What I know about Jeff Dirkse
In October 2004, I flew to Ft. Bliss Texas to begin pre-mobilization for a yearlong deployment to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom III. I arrived a month after the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment (Air Assault). I was a brand new second lieutenant. Though I was a Marine veteran, I was a “green” officer.
Arriving at the battalion headquarters, I was met by many familiar faces and a few new ones. I was the Assistant Battalion Intelligence Officer and as such would be responsible for coordinating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the battalion. My first day of training was a blur; too much to do and not enough time or resources to get it done. At the end of this day, I was introduced to Jeff Dirkse by a mutual officer and friend. Again, I was a second lieutenant and a very junior staff officer. Jeff extended his hand to me and smiled. This was not lost on me and to this day, 14 years later, I still remember feeling instantly that Jeff was a man of honor; a trait that seems to be in a constant state of erosion in our society. This is what I know about Jeff Dirkse.
Despite having just met, Jeff invited me to dinner that evening. Jeff was the commander of Delta Company 1/184, and the fact that he took the time to ask me — a junior officer and complete stranger — to dinner (taking time away from his soldiers) spoke loudly and profoundly to me. He spoke only briefly about himself and wanted to know who I was. I knew that Jeff was a graduate of West Point and he served with the U.S. Army Rangers as a platoon leader. This alone is impressive; however, as we spoke, I got the sense that he wasn’t just waiting for his turn to speak. Jeff was genuinely interested in me as a person, soldier and fellow officer. I didn’t know it then, but Jeff and I would spend a considerable amount of our time Iraq planning operations and fighting a most determined adversary. This is what I know about Jeff Dirkse.
I was among our advance party into Baghdad to get a sense of the place we would call home for the next year. Jeff was the first company commander to seek me out once his company got settled. We met in the Intelligence Office and I gave him an overview of the terrain his company would occupy. Over several hours, we “virtually” walked through his area of operations. As I watched him study the terrain, I was impressed with his intensity related to the questions he asked me and the level of detail of his initial deployment plan. “Mission accomplishment” is always at the forefront of a combat leader’s mind. For Jeff, the safety of his soldiers surpassed all of his concerns. This is what I know about Jeff Dirkse.
Jeff had the smallest company in the battalion. He also had the most volatile area of operations to contend with. In May 2005, I was on a routine patrol with Jeff and platoon from the company. I was riding in the lead vehicle in the small convoy when the driver spotted an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) barely visible in a pile of trash not 5 feet from my armored window. This was the first time Jeff and his soldiers were in real mortal danger. Immediately, we cordoned off the area. It was the first time that I witnessed Jeff under pressure. I was a fifth wheel on this patrol, but from my time as a Marine marksman, Jeff employed me on overwatch — an elevated position where I could observe and cover him and his soldiers. During the hours that I was covering them, I was on the radio listening to Jeff multi-task — talking to me, to our battalion headquarters, to the Emergency Ordnance Disposal Sailors and to concerned Iraqi civilians.
One particular interaction sticks out in my mind. An elderly gentleman and his grandchildren approached Jeff (a potential danger to Jeff and his soldiers and to the gentleman and his grandchildren). I remember looking at Jeff through my binoculars, and Jeff was talking to the man, and smiling at the children. Despite the potential for terrific violence at any moment, Jeff engaged the man in polite conversation, allaying their fear. Once they were safely away, Jeff continued to instruct his soldiers and “own” this situation. The IED was destroyed and no one was hurt. Though our nerves were frayed, Jeff was calm and composed the entire time. This was not lost on me. In training, it was stressed repeatedly that remaining composed in the face of danger is a must for a combat leader. That is exactly what I saw in Jeff Dirkse that day; a combat leader who in the face of danger was as calm as if he was standing on a beach watching a sunset. I witnessed this first hand, another thing I know about Jeff Dirkse.
For all pre-mission briefs, I would go to Jeff’s company operations center, usually arriving an hour before, and almost every time I walked into the area I would see Jeff and his first sergeant (his senior noncommissioned officer) walking around talking to the soldiers who would be going on the mission. He offered advice to young soldiers, asked questions of junior officers and joked with the more seasoned veterans in his command. This had a positive effect on morale despite any dangers they would soon be facing.
On one mission when I rode with Jeff in his command vehicle, we were going to clear a suspected insurgent munitions depot at the far edge of his area of operation. On the way, an IED detonated, slightly damaging a vehicle and rattling more than a few nerves. It appeared that someone didn’t want us there. Undeterred we went. Upon arrival at the munitions site, we discovered signs of recent occupation. Immediately, we began a coordinated search and found a stockpile of munitions. Jeff decided it should be destroyed in place, depriving our adversaries the chance to use them in the future. Jeff asked me what I thought. I agreed, saying we didn’t want these explosives to be used on “our guys.” To which Jeff replied, “Or civilians.” A 1,000-pound bomb destroyed the munitions. A10-foot deep crater was the only reminder that something used to be there. Jeff looked at me, smiled, and said, “Not as loud as I thought it would be.” I began to see him as unflappable. He didn’t so much as flinch at the explosion. This is what I know about Jeff Dirkse.
My last mission with Jeff was an air assault on a village suspected of harboring high-value targets. It was to be a night time raid. For me, its significance was enormous. As a former Marine, landing in a potentially “hot” landing zone on November 10th — the Marine Corps birthday — was a unique way for me to remember the day. Though I was now a soldier, I will always be a Marine. Jeff would tease me for being a Marine, but when he asked me if I wanted to go on the mission, I couldn’t resist, so I went.
Soldiers don’t crave war, but when it comes the best of us say, “Send me.” Jeff is one such soldier. What I remember that night was not the mission; honestly, it was anti-climactic. What sticks out in my mind was when we were leaving, I walked past Jeff. He slapped me on the shoulder and smiled. When I climbed aboard the helicopter, I kept my eyes on Jeff. He was the last one in the company to board the helicopter. He would not board the relative safety of the aircraft until every last soldier was accounted for. He remained in the open — exposed — until everyone else was safe. That’s what I know about Jeff Dirkse.
War changes us. It is an inevitable byproduct of combat. It isn’t normal. What war does is reveal who we really are in the most extreme circumstances. Some men who were held in high regard during monthly training, or annual training, who had all the bells and whistles on their uniforms, crumbled under the pressure of leading men in war. They shirked their duty or found ways to avoid danger.
It was my job to prepare the “patrol matrix,” a document that tells the Infantry where to go and look for our enemies. On one of these patrols, Sgt. Paul Neubauer was killed as a result of injuries sustained from an IED. He died in a location I knew had elevated enemy activity. It hit me like a sledgehammer. I blamed myself for putting him on the “X.” I had spoken to him just 45 minutes prior to his death. He had been in a wonderful mood because he’d just reconnected with his daughter after several years. At his memorial service, Jeff spoke fondly of Sgt. Neubauer and only briefly paused to swallow the knot forming in his throat. Jeff closed with “Rest brother, we hold the line.”
I was at Jeff’s company operations center later that evening. I was still feeling the weight of a death I felt was partially my fault. I knocked on Jeff’s door and it creaked open to reveal him writing “the letter” to Neubauer’s family. He looked like I felt. It wasn’t the first soldier Jeff lost, but it was the first time I was present to witness him writing one of those letters. I told him I’d come back. We shook hands and I felt the slightest tremor in his grip. I walked the long way out of his building. Soldiers were gathered in the TV room, but it was fairly quiet. I heard one younger soldier lament, “He (Jeff) doesn’t care about us.” The quiet reply came almost as a whisper. “He most certainly does.” I walked to my room in silence. I saw firsthand how much Jeff cared for his men. That is what I know about Jeff Dirkse.
George Orwell once wrote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Jeff is a warrior, of that there is no doubt in my mind. He is also a man who is incredibly devoted to his family and his community. As I mentioned, Jeff lost soldiers in battle. He carries it still. Ask him about those men; he remembers every one of them. His time as a soldier, officer and an Army Ranger molded him into the driven man of character he is today. If the people of Stanislaus County elect Jeff as their sheriff, then the good folks therein can sleep very peacefully because Jeff will protect, serve and relentlessly bring those who seek to cause harm to justice. This is who Jeff Dirkse is.