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Assignments not sought

Posted 7/22/2011   Updated 7/22/2011 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Gene Kamena
Air War College

7/22/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Rarely does a military professional's career consist only of assignments sought. Orders are issued, orders are followed and lives are changed. Such is the lot of military life. To those serving or who will serve, I predict there will be a time when you will be asked, or ordered, to go somewhere or do something seemingly undesirable. The use of the adverb seemingly is intentional, for in my experience, all assignments have worth. Many of those assignments I did not seek proved very rewarding.

It is natural for people to formulate a vision of the perfect career path or assignment pattern. Unfortunately, when the needs of the service demand deviation, disappointment often follows. I, too, have fallen into this trap, to be shaken when reality confronts unrealistic expectations. I once informed my wife we might be assigned to Hawaii - big mistake. When we share unfounded, unrealistic and unsupportable expectations with our spouse, we commit the ultimate sin, for spouses don't forget.

My first confrontation with the Army's assignment reality came as a newly promoted captain. I could not believe I was being assigned out of the 82nd Airborne to a "heavy" mechanized unit in Germany. Everyone knew mechanized units were undisciplined, poorly trained mechanics masquerading as infantry.

Our time in Germany with mechanized soldiers turned out to be a great assignment, so good that my wife and I decided to extend. Several staff jobs and two company commands later, we both grew to love the place, the people and the challenges of serving in a heavy unit.

Sometimes it is not the needs of the service but the requirements to meet certain qualifications that force deviation from one's ideal plan. For instance, to become joint-qualified, I was assigned to Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., as director of staff for U.S. Space Command. I didn't know what a director of staff was, but it didn't sound like anything I had done before.

Almost two years later, my family and I loved the location and the people. It was there that I had the privilege of working for the best senior officer I have known, an Air Force general. The space business was a bit strange, but after 9/11, the command transformed itself into Northern Command, or NORTHCOM. I served as NORTHCOM's first chief of staff until orders came directing an early reassignment to an infantry division deploying to Iraq.

Orders came unexpectedly as my first tour of duty was winding down. A second tour in Iraq was not what I expected. I was detailed to build an Iraqi commando brigade, take it to Jordan for training and then deploy the unit to Al Anbar province to retake and control the border with Syria. The assignment was tough, but I worked with great Iraqis and a group of very professional, dedicated Americans. When I boarded the Marine CH-53E helicopter for the last time, I felt as if I were abandoning the unit.
What I learned over the years and through many assignments not sought: those very assignments provided unique opportunities to grow professionally, to work with some of the best people in our services and to build fond memories of places that become part of a family's collective past. It is not a particular assignment path that counts. It is what you learn along the way.

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