Ed Singer is a veteran that served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Ed talks about how initially was skeptical to join the military but ended up serving 27 years.
TARA HARNETT: Can you please start out with your name?
ED SINGER: My name’s Ed Singer.
TARA HARNETT: Ah, good. Where in Carroll County did you live?
ED SINGER: I grew up, I guess my family, we moved here from Baltimore when I was four. I grew up in Eldersburg. I went to Eldersburg Elementary School the first year that it opened and then Sykesville Middle School and ultimately I went to high school at Mount St. Joe. But I lived in Eldersburg until I moved out and got married and then I moved to Westminster. And things were expensive in Eldersburg. It’s kind of an economics thing.
My wife and I moved from Eldersburg to Westminster and then we started a family and we had kids and the townhouse got too small for all their stuff that they put it. And they had bigger toys so we needed more room, so we moved to Manchester. It was a little less expensive up there. We got a nice house and a few acres and a lot of room for the kids to grow and play.
TARA HARNETT: That’s great. What’s your favorite thing about Carroll County?
ED SINGER: My favorite thing about Carroll County. I guess it’s close enough to Baltimore that you can go and do things in the city, like we’re big Orioles fans and Ravens fans and it’s close enough to that, but it’s far enough away from that you don’t have to live in the city. We like the open spaces. As a kid, I always liked to go out and play in the streams and catch frogs and things like that and I always wanted my kids to be able to do that
In between my military deployments, I got to build a tree house with a zip line with my kids and we got a trampoline and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a nice place for my kids to grow up. They played a lot of sports here, they really enjoyed the schools here. Now that they’re young adults and going off to college, it’s just been a really good place for them to grow up.
TARA HARNETT: I feel that story. I’m going off to college soon myself. Where did you go to high school?
ED SINGER: I went to Mount Saint Jo in Baltimore.
TARA HARNETT: That’s cool. What was your favorite subject and why?
ED SINGER: Oh, boy. Well, everybody’s favorite subject is phys ed, but it’s just– it’s a fun class and it gets you away from all the hard work. I liked the science classes and I ultimately majored in science in college, but there’s a lot more work that goes into the science classes. So sometimes, even though you’re very interested in these4 science classes and all that, it’s such hard work you wouldn’t necessarily call them your favorite because sometimes you’re hating it as you’re staying up all night trying to get through the advanced placement classes in biology and physics and things like that and calculus in those classes are driving you crazy. But it was kind of nice and the reason I say phys ed is because it was a nice break from everything else.
TARA HARNETT: Did you always want to go into the military?
ED SINGER: That’s kind of funny. My military career got started, my dad was encouraging me. I was a pretty good student and all. My dad thought, well, it would be great if you went to the Naval Academy. And I went down I visited the Naval Academy and I was like, you know, that’s like being in prison for four years. And so we kind of came to this compromise. College is expensive to pay for and things of that nature, so I applied for ROTC scholarship at Western Maryland College at the time, which is now McDaniel. And I got an ROTC scholarship which paid for my college. And I was kind of iffy on the military and all that.
Even all through my college career, it wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to do as a career, but it was a way to pay for college and things changed as I went through college and I graduated and actually became involved in the military. And I had a contractual obligation for a period of time after I got out of college, but it’s kind of funny that I wound up spending 27 years because I would have never envisioned that when I signed up it was this is how I’m going to pay for college, I’m going to do my time that I owe the government and then that’ll be that.
TARA HARNETT: What branch did you serve?
ED SINGER: In the Army.
TARA HARNETT: Why did you pick that?
ED SINGER: Well, quite honestly, because that’s what they offered at Western Maryland College at the time as ROTC and that’s where I wanted to go to school.
TARA HARNETT: Where are some places you served?
ED SINGER: Well, it’s interesting. I started out in the Maryland National Guard and I had a really good time with the National Guard in that I was a platoon leader in an engineer company and also a company commander for an engineer company. And we did a lot of heavy equipment and things where we could build things. And I really liked– we did community support projects. It gave an opportunity for my soldiers to go out and learn a skill with a bulldozer or grader or whatever. We built ball fields for Bell High School out in western Maryland. We did some projects down at Camp Fretterd, which is now kind of a military reservation. We did all kinds of– we built suspension bridges for the white water kayaking races out in Savage River in western Maryland. And we did work with– what I thought was kind of some of the neatest stuff that we did was we got an opportunity to go out San Diego, California.
It gave a lot of these guys– I was in units in Oakland, Maryland, which is far western Maryland and also in Reisterstown and whatnot. But it was kind of neat because we took a lot of these guys that were local Maryland National Guard guys and took them out the California, someplace they hadn’t really ever been before. And we got me to meet a lot of different people out there. But we worked with the border patrol to build roads and bridges and things for them to help them be able to better interdict drug trafficking out in California.
Then I’ve been to Afghanistan, I’ve been to Iraq. My last deployment I got to go to a whole bunch of different places in central Asia, which was kind of odd because when I got into the military and I was commissioned in 1987, our biggest enemy were the Russians. And a lot of these countries– Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and whatnot– that I got the visit while I was on my last deployment, they still have Russian bases on them, they’re part of former Soviet Union. It was kind of the very odd to see how they were set up, as far as everybody kind of relies on the government there. That kind of just struck me.
It was like any time we were like, well, why don’t we do this? This might help improve things in your schools because I was doing military cooperation with the embassy and some of the people in those countries. And it was well, let’s try this idea, and it was like, well, we have to get permission from the central government. And it’s just kind of– that’s I guess just the communist mentality is still– even though they’re not part of the Soviet Union anymore, that’s still in their heads.
TARA HARNETT: Did you like traveling overseas?
ED SINGER: You know, quite frankly, I loved Afghanistan, I loved the people there. I probably would work there on a regular basis if there was some kind of teleporter machine that could teleport me back and forth from Afghanistan to home and come back. My experience in Afghanistan was kind of neat because I felt like those were poor, depressed people that there’s not much they can do for themselves and we we’re trying to help them be more self-sufficient.
And the hard part was I liked seeing different places and meeting different people– I love people, I like talking to people, I like dealing with people, and if I can help people, I like helping people. And it’s kind of funny to hear that from the military, but the bottom line is I think people think that you’re going to go to a country and I guess the idea is to kill as many people as you can because then you win the war. Well, that’s not the way that it works because there are a certain number of people who are causing the problems that you have to deal, with but there’s also the general population that aren’t the problem and you’ve got to figure out how to get those guys over to your side so that they can be not your enemy anymore or a lot of the people are just on the fence and they just want to have life go back to the normal.
So that was kind of part of my job was to get those folks self-sufficient and to understand that we wanted to work with them and not against them. But the traveling part was fun, but the hard part was when my first deployment my kids were, I think maybe kindergarten and second grade and it was really hard to walk away from my kids. My daughter was hilarious. She wanted to be an Airborne Ranger and I can remember telling that to my battalion commander. I was in an Airborne battalion and my battalion commander looked at her and said, well, you can be Airborne, but you can’t be a Ranger. And she says, well, when I get that old you will be able to.
And it’s kind of funny they’re sending women to Ranger school now. So she got this tough mentality. She wouldn’t wear dresses, she wouldn’t wear pink, she was driving my wife nuts. Her first communion was coming up. So it was hard being away from them and I called her from the satellite phone and I said, Natalie, look, it’s your first communion, Mommy wants you to wear a dress. She’s like, OK, for you, Daddy, I’ll– no problem. So it was hard being away from my family. I liked what I did, especially in Afghanistan and actually in Central Asia.
The one thing that helped me a lot was I got my family involved in a lot of things. I was like, you know, the kids really don’t have a lot of toys over here and I kind of– the Taliban– I read the book The Kite Runner, which talked about the Taliban and not wanting the kids to be able to do certain things. I mean so we went on a big drive to get the soccer balls and kites and things like that so I could be out in the middle these areas where they weren’t really hospitable to Americans and whatnot and kind of play with the kids. I mean I flew kites with kids in Afghanistan, we played soccer.
It was kind of funny. One time we were out there, we had all these Nerf balls and we’re throwing the balls out for the kids. And I had footballs and soccer balls, and the kids who got the soccer balls were out kicking the soccer balls around, but the kids who got the footballs, they’re taking the points and they’re trying to push them together because they think they got defective the balls. And we had to explain to them about American football and we got a little bit of a football game up.
And it was kind of neat because my kids back here felt like they were involved and we were able to stay in touch. And I kind of felt like it’s hard to influence a 45, 50-year-old person that the United States really wants to be their friend and really wants to be peaceful with them and would like not to be at war with certain countries. But I felt like if you could influence a six, eight, 10-year-old kid and they’d have good memories of United States soldiers and what we stood and that type of thing, that we were actually their friends, that that might help a long time down the road.
TARA HARNETT: What is the most interesting you saw when traveling or experienced when traveling?
ED SINGER: The most interesting thing I saw when traveling. Hm. Wow. I’ve seen a lot of interesting things. I think– it’s kind of funny, just little things stand out in my mind. One of the most interesting things that I saw in Afghanistan was there was like a minivan and it had a couple of couches strapped to the top of it and there were people sitting in the couches and there were people hanging– there must have been 40 people in this minivan and on top of the minivan and just driving down the road. And it’s just like, you think over here in the United States we’ve become so risk averse that there’s people that– there’s like 40 people hanging on this van in different places, sitting on the sofa that’s strapped to the top of the van and that type of thing. I guess it was just the way to get around.
I had people who would come– we would try to help them with agriculture, whether it be we did some projects with chickens or irrigation or things like that that were places that it would take me two days to drive there in a Humvee. And I’ve had people show up at our base that had traveled like six or eight days on a tractor and there would be like eight guys hanging on this tractor traveling to come to the– I was on what they called a provincial reconstruction team– just to see us and talk to us. So that was interesting.
I also got to see some cool places. I got the float in the Dead Sea, which I’d probably never had an opportunity to go there. It’s kind of funny because you can only kind of halfway get down in the water because there’s so much salt in there that the buoyancy is kind of crazy. I met a lady who was the first female to fly a combat aircraft, command a combat squadron in combat and while I was in Jordan. And she was talking to Muslims about women and women’s issues and things like that. It was kind of interesting to watch because the younger men there were open to listening to what she had to say about women and women’s issues, but the more older, traditional folks not so much.
So I think things are changing and that we can have a positive influence in the world and that we don’t want to just– the big thing that everybody is always concerned about is we’re there to destroy somebody’s culture, and that’s not what it’s all about. But you’ve got to kind of consider everybody’s rights and thoughts when you’re dealing with things. And it was really neat to meet this individual. It was kind of a front runner for us here in the United States of seeing her interacted in the conference in Jordan with different militaries throughout the Middle Eastern and central Asia.
TARA HARNETT: What did you learn about other cultures while overseas?
ED SINGER: Well, I guess the biggest thing that struck me in Afghanistan was just how poor and depressed these people were. And I got an appreciation that most people are really good people deep down, it’s just a matter of we don’t always get to know them. And just for example, in Afghanistan we’d travel to these villages that were very far away from the cities and you might not see people for eight or 10 hours while you’re driving in a Humvee and you get out to these places that look like they’re on the face of Mars and there’s no water there, they’re struggling to survive, they’re having a hard time raising any type of crops and just having a hard time eating.
People don’t have shoes, all the kids are running around barefoot on pretty rocky, nasty ground and things like that. And I got to learn that nobody there could read and just working with them more on things that we take kind of for granted, it really made me have an appreciation for the fact that– I thought a lot about I was born here in the United States and I’m fortunate enough to have the things that I have, but what if I was born in Afghanistan and I was born in the middle of this desert? I’d
Ask the people a lot of times we were in these villages, why do you live here? Because there’s some places in Afghanistan that aren’t that far away, where there’s water and there’s green stuff and things like that. But this is kind of like the middle of the barren desert where there’s enough and these people are just struggling to survive. And the answer I got was, well, my father lived here, his father lived here, his father lived here, and his father lived here, and this is our village. OK. And that was kind of the answer. But they really don’t know anything any different and it really– I think that people are very much the same deep down.
One of the things that really struck me in Afghanistan was in working with these villages, they were in areas that were constantly under siege by the Taliban. And we would go out there and nobody really wanted to mess with us because we could call in close air support and things like that. So in Afghanistan, it was very rarely than anybody wanted to pick a fight with us because they knew that it was going to be a losing battle. But we’d go out and we’d work with these villages for weeks at a time and I would leave and then I would come back and I would find out that the person that I was dealing with had been killed. And it really bothered me from the standpoint of I felt like it was almost my fault that that village elder had been killed.
And some guy’s just standing there and he’d be talking to me, and I’d say to him, I’d say, well, this person that I dealt with the last time I was here, he got taken and killed by the Taliban. Doesn’t that concern you? And their value for life is a little bit different there because it is so hard. But the guy said to me, he said, well, you know, he said, we want things to be better for our kids– very much like I think any of us here in the US want– we want things to be better for our kids so I’m willing to talk with you and work with you because I think that you’re better choice than the folks who are just trying to– we’re trying to work with them and the opposite side was trying to basically coerce them by force.
And so it really struck me that they really were concerned about their future generations. And it bothered me, to an extent, because we value life so much here in the United States that it wasn’t that important to them if they got killed because then there’d be somebody else to take their place. And they were more worried about what the future of their village was than their own personal safety. It just was very odd to me that way.
The other thing I was kind of really odd was as a civil affairs guy, we were also responsible for if the infantry guys accidentally came through and damaged something in the village or killed a kid or something like that. We were responsible for making things right. And it was just strange to me to that the people in Afghanistan, if you accidentally killed their kid, $50 would make them happy and they would figure that’s done. I mean obviously, me, if you did something to one of my kids, I’m not going to be that easily satisfied. But it’s just such a tough place there and they’ve seen so much devastation and life is so difficult over there that they view things a lot differently than we do.
TARA HARNETT: What is one of your favorite memories about coming home?
ED SINGER: Well, my most favorite memory is my first deployment when I want to Afghanistan, I told my wife, I said, I’m not coming home at all for R&R because it would be too hard to go back. I said, you know, I’m stuck in this place where it’s not real nice and if I come home I won’t want to go back and so it’s probably not a good idea for me to come home. But I knew in my mind that I had managed most of the– it was me in and three other people on my team, so we just kind of had to work out when we were all going on R&R and everybody was like, I’m not going home at Christmas time. I was like, nobody wants to go home at Christmastime? Good, I’m taking the Christmas time slot.
So my kids were kindergarten and second grade age at the time and I didn’t tell them I was coming home. So I had my uncle, who had been in the military, he was going to pick me up at the airport and he was sworn to secrecy that I was coming home. So I show up and it’s about a week before Christmas time and my uncle puts me in the back of his van and we drive– at the time my kids were at my sister’s house because she was babysitting, my wife was going out somewhere that night. So he goes to my sister’s house and leaves me in the back to the van and he goes in to get my kids and he tells him that he has a Christmas present out in the car that’s too big for him to carry by himself and he needs them to come and open up the trunk and help him carry it.
So I just remember my kids opened up the trunk, they were shocked. And I jumped out of the trunk and my kids were crying and my daughter says to me, she says, Daddy, what are you doing here? And I was like, well, I came home to visit you guys. And she’s like, aren’t you going to get in trouble? You’re going to AWOL. I was like, well, I’m not AWOL and it’s OK. So after she figured out that I wasn’t AWOL they were just so happy and I think they hugged me for hours.
And ultimately, they got my mom. My mom showed up and I can remember she was very proud of me being in the military and all that, but like any mother, she was very worried about me being in the military. And I guess I’ve always been her baby boy, and even when I went to Iraq and even in my 40s when I was going overseas, it bother her. But she showed up and I was hiding and they had me hide behind the shower curtain in the bathroom and they told her the kids had done something in the tub and she went and opened up the shower curtain and then she cried for like the next eight hours because she hadn’t see me in months and she was just so happy about it. And so that was an awesome memory.
My son kind of blow it with my wife, though. They got my wife to come back to my sister’s house and my son’s sitting on the porch, and he had been kind of depressed about the fact that I was gone. And he looks at my wife and says, he says, Mommy, I’m so sad. And apparently, he’s got a big, huge smile on his face, Daddy’s not going to be home for Christmas. And my wife said, yeah, I knew at that point in time something was up. So she didn’t get the immediate shock of seeing me like the kids and my mom had gotten. But it was probably one of the most special moments and special days of my life.
TARA HARNETT: That’s amazing. AS a future film student, what is your opinion on Hollywood’s interpretation of the military?
ED SINGER: You know, that’s funny because I don’t like to watch war movies. My wife’s like, I want to go see this and I want to see that. I don’t watch them, I don’t like it. It bothers me because I’ve seen, especially– when I went to Iraq, it was a terrible place. In Afghanistan, we would go a lot of different places and I’d feel uncomfortable because we were out in the middle of nowhere all by ourself, but generally if we ran into a bomb or something over there, it flattened a tire and we fixed the tire and we’d go back to base and that would kind of be it. I mean I never felt like I was in extreme danger there.
But having been in Iraq, there were a lot of what they called EFPs, which were basically coming from Iran. The bombs that we saw in Afghanistan were there were a whole bunch of munitions left over from them fighting with Soviets and that area has been contested for years and there was all this stuff out there and people would put a fuse in it and they’d blow something up in the road and it wouldn’t be a big deal.
But these bombs that were going off in Iraq were– I mean we saw people decapitated and things like that, and I just– I’ve seen enough of that stuff live that I don’t want to go see how Hollywood’s going to dramatize it. So quite honestly, I don’t know how I feel about how Hollywood portrays the wars because I don’t go watch that stuff. I’d rather go watch a comedy or something else. I’ll go watch an animated movie or a comedy or whatever, but if it comes to Saving Private Ryan or the Sniper movie or whatever, not my thing. I don’t need to see it.
TARA HARNETT: Good. I’m going to be writing comedy so you can go watch my movies.
ED SINGER: OK.
TARA HARNETT: What is the most important thing you learned when in service?
ED SINGER: The most important thing– well, you know, it’s kind of funny because the most important thing that I think– and anybody can learn anywhere– is integrity, being honest with people whether it’s your chain of command in the military. And we’re all humans and we all make mistakes. And I could always– as a commander or a team leader or whatever I was in the military, I could always understand if somebody made a mistake and they told me what they did and we would try to fix it.
But one of things I’ve always told my kids growing up, and one of things that’s been instilled in me by the military, and I can give you a number of different examples, is don’t lie to people. Be honest with people. In dealing with people in Afghanistan, if I told them I was going to do something, in order to gain their trust I had to follow through. I certainly didn’t want– if there was something I thought I might be able to do, we’d have to make sure that they clearly understood that maybe we can do this and I’m going to go try to make this work out or whatever it is. We’ll try to build you a school here, but you don’t have any teachers. We’ve got to work with the Ministry of Education to get you teachers if we’re going to build a school, those type of things.
The honesty and integrity is, whether you’re dealing with people like I was in Afghanistan or Iraq and just being honest with people and making sure that you don’t stretch the truth or lie. Once you lose somebody’s trust, it’s very hard to gain that back, whether it’s people in a foreign country or me as a commander. If I had an NCO that was working for me on a mission and he said, I’ve got X, Y, and Z all lined up and I find out no, you don’t have X, Y, and Z all lined up and you were just trying to hide something from me. Trying to get that person’s trust back isn’t possible. Being honest with people– and everybody’s a human being. Just dealing with people as people is probably the most important thing that I’ve learned in the military and throughout my life.
TARA HARNETT: Do you have any advice for teenagers and young adults going into the military?
ED SINGER: Well, I mean the military is a great opportunity and you can become whatever you want to become there. I know a lot of folks that are enlisted people that are very happy doing the job that they do and would never want to be an officer in the military and that’s the furthest thing from their minds. There’s an opportunity be an officer and lead troops and things like that. There’s just so much opportunity for you there. It comes down anything, though, in life– you’ve got to work hard at it.
It’s a lot of physical challenges, a lot of mental challenges. Regardless of whether somebody wants to go into the military just to serve for a period of time– and I really don’t think you can know until you get there to find out whether you like it or not because if you’re just going there to serve for a period of time, you’re going to get a lot of skills out of there that other people won’t have. Whenever I’ve had– in the civilian world, I work as the environmental health director at the Health Department here in Carroll County and folks that I’ve had that have come out of the military, I can always trust that if they tell me they’re going to get something done, it’s going to get done.
They have a lot leadership ability they get from the military. There’s just so much– and I’ll be honest, from my perspective I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more out of the military than I’ve given to the military. I’ve given the military a fair amount, but there’s a lot of things that the military gives back to you that are intangible. I wouldn’t be the person than I am today if I didn’t have the experiences– it’s this kind of funny– to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and see some of the things that I’ve seen. It’s made me appreciate things a lot more, it’s taught me a lot about how to lead people, how to deal with people. I feel like I can deal with just about anybody.
For instance, I have a job interview for a promotion on Monday and somebody said, well, aren’t you nervous? I said, well, as far as I know, nobody’s going to shoot at me there, nobody’s going to try to blow me up, so I don’t know what they’re going to do to me that really should make me nervous. I mean I’m either going to get the job or I’m not going to get the job. So it’s a pretty simple thing for me. And I feel like there’s a lot of things I can talk about from the military that I can say, I have this leadership ability and if you want me to give this organization direction and you want me to make sure that people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and holding them accountable, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to learn those types of things in the military and how to do those things.
TARA HARNETT: Thank you.
ED SINGER: OK, thank you.
TARA HARNETT: Very much.