I hadn’t thought of my time spent at intel school much in the five and half years I’d been out of the military, but soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, amid the pain and shock, my mind conjured the map-based war games from my time on active duty.
As I sit writing this on March 25, it’s been 10 years since I graduated from the Army’s intelligence officer course as a young second lieutenant and then headed off to the 1st Infantry Division, headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas.
In 2013, my brigade spent 30 days at the National Training Center, a 134,000-acre compound in the Mojave Desert in California, for pre-deployment training. We were told we were the first unit to return to a conventional, force-on-force scenario. In plain terms, we were going to fight a near-peer enemy using all our traditional heavy brigade combat team equipment, such as tanks, Bradley M2/M3 Fighting Vehicles, and M109 Paladins, rather than a counterinsurgency fought with small-arms tactics in a mock town or city, which were the usual preparations for shipping off to Afghanistan.
Our enemies were called the Donovians, a transparent moniker for Russians. Their equipment was the same as Soviet equipment; the military organized in battalion tactical groups; and the tactics, techniques, and procedures were ripped right from historic conflicts. During that NTC iteration, we fought a scenario that closely mimicked Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
At the time, I thought the change of mission poorly reflected our unit’s reality.
My brigade had recently returned from one of the last Army deployments to Iraq, and we were supposedly gearing up for either Afghanistan or an alignment with Africa—two regions where it was reasonable to not expect a conventional battle against our forces.
As an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platoon leader, I led soldiers who had two missions: general all-source intelligence and geospatial intelligence support. I was sent to brigade headquarters as the ISR manager, which meant I created spreadsheets ostensibly coordinating ISR coverage from various unmanned aerial surveillance systems. None of it seemed timely or relevant to me, an opinionated 23-year-old, or to my young soldiers, who, if they had a deployment under their belt, were used to staying on the forward operating base fighting an asymmetrical enemy—the insurgents.
Mostly they were mad about the lack of amenities in the field. We had “wag bags”—plastic human waste bags, like what you’d use to pick up dog shit, but for humans—and no showers, phones, or internet.
I felt it was a waste of time and resources. All my peers were heading to Afghanistan, and learning about the Donovians felt antiquated and nonurgent.
Many of us denounced the scenario as not having any serious possibility for a future conflict. We felt we should train for real missions, rather than Cold War scenarios that seemed unlikely, if not impossible. At the time, it seemed like one more way for our commanders to get a good evaluation, for doing something different. Our suspicion only heightened after our brigade commander didn’t pause our frantic pace, not even for a moment, when a soldier was killed, and a few more critically injured, in our first week at Fort Irwin.
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The platoon leader of one of the soldiers who was critically injured later became my friend when I joined his battalion. He texted me last month soon after Russia invaded, knowing my ties to Ukraine.
All four of my grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to upstate New York in the 1950s, fleeing the USSR and further oppression. Each had met their spouse in German forced labor camps, where they had been displaced during World War II. I often cited my grandparents and their history as one of the reasons why I joined the Army: I wanted to serve the country that offered refuge to my family.
When the invasion in Ukraine happened, the first person to contact me was a woman I had met at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute in 2009. We are both second-generation immigrants who’ve tried to connect with our heritage in many ways, from language school at Harvard to craft workshops at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City.
The war has shattered our sense of safety—a feeling of family relief that the worst is over, passed down to us from our grandparents. The war against Ukraine feels like a destruction of our roots, our ancestral homeland, Ukraine’s chance at an independent future.
“I’m glad your grandparents aren’t alive to see this,” my mother said soon after the invasion.
A few other Army friends messaged me. It seemed, in many military circles, that a full Russian invasion wasn’t considered the probable scenario. My stomach seized—then and now, as I write this—thinking about my former peers sitting around tables and computers pushing around tactical symbols, analyzing possible routes for Russian destruction. At the time, maybe it would have felt how NTC felt to me: divorced from reality, a thought exercise.
I continued to text my old buddies and learned that Ukraine was used for career course, the intelligence school midcareer officers attend—the school I never attended because I had left the military shortly after pinning on my captain bars. Officer students war-gamed a Russian invasion of Lviv, Ukraine’s major western city, and conducted intelligence preparation of the battlefield, a process that, when I was in, boiled complex scenarios into colorful slideshows to present to commanders to help guide mission planning.
I imagine myself in those clammy, muffled classrooms at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, debating different avenues of advance, drawing unit symbols on plastic overlays, presenting my best analysis for an evaluation.
I feel sick in both my heart and my guts.
I don’t think I could have made it through that unit, divorcing myself from my family’s past, to keep the exercise purely intellectual and analytical. When I was younger, maybe I could have, back when I thought fighting Russia was absurd, a leftover from Cold War-era scenario designers.
But now, almost 10 years after that NTC rotation, I understand my parents’ fear and mistrust of Russia. I know why they instilled Ukrainian pride in me. And I see how those wargame scenario designers knew more than most of us young soldiers. How wise they were.
I follow the real-time updates on Twitter, I read the threads from armchair analysts, and I hope and pray and send money. Part of me wonders about the scenarios being crafted right now for future military students to consider, and how Russian tactics are being updated based on how they’re performing in Ukraine. Ukraine may very well become the next NTC scenario for some brigade to play out, just as Georgia was for us.
Two weeks ago, a writing professor who knows my background asked me, over a drink, what I thought would happen to Ukraine. He wanted to know what I thought, given my experience in Army intelligence. Here was my chance to play dubious armchair analyst: So many former colleagues have shared their thoughts on social media or other platforms.
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Instead, I stalled. I mentioned my ex, who deployed to Ukraine to help train soldiers in 2018, how I never realized that his mission was so important and how he knew the people fighting right now for their country, for their lives. I mentioned the text messages I received from my buddies still serving. And then, when it came to my family, my thoughts on Ukraine’s future, what I think the United States should be doing—I couldn’t speak.
Heat invaded my face and tears flooded my eyes. I stood up and walked out into the night for air, for movement, for escape. I don’t want to banter about Ukraine’s future. I don’t want to sit in a warm, cozy Brooklyn bar intellectualizing over the destruction of a sovereign nation.
I want to help.