Last week, I was fortunate enough to return to Las Vegas to join my comrades in arms as we said goodbye to the 99th Ground Combat Training Squadron, Silver Flag Alpha. Going back to say farewell was both wonderful and awful all at once. The unit’s primary mission (really simplified) was to train Air Force Security Forces to defend air bases. This was the Desert Warfare Training Center.
After only 34 years of invaluable service, the Air Force is inactivating the unit. I can’t tell you how much it sucks to say that. The few years I had as a first sergeant (1993-1995) with this small tight knit group of people changed my life forever, and I hate the idea that it’s gone. But the Air Force in its infinite wisdom feels the need to trim, cut, and consolidate, so the mission will move to Fort Bliss, where instead of owning our own ranges and controlling our destiny, we’ll be at the mercy of the Army and their schedules. Did I already say it sucks? Sorry. I’ll move on now.
The thing that some will understand (mostly my brothers and sisters in arms) is that “The Flag” was always there and it provided continuity in my world. Weapons and weapons systems change, but a location and tasking seemed so much more solid. We will always need to train men in a desert environment to defend our assets.
The Flag was where I last served. It was where the people I most cared about were from, where I became what I was always meant to be, and where I ultimately left a part of my soul and a big chunk of my heart. The Flag is where the young men and women I came to admire so much lived up to the expectations that we set and proved my favorite theory about leadership. If you set the bar high, your NCOs will not only meet your expectations, they will exceed them every time. Being the First Sergeant for The Flag was a dream job for me.
Three wonderful young NCOs from the current Cadre hauled us old folks around in vans, stopping frequently to let us out to wander in specific areas that had meaning to us. It was odd to find ourselves in the position of visitors on the ground we knew so well. Everyone in the vans had hauled visitors and dignitaries around this site in the past. We knew the stops and the history. Hell, most of the guys in these vans were the living damn history of the place.
Some showed up in their old patrol caps. I was very proud to represent CMSgt (Ret) Mike Nemcic, who sent his cap so he’d be with us in spirit. And Paul O’Keefe showed up in a shirt he’d designed for the Cadre.
One of our first stops was Terror Town. Twenty years ago, it was only a few concrete block buildings without roofs. One of the men who helped build those first structures was sharing the van with us. We paused to take pictures of his name in the cement, and to laugh with him at the idea that a bunch of young cops with no building experience would pour concrete slabs and build a MOUT village that still stands 25 years later. It’s expanded incredibly in that time, but the original buildings (including the 2 story in the picture with his initials in the slab) are still there.
When we finally moved on, we drove through areas in vans that are now smooth and all but paved. They’d once been so rough we would never have attempted them in something so mundane.
We stood around in the dirt laughing, had our pictures taken in front of the sign (I’m not really that short, I’m positive I’m standing in a hole), climbed berms, ignored the calls from the current Cadre to rally up as we shared some of the foolish and wonderful things that had occurred on the site. Attacks and ambushes that had worked properly were epic and the failures even more so. They laughed about instructors who could always find the concertina wire in the dark, illumination and mortar rounds that didn’t always work as planned, and told of students who could be unpredictable at best when the first explosions were set off at 0215.
We picked on each other and traded barbs as only true family can. I was teased about the time that one of my young staff sergeants threatened to tie me off to his belt with 550 cord when we went to visit the troops in the field because I was known to wander away to chat with the kids in their DFPs. Sadly, I rarely had any idea where I was wandering off to as I tripped over rocks, never knew the word of the day, and had a reputation for potentially being more lost than any second lieutenant – they were still keeping an eye on me Friday to make sure I stayed close.
There were a lot of surface changes to the range. New towers and buildings, paved and improved roads, and cell phones in a place where our radios barely worked before. And now my young men have gray in their hair and some of their children are serving just as we did. We’ve grown older, although I’m not sure some of us have matured any. I listened and laughed with my friends, but more than once, I just turned to look out at the rugged range complex. We may have changed, and we may have left a few more marks on the land, but the range and the mountains remain the same. The air still dries your lips and eyes too quickly, the sun is still blindingly bright, and the wind coming off the mountains still cuts through you like a knife. Some of the most harsh and forbidding terrain in Nevada remains some of the most beautiful to me.
I’d often thought that this was my guy’s world, and I didn’t really belong. But I wanted to be there with them more than I ever wanted to be anywhere else. I wanted to do my part to take care of these men so they could focus on doing their jobs. I clearly recall being scared to death the first few times I went up-range – scared of being lost in the vastness of the desert, of screwing up in front of my troops, or worse, doing something that would embarrass my men in front of their students. But they never let those things happen. So now what I remember best is the incredible feeling of safety and freedom that came from being with these warriors. The sure and certain knowledge that no matter what happened, no matter where we went on this range, or where we deployed to in the world, they’d bring me home in one piece. That for all the harassment and teasing about how lost and useless I could be in the field—they were okay with me being there. That I belonged to them in the same way they belonged to me.
With my face in the wind, I tried one last time to take it all in and embed it to memory; the shape of the distant mountains, the smell of the desert, and the feel of the ground. The echo of past voices and snapshots of the faces of the small group that worked so hard to teach others how to protect a base and the people on it so they could all come home alive. The absolute beauty and harmony of young men busting their asses as they worked toward a common goal in the desert sun filled my head and my heart, making it hard to breathe. I picked up a small rock and slipped it into my pocket to rest next to my first sergeant’s coin. The desert won’t miss it or us.
There were moments on Friday when the flood of memories and depth of my emotions staggered me. I wanted to go back in time and have the chance to do it all again. I wished for one more day to be the young and healthy first sergeant I’d been as I trekked through the dirt and brush following my guys or the boss on our way out to visit the students. To spend one more night sitting out in the middle of nowhere looking up at that dark sky and brilliant stars as the temperature dropped from hellishly hot to freaking damn cold. To spend a bit more time “serving” with the people that I was so proud to be part of and adored so much. I miss those days more than I can ever convey. But those days, like this glorious range, are now part of my past.
However, I’m also one very lucky old broad and I know it. Last Friday, I was able to spend several hours revisiting that time and place with a good number of those wonderful people. They held the door, helped me up and down the berms, in and out of the van, on and off the bus, and even carried my chow for me. And they reminded me that I am and always will be part of something wonderful and meaningful – a chosen family. Friday may have been the last day to stand in the dirt and take in the dust and sun of that particular piece of earth with the men and women I came to love and now call brother and sister, but our familial relationship will continue. I know that I’ll see many of them again. We’re too close and the bond means too much not to.
But that dirty piece of range that we called home is gone from us now.
Did I tell you how much that sucks?