CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
John George Bilby was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in August 1984, and grew up in Wall Township, New Jersey. He attended Saint Rose of Lima elementary school in Belmar, Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison, (where his mother Patricia was a teacher) and Rutgers University.
As a freshman at Rutgers, Bilby sought an extracurricular activity to participate in. He looked at fraternities but was not impressed. Bilby came from a military family, as both of his grandfathers had served as enlisted men in World War II, as well as his father, a graduate of Seton Hall University, had been commissioned through ROTC and served as a lieutenant in Vietnam. He decided to join the ROTC program, believing it gave him a chance to serve his country as well as provide a valuable experience, and provided college credit as well.
As an ROTC cadet, Bilby was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky between his sophomore and junior years for leadership training. Then, between his junior and senior years, he went to Fort Lewis, Washington for another summer training period. Bilby graduated from Rutgers as a Phi Beta Kappa student with a major in history in 2006. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Transportation Corps.
While in college, Bilby had served in the National Guard in a program designed to recruit new officers to the Guard. As a lieutenant in the New Jersey National Guard, he was assigned to the 253rd Transportation Company, located in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.
While a member of the 253rd, Bilby participated in one weekend drill a month leading a platoon that worked on truck maintenance and trips to the range at Fort Dix, along with two-week summer training. On one of the two-week sessions, the unit was sent to Southern California, and had to travel north to San Francisco to borrow trucks to haul wooden barriers to the border to hinder drug traffickers. In 2007, he transferred to the 117th CSSB, a battalion level organization headquartered in West Trenton, where his brother in law, Jarrett Feldman was the S-3. Bilby was appointed Transportation Officer, which involved organization and supervision of convoys. He was promoted to captain in March 2012.
In his civilian life at the time, Bilby was studying for his MA degree in history and teaching in New York City. The 117th was ordered to mobilize in 2011; they received a brief state training session before being deployed to Fort Hood, Texas for additional training. Following the training, the unit left for Afghanistan. Captain Bilby and Captain Feldman were in the advance party and flew to Baltimore, Germany, Kuwait and Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Bilby was not initially impressed with Kandahar. The first thing he recalled were the odors, from burning garbage and the “Poo Pond,” a receptacle for the camp’s sewage. A greeting banner at the gate read, “Welcome to Kandahar.” It was decorated with allied and Afghan flags, but more than a tad threadbare, and with a few bullet holes.
The 117th was a battalion headquarters with four companies under it. They included National Guard units from Ohio and Alabama, and regular army companies; there was occasional friction between these units. It took the 117th about a month to get up to speed in its assignment. After that, one regular army sergeant said they were better than the regulars.
The battalion was in direct support of the 82nd Airborne Division, carting supplies to the unit’s Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). They also removed material to send back to the United States as the Division prepared to return after taking part in President Obama’s surge deployment. The 82nd was replaced by the 2nd Infantry Division. At one FOB, soldiers sank to their calf muscles in the sand. The convoys would travel at five miles per hour, with Engineer troops out front on the lookout for explosive devices. Some vehicles were Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP), with V-shaped hulls intended to disperse bomb blasts. One MRAP was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) which penetrated the hull and wounded the crew. Sometimes children from Afghan towns would run along by a slow-moving convoy and steal some stuff from the back. Weapons and ammunition were secured.
There were some interesting cultural events with our NATO allies. The French celebrated Bastille Day, and each French soldier got a glass of wine. Americans were not allowed to drink any alcoholic beverage while in Afghanistan. The British celebrated the Queen’s birthday, which was another interesting occasion. Canadian soldiers had created a hockey rink, although it was only operable in the winter.
Communications from home were much easier than they had been in any previous war. Using computers and Skype, John was able to speak to his wife Carol every day. Packages of treats from family arrived frequently, and included a family favorite – Turnstile Coffee from Turnstile Coffee Roasters of Belmar, New Jersey.
John did not take a lot of photos, as he is more of a writer than a photographer. He had two articles published in the New York Times (see links at end of summary). Bilby also was selected, due to his MA degree and teaching experience, to teach a course there on US History I to soldiers seeking a degree from the University of Maryland. Once the class was interrupted by a rocket attack, but he recalled that there were “no students better motivated than deployed soldiers.”
Bilby’s father sent him a “Short-timer calendar.” It was a copy of his original calendar from Vietnam. The “calendar” was a drawing of a helmet sitting on two combat boots. The helmet had 100 small patches to cover in, one day at a time, cataloging the soldier’s last 100 days “in-country.”
Bilby, again assigned to the advance party, recalled that it “felt wonderful” leaving Kandahar. When they left Afghanistan, the pilot announced, “Praise Jesus we are out of Afghanistan.” They landed in Kyrgyzstan and spent a few days there. For the first time in eleven months, they could drink beer. Unfortunately, one of the selections was Russian Baltica #9, which was far from wonderful. They made their way back to Fort Hood from Kyrgyzstan, and, eventually, West Trenton, where they were greeted by their families.
Since his return from Afghanistan, Bilby received his discharge from the National Guard, worked for the Social Security Administration and went to Rutgers Law School part-time. He earned his law degree and passed the New Jersey Bar exam. Bilby is currently working for the Department of Justice. He, his wife Carol Mendez and their children, Angelica and Joseph, live in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Links to Bilby’s New York Times articles:
- Receiving Ashes Before Confronting Afghanistan’s Dust
- A Change in the Afghan Fighting Season, Borne on the Rain Drops