Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. Unfortunately we ran into some technical issues during our interview with today’s guest, Major Ojeda. As a result, the interview cuts off abruptly both in the middle, and at the very end. Regardless, we really think you’ll really appreciate the episode, so we’ve decided to share it with you today. Thank you for your understanding, and enjoy.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Today, we’ll hear from Major Richard Neece Ojeda II. Ojeda served in the Army for 24 years. During that time he deployed to Germany, Korea, Iraq, Haiti, and Afghanistan, and was almost killed five times.
Well, I grew up in a place in Southern West Virginia called Logan County. When I was graduating from high school, it was pretty much plain to see that there was only a couple paths that you could take. And basically where I come from, it was dig coal, sell dope, or join the military. And half of my family were coal miners, and they had pulled all of us together when we were growing up and said, "Do not follow us into the mines." Because we had seen feast or famine, half of my uncles would be on strike, the other half would be working, and we would all come together to make sure that the families that were on strike never went without. So we didn't want to go into the mines. And then sadly, the other half of my family were the dope men. So I watched all of my uncles on one side of the family go to prison for drugs. I mean, I had an uncle that tried to smuggle a uncut kilo of cocaine onto a frigging airplane in Charleston, West Virginia. Welcome to the news that night. That was it.
So to me it was the military. And the truth is I loved it. I loved the discipline of the military. You know, when I was a kid, I used to fight all the time and I had a wrestling coach one time tell me, "If you think you're so tough, why don't you come and see what you could do on the mat?" And I ended up absolutely loving the sport of wrestling because it was like legalized fighting. I liked the discipline of it. So in the military that was just how it was.
And I ended up going to Germany for the first two years, but here's the thing: When I first went to join the military, I went to go to the Marines, and I was 11 pounds underweight. And then when I finally gained that weight and went back, the Marine recruiter's door was locked and the army door was open. And the guy in the army door said, "Hey, come have a seat here and wait on him." And I think he knew that they wasn't coming back. But what he did was he started talking to me, and he mentioned the word Airborne, and believe it or not, I had quite a few uncles that were paratroopers. Sadly the ones that went to prison for drugs. But at one time they were all paratroopers. So I said, "Yeah, sign me up." And of course the recruiter lied to me, there wasn't no contract. He just told me that when you get to basic training, ask your drill sergeants for Airborne and they'll take care of you. And of course I found out real quick when I was in basic training that “The only things that flys, or drops out of airplanes or drops from the sky are broken air planes and shit bags.”
I ended up going to Germany for two years, and for the entire time I was there, I was constantly submitting 4187s to try to get Airborne school. And I had a guy that was with me, that was a Sergeant. And he was my Sergeant. He saved my military career. Because I got in a really, really bad fist fight that ended up with a broken bottle, and I was the one swinging the broken bottle. I was just that guy. So this Sergeant said, "Let me have him," because they were talking about... I just got to Germany and I get into a frigging brawl, it is what it is. It's a fight. And this guy takes me under his wing. I'm in his squad. His name was Sean Carol. And for the next two years, this guy would become like my father away from my father. This guy, he made me the soldier that I became. And I got orders at the end of the two years for Fort Hood, Texas. And I was devastated because I had wanted to be a paratrooper. It's all I wanted to be, was a paratrooper. And I got orders for Fort Hood, Texas. And I figured, I said, "You know what? I'm just going to go to Fort Hood. I'll finish my time and I'll get out." And Sean knew how much I wanted to be a paratrooper. And Sean went and called the branch manager and got not only myself orders changed to Fort Bragg, but he got his orders to Bragg too, and we ended up going to Fort Bragg together and we went to Airborne school together. We went to Sapper school together. He was just such an amazing person. And then one day I got called up to the commander's office and he says, "I think you'd be a good candidate for the Green to Gold Scholarship," which is go to college and get your commission." And I didn't want to do it because I was a Sergeant at that time and I loved being an non-commissioned officer. It was Sean and another buddy by the name of [inaudible] that pulled me to the side. We had a Lieutenant that was absolutely... I mean, everybody talks about that bad Lieutenant. Well, we had that one guy. And I will tell you I had some good lieutenants coming up, but I also had one of the worst. I mean, this guy married a stripper off of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I mean, it was a typical brand new cherry Lieutenant move, you know? But I will tell you, I carried this guy. They made me his battle buddy in Sapper school and it was tough, but we got him through. But Sean and Donny said, "Hey, look at our Lieutenant, man." He says, "We need better lieutenants." You know? And Sean said, "Imagine you coming back as the second Lieutenant and I'm your platoon Sergeant." And I didn't think, I was naive in those days. All I could think of was, wow, me and Sean being platoon leader, platoon Sergeant, that'd be the greatest thing in the world. It would've never happened. It was never to be. But that right there was what told me, I got to do it. I'm going to do it. So I did it.
And two years later, actually, I'm sorry, three years later, I get a phone call. Well, the night before I'm watching on the news and I see a horrible crash down at Camp Lejeune where 16, I think it was 16 Marines were killed. I didn't know it, but as I watched the video, I didn't know that Sean was on that helicopter. Sean was the one army guy that was on that helicopter. It was called like a [inaudible] team. What happened when I got out of the military and went to college to become an officer, Sean switched his MOS and he went over to psyops, and they call it a [inaudible] team. And he was on that helicopter. It was called Operation Royal Dragon, which was a really big exercise where they used the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, it's all 82nd Airborne Division. It's everybody. And I didn't know that he was on that helicopter.
So the early 6:30 in the morning, I get a call and I answer, and it's Becky, it's his wife. I could recognize her automatically and I could tell she was in stress. And that's when she told me that we had lost Sean. It was the worst. I mean, I can't imagine what it's like to lose a father because I still have mine. I'm lucky like that. I know that it has to feel something like that, because I was devastated.
But I ended up getting my commission and I went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, back to Fort Bragg. But first I actually got orders for Fort Knox, Kentucky. And luckily I was sent to Fort Knox as soon as I got commissioned to do a thing called, it was a camp that you teach these school kids about rope bridges and stuff like that. I got the opportunity to see Kentucky, and I was not happy. I was like, “Oh, this place sucks, man.” So I contacted my branch manager and I was able to get my orders changed to Bragg, and I come back to Bragg. And I ended up going the 37th Engineer Battalion. I did my platoon leader, I did a Sapper platoon, a light equipment platoon leader. So I did two platoons. Then I went over to Bravo company and I was the XO. Then I was the battalion air officer, basically I tried to stay at the 37th forever until finally they said, my branch said, "Look, you got to go to the advanced course." So they made me go to the advanced course, because I was completely content just staying in the 37th Engineer Battalion. I loved it there. It was a great airborne battalion.
I go to the advanced course. I get in trouble in the advanced course, because I headbutted a person, and I was in some serious trouble because I did, I headbutted a guy. I'm sorry, I just happened to be that guy. I don't know why, but it's always been that kind of way. I don't get in crazy trouble, but I do get in trouble sometimes. And it always deals with me either fighting somebody or something, you know? So I ended up lucking out because I got a local letter of reprimand and I was supposed to get much worse, but I didn't headbutt the guy because it was a fist fight. I headbutted the guy because it was a promotion ceremony, and I come from Fort Bragg and it's not right. It's not right. But this is how we did it. We beat the shit out of each other when you got promoted. It was always blood wings, everything that you got had to be beaten in your chest. And it just happened. And I ended up getting some people that called down to Fort Leonard Wood and they convinced them that I was a pretty good guy. So I got a local letter of reprimand and then I left.
I ended up volunteering to go to Korea, because when I was in the advanced course, they told us that there was 12 slots for Korea and nobody wanted them. And all these people are arguing, these lieutenants are not lieutenants, but these young captains are all going. "I ain't going, I ain't going." And I thought to myself, “Hold up, 12 slots to Korea. I bet you if I volunteer for one of those slots, they'll probably give me a follow on assignment.” So I contacted branch and I said, "I see you got these 12 slots and nobody wants them," and everybody's fighting and arguing. And it was a tough job for that person that was responsible to talk to all the captains and assign them their next assignment. So basically I said, "If I volunteer, can I get a follow?" And he says, "Absolutely." So I said, "Absolutely, I'll go to Korea for a year, and I'm coming back to Fort Bragg." So he was happy. I was happy. I went to Korea.
Korea was actually a pretty cool assignment. It's a year. I mean, you're away from your family, but there's a lot of cool things to see and do when you're in Korea. So I did that and then I come back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I had always been that guy that felt like always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I was in Germany during Desert Storm. And for some odd reason, we got turned off at the last minute and we ended up guarding empty bases during Desert Storm. When I was a young Sergeant at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when I come down for the Green to Gold Scholarship, Somalia kicked off and everybody was going to Somalia. So I ended up missing Somalia. And I know a lot of people that are listening that are in the military know what I'm talking about. When an operation kicks off and you're not there, you kind of feel like you've been slighted. Like “What the hell, man?” you know? And I was a Fort Bragg guy, so we're always considered to be tip of the spear. I was in Korea when the invasion kicked off for Iraq, OIF, and my unit that I had just left was in that invasion. So I was like, “Damn man, I miss everything.”
But when I finally got back to the United States of America, it started and it just never stopped. As soon as I got back, I went to Honduras. I come back from Honduras for a short period of time. Then they tell me that I'm going to be taking command of a unit that's going to Iraq. So they sent me to Jordan for a little over a month for cultural training. So as soon as they get back from Jordan, then I take my company and we go to Iraq for a year. So I'm in Iraq for a year.
It was a pretty intense year. I was almost killed five times, had two mortar rounds land within five feet of me. And both of them were duds. I was caught and I was right in the center of the ambush. And then on two other occasions, I survived an IED and a VBIED, which is a vehicular borne improvised explosive device. So I was able to survive those and I come back to Bragg. And as soon as I left one command, I took a second command, which was a rear D command. Because as soon as we come back from Iraq, the 37th Engineer Battalion again was deploying to Afghanistan. And since I had just come out of a command, I picked up that rear D command, which was a tough command. I mean, I had 120 soldiers and I had to kick 112 of them out, and we're talking rough times. And then of course we had to do all the stuff while everybody was deployed to Afghanistan, a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff, a rear D command is not an easy task. And you got to make sure you put the right people there. Because when people get killed, you are the one that has to be the guy back home that does all the services and gets things set. And we lost some people.
So I ended up commanded Delta Company. And then as soon as they come back, seven days later, I deploy again to Iraq with the 20th Airborne Engineers, the brigade, and I am the chief of operations. So I own the jock floor and every operation that comes through the 20th, which was the theater engineers. So we had 4,000 engineers that we were responsible for. And every operation went through my joint operation center. So a lot of responsibility. I mean, just literally no rest, I mean, it was just nonstop. We just went nonstop. And then I had to come back to go to the Command General Staff College. So I did the Command General Staff College. And after the Command General Staff College, for some odd reason, there was like 1,004 students in my Command General Staff College course, and the 82nd Airborne Division come down to do interviews, and they selected two people out of a thousand and I think four, 1,004, 1,006. And I was one of the two. So I got to leave when I graduated from the Command General Staff College and go right back to Fort Bragg, where I was in the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. And we were on a thing called the Global Response Force. So basically anything we could do humanitarian, we could do combat. Didn't matter. We were basically on alert to be anywhere within 18 hours or less.
And that's when the earthquake in Haiti hit kicked off, and we were the first ones down there. And I will tell you, Iraq, two tours in Iraq, nothing prepared us for Haiti. You can justify death in combat, if you were out there, and I ran a combat security team the entire time I was in Iraq the first time. So it wasn't about winning hearts and minds. It was about getting from point A to point B. And if you got in our way, then you got moved violently out of our way. And that's just the way that it was. You can justify death because you can say that it was us or them. They were trying to hurt us. We tried to use rules of engagement and they crossed outside them lines and you had to do what you had to do. But in Haiti, it wasn't like that. In Haiti, it was worse. In Haiti, you can't justify the death. How can you stand outside of a school that pancaked and killed every single child, and you're sitting there in the daggone 90 degree heat and you're smelling them. You're thinking, what did they do? How can you justify that? You can't justify that. You can't justify children and women being killed like that. And I'm talking about bodies laid out on the ground.
When we first got there, I got off of an airplane and I was supposed to lead a small group jumping into Haiti, because we didn't think that the airport, we thought that there were some issues with the runway due to the earthquake. So the 20th Airborne Engineers decided to loan the 82nd Airborne Division a LARP package, which is a light airfield repair package. But the only stipulation was that Richard Ojeda would be leading the operation because I had spent so much time down there and I knew what the LARP package was. The 20th didn't want to just loan it to the 82nd to anybody, because it's a really expensive operation. It was pretty cool because I was like, "I'll jump into Haiti. It sounds cool." But at the last minute they found out that the airfield was okay, so we ended up flying down, but I landed and got off of an aircraft, walked 200 yards, got onto a helicopter and then took off and did a flyover of our area that was going to be our space during Operation Unified Response, which was the Tabarre area. And I was wondering, what is everybody doing out there laying out on the grounds? And that's when I was informed, those are all bodies, bodies were everywhere. I mean, people were just bringing them out, stacking them up. You could see entire parking lots that were loaded with just dead bodies. And we dealt with that every single day, picking up dead bodies, and you're talking about with bucket loaders and Bobcats, and it's ripping the bodies apart, and you're just trying to clear lines of communication so we can get through Port-Au-Prince, because there's still people that are hurting that need first aid, that need food, that need water. And that was a really, really tough deployment.
But after that deployment, I returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then my unit got orders to go to Iraq again. And it was for that thing called New Dawn, which was basically the pullout of Iraq. I'm a combat leader, I was a combat engineer in the military. I was an engineer when I was enlisted and I went right back into the engineers as an officer. I was like, first off I don't want to go back to Iraq, but for the most part to go back to Iraq and sit in Kuwait and count frigging vehicles is not what I want to do. So what I did was I picked up the phone and I called my branch. And I said, "Do you have anything going to Afghanistan?" Because if I'm going to go overseas and be away from my wife and my kids, I'm not going to do it sitting behind a desk, I want to go do what I do.
They were like, "Well, we have this thing, it's called a security forces assistance team. And what that is, that's today's advisor, it's like a combat advisor, and now they call it an advisor, but in the beginning it was called SFAT. I went and I did the training, and then I went with the 4th Brigade 10th Mountain Division, and we deployed to Afghanistan and did a year there. I was out there with nobody, me and one other guy, we had eight police stations. We're in the middle of the Hindu Kush mountains. We did a year. T he 101st Commanding General said that Major Ojeda and Sergeant First Class Montgomery were prime candidates for a Taliban snatch and grab, because we were so far away from anybody else. They picked up one whole entire province, and we had nobody there except a contingent of New Zealanders and a few Malaysian dentists, and we ended up going there and we ended up conducting operations.
I mean, it was awesome because I was so far away from everybody. I saw my brigade commander on the way out for the rest of the time, all I did was go out and do the missions, come back, and somebody would upload it to the computer. And me and my guy, we was out constantly. It was awesome. I mean, I got photographs of us washing our asses in the frigging rivers. I was out on a mission with complete bare chested, no t-shirt, no nothing, with a plate carrier. I mean, we were pretty much the Lord of the Flies, man, but I loved it, man.
And then I come back from there, but when I volunteered to go to Afghanistan, they gave me a follow on assignment. And I said to myself, I'm coming to the point in my career where I think I want to retire. So I asked to go to West Virginia because I wanted ROTC at West Virginia State University, which is where I went to school at. And instead when I got back from Korea, I found out that they sent me to the Beckley West Virginia Recruiting Battalion. So I was the executive officer for the recruiting battalion. And it was the worst job ever as an XO. I'm going to be honest with you. I'm going to tell you. And I hope people that listen to this, listen to this. If you have a loved one that is joining the military and you can make sure that you're a part of that, please do, because recruiters will lie. Recruiters will lie to try to convince young students to join the military. They lie to them all the time, one of the big lies is, "Hey man, the National Guard is awesome. And if you don't like it, you can always switch over and go active." No, you can't. No, you cannot. The National Guard will not let you switch over unless you are a frigging Secret Squirrel, frigging Green Beret or something like that. You ain't switching over to shit, because they have a hard time keeping their numbers, and they're not about to go lower so you can go active duty. So don't fall for that one. And another thing you got to be careful for is some of these recruiters will prey on these young students, and I'm talking the female ones. I can't tell you how many times I would show up to work with packets on my desk and they said, "Okay, you got to see if there's a recruiter impropriety." And on page three, it's a picture of the recruiter butt naked, and that was a picture he sent to one of those young females that he promised was going to be a nurse. And because she couldn't score high enough on the ASFAB, well, then he was going to send her in as an admin specialist or a cook, and she decided to tell.
So my battalion commander gets busted in a To Catch a Predator sting. And I want to say that if I would've went back to Fort Bragg when I left Afghanistan, I actually got selected for Lieutenant Colonel, and I chose to go ahead and retire and just retire as a major, and the reason for that was because I was just done, and I will tell you the last two years in the recruiting battalion made me more than happy to get the hell out of the military. Had I went back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina after Afghanistan, and served with paratroopers again, it would've been really hard for me to walk away from that life because I loved it. I loved being a Light Airborne Sapper. To me, it was the greatest thing in the world. It was the best thing that you could possibly do. The latter was going to the Recruiting Battalion and absolutely hating every single day. Because I didn't feel like I was helping put people into the military. I felt like I was daggone dealing with a bunch of unprofessional jackalooms, and I'm not saying everybody because there were some good recruiters, there was some good leadership in the recruiting world, but I just happened to find myself in a hornet's nest where it seemed like everything was just absolutely south, going south.
So I retired, but one of the things I want to kind of highlight is a few things. When we're talking about leadership, there's a couple times where I think you had to kind of dig deep. And the first time was 2:30 in the morning as a company commander on the border of Iraq and Kuwait. That was the first time that I looked into the eyes of my troops and had to motivate them and had to give them that speech. You know, it's easy to stand in front of your troops during PT and it's easy to stand in front of your troops during a training exercise. But when you are getting ready to cross over into Iraq, where the moment that you cross over you're on a two-way range, you've got to motivate these people. You've got to convince them that make no mistake about it, no matter what, always rely on your training and have no fear because that person that's to your left and to your right are highly trained just as you are. And they will do the right thing to make sure that you get to go home and see your family, because they expect you to do the same thing for them. I will never forget that feeling, where it dawned on me that I have to now step up in front of these people and I've got to motivate them to cross this border because we're on our way to Baghdad and we're not going to stop. And that was one of those moments, before I left and deployed to Iraq, I actually wrote every single parent of every single soldier in my company. And I'm talking about even the first sergeant's parents. And I basically just said that we're combat troops, so we're going to be in harm's way, but make no mistake about it, if your loved one is in harm's way, I will be with them. And that's something that I felt really good that I was able to accomplish.
Another leadership point was in Haiti, and I told you guys about how hard it was to justify the death in Haiti, but you have to understand that it's not about you. When you are a leader, it's never about yourself. You have to also look at a big picture. And that was one of the tough things, because when we was in Haiti, the military knew that what we were doing was a rough, rough operation. To deal with death on such a massive scale. I mean, it's downright dangerous. And I hate to say it, but this is what suicides come from. They sent one chaplain that had a background in psychology. And that one chaplain would jump around from every battalion to battalion and would anybody need anybody to talk to?
Look, that's not the right answer because how many people that you know that are door kickers and trigger squeezers are going to automatically scream, "Hey, I need to talk to somebody"? So as a leader, it's your responsibility to also make sure that you're doing some of them conversations and talking to your folks, and trying to convince or trying to protect them. Because you can see when things start weighing on people's minds. It's tough like that. You're always going to find moments like that throughout your military career when you sometimes even question yourself, but I think I had a pretty solid military career.
ometimes I ask myself what if, what if I would've stayed? You know, I was told when I come down for selection for Lieutenant Colonel, I was told by two star general that I would be taking a battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. To me that would've been the greatest place ever. I had spent so much time in the Light Airborne Sapper world to get to be the battalion commander of a Light Airborne Sapper unit was the cream of the crop. But then again, did I make the right decision? And I will tell you after being almost killed five times in Iraq and almost captured in Afghanistan by literally five minutes, we had left a place called [Peshta], and within five minutes after we left, and remember, we didn't have a big team with us. It was two Toyota Hilux pickup trucks. It was me, it was my right arm, which was my non-commissioned officer, we had a mechanic with us and we had an interpreter. And we left, and five minutes after we left 60 Taliban fighters showed up looking for us. So if they would've showed up five minutes earlier, we probably would've been killed. Afghanistan's one of those places where you don't think about capture. You tell yourself on day one that if you have to daggone eat a bullet yourself, you're not going to let these people capture you because they are absolutely brutal. So captured or killed, most likely killed.
We made it through that, but I had to ask myself, “How's my luck doing? Almost killed five times, almost captured in Afghanistan. If I take a battalion of Light Airborne Sappers, I'm going back to the desert, whether it be Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.” We wasn't really dealing with Syria back then, but at the end of the day combat troops at that time were just rotating. It was like you're gone for a year, you come back for nine months to a year, you're gone again. So that was how it was going to be.
And then I just made the decision. I said my kids are now in high school and I've missed most of their lives. When I went to Korea, my daughter had just started barely walking. Couldn't really speak well at all. I mean, she still had words like kuki meant popcorn and things like that. She still had her baby language. When I come back from Korea, she's walking and talking. And then I went to Iraq, and then I went to Iraq, and then I went to Haiti, then I went to Afghanistan. And in between those was those Jordans and the Honduras and the Chile, all these other deployments. I decided I've lost so much family time. If I don't do something now I'm going to get out of the military and my son is already going to be gone. Whether it be college or whatnot. So I made the decision to get out of the military. I think it's the best decision that I could have made. I can ‘what if?’ it all day long, but at the end of the day I've been able to enjoy time with my kids and do things with my wife.
You know, a lot of people don't realize, if you got somebody in the military that's married and they're happy, it's because they have an amazing spouse. And my wife was that amazing spouse. She still is. But I mean, in the military, the military spouse, when I was a company commander, my wife handled business. When I was a rear D commander, my wife handled business, not just at home, but helping me with all of the wives when everybody was deployed to Afghanistan. My wife has helped Barry, when we lost a First Sergeant in Afghanistan, my wife always did her part and she did it very well. My wife is a doctor Mary Walker Award recipient, which takes a four star general to award, because of all the things that she's done while I was in the military.
I got out of the military and ended up going back to Southern West Virginia. And I'm going to tell you, you thought that the fight ends when you get out, you thought that the need for leadership ends when you get out, it doesn't, it doesn't. I got out of the military and went back to Logan County, West Virginia. And of course I started pushing for a ROTC program because we didn't have any in the county that I went to. And I had seen when I first got there, good Lord, look at the leadership. These are a bunch of jackalooms. They don't care about nobody but themselves. Nobody does nothing. Southern West Virginia looks like the backside of Afghanistan in many places. I mean, poverty like you've never seen. I come to the realization that these kids in Southern West Virginia have it worse than the kids I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, because in Iraq and Afghanistan a village will raise a child, but in Logan County, West Virginia, mom and dad's addicted to drugs, in jail, and nobody gives a shit. That was one of the reasons why I pushed the ROTC program, and we made it happen. And we got ROTC programs in all three of the high schools in the county. And I was kind of running all three, but I had a NCO in each one of them. And we started doing some amazing things for those kids. And we started sending kids to full ride scholarships, and it was great. And then I started a nonprofit organization because it was needed. And we sent over 6,000 kids to school with new shoes on their feet in Logan County, West Virginia. And we allowed some of the surrounding counties to come and get shoes too because poor people are poor people in Southern West Virginia. It is what it is.
That was Major Richard Neece Ojeda II.
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