“No matter how dark it gets, how lonely or dejected you feel, you are not alone. Whenever anxiety or disappointments come, repeat: I am not alone, God is with me.”
The Beginning of the NATO Weapons Program
In the late spring of 2009, I was working as a Project Manager of a developmental small arms program for a defense company out of McLean Virginia. I had been in Mississippi visiting some of our contract employees and was on my way back to the home office in Columbus Georgia when my Blackberry rang. I was going a little fast and dropped the phone under the seat and by the time I found it the caller had hung up. When I pulled into the next rest stop I checked the message and to my surprise it was Larry Word. I didn’t know Larry that well but he was a legend, not only in contracting, but in the Army. He was a retired Colonel with an extensive Special Forces background in Vietnam. He helped pioneer the formation of the National Training Center in Fort Irwin California and later in his career fronted the formation of the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Chaffee Arkansas. I had met him a couple of times when I was working as the Weapons Advisor for the Kuwaiti National Guard. Larry was the Program Manager for the Kuwait Observer Controller Team at the time and his folks did all of the preparatory training for the units going into Iraq. My PM introduced me to him right after I got to the KNG team but I had little interaction with him or any of his folks after that. More than five years had passed since I had last seen him and so for him to be calling me out of the blue left me curious.
His message was pretty short and simple.
“Ken, this is Larry Word. Can you give me a call as soon as you get this message please? I want to talk to you about a weapons contract in Afghanistan.”
I had worked for this company on three contracts previously, one of which involved the development of weapons training programs for the Kuwaitis and one in the transition of the Iraqis to NATO weapons. I knew that our developmental efforts were waning in my current program and we were in jeopardy of losing funding at that point, so while I never saw myself going back to the middle east or anywhere even close to it, I was excited to get that call. I could hardly wait to call him back and hear the details. Later that day after I got home I got him on the phone and he filled me in.
Back in 2007-2008 we had successfully executed the Iraq M16/M4 transition and naturally expected that when the Afghans began their transition that we would easily win that contract. We were all surprised when Blackwater was awarded it instead, particularly in the wake of their controversies in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Blackwater created a sub company called Paravant, then recruited about a third of the folks that we had on our weapons contract in Iraq. They brought in some of their own cowboys, recruited a few more folks and started work in the fall of 2008. By early 2009, their qualification rate was around 13%. With such a poorly performing contract, the Army was beginning to look at other options and so Blackwater was in serious jeopardy of being terminated. Then in May of 2009, two Paravant employees on the weapons contract killed two unarmed Afghans and wounded a third in what would ultimately add to their scandalous reputation and see the leadership answering to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Revelations of gross misconduct from the top down surfaced that included alcohol use in violation of General Order 1, the use of weapons without permission and ignoring Army protocol. As a result, Blackwater and its alter ego Paravant, were given their notice to be prepared to stand down and we received ours to be prepared to assume the weapons training mission on order. Right away we got the impression that we were under the gun to put together a proposal to take over this poorly executed program and as far as we knew, would have little time to prepare and an even shorter fuse to execute. Larry had been selected as the Program Manager and after some discussion, he formally offered me the position of Deputy Program Manager to which I accepted. Together with Operations Manager Randy Cook, we began daily teleconferences and almost constant email interaction, planning and troubleshooting with little or no idea of when we were leaving or what the situation was on the ground. The notice to proceed was taking longer than anyone anticipated as the Government went back and forth between launching our company immediately or waiting until August at the end of the first contract year to make the change, which is ultimately what they did. Larry and a senior recruiter (Bob) were the first to go in late July to interview some of the Paravant personnel as possible members of the new NATO Weapons team. Randy and I waited to be called forward and finally on the first of August the call came and by 9 August we were in Kabul.
In addition to developing the technical approach and Programs of Instruction, I assisted the boss in interviewing potential candidates who had been working for Paravant and already on the ground in country. Our own pool of experienced weapons trainers was extensive but we knew there were some quality people on the Paravant team and we wanted to retain some of them if possible. Larry and Bob had already screened resumes and considered experience and current positions well enough to have a good idea who would be a good candidate and who would not. Most of the Paravant leadership was eliminated right off the top. Lack of leadership had been their problem.
Shortly after I arrived in country Larry and I went to a transitional meeting with the Military representative that had oversight of the Paravant Blackhorse team. There were absolutely no complaints and even a reluctance to accept that they were being replaced as a team. I think the throwing the baby out with the bathwater analogy came up a couple of times but it was an Army decision and we were simply the contractor that the Army had selected to take over.
The Blackhorse team leader was a retired law enforcement investigator and probably over qualified to be a weapons training team leader, though, by all outward appearances, he did an outstanding job. I will not reveal his name here but he and the assistant team leader both attended the meeting with us and it was the number two that did all of the talking. His name was Chuck Buckman and that country accent of his was thicker that any I had heard outside of Oklahoma. He was not only extremely knowledgeable about the program, but was forthcoming with every challenge that he thought we would encounter, offering suggestions and answering our questions willfully and professionally. I knew his name was not on the list but at that point I assumed that it was a personal decision not to stay with the program under new management. After the meeting ended, I approached him, curious and hopeful at the same time that I could change his mind. He actually did not want to talk with me at first and when he finally agreed, he had a much different demeanor than in the meeting, one that I can best describe as a chip on his shoulder and quite frankly, it surprised me.
“It was pretty clear to me that I was not welcomed to stay on your program. You folks said…police officers over here and Infantry soldiers over there. Then you said….police officers will not be on this contract.”
He was getting upset just talking about it.
“So I’m apparently not qualified to do the job I have been doing the last year.”
I let him talk until he got it off his chest, then asked him if we could take a walk and talk some more. We had a different sort of conversation…not just about job but about home and family. I truly believed I gained his trust and respect that day…he certainly gained mine and we hired him.
Chuck very quickly distinguished himself as a high caliber trainer and continued to serve as the assistant team leader at Blackhorse. When a new team leader opportunity presented itself in Gardez, he was clearly our number one choice and his tenure there was the measure of excellence. In the spring of 2010, when the Senior Command Advisor of the Kabul Military Training Center asked us to establish a presence in the Regional Basic Warrior Training locations to assist the 10th Mountain Division Teams with training, Chuck was selected to lead two of those teams split between Herat and Masar-e-Sharif.
As we neared our start date, the core of the teams was comprised largely of trainers who had been involved in the Iraqi Weapons Transition Program , which I had the privilege of managing in the start up and later, two of the three Remote Training Teams. I knew most of them and those I did not know personally, I knew by name or reputation. All of them were good and a few of them were outstanding. One of those that fell into the latter category was Mike Discioscia.
Mike ended up on the Kabul Military Training Center team under the leadership of one of my most trusted and respected of friends, Guy Pruitt. Mike was a top performer and Guy knew it and he placed him in charge of one of the four ranges the team operated continuously during the endless Afghan Army Basic Warrior Training rotations. Mikes team consistently performed high with excellent qualification results. While observing training at KMTC one day, Guy told me that, while he didn’t want to lose a great asset to his team, Mike Discioscia was leader and needed a position of greater responsibility on the program. As luck would have it, a position became available within a couple of weeks and Mike was promoted officially to Assistant Team Leader and moved to Masar-e Sharif, originally under Team Lead Vic Thompson with the 109th Corps team and later as the RBWT site lead working for his new team leader, Chuck Buckman.
A Change of Mission
As June arrived, Chuck and his two assistant team leaders set out to set up and prepare for their first RBWT class, Mike in Masar-e-Sharif and Larry Dingle out west in Herat. I had just returned from a short R&R and a visit to the Corporate Headquarters and was preparing to assume the PM position as Larry had always intended to leave contract in late July. While I was gone, he briefed our RBWT plan to the KMTC leadership. It included a plan for him to personally go to every RBWT location to formally hand off the team and give a basic concept brief to our 10th Mountain Division partners in those locations. His intent was that as the developer of the POI, I would go in to each location a couple of weeks before the first class and work with the team to provide a more detailed concept and assist with Afghan Instructor Training. Further, he wanted me to go back to observe, evaluate and provide some senior leader oversight to our operation during the first few days of the first class in each RBWT location. So when I returned from the US, that is exactly the plan we set about to execute. Larry was in Kandahar when I returned and had already hit 3 of the 4 RBWT locations. I first went to Herat and soon after went to Kandahar followed by Masar-e-Sharif. I then went back to Herat for the first RBWT class. When I returned to Kabul the news that none of us wanted to hear was waiting. The Army had made a decision to not renew several programs that did not have option years. It was one way for the NATO run training headquarters CTAG-A to reduce the contractor footprint. Because we were a well performing contract and operating in the option period vacated by Paravant, we were an easy target, disguised under the premise that our success enabled an easy transition of weapons training to the Afghans. Though everything seemed to be working against us and all were aware that their jobs were going away, you would have never known that anything was wrong. Coordination continued and training never missed a beat.
The boss shifted his efforts dramatically to looking for other opportunities to maneuver the weapons program to, such as the Afghan National Police training program where CTAG-P had expressed interest. He spent the balance of his time sifting through resumes and trying to find contracts for our folks. We knew we had until September so there was some time to work with but he wasted no time in getting started, leaving the current operations and technical oversight of the program to me.
Chuck went to Herat for their second iteration. They were far ahead of the other RBWT sites in schedule and well synchronized with the local 10th Mountain Division Team. I was preparing to go to Kandahar for their first class but it was delayed and so I was in Kabul when Chuck got there after the Herat iteration had completed. It was early July and he spent about three or four days there in the office with us, going over the plan for the next class with me and getting his and the team members resumes together while waiting to go to Masar-e-Sharif. While he was there the boss and I had had a meeting with the Country Manager regarding the draw-down plan for NATO weapons and a possible opportunity for us in Mexico. I saw the excitement in Larry’s eyes and we both knew this could be big, not only for the company but for many of the weapons trainers that he was trying to find jobs for.
I will never know if it was Devine intervention or simply an odd twist of fate but from that meeting, Larry’s priority shifted to include the initial evaluation of the Mexico RFP, and mine took off in a demobilization planning direction. I remember seeing Chuck walk out of the office for the last time the day he flew to Masar-e Sharif. I told him that I would probably not make it to their first class up there in MES. And I remember what he said…“Ahhh, shoot…don’t worry ‘bout a thing, boss. I got it.”
July 20, 2010
It was a busy afternoon. The boss was talking to someone on the phone and there were a couple of other folks in the office. The new operations manager, Cameron, who had been on one of the teams previously, was working on a spreadsheet and we had been talking when my phone rang. It was Vic Thompson, the Team Leader for the 109th Corps Team up at Camp Spann. Vic’s team was one of two we had working at Spann. The other was the RBWT team led by Chuck and Mike. I couldn’t hear him because of the cross talk in the office and I stepped outside to take the call.
“Ken, are you tracking anything that’s going on up here?”
It was day two of RBWT and that team was on the Range. I knew that Vic’s team was off cycle but had been conducting trainer instruction.
“I think two of our guys may have taken shots to the chest…”
Vic was in mid sentence but I got the message before the call dropped.
I waited for him to call back and I asked him who had been shot. He immediately replied that all he knew for sure was that Chuck and Mike had been hit. He was standing just outside the Troop Medical Clinic and could see the medics working on them. I asked him to get accountability of everyone else on both teams and to call me back immediately afterwards.
I walked back into the office and the boss was still on the phone. It was definitely business, whatever it was.
“Sir, I need to talk to you.”
He motioned to signal me that he would be off in just a minute. I repeated myself with a little more emphasis on urgency.
“Sir, I need to talk to you now.”
He hung up and I motioned him outside. As we walked out of the office, Cameron and I made eye contact and without me saying a word, he knew something bad had happened.
Larry and I went outside the building and I told him. At least two of our personnel had been shot. I did not have the details of what happened yet and I did not know their condition. Vic was getting accountability and would call me back as soon as he had information. Larry’s face told the whole story. This was not the first time he had lost someone on a contract and it was never something that a PM wanted to have happen on his watch. He said that he was going to go find the Country Manager. I asked him if he wanted me to go with him and he said no, to stay where I was and continue to take the reports from Vic.
Vic called back and all but one team member was accounted for. He had been with Chuck and Mike on the range and had ridden back with them in the field Ambulance. He had been the one that went to Vic’s office and notified him initially that there had been a shooting. He was covered in blood but it wasn’t his. Vic assumed that he went to wash the blood off but he couldn’t find him. I told him to call me back when they did.
Within a few minutes, Larry and the Country Manager returned. Cameron and I were outside and I had told him what had happened.
Then the phone rang again. It was Vic and they had located the other team member. All were accounted for. Just before he hung up, he told me that the Chaplain was inside the Troop Clinic. He said it did not look good. Some of the medics were just standing around in shock and he was sure that someone was gone. He thought it was probably Mike as it appeared they were still working on Chuck.
He hung up and I could hear the Country Manager on the phone with the company leadership back in the States, informing them that there had been a shooting incident. He had given them as much information as I gave him and was about to ask me a question when my phone rang again. It was Vic.
Mike Discioscia was gone.
I relayed the information to Larry and the Country Manager, who in turn relayed it to the Headquarters.
Less than four minutes passed and my phone rang again.
Chuck Buckman was gone.
For several minutes, everything was quiet among the small gathering outside our office.
Larry looked at me and said, “I’m taking them home.”
The coming days would be long and hard and made more difficult by the fact that training did not stop for any reason. We still had a job to do. There was a sense of loss in the program, but instinct and sense of duty prevailed. Our internal procedures for repatriation were nearly nonexistent, but there again instinct kicked in and between the display of teamwork within the company and the compassion of our client, Larry got his wish and was able to escort our brothers back to Dover.
I packed a bag and flew to Masar-e-Sharif. My duties included meeting with the area Commander and visiting the location where our brothers were shot. More importantly, I had to get the teams back in the game. Vic was a great team leader, but even he was having a hard time with this. There had been some past tension between the two teams, mainly a perception of a lack of consideration in the office they shared. It was slight but it was there and Vic, as one of the leaders was faced with the thought of the pettiness of that as he prepared to say goodbye at the memorial for his fellow trainers.
The same day I arrived, I met with the Colonel who served as the area Commander. He was a very personable guy who had only been on the ground a few weeks. He had not met Chuck, but only a few days before the shooting, he had been afforded the opportunity to do something he had always wanted to do…fire an M24 Sniper Weapon System, courtesy of Mike Discioscia. We talked at length and he expressed his condolences and then explained to me all that he had learned about the incident.
It occurred on the live fire range. Chuck was there to oversee and assist as necessary. Mike would identify those having trouble zeroing their weapon and move them from the firing line to a remedial training area about seventy five meters behind the firing line. He would then hand off to another team member who would provide the remedial marksmanship training and then send them back to the line. Of the four team members, only three were on the range that day. One had been very sick that morning and Chuck had told him to stay back and he would cover for him. Another twist of fate that very likely saved that young man’s life. There were also several 10th Mountain Division soldiers who were working the firing line that day.
The shooter was not one of the trainees, but rather one of the Afghan trainers that our team worked with. He was a Sergeant named “Jamil” who had been in the Afghan National Army for five years and had been an instructor at the RBWT for eight months.
That morning, everything seemed to be going well. Mike had just handed off a group to the other team member for remedial training. He was standing about 30 feet away from the training, looking down range at the shooters and talking with Chuck and a Sergeant who had just arrived there from KMTC in Kabul to fill in for another soldier headed out on R&R. By coincidence, I had met this sergeant only a few days before while observing training at KMTC. As Jamil approached the men from behind with his loaded M16A2 pointed at them, the sergeant may have been the only one to catch a glimpse of him in the moments that he opened fire. He managed to get off a couple of shots with his pistol before going down himself. The other team member, a former Marine and a veteran of some of the worst fighting in Anbar Provence, Iraq, managed to cut away in the confusion, divert attention to the shooter and cause his death. He is no doubt the hero in this, in that his quick action probably saved many more lives.
In the aftermath, another Afghan Soldier was killed in the cross fire and another injured. The prevailing theory is that Mike was killed instantly and Chuck , though still alive at the scene, was in such a state of shock that he was completely unconscious. The sergeant was hit in the belt, shattering his knife and sending multiple metal fragments into his body. Fortunately he survived.
As for Jamil, a small amount of black tar heroin and a calendar was found in his belongings with the date of July 20 circled. It was planned, but still today questions are unanswered. Had he lied in wait for his opportunity all these years? Was the Taliban threatening his family? No one knows for sure but he died with his prayer beads in his hand.
Green on Blue incidents happened in 2010, but not as often as today. In 2010, if an Afghan public affairs officer was quick to jump to conclusions that there was an argument that led to this shooting, you can bet it got print from the media before any investigation could be done. And that was the first injustice that sought to tarnished the image of two of our finest, Mike Discioscia…a medically retired Staff Sergeant form the Army Marksmanship Unit and Chuck Buckman, a former Navy Parachute Rigger and one of the founders of the Drug and Gang task Force of the Lawton Oklahoma Police Department. All of the witnesses spoke with the CID investigators. Afghan witnesses later stated that there was no argument and that the men were shot in the back without warning.
A 15-6 investigation was also conducted which included a careful review of our internal policies governing everything from training guidance to the wear of body armor. I answered the questions truthfully and to the best of my ability knowing that of all the questions that we would be able to answer, the one that we would not was why neither of them were wearing their body armor that day. Both men had been shot in the back, not in the chest. It is a possibility, based on the locations of the wounds that both could have survived had they been wearing their vests. That one fact of all will haunt me forever. I could live with the fact that I would have been there on the range that day for that initial RBWT class had we not started the demobilization planning. I could live with the fact that I, too, might have been killed. But I have lost more sleep thinking that if I had been there, how different things might have turned out. On one hand I could have met the same fate my brothers did. On the other hand, neither of them ever took off their vests at the ranges and so I have to wonder if my presence alone may have influenced them to do what we expect of everyone on the range in training…what they clearly had not done that day…wear their body armor. I tried to blame myself for a while, I just did not let on what I was thinking.
The Rememberance Ceremony at Spann
The Remembrance Ceremony at the little Chapel at Camp Spann was touching and very well organized. There were about 90 chairs inside, all full with probably at least 50 people standing crowded in the back of the room and as many outside. There were folks from all services to include the German contingent, the area Command and the 10th Mountain Division contingent to include the 1st Brigade Commander and three other full Colonels, Command Sergeants Major and members of their staffs, civilians from other companies and of course, a large contingent from our company from different contracts. The ceremony was filmed by the Public Affairs Office. The Chaplain gave the invocation and was followed by the area Commander and myself. The other team members and Vic’s team gave testimony and read scriptures and then the Chaplain gave the Eulogy. Up front were their vests and helmets, a picture of each of them and two marble stones that bore an inscription with their names to be placed at the base of the flag at the Mike Spann memorial.
As the ceremony came to a conclusion, the Bagpipes began their mourning sound. As I looked around, I could see and feel the compassion in the room. At that moment, a young sergeant from the Army Marksmanship Unit, of which Mike had been a member, walked from the rear of the room, touched Chucks gear and then placed his own Presidents Hundred Tab on Mikes vest. He then turned and walked out. It happened so quickly and was timed so precisely that most did not even see what happened. I did, as did the Chaplain, who was immediately in tears. I did not get to say anything to the young sergeant since he moved out so quickly. I think he probably preferred it that way. No words can say enough about that.
The Buckman Discioscia Memorial Fund
The next morning I was leaving Masar-e-Sharif, for what I thought would probably be the final time. I had the last RBWT team members with me. As I turned to leave I noticed a small envelope next to my cot. Someone had come in while I had gone to the shower that morning and placed an envelope with over a thousand dollars inside. I knew then what I had to do. I think Vic was the one who got it started with that envelope but he never owned up to it. As I was walking out of the building I was asked to come to the office of one of the other contracts. They had another envelope with more than six hundred dollars inside. Upon my return to Kabul, still more money awaited. I asked the Country Manager to request that the Company match dollar for dollar what we raise with the expectation of raising about $2500. We were already close. While I had a firm “maybe” on the match, I had a solid yes from everyone I asked for support. I built a Facebook page and secured the Ourfallenbrothers.com web domain and built a fund raising website accepting checks or credit cards via Paypal for donations. The money was intended for Mike Discioscia’s three grandchildren and Chuck Buckman’s three children.
The response was enormous. By early September, all donations were in. We had raised nearly fifteen thousand dollars. I went back to the Company with a little extra firepower from Larry and we got our match. The total raised in just over two months was over twenty eight thousand dollars which allowed us to provide a fund of nearly five thousand dollars for each child.
It has been over two years since that fateful July day. I think of them often and each of those years on the anniversary I have gone back to say a few words to them on the Our Fallen Brothers Facebook page. This was not the first time I experienced the loss of a colleague during my time working in this part of the world. In fact, I have run out of fingers and toes to count them all. What made this different was the more obvious twists of fate that influenced who lived and who did not. It was much closer and they were closer and there was truly a sense of brotherhood.
Two days before Chuck died, he attended a Sunday evening service at the Chapel at Camp Spann. He had never gone before and after the Chaplain acknowledged all the newcomers, he was given a booklet titled “Courage-Finding Strength in Troubled Times.” Vic later found the booklet in Chuck’s possessions and brought them to the Chaplain as the Remembrance Ceremony was being planned. The lone marked page was titled “Comfort” and the words he read seemed to do just that.
“No matter how dark it gets, how lonely or dejected you feel, you are not alone. Whenever anxiety or disappointments come, repeat: I am not alone, God is with me.”