Interview by Bill McPherson
You were deployed Oct. 8-Dec. 17, 1999, as U.S. Army Pacific’s senior officer on the ground supporting the United Nations’ Operation Stabilise in East Timor. What do you believe led to your selection by LTG Edwin Smith, USARPAC’s commanding general, to deploy?
Strong: I think a combination of things led to (Smith’s) selection of me. First, he defined the main effort of the deployment down at East Timor to be a Signal Regiment effort. He also realized that in addition to Signal as the main effort, some of the supporting efforts were also technical – they were intelligence and military civil operations. It wasn’t a combat mission per se. So by defining Signal as being his main effort and the supporting efforts being technical, he realized that probably the best leader would be a person with a Signal and technical kind of background, not necessarily a combat-arms kind of guy, and I fit that.
The second thing he looked for was a person who had similar kinds of experience on a deployment into a peacekeeping operation, similar to what was going on in East Timor. Because I was commander of 141st Signal Battalion back in 1994-96 and deployed that battalion on the very initial deployment into Bosnia as part of a multinational Division North Task Force Eagle, I had a lot of experience deploying into a semihostile environment to conduct a peacekeeping operation and provide Signal support.
What was your exact duty title or titles during your deployment?
Strong: I had two titles. (The USARPAC commander) sent me to East Timor simply as "Army OIC." He recognized the Army was sending soldiers from a lot of units from around the Pacific and continental United States: Signal soldiers from Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; civil-affairs soldiers from California and Fort Bragg, N.C.; soldiers from Hawaii, soldiers from Alaska, soldiers from Japan – all to East Timor. He realized he needed one senior Army leader for all those, and because we weren’t officially stood up as a joint task force – and there was no Army component command and therefore no Army component commander – I deployed as Army OIC, essentially responsible as the senior Army officer in East Timor.
516th Signal Brigade's chief COL Randolph Strong, who served as U.S. Forces East Timor commander in 1999.
The title I picked up when I was down there became my significant role during Operation Stabilise in East Timor: commander, U.S. Forces East Timor. That title was given to me by my senior commander, Marine Corps BG John Castellaw, who was the commander of U.S. International Forces East Timor, which was the umbrella command in charge of all U.S. operations in Australia and East Timor. He sent me into East Timor to be the senior U.S. officer over all services on the ground in East Timor.
Throughout your deployment, what international and U.S. organizations were in your command?
Strong: There really were no international organizations. However, U.S. organizations included all services: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The guard force supporting our command was a U.S. Marine force, initially out of III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and eventually out of the Marine division stationed at Kaneohe, Hawaii. We had some Air Force – my J-1 in East Timor was Air Force, for instance.
Just a whole lot of U.S. Army: 86th Signal Battalion out of 11th Signal Brigade; 96th Civil Affairs Battalion; 322d Civil Affairs Brigade. There were some individual soldiers out of 25th Infantry Division; we got some cooks from 45th Support Group; we had some mechanics from U.S. Army Alaska; so there were a lot of individual soldiers from a number of different organizations. There were service members – Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – from the Joint Intelligence Center-Pacific and out of commander-in-chief, Pacific, that were part of the structure. So in terms of organization in the chain of command, there was really only one large organization – the 86th Signal Battalion from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. – and then there were soldiers who contributed from many other organizations in the Pacific and in CONUS.
About how many service members did you have in your command?
Strong: At the peak we had about 200 in East Timor, and I think the highest we got to was 230.
You initially deployed to Darwin, Australia; and a few days later to Dili, East Timor. As on-site commander of American forces supporting Operation Stabilise, could you describe your role both as military leader and diplomat? Describe your interaction with representatives of both Australia and East Timor.
Strong: That’s a big question. First, my role as a military leader. Without a doubt, our biggest concern when we deployed into East Timor was force protection. As a military leader and the senior U.S. officer on the ground, that was a great concern to me, so I spent a lot of time ensuring the soldiers were properly prepared for the deployment and taking prudent measures to ensure their protection.
There was also, as senior U.S. guy, the role and responsibility of pulling all the various U.S. military organizations together into a cohesive unit. In that role, there were things such as making sure we had a formal organizational structure: a J-1 through J-4 and a headquarters commandant in charge of our facilities … that we had meetings, and we had other organizational tools … that we had electronic mail to share information. So my role as a military leader clearly was to organize the U.S. forces as we all almost simultaneously went into East Timor – organize them into a cohesive organization focused on what our mission was.
Also very clearly part of my role was to work our exit plan – to define why were we there: our purpose. What would it take to successfully complete our mission, how would we know when we successfully completed our mission, and what would it take to redeploy out of the country? So that was a key part of my role also, pulling the organization together, figuring out what we were there for, when we could leave and developing a team.
As a diplomat, I very much represented the United States. Although Castellaw in Darwin was technically the national-component commander, I represented him daily at the two meetings in East Timor with the commander of INTERFET, Australian MG Peter Cosgrove. I dealt with (the INTERFET commander) daily on issues involving U.S. forces, how we were accomplishing our mission and what support he needed.
I also dealt with some of the other countries we were providing support to such as the Thais, French and British. The Brits had a company of Ghurkas that got moved to Atauro Island and we, the United States, provided a significant amount of logistics support to them through our heavy-lift helicopters and sealift capability. I guess probably the most important role was to represent the United States and the interests of the United States in this coalition headed up by the Australians.
What was your mission as commander of U.S. Forces East Timor?
Strong: To provide the Australians the specific support they requested. In general, it was four areas: we provided them communications support by 86th Signal Battalion, 11th Signal Brigade; we provided intelligence support – about 46 officers, warrant officers and noncommissioned officers, and a number of organizations, primarily JIC-PAC and CINCPAC; we provided them a civil-military operations center, which was the interface between the Australian-led INTERFET headquarters, private voluntary organizations and nongovernmental organizations such as CARE, OXFAM, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and the World Food Program; and the last mission we had was to provide heavy-lift helicopter support.
Heavy-lift helicopters were initially provided off the Navy ship USS Belleau Wood. Eventually it left and was replaced by USS Peleliu. Finally the lift support was done by contract helicopters provided through Army Materiel Command and a corporation called Nine Corps.
Those four functional areas – Signal, intel, CMOC and heavy-lift helicopters – were what the Australians had asked for in terms of U.S. support, and it was our mission to provide that support.
Were any other (non-American) U.N. forces assigned to East Timor besides your command?
Strong: Yes, there were about 15 other countries involved, all providing different kinds of support. The French provided a hospital in Dili. In addition to that, they provided two ships that moved supplies from Darwin to Dili and from Dili to Suai, another town. The Brits provided the company of Ghurka soldiers and the initial security in the Ambeno Enclave, and eventually Atauro Island. The Italians provided a replenishment ship. The Germans provided three or four C-160 aircraft, air-medical-evac capability that flew medical evacuees from Dili back to Darwin.
|Timor Lorosa'e (East Timor). Signaleers worked in and around Dili and Baucau. (Illustration by East Timor Action Network)|
The New Zealanders provided ground forces that worked very closely with the Australians along the border and also secured Dili. The Koreans provided a force that secured the easternmost end of East Timor. The Thais also provided a force; the Filipinos provided a force. The Australians also provided, in addition to warfighting forces, a hospital. The Norwegians provided assistance in the CMOC; a couple of their soldiers and officers had also worked in Bosnia and had experience in working with U.N. organizations and private organizations. It was very much a coalition organization, with representation by at least 15 different countries.
How did the Army Signal Command respond to initial tasking in support of East Timor requirements?
Strong: First, they were very quick to respond and immediately recognized they had a very difficult task that they very quickly had to come to grips with, and that was what were the real requirements of East Timor? Because the United States didn’t lead this – the Australians were the lead – and because we were supporting the Australians, the requirements had to come from Australia, as to what they needed; and they weren’t exactly sure. So very quickly, ASC’s 11th Signal Brigade did a tremendous job in assessing what they thought were the requirements. And in a lot of cases they had to buy equipment because the assessment came out that there were a lot of requirements for data communications, which necessitated buying 100 laptop computers and hubs and routers and servers and other data comms equipment. They were very quick to respond and did a great job in a very unknown kind of environment.
Were there any problems with the deployment airlift or reception at Darwin?
Strong: Not that I know of. I think it went very well. A couple of C-5s broke down – one broke down here (Hawaii) at Hickam AFB and was down a day or so, and one broke down in Guam. But in terms of the load-out from Fort Huachuca and the arrival in Darwin, it went very, very smoothly.
Could you describe the military relationship at Darwin between the American leadership and the host Australian military?
Strong: They had a very good relationship. Basically, it was NorCom, the Northern Command, in Darwin; and they provided the United States some of their best facilities. They gave us Robinson Barracks, which was brand-new, essentially: newly renovated, a very nice facility. They had just finished building a bunker and let us be the first organization to move into it, and we used it as our command post.
There was a very good working relationship between the Americans and the host Australians, especially in Darwin. The Royal Australian Air Force base in Darwin just opened its doors to us. We could go into its barbershops, its canteens, post exchange, dining facilities.
They very quickly spun up to support the influx. I think that’s maybe one of the good success stories of this deployment – that we were initially able to go into an established staging base, in an environment where we were very much welcomed; and where it was easy to get logistic support and telephone support on the base.
What was the depth of ASC/Australian community relations at Darwin?
Strong: There really wasn’t that much of a relationship between ASC and the community at Darwin. We pretty much remained on the RAAF base doing our mission and really didn’t get out much into the community to work with the community. We were very limited on the number of soldiers who could deploy; there was a cap put on that constrained us. So there wasn’t a whole lot of interaction.
What logistic "snafus" inhibited ASC’s sealift deployment to East Timor?
Strong: I don’t think there were any logistical snafus. There was a sealift between Darwin and East Timor. It wasn’t U.S.-run – it was a sealift provided by the Australians and other countries. The primary ship was the HMAS (Her Majesty’s Australian Ship) Jervis Bay, an Australian large catamaran, that wasn’t capable of carrying the largest equipment we had. The second means of sealift was C-130s that also couldn’t carry it, so some of the things had to be lifted into some other container ships. But they weren’t snafus; we knew the size of our equipment, we knew what the ships were capable of hauling. It was just an issue of making sure the square peg got the square ship and the round peg got the round plane, and that there were enough square ships and round planes to haul everything – and there was, and so we worked it.
What kind of field conditions did American troops face in East Timor?
Strong: We initially deployed into a compound which one time apparently had been their labor ministry’s office – a building which hadn’t been totally gutted or destroyed, although it was a mess that very much needed to be cleaned out. The water wasn’t running; the sewers were plugged. So we went in, and we had a crew of seabees who helped us rebuild doors that were torn out, get a shower together, buy a pump, do lots of projects. There was no place to shave and wash up. Also in our sleeping quarters, windows were open; there were no screens, and because of concern for mosquito-borne diseases – malaria, dengue fever – we had them put up screens.
We also eventually bought some air conditioners so we could totally enclose the sleeping areas – it was just very hot … sweltering … with high humidity, and it was difficult to sleep at night. Also, by being able to close the windows, we were able to better protect ourselves from mosquitoes. So it was a force-protection/quality-of-life issue.
The seabees worked about a month and a half constantly putting improvements into our power system, our light system, our sanitation system. The bathrooms were absolutely atrocious and stunk. We got some local hire and brought in bleach and other cleansers, cleaned them all up and painted. The good thing going, though, was that we did have a compound that hadn’t been trashed and burned – that was a two-story building we were able to move into and occupy.
Was food preparation a major problem?
Strong: There was a major issue with food preparation. It’s well known we withdrew from the Australian dining facility. There were a number of things going on. First, they had a really bad monsoon rain, with the whole area flooded, which backed up sewers. They were also burning human waste in sawed-off 55-gallon drums, adding diesel and lighting it, in close proximity to the food-preparation area, which wasn’t screened in with mosquito netting – things like that. Based upon the advice of a number of professionals – we had a preventive-medicine doctor and corpsmen – we backed out of the Australian dining facility and ate off meals-ready-to-eat. We helped and worked with them to get it up to a standard we thought was safe for us to eat, and then we returned.
What equipment sets did ASC install?
Strong: Pretty much two types: voice and data. First, the transmission systems they installed carried voice and data, including satellite TSC-85s and -96s to connect Darwin and East Timor with strategic-tactical interface at Fort Buckner, Okinawa, and Wahiawa, Hawaii. So there was a large satellite network. There was also a line-of-sight network in Dili to connect the Australian seaport and airport and aviation-support group and logistics facilities that were in the town of Darwin.
We provided voice communications using an AN/TTC-39D switch and a couple of other switches. And then a whole lot of data – we provided data to all the sites without a lot of laptop computers – and all the associated routers and hubs to make that happen.
Was the ASC equipment package adequate to the stated needs and objectives of Operation Stabilise?
Strong: Very much so. I think their initial assessment they made back at Fort Huachuca about what they needed was a very good assessment. We used nearly every piece of equipment. You didn’t need a tank and pump unit. The Australians had a good capability to distribute fuel. Every laptop they brought got used; every router, hub, server – it was almost the right exact amount. In most cases there was very little not used, and it was available as a backup; so I think they did a very good job. One of the good things also – Darwin had a computer store with cables, and we did go there to get a couple more printers.
What were the typical work hours/work weeks for the American service members?
Strong: I think the way the Australians ran the operation, because it was predominantly a peacekeeping operation, it wasn’t so much a 24-hour deployment. Things slowed down in the evening somewhere around 8 p.m. I think we generally worked from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. or so. Most of the work was pretty busy in the daytime when we were moving helicopters, and lots of people were using Signal equipment, and the CMOC was busy. It would taper off in the evening when you would start doing your daily reports and situation reports that you had to get back to higher headquarters.
Did the junior soldiers have any time off over the weekend?
Strong: There really wasn’t such a thing as a weekend. Every day was a workday. But we did have religious services on Sunday, and we did try to allow every soldier the opportunity to go back to Darwin for two days during the deployment, so they would have the opportunity to go to movies and buy some things. We put up a little makeshift basketball court and had the capability to play some basketball. You would see some soldiers on their free time playing some cards. There wasn’t an extensive morale-welfare-recreation program, but we had the ability to project movies. The 86th Signal Battalion put together a little cantina where folks got together in the evenings for sodas, candies and some music. It was a great facility.
Was email made available to junior soldiers?
Strong: If you wanted to have email, you could have email. We set up some MWR computers in an area where you could get access to and send email.
COL Randolph Strong with GEN Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Dili, East Timor. (Photo by CSM Miles Miyamoto)
What was the depth of ASC/East Timor military and public relations?
Strong: There wasn’t any. First, the East Timor military really didn’t exist. There were some militia organizations floating around, but they were very disorganized; and we very much stayed away from them. In terms of public relations, we stuck to our mission, which was to provide support to INTERFET, the Australian-led coalition. We really didn’t work with the public.
Your command included service members from the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, in addition to the Army. How did the services work together as one team?
Strong: I think they worked incredibly well together. In fact, that was one of the things when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Henry Shelton, and the CINCPAC, Adm. Dennis Blair, came out – they very much recognized them as working together as one team. We had a formation and passed out some awards, and in the formation instead of having an Army block of soldiers, a Navy block of sailors, a Marine block and an Air Force block, they were all one integrated organization. My J-1 was Air Force, the J-2 was Army, the headquarters commandant was a Marine. We were very much a joint organization, but also very much one team.
Under deployment circumstances, do you feel morale was high?
Strong: I think the morale was very high. One of the things you could clearly see was what we were doing to help the people of East Timor. In that short three-month period, you could see from the day we got there the devastation and destruction, and nobody was around. When we left, a lot of buildings were still destroyed, but you could see there was a tremendous activity in the market and on the roadsides; people were setting up little tables to sell various goods they had.
You could just see, because of the peace and security that had been established in East Timor, as part of the deployment of INTERFET, that we were helping these folks get their feet back on the ground. And that was a tremendous morale builder – just to see first-hand we were truly helping the people of East Timor recover from the destruction and devastation.
Was discipline a noticeable problem, as compared to that in a garrison?
Strong: I think another of the great success stories was the discipline of the soldiers. We did have one Article 15 early in the deployment, but other than that, in terms of professional discipline, we didn’t have any accidental discharges, we didn’t have any vehicle accidents; you asked a soldier to do something and he did it. There were no incidents with potential embarrassment to the United States.
The soldiers were very disciplined. They stuck to the mission they were supposed to do. It could be hot and sweaty, but you could tell them something like, "You need to put your sleeves down" – I put it out once, and they all did, because the dengue fever and malaria was part of the force-protection program we had. You told the soldiers, "You have to sleep under your mosquito nets," and they all did. You didn’t have to remind them. They were very disciplined.
|SGT Corey Pflum and PFC James Taft of 86th Signal Battalion build a guardpoint at Task Force Thunderbird's compound. (Photo by Chap. (CPT) Kenneth Williams)|
How were the American service members received by the East Timor local citizens?
Strong: We were received very well. You would drive down the street, and they would wave and say, "Americans, Americans." Everyone I saw was very, very happy to see us there.
Were there any instances of East Timorese gratitude that stand out in your mind?
Strong: Yes, there were a couple. We had some locals who helped us clean up and take care of the U.S. compound. There was a ceremony to mark Veterans Day, where the Brits and Australians call it Remembrance Day, and the countries were going to lay a flower wreath. The question was where do we get a flower wreath? There were no floral shops or anything like that.
We did ask some of the locals, and lo and behold, the next day they came back with three wreaths. They had gone home and picked flowers from their own gardens and put together the wreaths we needed for the ceremony. We wanted to pay them. We could have given them a quarter – for them that’s a day’s salary almost; or we could have given them a dollar, which would have been more money than they had gotten in a long time. But they refused; they said, "No, we want to provide this; we want to give this to you."
How did you generally communicate with your higher headquarters back at Darwin?
Strong: Two ways – by email and by telephone. Generally, most of the stuff went by email; although a number of times I would call back to the staff and (the U.S. INTERFET commander) and discuss things over the phone. I generally communicated with the staff members and tried to deal things at the lowest level, as did the rest of my staff at East Timor. But there were some things I needed to bring to Castellaw’s attention, and I did – either by phone or by email.
MG William Russ, ASC’s commander, during a visit to 516th’s headquarters during your absence, told our staff that your assignment as commander, U.S. Forces East Timor, was a "history-making event" for the Signal Regiment. Do you think your deployment might open new doors for other non-combat-arms officers to command a similar JTF in the future?
Strong: I surely hope so. I’m very grateful to the USARPAC commander for having given me this opportunity as a non-combat-arms officer to actually be the ground-force commander at East Timor, which is very much not a traditional role for a Signal Corps officer or a non-combat-arms officer. So I hope so. One of the good things: he chose me to do it, and then we were successful. Because we were successful, hopefully other senior commanders will be more likely to send a non-combat-arms officer. Had we not been successful: "Well, what do you expect when you don’t send an operator, a combat-arms officer?" – and it would have probably closed doors. But I’m very hopeful.
In the future, I think there will be a lot more deployments like East Timor, where it’s not a combat deployment, but it’s a support deployment providing technical or logistical support, and a technical, Signal, military intelligence, quartermaster or transportation guy can be the senior commander on the ground.
What was the most satisfying part of your mission as commander?
Strong: The most satisfying part was the way we worked together as a team. Here was a group of folks – not only the Army folks coming from Fort Bragg, Fort Huachuca, California, Alaska, and Japan – but Marines from Okinawa and Hawaii and Air Force from Alaska. The most satisfying part for me was that all these folks came together in East Timor and focused on "What are we here to do?" – and did a great job at it.
Did troop redeployment go smoothly?
Strong: If I would say there was another success story, probably the redeployment is the next one – probably the biggest success story, really. Before we were fully deployed into East Timor, we started an effort to figure out, "What is the endstate, how do we know when we’ve reached the endstate, when is our mission complete?" We started to work backwards and plan what our redeployment would look like, how we would do it. So when it actually came time that we had successfully completed our mission, we briefed the Australian leadership and they blessed it; it came time to actually redeploy, and we were ready to redeploy. We had a plan in place, we had successfully completed our mission, everybody was happy, and we phased out in a very deliberate, very planned way.
What is the long-term prognosis for peaceful development in East Timor? Is this likely to become a hotspot we need to monitor?
Strong: I think East Timor, certainly unlike Bosnia, has a good long-term prognosis for peaceful development. East Timor is a pretty homogenous country. It’s 92 percent Catholic, 80 percent voted for independence, and those who didn’t tended to leave. So here you have a country that’s predominantly one religion, predominantly all wanting independence, unlike what you had in Bosnia. It’s a country that very much wants to work together.
They have a long ways to go, though. There are not a whole lot of natural resources, not a whole lot of industry, not a whole lot of resources upon which to build a good, solid economy. They’ve got a tough road ahead of them to develop, and if there’s any reason they might become a hotspot in the future is because the slowness potentially evolving into people getting frustrated. But I think there’s a great prognosis for peaceful development in East Timor. For a long time it’s going to be an area of concern, but hopefully not a hotspot.
What is the strategic value, if any, of East Timor to American international policy objectives?
Strong: I think there are probably two things. One, East Timor is in the middle of an important region: Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia – that whole region. The Pacific is sometimes considered to be an emerging region, and East Timor is sort of in the middle of that. Two, East Timor is fairly strategically located to shipping lanes, so that’s of value. Is that of vital importance to the United States? Probably not; that’s probably why we didn’t send combat forces to East Timor to help the Australians. Is it important? I believe so.
What kind of political mileage did the United States expect from the East Timor operation? Was any such mileage achieved?
Strong: I’m not sure what we expected, so I won’t speak to that. But clearly it was an opportunity for the United States to return a favor to Australia and also to New Zealand, which supported Australia. They have supported us many times in the past: Vietnam, various other deployments. So it was an opportunity for the United States to support them, to return the favor, to provide them some capabilities they didn’t have. I think anytime you do that, you establish closer relations with a good ally. Australia is a good ally to the United States.
What military lessons did we learn from the East Timor venture?
Strong: I think we learned the lesson that it is OK to be in a support role to an ally. The United States doesn’t always have to be in the lead. The second lesson I think we learned was it very, very much helps to define in clear terms what you’re there for, what your objectives are, what your endstate is, and what you have to accomplish so you can redeploy. What is successful completion of your operation? We did that very well in East Timor, and I think that’s one of the great successes of the U.S. deployment to East Timor.
Do you think we can expect any significant modifications to our mobility plans as the result of Operation Stabilise lessons-learned?
Strong: I’m not sure as to our mobility plans. I think there was very much a realization that some of our equipment is too big and too bulky and can be modernized and downsized in much smaller configurations, making it much easier to transport. I think everybody realized that. It took twelve C-5s and one C-17 to move everything. There’s modern technology that probably could downsize half of it.
If reassigned to a similar deployment in the future, what, if anything, would you personally do differently or what would you recommend to higher authorities to be done differently?
Strong: There’s not much I would recommend to be done differently. Maybe standing up a separate JTF would have helped in that it would have helped a little bit in clarifying the organizational structure – the roles and responsibilities. It would have also helped for some things like awards at the end of deployment – are we entitled to joint awards or to service awards, and how do these awards get processed? When you get stood up as a JTF, a lot of these procedures become much clearer. When you’re not, and you’re in an organization such as we were – where you had these various component forces coming together … Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines … without a formal structure as a recognized command – it makes life at the staff level more difficult. We worked our way through it; we survived and did well.
After spending 10 weeks in a devastated Third World country, what are your thoughts about the future or potential future for the East Timorese people?
Strong: When I first got into the country, I looked around and saw that everything was burnt and destroyed; and I thought, wow, it’s going to take this country decades – 10 or 20 years – to get back on solid ground. But then you realize the type of economy they had – as you said, a Third World country – that a lot of the houses are really huts, some of them with thatched roofs and twigs and branches on the side; or makeshift cement houses with tin roofs. You realize they probably can rebuild and get back to the way they were, although right now they’re a devastated country. They could be back essentially to where they were after about 1 ½ years’ worth of work.
The biggest loss they had was when the Indonesians who were occupying the country pulled out most of the lawyers, doctors, policemen, authorities and the leadership. They’re all gone, and there’s this big vacuum that has to be filled; and right now there’s just not the people to fill those. I wish them the best. They have a long ways to go – not that long to restore what was destroyed – but a much longer ways to go before they, within themselves, can establish their own government and own authority without assistance from outside people: their own police force, their own power source, their own sewer source, their own libraries. That’s going to take a long time.
As I said before, I think they have a future. They are very much a homogenous culture – very much the same religion; very, very much the same political orientation.
Do you think this opportunity to command U.S. Forces East Timor was a high point in your military career that you’ll carry with you?
Strong: Very much so. Prior to this, I always kept looking back at my experiences in Bosnia, where I was commander of 141st Signal Battalion and J-6 of the multinational Division North Task Force Eagle, and I thought that was going to be the highlight of my career. I didn’t get the opportunity to do the Gulf War, Desert Storm/Desert Shield, Panama, Granada – didn’t do any of those. And I was actually thinking that I might wind up doing my 20-year career without ever having to go on deployment to real-world operations like that. But I got the opportunity to go to Bosnia, and now the opportunity to go to East Timor. For me, while East Timor was so much smaller and a shorter operation than Bosnia was, playing the role of commander of U.S. Forces East Timor was very, very much the highlight of my career. I have a hard time even thinking about something that could top that.
What kind of readjustment period did you experience after redeploying?
Strong: Actually, there was a little bit of culture shock. The biggest thing for me after I redeployed was the realization that I had time again to do things I enjoy: to watch some television, for instance. I was so used to – from the minute I got up in the morning, putting on my battle-dress uniform, immediately going to work – till the minute I went to bed, taking off my BDUs, crawling into the sack. You were 24 hours a day at work in East Timor. There was no such thing as a Saturday or a Sunday or a day off; there was no training holiday. Thanksgiving came and went, Veterans Day came and went, Halloween came and went – with no real difference from any other particular day. I actually felt a little guilty for a little while. My mind was saying, "I have to be at work. I have to be at work today." I had to adjust and tell it: "You don’t always have to be at work. There’s more to life than just work: reading, spending time with your daughter, Christmas is also a part of your life. Enjoy it!"
Mr. McPherson is 516th Signal Brigade’s public-affairs officer.
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