Sergeant major recounts past 10 years at Fort Drum
September 7, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Late one evening in December 2000, Sgt. 1st Class Carl A. Ashmead pulled off Interstate 81 and hunted the dark country roads for signs of civilization.
He had been assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, and after years in Hawaii, and Georgia before that, the nippy North Country would be his Family's new home.
When they finally stumbled on the quiet post, there was no gate, no guard -- just a sign telling incoming Soldiers to report to the 24-hour shoppette. From there, another sign provided directions to the Fort Drum Inn.
The tired travelers went to bed. They awoke in the morning to 18 inches of snow.
"'Looks like we made it to the right place,'" he told his Family.
In nine months time, the calm and secure setting would become one of America's busiest wartime hubs.
"'Two airplanes have flown into the World Trade Center,'" Ashmead told his Soldiers on Sept. 11, 2001, after gathering them around a tower at Fort Drum's Range 44. "'I'm not sure what this means, but I think we may be at war. We're going to change what we're doing so that you guys are prepared.'"
Ashmead's instincts had machine gun crews zeroing their weapons and qualifying on the range until every cartridge had been fired the next morning.
"I realized that (it) could quickly escalate into something," recalled the sergeant major, who a decade earlier had gone into Panama with Army Special Forces.
Ashmead's unit was soon be among the first on the ground in Afghanistan where the mission was to overthrow Taliban rule and take away safe havens from al-Qaida -- the terrorist organization that attacked the U.S.
Then a rifle platoon sergeant, Ashmead is now command sergeant major of 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He has spent the last 11 years of his Army career with brigades based at Fort Drum.
"When I first came here, this post had a very poor reputation (Armywide) as a place to serve," he said. "But I rapidly found out that the organization itself was fantastic. Long before Fort Drum picked up 'The Best Kept Secret' as their tagline, I would refer to the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum as the best kept secret in the Army.
"So (many of) the people who come here and serve … enjoy being in a professional organization that's kind of come to be counted on as the go-to guys for the Army and the nation," he added. "Very few organizations in the Army, especially in the NCO Corps, have individuals who opt to remain on the post or in the organization for up to a decade."
After four combat tours -- two in Afghanistan and two in Iraq -- Ashmead likes to characterize Fort Drum as the home of a gritty, no-frills, highly effective infantry division with a blue-collar work ethic.
"We don't have a bunch of helicopters like the 101st and we don't jump out of airplanes like the 82nd," he said. "But we have the ability to be sent someplace rapidly and get the job done, whatever it may be.
"Whether that's Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo (or) Hurricane Andrew in Florida," he added. "The division has shown that it's very agile … because it's been tagged with all of these marginal missions."
Ashmead figures the division's reputation influenced Army leaders to make 1-87 Infantry the first conventional battalion to deploy to Afghanistan once the war on terrorism began.
"That decade and a half of being willing to do any job and not thinking we're too good for anything, or that we're not capable of doing what was asked, kind of showed through when the Army said: 'Who's available?'" he said of 9/11. "And they sent us."
In the anxious weeks leading up to their deployment, Ashmead said 1-87 Infantry worked long and hard, often up to 20 hours a day. When units arrived in Uzbekistan in mid-October, they were loaded with ammunition, bottled water and Meals-Ready to Eat. By December, days after CIA operative Mike Spann became the first American killed in combat, Ashmead was a part of an advance party sent to Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey landing zones.
He said 1-87 Infantry's ultimate mission in Afghanistan was guarding the airfield in Bagram while lending support, including firepower, to U.S. Special Forces interacting with the Northern Alliance.
In addition to the hazards of war, life in Afghanistan was tough early on. Ashmead said he did not receive mail nor take a shower for nearly 90 days. Living in GP tents heated by coal-burning stoves slowly turned Soldiers' uniforms black. But Ashmead said troops waited for them to rot before digging out fresh ones from their rucksacks.
Within two months, 1-87 Infantry was fighting in the first large-scale battle of the war. Named Operation Anaconda, U.S. forces routed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters entrenched in the rugged mountains of the Shah-I-Koht Valley region of eastern Afghanistan.
"It was very much a standard infantry fight," said Ashmead, adding that the battle was fought at some of the highest elevations of any operation in U.S. Army history.
Soldiers returned not long after Operation Anaconda to great respect and appreciation from the Fort Drum community.
"We were conquering heroes," Ashmead said. "We had struck the first blow in the war on (terrorism)."
It was the beginning of a mutually favorable relationship that Ashmead has carried on ever since with the place he now calls home.
"The North Country here is a predominantly blue-collar, working-man's environment," said Ashmead, who was born and raised on a farm in Idaho. "I think the division's work ethos meshes well with the civilian community's work ethos off post. It's not easy to go and do some of the jobs we've done, such as Hurricane Andrew, Haiti or Somalia. But then again, it's not easy to be a dairy farmer in the North Country or work on a road crew, because the elements fight you as much as anything else."
Since 9/11, two wars and a steady diet of deployments are not the only things affecting Fort Drum community members. Security increased dramatically, most noticeably with gate construction projects to control access to the installation. Other changes are not as tangible, and still others have gone unnoticed.
"The changes at Fort Drum have been evolutionary more than revolutionary," he said. "(But) I would say that the major change has been with (Army Families).
"Family has always been an important aspect of the Army," he explained. "But it never took the place of getting the job done. It always came second when it came to getting the job done."
Ashmead said the idea that a Soldier's readiness relies heavily on a Family's readiness to support their warrior has gained major attention among Army leaders since 9/11. He noted the expectation is no longer that Soldiers will work late nights unless absolutely necessary.
The sergeant major is quick to credit his wife, Sheri, and their four children -- Victoria, 20; Hillary, 18; Moe, 17; and Paige, 14 -- for helping him to succeed while wearing the uniform of an Army persistently at war.
"The things that I have done over the last 10 years have been easy, because it's what I do for a living," he said. "It's what I wanted to do. It's what I joined the Army to do 24 years ago.
"(My Family), on the other hand, didn't sign up for missed birthdays, missed Christmases and missed everything," he said. "They've helped me by being the one constant in this ever-changing environment. They (help me) with their support for what I do."
Families used to dread accompanying their Soldier to Fort Drum, Ashmead said. Not only was the weather a deterrent, but the local economy struggled for many years. He said the number of houses built in Jefferson County in 2000 could probably be counted on one hand.
"Now look at it," he said, noting the growth in housing construction over the past 10 years.
"This used to be the little post in the North," he continued. "It's not that anymore. Now it's one of the premier flagship force-projection posts in the U.S. Army."
Another change Ashmead has noted since 9/11 is the idealism of incoming Soldiers.
"(Before) 9/11, most of the Soldiers we had weren't joining the Army because they wanted to be in the military … but for some benefit that the Army was going to provide," he said. "A majority of the Soldiers who joined immediately after 9/11 were joining to do their part."
After his first deployment to Afghanistan, Ashmead became first sergeant of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment. He deployed to Afghanistan again from 2003 to 2004 -- this time to Kandahar.
Upon their return, 2-22 Infantry had 11 months of dwell time. Ashmead was reassigned as first sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-22 Infantry, and deployed to Iraq in 2005.
With troops being lost sometimes every day to improvised explosive devices, he called that first combat tour in Iraq the "bad old days" of the Iraq War. He said before the U.S. had developed new technologies and techniques to counter them, 500- to 1,000-pound IEDs were buried deep beneath roads, and the enemy was sometimes using infrared mechanisms and timers to trigger them.
"Somebody was getting blown up every day," he said.
The advent of the IED changed the entire Army. Ashmead said before 9/11, an infantry battalion had roughly 20 vehicles.
"Now, I have 45 to 50 armored vehicles in my organization," he said. "The IED threat has motorized light infantry to a certain extent."
It also expanded the global war on terrorism to a 360-degree battlefield.
"There is no longer any rear area where you can travel relatively safely in a canvas-sided vehicle," he explained. "Now, everything is a combat vehicle, because IEDs can be everywhere."
After redeploying to Fort Drum in 2006, Ashmead attended the Army's Sergeants Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas, for nine months.
He returned to the North Country in 2007 to become operations sergeant major for 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. A year later, he assumed his current position as 2-14 Infantry's command sergeant major.
He called his second combat tour to Iraq from 2009 to 2010 a "very gentle" deployment, because the Iraqi Army and police were doing all the heavy lifting.
"We were there almost entirely in a supporting role," he said. "We were just watching them run for the goal line."
Ashmead noted 2nd Brigade Combat Team had a long history in Iraq and that it was one of the last combat brigades to pull out.
He also mentioned how the deployment provided some closure for the brigade, since 2-14 Infantry was able to help apprehend the mastermind behind the deaths of Staff Sgt. Alex Jimenez, Spc. Byron Fouty and Pfc. Joseph Anzack. The Soldiers were with the brigade's 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, when they disappeared in May 2007 while on patrol in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad.
"It was a little bit of closure that we were able to bring justice," he said. "Most everybody was able to leave Iraq with a very positive sense of what we had done and what had been accomplished there."
Looking back over his many years as a Soldier at Fort Drum, Ashmead said the most rewarding job he has had with the division is his current one.
"As the battalion command sergeant major, I really have an impact on not just the Soldiers but the noncommissioned officers (too)," he said. "The NCOs who have come along since 9/11 are probably better warfighters than any from the NCO Corps developed during the Cold War. We probably haven't seen a Noncommissioned Corps like this since (Vietnam)."
The sergeant major said one of the most enjoyable jobs was in 2001.
"When you're a platoon sergeant … you're there every day with the Soldiers," he said. "You're connected very closely to them. And you're the first guy who really has the answers."
Ashmead said he's grateful for his time so far at Fort Drum and the North Country. He noted it's a community that loves and supports its Soldiers, which is why many of those troops choose to stay in the area when retiring from Fort Drum.
"Being here for (the past) decade has been a very positive experience for me and my Family," he said. "I can think of actually no better place to serve in the U.S. Army than at Fort Drum, N.Y. There's no better place to live than in northern New York.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," he added. "I wouldn't trade it for 10 of the best assignments in the U.S. Army."