Technology arms new kind of war hero
Jeffrey and Alberta Beggs are obviously proud of their son Robert, an Army staff sergeant who earlier this summer received the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan.
But the Osterville couple seem almost confused about how he ended up in the war-torn country in the past several years, setting up and maintaining complex communications systems on the fly and sometimes under fire.
"Every time we ask him what he does he says, 'I work with computers,'" Alberta Beggs said in a recent interview.
A 1996 Barnstable High School graduate who recently returned from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, Robert Beggs is an example of the new face of America's war hero. Although he saw combat, Beggs received the Bronze Star for seemingly more mundane but increasingly more important activities. He was responsible for setting up 2,000 email accounts, radio communications and camera feeds, including after the planned location for a 1,000-person forward operating base changed unexpectedly, according to a narrative for the award.
The Bronze Star is awarded for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone and is the fourth-highest individual military award. More than 60,000 Bronze Star Medals have been awarded by the U.S. Army as part of the war in Afghanistan, according to the most recent information available from that service branch.
In addition to setting up computer systems and training American forces Beggs "also played a significant role in supporting the advise and assist mission to the Afghan National Security Forces," according to the narrative.
Beggs, 36, was awarded the Bronze Star on July 4 while still deployed at Forward Operating Base Lightning in the eastern part of Afghanistan.
A member of the audiovisual club in high school, Beggs remembers his parents giving him a remote-controlled four-wheeler that he had taken apart by the end of the day, he said during an interview this week while back home visiting his parents on Cape Cod. (He is based at Fort Drum in New York.)
"I was always into tooling around with electronics and stuff like that," he said.
Before joining the Army, he was a rescue swimmer and a mechanic with the U.S. Coast Guard. After the Coast Guard, he worked for Northrop Grumman, but it was when he joined the Army that his acumen for communications really kicked in. Beggs said he was a "little smarter" about entering the Army and is certified in several data analytical and network systems and is working on his bachelor's degree.
During his first deployment on the south edge of the Korengal Valley, Beggs was responsible for communications on six vehicles as well as for communications for associated personnel as part of a Personal Security Detachment team escorting high-ranking officials to different forward operating bases, he said.
"We took contact, we returned contact," said Beggs, who is married with two children from a previous marriage.
At FOB Lightning, where he was deployed starting in October, he did everything from refurbishing used equipment as operations in the country wound down to keeping Facebook accounts up and running.
"If that goes down people lose their mind," he said about the social media site.
In addition, he helped members of the Special Forces -- by weaving cable through body armor to make soldiers' entire bodies into antennas, for example -- and Afghan forces with basic communications needs, Beggs said, adding that the Afghan forces were very receptive and interested in learning.
The work meant 20-hour days, he said.
"My favorite soldier was a coffeepot," he said. "Anyone who knocked on the door we would give assistance to."
A lot of times he had to improvise, he said.
"In a situation like that you'd be amazed how inventive you can be," he said. "Duct tape and zip ties, I'll tell you."
Communications is crucial to military operations, said Massachusetts Army National Guard communications officer Lt. Col. Richard Berthao.
"One of the first things, whether it's locally or deployed overseas, is to establish the communications," he said.
While radios are still used, all orders and detailed information are relayed through email these days, and protecting that information is an important part of military security, Berthao said.
The fact that Congress has chosen to maintain funding for cyber infrastructure while Department of Defense budgets in general have shrunk and are expected to keep shrinking is an indication of its importance, he said.
"Every branch of the military has the job specialties for communications," he said.
And, going forward, the use of smartphone and tablet devices is being tested and will become an increasing part of military operations, Berthao said.
Beggs' parents said they don't remember him being particularly interested in computers or mechanically inclined until he joined the Coast Guard and then the Army.
"It didn't stand out to me at all," Jeffrey Beggs said.
Alberta Beggs said that, although her son called her all the time while he was deployed to check on her ongoing battle with cancer, he never explained why he was getting a Bronze Star. As far as they understood it, their son's job was to help "turn the lights out," her husband said about the mission in Afghanistan.
"We had no idea what it was for," Jeffrey Beggs said about the medal.
As for Robert Beggs and his wife, who was also in the military, the big plan is pretty simple: open up a Dunkin' Donuts in Alaska after he retires from the military. (His next tour is South Korea.)
"It may be growing up in New England, Dunkin' Donuts has been such a huge part of my life," he said. "We're always trying to get just someone to listen to two hard-working military personnel who want to make doughnut sticks and make people happy, make coffee."