By Tony Reid
DECATUR, Ill. (AP) – In the space of a New York minute, Benjamin Little went from self-confessed “Decatur scholastic bowl nerd” to highly trained Army officer hunting roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
All right, it took more than a minute, but the transformation of the 24-year-old, who only graduated from St. Teresa High School in 2006, was remarkably fast and involved New York’s West Point Military Academy.
Now, armed with a military education and a degree in mechanical engineering, 1st Lt. Little knows how to orchestrate battlefields and combat zones so the answers are more likely to come out in Uncle Sam’s favor.
“The role of a combat engineer is mobility and counter mobility,” he said, “Making sure our forces can get where they are going and making sure the opposite force, the enemy, can’t get where they’re going.”
He was able to practice the military engineering arts at the sharp end in 2011 with a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan. Part of his time there was spent commanding a platoon hunting improvised explosive devices – military speak for roadside bombs – and trying to outthink the insurgents. The Taliban might want to take Afghanistan back to some kind of medieval theocracy, but they’re more than willing to embrace technology when it comes to blowing stuff up.
“I was in the eastern portion of Afghanistan and didn’t see a lot of action personally, but obviously, there is always some fighting,” he said, a natural-born diplomat who defuses his words carefully while his mom works within earshot in the kitchen of the family’s West End home. “But we got there, and we shut it down pretty well.”
As for the IEDs, his calculations brought him out ahead of the game. “Everybody in the platoon came back,” he said with a smile. “And that’s a good benchmark of success right there.” He harbors no exaggerated views of his own abilities, however, or the chances of bucking the odds forever.
“If you work route clearance, it’s not a matter of if you get blown up, it’s just when,” he said.
“Eventually, the enemy gets a vote, too, and they’ve been doing this job for 10 years. They’re good at it.”
Hearing this plain-spoken young officer talk about his life today and the odds involved in risking it to defend his country, it’s hard to reconcile the warrior engineer with the teenager his mom, Linda Little, describes as formerly being “a little squishy.” She adds quickly: “He wasn’t a fat kid or anything, just a couch potato. He wasn’t athletic.”1 2 next >>