Of all the mementos Scott Wilke brought home with him from Afghanistan, one of the most special is a challenge coin given to him from the Marines at Camp Jaker in recognition of a job well done.
Wilke, Villa Ridge, spent 22 months in Afghanistan — from February 2011 to November 2012 — working as a civilian contract electrician on U.S. military bases.
He worked with one other civilian partner doing “inspection and repair of nondensity buildings.” Their work included completing the electrical work, making reports and fixing electrical issues in those buildings on bases, forward observation bases and combat outposts.
Wilke worked exclusively at Marine and special forces bases. The first main base he was sent to was Dwyer in southern Afghanistan. From there he moved to Camp Jaker, a combat outpost.
“When the base got overrun, there were certain things I had to do. When the fighting started, there were certain things I had to do,” he said.
In his 22 months in Afghanistan, Wilke said there were about a dozen times when he thought he was going to be killed. One time he was in an aircraft that flew through a rocket attack. Another time was when he was in his first convoy.
“I thought for sure we were going to be ambushed,” he remarked.
“The most common thing over there is the IEDs, the improvised explosive devices. Small firefights are the next thing, small skirmishes with four or five guys shooting up a convoy. Next is when you’re flying all of these places, there are all kinds of things that can happen to you.”
Getting the Job
Here in the St. Louis metro area, Wilke works as an electrician with Local 1. That means he is assigned work through the union, which sends members to handle jobs for its signatory contractors.
But jobs were scarce in 2010, Wilke noted. So when a union friend, who had worked as a civilian contractor for the military, told him about an opportunity to go overseas, he followed up on it.
The company that was offering the position was based out of Atlanta, Ga. Wilke sent in an application, completed a phone interview and then began filling out a thick stack of paperwork.
“They checked you out up one side and down the next before they would even consider sending you there,” Wilke remarked.
After clearing the first hurdle to getting the job, Wilke was sent to a week-long class that the military puts civilians through to be ready to go to Afghanistan.
Classes cover everything from Afghan culture to elude and evade training (what to do if you get captured) to semi-classified subjects.
Wilke said of everything he was put through to get clearance to work in Afghanistan, the only thing that almost blocked him from going was the physical.
“I didn’t think I was going to pass because of my blood pressure,” he said. “They have specific areas where you can and can’t be, and I was pretty much borderline.
“After they tested me a couple of times and got me calmed down, my blood pressure was finally good.”
Wilke noted that “90 percent of the guys who apply don’t get to go because of their background checks. If you have any type of felony or anything that’s questionable, you don’t go.”
Looking back Wilke admits he often second guessed his decision to work in Afghanistan.
“My thought process was I’m 48 years old, do I really want to go into an area where there’s a war going on and with people actually shooting each other and put myself in that kind of danger?” he said. “I thought long and hard about it.
“The whole time you’re there you’re having second thoughts — what am I doing?”
Time Off, Missing Family Were Worst Parts
To get to Afghanistan, Wilke flew out of St. Louis to Atlanta to Dubai on commercial flights. From Dubai to Afghanistan, he had a military transport.
Flights into and off of the base for civilian contractors like himself were always uncertain.
“It all depends on what military movements there are, when they’re going to have a flight there,” said Wilke.
“I’ve been to the flight line at 2 a.m. and been back in my room at 4 a.m. because ‘no civilians on this flight, period.’ That word’s final.”
It happens and it can happen all the time, he noted.
“When I first got to Kandahar, I was climbing into my bunk bed, I just got in, and all of the sudden, the air raid sirens went off, a rocket attack.
“I sat down and heard the impact. I looked at my partner and said, ‘What do we do?’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m tired, I’m going to sleep.’ So we went to sleep. About a minute later, we heard the all clear signal.”
Although Wilke’s contract was for 22 months, he was able to come home several times during that stretch. His contract specified that after four months of work, he could come home for two weeks.
“That doesn’t sound like it’s too bad, but those two weeks go by very quickly,” Wilke remarked.
He naturally became very close to the men serving on the bases.
“You’re constantly moving around. You’re not really in one place real long, but the people that you meet, you form a close bond with that you’ll never forget.”
There were a number of aspects of the job that made it a challenge, but for Wilke the two biggest were being away from family and time off when he couldn’t go home.
“You work six days a week, 10 hours a day, and your time off is the worst,” said Wilke. “At least when you’re working, your mind is focusing on getting your work done.”
The boredom he would feel in the hours after work was extreme, because he was not allowed to leave the base.
“You can’t quite understand the boredom over there . . . you do anything you can to pass the time.
“When the week of your R&R rolled around, you’re crawling out of your skin because you can’t wait to get off the base,” he remarked.
“And when that helicopter comes in to pick you up, you’re like, ‘I’m ready! Let’s go, let’s get outta here!’ ”
In his downtime on the base, Wilke read books, watched movies, emailed family and friends when he could and made things — like woven bracelets using paratrooper cord.
“I would make three or four of those a night, just give them away to people,” he said, noting there were rolls of the cording everywhere.
“Over there, you have to scavenge for everything. If you need something, you can’t just go to the store and get it . . . You have to scrounge everything.”
Wilke said the cord is called 550 because one strand will hold 550 pounds.
He made different styles of the woven bracelets. The wide one is called a cobra, he said. Men wear them as jewelry.
He also made key fobs and he incorporated shells as buttons on the bracelets.
One interesting part of the work was interacting with the young American soldiers, most of whom are 30 or so years younger than he is.
“The generation growing up now and when I grew up are completely different,” he said with a smile. “The things they talk about are completely different. That was kind of weird.”
Yet it made it fun, too, he said, showing a video that a 19-year-old soldier asked Wilke to make of him dancing to some Afghan music. The young soldier later posted it on his Facebook page, Wilke noted.
Thoughts on the War
Wilke had a lot of time to think about the American war in Afghanistan, and he’s of the opinion that it’s the right thing to do.
“I’m a big history buff — I re-enact World War II — so I’m a firm believer that history repeats itself,” he said.
“Let’s go back to the 1940s when World War II started.
“We know that the capitulation of Germany started in the 1930s . . . Hitler rose to power . . . and from 1939 to 1941, he invaded all the lower countries. He basically had a grip on Europe as we know it.
“If we would have gone in to save Germany between 1939 and 1941 and stopped him from doing what he did . . . we would have stopped him from his reign of terror and power in Europe.
“So what I’m seeing here is the doctrine of what we didn’t do in World War II is taking place right now.”
Wilke said what the Taliban is trying to do is no different than what Hitler was trying to do.
“You have an outside force forcing their way of thinking on you, just like in World War II. Hitler thought he could control the world with his way of thinking, and you know what, he almost did it,” said Wilke.
Donates Flags to Elks
While he was in Afghanistan, Wilke made requests to bring home flags flown over the U.S. bases, one of which he donated to the Washington Elks Lodge, where his wife is a member.
“I just feel a real connection with the Elks,” said Wilke. “They do so much good for the community. I thought flying a flag for them, for everything they do, would be a good thing to do for that great organization.”
The flag flew for about two weeks in Afghanistan.
The Elks now have the flag on display in their flag case with the certificate.