Sunday, August 16, 2020

Another Amazing, Albeit Sad, Story...

I joined the Army Reserves out of high school to help pay for college. I got lucky and ended up in a section that was full of some of the greatest people ever and even now, 30 years later, I still keep in touch with many of them regularly. One of them was a guy named Jay Cobb; he was a sergeant from Plymouth, NH, a laid back Deadhead with a quick, sardonic wit. As per usual these days, we reconnected on Facebook several years back and still chat every so often. 

A month or so ago, Jay messaged and said he had an Army friend who had recently arrived here on Camp Humphreys and as everyone who arrives here does, she was in quarantine for two weeks. He said she was suffering from the horrible Army food they were feeding her and asked if I might be willing to bring her some of the food I had been cooking. Of course I said no problem because, well, that's just the kind of guy I am. 

I quickly discovered that Jay's friend - Ayla Papp is her name, which I think might be the coolest name EVER - is a complete foodie. She was so appreciative of the food that both Virginia and I made for her in quarantine that we started talking constantly about food, recipes, etc. and she shared some pics of her own dishes that just looked incredible and it became obvious that she is my spirit turns out she is from Louisiana and she vowed that when she got out of quarantine, she would come make her special homemade gumbo for us. This pleased me greatly as I absolutely love cajun food - jambalaya, red beans and rice, etouffé, crawfish bread...and ESPECIALLY gumbo. Well, today was that day. Ayla Papp (I call her Ayla-Papp because it's just such a cool first and last name combination) came over and made for us her special homemade gumbo with chicken and andouille sausage. And it...was...glorious. 

Oh, but there is more to this story. Much, much more. First, let's see the pics of the gumbo, then I'll deliver the second, more incredible part of the story:

Ayla Papp just HAD to wear my Italian apron...

She did a dry roux since the sausage already had a high fat content

She said the dry roux should achieve the color of chocolate and this looks like it did!

She added the roux to the meat mixture, added water and stirred it all together

Then let it "simmah down" for a long time...

The finished product, served over rice. So. Freaking. Delicious. AUTHENTIC Cajun flavors, it was just so good. 

So now we come to the incredible part of the story...

Those of you who have known me for a while know that one of my best friends in the world was killed in the Fort Hood shooting back in April of 2014. His name was SFC Danny Ferguson and he was extremely close to us and especially to Xavier in particular. I won't go into the whole story here but for anyone who doesn't know the history, here is the blog post I wrote telling the whole story; if you don't know it, you should read it before reading this story any further: 

After we finished eating, we were having a nice conversation about everything under the sun and at one point, Ayla Papp mentioned that her husband is back in the US because he's a police officer, I asked whereabouts and she said Killeen, which is where Fort Hood (Texas) is. I cannot hear the name Fort Hood without immediately thinking of the senseless shooting that took my friend's life and so I asked her how long she had been stationed there. She told me, I quickly did the math in my head and then looked at Virginia and said "OMG, I think she was there when it happened...". I asked her about the shooting and to my shock, she was not just there, she was in Fergusi's unit. I shared with her the story of our friendship with Fergusi and we all just sort of sat there, in awe of the crazy circumstances that had brought us together. As I spoke about Fergusi I got choked up as I always do when I talk about him and I could feel the goddamned tears welling up in my eyes as they always do so I kept it short but I just can't believe that this new person that we had met almost by chance had a direct connection to our Fergusi. I swear, I'm actually welling up again just thinking about it...

It really is a small world. And an even smaller Army...    

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Reliving a Decision That Changed My Life, Part 5: The Fallout

(To start at Part 1, CLICK HERE)

The weeks and months that followed were very difficult ones. By this time, Col Carpenter had moved on to a new job with V Corps in Heidelberg, Germany so I was glad I did not have to face him. MAJ Ostlund had since moved back down to the 173rd Airborne Brigade on base and one fateful night after work I decided to stop in at the on base club for a beer before heading home and it just so happened that several officers from the 173rd were having a gathering. As I sat down at the bar, MAJ Ostlund saw me and came right over to say hi and ask about the OTS packet. I explained what had happened, said I guess it just wasn't in the cards for me and that I would be getting out of the Army at the end of the year and transferring to a civilian job somewhere. He said he understood, that he empathized with my situation and he was actually pretty cool about it but the disappointment in his eyes was unmistakable and it was guilt racking, almost as if I'd let my own father down. I left that night feeling pretty shitty but I decided not to wallow in it. Instead it was time to focus on life after the Army. I thought it would be a good idea to get out of Europe and start over somewhere and Korea was my number one choice for a couple reasons. First, my wife Virginia was from the Philippines and she had lived in Hong Kong (where we met) for 10 years; I had taken a couple trips there and I was completely enamored with Hong Kong and I was really taken with Asian culture, food, etc. so living and working in Asia was very attractive to me. Korea was the only place that I knew of in Asia where the Army had a major presence so I figured it was my best shot. I didn't know anyone there so I literally just started calling any phone numbers I could find for bases there and asking if anyone knew of any JOPES jobs on the Peninsula. I finally managed to get in touch with a civilian who was pretty much the entire JOPES presence there at the time and she had no intention of leaving anytime soon so I figured I was destined to stay in Europe. Staying in Italy was certainly not a bad second choice after all...

My first year in Italy as a civilian was a glorious one; as luck would have it, I ended up landing a job as a contractor doing the same job I had been doing as a sergeant but for several times the pay (and no shining boots!) and let me tell you, I wasted no time transitioning to post-Army life. There is a little known rule that upon separating from the military, a man must let his hair get longer and he must grow some facial hair. I happily complied. I had more time, more freedom and more money than I'd ever had so I was able to really explore a passion that I'd acquired in my time there as a soldier and I became a wannabe oenophile (ie, a wine guy).

My first year as a civilian in Italy: new facial hair and a whole lot of vino

A little over a year later, the contract I was working under was about to be cut so I had to start looking for a new job. After a brief flirtation with another contract job in Hawaii, I ended up landing a job at the Movement Operation Center (MOC) with US Army Europe in Heidelberg, Germany, the same place and people I'd been working with for the previous six years. I was hired as a DoD Civilian, GS11 which was a decent starting point. When I was active duty I'd worked with a couple of GS12s and to me, that seemed like the ultimate goal for me as a civilian so I was content that my decision to leave the military and become a civilian was indeed paying off. On top of that, we were living in one of the most absolutely stunningly beautiful cities in the entire world in Heidelberg and since DoD civilians received a large housing stipend, we had a huge place right on the main drag. Working at the MOC was the perfect starting point for me as I worked with some of the best and brightest people in my field and I learned a ton from them. To this day, I have never worked with a better group of people as a DoD civilian and many of them I am still close friends with to this day.

The USAREUR MOC: Best group of people I have ever worked with as a DoD civilian

Alas, as much as I loved Heidelberg, I missed Italy immensely and in 2008, after two great years at the MOC, I was able to transfer back to my beloved Vicenza as the lead JOPES person for the newly stood up US Army Africa. This was a big step in my career as suddenly I was a one man show in charge of an Army Service Component Command and I thrived in the position. Eventually I was promoted to GS12, something I had dreamt about when I was toiling away as a lowly buck sergeant. I had a great job, I was in Italy which had become home to me over the years, I was financially secure and we even bought a small beach house near Virginia's family in the Philippines where we vacationed every summer. Life was grand...which meant something had to give. And sure enough, on May 1st, 2013, tragedy struck. That was the day I was called into the division chief's office and notified that I was a victim of the despicable, disgusting, illegal government plot to claw back housing allowances from a a select group of DoD civilians who they claimed received the benefit in error and that I suddenly owed the government a couple hundred thousand dollars. I won't go into the matter in this story for brevity's sake but suffice to say that those who knew me and knew what happened will remember what a harrowing nightmare the following year became for me and my entire family. Perhaps the worst part of the whole affair was that it forced me to leave Italy against my will. 

Being awarded the Civilian Service Achievement Medal at my farewell luncheon as I prepared to leave Italy in 2014

The government forced me to leave Europe and go back to the US and they saw fit to transfer me to a position with US Army Central (ARCENT). For most of its existence, ARCENT had been located at Ft McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia however a few years prior they had closed McPherson and moved ARCENT HQ to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, SC, a rural area about an hour east of Columbia. I went to Europe in 1998 as a soldier and left 16 long years later as a civilian so to say that going to rural South Carolina was a culture shock would be a tremendous understatement. Especially after leaving Italy under the circumstances that I did, my time at ARCENT was complete misery. DoD civilians must remain back in the US for a minimum of two years before going back to an overseas position and so as soon as my two year mark was up at ARCENT, I started applying for overseas positions. Nothing was coming through for me in the JOPES field and then one day I saw a position back in Vicenza that was kind of, sort of like JOPES (I thought), so I applied and I got it. After almost three years in the US, we headed back home to Vicenza and life started getting good again. 

One major lesson I have learned about life as a DoD civilian is that everything is all about timing. You never know when job opportunities will appear and usually it happens at the worst possible time. And so it was that after one year back in Italy, the civilian job that I'd coveted since getting out of the Army way back in 2004 finally became open and available to me. My first thought was that I could not possibly entertain the thought of leaving my beloved Italy after being back only 1 year. Virginia agreed - she was tired of moving she said. However I could not stop thinking that this opportunity would never come up again in my career so I would regret turning it down for the rest of my life. I somehow managed to convince her and after a year in Italy, my career moved to Korea. 

Moving to Korea turned out to be a great move for my career, at least at first. For a year and a half it was absolutely the best job I'd ever had in my DoD civilian career. It has been the most difficult by far but I've excelled at it and at times have felt as if this place has been the pinnacle of my career. I had been recognized for my efforts with cash awards as well as the highly regarded Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award. I loved the job in Korea so much that I had intended to request an extension and stay here as long as I possibly could...

My first year on the job in Korea saw me receive the Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award for the first time in my career. It was a very proud moment.

Sadly, things went downhill here around the time that the COVID crisis began and have devolved to the point where I will soon be moving on earlier than expected. As fate would have it, I am headed back to where it all began back in 2006, the USAREUR MOC, only this time it will be in Wiesbaden, Germany rather than Heidelberg as they have moved. We are all very excited about going back to the Vaterland and seeing what the new chapter of my civilian career will bring...

I think a lot about that fateful decision I made back in 2004. Up until the LQA nightmare in 2013, I never once regretted the decision to pursue a civilian career rather than wait a year and go to Air Force OTS. However, the years since then have often found me wondering what if. What if I had had the foresight to see the big picture all those years ago? I would have retired a couple years ago from active duty as a Major with a nice fat retirement pension and my family and I would be very well off the rest of my days and into retirement. If I decided to stay in longer, I'd probably even have made LTC by now. It's hard not to have regrets, especially when all these years later I'm still a GS12 and still having to put up with bs on a daily basis because I have no other options. 

On the other hand, look at the career I've had: Germany, Italy, the end, this is the life I've always wanted. I wouldn't trade it for anything. 


Reliving a Decision That Changed My Life, Part 4

(To start at Part 1, CLICK HERE)

With the powerful endorsement from BG Lessel in my possession, combined with the letter of recommendation from MG Wagner, I thought sure that I was on my way. I didn't see anything that could possibly get in my way or derail my the end the one thing that did me in was one simple piece of paper, the one thing that should have been the easiest to acquire.

As I reviewed my packet, I noticed that I was missing one thing: the conditional release form from the Army. Since I was technically still under contract with the Army, my packet had to include a form from the Army personnel office that basically said "If the soldier is accepted to Air Force Officer Training School, the US Army will release him from his contract with us." It was just a formality, really., and it should have been the easiest thing in the world to do however in typical Army fashion, they made the simple into the near impossible. It took me a couple months to even find a point of contact to request the form from, I had to start with my local personnel office and then work it all the way up until I finally received the name of the person who processed the form that I needed. According to my notes, it had been a few months since I sent the official request yet I had not received anything. I guess I just got so wrapped up in trying to get my letters of recommendation, school transcripts and everything else that I hadn't noticed that I was still missing that one simple form. Time was running out and the deadline for submission of my packet was only about two months away so I started scrambling. I managed to get the phone number and email of the Army Sergeant Major who was supposed to send me the form and I called him and emailed at least once a day for the next several weeks with no reply. I tried calling other numbers that I could find but ran into constant dead ends. At one point I actually got a hold of one person who said he sort of knew the SGM and that he'd "give him the message" but I still never heard back. I could not figure out what was going on...was this guy on extended leave? Had he moved to a different job? Was he dead?! Why was I getting no response? I tried everything I could think to do short of getting on a plane and flying to the Pentagon to personally track this guy down but kept coming up empty.

I was less than two weeks away and panicking...HARD. And then it happened. Some time in mid January the recruiter from Aviano called me and said "I've got some bad news for you...the Air Force just filled all the OTS slots for the year so you'll have to wait til next year to submit your packet."

Nine days. The deadline to submit my packet was a mere nine days away. I was completely crushed, devastated, defeated. For once, I finally had a goal, a mission, I knew what I wanted and I went after it with everything I had and I came up short. Nine days changed the entire course of my life.

So what was my next move? I'd formulated a plan when I started the OTS packet process the year prior. My ETS (End of Time in Service, the day your enlistment ends) date was December 2004. The OTS packet deadline was in January 2004. As I saw it, I had two options when I began the process: either go to OTS and finish my career as an Air Force Officer or, failing that, get out of the Army and parlay my JOPES experience into a high paying civilian job. After missing out on what I saw as my only shot at OTS, I decided I would indeed just spend the remaining 10-11 months of my enlistment looking for a civilian job. I contacted the recruiter and informed him that I didn't want to wait an entire year to submit my packet and he tried really hard to get me to change my mind:

"Let me explain something to you...all of the packets we submit are in plain brown envelopes with a cover sheet attached. That cover sheet is a checklist of all the documents and forms that required, to ensure that nothing is missing. One of the boxes on that sheet says 'General Officer Recommendation' and if that box is checked, your packet goes right to the top of the have TWO General Officer recommendations! So trust me, you will be one of the very first people accepted once they see that! Just wait a year and submit, you are guaranteed!". He was right but I was so disappointed that I could not see the forest through all of the trees. All I could see was that I was about to turn 33 years old. If I waited a year, I would be turning 34 which meant that if I got accepted, by the time I graduated OTS and pinned on 2LT (the lowest officer rank), I would be 35 years old. Of course looking back on it now 35 still seems young but considering that most officers are pinning on 2LT around 22 years old, I just could not fathom being a 35 year old 'Butterbar".

I'd made my choice and was sticking with it. I was done with the military. 

(To go to Part 5, CLICK HERE)

Sunday, July 26, 2020


So out of the blue, I started cooking about a year and a half ago. I can't explain why, it just happened. As part of my culinary journey, I have endeavored to make several dishes that I became addicted to in my 15 years in Bella Italia. Chief among them is pesto. I cannot describe my love of pesto in words, it is just indescribable. Virginia has an amazing garden and one of the things that is growing in abundance is fresh basil. Fresh basil is actually my absolute favorite smell in the world so it's no surprise that I have decided to try my hand at making fresh pesto. I'd planned on trying it ever since we lived in Italy but I just was never adventurous enough to try it since I've never cooked anything that I couldn't microwave before. However, once I started cooking, something awoke in me and I just enjoyed it so much that when I had all these beautiful, fresh ingredients from Virginia's garden, I just felt inspired...So I learned how to make fresh pesto and it was surprisingly easy. I've made it a few times with mixed results but each time has generally been good.

But today...Today I made a huge batch and it was just so unbelievably good that it reminded me of a symphony as all the note were struck perfectly and in such complete harmony that it left me speechless. Well, almost speechless; I wrote a Facebook post about it that I thought would have made a great blog post and since I'm trying to revive the blog and start getting away from Facebook, I thought I'd repost it here for posterity because, quite honestly, I think it's one of the cooler things I've written. And so here it is, in its entirety:

I mentioned Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma" in my post about my perfect pesto and as I revisited the video and the song, it occurred to me that my entire pesto making process today is perfectly represented in Pavarotti's performance, almost as if by fate. It started out slowly, just some simple kosher salt and garlic. Next, the real meat of the aria begins, the fresh just starts to hit the high note but then comes back down before you get too excited when you add in the pine nuts...they provide a measure of softness to the madness and bring you back down to Earth but it becomes obvious that this is building towards something really special. Next comes the Parmeggiano Reggiano which softens it even further and almost lulls you into sleep but then suddenly you finish it off with the extra virgin olive oil and then you stir and stir and stir and finally....if you did everything right, your pesto reaches a crescendo of epic proportions, just as Pavarotti hits the perfect high note in the third "Vincero" close your eyes and you can feel yourself on the Ligurian coast enjoying all the best things Italy has to offer. And then, just like that, it's over...finished too soon. But the sensation will stay with you the rest of your life. Bravo, maestro...

Reliving a Decision The Changed My Life, Part 3

(To go to Part 1, CLICK HERE)

"The Air Force is accepting prior service for OTS now..."

Wait. Run that by me again? We were in the middle of a huge joint exercise with people from all four services and there was a Captain from the Air Force that I was working with. After a few days she told me "You know, you should really go officer". I gave her my usual answer, that if the Army guaranteed me a slot in signal or transportation, I'd do it in a heartbeat. She asked if I'd considered applying for OTS (Officer Training School, the Air Force version) with the Air Force, I laughed and said that would be a dream but they don't take prior service. It was at that moment she uttered those fateful words; The Air Force is accepting prior service for OTS now...

Well this changes everything. Not only could my dream of joining the Air Force from years ago become a reality, but I could do it as an officer?! This just seemed to good to be true so I managed to run down the number for the recruiter's office at nearby Aviano Air Base, gave them a call and confirmed that, yes, as an Army NCO, I was eligible to apply for Air Force OTS. With this new information, I started working out a plan for my future. I had a little less than 2 years left on my current enlistment. The cutoff date to submit my application packet for OTS was the following January, roughly 8-9 months away. I figured that'd be plenty of time. I was wrong. So, so wrong...

Was this my destiny?

According to the recruiter (an Air Force Master Sergeant), in order to submit an OTS packet, I would first have to pass the "AFOQT" - Air Force Officer Qualifications Test (the military does love their acronyms...). It turns out that the requirements for the Air Force's officer school were a bit more stringent than the Army's. No shocker there. As it happened, they were scheduled to hold the next testing date that very week so I signed up for it and then notified my boss, 1LT Kuss the next day that I was planning on applying to OTS and that I would need a day off to take the test. Kuss said no problem, he's all for it but that he'd need to clear it with MAJ Ostlund first and then he disappeared to go talk to him. What happened next still gives me goosebumps whenever I think about it. MAJ Ostlund came charging into the office with Kuss in tow, just like the time he came to verbally undress me for the incident with USAREUR months earlier and I quickly jumped up to attention. Except this time, he didn't come in to yell at me, he came to congratulate me. He was effusive in his praise and told me "SGT Thibodeau, I am so goddamned happy right now, I think it's fantastic that you have decided to become an officer, I cannot tell you how proud I am of you right now..." I had never seen him so happy. He told me that he had worked in the past with people submitting packets for various scholarships and such and offered his help with anything that I needed. Truthfully, I was worried how all of these hard-charging infantry officers I worked with would react to me switching to the Air Force but I needn't have worried. MAJ Ostlund's reaction solidified in me once and for all that I was making the right decision. Col Carpenter had a similar reaction when he found out. His exact words were "Dammit Thibodeau, I hate to see the Army lose you but at least you're finally going to be an officer."

Not everyone took the news so well. The NCOIC of my division at the time did not like all. He was an old school Airborne Infantry Master Sergeant and for reasons I understood all too well but will keep to myself, he just had it out for me. He constantly singled me out for criticism or just to screw with me and on several occasions made things personal, well beyond the typical NCOIC-soldier dynamic. So bad was his treatment of me that it had convinced me that I would never stay in the Army as an enlisted person because there was no way someone like that was going to have that much control over my life. As the NCOIC, I had no choice but to inform him that I was taking a day off in order to go to Aviano to take the AFOQT and if I passed, that I would be submitting an OTS packet with the Air Force. He reacted pretty much as I suspected he would and gave me a hard time. He had me locked up at parade rest at his desk and proceeded to scold me for "not giving me any advance notice" of my plan (whatever that meant) and just as his voice started getting raised, MAJ Ostlund suddenly appeared. He did not say a word, he just looked at the NCOIC and that, apparently, was enough. After looking at Ostlund, he looked back at me and said "Fine, take the day off. But next time you make these little life decisions of yours, make sure to let me know ahead of time so we're not scrambling at the last minute trying to cover for you. Now get out of here." Phew. 

I remembering taking the AFOQT in a room with about 20 Air Force people, all of whom looked like they were about 21 years old. The recruiter told me the test was no joke and he recommended holding off until the next test so I had time to study since only a handful who take it even score high enough to submit packets. I probably should have listened but I was too anxious, it was now or never. He wasn't kidding about it being difficult; I remember it being sort of a cross between the SATs that you take in high school and the ASVAB test that you take when you join the military. The difference here was that I had zero time to actually study for it whereas most people spend weeks, even months preparing and studying for it. I did as best as I could and then I waited. And waited. And waited. A few weeks later I received the call from the recruiter: "Well, you scored high enough to make the cut, congratulations. I'll be assisting you with putting your packet together."

The Air Force Officer Qualification Test is no joke but I'm proud to say that I passed it with zero time to study!

First there was relief. Then, elation. Then the realization that I'd only gotten past the first obstacle and that there was much more to do. Te recruiter sent me all the forms I'd need to complete and the list of documents I'd need to submit and quite honestly, it was a bit overwhelming but I dutifully got started. The first thing I would need were letters of recommendation. I could submit up to three of them and obviously, the higher ranks, the better. My plan was to gather as many letters of recommendation as I could, sort of covering all my bases, and then select the best three to submit with my packet. I was fortunate to have Col Carpenter as an ally in this endeavor; not only did he write me a strong letter of recommendation of his own but since he was the G3, he actually convinced the SETAF Commander - a Two-Star General - to write one for me as well. A letter of recommendation from a General Officer, as I found out later, was better than gold when you are submitting a packet for any military school, especially officer school. Satisfied that my letters of recommendation were good enough, I set about to complete all the other requirements. Most of them were pretty easy but the last part of the AF56 (OTS application packet) seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle, one I wasn't sure how to tackle. It stated that I must have a sit down interview with a "Senior Air Force Officer" and have him or her complete the section with an official recommendation. It might not seem that difficult but I was an E5 (sergeant) working on an overseas Army base; the only Air Force officer we had was the head of the staff weather office down the hall from me and he was but a mere Captain so he wouldn't qualify as a "Senior Air Force Officer". I became discouraged. I racked my brain trying to remember if I knew anyone in the Air Force that I could ask to conduct the interview and fill out the form but I kept coming up with nothing. Things were looking bleak for me but, once again, it was Col Carpenter to the rescue.

We were about to begin another huge joint exercise that day and so I ventured over to the coffee bar on base that everyone - Americans and Italians alike - gathered at several times a day for their caffeine fix, affectionately called the Carb Bar. Col Carpenter happened to be there as usual and upon seeing me asked me how my OTS packet was coming along. I said "It's coming along pretty well sir, I've got most of it done but I'm stuck on the last part where it says I have to have a sit down interview with a senior Air Force officer. Problem is, I don't know any Air Force officers at all so I have no clue what to do..." Carpenter replied "Why didn't you ask me Thibodeau, Erv Lessel is here as the deputy commander for the exercise, I'll hook you up with him." It turns out that Erv Lessel was Brigadier General Erwin Lessel, the 86th Wing Commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany - as Air Force officers go, it doesn't get much more senior than that! He and Carpenter were good friends and he just happened to be on base for the big exercise. Fortune had once again smiled down upon me.

BG Erwin "Erv" Lessel

Sure enough, one day later an Air Force captain came into our building, asked if there was a SGT Thibodeau in there and then said BG Lessel would like to see you. One does not converse with a General Officer very often (if ever) so you can imagine how nervous I was. I went into his office and sat down and BG Lessel turned out to be one of the nicest people ever. He dropped the formalities and talked to me on my level for a good 10-15 minutes, asked me questions about my background, what I'd hoped to achieve, stuff like that. Finally he said "Well listen SGT Thibodeau, Pat Carpenter absolutely speaks the world of you and as far as I'm concerned, that's good enough for me...Capt. Devoe will bring you the completed form later, good luck!". Later that day Capt Devoe did indeed bring the form and my jaw dropped as I read the recommendation that BG Lessel had personally handwritten which included phrases such as "Best candidate I have ever interviewed for OTS", "Must admit immediately" and "Air Force will lose an officer of the highest potential if SGT Thibodeau is not admitted to OTS!". I could not believe what I was reading. It was unfathomable. Only a day earlier it looked as if the senior AF officer interview thing would be my undoing and now it looked like it would be the one thing that would guarantee my acceptance to OTS!

Unfortunately, as it has so many times in my career, the incompetence of the US Army would completely screw me...

(To go to Part 4, CLICK HERE)

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Reliving a Decision That Changed My Life, Part 2

(To read Part 1, Click Here)

Fast forward back to the spring of 2003. I had about a year and a half left on my enlistment and for the first time since I went active duty in 1998, I honestly had no idea what to do. I'd originally enlisted in the Army Reserves out of high school in 1989 to help pay for college. After graduating college in 1993, I bounced around from job to job not knowing what the hell I was doing until around 1995 when one of my best friends, Randy Pouliot came back to visit home. Randy and I were inseparable our senior year of high school. We spent our senior year touring various colleges around New England, some of which we had no interest in but college visits were an excused absence from school so we milked it for all it was worth and drove all over New Hampshire in his mom's blue Ford Escort. I ended up at Franklin Pierce College (since renamed Franklin Pierce University) and Randy settled on University of Massachusetts-Lowell. After one semester, he ran out of money so he went back home and got a shitty job at a local pizza joint. But Randy was smart and resourceful and there was no way he was going to let his circumstances keep him down so he did the best thing he could have done - he joined the Air Force and he got the hell out of Dodge, er, Nashua. He ended up being stationed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas and in 1995, when I was between jobs, I had a chance to drive cross country with him from Boston to Las Vegas and then spend a couple weeks with him in Sin City and it was a life changing experience for me.

Randy and I at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas, 1995

For the first time, I got to see other parts of the USA and realized that there was life outside New England that I'd never seen and then I got to experience life as an active duty Air Force person (I was still in the Army Reserves at the time so I had full base privileges where he was). I was so enamored with it all that when I got back home, I called an Air Force Recruiter to try and enlist in the Air Force. The Recruiter told me that I was THEE perfect candidate - young, single, no dependents, college degree - but unfortunately I was in the Army Reserves and they were not allowed to accept prior service (people from other services). I was crushed and gave up on that dream pretty quick because, well...I had no choice.

Things got pretty bad after that until, in early 1998, I'd had enough and ended up enlisting active duty in the Army, since the Air Force was not an option (although I did try one more time and was told, again, that the Air Force was not accepting prior service). It's funny for me to look back on it now but at the time, I was terrified. I'd gone to college and gotten a job with my own office, all the things I thought I was supposed to do as part of the 'American Dream'. I had all my friends that I'd grown up with, we spent our time watching Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics games together and I could not fathom ever leaving my little bubble that I'd grown up in and that I just figured would be my future. But I was miserable and feeling like I was going nowhere - although I did not want to join the Army, they offered me a guaranteed tour in Europe and money for my Masters Degree, and so in spring of 1998, I went active duty Army and went to Germany to start my new life. At the time I figured I'd just do my three year commitment, see as much of Europe as I could, then go back to the US and use my GI Bill money to get my Masters Degree in something I was interested in doing for a career. However, as it so often does, fate had other plans for me...

I took to Europe right away. I did two years in Germany and then transferred to Italy where I felt like I wanted to stay forever. Life in Italy was like paradise. In Germany I had to live in the barracks with all the other enlisted soldiers and I hated it. But in Italy, I had been promoted to Sergeant and was able to live off base in a beautiful two bedroom apartment with marble floors and a balcony with a captivating view of the Dolomites (Italian Alps). I was happier than I've ever been, I just could not envision life getting any better.

Sitting on the balcony of my little apartment in Italy sipping vino and enjoying the view. It was truly La Dolce Vita...

During that time I expanded my traveling adventures, took a few trips to various places in Asia, met a girl in Hong Kong and got married. Not long after we got married, we were expecting our first child. Something was happening - I was becoming...domesticated. First the first time since I left for Europe in 1998, I suddenly had to think about the future and come up with a plan. The way I saw it, I had but two options: Either finish my current enlistment, get out and get a job or make the Army my career and stay in until retirement. If I was going to make the Army my career, it certainly was NOT going to be as an enlisted soldier. Nothing against enlisted soldiers, it's just that as a 30 year old buck sergeant, I was well behind the curve and probably wouldn't go much further. Nay, I would have to go to OCS and become an officer if the Army was to be a career for me. Believe it or not, I would have loved to do that and finish my career as an officer but the war in Afghanistan was a couple years old and the war in Iraq was just getting started and I foresaw many miserable deployments ahead of me if I went that route so it was a difficult decision. On the other hand, I had a job at the time working on a system called JOPES and I had made a lot of contacts in the JOPES world who kept telling me I should get out of the Army and get a Department of Defense civilian job because, with two wars going on, JOPES experts were in very high demand. I personally knew people who did the same job as me who were getting out of the military and walking into GS11 and 12 jobs. As a lowly buck sergeant, it was a very attractive option. I was leaning in that direction until one fateful day in the spring of 2003 that would change...well, pretty much everything.

(To go to Part 3, CLICK HERE)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Reliving a Decision That Changed My Life, Part I

It was the spring of 2003 and I was at a crossroad. I was a 31 year old buck sergeant in the US Army, assigned to the Southern European Task Force (aka SETAF) in Vicenza, Italy and my future was very much uncertain. I felt I was destined for something better but I couldn't figure out what. I worked in the G3 Operations section which meant I worked with a lot of officers and other high ranking people and because of the job I did, I sort of developed a reputation as a "smart guy" which, if you know me, is pretty far from the truth. Regardless, during my years as an enlisted soldier, it was a pretty common thing for officers I worked for or with to try and convince me to go to Officer Candidate School (OCS), saying I would make a good officer. For my part, I was unconvinced. I actually enjoyed military life and since I had a college degree, it often seemed as if I were pre-ordained to become an officer at some point but I could just never pull the trigger for various reasons. For one thing, going to OCS meant there was a very good chance that I would end up in a combat arms branch such as infantry and I had zero interest in that. Believe me when I tell you that I have the upmost respect and admiration for the infantry and the other combat arms branches...the 'ground pounders' are the backbone and very fabric of the US Military. It's just that I was getting older and I enjoyed working with systems more than I enjoyed being in the field doing 'grunt' stuff. I had been a signal (communications) guy my entire military career, I had no interest in learning how to be a combat arms officer at 30 years old. At SETAF, I worked with tons of infantry officers and I was in awe of some of them, I knew there was no way I could ever measure up to what they were. Indeed, many of the infantry officers I worked with in my SETAF days have gone on to become some of the greatest Army leaders of our generation, some even achieving the rank of one, two or three star generals. They were imposing men with larger-than-life personalities who worked late hours and seldom saw their families and that just was not me. I was the guy who liked to come in, do his job, then go home and enjoy life away from the Army.

The guy who was in charge of the G3 was an old school, crusty, barrel-chested Colonel named Carpenter. Carpenter was tough as nails, had a voice and manner that just commanded respect but had a personality that forced you to love the guy. His nickname was Mongo and he was fond of carrying a wooden mace around the building with him. My first day at SETAF he passed by me, looked at my uniform and said "Thibodeau...come see me in my office later". I was a bit unnerved, wondering what I could have done wrong but I needn't have worried. It turns out that Col Carpenter was from the great state of Vermont and instantly recognized me as a fellow northern New Englander by my French-Canadian last name. We compared stories of our New England backgrounds and then he dismissed me but it was obvious that he had taken an instant liking to me - as I learned later on, Carpenter had a tremendous fondness for his enlisted soldiers whom he always said were "his guys". I may not have been an infantry guy but Col Carpenter recognized the skills and talent that I did have and that what I offered to the command and its mission was as integral as anyone else on his staff. In the three years that I worked for him, he would often try to persuade me to submit an OCS packet but I always rebuffed him. I remember one conversation we had where he growled at me, "Goddamnit Thibodeau, when are you going to go to OCS? You're spinning your wheels down here as an enlisted guy...". I answered, "Sir, I've considered it but they can't guarantee me a slot in what I want to do, like signal or transportation, there's just too great of a chance that they'll stick me in combat arms and I just don't think I'd make a good combat arms officer..." to which he replied "I think you're selling yourself short Thibodeau, I think you'd make a great combat arms officer". We had similar interactions like this several times during my time there and while I wasn't budging, I honestly appreciated that a leader whom I respected so much believed in me as much as he did.

"SGT Thibodeau", SETAF, ca. 2002

Sometime in 2001, my division got a new CHOPs (Chief of Operations) named Major Ostlund. Ostlund was a great officer and tremendous leader and I liked him right away. He was completely no-nonsense and one of the hardest chargers I've ever worked for. I'll never forget his brief to all of us shortly after he arrived: "I don't like shitheads". That was it. Short, sweet and to the point, we all knew right away that the new boss didn't fool around. Ostlund was also a true warrior in every sense of the word. In the months that followed 9/11, we all were waiting to see if we would be getting deployed to Afghanistan and Ostlund would ask me "Sgt Thibodeau, if we got the call today, would you be able to have our [deployment plans] ready to get us out of here immediately? Cause my ass has splinters from riding the pine, I need to get in the fight!"

Colonel (R) William "Bill" Ostlund; as a Major, he was the greatest leader I ever worked for.

I remember one incident in particular that captured Maj Ostlund perfectly; in my job, I often had to deal directly with our higher headquarters, US Army Europe (USAREUR). One day there was a disagreement between Maj Ostlund and the LTC that I was dealing with at USAREUR (for those who don't know military ranks, a LTC is one rank higher than a Major). I was caught in the middle and was in a no-win situation and I made it worse by trying to pacify everybody by taking blame for whatever happened and I apologized to the LTC at USAREUR. This infuriated Ostlund who came barging into my office like a raging bull and he proceeded to go up one side of me and down the other. I of course apologized and explained that I had no idea how to handle that particular situation; he took a deep breath and told me to come to him directly from now on and let him deal with it, rather than trying to fix everything myself. I remember his exact words were "Sgt Thibodeau, there is not a Goddamned LTC in the Army that I am afraid of." And there wasn't. That was Maj Ostlund - extremely tough but also fair and someone who looked out for people who worked for him and wanted to help them succeed...unless you were a shithead. For my part, I was very good at my job (and I obviously wasn't a shithead) so Ostlund seemed to like me well enough. We would obviously never be friends on a personal level but as long as I stayed off his bad side, that was good enough for me. All these years later, I still count him as the greatest leader I've ever worked for and as it turned out, he had more appreciation for me and my potential than I realized but we'll get to that later...

(To go to Part II, Click Here)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Here is an Amazing Story.

I don't even know where to begin with this one...

Those of you who have known us for more than a few years will no doubt recall the LQA audit nightmare we endured back in 2013. During our ordeal, I got to know many other DoD civilians around the world through our closed Facebook group. I would say that the two largest geographical regions were Germany and Korea, which is not surprising as those two countries feature the largest - and largest number of - bases. Whereas many of us had daily contact while we were 'fighting the good fight', most of us have lost touch with each other since the nightmare ended. There are a small handful of people I have remained in contact with however, a couple of them from here in Korea. 

When I was debating whether or not to take the job here, I quickly reached out to two of the Korea guys to get their thoughts, advice, etc. One of them is a Korean-American gentleman who is retired Army and has worked here in Korea for many years both on active duty and as a DoD civilian. He is very protective of his privacy so let's call him "JP". JP gave me a lot of good advice and encouragement while I was debating making the move and once I made the decision to take the job, we made plans to get together once we got settled. I figured it would be great to have a friend here who knew his way around, right? And of course I thought it would be cool to finally meet one of the other LQA victims that I knew only through the FB group since, believe it or not, I've never met a single one. I messaged JP shortly after we arrived, let him know we were in country and we traded cell phone numbers. He said to let him know once we were settled and maybe we could get together. That was about three weeks ago or so and I'm embarrassed to say, I'd completely forgotten all about him with all of the moving, in processing and such. 

As you know, we moved into a beautiful place last week. We are close to the base but there really isn't a lot of stuff near us, we're kind of secluded. There are a couple restaurants nearby (the duck one is the only one we've tried) but the saving grace for us is that right next door there is a tiny little "shopping plaza" that has only two things; a coffee house called "Timeless Coffee" and a little convenient store chain called "GS25" (sort of like a small 7-11). The GS25 has been a Godsend for us, it has drinks, snacks, some takeaway food, ice cream, you name it. Before I bought my little car I would go in and ask them to call me a taxi to take me to the base. They speak no English at all but are so completely nice and friendly. The first day, the boys and I went into the Timeless Coffee place so I could grab and espresso and I loved it right away, very cute little coffee house serving all kinds of coffees and teas as well as pastries, cakes A few days ago I stopped in for a beer before going to the GS25 and to my surprise, the Korean woman working there spoke very good English. We chatted a bit and she was so nice, I thought "Well, this could become my new hangout as it's the only walkable place I can go to get a beer".

Today I took the family to a movie (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom...little disappointing, I'd give it a 6.1 at best) and Virginia and I had planned to go check out one of the big markets downtown afterwards which is on our local bus line. The kids were fighting and acting up which put me in a bad mood and it was 1,000 degrees so I just was not in the mood to explore the market so I told Virginia that she could just go by herself if she wanted to, I'd drop her off at the bus stop. The bus stop is very close, just up the street from us and it happens to be just after the little plaza with the coffee house and the GS25 mart. I dropped her off at the bus stop, then pulled into the GS25 mart to grab a bottle of soju but it was so hot that I thought I'd enjoy a cold beer first so I popped into Timeless Coffee next door for a Red Horse. The same woman was working so we chatted a bit. I asked her if she was the owner and she said yes. She asked if we had bought a place nearby and I said no, we are renting a place there and pointed to our house. I took my beer and sat at one of the tables, sipped it while I surfed the net on my phone and I thought to myself "Dammit, I meant to ask her how she learned to speak English so well..." Figured I'd ask on my way out when I paid for my beer. After a few minutes, a maroon vehicle pulled into the parking lot and around the side. I didn't really pay it much notice. A Korean guy got out and came into the coffee house. I drank my beer, didn't pay him much mind. After about 5 minutes, he was walking out, turned to me and said "Do you know me?". I looked at him confused and said "Um...I don't think so". He sat down and said "You're new here, right?" I was starting to get a little freaked out that some random Korean guy seemed to know a little too much about me but he told me his name and said he was one of the LQA guys and it finally hit me - he was JP

We are friends on FB but he doesn't post pics of himself so I really had no clue what he looked like. But, I post pics all the time so he recognized me in a second. I asked what he was doing there and it turns out that his wife owns the Timeless Coffee house! Seriously, what are the odds?! This is NOT a small community. Pyeontaek's population is roughly half a million people and Camp Humphreys itself is home to almost 50,000 people. And it just so happens that his wife owns the little coffee house right next door. Amazing. 

Anyway, I invited him back to our place where we spent a good couple hours or so talking about everything from the LQA nightmare to living in Korea. I wanted to get a picture of us to post with this story but as I mentioned, he is wicked private so, sorry, no picture. 

Just thought that was an incredible story. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

More Thoughts and Impressions of Korea...

So tomorrow will be exactly three weeks since we arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm. With everything that has happened since we got here, it seems like a lot more than 3 weeks. We are starting to settle in now - we've moved into our house and have started to get to know the area a bit - so I figured I'd share some more random thoughts and such on our new life and surroundings...

* South Korea is expensive. I probably shouldn't be surprised, considering the fact that the country is completely cut off from the rest of mainland Asia by the evil empire to our north which means that pretty much everything here is imported via sea or air. The quality of life here is very high and that does come at a cost and I'd been warned prior to arriving that everything here is expensive. However, there are some things that just seem disproportionately expensive. For example, we ate at a Chinese restaurant on my birthday and the kids wanted their Coca Cola so I let them order a can each. Halfway through the meal I was looking at the drink menu to see what kind of beer they had and I was shocked to notice the price of a can of Coke - $9.50! And it wasn't even a regular 12 oz can! I wish I'd looked before I let all three kids order one, that's for DAMNED sure. On the other hand, some things that I thought would be pricey are actually cheaper than expected. Taxis are cheaper than I expected. Train tickets are cheap - all 5 of us took the train to Seoul last weekend for roughly 20 bucks. And soju, which I have already developed a love/hate relationship with, is surprisingly cheap (about a buck and a half for a bottle at the convenient stores). The worst part so far is probably the produce at the commissary, which is usually cheap. The selection here is horribly anemic and grossly overpriced, even prohibitively so. Fortunately we have already discovered the cheaper "3/8 market" (so called because it is held on days ending in either a 3 or an 8) downtown that usually yields better and cheaper produce. Unfortunately, restaurants also fall into the pricy category. A good dinner at a Korean BBQ place for all 5 of us could easily approach the $100 mark and could just as easily go way over if you're not careful. Speaking of Korean restaurants...
Produce at the commissary: over $7 for a small carton of strawberries and over $6 for a small carton of blueberries. No thanks. 

* I'm sure I will be proven wrong on this as we spend more time here but for now, Korean cuisine doesn't seem very diverse. It's most famous for the Korean BBQ where they bring all kinds of vegetables and you cook the meat at your table - affectionately called "Beef and Leaf" by Americans - but outside of that I haven't been able to find any other identifiably authentic "Korean" food. I don't even know what else there is, to be honest. There is something called "bibimbap" that we have been dying to try, it's basically a huge bowl of rice with sautèed vegetables, chili paste and either a fried egg or sliced meat on top...but we haven't found a place that serves the real thing yet (full disclosure, we haven't really looked that hard). And it seems like everything ...and I mean EVERYTHING - here is spicy. This is causing problems for Luca and Max as they can't order anything anywhere we go. Chicken nugget kids meal? Chicken is too spicy. Hot dog? Too spicy. I'm getting used to it but it'd be nice to have some normal food that is not spicy. Of course we are at a huge American base so there is also no shortage of American type places selling burgers, wings, Mexican food, etc. but I'm in South Korea, I don't want that crap. Luckily there are plenty of ethnic Asian places such as Indian, Thai, Filipino and such. I'm a huge fan of Asian food so that suits me just fine. 
Spicy noodles with dumplings for lunch today; so spicy it burned my insides for a good hour after I ate it.

* South Korea is hot. Like, wicked hot. And the humidity is absolutely unbelievable. People told me it was bad but I had no idea it would be this bad. The heat and humidity here, I would put it on par with the Philippines believe it or not. It really is that bad. I am sweating constantly, it's very uncomfortable. Italy is hot and humid but nothing like this place. I try putting on sunscreen but I sweat it off within minutes of being outside and being in the sun makes me feel like a frigging vampire it burns so much. From what I've gathered, June through August is like this. Hopefully it will get better after because my God, this weather is absolutely oppressive. 

* Remember when I wrote about how easy everything was here compared to Italy? Well...things got a little more difficult the last week or so. The biggest problem here is the absolute massive size of the base. I honestly can't understate how huge this place is (for my friends in Vicenza, you could probably put at least 10-15 Caserma Ederles inside the base here and that is a very conservative estimate). It's basically a city. Taking a taxi from one end of the base to the other can take at least 15 minutes or more. Taking the free shuttle bus from the PX to the front gate can take more than half and hour. Almost all of the in-processing stuff is done in the "One Stop" building as I mentioned earlier and it's so convenient but anything else you have to do quickly becomes a nightmare. An expensive nightmare. They have three different free shuttle bus lines (red, green and blue) that do different routes but sometimes marrying up the different changes and transfers is often akin to doing a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. If you need to go to the big places - PX, walk in gate, etc., no problem. But anything even slightly off the beaten path,'re screwed. Now, the saving grace SHOULD be the taxis. And for us, they were the first week or two. They have a very 'convenient' AAFES Taxi app for your phone where no matter where you are on base you can order a taxi simply by putting in your location and where you are going and they will send a taxi out to get you. The first week or so it worked great but suddenly the last week or so, probably 75% of the time I order a taxi, I get a response back saying "Sorry, no taxis available at the time, please try again later". And let me tell you, when you are standing outside with NO cover or shade in this heat and burning, searing sunlight with no hope of a taxi or bus coming anytime will make you question your entire existence. Which leads me to my next topic...

* I bought a car today. Given what I just wrote in the above paragraph, I honestly wish I'd done so last week. I shipped my car before we left Italy but I checked the status earlier today and after almost an entire month, it says my car is STILL AT THE PORT IN GERMANY. Which means it could be another couple months until it gets here. When we got to Italy last year I made the mistake of doing a long term rental car while I waited for my car to arrive and it ended up costing me almost $2,000. The smart thing to do would have been to buy a cheap 'hooptie' (used car) to drive until my car arrived, then just sell it. Well now I'm a year older and a year smarter and so that's what I did. You simply cannot survive here without a set of wheels unless you are a single soldier living on base and even then it's damned near impossible. I met a soldier this past weekend who told me that the policy here is that single soldiers below the rank of E7 are not allowed to own a car. That shocked me. I can't fathom living here without a car. He described in great length how much he hates it here simply because he can't have a car and it takes him forever to get anywhere using the slow and confusing bus system. He said this is the worst duty station he's ever had and he'll never come back (perhaps he'll change his mind once he makes E7 and can have a car?). Anyway, we've spent way too much time being stranded on base in the blazing sun for me to even consider not buying a car. Plus we live off base now which means I have to go next door to the 24 hour convenient store and ask them to call me a taxi to the base, then take another taxi once I get to the base. And then depending on what I have to do, when and where I have to do it, I could end up taking 2 or 3 more taxi rides while I'm on base. There is virtually nothing on base that is walkable distance. It's absolutely insane. 

* There is wonderful news on the vino front (or bad news if you're my loving but nagging wife); the shoppettes here carry an outstanding selection of the same Italian, French and Australian wines I used to buy in Vicenza. There will no doubt be many things I will have to learn to live without here but thankfully, world class vino will not one of them (Sorry honey!). 
The finest Italian vino right here in South Korea. Who could ask for more?

* I absolutely LOVE our house. Location aside, it's possibly the nicest house we've ever lived in. It's completely new - we are the very first people to ever live in it - and so clean and modern, it's like a luxury house. I think my favorite part might be the showers. They're completely open with tons of room and feature two different shower heads to choose from. As much as I loved our apartment in Vicenza, the shower was basically the size of a phone booth and had barely enough room to get in and out of. One of the coolest things is the couch that came with the place. It has a bluetooth hookup with speakers on each side - I connect my computer to it when I watch Netflix and put the sound through the couch which is amazing. Sometimes I connect my computer or phone to it and play YouTube videos as the sound is so loud and clear, it's like having a complete surround sound system. 
Our couch with built in bluetooth speakers. Futuristic!

* Language has probably been the toughest challenge for me so far. I've traveled all over the world and for the most part I've been able to get by with some basic phrases or simply by learning how to ask "Do you speak English?" in the local language. Not so here. I've been completely astonished by how few people here speak no English at all, not even one or two words. In my experience, countries that host American bases usually have at least a a slightly higher than average amount of locals who can speak a bit of the language. And Korea has been one of the the biggest homes of overseas American bases since the 1950's so I really thought I'd have no problem here but I was completely wrong. When I lived in Germany it seemed everybody spoke English. In Italy, less so but still a large enough amount that I had no problem getting by using English and my rudimentary French (which is very similar to Italian) until I started learning the local language. Most other countries I've visited - France, Portugal, Holland, Hong Kong, Thailand, you name it...never had a problem. But I'm really struggling here in South Korea. I will learn some Hangul (Korean) in time but for now it's making things very difficult. One of the hardest things is that they don't use the western alphabet in most things, such as trains, buses, etc. So for example, I'm looking for a bus stop with the name "Gaek sa ri", I can't find it because they only use the Korean name: 가에 사 리. It makes things really difficult...

Anyway, there's the most up to date...umm...update. I'm sure I will have much more to add as the days and weeks roll by. But three weeks in, we are still loving it here, having a blast exploring, learning and experiencing all that this wonderful land has to offer. Until next time - 땅에 발을 들여 놓고 별을 향해 계속 ...