Not only did the squadron deploy multiple times but we remained in a constant state of readiness stateside. ~Jennifer Norris, USAF Ret.
As soldiers come home from the wars and things wind down overseas, we need to be especially cognizant of how difficult it will be for them to transition from a warrior to a civilian again. Most of our troops have been in the defensive fighting position ever since they joined the military but especially after the tragic events of 9/11. If you were in the military before and after that day, you know what I am talking about. We went into high operational tempo after those terrorist attacks and have been on high alert ever since. What most people don’t know is the transition that our Armed Forces went through as well.
While I was serving, we noticed that after the first deployment in 2001-2002 a lot of soldiers got out of the military for one reason or another. In the unit I was stationed at in Massachusetts, they realized as citizen soldiers or members of the National Guard that they lost a lot of money when they were activated. They made a lot more money in the technological career field as citizens then they did as soldiers. They had mortgages to pay, businesses to run, lifestyles to maintain, and families to take care of. After realizing how much they made in Massachusetts compared to active duty pay, I could easily see why the math did not add up. The days of the “Weekend Warrior” were over.
In addition to that group, we also noticed that those who joined specifically to get an education decided to jump ship as well. The deciding factor for them was that they didn’t sign up for this crap. We later learned that the first deployment overseas hurt the morale of many soldiers who were now dismayed with the glory of serving. Although I didn’t deploy with them, they swore that the Commander was sleeping with the personnel specialist while they were overseas. I could not believe the devastating effects this revelation had on the troops and me. It was amazing what losing the respect of a leader can do to the entire squadron. Shortly after they returned from the first deployment, the personnel specialist was promoted to MSgt despite being in her career field less then a year. It was devastating to their morale and mine. She was quickly transferred after being promoted but it was too late. She later become commissioned and worked for the Sexual Assault and Prevention Office. Perception is reality.
After losing respect for the Commander, it was hard to keep our game on in a high operational tempo environment. Thanks to the warfighter spirit in the new troops, it gave me what I needed to perform and make things happen. They were eager to learn and I was glad to have a new generation of troops that I could invest in for the betterment of the military. Although the circumstances behind so many leaving were legitimate, there were few NCOs left to train the new recruits. It made it harder to train so many new troops at the same time but we didn’t have a choice because our manning levels were so low. This same Commander wouldn’t let me go and used ‘Stop Loss’ to hold me. Satellite communications was considered a critical career field and the military was low on electronic maintenance technicians. He wanted me to stay stateside to train the new troops and get them prepared for deployment because we had no one left to go in our shop. We would not have been able to get it done without these new dedicated troops and the people who stayed stateside.
It was a very stressful time but it was easy to adapt and overcome because not only did I want to be there but so did those who signed up after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. As a non-commission officer in the military, I was especially proud of and pleased with the new troops that entered the military, and those that transferred from Active Duty. The Chain of Command in my National Guard unit did not respect the experience that our active duty soldier’s brought with them. All of us wanted to be there and it reminded me why we needed to continue with the All Volunteer Force. As a leader, I was completely against the draft because I did not have time for anyone that did not want to be there. I really appreciated the soldiers who volunteered to be there. Our job was not easy and it took true dedication to learn the job and have the skills to train others as well.
What I noticed as an NCO was the clash of the old school military with the new generation. The new soldiers coming in were highly motivated, patriotic, and wanted to do things by the book. But instead were met with an old school Guard that were more interested in protecting their positions and securing their retirements. Instead of appreciating the new troops for who they were and for their willingness to be there, they saw us as a threat. There were two types of losers in leadership. One was the fat dude with a lot of rank waiting on his retirement, taking advantage of every posh TDY opportunity available to them because they are in tight with the Commander. The other is the uptight, ate up piece of crap that has no personnel skills and every action is based on whether or not they will be noticed and how much ass they can kiss. Both of these kinds of leaders made my job in ‘middle management’ much more difficult. As time went on I saw the oppressive, abusive environment take its toll on our new troops too.
One of the morale killers in our squadron was that upper leadership had no problem sending the message that your opinion did not matter. As a result, all personnel were not utilized to their full potential. If the new troop had a crappy supervisor, they floundered. Meanwhile, the professional military education classes we took to make rank taught us to build teams, take care of our people, and appreciate the diversity of opinion and solutions. I learned from my supervisor’s mistakes what not to do but was not supported in my efforts to take care of my people. Unlike the old school ways of the past where we were to do what we were told with no questions asked, the new generation of troops had the same questions I did. So this time I answered them and told them where they fit in to the big picture. Unfortunately, we witnessed leadership guard and hoard information to protect their positions and ensure their ‘in’ with the Commander, who had the power to end anyone’s career. It was cut throat.
The way the military works now, leadership was easily able to abuse their power to belittle a good soldier’s efforts. And they were able to abuse their power within the Chain of Command or influence those in the Chain of Command to oppress others. So on top of being a superior performer and giving them everything we had, they would expect more and the standards were never attainable. We weren’t trying to be them or take their jobs, we wanted to be a part of something bigger: a team. We were fighting wars overseas and when our unit was not overseas, we spent every single day preparing for that moment when we did get called back up. I took that seriously. I had to stay on top of my game to make sure my troops were protected but no one had my back, except my troops. It would have been reassuring to have leadership support and respect, since ‘middle management’ were considered the subject matter experts. Instead, their ineffectiveness put us in harm’s way.
We were a combat communications squadron so not only were we self-sufficient but we came as a package. So as a team of 100 or so people, we were prepared as a fully functioning unit to be deployed at a moment’s notice. They gave us roughly 72 hours to pull our entire communications package together so we basically spent every day making sure that we could pull our team and equipment together in a short amount of time. That means we had to always think ahead and make sure we were taking care of business stateside, like training the new troops, and had our communications packages as a squadron prepared for deployment. Dealing with cultural issues like generational clashes, honorable versus dishonorable, and being let down by those who you were supposed to trust was a crushing experience. I always thought about who could do my job if I died and how to save lives. They just didn’t seem to care.
PTSD is basically being stuck in a place of hypervigilance. People can get PTSD for a number of reasons, none of which should be minimized by any one group of sufferers. My PTSD got locked in when I realized that I was on my own. I took care of my troops so they would never feel like that. The common denominator with PTSD is that we don’t want to talk about it because we don’t want to admit our mental health issues to leadership. We know that it will be used against us to railroad our careers. Part of the reason I never acknowledged my experience with military sexual assault or the resulting impact was because I was no different then anyone else in the squadron after 9/11. We were all living on the edge, we were all ready to have our lives turned upside down if the country needed us, and we were all pinging because initially we were doing more with less and dealing with unsupportive leadership. So we drank. As time went on we got our groove on without them but there were a lot of growing pains. It took every single one of us to make it all happen.
Like most with PTSD, I lost my career because I sought help, as have a lot of other highly qualified soldiers in leadership positions. Instead, we should have been supported in our efforts to heal from whatever the work related trauma was. If you catch the PTSD in the acute stages, you can minimize the life long impact. But all it takes is one bad Command to ruin a good soldier’s career. They push out the old and bring in the new like a true war machine. Regardless of what your role was in the Armed Forces, your service to country is duly noted. You volunteered to serve your country which means you sacrificed a lot. You didn’t have a choice but to put service before self, especially after 9/11. Thank you for your sacrifice and thank you for being the generation that will change things for the better and bring honor back to the ranks.