Some columns take longer to gestate than others. This one, for example, had its genesis about a year ago when I first talked with Lt. Col. Nicole Balliet while she was the garrison commander of Contingency Base Adder in Iraq.
She was the virtual mayor of the facility, an 8,000-acre air base of some 15,000 soldiers, with Ugandans contracted as the facility’s security forces (yes, Ugandans).
She had just turned over sections of the sprawling facility to the Iraqi Air Force in preparation for U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011. She was looking forward to returning in June to her home in Atascadero and resuming her role as garrison commander of Camp San Luis Obispo, a job she’d held since 2007.
Settling into a chair in her spacious office at Camp San Luis, a command post filled with more than a half a lifetime’s worth of military mementos and a Wonder Woman lunchbox, I found Balliet to be a delightful blend of humor, intelligence and openness about her career and chosen profession. This is her story.
Helping the troops
Balliet’s life began 41 years ago in Fargo, N.D., born to Betty Jo and Richard Balliet. Perhaps taking a career cue from her father, a colonel who served in Vietnam, she wasted no time in following his lead, taking basic training in the North Dakota Army National Guard between her junior and senior years in high school.
She holds a bachelor’s in history from the University of North Dakota and a master’s in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. Her calling, as it turns out, is logistics. A battalion needs food, shelter, arms or helicopter?
She figures out who, what, where, why and when to get it to the troops.
She’s apparently very good at what she does, as both a logistician and soldier. After two tours of duty to Iraq, the first of which she lived in a tent and came under mortar fire, she’s earned dozens of decorations.
Some of those include the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster well, suffice to say, she’s earned more Oak Leaf Clusters than a good portion of the Elfin Forest.
Her two younger sisters, Laura Bearfield and Michelle Mulberry, also have made careers in the military: Laura serving as an MP and Michelle as a nurse assigned to C-130 transports.
Among the three sisters, they’ve been on nine deployments to the Middle East. Which begs the question: Does the tap water in Fargo run red, white and blue?
Balliet’s deployment to COB Adder as the commander/mayor was “very difficult,” she said. “It was a huge complaint department, so it wasn’t a very desirable job.”
In fact, her office at Adder was known as the “Mayor’s Cell,” which meant that everything that happened at the facility had to be run by her.
As for the future of Iraq, she says she really doesn’t know if it will be secure. “We helped them, trained them, but they’ve got a long, hard road ahead.”
That said, she thinks the best thing to come out of the Iraq war “is how much the U.S. armed forces had done in eight years — the infrastructure, support and new technology. It’s astonishing.”
The oddest cultural trait that she encountered during her time in Iraq was the Iraqi Air Force’s lack of urgency.
“American military is very Type A,” she said. “We plan and are very methodical. The Iraqis are more free spirits with a ‘God willing’ attitude to all things. We’d try to plan a ceremony and they might or might not show up.”
And, as can be imagined, the worst experience of her military career is the “loss of a soldier. There’s nothing worse than attending a memorial service because, in the Guard, we’re all family.”
Now she’s back home in Atascadero, riding her bicycle from Camp SLO to Morro Bay and preparing for this year’s AIDS Ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
At the same time, she’s overseeing a 4,100-acre facility with seven firing ranges, 300 facilities, anywhere from 500 to 1,200 personnel and programs that train groups as diverse as the FBI to the Boy Scouts.
It’s all in a day’s work for the mayor.