Paul Tash: Between ships, fighter jets, tanks and helicopters, the most impressive part of the U.S. military apparatus is its men and women

Using live ammunition and explosives, Army special forces work their way from room to room in a building designed for training exercises at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Using live ammunition and explosives, Army special forces work their way from room to room in a building designed for training exercises at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Published Aug. 29, 2016

The protective suit for the Air Force bomb squad goes on a piece at a time — pants, boots, jacket, helmet — for a total of 65 stifling pounds. But there are no gloves.

The airman explains that gloves would make the work impossible, so the hands must be naked and unprotected. Typically, he would lie on his belly and tuck his right hand — the dominant one — beneath him and work with the left.

If something goes terribly wrong, he could better live without it.

During a week of travel with 36 other civilian leaders to bases for all four armed services branches plus the Coast Guard, it was hard to see the limits on America's military prowess. Both on land and at sea, we saw testing of the latest stealth fighter, price tag $100 million-plus apiece.

"We are perfecting lethality," boasts the announcer on a video at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, where the F-35 is being tested.

But for all the whiz-bang (emphasis on "bang") nature of our tour, the most impressive capacity usually was human — the young officers and enlisted men and women who have signed on to defend the rest of us. And like the fingers on that airman's left hand, they are inevitably exposed.

Listening and doing

This year's Joint Civilian Orientation Conference collected prominent representatives of business, education, medicine, law and media. Our group included the CEO of Vanguard, the commissioner of the Big 12 athletic conference and a top executive at Fox Sports.

Starting at the Pentagon on a Monday morning, we traveled to seven military installations across three states in five days — landing at week's end on the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier cruising 100 miles off the coast of Virginia. Our itinerary was kept secret until we started. I arrived in Washington to discover that two days later, I was headed back to Tampa (MacDill) and St. Petersburg (the Coast Guard).

We traveled mostly by C-17, a military cargo jet where we could see our bags stacked and strapped on a pallet, a speck in a plane built to haul tanks and helicopters. Our crew, an Air National Guard unit from New York, had left their day jobs as cops and commercial pilots.

The days combined listening and doing, and required more stamina than strength. The biggest jolts were on the landing and takeoff from the aircraft carrier. A catapult launches you from a standing start to 100 mph in a couple seconds, with little warning and facing backward so you lurch against the straps holding you in place.

The Defense Department hopes the program will build better understanding between the military and a civilian population with dwindling direct experience with military service and installations. Before this program, various members of our group had never fired a gun.

Hanging out with soldiers is much easier than being one. I may show some talent with a 9 mm pistol, but no one was shooting back. During the week, I missed my 33rd wedding anniversary, but I met a major in the Army Rangers who is looking toward his next overseas deployment. He will leave his wife with four sons. Their oldest boy is 6 years old.

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Infinite risks

At the Pentagon, generals talk first about the "existential" nuclear threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, before they turn to violent extremism. But just about everywhere else we visited, the main color scheme was sand. Fifteen years of war in the Middle East will do that.

At Quantico in Virginia, new Marine officers learn to plan their battles in a giant sandbox. At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Army Rangers — and their German shepherd — drop from a Blackhawk helicopter onto a three-story building that looked to me like the pictures of Osama bin Laden's last known address. A fake town built for special forces training includes the "Hotel Baghdad," not the "Hotel Pyongyang."

American operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan are run from MacDill, at the Central Command. No other country comes close to spending as much on its military as the United States, and no other military has devoted such huge resource to this rough neighborhood.

Weary of casualties and expense, the United States would like to shift much of the fighting onto local forces, who draw mixed reviews for courage and competence. There are some brave "partners" who are the equal of their American advisers, willing to put themselves in danger.

"Those are the ones who tend to go (i.e. get killed) first," said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, who runs the Army's special forces from Fort Bragg.

The Obama administration is trying to put more emphasis elsewhere, and more than half the U.S. Navy is based in the Pacific. But it is harder to get out of the Middle East than it was to get in, and other global players are flexing their own muscles in places we're trying to leave. One, Russia, has nukes. Another, Iran, would like them.

Even while keeping up the fight against "violent extremists," the Pentagon also plans to renew the nuclear arsenal. The warheads themselves are fine, but the Defense Department is planning the next generation of missiles, planes and submarines that could deliver them to their targets.

For now, at least, the American military preserves the kind of glorious redundancy that can still put a line of soldiers outside an airplane just to honor departing dignitaries. The Pentagon acknowledges that its budget is huge, but the risks it has to anticipate are infinite.

Tip of the spear

The week's program produces a highlight reel of impressions about American military prowess. Staring down the barrel of a gun that can deliver tank-penetrating shells at the rate of 4,000 per minute, it is hard to see weakness. Moving aside 30 yards for an ammunition "test," we could still feel the percussive blast against our chests.

Around that gun, the Air Force builds an airplane, which requires a pilot to fly, aim and fire. Although the hardware we saw on a week's tour was formidable, the people we met were typically more impressive. Across various branches and ranks, we met young people carrying big responsibilities — and proud of their work.

For some, the military offered a way out of small Midwestern towns without much going on. Money for college, without the burden of student loans, was a common draw. Some come from families with generations of service, so the military is almost the family business. For others, chance played a deciding role in their futures.

Aboard the Coast Guard cutter Joshua Appleby in St. Petersburg, I met a man who had been selling jewelry when his Volkswagen Beetle broke down outside a recruiting office. He went inside just to use the phone. That was 19 years ago.

Some encounters illustrated the expanded diversity in the armed forces. When I asked about his spouse, a sailor on the aircraft carrier gently corrected my pronoun — from "she" to "he." At the ship's chapel on Friday afternoon, there were three prayer rugs and Korans laid out for Muslim members of the crew.

With no draft to compel them, the soldiers, sailors and airmen I met often described the gravitational pull of a purpose bigger than themselves, whether or not they used the word "patriotism." At the Marine base at Quantico, I had dinner with two newly minted lieutenants.

Both young men had graduated from college a couple years ago but found their first jobs unfulfilling. One, a graduate of Davidson, had been working for a political consulting firm in Ohio. "I wanted to be someone who makes a difference instead of someone who talks about making a difference," he told me. Now he is training to take command of a Marine artillery unit.

For 10 more weeks until the election and then beyond, there will be controversy about the state of America's military and whether to use it more vigorously. Whatever else I forget from my recent tour, I will remember the men and women I met. At the end of America's long reach, some of them will wind up as fingers on that naked hand.

Paul Tash is chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times.