For Darrell Grafton,his job isn’t work. It’s play.
“I get to play with all this awesome army stuff,” Grafton said.
A U.S. Army Reservist, Staff Sgt. Grafton works full-time at New Century AirCenter as part of the Army’s Active Guard and Reserve (AGR) program. A self-proclaimed “wrench turner,” Grafton is a wheeled vehicle mechanic.
It’s more than just cars.
The New Century fleet that Grafton, Topeka, is charged with maintaining includes 133-ton vehicles like the M1070A1. When fully-operational, there are 96 such vehicles stationed at the U.S. Army Reserve’s 129th Transportation Battalion at New Century. The M1070A1 pulls the M1000 trailer, which is used for transporting heavy equipment like tanks. Several smaller vehicles support the 133-ton trucks, and Grafton is tasked with coordinating the maintenance program for all 96 M1070A1s as well as Humvees, contact truckers and wreckers.
Grafton joined the U.S. Army Reserves when he was 17 years old. He completed basic training between his junior and senior years of high school, and then finished his advanced individualized training the summer after he graduated in 1987.
He started his military career as an aircraft weapons system repairer, but changed his military occupational specialty (MOS) during a 1990 deployment to Iraq during the Gulf War. Though trained as a aircraft systems repairer, Grafton was detached to the Gulf War to work with a transportation unit.
“My first deployment to Iraq, I was in a contact truck with an NCO (non-commissioned officer),” he said. “He and I would just go up and down the desert highways fixing anything that broke down.”
The deployments are like one, 12-month long work day.
“I don’t mind. It’s like you go to work one day for 12 months,” he said. “That’s all we do is work, but when you like what you do it doesn’t really seem like a job.”
He liked it so much after his first deployment that he enlisted as an active soldier. He was stationed at Ft. Riley for four years, before being honorably discharged from the Army in 1996. He took a hiatus from the military, but shortly after September 11, he re-enlisted in the reserves.
“I took a long break, but I decided I wasn’t done,” Grafton said. “After 9/11, I got laid off and I started thinking, you know what? Maybe I wasn’t done with the Army.”
He has no regrets. He joined the first and second time, because he wanted to be part of a big team.
“Your wrestling team, your football team, that’s all really neat, but when you want to be part of something really, really big, the Army is really, really big,” Grafton said.
When fully staffed, there are 300 soldiers stationed with the 129th Battalion at New Century. Most of the reservists drill there one weekend per month. With Grafton’s role in the AGR, he works daily at the industrial park near Gardner. His full-time role requires that he maintain the unit’s fleet and plan drill weekend training events.
Working with the soldiers is one of Grafton’s favorite part of the job.
“I like being in the trenches with the troops,” he said. “Every day is a training opportunity. It’s great to have the opportunity to share knowledge with the troops.”
Members of the 129th drilled last weekend, and locals may have seen military vehicles cruising through town. The unit rolled through town in wheeled vehicles headed to Ft. Riley.
They fueled up on the south side of town.
“We hit that gas station, and it’s such a big thing going on,” Grafton said. “Those big trucks roll in and buy thousands of gallons of gas. It’s neat to see the convoys out doing their thing, and if something breaks, we’re out working on the side of the road.”
Drill weekends are training events, but they aren’t the only training Grafton has done. He formally trained Army mechanics while stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington and then trained more mechanics while stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas.
He was thrilled after those duties to be re-stationed at New Century. The AGR program allows full-time soldiers to live and work in communities rather than on an Army base, and New Century is close to Grafton’s permanent home in Topeka.
Fred Hermstein is retired from active Army. He lives in Gardner and works as a public affairs specialist for an Army Recruiting Battalion. He said there are many people in Gardner who don’t realize there are members of the military stationed locally.
“It amazes me how many people in the Gardner community don’t know,” Hermstein said. “We have units here.”
And Hermstein said with units come opportunities for individuals who may be interested in serving but don’t want to move. Reserve soldiers are stationed near Gardner, but still have the opportunity to see the world.
Hermstein said he knows of units who do their annual two-week training in places like Germany, Hawaii and Australia. And of course, there are opportunities to train and potential obligations to deploy.
Grafton’s Gulf War deployment was the first of three. He deployed to Kuwait in 2008-2009 and again in 2011-2012. Grafton doesn’t mind being deployed.
“It’s harder for the people who stay home and have to pay the bills,” he said. “All we do is just go to work and do our job. The families, it’s hard for them.”
New Century unit maintains Army vehicles