Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Good Old DPU

I hated my first assignment in the Army.

During my initial training as a Computer Operator, my instructor showed us an old mainframe system they used to train on – complete with 9-inch reel tape drives, a jukebox-sized line printer, and even a card punch and card reader! Fortunately, he told us, the Army didn’t use that antiquated equipment anymore. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the 13th Data Processing Unit to find that same system, cards and all, mounted in tractor-trailers and still in 24/7 operation.

I hated the location, too. “Deep in the heart of Texas” it was, halfway between Waco and Austin. A native once told me how great it was to be there – we were only two or three hours away from several completely different climates and terrain! Everything from forests to mountains to desert to seashore, and with several big cities to boot! I had to tell him…if you have to drive two to three hours to find something good, is that really a selling point?

I hated the unit. We were the “red-headed stepchildren,” a non-standard company of computer geeks and other misfits. Usually ignored by higher command, the only time they paid attention to us was when our 24/7 shift schedule interfered with their plans for training. Of course, the usual solution was to ignore our schedule, and bring everyone in on our sleep time to work in the motor pool or attend CTT classes. The only good thing was that we were behind a locked gate with a buzzer, so when the higher-ups came to check on us, we had enough warning to make sure everyone looked busy…or at least, awake when the Battalion Commander stopped by.

I wasn’t alone in my feelings, though. Complaining about the unit, the mission, the equipment, and everything else was the single most common topic of conversation – after all, such complaining is the ancient right of enlisted soldiers, and we all did our part to keep up tradition.

When we deployed to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield, I started to realize that for all the problems, there were some good in the 13th DPU. For starters, we were a team. We didn’t all like each other, but anyone from outside the gates was an intruder, and was treated as such. We also knew our stuff, and knew what we could do. Our sister unit from Ft. Bragg brought over the newer equipment that was slated to replace ours – we both did the same job, but their newer gear was supposed to do it faster and better. In less than a month, though, our workload started to increase…because their systems couldn’t keep up. Before we were done, we were processing about four times as much data as we did back on Ft. Hood, while our sister unit was struggling to manage a third of our workload.

Our team spirit showed up at home, too. We were tasked as the “OPFOR” for a Battalion exercise. Our little detachment of about 40 soldiers was supposed to attack the dug-in defenses of the main unit…over 150 defenders. We tore them up. Our CO brought in a helicopter from another unit to let us attack from the skies, while a tiny group with a loudspeaker practiced Psychological Warfare, shouting insults at the soldiers in foxholes. While their eyes were on the sky and their ears tuned to the speakers, the rest of us crept right in past their lines, blasting the defenders from behind, taking out their generators with flour or chalk “grenades,” and generally wreaking havoc. Our commander, armed only with her pistol (yes, that’s HER pistol) managed to storm their command post single-handedly – only to find that another of our soldiers had beaten her there and had already captured their CO and their guidon. (That’s “unit flag” for you civilian types.) We took so few casualties that during the after-action brief, the other unit accused us of taking the batteries out of our “laser-tag” gear, and tried to prove it by hitting us with their lasers while we stood in formation, knowing that our gear would be inactive…the loud beeps from our equipment drowning out the Exercise Judge’s speech were the final proof that they could only hit us when we were standing still.

As much as I hated it, it is only to be expected for me to be stuck in that unit for a solid eight years. I’ve been in three other units since then, and even went back to war with one of them. But I’ve never been anywhere else with such morale, such esprit de corps. It is only in retrospect that I can see just how good I had it there. And even today, there’s still more evidence of just how close we were back in the old DPU. I’ve been contacted by people from my other three units a few times, especially in my current job – and every time, it has been from someone looking for a favor. I’ve been contacted by several people from DPU, too – and the only one who was looking for something from me was the one who wanted me to come work for him. We’ve even got our own Yahoo group, with about a dozen members, still keeping in touch from time to time – almost ten years after the unit deactivated.

So thanks, Shane, Peter, Brent, Paul, Paul, Mike, Cap’n Ron, and the rest of the gang – it’s nice to have a reminder of the good old days!

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