Woodbury's Schlichting serves near and far
During his last tour in Afghanistan, Woodbury firefighter Greg Schlichting woke up to a fire that took down an operational hut made of plywood and Plexiglas.
The fire was so large he had to resist jumping in and fighting the blaze without resources. It was like an inferno that escalated so fast nobody could’ve saved the satellite equipment, computers or any of the technology. And it didn’t help that it took nearly two hours to get a fire truck out there from a larger base.
“I missed having a truck,” he said. “I miss the amazing equipment and resources to solve problems while they’re still small.”
The mission didn’t skip a beat, though. The incident forced Schlichting, a U.S. Navy commander, and his team of 15 to get back to the basics – something the Afghan Security Forces would have to get used to as more troops left the region.
Schlichting, a long-time Woodbury resident and firefighter/EMT, returned to work in October after his second tour in Afghanistan where he spent 20 months in the Ghazni province working with local soldiers to keep the Taliban out of unstable districts.
The U.S. mission was one of three in that district comprised of a mix of Army and Navy officers, an unusual situation since they didn’t train together.
“It was a team of 15 individuals that worked together once we arrived in the country,” Schlichting said, adding that the work was equally distributed and everyone had an important role regardless of rank.
The assignment posed more challenges than his previous 15-month tour, with many ups and downs, relationships formed and brothers lost.
Three of Schlichting’s team members were wounded in action, while dozens of Afghan soldiers and civilians died.
“The Afghans are true warriors and have been exposed to war their entire lives,” he said. “This is a way of life for them. They would dust themselves off, figure out their plan and continue on.”
When Schliching first joined the military in 1985, it was a way to pay for college with no long-term vision or plan to make it a lifelong career.
More than a quarter century later, a number of years in reserves, numerous relief efforts and two active duty tours prove how quickly those challenging times have gone by with successful results that transformed the capabilities of foreign security forces and training efforts.
“Notwithstanding the conditions and the casualties, the outcome will serve the Afghans well into the future,” he said. “And that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.”
He was only supposed to be on the last mission in the eastern Afghani province for one year, but 12 months went by and it became clear that relief wasn’t coming.
Each of the other team members’ tours was up except for the commander’s and he was required to stay and train a new group for eight more months.
The extra time gave him an opportunity to give first aid certification to a group of soldiers, who were eager to learn as fast as they could a skill that would have enduring value. Within a week they were able to take care of their wounded friends.
“The direct impact of that was amazing,” Schlichting said. “The pride, the motivation in their eyes and their eagerness to learn more was an inspiration.”
The challenge moving forward will be to get access to resources so that they continue to grow without American troops on their side, he said.
But after the fire incident that destroyed major satellite equipment, Schlichting said many of the planning sessions were done with basic concrete pads, rocks and chalk, just like they’d be done without any technology at all.
“That’s why I have hope for Afghanistan,” he said. “There are bright young people throughout their society that are eager to make a difference in their country. And they will.”
Schlichting had a few welcome home parties when he returned in August and continued military work in the U.S. until he went back to work at the Woodbury Public Safety Department this fall.
After months overseas on a small base in a deserted province with nothing to eat but prepackaged foods, Schlichting was excited to come home but was also sad to leave Afghanistan. By the end of his tour, he’d had chai tea with everyone from soldiers to their commander, civilians to tribal leaders.
Similarities in the culture may be hard to point out at first, especially when Schlichting was faced with a grieving father whose son had just been killed.
Although he was angry at first, the man was comforted when he learned the details from Schlichting and they ended up becoming good friends, with the man calling him just two months ago just to say hello.
“After such a long time and some very difficult circumstances, you make not just friends, but also brothers,” he said. “Leaving was difficult especially knowing that they will continue to fight against a determined enemy.”