Once a colonel, now a contractor reflects on Memorial Day

By Joe Beck

Almost one year has passed since Drexel Ross retired from the Army, but he’s still living on a military base in a war-ravaged part of the world.

This is the first Memorial Day in 28 years that Ross hasn’t been in the Army. He stepped off a plane onto Afghan soil on June 7, 2012, six days after hanging up his uniform. He’s been working for a contractor at Bagram Air Force Base since then, putting in grueling hours overseeing modifications to armored fighting vehicles designed to deflect blasts from roadside bombs.

Ross has been living in Afghanistan continuously since his arrival, except for a brief spell in October when he returned to Front Royal to visit his fiancée, Marti Viggiano, Warren County’s deputy emergency coordinator. He was interviewed by telephone from Bagram.

Ross spoke ruefully of having to giving up military service. The spirit was still willing but at age 50, his body was starting to give out from the physical rigors and Spartan living conditions of Army life.

Doctors repaired an Achilles tendon, but his back was also hurting from bulging discs and shoulder problems had also emerged.

He decided to bow to the inevitable: “Sooner or later, I had to stop what I was doing. The service is a young man’s career. Although I’m not old, I’ve got a lot miles on me.”

The mileage included holding a dead soldier in his arms during the Iraq War, the second of two combat tours in the Middle East. The first came during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. He estimates he spent 12 of his 28 years in the Army stationed overseas.

“I’ve been to Arlington,” Ross said, referring to the national cemetery. “I’ve seen the good die before their time.”

The public no longer lavishes attention on Afghanistan as it did in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks in 2001 and when President Obama announced he was dispatching an additional 30,000 service members to bolster the forces already there.

Now the United States and its NATO allies are preparing to withdraw most of their military in the hope that Afghan security forces and police will be able to fend off the Taliban and other insurgents by themselves.

In the meantime, about 100,000 NATO service members remain, most of them Americans. Military bases are still being rocketed, and insurgent forces prowl the roadways preying on travelers.

And then there are the roadside bombs that have killed and maimed Americans by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The effort to keep the design of the Army’s Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles ahead of evolving insurgent tactics brought Ross to Afghanistan. It’s also what keeps him working days that last from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m.

The MRAPs, as they are known by their acronyms, are enormous armored-covered trucks with V-shaped hulls that deflect explosions from roadside bombs up the sides of the vehicles instead of into the passengers’ seats. MRAPs were credited with contributing to an almost 90 percent reduction in roadside bomb attacks and fatalities in Iraq in January 2008, according to USA Today.

Ross believes they have had a similar effect in Afghanistan.

“These vehicle save lives over here, and probably reduce casualties and death on the order of 2,000,” Ross said. “We provide upgrades as the enemy figures out new tactics to attack them. We find things to modify, make them even better.”

Ross is enthusiastic about his job, but he misses the military life he left behind last year. He would have stayed on if not for the physical toll it was taking on him.

“I miss all that tremendously,” he said, adding, “you’re not part of a unit. You’re not in uniform anymore. You’re just a contractor guy.”

He is proud of retiring from the Army as a full colonel, a rank attained by only 15 percent of lieutenant colonels. But he saves his most lavish praise for the young men and women he sees performing their duties in the rugged climate and terrain of Afghanistan.

“There are a lot of great stories out there,” Ross said. “My contributions were what they were. But the real contributions are the young kids who serve with very little fanfare and very little pay and do what the nation needs them to do in huge numbers.

“They literally are serving. These are not jobs. The Army is a family service. They enlist people, and they literally are the strength of the nation.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com