FORT CARSON, Colo. - From working with local government as an enlisted Soldier in civil affairs, to defusing bombs as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer, to currently working space operations as a commander of a space detachment, Capt. Marlon Carpio’s 16 years in both the Reserve and active duty Army have been anything but dull.
His travels in the service have taken him from Iraq and Afghanistan, and over to Korea. Before becoming an FA40 (space operations officer) he went through two of the military’s most difficult schools in the Defense Language Institute where he learned Korean as a second language, and the Army Explosive Ordnance School where he learned the ropes as an explosives expert.
I recently spoke to Carpio, commander of Detachment 3, 4th Space Company, 1st Space Battalion, 1st Space Brigade, about his exciting journey up to this point in the military.
Q: Why did you join the Army?
A: I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and I felt a sense of duty following the attacks. My dad served in the Navy, so I felt a calling to serve my country, travel the world, and expose myself to new challenges. I don’t regret it. It’s taken me on a lot of adventures and deployments which have been mostly positive.
Q: What was it like growing up in a Navy family?
A: My dad retired as a senior chief who was an engineer on small boats. He would be out to sea for months at a time. We moved up and down the west coast. I was born in Los Angeles and we moved up to Seattle then down to the San Francisco Bay area. My best memories were dining in a ship’s galley, or watching my dad catch crabs at a pier just outside his office. I got a sense of the lifestyle and it just resonated with me, which made it an easy choice to join the Army Reserve after high school.
Q: You enlisted and went into civil affairs, a relatively unknown MOS (military occupational specialty) to many civilians and some Soldiers. Talk to me about that.
A: The AIT (advanced individual training) was very challenging. It was at Fort Bragg (North Carolina) and there was a lot of land navigation, ruck marching, and key leader engagement training. My deployments required me to go out into a villages or governance centers, assess the problems of the local populace, and see what the U.S. military could to alleviate their concerns. I attended local government meetings, managed reconstruction projects, and distributed humanitarian aid. It was challenging, but I enjoyed it.
Q: How were those deployments? Where did you go?
A: I came home for nine months after AIT, then deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, for my first one at age 19. I was a quiet, new Soldier, and was tasked to be a machine-gunner in a HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle). It was OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) 3 at the time in 2005/06, and it was a dynamic environment to operate in. There were asymmetric threats, such as car bombs going off every two weeks. We were trying to help people, but the dangers were pretty apparent all around us. I patrolled six days a week going to government buildings, homes of influential elders, and locations containing critical infrastructure. We’d even drive medics and international reporters around. It was a really diversified group of tasks. A couple years later I went to Mosul, Iraq, and did a very similar mission.
Q: How did you get the opportunity to learn Korean in the military?
A: I volunteered for it. My unit, the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, in Mountain View, California, was focused on the Indo-PACOM (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) region, so they had slots for Korean linguists. I was fascinated with the culture, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn the language. It was a 14-month school at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California. I was a sergeant at the time and the course was like drinking from a fire hose. The first few semesters were okay, but as time goes, they just ramp up the difficulty. I was immersed in Korean so much that I started dreaming in Korean. The Korean teachers were tough, and were very strict when it came to education, but the daily repetition of words and grammar allowed the language to resonate within me.
Q: Did you ever end up using your now second language in a real-world capacity in the military?
A: I was fortunate enough to get picked up for a six week immersion program in Korea where I got to stay with a host family and study at Korea University in Seoul in 2011, where I spoke nothing but Korean. I got to travel to different palaces, the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a traditional Korean folk village - it was a fun adventure. Seoul is such a vibrant city. It’ll be midnight and the city is just buzzing with activity. There’s so much to experience from the street food, to the shopping, to just getting around on public transportation.
Q: You did one more tour in civil affairs to Afghanistan to round out your time as an Army Reserve Soldier with three tours in seven years. How was that?
A: I was in Kandahar in 2011/12. The villagers thought we were Russians at times. That’s how disconnected the locals were in interacting with us, but it was the same mission as Iraq essentially. We tried to restore their confidence in the local government and the Afghan military.
With my three deployments overseas, I got to put life into perspective in that, at the end of the day, the people we were trying to help out in Iraq and Afghanistan just wanted to thrive given the extreme set of circumstances they had been dealt. Also, you realize all the things we take for granted in America like running water, or a paved road, Internet - you name it - it was just an interesting experience seeing how others live in those parts of the world.
Q: In looking at your bio, you then finished up you degree in humanities and commissioned as a second lieutenant from the University of San Francisco in 2015, branching into ordnance and went off to become an explosive ordnance officer - a complete shift from what you were doing on the enlisted side of things. Why EOD?
A: In all of my deployments, I was fortunate enough to see EOD operators in action. I saw them employ fancy robots, set up explosives for controlled detonations, and I even received training from them on operating hand-held metal detectors. I felt it would be a good fit and volunteered for the challenge. It was a hard, year-long school with multiple tests. The tests were very stressful. In some cases, one mistake results in an automatic failure. EOD Soldiers are some of the most independent and analytical problem-solvers in the Army, and I was privileged to work with them.
Q: Why the transition into Army space?
A: When I was an EOD lieutenant, I had previously briefed an ARSST (Army Space Support Team) on EOD operations and explosive hazards. In return I received a tour of 1st Space Brigade headquarters, which got me thinking about a career in Army space, so I dropped a packet and got accepted. Additionally the wars were coming to an end and there were too many EOD officers in my year group. I saw space as playing a huge role in future conflicts.
Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges working in SMDC?
A: Getting Soldiers trained up at a basic operational level. We are constantly getting Soldiers from different career fields and it's a struggle to get them into their schools, up to speed and trained on all their equipment, and certified in time for upcoming exercises and deployments.
Q: What’s the most gratifying aspect about being an FA40?
A: The strategic reach we have. Our actions resonate across geographic combatant commands all over the world. This is my first time being part of a strategic military organization, and it’s really something to be a part of a brigade entirely unique to the Army. I am proud to be a part of the only entity that provides space operational needs to the warfighter.
Carpio and Soldiers from his unit, Det. 3, 4th Space Co., will deploy to an undisclosed location within United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) in the upcoming months.