Major General Rob Ostenberg (Part 2)
U.S. Army Reserve
November 11 is Veteran's Day. So, it is quite fitting that our Guest of the Month is a Veteran of Vietnam.
Rob Ostenberg, a Major General (2 Star), is the Commanding General for the 63rd Regional Readiness Command of the U.S. Army Reserve, and a Veteran of Vietnam. He is also an Advanced Field Underwriting Consultant for Financial and Estate Planning for a major financial firm. Last month, he shared practical and prayerful insights regarding leadership, values, the Army, the current world situation, and the War on Terrororism.
In this Part II of our interview, Major General Ostenberg shares how he joined the Army, fought for our country in Vietnam, listened to God, and was protected and guided each step of the way.
How did you decide to join the army?
Many of my friends in college joined one of the services following college. After graduation, I decided to go to Martha's Vinyard, MA, for the summer. I worked as a carpenter. Then I hired on as a First Mate of a yacht and sailed around Maine. My brother and some friends were drafted, so I drove to Alton, IL, and enlisted. That's what you did in the Midwest. Even educated college graduates had no intention of doing anything other than serving for two or three years. My father had passed away, and I had no one telling me to go in and learn to be a man. It seemed to be the right thing to do. I didn't know really what job I wanted to do, so the Army would give me time to think about my life.
What happened once you enlisted?
I went through basic training at Fort Dix, NJ. You take all these tests in the military for mental abilities. I was told I would make a good Combat Engineer, and after Basic, I was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood and trained for eight weeks as an engineer, during which time I decided to go to Officer Candidate School (OCS) and was sent to Ft. Benning, GA, for six months of Infantry Officer training. During the last several months, we also worked with cavalry tactics, and I liked the tremendous fire power. So, after I was commissioned as an officer on 9-11-1970, I went to Ft. Knox, KY, and was assigned to an Armor (Tanks) company as a platoon leader. My first company commander was a real hero and a great mentor for me. He was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration for heroism awarded by our nation. Yet, he was humble and modest. He would do whatever was required to train soldiers, and he cared about the welfare of his men. He was a great guy and a great leader. He was the motivator who made me decide to volunteer for service in Vietnam.
What was OCS like?
The regimen for OCS was strict. For at least 12 weeks, you had no privileges. You couldn't leave the company building block unless you were married. Then you could see your wife on Thursdays for one hour. I wasn't married. The only time you got off was to go to church on Sunday. We enjoyed our two hours -- the walk over, the service, and the walk back. It was the only time we found peace and quiet. Church, regardless of denomination, was very important. We all worshipped together. Often the churches or temples had food for lunch for us. Church was one of the biggest treats for us.
How did you prepare to go to Vietnam?
I went through Airborne and Jungle training. I wanted to be a Cavalry soldier and work with a historic unit. I was sent as an Infantry Platoon Leader; my dream didn't work out then. But later on in the same tour, I became Platoon Leader with a Cavalry Squadron. I did that until 1972, when the division stood down and came back to the U.S.
Are there any passages that were particularly helpful?
I recently looked at my service Bible and saw many verses underlined and marked. I had my favorites. Psalm 56 was particularly helpful:
What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee. In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me. (3,4)
After going on the first couple of missions, during which we inflicted casualties, I struggled with what we all were doing. Here these people are God's children, and we are God's children, and we were warring. Actually, I'm glad it bothered me. But then I got to the point where I just had to do my job. And, if you think about it, the Bible shows how there's always an antagonist to the one fighting for what is right -- David and Goliath, for instance. I'm sure both sides are praying and fighting for what they believe to be right. But we have to realize that there's a higher power and a higher right. So, I found Psalm 107 enlightening:
Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their distresses. (17, 19)
I prayed to know that I had protection because I was not a fool. It was difficult, though. Tours were one year, and I was there eight months. Another statement that was comforting was:
Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live. (Amos 5:14)
How did reliance on the Bible help you do your job?
My job was to eliminate the enemy. We were dropped in by helicopter into free-fire zones and told that if it moved, we eliminated it. We were pretty good at what we did. When we took fire, as the Lt., I had to remain erect and try to figure out which direction the fire was coming from. I prayed a lot about protection and deliverance. There was one time a sniper was shooting at us, and the round went right by my neck, through my rucksack, grazing my upper left hand shoulder. I had a light wound, shrapnel in my head, that I didn't even realize was there for a while. I got wounds in the legs and other areas. I was shot at a lot and was missed quite a bit. God was with me as I sought "good" and lived. But I did have some casualties in my platoon. I had a great group of young men under my command. As a platoon leader, I was supposed to have 42 people; we had 25-27. We worked against units in the mountains with battalion-like elements of 200 people. We could get re-supplied in about 15 minutes, but there were no other friendly units around. It was God and us. The chaplains were busy. We talked about religion and different things, and I think most of the men believed there was a God, and they prayed for protection. One time, one of my men told me he couldn't go on a mission because he had a vision that he would be killed that night. I couldn't not let him go, so I put him in the line of march right behind me. Even though he was up front and not totally removed from danger, I thought he would feel better because I was up there taking care of him. He worked through his fear. We had an ambush, and he was okay. He finished the mission and never had a problem again. But as a leader, you can't just assume everything is going to be okay. The worst thing that could happen was to have someone break under pressure. Even though we have a system and rules of engagement, when you're in the heat of battle, you only have 5-7 seconds before everyone is killed or is safe.
Did you often feel God's guidance?
Yes. We had a number of incidents that proved divine direction. I was told by my company commander to circle down south to join his location. As we proceeded, I had a very strong feeling that something just wasn't right. It didn't even smell right. I proceeded into the valley and had my platoon form a perimeter, take off their heavy equipment, and perform a search in the middle of the jungle in the mountains of northern South Vietnam. Within minutes, we found a cache of clothing, weapons, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) that shoot through tanks, and equipment. It was one of largest caches found in that area. The rice and food stuff was enormous, enough to outfit a battalion, a couple hundred people. There was no reason to stop there. The area was not in the marching direction, but that's what came to me. I called my commanding officer who came over to our area. We had everything evacuated and shipped back to our rear Fire Base. It was one of the largest finds by any unit during my tour there, and pictures and the details of the find were published in "Stars and Stripes," the military newspaper published there. There was no question that this was divine guidance! This cache was not lying out in the open. It was in caves, with overhangs, covered. We wouldn't have seen a thing. I had listened to God. I could feel His presence and guidance. God is always guiding, but you have to listen and obey.
How did you get to where you are today?
When I left Vietnam, I got out of the Army, not planning to return. My father had passed away when I was 18, but his friends were special to me, and I went to visit them in Florida. Most of them got out of WWII or Korea and joined a Reserve. But a lot of them said they wish they had stayed in because the comradery was fantastic, and they also would be drawing a pension. I didn't want to have those same regrets later in life. So, nine months after being discharged, I joined an Army Reserve unit in California. I have had some great jobs in the Army and have held every leadership position from Platoon Leader to Commanding General. I found that I was good at instilling values and providing sound leadership to soldiers, so I continued to participate in the Reserve, while on the civilian side I worked for a major financial services and insurance company. I really took that job for only one year and had other plans. I have now worked there for 29 years and have been in the Army for 35 years.
And you still pray and trust in God, I'm sure.
I continue to pray for the protection of those who are in harm's way. Today, the enemy is listening to us all the time. We have had a couple of our own tragedies. I have lost three (at the time of the interview) in our War on Terrorism. I recently went to a funeral. But the morale of the troops is very high still. Email is an incredible tool, a way to keep in touch with our troops.
The interview would not be complete if I did not thank you, Rob, for all you have done and continue to do in serving and protecting our country. I'm sure many others send their thanks.