The whiteboard in Lt. Col. Drew Cecil’s office is covered with reminders, and he uses a handy eraser when he has completed each task. Like many career men and women, Cecil is highly organized. He spends a lot of his time solving problems, planning ahead to meet goals, and working with people he manages. Other aspects of Cecil’s job, however, are quite different from those of his civilian counterparts. A helicopter pilot, combat veteran, and career Army officer, Cecil is the commander of the 1-158th Aviation Regiment, the “Ghostriders,” an Army Reserve unit based in Conroe.
Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Cecil began his military career when he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation in 1996. In 2001, his career took on a new dimension when he attended flight school and became qualified to fly the AH-64D Apache Longbow, an attack helicopter. As a captain, Cecil commanded B Company, 8-229th Aviation Regiment and spent nearly a year and a half in Iraq during 2004 and 2005.
Cecil is a full-time member of the Army Reserve. Most reservists train one weekend a month (at what the Army calls “battle assemblies”) and for two weeks of annual training during the summer, juggling civilian jobs and part-time military jobs. Cecil is part of the skeletal team that keeps the unit on task throughout the year.
“Our duty is to prepare for the weekends,” Cecil says. “For every two days of execution, it takes 20 to 22 days of planning. We are never planning for the next month. We are always planning four months out.” As a battalion commander, Cecil decides when the unit will train, which parts of the Army’s Mission Essential Task List (METL) the soldiers will address, and plans for future battle assemblies accordingly. Because the Ghostriders are an aviation unit, much of the training involves aviation operations.
It’s difficult to equate his job to one in the civilian sector, but Cecil compares his military assignment to a management position in a large company. He is responsible for a lot of costly equipment, and he strives to get the best from those who work for him. He spends a lot of his time mentoring the soldiers under his command, especially the six captains who serve as company commanders in the unit.
“As a battalion commander, I provide guidance and direction to the organization. I pour a lot of time into my company commanders,” Cecil says. “This past battle assembly, I spent greater than eight hours over two days with them one-on-one, hearing their ideas, interacting with them, and giving them feedback on their ideas. I provide the focus and direction.” Because he has been in the Army nearly 20 years, he says, he knows from experience what will work—and what won’t—in many situations.
In addition, because Cecil is a pilot, he flies at least once a week. “It’s sort of my stress relief,” he says. “Flying is a lot of fun.”
On June 11, Cecil will relinquish command. He, his wife Tracy, and their three children (Mark , Gwen , and Adam ) will move to beautiful Vicenza, Italy, the headquarters of United States Army Africa (USARAF) and the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Loosely translated, the mission of the Ghostriders is to conduct reconnaissance and security operations to obtain information, provide reaction time, and (if needed) to attack enemy forces in combat. Because it is an Army Reserve unit, the Ghostriders are a national force.
“The United States Army Reserve is a federal force under the direction of the commander in chief,” Cecil explains. (The National Guard—sometimes confused with the Army Reserve—is a state force under the authority of the governor, but can also be called into national service.) The stated goal of the Ghostriders is to remain the premier unit among the eight aviation battalions in the Army Reserve.
There are currently 450 people assigned to the Ghostriders and its Aviation Support Facility (ASF). (The ASF’s primary task is to maintain the unit’s aircraft so that they can be used for training.) Cecil compares the Ghostriders and the ASF to different halves of the best team.
“It’s sort of like a team with offense and defense,” he says. “The two don’t exist without the other. They are symbiotic.” Even with 450 people, the Ghostriders have room for more. While pilots generally come to mind, there are many other jobs that must be filled, including aircraft crew chiefs, vehicle mechanics, fuel specialists, cooks, and medics. “We are actively recruiting people,” he says.
While active duty soldiers concentrate all their energy on their full-time jobs in the U. S. Army and are deployed frequently, reservists face other challenges. “These people who volunteered to be in the Army Reserve also have a full time job and a family,” Cecil notes. “They are trying to juggle three major things—a job that pays the bills, the Army, and a family—and you don’t want any of those balls to drop. That’s a lot to keep in the air at one time.”
The pace on battle assembly weekends is fast and focused, Cecil says, as soldiers strive to accomplish as much as possible. They know their next opportunity to get their jobs done will be about a month in the future. It’s hard work, and it is sandwiched between two full work weeks, but the soldiers don’t seem to mind. “A lot of them get energized by the opportunity to do something different on the weekends,” Cecil says. For soldiers in some key positions, the weekend just isn’t long enough, and they spend some of their own time throughout the month to make sure their military jobs are completed.
Another hardship is reservists sometimes live far from major military posts. When Army Reserve units deploy—such as the Ghostriders’ deployment with its sister battalion, the 8-229th Aviation Regiment, to Iraq in 2011—military families sometimes face fear and loneliness. While many spouses live near family and friends, it can be comforting to have the support of a military post and a large network of friends who understand the unique worries of military spouses, says Tracy Cecil. When her husband was deployed for 17 months, she says she struggled with loneliness and a “woe is me” attitude.
The Ghostriders, however, are grateful so many local organizations, including the Montgomery County Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and West Conroe Baptist Church, have provided support and encouragement. “You can almost become spoiled here, because there is so much outpouring,” Cecil says. “We appreciate the support of the community. I have never seen anything like it.”
Despite the challenges, Cecil says, many soldiers in the Army Reserve like being able to live and work in the area, yet still be able to serve their country. “The people in this unit want to deploy,” he says. “They joined because they want to serve the nation. A very small percentage of the nation has served, and it’s probably getting smaller by the day. These are people who live and work locally and also are members of the USAR. They are locals who have stepped up.”