In the spring of 1999 Christian Hood was a civilian, a TCU piano performance student with a problem. Without warning his brain stopped memorizing music, he had developed a proverbial mental block. He’d been playing since kindergarten, and his mind wanted a vacation.
At the Boston Market restaurant near campus, an army recruiter was trying to get one of Christian’s fellow employees to sign on the dotted line. The other guy didn’t sign up, but Christian did, and the rest of the story is history.
He scored high on the military aptitude tests, and shipped out for boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. “The point of boot camp is to learn one thing: follow instructions exactly. It was surprising how difficult this was for some recruits,” he said.
After boot camp he spent a year and a half in the Arabic language program at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) at The Presidio in Monterey, California. “We called Arabic the pre-Spanish class,” he laughs, “It’s impossible to flunk out at DLI. They just move you around until they find a language that agrees with you. You signed a contract, they know you have the aptitude, and you will learn another language. The military doesn’t take kindly to people who refuse to obey orders.”
The DLI daily routine included 8 hours of classroom instruction followed by supervised evening and weekend study halls. Christian described the DLI as “the college campus from hell,” with generous breaks for “PT,” military physical training to develop muscle and endurance, organized sports, war games, and social down time including time off for voluntary church attendance.
He was surprised to discover how many musicians were at the DLI which is widely considered to be the world’s premier language school, “Non-musicians really struggled with the patterns that make up language.” Music is, in many ways, a language. DLI recreation facilities included loan instruments and practice rooms, and the military encouraged musician soldiers to fit practice into their tight schedules. After only a few months at DLI, Christian’s music memorization facility returned full force.
At the end of the language training, able to read, write, and converse in three major Arabic dialects, he graduated with honors. He figured post-military he’d work for an oil company.
He spent the summer after graduation at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas learning to operate communications equipment for his Military Occupational Specialty. At Goodfellow he also obtained advanced language training then moved on to paratrooper “jump school” at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Jump school involved memorization with a life-and-death twist. Paratroopers internalized the jump routines so they functioned on physical auto-pilot once the jumpmaster pushed them out of an airborne transport and into the wild blue yonder with 125 pounds or more of backpacked equipment and a parachute. “You fall like a rock,” he said, “there’s no time for error.”
New soldiers first learned the routine by lining up on top of a concrete wall. The trainer walked behind the line talking and yelling then without notice gave random soldiers a shove off the wall.
“Falling off that wall was a bruising experience. It motivated you to focus on learning the routine as fast as possible,” Christian said. Brick wall graduates moved on to jump towers reminiscent of the oil derrick ride at Six Flags, and eventually to airplanes aloft.
“It’s a case of stage fright every time you jump,” Christian said. He likened the pre-jump butterflies to the TCU music school’s informal “recital hours” and his junior year piano recital in the Ed Landreth Auditorium.
His Ft. Benning class prepared for their graduation jump in the early morning of September 11, 2001. The jump was rescheduled when U.S. airspace was shut down while the horrified nation watched events unfold.
After jump school Christian joined his permanent unit, the 82nd Airborne’s 313th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and began preparations to deploy to Afghanistan.
He spent the better part of a year in and around Kandahar in southwest Afghanistan, where he spent time on foot with Special Forces. “That part of the country is bone dry desert, the dust is ankle deep. There are spiders as big as a dinner plate, and cobra snakes – but I never met any spiders or snakes up close.” Soldiers hike in dry riverbeds because the rest of the country is a minefield.
“I liked Afghan food, and the people were nice,” he said.
He adds that being nice after the infantry has torn your town apart gathering military grade weapons and explosives is impressive. The soldiers took the collected munitions into the desert, and exploded them.
He wiggled his eyebrows, and said with a smile, “Making industrial strength big booms was a lot of fun!”
He experienced an ambush early in the tour. “Nothing prepares you for that experience,” he said thoughtfully. “I discovered I’m willing to shoot at someone who is trying to kill me.”
He returned from Afghanistan with only weeks to prepare for the invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Afghanistan was intense, but Iraqi Freedom was scary right from the staging on the airport tarmac in Kuwait. We didn’t know the general was running a Hail Mary Play around Saddam. We thought we were going to jump into Baghdad International Airport, and we expected high casualties. There’s nothing like the specter of death to focus a man’s mind,” he recalled. “In my unit we decided those of us who knew how to pray would do it on behalf of everyone. We decided not to pray to survive because that would be like praying for someone else’s death, but we’d pray to be calm and dignified in the face of whatever happened. We prayed for our families to get through battlefield losses,” he said.
It turned out the paratroopers crossed the famous Kuwait/Iraq “berms” on terra firma. Christian called home a Humvee with steel doors that weighed in excess of 600 pounds each. His work space inside the vehicle was a steel cage fitted with communications devices. His prize possession was a bed pillow; he slept on the Humvee’s roof.
The 82nd was on the road to Baghdad, without baths or showers, for about a month. Mesopotamia rivals Phoenix for summer heat, to put the b.o. situation in perspective. “Our clothes were so stiff with dirt and sweat they could have stood guard duty by themselves,” he said with a chuckle.
On the way to Baghdad he participated in a number of battles from what he thought was the back of the line, but “The front line is a moody lady who moves all over the place,” he said.
He had his first bath of the trip in a manmade lake at one of Saddam’s abandoned palaces, “Water never felt so good,” he said.
He took photos with a disposable camera he mailed home. The palaces were constructed of layered concrete and thick rebar. Bombs blasted through multiple stories, but the buildings didn’t collapse. “Saddam was serious about security,” Christian said.
Saddam and his people left behind breath-taking evidences of peacetime brutality against Iraqis.
Christian spent the rest of Iraqi Freedom in Baghdad where he worked out of a former car dealership showroom. The city consisted of warrens of neglected 2-3 story buildings separated by mazes of alleys and roads, the perfect set up for ambushes. The municipal infrastructure looked to him like it hadn’t seen regular maintenance in years.
“Iraqis all own automatic weapons, and they take any pretext to step outside, and shoot into the sky. The problem is what goes up must come down. One day a bullet just dropped out of the sky, a
nd went through the meat on one guy’s plate,” he said, “We all looked at each other. One of us could have been in the stray bullet’s path.”
Christian returned from Iraqi Freedom to finish his contract in the Individual Readiness Reserve (IRR), the rough equivalent of on-call status. He left the service at the end of his contract – until he was recruited by the Texas National Guard who sent him to Pashto language training near Seattle. Pashto is the main language in Afghanistan. He suspected another combat tour was in his future.
He served for nearly a year at an isolated, primitive Combat Out Post (COP) near the border of the Pakistani province of Waziristan. Taliban anti-aircraft fire kept mail and supply deliveries spotty. The few roads were equally dangerous.
A jihad group attacked the COP on July 4th. The battle began with an attempt to deliver 5,000 pounds of explosives packed into the back of an 18 wheeler. The soldiers in the watch tower spotted the truck when it was about a city block from the base. They cut loose with big guns to stop the driver. The detonation shock waves blew off doors inside the base.
Forewarned, the local people had fled the tiny town of Zerok near the COP, but the area crawled with enemy combatants.
“When holy warriors get ready for battle they dress for martyrdom, all in white. After the battle when we went to count and fingerprint the dead we noticed they all had on good shoes. The local Afghans were too poor for decent shoes. These people were outfitted by foreigners,” Christian observed.
Christian’s family hoped the second Afghan tour would be his last, but that was not to be. Sgt. Hood was assigned to the Headquarters Battalion of the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division where he is currently serving in Basra, Iraq and participating in the U.S. troop withdrawal from the southern provinces of the country.
Editor’s Note: Christian’s parents, Noelle & Lawrence Hood, are residents of Lantana, TX.