Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010 - Remembering Staff Sergeant Tommy Folks

Tommy Folks almost didn't have to go to war.

Seems like a strange thing to say, doesn't it? After all, Tommy was a soldier. When you work for the U.S. Army and the U.S. says go, you go. You don't run to Mexico. You don't wait until the call comes and then claim to be a conscientious objector. You don't raise your hand and say, "Oh, by the way, I'm gay." You don't even ask where or when.

You go. It usually sucks, even if nobody's shooting at you. Your family probably doesn't understand. Hell, sometimes you don't understand. It's almost never fair--if you're a member of the National Guard, it seems even less fair. Marriages fail because of it. Businesses go under. Bills go unpaid. Fathers come home to babies they've never seen, or toddlers who don't know them. Some don't come home.

But you go. If you don't come home, like Tommy, we who survive remember you on the last Monday in May. Those who knew you remember every other day of the year, too.

Sergeant Folks--that's how I knew him before he died--was one of the most talented natural leaders I've ever known. He led from the front, and made damned sure he could master any task before he tried to show his men how to do it. And if one of them could do it better, he let him.

He came to my National Guard rifle company from the 10th Mountain Division, finished with the regular Army and ready to decide whether to stay in the Guard to retirement or get out when his hitch was up. Right away he recognized our soldiers--my officers and myself included--had the enthusiasm to be great soldiers, to make a good company great, but not enough knowledge. So he started teaching us, quietly, always aware of his place in the chain of command, but firmly. We made him a Staff Sergeant and a squad leader and let him teach.

By the end of our Annual Training that summer, my dismounted squads were the most proficient in the battalion. And everybody in the battalion knew Sergeant Folks's name. Of course he didn't do it all by himself; nobody ever does it all by himself in the Army. Whoever came up with Army of One wasn't paying attention. But it wouldn't have happened without him.

Eighteen months later, Sergeant Folks made his decision. He was finished with the Army, ready to try another form of service. He felt called to ministry. My first sergeant and I talked it over, and decided to bend the rules for him. He had served with honor, he had six months left, and we decided to let him go quietly, giving him credit for making up drill weekends we didn't make him attend. The condition went unspoken but understood by all: if the call came, he would go with the rest of us.

In April 2004, the call came. The officers and senior NCOs knew right away. We broke the news to the battalion at AT that June. At the end of July, we assembled at our drill stations. And Sergeant Folks was there, his stuff packed, ready to go. No questions, no excuses, no whining. The Army said go, so he was ready to go.

We spent July through December 2004 at Fort Hood, training, getting ready to go. Once again Sergeant Folks shone as brightly as any other leader in the battalion--no glamor, as little spit-and-polish as he could get away with, but all business. By December, his men could have gone force-on-force against any squad in the battalion, and most of the squads I worked with in the regular Army, and come out on top. We decorated him, much later than he deserved, with an Army Commendation Medal. He shrugged it off and got back to work.

We deployed to Iraq as Team Axe in January 2005 with 146 men from all over Texas. Our first job was security at a fortified truck-stop in southern Iraq called CSC Scania, and Sergeant Folks embraced the mind-numbing posting and required his soldiers to stay alert and ready for anything, always on the lookout for that one event that might slip through when you're not paying attention. We paid attention, and any bad guys in the area got the message and left us alone.

In April, I rotated out of command and moved to Camp Echo, outside Diwaniyah, to serve as the liaison officer to the Polish-led multinational division headquartered there. Sergeant Folks and the rest of the company took on a new mission: convoy security from Tallil Air Force Base in the south down to Kuwait, North to Turkey, East to Jordan, all routes converging in Baghdad. If it rolled across Iraq from June to November 2005, chances were good somebody from Team Axe was rolling with it.

2005 was a pretty quiet year in Iraq, compared to the three years that followed, but that didn't stop the bad guys from trying. Those convoys got hit every night; sometimes they managed to disable a tanker or a cargo truck, but they never managed more than a bruise on any man from Team Axe.

Until the night of 19 October 2005. That night Sergeant Folks was leading from the front, as usual. His Humvee was right out in the lead, where he could identify hazards and radio back to his squad if he needed them to take action. He never saw the IED that got him, never felt a thing, as far as I know. It was rigged with a trip wire/pressure plate combination, and it stove his door and his head in before anybody could blink. He survived to the hospital in Baghdad, but never regained consciousness. The rest of the guys in his truck were returned to duty with minor wounds. He was the only man Team Axe lost that whole year.

So Tommy Folks is the soldier I remember every year on Memorial Day. He is only one of more than a million who have fallen to defend the Constitution and the flag they salute, but he's the one I can put a face to.

I don't have a picture of Tommy, so I can't post one here. But you have his name now. If you have no one to remember by name on this day, feel free to remember Tommy.

Do you have friends you'd like remembered for Memorial Day? Send me their names and stories. We'll honor them here next year.

Thanks and have a great week.