TERRE HAUTE —
On the wall of his office inside the Myers Technology Building, Chris Pfaff pointed to a map of Afghanistan, a place about as different from the Indiana State University campus as one can imagine.
Pfaff has served as director of the ISU Center for Business Support and Economic Innovation since May 2007, but his career as a soldier dates back to his freshman year at Indiana University.
“I’d certainly do it all over again,” he said of his 25 years in uniform. The service, which began with military education classes at IU, morphed into an enlistment in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and subsequent active duty in both the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army, as well as a recent deployment to Afghanistan.
Still, the military wasn’t something he really thought of as a career when a youth, but Pfaff said he’s glad he got involved, noting that ever since getting a taste for it, it’s been hard to give up.
And the citizen-soldier remembers where he was Sept. 11, 2001.
Pfaff was back to working a full-time civilian job at that point in his life, although he’d recently rejoined the National Guard in 2000. But that Tuesday morning he was working for the State of Indiana in the field of business development, and was calling on a client in Terre Haute. While driving to the appointment, he heard mention on the radio of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, but it seemed an off-handed remark and he recalled thinking it was probably just a small passenger plane or fluke.
After finishing the meeting, he decided to swing by his house to pick something up and happened to turn on his television. The picture on the screen showed only one of the two Twin Towers and he recalled thinking the camera angle must have been off a bit. Slowly it began to dawn on him that one of the towers was gone, and he realized he was watching coverage of their fall. For the next half hour, he was “glued” to the television set, he said.
Pfaff first entered the service in 1986 as a freshman at IU, enrolling in the Simultaneous Member Program through ROTC.
The IU program was pretty open, he recalled, explaining anyone could take classes in military science with little commitment required. One didn’t have to join ROTC or the SMP, he said. The experience allowed students to learn about the service and make an informed decision about it as a potential career. The opportunity to earn tuition assistance was also a big plus, and because he liked the classes, he followed the path.
In 1988, Pfaff was commissioned a second lieutenant in the National Guard and went active duty in 1990, going into the U.S. Army as an artillery officer. His first assignment was in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, where he said he had a good experience learning the skills needed to be an officer. He next moved to Fort Sill, Okla., where he trained other soldiers in the science of artillery. His last active-duty assignment was in Germany.
And even though Pfaff remained signed up in the Individual Ready Reserves, he recalled missing the military in the years after his discharge. He decided to rejoin the National Guard in 2000, switching from artillery to the Adjunct General’s office in public affairs to better reflect his civilian job in business development.
A year later, the nation was at war.
By 2003, Pfaff was in charge of public affairs for Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh, a training base that in the years between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq had become a major mobilization and demobilization site for troops. That experience, he said, was a real “trial by fire,” in regard to handling the press, as major outlets ranging from FOX News to The Wall Street Journal came by every day. His primary job as a public affairs officer was to tell the Army’s story, he said, and there was a lot to tell as Hoosier troops deployed to the desert each day.
And in fall 2008, it was Pfaff’s turn to be deployed, and he joined a 16-soldier team in northern Afghanistan. The one-year deployment included nine months in-country in the area around Mazar-e Sharif, a northern city close to the border of Uzbekistan and surrounded by the Hindu-Kush mountains. There, Pfaff and others helped train Afghan soldiers and police and he became a J1 in charge of personnel, eventually serving as chief of staff over American forces in that region.
The pace of those days was “grueling,” he remembers, noting work was done seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours each day. There are no safe places in Afghanistan, he said, sorting through photographs of the small towns and huts beneath the mountains. Included in the photo collection were pictures of memorials established there to fellow soldiers who died in that deployment.
While away, his wife was essentially a single parent, he said, describing a hectic schedule with four children then ages 5 through 13.
“It was certainly demanding on the family, and that’s never very easy,” Pfaff said.
But his support group back home was strong, and Pfaff returned to a good job and stable family, he said. A lot of returning troops have neither, he said.
The experience of coming back to America from a combat zone was a bit “surreal,” Pfaff said, contrasting the stark differences between the towns of northern Afghanistan and the cities here at home. In some ways, it was hard to notice that America was even at war, he said.
Now a lieutenant colonel, Pfaff said his expected retirement date is 2016, but he’d like a few more years nonetheless.
“I’m not done yet,” he said. “I think I have some value to add over the years.”
Presently, Pfaff serves as a director in the 38th Sustainment Brigade as part of the 138 Adjunct General Theater Gateway R5. If redeployed, as he suspects he might be, he will manage the flow of troops and contractors coming in and out of the Manas airbase.
For young people considering the service as a career, or even just a part-time job, Pfaff advises them to do some research first.
“It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly something a young person considering it should research first,” he said.
The opportunity to pay for a college education while seeing the world is always a plus.
Between the five services and reserve units therein, there is a job for everyone, he said.