Learning to Respect the Big Nasty
by Andrew Person
April 4, 2018
On April 7th, 2003, I woke up in a big green field north of Irbil, Iraq surrounded by 500 paratroopers—the Red Devil Battalion, 1-508 Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. We had all parachuted into northern Iraq two weeks earlier and had been making a slow movement south toward Kirkuk. The war had been on for weeks, but on April 7 we were facing something entirely new: we were going to attack the enemy. The plan was simple: under the cover of darkness we would take two 105 mm howitzers far enough south to fire at enemy positions on the other side of the Zab river and then haul-ass back to our peaceful green field in Kurdish territory—out of the range of Saddam’s artillery, which would undoubtedly try to fire back.
April 7th was a big day for all of us. Most troops in our battalion had played Army for years. We had ranger tabs on our shoulders and collectively had been to every school the Army could offer. But April 7th was the day it all became real. No more bullshit. The seriousness of the mission weighed on my conscience. We were on a mission to kill.
The Battalion headquarters was buzzing with excitement as we received our final orders before the attack. But one man’s exuberance towered above all others: that of Captain Chris Lambesis, the commander of the Brigade’s lone artillery battery. He was known throughout the airborne world as “The Big Nasty”.
The Big Nasty was unlike any other person I had ever met. Six foot four. He usually smelled bad. He was balding. While he was thinking he made a farting sound by blowing air out of his mouth and squeezing it with his lips. He always spoke louder than necessary. He grappled over every word he spoke. It seemed as if his arms and legs were much too long to control. He’d chew tobacco and drink a thick stew he called coffee at the same time. A lot of times the chew spit would end up on his desk or papers on his desk, or in his coffee, or in your face as he pronounced words he thought were important like, “Competence!”. He was an asshole. He was my boss. He was my battery commander.
During our Battalion Commander’s final mission briefing on April 7th, the Big Nasty stole the show. He knew every detail cold. The range of the artillery munitions we would fire. The speed we could move. The time needed for emplacement. The name of every troop that would perform each key task from the non-commissioned officers in charge of each howitzer to the private who would load the rounds. No one in the briefing doubted him. Most were keeping a little distance to stay out of range of his odor and his spit. April 7th was his day. Everyone else was doing their best to keep up.
As the Big Nasty rattled off the details of the mission—my mind wandered back to Vicenza Italy, the home of the 173rd Airborne Brigade where the Big Nasty had spent over a year in command of our artillery battery as we prepared for war.
In Italy, I hated working for the Big Nasty. It sounds crazy but even after 9/11, my focus as a lieutenant was drinking wine, chasing women, and spending as little time at work as possible. Lambesis had other plans. Once, during a month-long training exercise in Germany, he caught me reading Lord of the Rings rather than my artillery manual. He exploded. “I don’t give a fuck what Frodo is up to—learn you fucking job! In combat, men follow leaders who show technical and tactical competence!” Spitting as he pronounced competence. All the other lieutenants had borne the brunt of similar tirades.
Our only revenge was humor. We would joke endlessly about the Big Nasty—everyone had a story to tell. The time he walked into the gym, drenched in sweat (not what you’d normally see in the gym, but as if he had just stepped out of the swimming pool with all his clothes on) and tripped on a barbell. Or the time that we had all gone out to dinner in downtown Vicenza and we discovered he didn’t understand even the most basic Italian phrases.
To really understand this story, you should know that there were two sides of life in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. One side was life in the most elite airborne brigade in the Army. Unlike other airborne units, most officers had been to Ranger school and many of the non-commissioned officers had. Many of the lieutenants had graduated at the top of their West Point class. Company and Battalion commanders had been hand-picked for their outstanding performance during previous commands. Competition was fierce to get assigned to the 173rd and even fiercer to stand out as a leader in the brigade. The 173rd was something special and we all knew it.
That sense of elitism led to the other side of the 173rd: our life in Italy. After we took off our uniform at the end of the day, Vicenza was at our doorstep and Venice and Verona were no more than 45 minutes away. Vicenza is a wealthy town, designed by the architect Palladio, dominated by the gold trade, and at the heart of the downtown is a quintessential Venician piazza. We lived very large. My friends and I would meet almost every night at a different restaurant. We learned the language. The wines. The belle regazze. We applied the same competitive intensity that had previously been applied to learning basic Infantry Field Manual (FM7-8) to finding the best place for a night cap or mastering the local dialect.
If the Big Nasty was the king of life on duty in the Brigade, a wild man named Jon Baker, known as the Stinger, was the inspired leader of our off duty life in Italy- a master at sucking every drop of what the Italian good life had to offer. The Stinger was commissioned as an air-defense artillery lieutenant from Boston College and was one of the few officers without a Ranger tab. In a brigade that worshiped rangers and was led by west-point infantry officers, the Stinger had to find other ways of distinguishing himself.
In stories, Baker would refer to himself in the third person as “The Stinger.” He went out hard every night and would still out-run everyone else during morning physical training. He worked hard at learning Italian and did well at it—although somehow it always came out in a Boston accent. Baker always seemed like he was on the edge of getting thrown in jail. Drunk driving. Fights. He assigned nicknames to everyone he met and those names stuck. He was the life of the party and was so funny and bizarre that everyone couldn’t help but like him right away. He’d belt out “hoooty hooooooooooooooooo” or “ohhh gimme that rough stuff” on occasions like taking a shot of whiskey or just for no reason at all.
So life in the 173rd felt like the center of a tornado fed by two opposing winds. One, The Stinger’s life of hedonistic debauchery and two, the austere, combat-focused life in the Brigade. The Big Nasty wasn’t about to let me drift back and forth between the two worlds at my leisure. He was tough on all the lieutenants, but when I was starting off he seemed to have it out for me in particular. He’d test me on each chapter of the Field Artillery Manual, FM 3-0. If I didn’t answer each question exactly right he would call me in at 4:30 a.m. to retake the test.
Every new lieutenant knows that, in addition to serving in their principal assignment, they get to be the “shitty little jobs officer” as well. My shitty little job was supervising the battery’s supply room. Lambesis had a morning meeting at 5:30 with all the lieutenants and would chew me out if I couldn’t answer insanely detailed questions about the supply room. “Person damn it I need you to be a details guy,” he’d say.
Once, I smashed my BMW into the side of the autostrada as I pulled around a slippery bend in the road. The car still drove fine, but the front right corner was mangled. I kept putting off the necessary repairs out of laziness. The Big Nasty went ballistic when he saw me drive it past the Battery headquarters. I did not understand why he cared. To Lambesis, everything you did—off duty or on, had to be up to the standards of an officer and a model for your soldiers to follow.
And there was, to be sure, the underlying source of the tension between us. For me, the Army was something I would do for a few years and then go back to my regular life. I wasn’t going to be Lieutenant Person, Artillery Officer, US Army; I just wanted to do it for a while. I didn’t want to go all in. More than a few times I spent my evenings drinking wine rather than studying my fire support manual and I paid the price. After earning a 70 percent on an exam, he grilled me for hours in his office. “Don’t ever let me get the impression that anything is more important to you than your job.” For the Big Nasty there was no choice—you sign up to lead soldiers, you go all in.
And this tension grew as war approached. The war upset my whole plan for the army. After I picked up my Ranger tab I was going to spend three years enjoying life in Italy and then leave the military to go to law school. And then things changed. One day in September, 2002 The Stinger came up to me at a training event in Germany with big news. “Sonooo James…. (that was his nickname for me) get ready for the desert…I hear the Brigade just got their shipment of desert boots. Ohhhh gimme that rough stuff!!!”
I had been following the news more closely lately and knew that war with Iraq was likely. But for some reason I never thought we’d actually go fight. My life in the Army since I joined in 1996 had lulled me into a sense of complacency; a sense that I could treat the army like a job and not as the central purpose of my life.
As war approached, the Big Nasty intensified. He had the whole Battery report in on weekends for additional training. Nuclear and biological drills. First aid. Calls for fire. His morning meetings with his lieutenants intensified. He’d yell “plataaaw” (the sound of artillery crashing against a target) if he was right about something. He’d start screaming “It’s chew time! It’s chew time!” when he was going to sneak a dip of chewing tobacco. He ordered my friend, Lieutenant Kyle Barden, to live in the Battery armory for a week after the armory sergeant Barden was supervising had made a mistake while documenting the status of weapons parts.
After a year in the Battery I was no longer the newest lieutenant and I began to get more comfortable with my role as an officer. I watched Lambesis win a battle with a crusty, seasoned sergeant over a technical detail of a call for fire. Only artillerymen could get this worked up over the registration of 105 millimeter howitzers. I saw the sergeant shaking a bit after losing the argument.
For the first time I got what the Big Nasty’s intense, if not insane, attention to detail could do for him as a leader. He was the alpha male of the Battery and everyone knew it. We’d joke about him, but we never doubted that he knew more than we did. And we never considered challenging him.
I unfortunately wasn’t even close to being the alpha male of the fire support team I was in charge of. My nine-man team was composed of three forward observers, each of whom had a radio operator and a staff sergeant as the non-com in charge. Both the non-com and I had a radio operator as well. Though my soldiers called me sir, it was clear that the senior non-com was really running the show from day one.
Part of my problem was that army is schizophrenic with its new officers. The prevailing attitude of most soldiers could be summed up like this: “Fuck you. Just because you went to college doesn’t mean you know how to lead troops. And you get paid more. And you live in a nice house. And you don’t have to work hard. Now get out of the way.”
Many captains will join the mob disdain toward lieutenants to duck the ire directed to all officers and build rapport with their sergeants. The Army has even institutionalized some of this general disrespect of lieutenants by creating a program called the Basic Officer Leadership Course where newly commissioned officers have to stand at attention and respond to orders from lower ranking soldiers. The idea is to let officers learn the army the way young troops do. The result is a junior officer corps that is deeply confused about the degree to which it is really supposed to be in charge.
The Big Nasty was the antidote to this sentiment.
For him, whether you like it or not, if you have rank on your collar you had better be in charge. And being in charge was more primal than intellectual. It was being the alpha male. For some, this came naturally. They had been captains of their football team or the class president. Not me. I had always been the smart ass at the back of the class or the guy screwing off at cross-country practice. Being in charge didn’t come naturally to me.
And suddenly the Iraq war became a big dark storm just over the horizon. I knew I wasn’t prepared for war. And I wasn’t sold on the justification for the war either. I had read The Economist’s case for the war and Ken Pollack’s argument in favor of invading Iraq in his book, The Threatening Storm. But it seemed obvious that the Bush Administration had decided to go to war and then assembled the reasons to do it, rather than the other way around.
After the Big Nasty found me reading an article on anti-war.com in the battery headquarters he called me into his office to get my thoughts. I told him that I thought that invading Iraq was a terrible idea. That it would ultimately provoke more terrorism from the Middle East. “What would we do then?” I asked. “Total War!” Big Nasty responded. I remember it clearly because I thought he was joking but he never cracked a smile. Total war was his solution. His viewpoint was that there was no choice but to confront the entire Muslim world. If that spurred a more violent response from them, as I argued, then the right response was simply to keep fighting them until they backed down. I guess his view was that at the end of the day we had more artillery than they did so we’d win. I was pretty shocked by his worldview and I felt less and less comfortable with my position. It started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to keep the Army at arm’s length. I was going to have to go all in.
One night I struggled as I prepared for one of the Big Nasty’s brutal tests. Late at night I read about how anti-personnel mines are specially designed to lob grenades waist high, increasing the number of human beings they can kill with every mine. I read about how artillery-delivered mine fields rendered any battlefield unsafe for the indefinite future. I memorized which fuse settings were best for different arrays of enemy troops. The tests listed questions such as: “What is the burst radius of a 105mm artillery round?” (35 meters.) What is the ideal target description for a variable time fuse?” (Un-warned troops in the open.) I began to reflect very seriously about what I would do if my worst nightmare came true: that I would be sent to a war I knew was unjust and have to kill other human beings- and possibly lose friends as well. When things got too heavy, I would go drink beer with the Stinger.
One early foggy winter night our battery assembled deep in the countryside outside of Vicenza to load our trucks onto rails for shipment to Turkey to stage for the invasion of Iraq. The impending Iraq war was deeply unpopular in Italy and protesters had begun tying themselves to the tracks to block the movement of our trains, which the protesters called “trains of death.” So we loaded the trains at night to avoid too much attention. As we loaded the train cars, our battery first sergeant—a five-foot-one chain smoker built like a brick shithouse—was smoking and telling stories with a few of the NCOs. I joined the conversation.
He said he was a young sergeant during the first invasion of Iraq. If this war was anything like the first Iraq invasion, he said, these really are ‘trains of death.’ The protesters had them labeled just right. When he said ‘death’ the word sort of hung there a moment, amid the fog and the smoke and then slowly drifted away giving way to other conversation. My stomach sank.
In early March we received our official deployment orders to Iraq. By then, Turkey’s parliament had objected to US forces crossing Turkish territory during the invasion of Iraq so our orders were to parachute into northern Iraq to seize an airfield to support airlifts in from Italy. The ostensible reasons for American forces deployment to the north was to protect our allies there while simultaneously creating an anvil against which the hammer of our forces from the south could smash the Iraqi forces.
On March 26, 2003, I, along with two battalions from the 173rd airborne brigade, parachuted into Bashir airfield in northern Iraq in the dead of night. The months of anticipating the Iraq war were finally over. Whether I liked it or not, this was when I finally realized I was all in—no more holding back. I wasn’t thinking about how to say “you have beautiful dark eyes” in Italian. Every ounce of my energy was focused on the task at hand. I was determined to demonstrate my tactical and technical competence to my soldiers. I didn’t know it at the time, but The Big Nasty had prevailed.
Our Brigade parachuted into the biggest mud pit in the world. Thick, soupy mud that stuck to everything. I packed up my gear after the jump and turned on my military GPS system called a PLUGGER. The PLUGGER gave me the direction and distance I should head for our company rally point, and I headed off slowly in that direction, falling down in knee deep mud about every ten steps.
I found a couple other officers along the way who had become stuck and helped them out. I found sergeant Schlothauer, my fire support team’s senior non-com, as well. I was the only one with a working GPS so I told everyone to follow me. After what seemed like hours, we finally hit a big huge river of mud too deep to cross.
I fired up my radio and contacted the company commander. I learned the company rally point had changed and I had just walked two miles in the wrong direction. Schlothauer and I picked up and slogged through the mud until we finally found the company at sunrise.
During the next few days the Brigade provided security for the Bashir airfield and the Air Force started landing C-17s on the runway, bringing in artillery, supplies, tanks, and other armored vehicles. Then the Brigade began a movement south toward Irbil and on April 7th, the day of the big artillery raid arrived.
Once we deployed, I didn’t see much of the Big Nasty or the Stinger. My fire support team and I had attached to the infantry company –Legion Company—we worked for. I was relived to be away from Captain Lambesis and working for Captain Ryan Dillon, a personable ROTC grad from Providence, Rhode Island who worked hard but kept a great sense of humor. I never thought much of partying back in Italy with The Stinger either: my whole world was Iraq.
Although I was away from the Big Nasty, I found that he was along for the ride anyway. I exuded Big Nasty in everything I did in preparation for the airborne invasion into northern Iraq. I planned to absurd levels of detail different fire support plans for the company on the drop zone. I would grill Sergeant Schlothauer on minute details about the medical equipment we needed to take on the jump. I questioned the mortar team leader—to his chagrin—to make sure the entire 60 millimeter mortar team understood the fire support plan. Before the night of the mission, a group of leaders conducted a daylight reconnaissance of the firing base. Captain Lambesis never looked happier. It was contagious. Even I found myself excited for the mission.
The battery commander was busy questioning the first sergeant one moment, now surveying the ground the howitzer would be emplaced on, now discussing the optimal artillery round to be fired, now organizing a timed rehearsal. For almost everyone in the Battery, this would be the first real-world mission. But only Lambesis had eagerly awaited this mission for nearly his entire adult life.
And the pure joy Lambesis was experiencing stemmed in part from what an opportunity the mission was for The Artillery. The Artillery had proven central in World War II, important in Vietnam, but in recent years had been struggling for relevance in the face of powerfully effective precision air strikes. Lambesis was determined to see that this mission displayed the power and precision of the howitzers he held dear to his heart.
Later that night, we executed the raid under the cover of darkness. Three infantry companies drove south toward the Zab river. Once we had a security perimeter in place, the battery executed quickly and flawlessly. The gunnery sergeant inspected the orientation of the guns. Then called for the proper charge and round. And then screamed “fire!” Boom! And high up in the dark sky you could see a small red dot sailing amid the stars. And just as you couldn’t make it out any longer, the rocket assisted propellant kicked in and the projectile flared bright again.
It’s difficult to describe how I felt sitting in the fire base late that night, but it was like I felt sorry for the enemy on the receiving end of our firepower. He was far weaker and fighting for his country against absurd odds.
I wrote in my journal that it was, “putting someone in a choke-hold, begging them to tap out, but they won’t, they refuse to cry uncle, so you keep squeezing, you feel bad, guilty, but eventually you just think, ‘good, let the bastards die if they want to resist the inevitable". So I sat there watching the red-hot rounds soaring through the black sky and listening to the impact of the round that may have ended a life or ruined one.
On April 7th it didn’t matter what badges anyone wore, or how anyone smelled, or how well anyone could order gnocci in Italian. Whether those Iraqi soldiers we killed that day deserved to die wasn’t a question that we had the luxury of answering that day. They didn’t deserve to die any more than we deserved the task of killing them. But our job was to kill them. All that mattered that day was tactical and technical competence. The Big Nasty was right all along.