AL-ASAD, Iraq (9/17/2011) - Graffiti in a combat zone is common. Mostly it covers the stalls in latrines, barrier walls, back of a bus seat, or anywhere where a Soldier is idle for more than a few moments. As I rode a bus through the dusty streets of Al-Asad Air Base, I scanned the back of the seat in front of me with various artistic representations of the standard stick man, poor attempts at poetry and other various forms of “art.” Then one note caught my eye; it said “CSM Love...” Various phrases had been written and scratched out, but the last one, in bold, stayed. You could tell it had been there a while; it wasn't recent. You could even tell it had been rewritten a few times as the ink faded. It said: “Is the man.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Jack Love is the man I was sent to interview to learn about the history of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, now the 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, and the units long relationship with U.S. operations in Iraq.
When I sat down to write this story, I wasn't quite sure how this interview could have something new and groundbreaking or be able to shed light into the history. The topic I was directed to write on was the sacrifice of the 2/82 Paratroopers in conjunction with the unit's direct link to the war in Iraq. But, let's be honest, the mentality of the 82nd Airborne Division is that we are the best at everything, we are Paratroopers. We are willing to jump out of airplanes for kicks. It's not sacrifice, it's a profession, and we do it. Everything is “too easy.”
But what I found in the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment's Senior Enlisted Adviser, was an influential, dedicated, and caring leader hidden behind a deep Alabama accent and gruff exterior. What I found was a true professional, who embodies the spirit of the “Falcon Brigade.”
Before flying from Camp Ramadi to Al-Asad, to spend a week with Love, I asked fellow Paratroopers, who had been with the 2/82 for an extended period of time, about Love and if they had any stories about him. Some stories were the standard fare about “old” sergeants major and some were outrageous or hardly believable. One such tall-tale was that he had glued his teeth back in during an earlier deployment to Iraq.
“One Christmas, when I was a kid, all I wanted was this white 12-speed bicycle with black handle-grips,” Love said.
On that holiday, he got the bike he wanted, but the rule at his house was that guest got to use the best stuff and you played with what was left over, Love went on to describe.
With his next-door neighbor visiting, Love had to let the neighbor ride the new 12-speed and was forced to get an old rusty bike from the backyard. During this fateful Christmas-day bike ride in Alabama the handle bars on Love's machine became separated from the rest of the bike ending with a monumental crash, the loss of consciousness and quite a few teeth.
Years later, as the first sergeant of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 325th AIR, while deployed to Iraq, Love lost one of these replaced teeth while at the dining facility. “I couldn't go to dental sick-call,” Love said, “I had a mission and Soldiers to take care of.”
Armed with a tube of superglue, the first sergeant was able to fix his tooth and drive on with his mission. “I just covered it with glue, stuck it up in there and held it for a minute. [It] Never did come back out,” said Love.
Telling this story, with a mischievous grin on his face, Love went on to describe the look of bewilderment the dentist had on his face, months after the incident, as he was told how the tooth was attached.
It's an absolutely crazy story, but the important piece of information is not how “hard-core” this grizzled sergeant major is, it's the reasoning behind his actions: “...I had a mission and Soldiers to take care of.”
Since the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, has been involved in every major U.S. Military operation of the war, and Love has been there every time.
During the initial invasion he was a platoon sergeant with D Co., 2-325th AIR. During Operation Iraqi Freedom II, he was the first sergeant for A Co., 2-325th AIR. Still as a first sergeant for A Co., he returned to Iraq during OIF III in support of the first democratic elections. In his last position as a first sergeant, Love served with the 2BCT Headquarters Company during the “Troop Surge” of 2007. Now, in Iraq for the fifth time, Love is the command sergeant major for 2-325th AIR.
Having spent years of service in Iraq, he has experienced the changes in operations that have ranged from invasion, to counter-insurgency, to finally advising, training, and assisting the blossoming Iraqi Security Forces. Throughout all this, he has led young Paratroopers and leaders at nearly every level of enlisted rank.
At 19, in Childersburg, Ala., it was difficult to find a decent job if you didn't have an “in” at the local paper mill. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Love enlisted in the Army as a heavy anti-armor infantryman. Before leaving for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., Love married his wife of 22 years, Cindy, in January 1989.
After serving nearly four years with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colo., Love left the Army and moved back to Alabama. But, within months of returning home, he realized that the Army life and a career was what he really wanted.
Discussing it with his wife, Love said, “I told her that if I did this again, it was for the long haul, for a full career.”
Love went to the local Army recruiter asking to re-enter military service, but at the time there wasn't a place for him and his particular military occupational specialty. Each and every week, Love returned to the recruiter asking the same question, wanting the same thing. But, to no avail.
Nearly six months later, while out fishing, and as Love described it “covered in worm guts,” he was notified that if he could make it back to the recruiting station that day, he could rejoin the Army. Without a second thought, straight from the fishing hole, Love drove to the recruiter; never looking back.
After a brief stint serving in Korea and the birth of his oldest son, Jake, Love received his first assignment with 2BCT and the 82nd at the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. Besides holding duty as a drill sergeant leading and training new recruits at Fort Benning, Ga., Love has been here ever since.
Coming up through the ranks of a non-commissioned officer, Love learned and was mentored by the future leaders such as Command Sgt. Major Earl Rice, the current XVIII Airborne Corps senior enlisted adviser, but a first sergeant to Love. “To me, then 1st Sgt. Rice was the epitome of what an NCO should be,” Love stated. “He was the epitome of an NCO, a Ranger, Jumpmaster and a member of the Sgt. Audie Murphy Club, the best in the Army.”
Following in his mentor's footsteps, Love also attended Ranger school, the Army's premier leadership school and considered one of the toughest schools in military service. He earned the coveted tab on his left shoulder sleeve and added to the already impressive array of qualifications and skills.
Soon his career led him to become a platoon sergeant in the heavy weapons company of 2-325th AIR and a part of the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003.
As an Army with over ten years of war behind us and where a majority of Soldiers wear a “combat patch” on their right shoulder, it's difficult for soldiers to remember a time where there wasn't a war to be fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, Love said.
“The invasion was what we had been training for,” Love described. “Combat was the Super Bowl for us. There were very few combat veterans, all you had was the man to your left and to your right.”
With a grin, Love described the abandoned and empty swimming pool behind a house in Baghdad, where his platoon set up camp. “There wasn't any shade or water in the pool. I think we had one umbrella one of the Troopers had found and we rotated under it for some shade.”
It was a different type of war nearly nine years ago, than what Soldiers are fighting today. “When we went out on a mission, we just rolled in our Humvees with no doors or armor, we had much different tactics, and we owned the roads.”
But in July of 2003, Love and the paratroopers of D Company lost a friend and comrade to an enemy attack. Spc. Chad Keith, 21, from Batesville, La., was killed by an explosion in Baghdad.
“You don't ever think it's going to happen to you, or the guy beside you,” said Love. “We each dealt with his loss in our own way, but there was no rest, we just kept on doing what Paratroopers do, we find a way.”
He went on to say, “(Losing a soldier) makes you understand that every minute of every day you should be teaching a soldier something, because you might not get a second chance.”
Love said that the loss of a teammate brought a renewed focus to soldiers of the heavy weapons platoon, and the entire Battalion.
As the deployment toiled on and the summer heat of Baghdad began to rise, Love said he and his platoon started scavenging water trucks to fill the pool. “One of the troopers somehow rigged the pump and filter to work and every now and then we would find a water truck we could use to fill a little bit of the pool.”
Soon, upon returning from a convoy or a mission, the paratroopers, still lacking any shade, would strip off their gear and jump in the newly filled, man-made oasis.
A year later, Love, along with the 2BCT, would redeploy to Ft. Bragg, N.C. “I've never been so proud,” Love said, “landing at Pope [Air Force Base], seeing all the support and being back home”.
That first deployment also brought knowledge about leadership and taking care of soldiers. Love stated that, “Your paratroopers are just like your kids, you want to see them grow and to achieve. You can learn just as much from soldiers as they can learn from you.”
Within a month of returning home Love was promoted to master sergeant and assigned as the first sergeant of A Company, 2-325th. “Becoming a first sergeant meant I that I went from caring for about 20 soldiers as a platoon sergeant to 140, as a first sergeant,” Love said of his promotion.
The 2BCT and Love's time back at Fort Bragg were short. In December of 2004 with only seven days notice, Love deployed to Iraq in support of OIF II.
During the initial portion of his second deployment, Love and the 2-325th AIR, “White Falcons,” were tasked with securing “Route Irish,” a notoriously dangerous highway and military supply route stretching from the International Zone to Baghdad International Airport.
But, within two weeks, with the attacks on Route Irish decreased, A Company and 1st Sgt. Love were sent to Mosul. There, in an abandoned vegetable oil factory, Love and his paratroopers set up camp.
“We were targeted with indirect fire every two or three days,” Love said, “but it was only that very first day, when we were trying to unload our equipment and move into the factory, that they [insurgents] actually were able to hit our area.”
Luckily, no one was injured during this attack and the company was able to move into the factory.
“Everything in the factory was just covered in vegetable oil, the floor, the walls, everything. In the beginning, we just had to lay down in it with our sleeping bags,” Love described. “It wasn't until a few weeks later that we could get wooden pallets to raise things off the ground and cots to get us out of the oil.”
For the next four months, Love and his paratroopers would find themselves embroiled in a gun battle nearly every time they left their forward operating base. “It was fast paced. Every time you went out your could expect something to happen.”
During this intense period of high stress for his paratroopers, Love said he was always looking for ways to keep moral up. “Each night, when the troopers were served dinner, I would be right there. That was my chance to see each and every paratrooper, judge their moods and get to speak to each one individually.”
In a vegetable oil factory in a war torn country, the leader that Love is-is ever present, “doing right by your troopers, it pays in dividends. It's all about building the team.”
Less than six months later, Love would find himself back in Iraq for OIF III to support the parliamentary elections. “It seemed to be a completely different Iraq. Instead of fighting insurgents on the streets, we were there to ensure the elections were peaceful and went as planned.”
It was during this deployment that Love and his soldiers experienced what he describes as the worst event they ever had to deal with.
Across from A Company's outpost was an Iraqi Police recruiting station. One fateful day a female suicide bomber attacked the recruiting station killing and injuring dozens of Iraqis.
“There were so many, many dead that day,” Love says quietly. “It was a horrible event to happen to anyone.”
Throughout that day, the paratroopers of A Company worked to help the wounded, secure the site, and treat those who could be treated.
During this harrowing experience, Love said, “We kept the team together by staying focused on the mission and the basics: teamwork and trust in each other.”
Only a year later, Love was back in Iraq for the “Surge”, but with a different company to lead. As the first sergeant for the brigade headquarters company, Love stated that it was a whole different set of challenges.
“That assignment gave me a greater appreciation of how all the military specialties tie into the bigger picture,” Love said.
At the same time the war in Iraq was turning, and Love said it made him proud to be able to see the country [Iraq], its people, and its' government start to flourish.
During this period of time, Love also had to assist and lead the headquarters company and the brigade through the Army's move to a more modular force, creating what today is the 2nd Brigade Combat Team composed of six battalions.
Presently as the command sergeant major for the 2-325th AIR White Falcons, in Iraq, in support of Operation New Dawn, Love is still the caring leader he has ever been, but now he says his sphere of influence and responsibility is even greater.
Following around Love during his daily routine, its obvious that care of his paratroopers is foremost in his mind. As he walks around the company areas, generally doing what sergeants major do, making corrections, inspecting, listening, he calls to a soldier in the distance. As the soldier sprints over to answer Love's call, the command sergeant major remembers this paratroopers name. He remembers them all.
After a brief discussion of what the soldier's mission was for the day, the conversation turns to how the soldier's wife or children are doing, when he plans on taking his mid-tour leave, and if there is anything the soldier needs to do his job better.
He talks to soldiers about training, about their mission yesterday or tomorrow. He discusses this tactic or that tactic with them. Love talks to them about their new tattoos, the upcoming college football season, or anything else the troopers want to talk about.
Each time he engages a soldier or a group of them, Love urges them to look forward, attend Ranger school, become jumpmaster qualified, starting or continuing their education and earning a bachelor's degree.
“I respect the hell out of them for joining the service with a guarantee of war and deployment in their future,” stated Love. “Nothing makes me more proud than seeing these soldiers grow up, achieve goals and succeed.”
The U.S. Army, just like any other organization, puts a lot of stock into leadership, though I doubt many other organizations have a full 200-page manual on the subject.
Love's take on leading soldiers is much more direct and simple. “A leader sacrifices his time if he's worth a damn, and he doesn't think of it as sacrifice,” Love stated. “There's no Retreat (the historic bugle call that ends the work day at approximately 5 pm on military posts) and go home. If it's 2200, so be it. You do what you need to do for the soldiers and taking care of soldiers is what you're supposed to do. When a soldier has a problem, it's my problem until it's solved.”
As I sat down with Love one afternoon to start another interview, it is even then obvious how deep rooted his concern for soldiers is. He shuffles through papers on his desk, its information from a promotion board he chaired earlier in that same week. He is looking into which recently promoted Paratroopers should be moved within his battalion so that they have an opportunity to lead their own young soldiers and grow into their newly earned rank.
“You judge your success by the success of those under you,” Love said of the moves. “There's a long list of young NCOs who are now sergeant first classes, first sergeants or sergeants major. When one of these NCOs are succeeding in their careers, that makes you proud. When you take a chance for the good of your paratroopers, it pays back two-fold.”
As closely tied to the war in Iraq as Love is, he uses his sphere of influence to shape what small part of the war he can. During his interactions with the White Falcon paratroopers he urges them to be tactically postured and aware of the situation around them when conducting missions to advise, train, and assist the Iraqi Security Forces.
“I'm proud we've only fired one round [in the first four months of the 2/82's deployment]. If we can go this whole deployment without firing another, we have been successful,” said Love of the operations his battalion conducts.
“As leaders we are always learning. I, by no means know everything,” said Love when asked about his definition of leading paratroopers. “Soldiers know what a good leader is or who is just talking a good game. You lead through communication, setting the example, doing what the soldiers have to do. You live the NCO and Ranger creeds, you maintain professionalism all the time, and you live the Army Values 24/7.”
How long Love will be in Iraq for this rotation isn't clear, but he says all he needs is a can of Copenhagen and when the mission is complete he will head home to his wife and children.
He doesn't know where his Army career will take him after his nearly 23 years of service, but says he has no plans other than continuing to serve.
“When my Army career is over, I'll find some sort of work, but nothing will ever compare to being a paratrooper. Although, I do look forward to never again missing a season of Alabama football,” Love said.