Fire Like Rain

30 Sep 2019

A Veteran’s Journey

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Mollie Tobias

Franklin Oldham is a man’s man – a rugged naturalist and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’s a Southern Pines native, through and through, his childhood playground the park at Campbell House in the Weymouth section. “I was born and raised here,” he says. “My mother and father are good hardworking people who never pushed me in any direction.”

“Traveling through Ft. Bragg at a very young age, I often saw the woods on fire. My father said the forest continues to thrive by burning away the undergrowth. A necessity in a rainforest is rain and in a pine forest you need fire. The impact zones of the artillery ranges feed the ecosystem in a remarkable way and that impressed me.”

“When I was a kid, dad taught us a game called ‘Pine Cone Pickup.’ All my friends thought it was the funniest thing because he was essentially getting us to clean up the yard. Maybe it passed down to me from my father, but I would never cut down a pine tree.”

“Sitting on our screen porch during a thunderstorm, I would watch all the pines flexing and swinging, strong as they were, taking the powerful winds. They would light up from the flashes and you’d see their silhouettes – over here, over there – dancing back and forth.”

An Eagle Scout growing up, Oldham was in the Junior ROTC during high school and always wanted some kind of military career. So, he joined the North Carolina National Guard and after September 11, 2001, enlisted in the Army.

“The Army sent me to Germany and from there I went to Kosovo for a peacekeeping operation. The war broke out in Iraq in 2003, and we came in to replace the guys who did the initial assault.”

“In 2004, my tank company was selected to push into Iraq as a part of the shock and awe factor. They sent us to Tikrit and we were able to bring those areas under control while I was there, until March 2005.”

“A sound of hydraulics, that’s the first thing you notice sitting in a tank. Wearing a headset, you hear all the radio chatter. You’re zeroed in on every little thing, laser focused like you’ve never been before. It may be dead quiet ahead of you, but somebody 200 meters to the right could be in the fight of their lives – you paint that picture in your mind and send it out to the next guy over the airwaves.”

“‘Button up,’ that’s what the company guy would say before dropping a 500-pound bomb. I would send it out to the platoon and everyone closed their hatches. Then, there would be silence and everyone would look for it to happen. It was actually a let down, to be honest, this precision-guided thing didn’t make so much noise a half-mile away.”

“We got called to an oil spill on a pipeline that busted, and it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen,” reflects Oldham. “Seeing black oil overcoming the sand makes you realize firsthand how unnatural it is.”

“I remember one time getting out of the tank and it was hot like a sauna, because the armor radiates the heat to the inside. The desert warmth reaches in and the sweat stings your eyes.”

“A friend taught me to search for beauty in everything, but in that environment it’s hard to do. Smoke rises silver and black, depending on what’s burning and it’s very dismal. There’s no grass or trees and you’re feeling chaotic – but I still tried to find beauty in a fire like rain.”

“Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and philosopher around 544 - 496 BC, wrote The Art of War that’s still taught at West Point and the Naval Academy. One of the things he said is the greatest battle ever won is the one never fought, meaning diplomacy should always be utilized.”

“I began getting sick in late 2004, and for two months no one could give me any answers. I went up the hierarchy of doctors until the guy at the top told me what was wrong: An autoimmune problem resulting from the anthrax vaccine. I’m the one in 10,000 affected by the vaccine, a slow crippler that’s destroyed the padding between my joints, starting in my lower back, spreading into my hips and shoulders, to my knees, feet and hands.”

“For me to put my boots on in the morning would probably take 20 minutes and it would be extremely painful. So, they said I couldn’t be in the Army anymore and basically put me on desk duty until I was discharged. With six years invested, I had to give up something I loved doing.”

Oldham returned to civilian life grappling with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “At my worst, I was very isolated. The hardest part was the disappointment in myself,’ recalls Oldham. “It’s really difficult when you have a mental issue, because nobody can see it.”

Therapy helped his recovery and now he’s devoted himself to environmental causes. “I’ve surprised myself by taking on tasks without monetary gain in an effort to make a difference. Five years ago, you couldn’t get me in front of a crowd. Part of my journey to overcome that was getting involved in civic work and doing something positive.”

Since retirement, Oldham has served on the executive committee of Save Our Seas, a group based in Wilmington, NC, mobilized to prevent seismic blasting and drilling for oil off our coast. “The biggest thing about offshore drilling is the lack of public awareness,” says Oldham. “Sonic testing is horrible for wildlife and at times it’s an uphill battle.”

An important effort for Oldham has been advocacy for clean water in the Cape Fear River. With its headwaters between Lee and Chatham counties, hog, chemical and processing plant wastes are released into the river as it flows through Fayetteville before entering the ocean near Wilmington. “By-products of the process for making vinyl siding and Teflon are among the greatest threats,” explains Oldham.

“The easiest way to get involved is just reduce, reuse, and recycle. Go with the mindset throughout your day -- ‘do I need that straw in my drink at McDonald’s’ or ‘what happens if I just bring my own coffee cup to Starbucks.’ Things like that are just tiny choices that if everyone made them it would produce a big shift in how our culture handles waste.”  

Of the Sandhills, Oldham says: “This area is growing, but I like that neighborhoods are being preserved. Many of the builders, especially the ones that grew up here, are concerned about preservation. You see that in the community when it comes to clear-cutting along Midland Road. When people are faced with monumental change that sparks involvement. It makes no sense, destroying a piece of paradise.”

“If the longleaf pine forest were to disappear, it would ruin this place. The fact the towns are named for this resource shows its regional significance. When you lose a forest, you’ve lost a place of serenity, a home to all the creatures and vegetation that might never recover. If the pines go away, the community would dissolve to a certain extent. Why would anyone want to come here? You’re going to have a desert with all this sand.”

“It takes action,” Oldham says, “the most direct way anyone can make a difference is to always try and leave a place better than you found it.”

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