Longtime military man stands down

Ridgefield grad Mike Settles retires after nearly 42 years of service to his country

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoSteven Lane/The Columbian Mike Settles during a Sunday shift as a safety officer at the Clark Rifle shooting range on Oct. 28.
photoCourtesy of Mike Settles Sgt. Major Mike Settles at the ruins of the ancient fortress Qala Bist in Afghanistan, where a photojournalist was filming a road-building project.

()

photoCourtesy of Mike Settles Sgt. Major Mike Settles during one of his three deployments to Afghanistan.

()

photoMike Settles, in Marine boot camp, 1970.

()

photoU.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Barry Loo Sgt. Major Mike Settles heading out on a mission at Forward Operating Base Gardez in Afghanistan.

()

Mike Settles enlisted in the Marines in 1970. Today, he finally can observe Veterans Day as a veteran.

He retired in January after almost 42 years of military service.

During that time, Settles has been a member of the Marine Corps, the California National Guard, the U.S. Army, the Oregon National Guard and the Army Reserve.

His first overseas duty was in 1972, when Settles was stationed in Japan.

Settles was 59 years old in July 2011 when he returned from his fourth deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I never stopped wanting to serve," he said.

Eventually, it was no longer his call. The military made him stop, the retired sergeant major said, because he was closing in on 60 years of age.

He retired with 41 years, 10 months and 27 days of service.

"I miss the adventure," he said. "Even a training weekend is an adventure."

Now Settles is going back to school. It's what the 1989 Clark College graduate calls "that ever-elusive" pursuit of a bachelor's degree. Settles, who also volunteers at Living Hope Church and occasionally works at the Clark Rifles shooting range as a safety officer, is studying history at Washington State University Vancouver.

Settles saw plenty of history being made over four decades, which bridged eras from the fight against Communist aggression to the war on terror.

He enlisted in the Marines on June 8, 1970, the day after he turned 18. During the Vietnam War, Settles worked as an electronics technician at a communications center in Japan.

After his Marine hitch, Settles joined the California National Guard. It offered an interesting perspective into '70s culture.

"This was the Vietnam-era National Guard," Settles recalled. "Most of them joined the National Guard so they wouldn't have to go to Vietnam.

"It was an era of short-hair wigs" that some guys would use to hide their long hair during National Guard activities, Settles said.

Settles enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1975 and served until 1985, with deployments to West Germany and South Korea.

Then he enrolled at Clark College, where he studied computer programming, and joined the Oregon National Guard.

After graduating from Clark, Settles worked in programming jobs in Portland, Beaverton, Ore., Vancouver and Chehalis, up through the burst of the dot-com bubble a few years ago.

"I tried my own consulting business for a while, but was not too successful," he said. "It was not easy to acquire clientele.

"I switched from the Oregon Guard to the Army Reserve at Vancouver Barracks at the end of 2004. I saw an opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan and took it."

His last five years in uniform were a very busy period for Settles, featuring three deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq.

It led to some interesting conversations for Beverly Settles, when people at work would ask what her family was up to.

When she said her husband was in Afghanistan or Iraq, "They were incredulous," Beverly said.

"They asked if he was nuts," she added -- to which she would reply, "A little bit."

But mostly, "He's very committed to serving our country," she said.

In 2006, Settles worked with a civil affairs battalion at Bagram Air Base, as well as with British troops in Helmand province.

In his second trip to Afghanistan in 2008, Settles was the senior civil affairs sergeant with a provincial reconstruction team in Paktika province.

The team helped bring provincial and district (their versions of state and county) governments closer to their constituents, who tend to be "very tribe-centric people," he said.

Some projects helped farmers get their crops to market, by improving a dirt track into an all-weather gravel -- or even paved -- road.

"We've built schools for villages that for years held classes under a tree," he said. "Girls go to school in many places for the first time."

In 2009, he worked at headquarters in Iraq, near Baghdad International Airport.

His final deployment was in 2010 to Forward Operating Base Gardez in Afghanistan. The mission involved helping improve governance. Another team included National Guardsmen from Midwest states who could teach Afghans about improving crops, raising bees and keeping farm machinery in running order, he said.

Despite the developmental aspects of the mission, Settles still was a soldier. And he was serving in a challenging environment while many other members of Ridgefield High School's Class of 1970 were enjoying retirement."Between body armor, rucksack, rifle and ammo, combat is a chore," said Dan Kern, an Army colonel who retired in July after more than 40 years of service.

"The fact that he did it and passed a physical training test every six months and made weight is a testimony in itself," Kern said.

Settles said his basic load weighed more than 90 pounds. It included 30 pounds of body armor, which was standard, but he tended to pack a lot more gear than most soldiers.

"I'm old-time infantry," he said. If Settles figured he might need something, he carried it. The current generation of soldiers, he said, "have been taught to operate from their vehicles," where they had their spare water and ammunition.

Settles said his troops told him, "You carry too much."

And the closer he got to 60, Settles said, the heavier his pack seemed to get.

"If you want to be able to do it, you must get out and do it," he said -- and that meant training.

"Before each of my deployments, you might have seen me walking down Northwest 21st Avenue dressed in my uniform and carrying a rucksack," he said.

However, those added years also factored into his missions.

"As with most traditional societies, 'old' is equated with 'wise.' In Afghanistan, tribal elders are the ones in charge," he said.

Settles described attending "shuras" -- tribal councils -- where the old men sit at the center and talk, while the younger men sit in an outer circle and listen.

Afghans listened to him, for several reasons, Settles said. First, because he was an American member of the international military coalition.

"Second, because I am older," he said.

"Third, I paid them the courtesy of listening to them. Showing respect goes a long way with these people. Once, on the way to a weekly shura, my interpreter pointed out a local funeral party. Before the meeting ended, I made sure to ask the shura members and the district governor to give our condolences to the family."

Settles said his forward operating bases (FOBs) were targeted by enemy rocket fire on all four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, "But they landed outside."

In 2008 in Paktika province, his team spent a night manning the ramparts at their FOB while Taliban mortars attacked a nearby Afghan border patrol base and Afghan police across the road exchanged gunfire with someone else.

At another FOB, "On several nights that we expected to get attacked, it didn't happen," he said.

And on another mission, "The convoy was attacked by bad guys on motorcycles, plus two vehicles hit IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," he said. "But my team didn't get shot at that time either. It happened around me, but not to me."

That sort of thing was considered an asset on a mission, based on what Settles heard. Soldiers were indicating that, "'We want to go with Sgt. Major Settles. They won't shoot at us.'

"She was happy about that," he said, nodding toward Beverly.

However, Settles knew other soldiers who weren't as fortunate; he helped send their remains home.

"Two soldiers were killed in Kabul by a car bomb on Sept. 8, 2006. One was from The Dalles (in Oregon). The day before, he had been in my office," Settles said.

The bodies were flown to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

But first, the soldiers' deaths were commemorated in what has become a ritual at military air bases. As the aluminum transfer cases containing the bodies are driven from mortuary affairs to the waiting plane, "Everybody comes from their buildings and they line Disney Drive," Settles said. (The route was named in honor of a soldier who died in 2002.) "When the vehicles come by, they salute."

The observance ends with a ramp ceremony. The flag-draped containers with the soldiers' remains are carried up the airplane's ramp and into the transport.

"I was honored to help carry one," Settles said.


Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.