DECATUR, Ill. — In the space of a New York minute, Benjamin Little went from self-confessed “Decatur scholastic bowl nerd” to highly trained Army officer hunting roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
All right, it took more than a minute, but the transformation of the 24-year-old, who only graduated from St. Teresa High School in 2006, was remarkably fast and involved New York’s West Point Military Academy.
Now, armed with a military education and a degree in mechanical engineering, 1st Lt. Little knows how to orchestrate battlefields and combat zones so the answers are more likely to come out in Uncle Sam’s favor.
“The role of a combat engineer is mobility and countermobility,” he said, “Making sure our forces can get where they are going and making sure the opposite force, the enemy, can’t get where they’re going.”
He was able to practice the military engineering arts at the sharp end in 2011 with a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan. Part of his time there was spent commanding a platoon hunting improvised explosive devices — military speak for roadside bombs — and trying to outthink the insurgents. The Taliban might want to take Afghanistan back to some kind of medieval theocracy, but they’re more than willing to embrace technology when it comes to blowing stuff up.
“I was in the eastern portion of Afghanistan and didn’t see a lot of action personally, but obviously, there is always some fighting,” he said, a natural-born diplomat who defuses his words carefully while his mom works within earshot in the kitchen of the family’s West End home. “But we got there, and we shut it down pretty well.”
As for the IEDs, his calculations brought him out ahead of the game. “Everybody in the platoon came back,” he said with a smile. “And that’s a good benchmark of success right there.” He harbors no exaggerated views of his own abilities, however, or the chances of bucking the odds forever.
“If you work route clearance, it’s not a matter of if you get blown up, it’s just when,” he said. “Eventually, the enemy gets a vote, too, and they’ve been doing this job for 10 years. They’re good at it.”
Hearing this plain-spoken young officer talk about his life today and the odds involved in risking it to defend his country, it’s hard to reconcile the warrior engineer with the teenager his mom, Linda Little, describes as formerly being “a little squishy.” She adds quickly: “He wasn’t a fat kid or anything, just a couch potato. He wasn’t athletic.”
“All right,” said her son, as though he’s suddenly stepped into the confessional. “I enjoyed video games, I did a lot of math, and I played scholastic bowl. I was a nerd.”
Now his taut body, even while sitting on the family couch while he’s home visiting from his current Alaska base on leave, looks like a coiled spring. If he can’t make it to the gym or run a bunch of miles daily, Little feels as if he’s being starved of oxygen.
What got him on his feet and marching was the hunt for a college to study engineering. His mom and dad, Tom Little, suggested he Google the best schools and — attention — West Point stepped forward to the front of the ranks. And for students who are bright enough academically, can take the discipline and agree to serve in uniform when they get out, a grateful nation also picks up their military academy tuition costs.
One other little catch is involved, too. West Point requires you to be very fit and ace a rigorous series of physical tests to pass muster and get in. Knowing that ordeal loomed in his future got Little off the couch in his high school freshman year and on the way to becoming a lean, fit, scholarly athlete.
By the time he graduated from St. Teresa, where the coaching staff lent him a lot of assistance, Little could have starred in a West Point recruiting poster. “We knew that if Ben really wanted to go to West Point, he would do it,” said his mom. “If Ben does anything, he does it absolutely to the best of his ability; his family is very impressed and very proud of him.”
His parents raised their boy not to brag much, either, but eventually, Mom can’t stand it and has to get out the graduation picture that shows her son receiving his West Point diploma from none other than President Barack Obama.
Out of a class of more than 1,000, her reformed nerd graduated 12th overall and third academically. His family was there to see him march into his graduation ceremony in uniformed, nonsquishy triumph and then, at the end, do that thing they always do at West Point where the graduates throw their caps in the air in undisciplined exultation.
And, in case you were wondering, here’s the answer to that age-old question about what happens after gravity intervenes and the caps spin back to earth.
“No, you don’t get yours back,” said Little.