As part of a North Carolina State Archives initiative to obtain oral histories of veterans I volunteered to be interviewed for the North Carolina Veterans Oral History Collection. I was interviewed by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (later referred to as MP).
The interview was well worth the time it took to coordinate and conduct it. I would encourage all North Carolina veterans to contact Matthew and provide their unique story for preservation.
This picks up where my NC State Archives Interview Part 1 left off. I had just been cleared to return to Langley Air Force Base the days following 9⁄11 after one of my best friend’s funeral.
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MP: So you get on base.
CS: So I get on base – and I mean it literally took me an hour, like to wait in line, get searched, have somebody verify that I was supposed to be on the list, and all this other stuff, so… Yeah, it took forever to get on base. And I don’t remember the next week. I was at work the whole time. Because it was – you know, you had… They spun up Operation Noble Eagle, which was the homeland defense side of OIF, or OEF, sorry. So there was this guard unit that deployed to the Capital, the Texas State capital, there was another unit that deployed to this place, another unit deployed to this place, and every – all these guys are coming online to stand up.
We had this whiteboard, and it hung on the wall at work, and basically it was, you know, mission number… if it was a guard unit, a reserve unit, active duty unit, start date, end date, and some general frequency settings and service offerings that they were utilizing. And literally the entire board was full, and there [were] no end dates. It’s like we’re going to be running full steam ahead for God knows how long because we don’t know what’s happening. Every day there’s something new. And the 24-hour news cycle was like really spinning up with CNN, Fox News, all these guys covering all these things, all day long. Like any time an airport got shut down, any time some new guard unit was patrolling an airport, you were reporting on them, and you were hearing about it.
At the time, the lesson from Desert Storm was CNN was a good source of intelligence. So what Desert Storm taught the military was have a TV in every work center and have that TV have cable news.
MP: Yeah, CNN.
CS: Yeah, so people could stay abreast of the situations. And… Yeah, you were seeing this stuff and you were just working, look at the news, working, check back home, make sure everything’s okay.
MP: So you guys had to rely on the news yourselves because stuff was happening.
CS: To an extent, I mean, it was happening so quick and fast, and the military could – I mean, the response to 9⁄11 was disappointing, right? I mean, I’ll freely admit that. The military could not move fast enough in the world we were living in to get information to people quickly.
MP: Is it fair to say it wasn’t the type of attack, necessarily, they would’ve been expecting?
CS: No, NORAD was completely focused on Canada northward, Atlantic Coast outward, southern boundary outward, and…
MP: And we’re about post-Cold War. So we don’t have a way to define what an enemy is yet.
CS: Right, the only thing that NORAD was really doing at that time was like, hey, you know, you’re… Hey, aircraft, you’re a little too close to North Korea, or, hey, aircraft, you’re a little too close to us and we’re not sure who you are. I mean, NORAD was – their job was… It was highly impacted by the end of the Cold War. Sure, you still had thousands of nukes pointed at the US, and they had that alert mission, but it wasn’t as well-funded, we’ll say.
MP: But having…
CS: But they literally had no radars pointed inward. So, like tracking aircraft, we relied on the FAA and the airlines themselves to track the aircraft. And the second they turned off the transponders in the aircraft, we knew, oh crap, they could have aircraft out there and we might not be able to find them.
MP: Yeah. So it was just a new threat that…
CS: It’s a new threat, yeah. And the second they said, you know… One of the things that you learned from being on a big fighter base was if a aircraft’s front landing gear has the light on, that means their radar’s on. I was like, well, why is that significant? Why is that important? Well, because you don’t want to get too close to it. Because it’s a significant amount of, you know, just radio frequency radiation. And it’s like the first time you would realize that, yeah, they’re not using radar to just make sure they’re in the right place, they’re using radar to make sure that all the aircraft are accounted for. Like as they’re flying around everywhere.
MP: Yeah, you can look down and see – yeah, yeah.
CS: Yeah, like the Department of Defense said, well, we’ve got all these airplanes, let’s use them, you know? So, it was nuts.
MP: So, I mean, Langley tied to the connection with the Pentagon, were people on your base having to go to help with the situation at the Pentagon.
CS: So, it was weird, like… My unit was not what they would call a ‘deployable unit’. It was more focused on keeping that combatant operation up and running. But guys that I knew from the First Fighter Wing were going out left and right. Like the unit I was telling you about with the Inmarsat satellite thing, they’re like, hey, will this work in Afghanistan. I was like, whoa, I have no idea what kind of satellites are above Afghanistan. Let me ask some of my sat comm guys. They’re like, yeah, I think they’re moving some birds over there now. You know? It’s like…
MP: It was literally that fast.
CS: Yeah, like, I mean… And moving satellites is not an insignificant thing, right. They get launched from the earth with a certain amount of fuel, and that’s all they get. So to move satellites and put more time over certain parts of the world is very costly. You only get a couple of shots at that.
MP: So did you guys rely on… Plane-to-plane relayed communication.
CS: So, part of that was like… Part of my job was to integrate a lot of those things. And then not only that, but integrate it with other Department of Defense communications entities. So like the Air Force, the Marines, the Army, the Navy, we all needed to talk to each other, and we all started using similar technologies, so it’s like, okay, all we need now is similar standards and we’re good, right?
That’s kind of a good transition into my next duty stations. I was irate after 9⁄11. I wanted to get in the fight. But you’re a com guy, you know? The only way you really get in the fight is – there were two units, Joint Communications Support Element out of MacDill and then the Joint Communications Unit out of Fort Bragg. One of those two guys, you could be a comm guy and maybe go to a war zone. Like guaranteed. So, I was like, well, what does it take to get into JCSE, Joint Communications Support Element? Because I was like, I don’t want to go to Fort Bragg.
MP: Yeah. You’re from North Carolina.
CS: No offense.
MP: - you know that – yeah.
CS: Yeah, no offense, but, yeah, I don’t want to go to Fort Bragg. Tampa, Florida, Fort Bragg. It’s kind of easy choice. Let me see if I can get into that unit. Well, it’s a highly selective unit, it’s a special duty station, is what they told me. And they’re like, oh, you’re an E4 – I was an E4 at the time, they’re like – this is 2002, and they’re like, slim chance. But then a buddy of mine – what JCSE was doing was very unique. They were saying we need more people. Air Force, help us. Army, help us. Navy, help us. And the Air Force was like, sure, here you go. Here’s some guys that have the skill sets you’re looking for. And one of them was a good buddy of mine. And he went down there – he was down there for a while – and he went out and did some stuff in the US so some other guys could go overseas, basically, I think is what it amounted to.
But their mission workload was so high, they needed more people, so they’re like, okay, we’re going to get some of these positions, convert it over to permanent positions, so we can have three of your guys down here. I was like, well, I want one of them. So he put me in touch with one of the chiefs down there, one of the E9s, and I was like, listen, I really want to come down there. Whatever you need me to do to get an E-4, brand new E-4 down there, let me…I’ll do it. He’s like, okay, and within weeks I had orders.
CS: So, yeah, I show up in my unit, in the First Joint Communications Support Squadron, or First Joint Communications Squadron, sorry. They were out in the field training. So I get there, and I’m like, oh, okay, so I’m with this training detachment learning the Army stuff. Here’s what a Humvee is, here’s how to run it, here’s the trucks, you know, how to…
MP: Here’s how they communicate, yeah.
CS: Yeah, here’s how – you know… Because it was a unique unit, it was a joint unit, it was really like the color purple, like, we embraced it. It was an Army command structure, but they used a lot of the processes and protocols from the Air Force and the Navy. I mean, the Air Force is full of smart people, so they figured, all right, fine.
MP: Well, that and you and Navy are used to being on the move deploying quickly, a lot more quickly than ground.
CS: Yeah, I mean, the Navy and Air Force training regimen for IT people was intense versus the Army. The Army and the Marines, I mean, you were soldiers and Marines first. The Navy and Air Force didn’t take that same kind of perspective. You were a sailor in the Navy, but a sailor could literally be anywhere. In the Air Force you were, you know, your job Then you did the combat stuff as like a secondary thing. So… [clears throat]
MP: And I guess the thing with your rank that interested me – because this is the time when people who were younger who didn’t necessarily have training, but had the skills and the intellect with IT stuff, could go past their rank, so…
CS: Oh, absolutely.
MP: This is now where the old military is not up to date with what’s going on in the world.
CS: It was really hard for some people to sit there in a room full of people and be like, hey, this is Airman Short. He’s my genius. He knows all about this. He’s going to bring you up to speed on this.
MP: Because he’s an E-4.
CS: He’s an E-4, where normally it would be like an E-7 talking to somebody about this, like… Rank was really kind of stripped away at that point, like for me, especially, because I was willing to not just learn how to push the buttons but learn what happened when I push the buttons, after the fact, and all the underlying things underneath that. So, when my unit comes back from the field, 1st JCS, the first thing my platoon sergeant says is, “I’m not supposed to get brand new E-4s here, I need seasoned NCOs.” Dah, dah, dah, dah. And that just put enough of a chip on my shoulder to be like, I’m going to prove you wrong. Every… single… day I’m here. I’m going to be the best guy you have, real quick.
So, how does the best guy become – how does the brand new guy become the best guy? You work with the best guys. So, it was funny how it worked, because you had this one guy, you know, Tom, this other guy, Jerry, they were super geniuses, right. And you wanted to work with them as much as possible. So did everybody else. So it was kind of like it was one of those, like, oh, well, you got to bide your time until these other guys leave so you can work with these guys. And you’re like, yeah, no, I’m not going to put up with that, no, no.
MP: Yeah, the cool guys at high school, we can only get – I can only get 15 minutes during PE.
CS: Exactly, it’s like, no, no, no, I’m going to work with these guys as much as I can. I will do what I have to do on this team, and then I will come to their team and do something else, so…
MP: What year was this?
CS: This was 2002. I showed up at JCSE, it was June of 2002, So… Yeah, Afghanistan was underway, we had some guys there at the time. We had some guys actually rotating back shortly after I got there. Became good friends with them. They had some serious stories.
MP: Because that first year and a half was really rough out there.
CS: It was crazy, man, like the…This one guy, Robert, I’ll call him, he was like, “Yeah, you know, we’re flying across the globe and it’s just like two or three hops to get into Afghanistan. We’re on the C-130, we got a pallet of equipment sitting there, and we come in for a combat landing…” And if you’re not familiar with what a combat landing is, it’s a rough landing. Like, basically, a C-130 can land in a certain number of feet, like in the hundreds, where a normal aircraft needs thousands. A combat landing was as short of a possible landing, as little time on the ground as possible, and then back up in the air again. So, these pallets, you’re supposed to bring in a forklift, pick them up, pull it off, put it back on some 4x4s, or some kind of thing, so a forklift could pick it up.
No, the loadmaster just popped off the strap from the… the cargo strap from the aircraft, popped them off, threw them off the back of the plane, and just skidded across the runway. This aluminum pallet. And it was just like, yeah, they’ll figure out how to get it off the ground later. And the guy was just like, “Move”, and told Robert to just get off the aircraft. And it was like pitch blackness, jumping out of the back of this thing that hadn’t even slowed down yet, and off he went into this blown up hut to set up communications. It was just like, wow, this is going to be great, I can’t wait to go do this. So, yeah, I mean, it was crazy.
And some of the weird challenges they had – you don’t realize how much local time matters. Because you have to – in Afghanistan especially we were interfacing a lot with the locals. They had no idea of like, you know, Zulu time, which is the UTC time. They had no idea about stuff like that. So we were trying to use local time and it was like – and the damnedest thing, they were a half hour off. So if it was 11 o’clock in Baghdad, it was like 1:30 here, or something, you know, it was crazy. So, yeah, all these little lessons learned, and all these things you can pick up from these guys, I was consuming that.
MP: Which that must’ve made communication – because if communications came in timestamped…
CS: Yeah, well, I mean, all the military communications came in with the Zulu time .
MP: Yeah, but if they’re reporting…
CS: - but you had to sometimes translate back.
MP: Yeah, if they’re reporting from local…
CS: - and then coming back in. Oh, yeah, I’m sure there was all kinds of chaos with, like, oh, yeah, the locals said they’ll show up at 9:30, and you’re like, oh crap. Because you’re doing the math in your head and it’s… Doing military time is hard enough, sometimes, with people. Like I still get 4 o’clock and 1400 mixed up. I don’t know why. There’s a 4 in it, I guess, I don’t know, but like… When you throw in an extra half hour here, or minus a half hour there, it gets even harder. You wouldn’t think that would be hard, but it is for some reason. It’s just weird.
So, you know, I’m there, do all the training stuff, get familiar with all the equipment – and that was a cool unit, because it was basically like here’s a field, okay, here’s the guys with the generators, here’s the guys with the HVAC equipment, we’ll build our tents, we’ll put our communications equipment, we’ll get all of our comms up in the first 72 hours, and you can have a fully running operational war room, wherever you want in the world, in a week. From the time you’re like, oh, a hotspot, to the time we’re up and running. It was an awesome unit.
The coolest thing, the coolest job I – the first two assignments I had in the Air Force were the two coolest jobs I think I’ve ever had. Period. Langley, because I got to touch all this crazy stuff, and then JCSE because it was just like, man, we’re designed to be this fast-moving, agile national command authority asset. It was fantastic. So we got all the cool stuff. They’re like here’s a box, here’s a box, they had blinking lights, make them talk. They were never designed to talk, like nothing, right? It was just like figure out how to make this work.
MP: Set up an antenna, set up a switch for the antenna, yeah.
CS: Right, yeah, it was just like how in the world – you’re like, so, what do these things run with? Oh, this protocol. What does this thing run with? Those aren’t compatible. Well, now wait a minute – you know? Let’s see how we can make this work. So that’s what we did.
MP: A lot of experimentation, right.
CS: A lot of experimentation, like rapid failure. Like the thing that the IT community is embracing right now is fail fast. We were doing that in the early 2000s. We were experts at it. If this idea doesn’t work, can it and move onto the next one. Can it, move on to the next one. You had to plan A through Z. Z was your Hail Mary. You might’ve only had A, B, C, D, but you knew Z was there if you had to pull it.
MP: It may involve aluminum foil and duct tape, but it…
CS: There might have been some of that going on, yes. So…Yeah, the…It was crazy. So we had all these exercises that we would go on. There’s like Internal Look, there’s another exercise that we did in Egypt every other year, and we’re like, well, you know, what exercise are we going to get ready for? It’s 2002, okay, so let’s get ready for Internal Look. Which was basically the second Iraqi war. So they set up this fictitious country, which was surprisingly shaped like Iraq, and we’re going to deploy from this other smaller country, which is surprisingly shaped like Kuwait, and this other country we might have some air assets in, and it’s surprisingly shaped like Saudi Arabia. But they gave it names like, you know…They would pick some random theme, and it would be like – and you literally could’ve named these things, like Tasmania Land, and Daffy Duck Island, or whatever, you know, and everybody would’ve been like, oh yeah, Kuwait. So…
And they would wargame all these scenarios, so… Our unit, we went out, and we said to the Central Command, which is also on MacDill Air Force Base…So you had JCSE, which was under, at that point in time…I forget which command. It’s no longer in existence, though. But then you had Special Operations Command and Central Command all right there in MacDill Air Force Base. So we did a lot of work for SOCOM, we did a lot of work for CENTCOM. Because we were right there. Our commanders were eating lunch with each other, you know. So… We went to CENTCOM and we were like, hey, we want to test some stuff out, try some new things, getting ready for Internal Look.
So they assigned me into the Central Command tech control facility. That was crazy, right? Crazy cool. It’s like they’re running a war from here. Like here’s Coalition Village after 9⁄11. The back 40 of CENTCOM was nothing but grass, and then there was a flight line somewhere over yonder. But they turned it into ‘Coalition Village’ after 9⁄11, and it was hundreds of mobile trailers, literally like 130 different countries’ flags. Like they had all these command posts there. It was the most inspiring thing I ever saw when they first took me out there. They’re like, “This is Coalition Village.”
MP: All their in…
CS: These are the people that are.
MP: Individual communications.
CS: Right, these are the people that are helping us fight this war on terrorism. I mean, you had every country you could think of was there. Qatar, Japan, obviously the UK, the Canadians, the Australians, New Zealand…I’m trying to think of an obscure one. I mean, if you name a country they were probably there. I don’t think the Russians were there, but they might’ve been. I mean, they were seriously – it was like all the fish, let’s get them all together, and let’s swim in this ocean as a team. It was really awesome. Just so inspiring. Because you just – you walk out and you’re kind of like elevated above this – basically, there’s this huge asphalt parking lot that they made with all these mobile trailers with all these flags flying from them. And you just see them all, and it was like as if we were all here together. We’re all here for this one mission. You know, let’s go get these guys. So we’re in there doing our daily exercise stuff, trying new things, getting communication circuits up, testing them, simulating war-type stuff that we would normally simulate.
I swear, everywhere I go this weird incident would happen. So, this one day, I walk out and I see all these MPs outside the hall. Because we’re behind a couple of double doors and you have to have this access badge and everything because there’s secure communications being processed. And… What are all these MPs doing out here? They’re like, “Hey, sir, can you go back in there for me?” I’m like, “I’m trying to go home.” I need to get back – you know, I had some appointment or something with my kid or something. They’re like, “We understand, but this is serious. We need you to go back.” Oh, great. Here we go. What’s going on?
So down the hall is the super-secret room where they do all the top secret communications processing. And I saw a huge presence down there. I was like, oh, great. Awesome. So I knew something had gone on there. It turns out some guy had taken three or four top secret laptops and tried to sell them to the Chinese.
MP: I remember that! Yeah!
CS: But they didn’t know they were missing for a few days.
MP: Yeah, I remember that.
CS: And these things are supposed to be inventoried every 12 hours, and it launched this huge investigation. I mean.
MP: And for those who are listening, this was a big national news story.
CS: This was like an international incident. Like happening right next door to me. It was nuts. So this guy, he lived on base, he took these whole laptops – he didn’t just take the hard drives out for the data that was on them, he took whole laptops that were normally kept in a safe, under two locks, that had to have two people unlock them at the same time, and took them out, put them in a backpack, and walked out the front door of Central Command with it. It’s a crazy, crazy thought, right? And then turned around and tried to sell it to the Chinese. And the Chinese wanted nothing to do with it, supposedly; so they said. But I’m sure they were like, hmm… You know.
MP: This is just a guy, kind of didn’t really know what he was doing, but .
CS: Right, like totally not trained in any kind of espionage, so he was not vetted in any way, shape or form, trying to contact the Chinese. With top secret US material. Yeah, so.
MP: So that was right next to you.
CS: I was right next door when that all launched and the whole investigation started, and they were trying to hunt down this guy, and figure out what went wrong, and what happened, all those other stuff. So it was like… Great. So you carry this bag with you all the time, the bag would have gym clothes it, it’d have shower gear in it, it’d have an extra shirt you never really knew if something – especially after 9⁄11 you were ready to go a couple of days with whatever you had on you. So, yeah, empty out your bag, we’ll let you go. This is like a couple of hours after the fact.
It was funny because the Navy E-5 I was working with, he was like, “Hey, man, go ahead and take off.” I was like, “No, I’ll help you finish this up.” He’s like, “All right, but let me give you a little NCO knowledge here. When someone tells you to go ahead and take off, you just leave.” And we’re coming back the next day after I get – I have to get my bag searched, I have to get my car searched leaving CENTCOM, I then have to get my car searched leaving the base, there’s all this stuff. Come back the next day, and he was like, “So, yeah, how long did it take you to get off base yesterday?” I was like, “An hour and a half. No big deal, though. They’ll find the guy.” And he’s like, “Remember when I told you to leave, about 45 minutes before all that jumped off? Bet you won’t do that again.” It’s like. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
So, yeah, but this whole thing was just this huge incident. They locked down the entire base. And MacDill is interesting because it’s on a peninsula. It’s in the middle of Tampa Bay. On one side is the Old Tampa Bay, on the other side, is the St. Petersburg side.
MP: You can literally jump on a boat and…
CS: Yeah, you could off the base on a boat, and they had a marina, there was a beach, Port of Tampa was on one side, and the open ocean was accessible from the other direction. Yeah, so there’s three gates on MacDill Air Force Base, on the northern side of the base, and that was it. That’s how you got off by car or foot. Because otherwise, you were swimming. So it was like this very, very defensible position, but somehow this stuff got out and escaped. And they were very, very lax in their communication security protocols to make sure the stuff was inventoried on a regular basis, and you could tell. It really exposed some inadequacies going on there.
MP: And this is a two-part problem – it’s security in the post-9⁄11 world, but it’s also an understanding of how to secure technology.
CS: Right. Like the idea of putting a laptop in a safe was a completely foreign idea to me. Because any laptop, back then you could just pull the hard drive out. It was like a couple of screws. So that’s what I convinced my people at Langley to do was let’s get hard drives that we can actually take out and we just lock up the hard drives, as opposed to opposed to putting this whole desktop computer in a safe if we have a fire drill. You know, I mean, come on, this is unrealistic. So… Yeah, the… The protocols were all there, but the idea was these laptops were never, ever, ever supposed to leave this huge building that was Central Command, right? I mean cavernous, multi-storied building. Never going to leave this building.
MP: And with all those countries there, I’m sure there was also.
CS: Oh, there was all kinds of concern. I mean, just unbelievable.
MP: This is the transfer from us trying to be allies but also we’re still suspicious.
CS: We’re suspicious of everybody.
MP: In a post-Cold War era.
CS: Yeah, I mean, by default we’re suspicious of everybody, right? But when they’re like, hey, we’re willing to help, let’s coordinate some activities, you can bring troops to our country, or fly supplies to our country – in Kyrgyzstan’s case it was just like, fine, come on, let’s get a trailer here for you. Get your flag out, let’s go. But we’re still super-suspicious. There was one time, there was some network that the US forces used with… They didn’t call them Five Eyes back then, but it was the big World War allies – New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, France, Canada. And there was a network that we used for those guys. And the…
It went down in this one trailer, and they’re like, “Hey, Short, maybe you can go help.” So I was like, fine, so I’m in this like… I don’t remember what country it was, I think it was UK or Canada, but I think the only reason I remember that was just because they had similar camouflage, bit it was just like, yeah, you know, I’ll get it working, sure. And they were just like, yeah, yeah, sure, come on in, whatever. And this is like, you know, not classified but it’s a protected network, and basically anybody could walk into this trailer and see what was on the screen. And I was like, oh my god, all right, cool. And they knew that was going on. So when these laptops walked off, that was really disconcerting. Especially at that time.
So, yeah, we get done with this pre-exercise, and then we’re gearing up for Internal Look, but there was a lot of sabre-rattling going on with Iraq too. So we kind of knew, like, yeah, we’re going to go to war with Iraq.
MP: There was the weapons of mass destruction investigation.
CS: That whole thing – like Colin Powell going to the UN was pretty much… It’s not if but when. We knew that this was the… Not Bay of Pigs, but this was the speech during the Bay of Pigs kind of scenario. We knew something was going to happen. Either Iraq was going to peacefully give up, or we were going to go take over the country.
The modus operandi was pack up everything. At no point in time did the unit ever say, yeah, let’s pack up this, let’s pack up that, because usually, it’s small teams of guys that take a few boxes of stuff, off they go, a couple of vehicles, get on an aircraft, they’re gone. Another team would go, another team would go. This was we’re taking everything. We’re taking everybody, and we’re taking everything, and we’re going to Qatar. And we’re going to set up Central Command forward headquarters there.
MP: During the pack up, did that inhibit you guys’ ability to keep communications going?
CS: So our unit was interesting, because if we weren’t out on a mission we didn’t have standard communication circuits that we ran. Where like my ex-wife, who was working on the base communication side, yeah, they would pack up some stuff and go at times, but they always had these core circuits that had to be run. We did – if we were in-house, we didn’t have a job at the time. So it was kind of cool in that way, but when you went to go work you went to work, and you were in, most of the time, austere conditions. So, yeah, they’re like, yeah, we’re packing up, we’re taking everything. And we were just like, wait, what? Everything?!?
MP: So you knew.
CS: We knew we were going to be gone for a long time. A long, long time. And then they tell you, here’s your bag list for the mission. And normally it’s like a sheet of paper and it’s like your personal bag should be no larger than x, and it should contain these items, and your A-bag should contain uniforms, and dah, dah, dah, dah, and your C-bag will be issued to you from supply. This was like, here’s your personal bags, what they should contain, here’s your A-bag, your B-bag, your C-bag, oh, and your footlocker. When they handed us a two-page bag list, we knew we were going to…
MP: When it’s footlocker you know you – yeah.
CS: Yeah, when you know you’re taking a big footlocker, you’re going to be out the door for a long time. Now it’s a convenience thing, too, because literally, like if you’re going out for a month you can put everything in a footlocker. You know, but if you’re going out for an undetermined amount of time – which is literally what it was. It was an awful, awful, awful speech that was given to us. We got everything packed up, we’re all ready to go, we chartered a plane – because there was like 120 of us, right. This wasn’t like let’s hop on a C-130 and fly over to the Middle East, this was we’re going to charter a plane and fly over.
So we go out there, and we had a colonel, one of the best colonels I think I’ve ever met, one of the most inspiring guys, orally, I think I’ve ever seen. And he gave us this awesome speech. This amazing speech. But in a typically military fashion, like, oh, there was the one-star general that was Central Command’s head of communications, he had to give us a speech because we were technically working for him. So I would’ve taken the hills and beaches of Normandy after the colonel got up and spoke, then this general gets up there, and the first thing he says – now keep in mind, this is like end of summer. You know. First thing he says is, “Guys, we’re going to get you home for Christmas. We’re just not sure which one.”
Damn, dude. You’re killing me. But he said that exactly. And it was just like, oh, like all the air was let out of the sails at that point. Because every one of us was like – we were talking about it on the plane, and right as we started moving down the runway, we’re like, “Can you believe that speech?”
MP: So just by military protocol training, respect the badge, there is still this element that you need somebody inspiring to…
CS: Yeah, like you still have to have that, no matter what your job is. Because otherwise, you’re just – you’re going to hate life. Like you’re not… If you’re not inspired to do your job, you’re really going to hate it, because you’re going out there, you’re away from your family, you’re with people you don’t normally, outside of work, sleep next to, and shower with, and entertain yourself around. And so you got to… You got to have some greater calling to do that job. And it’s not for everybody. And that’s why there were so many hurdles to have to jump over to get into the position because they wanted to make sure you were the kind of person that could do it.
So the… The flight over – like I’ve never been outside the country up until this point, right? Like been all across the eastern US, but I don’t think I’ve gone too far past the Mississippi before. Let alone fly up and over England, and land in Scotland to get fuel, and then fly into some country in the Mediterranean to get more fuel, and then…Fly to another country in the Mediterranean to get more fuel, so we can fly around Iraq because they were still mortal enemies of ours at the time.
MP: And there was still the no-fly zones.
CS: Still the no-fly zones, so we had to fly around Iraq to land in this little tiny peninsula called Qatar, hanging off the side of Saudi Arabia. It’s like the longest plane ride because you never get off the plane except for in Scotland. Well, I take that back. We got off the plane twice, Scotland and one of the two stops in the Med. So… It was like a 24-hour plane ride. Because you had to fly around Iraq. And you get off the plane, and you’re like, all right, here’s the desert. And it’s just like you open the door and it’s just like this furnace blast in the face, and you’re like, oh, it’s more humid than I expected. It’s like you’re surprised, it’s like, hmm, all right.
MP: Well, before we go further I’ll ask – from this time period you’re seeing the war in Afghanistan, as it’s called, you’re seeing Iraq start. What are your thoughts about us being involved in this?
CS: So, I looked at – in the beginning of Iraq I looked at it like… It was simple. The northern no-fly zone and southern no-fly zone literally did nothing but waste a lot of money, right? We didn’t protect any of the Kurds that got gassed in the north; we didn’t really protect anything other than the Saudi Arabian border in the South. So we were really flying a lot of aircraft, put in a lot of man hours, and people rotating in and out of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, that whole general area, for not a lot of gain. So we’re wasting billions of dollars annually on these northern and southern no-fly zones, a UN mission, not getting a lot of support from the UN on it, so… Yeah, let’s go ahead and end them. But the only way to do that is to get rid of Saddam. So, I was cool with that.
MP: How about Afghanistan?
MP: Because that…
CS: - like I was totally cool with it.
MP: When it first started, we all thought it was going to be done pretty quick.
MP: You didn’t.
CS: I knew better than that.
CS: Yeah, like, so.
MP: Because it was promoted to the public it’d be over.
CS: Yeah, like the main thing is going to be over real fast. We’ll get them on real quick. And I was like, wait, the Soviets went in there in the eighties, and bailed out. That began what was the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was one of those events that was significant in their downfall. Yeah… This not some walk in the park, right. You don’t get into a land war in Asia. Yeah… We’re still there, you know? So it’s… It’s… It’s one thing… You have all these conversations when you’re deployed, right? You talk to people, you get perspectives on things that people wouldn’t normally share because they’re very comfortable with you. And one friend of mine, she said, she’s like, “They don’t want anything but our stuff. They want our Levis, they want our Nikes. They don’t want our culture, they don’t want our economy, they don’t want any of this… you know, any of the good stuff that comes along with this, because that requires them to change and do something they don’t want to do.” I mean, we’re still in the process of convincing goat herders that roads to their towns are good in Afghanistan. I mean, it’s another world, literally. It is another world there.
MP: It’s a culture that has existed for thousands of years.
CS: Totally unperturbed by modern life. And they’re fine with that. I mean, if it weren’t for Desert Storm, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like working with Saudi Arabia right now. Because if they didn’t call for help after Saddam invaded Kuwait, I’m not sure we ever would’ve been allies with them. Because Bin Laden was Saudi-born, and we would’ve been going after one of their guys. Even they denounced him or whatever, but that was all after.
MP: There was a lot of talk about that, yeah.
CS: It was all after Desert Storm. So if Desert Storm never happened, if Saddam never invaded Kuwait, northern and southern watch never would’ve happened, Bin Laden probably wouldn’t have come of age, you know, all these things never would’ve happened. So it’s interesting to go back and look at the history of Saudi Arabia, specifically, because you’re talking about, you know, the same situation as Afghanistan, just with less mountains. You know? They have a natural resource that everybody wants, and…
MP: So you’re seeing these wars as a culture clash, really.
CS: Yeah, not necessarily a culture clash but it’s like… Afghanistan was not a culture clash, right? Like it was supposed to be this coordinated regime change. Get rid of the Taliban, find Al-Qaeda. Get rid of the Taliban, find Al-Qaeda. But to do that you have to embrace the cultures, right? That’s why we had guys riding horses. That’s why we had guys growing beards, going out and talking to people at first. Because we really had – we knew that these guys knew where those guys were, and they were going to play the middle because they didn’t know who was going to stick around. The Russians left, so anybody that sided with the Russians was done for. So, the US is on this long war plan now, because we have to gain trust, and you don’t gain trust in three months. One of the most interesting quotes, I think, from… Who was it? General Franks, the…
MP: W Franks, yeah.
CS: Tommy Franks.
MP: Tommy Franks, yeah, yeah.
CS: Tommy Franks, yeah. So one of his most interesting things that I read in his book – because one of the things I did while I was deployed, I was like, I’m going to make a note of all these big time commanders that I’m stationed with, and as they write books I’m going to read them. He describes some scene where he shows up with a C-17 full of money. Full of money. Just US cash. And he’s out there talking to all these Afghan warlords in Northern Afghanistan, and he’s like, “Are you with us or not?” And he’s pointing over his shoulder at a C-17 full of cash. Like max capacity. It’s like…That’s insane to me. But, hey, that’s how you build trust at first, I guess.
But then, as the years go on, you get more ingrained into a society. You’re trying to get the guy that makes the device that gets harnessed to a person that the bomb goes in. You’re trying to find this deep network of people, and it’s some 18-year-old kid that herds goats in the middle of the day and builds these bomb vests at night, kind of thing. So, you got to get ingrained into the culture and into the society, and that’s just a series of trust issues. Because they’re playing both sides, we’re playing one side, we just want…
MP: And they know what side you’re playing right off the start.
CS: They know, yeah they know the cards you’re handed, too, because of the rules of engagement and the Geneva Accord and Convention and everything. They know that you’re going to play by these rules no matter what. So they might be herding their goats one minute, pick up an AK the next and start shooting at you. It’s not okay, but we can’t shoot back because they’re ‘civilians’, because they put it down, raise their hands, and they go back to goat herding. So it’s just… Afghanistan was – or still is… It’s a culture issue as much as it is an anti-terror issue. Now, as we bring their infrastructure up, they will slowly but surely start to come on board with some of our ideals, but that takes – I mean… How long has America been around? And where did we come from?
MP: And how long have they been around? Yeah.
CS: Yeah, exactly, so…
MP: Okay, so you landed in the desert.
CS: The desert.
MP: What was your first thought.
CS: Oh, it’s like, what did I get myself into this time. Every time I get off one of these planes with the military service it’s like, what did I get myself into, it’s like…It’s funny, you have this surreal moment and you’re like, it’s not what I was expecting. Because the sand there is not like the sand you would see at like… you know, Myrtle Beach or something. It’s like ground up stuff from the ocean like rocks and seashells. Like if you take a picture and zoomed in on the sand you see stuff and it’s hard. The ground is just super-hard.
So, we get there, we’re going into Camp As Sayliyah. And Camp As Sayliyah was very interesting, because all it was is all these warehouses, and it’s in this industrial district outside of Doha, Qatar. You’re like, what are all the warehouses for? Tanks. We didn’t bring the tanks back from the first Iraq war. We left them here, so they’d be closer for the next one. And you’re like, holy crap, people have crystal balls, you know? They were upgraded in place, they were maintained, all these tanks were there from Desert Storm the whole time. But they were shipping them out, so the night we showed up we saw this huge convoy of tanks heading for one of the ports. And it was just mesmerizing. And it’s like, okay, they’re going someplace, and eventually they’ll be firing. You could be going someplace and eventually you could be firing stuff. So, yeah.
MP: Well, as for – since you bring that up, since the tanks are older, and you’re a communications guy, and obviously you have to help communicate with operations, what was the technology like in the tank compared to what you were…
CS: So, like let’s look at the iPhone that I have sitting here on the table, right? That’s the stuff I would use, right? This is a modern, high-tech, awesome, cool thing. And the tank had something the size of that garbage can in the corner, right? And it was like hardened steel. You know, because it had to be survivable, right? It had some of the same stuff that’s in this iPhone .
MP: And it was pre-Windows.
CS: Well, no, Windows was about, but the stuff inside the tanks wasn’t running Windows normally. I mean, it was all proprietary, because it’s all weapon systems and it’s all – you’re not getting email in a tank. It’s voice communications, some location specific data, and that kind of thing.
MP: Was that a challenge for you to communicate with them?
CS: Our radio guys had interesting jobs because literally, it was just – they had a room, probably about the size of this one, and, you know, one wall it was all these different radios, on all these different nets. And they could listen to any of these nets at any given time, right? Any guy that’s part of this allied mission. And it’s like, this is crazy. And they’re all on at the same time, and yet they can decipher one conversation out of the dozens that are happening at any given time, so… I mean, the challenges were… It was all fog of war. I mean, really it was. It wasn’t that this thing couldn’t talk to this thing, or this unit didn’t know where this unit was. It was all fog of war type stuff, like, oh yeah, this unit we haven’t heard from in a while, we think they got taken out, word gets back to the States, and boom, all of a sudden they show up somewhere. And it’s like all those kinds of issues. It was all more human than technological.
But, there were issues like power problems. You’re in the middle of the desert. How does this camp get power? Well, it’s a natural gas generator. Qatar was the first largest natural gas producer in the world at the time, so they had this natural gas power plant on base. Makes perfect sense, right? But then we had generator battery backups for our stuff. Now, our stuff ran off the generator by default, and then we switched over to base power if we needed it. So we just constantly burned fuel, we didn’t care. We always had a backup power source, though, in the base. Because our stuff couldn’t go down. We were the central communications focal point for CENTCOM forward headquarters during the war. It was crazy.
We were doing things like, you know, if you set up a satellite antenna, bandwidth actually becomes a physical dimension at that point. Because that antenna can only have so much radio frequency coming to it. We were maxing that out. The first people in the world to set up an 8 megabyte or megabit per second satellite uplink, but if the breeze blew, we’d lose some packets here and there, right? I mean, it was nuts. Bandwidth actually became a thing, and it was just like this just might be the coolest, nerdiest thing I think I’ve ever seen done. It’s like there’s radio waves that I can’t see, that literally fit within the cone of this antenna, and they’re all important. I need to capture all of that.
So we’re trying to figure out all these innovative ways to keep this antenna from moving, sandbags on it wasn’t good enough, okay, let’s put one of our transport cases behind it so it shields it from the wind. Eventually, we actually pulled up an LMTV, you know, a truck, parked it next to it and tied the satellite thing to the truck, and the truck became a wind obstruction and an anchor, and we left it there. That truck did not move for the rest of that satellite antenna’s mission. It was crazy.
MP: It’s how bandwidth was invented.
CS: Well, yeah, it’s like…Yeah, I mean… Because you’re talking about half inches matter, and if half inches means somebody gets a message about some unit in contact versus nobody gets that message, where they have to retransmit, and we’re talking a delayed response, that’s a big deal. Right.
MP: Especially with lack of satellites. Or by this time had they gotten enough satellites in.
CS: So, yeah, over the Middle East it was cool. Afghanistan was a problem. Because you don’t…you know… Not to say Americans live sheltered lives, but we kind of do, geographically, right? We see…
MP: Because the country’s so big as it is.
CS: Right, like Afghanistan is huge, but it’s not as close to the Middle East as you would think. Iran is huge. And what sits between Iraq and Afghanistan? Iran. So you have this huge country next to this other huge country, where we didn’t have a lot of assets, you know, State Department wise or any other kind of US assets there, so… It made life interesting. But we were using more commercial type stuff. KU Band satellite communications were coming online while I was at Langley, and Langley was one of the first ground stations in the US to get a commercial KU Band antenna. And so we could broadcast on the brand new satellites that were going up. Like the GE stuff that had just got launched, we actually blacked out CNN one day. Long story. It was for a short period of time. No big deal. So… You know, I mean, we’re doing all these cool things, but, you know, there’s a war going on, and we’re kind of – well, we’re planning for a war, right? It was very nerve wracking.
MP: You’re still waiting for the official word.
CS: Right, we’re waiting for the official word. I mean, we’re there through Thanksgiving, you know, basically the fall, right? And we’re getting things set up .
MP: This is 2002.
CS: So we’re getting things set up, and… we’re… You know, there’s all these rumors, you know, when’s the war going to start? Is there going to be a war? Are we going home this Christmas or not? Because the exercise was supposed to be over like mid-December, and then you head back home. If it were the exercise. But we knew it was the pre-war planning session. So… You know, we’re like, okay, fine, if we go home, we go home, if we don’t, we don’t. But no matter what, there’ll be some people here because our equipment’s not going to get packed up in a couple of days. So literally they came into – I was working the night shift, and they come in that morning, they’re like, “Hey, good news. CENTCOM is going to fly all you boys home. We need five or six guys to stay behind.” My boss was one of the guys who stayed behind. It was cool.
So we fly home, but it was so short notice, my family had all left for Florida to go to all these different places, so I just hung out with one of my buddies. Christmas Day we just sat around and drank. You know, because we knew in a couple of weeks we’d be heading back to Qatar.
MP: Like I flew 24 hours to come and…
CS: Yeah, and I think it was literally like everybody scattered for a week, and then we all got back together, and we all jumped on an airplane, we all flew back. Like we… Literally, we left all of our stuff there. I mean, we knew we were coming back. And if we didn’t, it was all sitting there packed up so the guys could throw it on a pallet if they needed to. But, no, we knew we were coming back.
So we come back, and then it’s like, all right, it was just clock. We’re just punching the clock at the point, right? You get into this horrible pre-war routine of get up, work out, go eat, go work, repeat, repeat, repeat, day after day. So you’re bored. Really, really bored. Like war – pre-war is boring. Very, very boring, right. You’re ready to go and you’re losing your mind. Because you’re like, why am I sitting here? Whatever.
So, then, Bush gives the 72-hour ultimatum. And we’re like, “Oh, yeah, things are going to get real nasty in 72 hours.” And then we hear across the warehouse that we were set up in like all the radio units start screaming. They just start going nuts. And we’re like… Oh, I guess 72 hours didn’t count? No, we were preparing the battlefield. We were getting ready to go into eastern and western Iraq. Under these no-fly zones. So all these guys were starting to move around and do stuff. And we’re like, okay, so like… It doesn’t matter, we’re still going in there, at the very least to keep the peace. We knew that, right.
So when Saddam was like, no, we’re not going anywhere, it was so awesome because you had this… I forget what it was called. It was a system, it was just basically a map, and it showed red dots and blue dots. Blue dots were good guys, red dots were bad guys. Right? And the war kicked off, I think, noon, or whatever, so I was asleep I was working the nightshift. But to get up to walk into our main command tent and just see the sea of blue just sweeping into Iraq, and all these red dots just vanishing left and right. Because we just had so much air power flying above. If anybody needed anything, if you wanted a 50-pound munition dropped on somebody’s head, somebody would’ve brought it to you and done it for you in the Air Force. It was great.
MP: Was it like the first Persian Gulf War where you had the Air Force clearing the way initially?
CS: It was more intense than that. We had aircraft just circling the country waiting for orders. And it was just like literally the air war was set up in a way where somebody needed X munition dropped on a certain building, and they just dispatched that munition. They didn’t care what air frame it was. If it was, oh, I need close air support, okay, fine, it’s an A-10, an F-16, something small, but if it’s like, oh, I need this GBU-X whatever laser guided bomb dropped, they didn’t care if it was a B-1, a B-52, a B-2, it didn’t matter. Right? Just send it in. Go. So it was literally the air traffic control guys for ordinance were just going crazy, because they’re just like, oh yeah, this is what we got in the air, you know, just doling out ammunition left and right. We had so much air asset in the area, it was crazy.
I remember that night because you could see Al Udeid Air Base’s flight path off to, you know, way off in the distance. And you would just watch at night and you would just see these afterburner glows just arc up into the sky, one after another, after another, all night long. It was so cool because on a really dark night it would light up your walkway for you, so… They were like 40 miles away. It was awesome. So you just saw all this air power just get pushed into Iraq. Because we pounded Iraq from the air as the guys came up from Kuwait. The 3rd ID was supposed to come down from Turkey, Turkey bailed out on the last minute, so they literally, on a ship, came all the way around Saudi Arabia to jump into Basra, but by that point, it was way deep into the war.
I think Iraq would’ve gone completely differently if Turkey wouldn’t have said no, we’re not going to let you guys come through. Because we would’ve came from the north and south and it just would’ve been vice grips, as opposed to this massive push in from one direction, Kuwait. It would’ve been a lot different outcome. Because the guys – I mean, at the end of the mission accomplished banner being hung, that mission that happened right before that, it was literally like this drone circling a building and this white flag way up in Northern Afghan – or Northern Iraq flying. And that was like the end of it. They had had enough of it, but there was so much chaos from the Baath Party members, just fleeing, that the citizenry just didn’t know who to trust at that point.
But it was – you know, I mentioned power earlier. Jessica Lynch? Is she the one that… POW? Yeah, and we went in and rescued her? It’s funny, that night – well, something you learn when you’re in… when you’re doing the whole war thing, is that news breaks 24 to 48 hours after the actual event. It’s designed propaganda, almost, still, like in World War II. But they want to make sure everybody’s clear before anybody says anything to the press. So the night of the actual raid, no-one had heard anything about it, anything that was going on, it was just all of a sudden this Major walks into our comm room, and he’s like, “So, everything going okay, guys?” “Yeah, everything’s good, Major. We’re all good.” Now, this guy, he worked in Central Command in their Fusion Center where it was just all these different assets talking to each other and trying to figure out what to do. And they were like the Skunk Works of the war, basically.
So he comes in and he’s like, “Everything going okay?” “Yeah, everything’s great, sir.” He’s like, “All right, we got some big stuff going on tonight. Just want to let you guys know that. Bring your A game. Everything will be fine.” “No problem, sir, we got this.” I swear, 15 minutes after he walks out of the room, the power goes out. And it’s like, all right, do we have generators for this building? CENTCOM? No, didn’t think of that. So we had the uninterruptable power supplies, right. But that was just enough to safely shut down the equipment. That’s all it was designed for. Safely shut it down as opposed to just letting it crash. So, we’re like, okay, we got about 20 minutes. We’re sitting there calculating in kilowatt amperage hours and all this stuff, and…
MP: What can you shut down? How much and what fans do you need? Yeah, yeah.
CS: Exactly. I mean, we’re literally like, okay, this is going into power conserve mode. And we had so much free time on our hands, we had game-planned exactly how we would shut down, like three times over. We were over-prepared for this event. But the Major comes running and he’s like, “Hey, how long have we got comms for? We’re good, right?” “No, we’re going to run out of battery power in like 15 minutes.” He’s like, “What? How is that possible? You guys are supposed to have power forever. These things are supposed to have hours of power.” And I’m like, “Sir, that’s not how these work. You’re talking about something that’s using 10 amps, you know? We need a real full blown generator.” “Don’t you guys have some?” “Yeah, for the building next door, not this building. Why didn’t you guys have backup power?” It was crazy.
MP: Just a lot of human error…
CS: Yeah, it’s just like…
MP: - planning, not thinking .
CS: - planning, logistics, all this stuff. The radios, yeah, they’re all plugged in, but they also had these batteries, so they had radio contact with the special ops guys going to get her, but that was it. They didn’t have all their fun gizmos to track aircraft and see things moving in and out, and, you know, all the… The laptops had battery power, but back then battery power in a laptop might’ve given you an hour or two, maybe three.
MP: If that. 45 minutes sometimes, yeah.
CS: Yeah, I mean, it really depends. And all of this equipment is working in the dustiest environment imaginable, so it’s pretty intense.
MP: So you guys were all involved in that.
CS: Kind of. I mean, you know, all the communications stuff was going through there. All the war planning was going through there. When we watched the Super Bowl that year it was in Tommy Franks’ War Room. Because he wasn’t there, he was back home. So we went in there and watched the Super Bowl, so… I mean, it was… It was interesting to be that close to history being made. Like at that moment. It was very, very, very awe-inspiring. It was really awe-inspiring because there was one day I was coming into work – and Tommy Franks had a DoD security team that traveled with him everywhere he went because obviously, he got a huge target on his back: Commander of Central Command.
So he’d fly in on a Blackhawk, these guys would show up in their suburban’s, or whatever, take him away into his command center and he would do work. But he was, you know – his office was a few doors down from where we were working. And we went through this central area access point. I saw one of his guys walking through one day, and I was like, “Hey, how’s it going?” He’s like, “Oh, good,” you know. I’ve got a bag of stuff on there, and I show my badge to the guy, and I’m walking through this mantrap, and then literally I see stars because Tommy Franks is like six-four and he just turned the corner and ran right into me. Face first. I mean, just boom. There’s eight stars sitting there just looking at you, and you’re like, “Hey, sir, how’s it going? You’re doing great work. Excuse me.” Let me move on about my day.
MP: And for those who are listening, you are quite tall.
CS: Yeah, I’m six-four. Tommy Franks is like six-three, six-two, you know, I mean, he’s a tall dude too, and he’s a good old Southern boy from Texas.
MP: So he’s sturdy.
CS: I’m from North Carolina. I mean, he’s a big guy. So to run into him like that. I mean, there’s just like no time to brace for impact or anything, but literally face first into each other. It was just…
MP: So you can phone home and say, “Honey, I ran into the Commander.” Yeah.
CS: Yeah, I ran into him, literally.
Check back next week for North Carolina Veterans Oral History Part 3 where we discuss coming home, my long thoracic nerve injury, transitioning out of the military, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.