By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Maj. Gregory Stokes is an Army officer who is used to being out front.
The son of an airman, he worked his way up from private first class to sergeant in just three years in the 1980s before attending Southern University and receiving a commission as an armor officer.
What followed was a series of troop and staff positions that eventually led him to the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
He came to Fort Hood last year as the brigade stood up and was assigned as the executive officer for the 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment.
Stokes found out in December, just before the brigade deployed to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., that he would serve as the rear detachment commander during the brigade’s 15-month deployment to Afghanistan. The brigade left for Afghanistan this summer, the last flights going out last month.
It was at first difficult for Stokes when he realized that the soldiers he worked alongside would deploy while he would stay at home and lead the rear detachment.
“You want to be out front with the guys you trained with,” he said.
He had developed strong bonds with the soldiers in his unit and didn’t know anything about rear detachment operations, he said.
The U.S. Army has stepped up its efforts to prepare soldiers for taking care of the units and families who stay at home when others deploy. More importance has been placed on the mission back home in the last few years, with officials creating specific training for commanders and their staffs.
Stokes and a core staff of about 50 soldiers took a rear detachment course at Oveta Culp Hobby Soldier and Family Readiness Center. It was “absolutely essential to have,” the major said.
He also got help from the scores of units on leaders on post who have already served on rear detachments. Stokes didn’t have to re-invent the wheel with folks like Col. Larry Phelps and Col. Dave Thompson around. Phelps led the 1st Cavalry Division’s rear detachment from late 2006 to early 2008 and Thompson currently leads the 4th Infantry Division’s rear element.
Stokes visited them and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to find out what lessons they learned or are still learning to make his job easier.
The biggest thing he learned was that the job is not easy. It was way harder than Stokes expected, he said.
“I could not imagine how hard it was,” he added.
Taking care of everything from fallen soldiers’ families to wounded soldiers and their families is a no-fail mission, Stokes said. It’s demanding because it is just human nature to want to help someone who is hurting, he said.
He also has to make sure that soldiers coming into the unit are training and prepared to go forward and that families of deployed soldiers are taken care of so their loved ones in harm’s way can concentrate on their mission.
Stokes places a lot of pressure on himself that comes in the way of personal pride and professionalism.
“You have to make sure you do the absolute best for the people you support,” he said.
Despite all his soldier training, working with families was one aspect of military life in which Stokes had little experience. For that he relies on Melissa Spiszer, wife of the brigade’s commander, Col. John Spiszer. She uses her experience as an Army spouse and gives Stokes guidance on how to interact with families. Those are skills that a combat arms officer isn’t typically armed with, he said, and that advice has taught him the importance of these relationships.
Stokes is still learning what it means to be a rear detachment commander, whether it’s answering e-mails at 3 a.m. from Afghanistan or attending the hometown funeral of a soldier killed in action. He knows that serving on the rear detachment is not an individual effort. It’s all about the team, he said, and how soldiers come together as a unit. That includes support from the community, which is something Stokes said is unwavering.
“I used to be the guy out there,” Stokes said, but he wants people, especially the deployed soldiers, to know that the rear detachment is “fully engaged in supporting every single day.
“It’s a hard, unforgiving, you-can-fail job that doesn’t have hours,” Stokes said.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7547.