Home Front

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.


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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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.



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


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


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



CASEVAC at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.




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.

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Urge the Heroes

My Friends,


Four years ago today, a friend of mine was murdered in the line of duty. Chris Kilcullen was a police officer and negotiator for the Eugene, Oregon police department. I worked with him in training exercises many times from 08-11 and found him to be a remarkable man. I wrote this article in April 2011 after I got home from his memorial service.



The new University of Oregon basketball arena is fantastic. No expense was spared to give the Ducks a special home in what had been the site of Williams Bakery when I attended the school in the 1980’s. I remember waking up in my freshman dorm to the scent of fresh baked bread that first fall away from home, a smell that today can take me right back to those early days of semi-adult freedom and all the joy I felt at having the opportunity to study history.IMG03985-20110429-1633

It was an odd homecoming for me. I had not been to the campus since returning from Afghanistan. Frankly, last fall I did not think I would survive my time in theater and never expected to see again the school that became my first home in Oregon. Now that I am back, I never expected to return to it in the way I had to this afternoon.

In the arena’s lobby, I stared at the words printed on the main wall, superimposed over enlarged photos of past Duck athletes in action.

                                                Urge the Heroes

IMG03988-20110429-1646    Being a middle aged Duck, I recognized those words from our fight song, Mighty Oregon. Reading the words reminded me of the summer of ’89 when I worked at the Paul Masson Mountain Winery’s concert series. During intermissions, I had wine pouring duty and I used to give extra vino to anyone who could sing Mighty Oregon. I was amazed at how many Bay Area residents had gone to Oregon, and even more surprised at how many Duck alumni could remember the words to the fight song.

Today, those words overlayed across past hardwood glories offended me. I felt a stir of rage. Then tears. How dare we use that word in such context.

IMG03971-20110429-1354 I stepped into the arena. On the giant screen above the court, the first thing I saw was a photo I took in the fall of 2008. Displayed there for all to see was a true hero, not the false idols found here on game night.

In that photo, Chris Kilcullen was full of life, his winning smile exuding charm, his eyes full of mirth. I sank into a seat and thought of the many hostage negotiation exercises we went through together. I’d be on the throw phone role playing a bad guy holding my wife or kids at gun point, screaming irrational demands at Chris. I swore at him. I called him every name I could think of to cause him to lose his cool. I said horrible things about his mother and his wife. I probed for every weak point a man can have in hopes of causing a flare up, a quick retort or some other slip that we could discuss in the post-exercise after action review.


In other iterations, I’d been able to get under the skin of some of the other negotiators. Just before the SWAT entry team kicked in my door and took me down in one exercise, the last thing the negotiator said to me was, “Sayanora mother fucker!”


Chris teaching a new negotiator to talk me out of jumping off the city hall building at the Rilea MOUT Range, September 2008.


One memorable exercise had Chris teaching a new negotiator how to talk a person out of jumping off a building. That person was me. I jumped. Chris imparted some of his hard-won experience to his protégé, and in the succeeding iterations he talked me off the roof.

IMG_4900        As I sat in the new arena, I thought about all the vile things I spewed at Chris that never elicited a response. His calm and soothing voice was in my ear at that moment; the consummate professional. But he was more than that. He was a consummate, compassionate human being.

After one iteration, we were standing around talking. Somebody said to Chris, “You can charm the panties off a nun.”



Chris had been with the Eugene Police Department since 1998. He was a motorcycle cop assigned to the traffic unit. This meant he was out there giving people with lead feet (like me) speeding tickets. But he did it in such a charming way that those he ticketed came away feeling better for their chance to interact with him. His spirit shined that bright.

It was snuffed out last week by a 56 year old mentally ill woman. She shot at Chris with a .38 after he chased her into Springfield. This great cop, this father of two, this doting husband, died on the streets he devoted his life to keep safe for the rest of us. Exactly how a woman so deranged can legally buy a firearm in this State needs to be addressed. For now, this woman’s rash and senseless act has torn apart a family, and a community. We all need to heal. Coming so soon after Jerry Webber’s death, it was an especially cruel blow to his fellow officers.


Jerry Webber.


Over brats and beer in the Rilea starships, I talked cars with Chris. He loved his ‘50’s Chevy pick up that he’d had since his teen years, and it was particularly painful to see it for the first time on the arena floor parked beside the stage erected for the occasion.


I remember rolling into Eugene in December, 2009, on my way to bring all the photos I’d shot to Lt. Jen Bills. Until I went to Afghanistan, some of the best images I’d taken were during those weeks at Rilea with EPD. I was proud to give them to Jen so that she could share them with everyone else and their families.IMG_7463

Little did I know that two of the men I photographed would later die.

Driving along 7thStreet, I passed a sleazy downtown motel. Something was amiss, as the place was surrounded by police, and a team of officers looked ready to enter one of the rooms. I saw Chris and his motorcycle across the street on the outer cordon and waved at him. I’m not sure if he saw me as I drove past, but even in the middle of the real action, he had a slight grin on his face. Ever the buoyant one, Chris Kilcullen. He was in his element.

It was a surprise to see the officers in a real world environment instead of the training range. As I parked at the station, a surge of pride went through me—in some small way I felt like I had a part in all this. Those weeks off from writing and away from my family to serve as a tackling dummy for the EPD never seemed more worthwhile. Perhaps some of the lessons helped the SWAT and CNT folks learn would be of use out in the field after all.

But all those iterations at Rilea failed to save Chris from a lone crazy armed with a pistol she never should have been able to obtain. I don’t have the space in my heart left to feel guilty about that—Taylor’s death owns that real estate—but I couldn’t help but second guess some of the things I’d done during those training weeks. Could I have done something different that could have given Chris the edge he needed to survive this woman’s surprise onslaught?



I imagine, there’s a lot of that going around right now. And I remembered writing about two soldiers soldiers who died in Iraq during an IED attack. The men in that platoon were quick to blame some of the decisions made on that patrol. Recriminations lingered and left some of the men embittered. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought the men had gotten it all wrong. The decisions were of no consequence. The insurgent who triggered the bomb killed those men. War happens. The bad guys cause damage despite every precaution and care taken. That’s just the nature of the business. And so it is with Chris’ death. Nobody is responsible but the woman who chose murder over a ticket.

IMG_6641  I listened as Chris’ friends and families told stories of his life. His partner listed off his nicknames, many of which were hilariously off-color. When he finished, he said, “There was one name I never said to him…best friend.”

Finally, I could not take any more. Two years, four funerals—Jon Hudson, Taylor Marks, Jerry Webber and now Chris. I go through life with my heart wide open, but these past months have caused me to withdraw and be more protective of myself. Now, I felt raw again. I stepped into the lobby and walked to the huge windows overlooking campus. Across the street, I saw my freshman dorm, Dunn Hall. Third floor, center. There was my window shared with my first roomie, Chet Nakada.IMG03987-20110429-1643

Chris was born a month and four days after I was in 1968. He went to Willamette High, class of ’86. He started at the U of O the same time I was there. I wondered if we crossed paths on campus all those years ago. Perhaps we had one of those massive lecture classes like Western Civ together. I’ll never know. But he was there, sharing the experience of the university just as I had, tasting those first sweet moments of freedom right along with the rest of us.

Jen Bills. Mark Farley. My wife, Jennifer Beggs. We were all in the student body together. In time, our lives would come together in unexpected ways, and I wondered what we would have thought of that if we had such foreknowledge back then.

Gang010       I stared at my old dorm room window and thought of dancing in the hallways. Water gun fights. The great Dunn Bun War that left our floor littered with hundreds of stale hot dog and hamburger buns the night before Christmas break. I thought of tender moments shared in the predawn hours with my first college love, waking in her arms to the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread. I once told her that I’d live in a cave if I had to just to be an historian and do what I loved. She didn’t like that thought. She had dreams of material wealth, big houses and dinner parties, little black dresses and rooms captivated by her charisma.

So not me.


But I’ll say this: mine has not been an easy professional path. Moments like this one, these farewells to friends and colleagues torn from this life through violence or circumstance weighs heavily on me, and makes carrying the work forward increasingly hard.

I turned away from the window and that idealistic gestational phase of my life. I needed to say a proper goodbye to a man whose noble heart had earned my respect and admiration.

I walked through the lobby and saw those words again.

Urge the Heroes

So misplaced on that wall. There are no heroes on the hardwood, only athletes with heart and grit. Respectable, sure. Heroic, never. Americans misuse the word “hero” all the time. It has become an ingrained cultural error, one that demeans the service and spirit of the true heroes whose lives are spent in service for the greater good.

SUC50085    Suddenly, I didn’t feel so worn down. Chris Kilcullen dedicated his life to protecting us. I’ve spent my life making sure men and women like him are not forgotten. That is my purpose, my crusade. And in that pursuit, I connected with Chris. We were both men devoted to our callings.

The big house my college sweetheart so coveted has eluded me. Coming home from Afghanistan, the financial mountain I face is a scary one. No matter. I’ve known heroes. I’ve seen them in action here at home. I walked the ruined streets of New Orleans with them. I flew into battle with them last fall. In the final judgment, that is all I need out of life.IMG_9688

I returned to the arena, suffused with sadness, but rededicated to all I’ve predicated my life upon. Somewhere in the years behind us, the kid I once was stared out that dorm window dreaming of doing the things I have done. If he could see me now, I’d tell him only one thing: I’ll keep the faith.

I owe it to men like Chris.



Originally Published April 30, 2011:



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