NVC Newsletter

Speaker Series: Walter Tanimoto – Military Service & Deployment to Iraq

by Ken Mochizuki
February 2019, Volume 69, Issue 2

Walter Tanimoto, our NVC Commander and presenter for the January Speakers Series, disclosed some of the toughest moments during his 23-year U.S. Army career. They came during his one-year tour stationed in Iraq. Walt ultimately attained the rank of major.          

"One time, we received indirect fire; the radar picked up the rockets and mortars, so we knew where it came from," Walt said. "So, you start going through the drill: where did it come from? Is the airspace clear, ground clear of civilians around the target? How's the weather? Are the mortars and artillery ready to fire?          

"Then somebody needs to give that order. Usually, it's the chief of staff, the senior ranking officer, a colonel. If he's not there, it's the operations officer. That major was on patrol with the field brigade commander. They couldn't find the chief of staff, so they got the brigade officer of the day: me.”          

"You have seven minutes to complete the drill. You have seven minutes to return fire. The target was 34 km out. We shot one 155 mm artillery rocket-assisted projectile. It's dangerous firing that, because, if the rockets don't fire, it can land short in the town. It was a hard decision; I made the call to fire."          

The projectile worked and the target was eliminated.          

"The second hardest order" he gave, Walt said, was at a checkpoint, screening cars as they passed through.          

"Sometimes they don't go through the obstacle; sometimes they don't stop," Walt recounted. "Sometimes you can't see because it's at night. One time I gave the order to fire -- it was a car full of kids. It ended up being lucky that no one got killed. Rules of engagement -- seriously hard in this war.  You are scrutinized, every order you give."          

That he had a career in the U.S. Army Walt attributed to being a member of Troop 53, sponsored by Seattle's Japanese Baptist Church. A "huge influence," he said, with scoutmasters including Nisei veterans Frank Nishimura and Tosh Tokunaga.          

Born in Honolulu in 1962, Walt and his family relocated every two to three years with his father working for the Honda motor company -- places in California, New Mexico, Montana, with "Japan and Hawaii in between," he said. Ending up in Seattle, Walt became a 1980 graduate of Lake Washington High School in Kirkland. He then received a scholarship to Seattle University, paid for by the U.S. Army.  Worth it in more ways than one, as Walt met his future wife Lori at SU.          

Commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1984, Walt spent two months at Fort Lewis in a clerical position before being sent to Fort Knox, KY for officer basic training and training in his first choice: armor. With the Vietnam-era Army in transition to its modern-day weaponry, Walt first trained in the older M60A3 tanks, and in two weeks switched to today's M1A1 Abrams. Learning to be an armored platoon leader, he was in charge of four Abrams with four soldiers staffing each tank.          

His first duty station landed him at Fort Hood, Texas, north of San Antonio. He was assigned to the 5th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division. Walt's wife Lori followed him there, and they eventually had three children. As a second lieutenant, Walt said his take-home pay was $994 a month and he was sent to the National Training Center at Fort Ord, CA. In 1985, he was promoted to first lieutenant with a $150 a month pay raise.          

Back at Fort Hood, another of Walt's choices was fulfilled -- to be rotated to Germany. Assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in central Germany, he became executive officer of a tank company (12 tanks). During maneuvers, "we went through German towns and fields, creating damage with the tanks," Walt said. "There was an officer responsible for following our unit, paying Germans for all the damage we did -- roads, fields, dogs we ran over."          

Promoted to captain with a corresponding pay raise of about $300 a month, Walt was transferred to the 36th Infantry Regiment to instruct in gunnery as it transitioned from the old armored personnel carrier to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He became a Bradley driver until being reassigned to the 9th Infantry Division, then stationed at Fort Lewis. He was tasked with being a company commander within the 9th Cavalry Regiment, a unit descended from the African American "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 19th century, and assigned to a six-month tour conducting counter-drug operations out of Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. With missions conducted in the dark, his unit set up observation posts, assisting law enforcement in the search for drug trafficking.          

Next, for three years, Walt served in the Active Guard Reserve Program as a battalion maintenance officer with the 81st Brigade Combat Team which aided and transported civilians away from natural disasters and fought fires.          

"The captain's out there with shovels and picks," Walt said. "That was one of the most fulfilling things I did, actually helping people in the state of Washington, versus being in some foreign land and fighting."          

Upon being promoted to the rank of major, Walt was assigned to a new unit, Information Operations (IO) consisting of a PSYOPS (psychological operations) platoon and a Civil Affairs team. Training in Yakima, WA and Fort Irwin, CA, and after the start of the war in Iraq, he landed in Kuwait in March 2005 and crossed into Iraq on April 1. Working at the Anaconda air base on a 12-hour-on/12-hour-off shift with daily enemy mortar attacks, he then was deployed to Tikrit. Quartered in a shipping container, a mortar round pierced the ceiling, stuck there, but didn't explode.          

Transferred to the 1st Infantry Division, Walt's duties included helping to train the new Iraqi army. As a member of Civil Affairs operating in Salah Ad Din Province, he commanded the rebuilding of bridges, schools, sent out medical teams and was responsible for relations with the Iraqi civilians. In that role, he attended the events and meals with tribal sheiks. PSYOP operations included the distribution of posters and poker cards "with the bad guys on it we're looking for," Walt said, and handling radio broadcasts.          

"Women in the Army -- that was a huge asset and underutilized," Walt said. "One of the best things we ever did was to send out women soldiers to these places to start interacting with the Iraqi women."          

Enduring the 130-degree heat and sandstorms, Walt's job was to "make sure leaders we engaged with took credit for the product they did" after the opening of schools, bridges, or a new mosque. He arranged for media coverage to show "Iraqis always in the lead," Walt said, and to promote the success of the Iraqi army. The tough part of his job, he said, was communicating with and convincing the Iraqi leaders.          

"If you have the personality of a doughnut hole, you're not going to get your point across. If they respond, 'if God wills,' that's a solid clue that nothing is going to get done."          

Another of Walt's regrettable duties as a commanding officer was to monetarily compensate Iraqis for civilian deaths when the U.S. Army was at fault. When an audience member asked how much would be paid, Walt hesitantly responded that the amounts would range from $100 to $8,000.          

"I don't like to cheapen their life," Walt said, "but we had a pay scale -- children got paid less, adults got paid more, leaders got paid a lot more. It was tough, because they would always come to who was in charge -- the Civil Affairs team leader, the assistant team leader and myself -- to make that determination. We would always make that call."          

After Walt's tour of duty in Iraq, he spent his last two years in the U.S. Army with the 35th Infantry National Guard and was sent to Japan to give briefings on "what you should do to get ready to go to war," he recounted. By then, he wore on his uniform the prestigious Combat Infantryman's Badge, the CIB, awarded to those who served in combat.          

Fellow soldiers, he remembered, were "keen on the CIB."

"You don't know how valuable it is until you don't have it."

Walter Tanimoto's U.S. Army career ended in July 2007.