late at night, each of us drinking whiskey, swapping stories and getting to know each other as we wrote the proposal. Eventually, House to House found its way to Free Press, and we delivered the manuscript in early 2007.

This week, David received the Medal of Honor from President Trump at a White House ceremony. Eight other MOH warriors attended the event, as did Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan in 2012. DSC04773

David, being David, turned the spotlight away from himself. After the President gave him the Medal of Honor, David asked if his fellow Ramrods and the Gold Star families of TF-2-2 could come up on stage.

“How many people are we talking about?” President Trump whispered.

“All of them, Mr. President.”

President Trump considered this pretty radical breach in tradition and protocol before saying, “Yeah, okay!”

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The Ramrods clustered forward, filling the stage and packing in so tightly that Michael “Shrek” Carlson’s mom lost her footing and started to fall off.  Trump quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back from the edge. A moment later, he leaned into her ear and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The Ramrods of TF-2-2 smiled for the cameras and celebrated this moment in the White House exactly as they had fought in Fallujah:  together as a team of men whose bonds transcend mere blood.  David made that happen. Since coming home, enduring many hard lessons in politics and in the public eye, David Bellavia has been one of the most gracious and selfless human beings I’ve ever known.

Seeing such a man receive our highest award for valor was one of the most significant moments of my life.  It is a reminder that with patience, sometimes the right thing will happen, and the good guys get a win. DSC04808

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized, Warrior Memories | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cold War Chemical Weapons Depot Today

AO5Y8539Out in the Eastern Oregon desert, the U.S. Army built a massive facility in 1941 as part of its pre-war expansion program. Called the Umatilla Army Depot, this bleak spot in the middle of the desert, not far from the Columbia River served as a storage facility for ammunition and basic supplies for units in the Pacific.  During the war, Umatilla housed a 30 days supply of ammunition for all the U.S. Army divisions deployed against the Japanese.

To safely keep ordnance stored, the Army built hundreds of concrete igloos that still exist today. They’re like gigantic vaults with massive metal doors. Some are surrounded by berms or revetments for additional protection in case of an accidental explosion.

AO5Y8552During the Cold War, the Army chose Umatilla as a storage site for about twelve percent of the United States’ stockpile of chemical weapons. Everything from blister agents to VX gas was stored in L Block, which was sort of a base within the base complete with its own security fence and check points.  Those weapons were destroyed at a purpose-built incinerator built next to L Block in the 1990s. The work lasted for years, finally finishing up in 2011.

The base was subsequently handed over to the Oregon National Guard, which transformed it into the home of the Regional Training Institute. Today,  the ammunition igloos are used as high ground in field exericses by the RTI’s MOST classes and NCO courses. A rifle range has been added as well.  It is an amazing way to re-purpose a World War II era base, and ongoing work has upgraded the base’s new capabilities with such things as a small MOUT site.

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My OPFOR group of volunteers, the 973rd Civilians on the Battlefield, provides training support to the RTI’s NCO classes. We’re their bad guys, defending the MOUT site, executing simulated ambushes, moving to contact, etc. Being out there among the many abandoned WWII-era buildings is one of the most unusual experiences we’ve had. We’ve supported the RTI since 2008 when the courses were conducted at Camp Rilea on the Oregon coast.

This last week, we were on the ground at Umatilla again, working with the awesome NCO’s and officers of the Regional Training Institute to help make the class experience in the field as realistic as possible. The photos here were taken during the final phases of an NCO training course. We’re looking forward to many more days with the RTI on the ground at Umatilla, rolling as their OPFOR! After ten years, the experiences on the range with these incredible and dedicated citizen-Soldiers remains among the most meaningful of my life.

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Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, National Guard | Tags: | Leave a comment

Stories from Golden Gate IV: Steve Lopez and the Battle of Bau Bang.

Last week, I wandered through Golden Gate National Cemetery and took photos of the markers around me. I’m still on a research trip, now down in Southern California, but I have been slowly researching the men and women whose headstones I photographed. Each one has a remarkable story, which is easy to forget when the headstones stretch for acres in all directions.

Tonight, I want to tell you about Private First Class Steve Lopez.

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On March 19, 1967, the hundred and twenty-nine men of Troop A, 5th Cav rolled into Fire Base 20, a 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry position about a mile from the Vietnamese town of Ap Bau Bang. Troop A included six tanks and twenty M-113 armored personnel carriers. They set up a 360 defensive perimeter around the fire base, and that night at least two battalions of the 273rd Viet Cong Regiment struck the Americans with a massed infantry assault. The fury of the initial assault was so intense that even an AC-47 Spooky gunship, massive artillery support and the combined firepower of the 5th Cav’s tracks could not break it up.

800px-M113_Advance_in_VietnamThe VC reached the perimeter and swarmed over some of the APC’s. The tracks buttoned up and their commanders called for “dusting”–canister shots directed at their own vehicles by their fellow troopers. The idea was these shrapnel shells would kill the VC around the tracks but be unable to penetrate the M-113’s armored hulls.

The Americans fired at their own vehicles as the VC hit others with mortars and RPG’s. The tactic worked, but just as the canister shots cleared one M-113, a VC mortar hit it and caused it to explode. The wounded crew managed to escape and get back inside the perimeter as the rest of the troop retreated back and established another fighting line.

PFC Steve Lopez was part of the stricken track’s crew. His Brothers were able to get him out of the burning M113, but he died of his wounds a short time later. Steve was from Fremont, California. As a kid, he used to bring a sack lunch with a can of tuna in it. He’d open the can and eat the tuna straight out of it to the astonishment of his friends. Later, one of his classmates visited the Wall and left cans of tuna in his honor on the ground before his panel.

Steve was twenty years old when he died of shrapnel wounds. He’d been in the Army less than a year.

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The Americans held through the night with the help of air strikes, artillery and reinforcements. When the fighting ended, sixty-three Americans had been wounded and three killed. The two battalions of the VC’s 273rd Regiment suffered around two hundred and thirty killed in action. It took twenty-nine air strikes and almost thirty tons of bombs and rockets, plus three thousand artillery shells and the sheer determination of Troop A to hold Fire Base 20.

Though the Battle of Bau Bang II, as it was called, has been virtually forgotten by Americans, Steve Lopez will not be.

 

-John R. Bruning

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Vietnam | Tags: | 1 Comment

Stories from Golden Gate II

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Men of the 381st Infantry Regiment advance on Big Apple Ridge, June 12, 1945.

 

The 96th Infantry Division trained at Camp Adair, Oregon in 1943-44. Known as the “Deadeyes,” the division was one of four that called Adair home, but it was the only one sent to the Pacific. The other three went to Italy and Western Europe.

PFC Castaneda and his regiment served on Leyte Island in the Philippines first, then took part in the Battle of Okinawa in the spring and summer of 1945. In eighty-one days of continuous combat, Castaneda’s division lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in action. Thirty-two Deadeyes are still classified as Missing in Action from Okinawa. Only the 6th Marine Division suffered heavier losses.

Louis Castaneda was killed on Okinawa on June 12, 1945, just shy of his 24th birthday, during an assault on Big Apple Ridge, a key position in the last Japanese defense line on the island. He is laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery.

 

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Categories: American Warriors, World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Leave a comment

To Those Who Wear the Flag

Smoke rises behind a Charlie Company HUMVEE from a car that charged the scene firing at the unit. Charlie Company returned fire, stopping the car, to secure the area, during increased tension in Sadr City, Iraq on July 5, 2004. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Ashley Brokop (Released)

To all those men and women who go to work every day with our flag on their shoulder:

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You are part of a legacy of service that transcends national interest, but fights for basic human rights. For two hundred years, those who have worn the uniform have stood in the eye of the storm to protect those basic human rights. From the outset, Americans in uniform have changed the world, reshaped it, destroyed the oppression of the British Empire, ensured the evil of slavery would be destroyed–despite the brutal cost–freed Europe twice, saved millions from genocide, reshaped the Free World and held the line against religious extremism that threatens it.vietnam color series810 4x6


To wear the flag means you are a game-changer. Every generation’s men and women in uniform have made a difference from Lexington Green to the Qalats of rural Afghanistan.

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This day is for all of you with the courage to serve and fight.

 

 

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Happy Veteran’s Day,

 

John R. Bruning

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Categories: American Warriors, Uncategorized, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

Scenes from Katrina

New Orleans, September 2005. Some of my moments in the city, Post-Hurricane Katrina, when I was embedded with 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, Oregon National Guard. We were in North-Central, based out of the NO Baptist Seminary on Gentilly.

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2-162 used commandeered, abandoned city busses to move around New Orleans.

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Hundred and three degrees. On patrol in a north-central neighborhood still partially flooded at the end of September.

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SSG Jason Obersinner moments before he was evacuated and underwent emergency surgery following an injury to his arm while on a patrol.

 

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CASEVAC at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

 

 

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Eighty percent of the pets in New Orleans died after Katrina. They were abandoned by their owners, many left locked inside steaming hot houses or apartments. Some, like this dog, were chained to their front porches. The NOPD tried to arrest the animal rescue volunteers we met who came into the city to save as many as they could.

Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, National Guard | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Sergeant Bell and Second Fallujah

Me_and_ssg_colin_fitts  David Bellavia ranks as one of the most creative, intelligent and flat-out hilarious human beings I’ve ever met. I have spent countless hours on the phone, sides aching, gasping for breath as David fires off one-liner after one-liner. When I hang up after such conversations, I feel let down. Though we’ve never met face-to-face, David is one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.

We met in 2006 and wrote a book together about his experiences in Iraq. Called House to House, the memoir detailed the brutal struggle to capture the northeast part of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, a job assigned to Task Force 2-2, 1st Infantry Division. On November 10, 2004, David helped save his platoon from an ambush laid inside a well-built and fortified house. After risking his own life to get his men out, he returned to the house and fought a pitched battle in utter darkness with the insurgents hunkered down inside. The solo fighting raged from room to room with machine guns, assault rifles and pistols. It finally ended in hand-to-hand combat on the second floor. David emerged from the house, wounded and forever changed by the experience. But he was the only one who came out alive from that fight. The insurgents fought him to their last breath.

For his actions that day, David was awarded the Silver Star. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor, which if this had been any war but the current one, he would have received in 2005. Someday, there will be a president who rights that wrong. I still hope somebody will step up and do the right thing here and award David the medal he deserves.

David returned home from Iraq and left the Army. It was the biggest sacrifice he’s ever made. He loved the Army, loved being an NCO. But his family would not have been able to endure another deployment. Ultimately, he chose his wife and children over what he most wanted to do: return to Iraq and continue the fight.

One of the things I admire 100_0623most about David is his complete lack of bitterness over what happened with his award. He refused to talk about it in House to House, but the fact is the Army did not treat him very well after Fallujah. His MOH nomination was stalled, then denied. Instead of a DSC, David received a Silver Star in the mail several months after he retired from the service. His name was misspelled, and the citation really didn’t accurately describe the action for which it was given. It was a kick in the teeth instead of an attempt to honor the personal courage of a man who gave everything he had to save the lives of his men and execute the mission assigned. Yet, David took it with a measure of dignity not seen very often these days. He remains pro-mission, pro-Army, and is a stalwart supporter of America’s veterans. To me, that shows a grace and depth of character only rarely found.

In 2007, House to House was published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press imprint. It received stellar reviews and was called by the Oregonian’s Mike Francis “Nothing less than a 21st Century Red Badge of Courage.” Mike’s review is the one I want read at my memorial service when I kick the bucket. He’s an outstanding journalist who in 2004 embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Baghdad even though he’d never been a war correspondent.  He’s seen it, been there and been in harm’s way, so his review is the one that over the years has meant the most to me. Find it here: http://blog.oregonlive.com/oregonatwar/2007/09/house_to_house_book_review.html

 

The UK’s Telegraph called it, “The most exciting book you’ll ever read.”http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/11/01/bobel127.xml

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Writing the book with David revealed a person to me who has struggled at times with life, but who refuses  give up until he’s conquered every mountain thrown in his path. He’s got more pluck and more desire, more love of his country and more raw courage than any man I’ve ever known. It was one of the greatest honors of my professional life to work with David and write about his platoon from 2-2. He’s a friend, a man I admire, and an exemplary American who operates not from self-interest, but from his heart and passion, both of which are fueled by his selfless patriotism and love of his Brother warriors.

Categories: American Warriors, Iraq War 2003-2010 | 4 Comments

The Supply NCO Artist

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Task Force Brawler was full of interesting and dynamic characters.  From Brawler Six to men like Andrew Alvord—the unit’s fighting quartermaster—to Cassie Moore (the unit’s only female Apache pilot) and C-17-flight-engineer- turned- Blackhawk-pilot Hunter Lescoe, this unique aviation task force marched to a different beat thanks to is remarkably diverse and talented members.

Sergeant Scott Tant, an Arkansas native, ranks as one of the most unique individuals I met at FOB Shank. Scott is a supply NCO who has a passion for photography.  Lieutenant Colonel Ault recognized that talent and gave Sergeant Tant Task Force Brawler’s  Public Affairs Office.  For a year, Scott essentially served as one-man operation to document TF Brawler’s operations in theater. IMG_1329

Scott went out on dozens of missions with the Ground Combat Platoon. I was amazed at Scott’s attention to detail.  His mind was a catalog of all things normal or abnormal in each village we visited. His eye for detail caught things that I never would have noticed—a few carved letters in a door, a new paint job on a building, the nuances that certain known leaders displayed as they interacted with Lt. Mace (Brawler’s S9) or Captain Alvord (PL for the GCP). Nothing escaped Scott’s eye. At one point, I told him he’s got a career waiting for him as a Pinkerton Private Eye.

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His photographs  reflect that attention to detail. Years ago, I collected about 40,000 photographs from World War II, including vast numbers taken by US Army Signal Corps cameramen. It is easy to distinguish those photographers who loved their craft from those who simply considered it a wartime job and nothing more. Scott transcended both extremes this past year in Afghanistan. He is an artist in uniform, and his photographs rank as some of the best I’ve ever seen emerge from a combat theater, and several of his photos have won awards. Those are considered to be some of the best images of Army Aviation ever taken during the war in Afghanistan.
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One thing I noticed within TF Brawler is a sense of humbleness. It started at the top with Brawler Six, whose modesty and discomfort in the media spotlight was a refreshing change from some of the things I’ve experienced since I swiched to writing about current military affairs. There was no “me too” in Brawler Nation, just a quiet pride in the entire task force’s accomplishments.

Scott Tant reflected that sense of humility. In his tiny office across from the XO’s, he created an archive of photographs that document the task force’s year in Afghanistan better than almost anything I’ve ever seen for a unit in the Global War on Terror. His artistic eye, his skill with his equipment (even if he is a Nikon guy), and his love of the craft ensured that every image tells a unique and powerful story. Someday, I hope to see his work in print; our nation needs to see the war through Scott’s eyes.

 

Photo below by Sgt. Scott Tant

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Categories: Afghanistan, American Warriors | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Legendary Alan Ezelle

1934882_1147964296701_2539593_nBefore I introduce Master Sergeant Alan Ezelle, I must preface it with the following confession: the first time I met E.Z. he scared the absolute hell out of me. I mean, at the handshake I was ready to wet my pants, flee, or surrender.

One look into his eyes, and you’ll know what I mean. They telegraph that this man is the baddest, nastiest, life-takingest NCO in the land.

And they don’t lie. They just don’t reveal all about the man.

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Alan Ezelle on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq during OIF II.

Sergeant Major Vince “Vinni” Jacques once said to me that “E.Z.’s been fed a steady diet of lizards and small Asian children.” I tried to quote that exactly in the Devil’s Sandbox, as I thought it was pretty hilarious, but apparently eating babies is okay, while eating Asian babies is racist. Who knew? Anyway, the Asian part got chopped in the end.

None of that changes the fact that I believe Vinni’s on to something there. Alan Ezelle is something more than human. I’m not sure what it is, but he is not your average mortal man.

E.Z. is a prior service enlisted man who served in the U.S. Army at the tail end of the Cold War. He did a stint straight out of high school in 1986, ended up in Germany for part of the time, then came home and separated from the service. He settled in Eugene, where he got a job as a bouncer in a local strip club. Several times, he faced down armed, drunken, horny rednecks with his fists, wits and a baseball bat. Somehow, he always came out on top.

Later, he found work at a company that rebuilds damaged railroad box cars. This was seriously hard labor, and E.Z. spent eight hours a day or more swinging a sledgehammer there. All in a day’s work. Truth be told, few men are up to such work day after day.

IMG_4514He joined the Oregon Guard in the early 1990’s and has served with Charlie Company (now Alpha) 2-162 for most of his career.

Alan Ezelle earned an ARCOM with V device for a four hour firefight in August, 2004. See the Devil’s Sandbox for details on that engagement. If this had happened during World War II, E.Z. would be wearing a Silver Star or DSC right now. His courage under fire, and his tactical, small-unit leadership in combat was second to none that day. His men were caught in a tactically disadvantage situation on Budweiser Bridge, taking fire from three directions and from both banks of the Tigris River. Meanwhile, an Iraqi SF unit was pinned down on the west bank by almost a hundred insurgents. Thrown into the mix was at least a platoon plus of Iraqi National Guardsmen, most of whom were half-trained and prone to lighting up the sky, the water and the sectors occupied by American troops.

E.Z. helped extract the surviving Iraqi SF guys, getting into a grenade-throwing fight with the insurgents in the process. He then covered their withdrawal back across Budweiser Bridge and got everyone out before he led his platoon off the bridge.

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E.Z. with Aaron Cochran during an Alpha Company MOUT exercise in 2008.

Through the course of the 04-05 deployment, E.Z. found himself in every possible type of firefight, ranging from lone gunmen spraying and praying, to complex ambushes complete with IED’s, RPG’s and lots of small arms fire. He led his Charlie Company platoon through it all without suffering a single man wounded in action.

The enemy was not so lucky.

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Al Ezelle (right) at the 2-162 welcome home following the battalion’s second Iraq deployment in 09-10. Brian Hambright (center) and Vince “Vinni” Jacques (left)–both among the finest NCO’s to serve with the Oregon National Guard.

Al Ezelle has that rarest aspect of personal charisma that elevates all those around him to perform incredible feats. His leadership is always unquestioned. The confidence his men have in him is total. What Ezelle orders gets done, like right now. Some of them are scared as hell of him, but everyone who has ever served with him says the same thing: the man knows how to motivate, knows how to extract the last ounce of effort from every man, and he always leads the way. Back when he was a platoon sergeant, I overheard his men on drill weekends talking quietly among themselves about some of the amazing things they’d seen E.Z. do. They spoke about him with a mix of holy terror and reverence. E.Z. is one of those guys that does stuff people remember. More than once I’ve heard a Soldier say, “I swear to God he did that. He’s not F###ing human, dude. He’s just not.”

Some of it is pretty damn funny too. One specialist related how E.Z. got dive-bombed by an angry crow outside the Alpha Co. armory in Eugene one day. The crow came back for more, swooping low over E.Z.’s head and squawking like crazy. E.Z. eyeballed the bird, then drew down on it. The wise bird got the message: the armory is Alan Ezelle’s territory. Mess with that and you’ll end up splattered, feathers drifting in the wind.

IMG_0400Now, E.Z. lives up to his larger-than-life persona every time he straps on his IBA. But at the same time, the knuckle dragger image he projects serves to hide two vital things about him. First, he is one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s got a steel trap of a mind that allows him to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment. He knows when to use a carrot, when to use a stick. And he also lets everyone know that the stick he’s carrying is not an ordinary one. It is the biggest freaking one on the block and he won’t stop beating the crap out of you with it until you’re a limp, broken fraction of a man begging for momma. Only then will he ease up a bit on you.

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Buried under the larger than lifeness of Al Ezelle is the soul of a teacher. When I worked with Alpha Company as their volunteer OPFOR coordinator from 07-10, I saw Al’s teaching persona emerge many times as he patiently explained a particular nuance to Battle Drill Six Alpha, or a Soldier skill that one of his men needed to hone. Someday, if he ever retires from the service, I hope he ends up as a history teacher. His classes would pass the AP exam every year. 🙂

He tempers that threat of overwhelming force with a very keen sense of human nature. When trying to make friends and win hearts and minds, he’s direct and honest and will do whatever he can to help a community out. He’s a savvy negotiator who understands that most humans have motivations and desires that can be used as the basis for establishing rapport. If he didn’t like kicking in doors so much, he would have been an outstanding diplomat, or interrogator.

I’ve never met anyone who has a better grasp of small unit tactics and doctrine than Alan Ezelle. In a fight, he’s proven many times he keeps a clear head and can visualize the entire battlespace in his head. This, combined with his ability to quickly assess a situation and make snap decisions, is what makes  Alan Ezelle such an outstanding leader of men. His SA can’t be beat. He is never surprised in combat, or in the training I’ve been involved with since 2007.

One aspect of E.Z. that I don’t think I did justice to in the Devil’s Sandbox is his ability to educate and teach his young soldiers. Over the last year, as I’ve watched him in the field during drill weekends, I’ve seen him mentor his new guys along with patience and just the right among of ass-kicking when necessary. He would have made an excellent high school teacher, he’s got all the skills for that and more.

In August of 2008, I was embedded with Alpha Company during the brigade’s summer Field Training Exercise at Gowan Field. During a company level assault on a village, part of his platoon was pinned down on the far left flank of the assault. He was with another element across a street and about a hundred meters from the squad that got in trouble. Two men were declared wounded. Al saw what was going on and sprinted across that stretch of open ground, kicked open a door, shot the “insurgent” inside, then got his wounded out of the line of fire.  One of the brigade’s officers at the time was watching that display of initiative and muttered, “That’s not his job anymore. He’s not a squad leader.”  I couldn’t help but think, this is exactly what he did in Iraq, and he saved lives. TO&E–Whose job it is on a battlefield doesn’t matter. What counts is the effect. Leaders get the job done no matter what their role is on paper.

As of 2015, Al Ezelle now serves as the 41st Brigade’s operations NCO. While not kicking in doors anymore, his innate situational awareness and tactical acumen I’m sure makes him well suited for his new role. But at heart, he will always be door-kicking, Soldier’s Soldier, larger than life, eminently capable and filling everyone around him with confidence and courage. I’ve met many great leaders—NCO’s and officers here at home and in Afghanistan, who I would have, and did, follow anywhere to write about them. But of all the warriors I’ve met over these many years, Al Ezelle is the only one who I would want leading my kids’ into a fight should they decide to enlist one day.

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Al Ezelle, Mark Flowers (of WWIIgyrene.org) and Brian Hambright at Goshen Range, spring 2008. Exemplary NCO’s.

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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