LA GRANDE SOLDIER REFLECTS ON HER AFGHANISTAN EXPERIENCE
When Jade Seale joined the Oregon Army National Guard back in 2001, patriotic ideals weren't the motivating factor.
No. Those would grow in her later, after she had worn the uniform for a while and finished a tour in Afghanistan.
In the beginning, it was all about testing herself, finding out who she was and what she might be capable of achieving.
"I was really excited to start a new adventure in life," the 23-year-old La Grande soldier said recently. "I was excited to do something on my own and see what I could handle."
At La Grande High School, Seale Â— whose last name then was Pennell Â— had been an honor roll student whose extra-curricular passions included cheerleading and dance team.
Upon graduation, looking for that new adventure, she set out to join the regular Army.
She had done everything but leave for basic training when SFC Rick Bloom, Guard recruiter for the local area, stepped in and persuaded her to take a different path.
"He said there was an opening in aviation and that with my test scores I qualified for it. I said Â‘Great,' " Seale recalled.
The Army agreed to void her contract, and Seale, now the property of the Guard, was on her way to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
There, as she underwent the age-old basic training rituals, the answers to questions about what she could handle began to come clear.
"It was a complete change in lifestyle," Seale said. "They made sure you were always out of your comfort zone.
"I went from a 22-minute, two-mile run to a 15:30. They kept challenging me because they knew I could do more."
She graduated from basic in March 2002, and was sent promptly to Fort Rucker, Ala., for training as an aviation operations specialist.
The physical training continued, though by now Seale found it easy to deal with. The challenge now was training in the classroom.
The challenge was to learn how to maintain flight records and conduct radio operations using the Army's high tech gear.
It also meant learning the art of "flight following," tracking an aircraft from the beginning of a flight to the time it touches back down at home.
"When pilots leave, we check with them every 15 or 30 minutes, and we log everything," Seale said.
Following advanced training, Seale returned to Northeast Oregon, working as a full-time flight operations specialist in Pendleton for Detachment 1, Delta Company, 113th Aviation.
As a National Guard soldier, she drilled with the 1042nd, which uses Black Hawk helicopters in its operations. In between drills, she was a college student.
For a while, she was back in a comfort zone.
But it didn't last.
In July of last year, Seale was undergoing annual summer training with her unit at Gowen Field, Idaho. It was routine stuff, but then came a jolt.
The 1042nd was told it had 15 days to get ready for deployment to Afghanistan.
"I can tell you I was nervous. My head and my mind were completely civilian, and there I was being told I was going to active duty in a combat zone," she said.
"I said good-bye to my family in July, and didn't see them again until March."
Seale's family was in for a lot of worrying. But in some ways, notification of the deployment was a relief, said her mother, Gail Ainsworth.
"We knew it was going to happen sometime. I was relieved, because she was going to get it over with. It helped to know she'd be on a big base, and that the deployment was a short one," Ainsworth said.
The 1042nd got itself ready to go in the allotted time, a thing Seale calls "remarkable."
First stop on the way to Afghanistan was Fort Sill, Okla., a good place for citizen-soldiers to get back in the military swing of things.
It was like basic training all over again, nothing comfort-zone about it.
The lessons were about improvised explosive devices, convoy operations, land navigation, small arms use, foreign culture Â— standard fare for soldiers bound for the War on Terror's more hostile fronts.
"None of us liked Fort Sill," Seale said. "We did a bunch of very basic military training, not aviation related.
"It was so hot there, I remember sweating through my uniform so there were salt stains."
By the first of September, the unit was ready to go. Soldiers boarded a C-5 Galaxy transport, a noisy behemoth capable of traveling great distances at jet speed, for the journey to Bagram, Afghanistan.
The flight was an experience all in itself, Seale recalled.
"I had never been in a C-5," she said. "I got on board and we were sitting on canvas chairs pulled out from the wall. I remember grabbing someone and saying, Â‘Please tell me it's going to be OK.' "
The flight went off without a hitch. Soon the 1042nd was settling into the Bagram base.
Seale went to work in the flight operations center, keeping track of the many medical missions the unit flew.
"We sent the pilots out to a lot of different places, for a lot of different reasons," she said. "They could be going to pick up a combat casualty, or an Afghan national hurt in an accident."
The operations specialists worked varied shifts, eight days on and one day off. Their responsibilities were big ones, and the stress level was high at times.
"It was multi-tasking and making sure all the information was disseminated properly," Seale said.
She didn't get off the base much. Once, she and her comrades flew to Kandahar to attend a memorial for five soldiers who died when their Chinook helicopter was shot down.
"That was the saddest thing," she said.
She won't say she totally enjoyed living on the base, but she does recall some of her day-to-day experiences with fondness.
"There were opportunities," she said, recalling rifle practice with some Germans on base and a physical fitness event with a Polish contingent.
The tour was six months long. Seale and her comrades found themselves safely back in the United States Feb. 26.
She's picking up the threads of her life, among other things preparing to resume college studies in health science.
Looking back on her Afghanistan experience, she said she it helped her grow as a person.
She said she has learned that personal satisfaction often needs to take a back seat to great causes.
"I liked being part of that huge operation," she said. "At that point you stop thinking, Â‘What's in it for me?' I'm thankful for all the soldiers who were there. Everybody does a little thing and that adds up to a huge mission."
That mission, she said, ranged from helping to build a democracy to providing food and clothing for poverty-stricken nationals.
And the poverty she saw, the people living in mud huts without electricity or running water, made her understand how lucky she is to be an American.
"If you're born in America, you're starting out with four aces," she said.