A Command Sergeant Major had the audacity to give me an on-the-spot correction for a uniform violation recently.
It was the best thing that has happened to me in a long while.
General Karimi and I were accompanying the commander of the warfighting Corps, Lieutenant General Scaparrotti, to Torkum Gate, a beautiful place of historical and strategic significance on the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. We recently experienced an incident where our Soldiers received fire from Pakistan, we returned fire, and 24 Pakistani Soldiers were killed. Cross border incidents occur more frequently than most folks back home realize, but this was the first time it resulted in significant casualties on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line.
Suffice to say relations are tense with our neighbor.
Trucks are backed up all the way to Karachi, Pakistan’s port city, where our ships offload critical supplies that are transported to our bases. The vehicles are stopped at Torkum and there is just a slow trickle that is allowed into Afghanistan. This is just one of many indicators of just how bad it is. We were going to Torkum Gate for Karimi and Scaparrotti to talk to the senior Pakistani officer at a coordination center there to try and reestablish a dialogue.
I was standing on the tarmac as we prepared to board the aircraft and I was trying to put on my body armor, but was having trouble with the belly strap. Most of our party was about to get on the plane and I was struggling, almost in a panic, because I didn’t want to delay the General Officers. At the point I was about to start whimpering and shriek, “Hey, wait for me,” a familiar voice from behind said, “Sir, you’re all jacked up. Let me help you.” He grabbed the straps, untwisted them and placed the corresponding ends of the Velcro together securing the body armor tight to my body. I turned and it was Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, the senior non-commissioned officer, or NCO, within the Corps and one of my most favorite people in the world.
I am not sure if Troxell’s parents had a premonition when he was born, but there is no more appropriate name for this man than John Wayne. When God concocted the recipe for an NCO, and gathered all the ingredients together but discovered He only had enough elements to make one perfect enlisted Soldier, the Almighty mixed them together to create Command Sergeant Major Troxell.
John Wayne and I briefly hugged the way Soldiers do and then he punched me in the chest and said, “Colonel Johnson, you look like a tourist. Where’s your eye protection and gloves?” I dropped my head like a scolded child. He was right. And, I was embarrassed; I had forgotten two required items of my kit.
Command Sergeant Major Troxell and I served together in Iraq. His unit was coming into theater when we were about nine months into our 15 month deployment. At that time, my body armor was a second skin. Putting it on was like donning a windbreaker. I had become accustomed to the 50 pounds of weight and buckling the straps was second nature. Sweat and dust changed the color of the grey pixel pattern of the outer vest to brown and black, especially around my neck protection where the perspiration from my face gathered with the dirt of Mosul, Baghdad and cities in between. I was particularly proud of its grubbiness. I kept it as a trophy to remind me of the events that produced its grime. Experiences few people - somewhere around 1% of our nation - can comprehend.
In Iraq, I could tell the folks who didn’t’ get off the Forward Operating Base much by the pristine appearance of their body armor.
Now, I was the guy seasoned Soldiers, with dirty neck guards, looked at, smirking. It’s deserved to an extent, though I leave the confines of our camp daily and walk within the Green Zone to my work at the Ministry of Defense. I often travel around Kabul and locations nearby in General Karimi’s Armored Suburban that is wedged in between open bed Ford Rangers that his security team rides. When I’m with Karimi, I wear the same thing he does - my uniform, boots, headgear and 9mm Beretta. My relationship with the Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army is built on trust. For me to wear protective gear he does not sport would seem to violate that faith. It is a small risk I take to do my job. However, when Karimi and I travel on US aircraft I am required to wear my body armor.
After my counseling, Command Sergeant Major Troxell pushed me on to the plane and sat next to me. I considered the man as I watched him place his M4 to his side. John Wayne is like the safety belt he adjusted while settling into his seat - no matter how bad it gets you feel no harm will come as long as he is around.
Troxell is from a long line of NCOs I’ve known throughout my career. The first NCO I met after graduating from College was Sergeant First Class Taft Yates. Though now retired he is in Afghanistan with me training Soldiers in Kandahar. My first platoon sergeant, Carlin Winnfield Brumback, was a behemoth of a man from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I was that blessed officer whose first NCOs understood the role they played in training their Lieutenant. Brumback was followed by First Sergeant Smith, then Command Sergeants Major Chuck Hamilton, Sandra Emery, Julie Walter and Tory Hendrieth. They were the senior non-commissioned officers in the organizations that I commanded. Each, in their own way, had their hands full keeping me in line. Nearly as much as the more junior NCOs who had to execute my ill-conceived plans those few times I did not acquiesce to the advice of our unit’s most senior enlisted Soldier.
As Command Sergeant Major Troxell adjusted his MITCH helmet and pulled up his knee pads, I recalled a patrol in Doura, a southern suburb of Baghdad during my last tour in Iraq.
My security detachment leader, Staff Sergeant Knapp, tried to hurry me up as I talked a local Iraqi about recent enemy activity. The platoon we were with was moving out and we were last in the order of movement rather than being inside the formation where we were supposed to be. As I concluded my questioning, a single round smacked the wall several feet behind us. We turned to determine the location of the shooter but couldn’t pinpoint the origin of fire. That round was followed by others that crept slowly in our direction. We began to move out quickly as sporadic fire chipped pieces of concrete on houses and kicked up dirt on the road. We picked up our pace to a full run as the bullets chased us down the street. Knapp saw a door to a courtyard. He pushed it open, grabbed me, and shoved his way through the entrance. We toppled and twisted in the fall and I landed on top of him, sinking into his lap. I turned my head, our eyes met, and we began to laugh and could not stop.
Staff Sergeant Knapp got me to a safe place.