Maren HL Culbreth
Lint Center for National Security Studies
Scholarship LC-VANS Contribution Essay
It blew my mind. I was the person who struggled the most when it came to learning how to hover. I spent hours watching YouTube videos of helicopter pilots hovering, praying that the next day on the flight line it would all click, and I’d find that “sweet spot” all my flight school buddies had already found. As I sat in my car looking at congratulatory text message after text message I couldn’t believe that our cadre just announced I would be the distinguished honor graduate of my flight school class. Apparently, those weeks of struggling motivated me through the next year of in-class and in-cockpit testing. A quick phone call home to my ever-realistic mother tempered my enthusiasm as she reminded me, “Well you might be the best in your class, but you probably aren’t the best in the world.” Thanks, Mom.
After graduation and a celebratory dinner with my roommates, I packed all my belongings and moved to Tennessee. My new home would be with 7-17th Cavalry Regiment under the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade. My airframe of choice, the Kiowa Warrior, meant I was joining the Air Cavalry community. I started checking all of the blocks I’d been told to check as a young cadet and flight school student. I studied hard to pass my “5&9” emergency procedures test. I trusted my platoon sergeant, made friends with the other lieutenant in my troop, and lead my platoon at PT. I learned all of the intricacies of how each boss wanted their PowerPoint slides presented, and just how important dental readiness was to the Army. I did a spur ride and broke in my Stetson. I learned “Fiddler’s Green” and the history behind our Squadron slogan: Death Rides. I worked hard, stayed late, and did everything I could do to prove just how good of an Officer I was.
Our Brigade was set to deploy beginning of 2014, but word came down mid-2013 that changes were being made to the patch chart. There were different courses of action, but almost all of them included some reduction or removal of our Squadron from the mission. Almost everyone in my platoon had already deployed. I was the only one with a blank space on my right arm and I hated it. I was chomping at the proverbial bit as the opportunity to go felt like it was slipping through my fingers.
The decision was made that only one Troop would deploy from our Squadron – Alpha Troop. At the time I was assigned to the maintenance Troop, which would only deploy a small maintenance package; a non-wrench-turning-Lieutenant was not on the priority list. But Alpha Troop was looking to bring in two new Platoon Leaders, as the guys in those slots had been there 18 months already.
I went to my Troop Commander a bit sheepishly, but asked if he would put a good word in for me. I wanted to deploy, I wanted to be a Line Troop Platoon Leader. Despite how much I often loathed feeling the responsibility to go to the office a few hours on the weekend, and how much I hated staying late on Fridays to work out problems with senior leaders, those efforts paid off. My hard earned reputation of being a hard-charging, hard-working officer paved the way – a few weeks later I moved down to Alpha Troop and began preparing for war.
The 2014 deployment, if taken in comparison to other deployments in other decades or other locations, was rather tame. There were certain units that we knew would always find a way to engage, and we loved supporting their operations. Those were the exciting days, the exciting minutes, the things that felt most important. Most days though, well, most days were spent looking for ground guys to support or looking for ways to entertain ourselves when the weather was bad. I came home with an Air Medal and Combat Action Badge, a Pilot-in-Command designation on my file, and a patch on my right arm. All of my guys came home whole, back to their families.
What went unrecognized in my life until several years later was the most traumatic event of the deployment. It was a self-inflicted wound at the hands of the machine I served. Halfway through our time downrange, the official announcement came out that the Army would divest itself of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.
At the time, I knew this was a significant revelation to some of my more senior warrant officers. They’d been Kiowa Cavalrymen for over a decade, and some of them just a few years from retirement. Losing the airframe, which was planned to happen early the next year, put a lot of question marks around the future of their careers. Soon after the divestiture announcement, came the transition plan. Human Resources Command (HRC) would hold boards to determine which Kiowa Warrant Officers and which Kiowa Enlisted maintainers would be re-trained in another airframe. So, we began preparing board files, reviewing record briefs, and signing evaluation reports a little early to get them in for consideration. I tried my best to prepare them well for this opportunity: to have a plan for the future.
By the time we re-deployed, the first list of selections for transitions came out. Most of my guys would be re-trained, save three or four. Our Squadron was moving forward with lightning speed to turn in all of our equipment, preparing to fly the aircraft to Arizona, and shut our unit down. All the while, there was never an official announcement about transitions for commissioned officers. I talked to my branch manager, asking if a transition was even a remote possibility. The response was, “Make it to the career course and we will see what happens.”
I spent a lot of time wondering what I could have done differently to show that I was a competent and capable officer and pilot. I’d done everything the Army asked me to do, and did it to the best of my ability. If they weren’t going to offer me an airframe transition at the beginning of the divestiture, I was rather sure they wouldn’t offer me one in a year or two. It was clear: there was no future for me in Army Aviation.
Several of the officers a year group or two ahead of me decided that getting out was the best option. An Army career wasn’t the end-all, be-all and graduate school seemed like a good next step. At the time, we were a downsizing force, pushing people out left and right. So, when these officers started submitting requests to be released from their active duty service obligations (ADSOs), HRC approved them all. People were getting out with two and three years left on their commitments to pursue their next-best plans. I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do next, and figured I could try just one more thing in the Army before I gave it all up.
I decided to pursue a branch transfer to Civil Affairs. It would be another year plus of training, but the good news was I would be moving into that career field at the right time. Civil Affairs took in officers before their career courses, which was right where I was. So, I assessed into the program, and in August of 2015 reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After a little more than a year in the course I broke my wrist and was forced to step out of the phase of training I was in. I reported to the holding company every morning for accountability and sat in a room, waiting for some detail to wash windows or sweep hallways to pop up. I read a lot of books, did some online training, and waited.
While I waited, the 2016 elections began in earnest. While I waited, I began doubting in earnest. I doubted that this new path was the right one for me. I doubted that this was the mission I wanted to pursue. I doubted that civilian life would be less fulfilling or less exciting. I doubted that Civil Affairs was the best choice, and began contemplating what life might offer outside of uniform. I started daydreaming about law school – something I’d always wanted to pursue. I started talking to family and friends about potential future careers. I took aptitude tests to see what I should do next, and started studying for various graduate school standardized tests. All the while, I paid little attention to the firestorm brewing between Republicans and Democrats.
Perhaps it was naïve to believe that logic would prevail with HRC. Perhaps I put too much stock in the oft-towed line, “We care about Soldiers.” Perhaps I believed too strongly that I’d done everything the Army asked me to do, I did it well, and in turn they’d respect my effort enough to let me go. I’d incurred an additional ADSO for attending Civil Affairs training, and was tagged to stay in until August 31st, 2019. But, I knew that waivers had been approved before. I believed mine would be, too.
So, I submitted my first request to be released from Active Duty Service in October of 2016. I requested a two a half year waiver, so that I could start law school the following fall. It was a quick return: no. My request was disapproved, the justification reading, “…approval at this time was considered not to be in the best interest of the Army.” My heart was broken – I felt I’d made a strong case for why I was the perfect candidate for this kind of waiver request. I was also frustrated. I was an Aviation Officer without an airframe. I didn’t have a competitive future in the branch and I certainly couldn’t go back to Civil Affairs after withdrawing from the course. My so called “career” in the Army would end soon; this waiver would just let me get on with my life a little sooner.
I submitted a second request, asking for a one year waiver and provided the acceptance letters I gotten to begin law school in 2017. The second request was also denied, and not surprisingly the third as well. The silver lining was that my school of choice approved year-long deferrals, holding my place in the following class.
The truth is that I’d been forced to reconcile with the idea that for better or worse, the Army and military at large is not in fact, immune to the meat grinder of political will. I’ve spent my entire career doing my best to remain a-political; I’ve tried focusing instead on “protecting and defending the constitution” as opposed to protecting my political views. What I failed to understand is that regardless of whether or not I chose to play a role in the political machine, the political machine would most certainly play a role in my life. I’d picked perhaps the worst possible moment to ask the Army for any favors because in 2016, we were just one entity being affected by a huge swing of the political pendulum. We’d go from a drastically downsizing force to a drastically increasing force in a matter of months. Whatever little part of the pie I represented on someone’s “health of the force” slide, that representation suddenly became very important.
I don’t mean to be critical of the theory behind the military being subservient to civilian governance. It’s an incredibly important principle to uphold and on the whole I value it deeply. This ideal is what protects us from the whims of the general with the most stars, and ensures that whatever political policies are enacted by elected leaders are the policies enacted by the military. Serving the political will while remaining a-political though, that is a sacrifice I think few people understand.
There are certain things we know we will sacrifice when we choose to don the uniform. We knowingly sacrifice time with family in order to deploy near and far, to combat theaters and training exercises. We sacrifice stability, opting instead for a vagabond lifestyle of moving every three years or so. We sacrifice quick promotions, accepting that we can’t do much to fast-track a pretty staunch system of checked boxes on a fixed career timeline. We have a lot of freedoms we relinquish when we come on board to serve in the military, and I’ve been fortunate to grow up in the era of people thanking us for our service, thanking us for the sacrifice.
But there is one other, less obvious sacrifice, that I’ve come to realize is perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow: we sacrifice choices. At the end of the day, no matter how much the Army may care about Soldiers and their families, that care and concern can only extend so far. It can only extend as far as the political establishment is willing to allow it to, and by proxy the tide of public will the political establishment answers to. And so, for a variety of different reasons and in a variety of different ways, we lose the ability to choose.
I lost my ability to choose the day the decision was made to divest the Army of the finest reconnaissance platform its ever had. The Army made a decision it thought was best, and in some ways tried to stop the hemorrhaging we all felt was happening. I’m well aware thought, that the transition boards weren’t conducted to “help out” warrant officers or maintainers looking for a career – they were conducted to make sure there would be enough pilots and crew chief in enough airframes to meet the mission. There weren’t transition boards for commissioned officers because it would be too expensive to re-train us, when most of us just wouldn’t fly that much anyway. I’d tried to work hard enough and be good enough to retain all of my options, but in one fail swoop they all went flying out the door. And then, with the tide that turned politically in 2016, I lost any choice I had to leave.
I’ve tried for a long time to not be bitter about the whole endeavor. Some days, it’s easy to talk about it. Some days, when people start asking questions, I have to stop them. It can be really painful to have lost a dream. What hurts most though, is to read that phrase written on a piece of paper three times. “…approval at this time was considered not to be in the best interest of the Army.” The undercurrent of that statement to me, reads a little something like this: despite the choices the Army made to put you in this situation, despite how good of an officer you may have been or how good of a lawyer you may be in the future, right now you are a green dot on a page. That dot matters more to us than trying to right a wrong, or help a Soldier move forward.
I think what I’d want more than anything from this, from losing my dream and having to delay the next one, is transparency. I’d love for more senior leaders to speak truth about what the Army cares about and where Soldiers fit into that equation. We can’t keep telling our young officers and incoming team, “We care about Soldiers and their families” when so often the result doesn’t reflect that. This cognitive dissonance between what we say we care about and what we actually do creates a lot more friction than our public affairs teams or crisis counselors realize. I’ve finally gotten an approved request. In the end, the Army decided they could release me thirty days before my ADSO is complete. Law school starts the 2nd of August, 2019 and my final, official day in the Army is the same. I’ll take a little time off before hand, probably paint my nails some crazy color, and buy a new “civilian attire” wardrobe. I’ll keep telling people that I flew an aircraft that is now in museums. With time, maybe I’ll get over the sadness I feel for all of the time I’ve wasted here waiting. Maybe, I’ll even be glad at some point I was a green dot for a while.
But right now, I am incredibly grateful for the time I did get to have riding a trusted steed in the sky. I’m proud of the men and women I was fortunate to learn from, fortunate to serve with, and fortunate to fly with. I’m glad I worked so hard and left it all on the field. If I’d given anything less than my best, this would have been impossible to survive. All said and done, I will have waited a little under three years for this next journey. No matter where it takes me, whenever the clock reads 7:17 I’ll mutter under my breath, “Death Rides.”