A Life of Service
Hoosier David A. Flynn knew early on in his life that the open fields of the midwest would not be able to contain his wanderlust. Beyond the corn fields of Loogootee, Indiana there was a siren’s call; a call to service. The small-town charm that keeps many mid-westerners grounded to their identity would be unable to tether Flynn.
“I always knew from an early age that I wanted to be in the United States Marines,” Flynn said. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps while in college at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. He was commissioned through the Platoon Leaders Course and he attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia during the summer, continuing with his university studies in the fall and spring.
“If you pass the first session/summer you return and complete a second summer; then back to the university and upon graduation you are commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve,” Flynn said. “After that you go back to Quantico for about seven or eight months and attend the Basic School which all Marine lieutenants complete. After that you are sent to your follow-on school depending on assigned/chosen specialty.”
For Flynn, his assigned specialty was to serve as a Combat Engineer Officer and as a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) officer. He served in engineer units with the Marine Air Wing and Marine Force Service Support Groups, but he also served in task organized and special forces MAGTF’s as well as with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). After 22 and half years, he retired as a lieutenant colonel only to continue serving the nation in forward areas all around the world as a contractor.
Like many military veterans who literally poured their blood, sweat and tears into serving on the many fronts of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), both as a military officer and later as a contractor, Flynn has opinions about how the wars have been managed, but overwhelmingly and without question, he is positive about the work he’s done during his military career and as a civilian, especially the work he did during the GWOT.
“9/11 was a serious wake up call for me and the country and the world in general, I think,” Flynn said. “For sure it inspired people to enlist and do other things in maybe a more patriotic way as it brought the country closer to the evil that the U.S. military and others deal with and train to deal with on a daily basis.”
After 9/11, Flynn was reassigned to the Marine Corps Training Assistance Group (MCTAG) as a brigade lead advisor to the Royal Saudi Marine Corps in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“We assisted the Saudi Royal Marine Corps with training and planning and other subjects as well as worked with them on equipment that was sent to them under the Foreign Military Sales Program; things like Tow II missiles, 81mm mortars, A2 HMMWVs, upgraded .50 caliber machine guns and sights.”
Flynn was in Saudi Arabia when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Not long after, Flynn was sent back to the states only to be reassigned back to the MCTAG which was putting together a team of U.S. advisors to help rebuild the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. A colonel that had worked with Flynn in Saudi Arabia requested Flynn to be the executive officer for the initial team of forty U.S. advisors. He deployed to Iraq in November 2003.
They would be charged with standing up an entire division, three brigades and nine battalions. Flynn was initially assigned to the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team (CMATT) which would later become Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq. He and his team were at Taji Military Training Base just a short flight from the International Zone in Baghdad. They were a part of an AST (Advisor Support Team), charged with training, equipping and mentoring nascent Iraqi security forces
“The generals and senior officers I worked for in all services were really top-notch,” Flynn said. “They gave you a very big job/order/assignment to accomplish and then set you to it. They used mission orders and let you do it. There is not a lot of written info on how to re-stand/reform a military organization after you just quickly defeated them and disbanded them so the playing field was wide open.”
Flynn was the deputy division advisor to start with, but after six months his colonel transferred back to the states and Flynn became the senior advisor for the 1st Iraqi Infantry Division. Flynn was leading three brigades, nine battalions and a division staff, as well as personnel at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
“We were training all the Iraqi military at that time as it had just really started up in a major way after the disbanding of the Iraqi military,” Flynn said. The Iraqi military had been disbanded by American administrators in Iraq and CMATT was charged with rebuilding Iraq’s forces.
“There were other advisors at first, that did not fall under CMATT as they were from units in areas where Iraqi units were at the start and they were training them and trying to integrate them into local defense in whatever area/bases/towns U.S. forces were operating/working,” Flynn said. “CMATT started to get all of them under a bigger umbrella to mirror up things so we did not have six different Iraqi armies.” CMATT standardized training, uniforms, policies, operations, equipment, pay and many other things.
“We had over 15,000 or so Iraqis come through training the almost two years I was involved in the program,” Flynn said. “We started out with one brigade headquarters and three battalions and it grew into a whole division; and then we started two more divisions. We also stood up, trained and equipped the 1st Iraqi Mechanized Brigade which consisted of a brigade headquarters, one tank battalion and two motorized rifle battalions.” A fete that was accomplished before the first Iraqi national elections in 2004.
“We used a lot of their old equipment; weapons, vehicles, tools,” Flynn said. “We issued new cammie uniforms, newer AKs and pistols and stuff that was being filtered in. We got a lot of tents, furniture, computers, weapons, basic gear and load bearing equipment and personal protection equipment from unit/base Defense Reutilization Management Offices and in old Iraqi bases and warehouses that were captured during the war.”
Flynn credits the supply and finance teams supporting the advisors for their “incredible work” tracking, accounting and managing so much diverse gear/equipment from so many sources.
When Flynn and his men were due to rotate back, they were asked to stay on board and help stand up, train and equip the mechanize brigade. Flynn would end up staying in Iraq until April 2005.
“I feel really good about my time in Iraq. It was a billet and assignment that allowed us to really work outside the box and be creative as we were doing a lot of things for the first time at this scale and we were the first bigger group,” Flynn said. He believes the way he and his men did the initial tasks in training, mentoring, teaching and providing different aspects of support were spot on.
“I think people have to understand that this was a starting point and it was from scratch with people that were culturally different; different religions, norms and practices across everything they do and you had to try and strike a balance with that in some respects,” Flynn said. “Security was paramount as the insurgency was in full swing and growing so that took a lot of dedicated planning, training and thought. You could never let your guard down in any situation. Even with a little so called down time nothing changed with our security posture. We were operating by ourselves for the most part and after a few months we were not on U.S. bases and the Iraqis were all armed so it was not anything you took lightly.”
Flynn did not only build an Army, he built relationships that have stood the test of time and violence. Many of the Iraqi officers and soldiers he trained still keep in touch with him.
“After I retired in early 2006 and started contract work, I was sent to Iraq by my company and worked there the next couple of years,” Flynn said. “We were rebuilding and building new Iraqi military bases and police stations as well as border posts and water wells throughout the country,” Flynn added. “With my contacts I was able to work security details and get support from Iraqi army and police units based on people I had helped train in areas we had formally operated.”
But Iraq was an immensely dangerous place and those contacts would be unable to keep Flynn from getting shot. Something he had avoided for more than 20 years in uniform.
“When I was wounded in Iraq in 2006, I had only been out of the Marines for about 24 days,” Flynn said. “We were ambushed north of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle in a town called Tarmiyah which was south of Balad along the way up route Orange.”
“As a contractor I served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa for GWOT. There was a lot of travel involved and a lot of time at numerous construction sites,” Flynn said. “In Afghanistan we worked primarily on new base construction for the Afghan Air Force that was standing up as well as work on future Afghan Army bases to include warehouses, maintenance sites and barracks. In Africa I worked all over the continent. We were building a counterterrorism facility/school/base in Gao, Mali when the Tuereg and ISIS/AQ uprising really took hold throughout Mali and led to a coup by their military while we were there.
“I also worked in training the FARDC (Armed Forces Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the Democratic Republic of Congo at a jungle base camp,” Flynn said. “The U.S. was training battalions and we had built a post at an old Belgium base in the jungle near Kisangani. We worked multiple tours in Mali, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritania, Senegal, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ethiopia, Niger, Rwanda and Djibouti as well on numerous missions for their countries.”
In Afghanistan, Flynn served as a contractor. He never deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine. He worked on larger construction contracts helping build Afghan military facility infrastructure in Kandahar, Kabul, Mazi-Al-Sharif and Jalalabad. He is plain-spoken about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It makes me sad, frustrated, angry, happy to have survived the whole of it and many other emotions,” Flynn said. “I think everyone knew in one way or another that things were not going to turn out in a good way. Nation building has never been nor never will be a U.S. military function. Sadly, many people in our government can’t see the forest for the trees in front of them and go haphazard into things with no real plan, more like wishes for a better tomorrow, and the reality on the ground is 180 degrees the opposite.
“We keep doing it from the 1950s on to no real success. As a superpower we should know better. We really have or should have had some set goals and objectives as limited they may really be, go in let the military accomplish those and get out. Sadly enough, we are facing the same issues in Afghanistan now. I think our hearts and wanting to do certain things are in the right place but due to the actual lay of the land, the patience of the U.S. and its partners, the cost in so many areas to include lives of U.S. service men/women, the long term will to really go in and get it done by our government, the world, the U.N. and others; it is just not really there.”
For the past 12 years, Flynn has devoted much of his professional energy to working in Africa. He has worked on multiple construction projects, but also provided aid, equipment and supplies to various nations. He has also provided exercise support and training.
“There is so much going on in the world and as long as I feel that I am capable I will continue to assist where I can,” Flynn said. “As long as I feel able and feel like I have something to contribute I would like to keep going. There is no lack of places we could work and if we can make some baseline and deeper success in some of these places it should help them and us in the longer term.”
Flynn is able to help bring some semblance of stability to an unstable world because his own world has a solid foundation. His wife of 38 years, Jan, is a teacher and together they raised four children, two boys, two girls, who have all grown and moved away after college. They are working throughout the country.
“Both of my daughters are married and have children of their own so I currently have four grandchildren, three girls and one boy to keep me busy with any down time,” Flynn jokes. “Lots of baseball, soccer, dance classes, camps, travel and so much swim time.” Flynn recognizes that without his family’s support, things would be much harder.
“My whole family has been supportive of this type of lifestyle,” Flynn admits. “With being married throughout my time in the Marine Corps and having our children grow up in the military they are all used to the deployments and issues that come with not being around as much as you would like. All of my children travel and have studied overseas and appreciate the bigger view of the world that they get to be exposed to.”
What makes Flynn a little different than other retired officers is that he doesn’t assume the common posture so many officers take as all-knowing, claiming how their dirty boot time was harder than what any future generation will endure.
“I think that like all U.S forces, they (future U.S. forces) will do well and get the job done no matter what the order or what the task,” Flynn said confidently. “We need to use our forces in ways that protect the American people, our country and way of life first. There are other missions but let’s remember and do the important one first.”
As for Marines, Flynn sees changes, but not in the Corps’ identity.
“While current leadership has swung and given up a lot of our core capabilities, the Marines will always be the nation’s force that is ready to answer the call at the blink of an eye,” Flynn said. “We have U.S. Marines for one reason and that is to be America’s force in readiness. I think Marines will endure and always come out on top.”
As for his service in Iraq, Flynn looks back on it fondly and honestly.
“I am really proud of my service in Iraq and I am so proud of the women and men who served alongside of me,” Flynn said. “It was not easy and contrary to popular belief I can be hard on people at times. It was high stress and mission accomplishment was a must. There was no room for failure or the ability to adjust and work on quick mission orders and keep everyone safe. The soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, civilians, interpreters were all serious professionals. We had people from the guard, reserves of all forces, active components, retired/civilians and NATO countries all woven together in small groups doing monumental tasks with little support and writing up the training as they went along and came across a new ditch/hurdle. Nothing stopped these teams.”
Steve Alvarez is an Iraq War veteran. He is the author of Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by the University of Nebraska Press (Potomac Books).