“I went to college with no intention of joining the military,” retired Army Colonel Steve Ball, a 27-year veteran of the armed forces, tells me at the start of our interview.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table of the old farmhouse in Windsor where Ball lives with his wife of 43 years, Allane. Morning light is streaming through the sliding glass doors leading out to the back patio and a blustery but beautiful fall day. The Windsor farmhouse has been in Allane’s family going back four generations.
“I needed money,” Col. Ball admits with a nostalgic chuckle. He is a silver-haired, distinguished gentleman who reminds me of Hannibal from that old television show, The A-Team. “I was working as a bartender,” he says. “I made pizzas at Pat’s. I scooped ice cream at the Student Union. I went to class and I worked. And I was really tired of that.”
So, at the end of his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, Ball joined the school’s ROTC program and spent the summer attending basic training. It would be the start of a nearly three-decade career that took him from Germany to Vietnam and even to a pivotal post at the Pentagon.
As we speak, a common thread becomes clear to me. Although Mr. Ball is a military man through and through, most of his missions – at least those of most importance to him – were missions of healing rather than conflict.
But all that would come later. Now, the year is 1975. The Vietnam War has ended only a few months earlier, and feelings are still raw – both here in the United States and abroad. “Everybody had a bad taste in their mouth about the military,” he recalls. “The Vietnam War was not a popular event by any stretch. It divided the country in many ways.” He pauses, lost in thought for a moment. “It was the first time in my life that we had begun to really question the government,” he says. “The government – and the actions of the government – were no longer just accepted as right. And people began to really wonder.” He gives a wave of his hands, as if to encompass all of it. “So, I was drawn into all that. All that was a part of my formative years. That’s what defined me in many ways.”
America may have been reeling in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but young Steve Ball was still very busy growing up. The same year he joined the ROTC, he married his high-school sweetheart and switched his college major from Forestry to History.
Two years later, he graduated from the University of Maine at Orono as an ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate.
His first military assignment was to a war-divided West Germany, as a communications officer. “It was a hard time,” he says. “We were at the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was amassed across what they called the ‘Fulda Gap,’ across the Iron Curtain, with their string of tanks. And we were on the other side of the Iron Curtain with our tanks. And we were a part of all that. I was very much a Cold War-soldier at that point.”
But by 1980, Ball had paid back his school loans and was ready to retreat from military life. He filed the papers to resign his commission and headed up to meet his brigade commander, Colonel Thurman D. Rogers, for an exit interview. “I took a jeep and I went up from Karlsruhe, Germany,” he says, “and drove up the Autobahn and went to Mannheim with my little packet, all dressed in my uniform, to go interview with [Col. Rogers] about this idea that I was going to get out.”
The meeting went well, but on the drive back to Karlsruhe, young Steve Ball changed his mind. Maybe it was because Colonel Rogers had pulled out a folder of his own resignation letters, written over the years. Maybe it was because Steve knew there was still work to be done. In any case, he tucked his resignation letter away and got ready for his next assignment.
From Germany, Ball was sent to train reserve troops at Fort Douglas, in Utah, and then up to Fort Lewis, in Washington, where he joined the 1st Special Forces Group, a division of the military specializing in the Asia Pacific.
At this point, his career took a purposeful turn when he was selected to be part of the Army’s Foreign Area Officer (FAO) training program. This was a program spearheaded by General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell had also been profoundly affected by his experience in Vietnam, and recognized the need for the U.S. military to better understand the lands and cultures where it was engaged.
“This was learned from Vietnam,” Ball explains. “The military needed to better understand the populations, the governments, the peoples – the areas that we’re in. We can fight wars – tactics, offense, defense – those are pretty well-taught military skill-sets. People know how to do that. But what we found in Vietnam is that, when you don’t understand the population, if you don’t know the politics, when you don’t know what’s going on, you’re really hamstrung; you really aren’t as effective.
“We were trying to improve our war-fighting capability by understanding these areas,” he says. “So, I became a Southeast Asia FAO.”
It was the beginning of the second stage of his military career, and Asia would become a passion that stayed with him long after his time in the armed forces had ended.
“The [Vietnam] War was over, but there was still a legacy – there was still a history that the U.S. was very much a part of, and it was, for many, a tortured history. It wasn’t a pleasant, fondly remembered [history]. It wasn’t like the Greatest Generation; it wasn’t like World War II. I really enjoyed understanding that from a foreign perspective.”
Ball stayed 18-months at the Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College, spending the last six months of that assignment traveling across Southeast Asia, visiting every country but Cambodia, which was still closed to foreigners, and Vietnam, which would not open up diplomatic relations with the United States until 1995.
“So, I came back from that assignment,” Ball says with a nostalgic glint in his eye, “having been wowed – my whole outlook on the world had been opened up.”
Steve Ball, now a major, was then assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group as the unit’s signal officer. After his tour with Special Forces, Ball transferred to the 18th Airborne Corps to serve as the battalion operations officer, and in 1994 he was sent to Haiti as a part of Operation Uphold Democracy, a mission to remove the military dictatorship which had seized control of the country from the elected president.
The assignment to Haiti was a combat mission, but Ball saw very little combat there. Mostly, what he saw was suffering. “I remember,” he tells me, “we were in the aircraft and we all had our flak-vests and we were all ready to go…we were all ‘locked and cocked’, ready for [combat]…and they dropped the tailgate to the plane, and we went out…and it was just a bunch of very poor, and desperate, crying and hungry people. It was a really difficult mission simply because of the amount of suffering going on.”
Following Haiti, now promoted to lieutenant colonel, Ball was selected as the battalion commander for the 78th Signal Battalion, stationed in Camp Zama, Japan. “It was wonderful,” he recalls. “We lived in Asia and we got immersed in the culture and the people – it was a wonderful tour.”
After Japan, in 1999, Ball was assigned to the PIMBS Desk at the Pentagon, where he served as a political-military policy advisor on Southeast Asia. (PIMBS stands for the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore.)
Only a month before he arrived for his new job at the Pentagon, conflict erupted in the tiny nation of East Timor, an island located just south of Indonesia. East Timor had been colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, but was invaded by Indonesia in 1975, just days after declaring its independence. Now, with the help of the United States and the United Nations, it was reasserting its independence once again.
Steve Ball became instrumental in the United States’ diplomatic efforts which would ultimately, in 2002, lead to the country becoming the first new sovereign state of the 21st century. For his part in those efforts, Ball was named the Pentagon Officer of the Year.
Then, later that year, Ball was nominated to be the U.S. Defense Attaché to the newly re-opened Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
In 2002, Ball – now a full colonel – headed to Hanoi and the country that had so defined his childhood. He went there filled with trepidation. “Having been in Southeast Asia and understanding that America was seen through the lens of the Vietnam War for many people,” he remembers, “I went there thinking I would get badgered and beat up as one of the former aggressors of this country.”
But his apprehension was unfounded and the people of Vietnam welcomed Steve and his wife, Allane, with open arms. The couple spent three years in the country, Steve serving as one of the three top advisors to the American ambassador, and Allane putting her degree in International Affairs to work at the American Embassy.
Two events stick out in Ball’s mind from his time at the American Embassy in Vietnam. The first occurred in 2003, when Colonel Ball escorted Vietnam Defense Minister Phạm Văn Trà on a visit to Washington, DC, to meet General Colin Powell, then Secretary of State.
The second occurred on the occasion of the first U.S. Navy ship to visit Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) since the end of the war in 1975. It was a tricky situation. The Vietnamese government wanted to show China that they had a strong ally in the United States, but at the same time were worried about the appearance of a U.S. warship in the port city after the tortured tensions of the past.
“They were trying to manage the fact that they’re forming a relationship with someone that had caused so much damage in their lives. How do you do this in a way that allows you to maintain your respect as the government, and does not heighten tensions with your nemesis, China? They finally said – reluctantly – ‘yes, you can do it, but we’re going to minimize the fanfare. We’ll just take a few pictures for China, put it in the newspaper, and then you can go.’”
It didn’t quite go according to plan – but in a good way. “The word had gotten out,” Ball says, grinning at the memory. “When the ship pulled up Saigon River and came into view of the city, from the windows of buildings and shops facing the pier, they dropped American flags, Vietnamese flags – people are cheering and whistling; car horns are honking.
“It was a fascinating tribute to the people and the effort at getting past the war. The Vietnamese were desperately ready to move on,” Ball explains, still smiling. “Carrying around the baggage of an old enemy wasn’t useful to them and they had already figured that out.”
Colonel Ball would remain in Vietnam until his retirement from the military in 2005, but his time spent there would leave a permanent impression. “That assignment was the best assignment that I ever had,” he tells me. “I got the chance to really understand and work with a foreign country that had previously been an enemy. This country that had a mythological importance to so many Americans, we had now gotten to the point where we were talking about having a working and solid relationship that was meaningful for both of us, and I was proud to be a part of that.”
In 2006, Steve and Allane returned to Maine where Steve started teaching history at Erskine Academy, in South China, but Vietnam wasn’t quite done with him yet. A few years into his retirement, he received a call out-of-the-blue from a nonprofit NGO (non-governmental organization) that was interested in hiring him for a new mission to the Quang Tri province of Vietnam, along the old North/South DMZ (demilitarized zone), one of the most war-ravaged areas of the country.
“They wanted to build a school for blind and visually impaired children,” Ball says. He spent the next two years on the project. “And it’s still operating today,” he says proudly.
And Vietnam was still not done with him. Not long after completion of the school, he received another call, from another nonprofit with a new mission. “They wanted me to be the country director for a group that assists countries in dealing with unexploded bombs,” he says.
This was a major problem in Vietnam, lasting decades after the end of the war. There was more tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam than in all of Europe during World War II, and about ten percent of them failed to explode. There were landmines and bombs that remained in the ground,” he explains, “that farmers had to live with and work around, and they were injuring people almost every day.” He pauses, looking thoughtful. “People don’t realize how devastated and how blown apart – metaphorically and actually – Vietnam had been, and still was.”
Although he never fought in the Vietnam War, Steve Ball would be an essential part of the healing process in the years following that dreadful conflict. It taught him a lot about what it means to be American.
“What we do in America matters in the world,” he says. “People listen; people pay attention to what America does and what America says. They aren’t listening like that for every country – but for us, they are. And I think that appreciation was astounding to me. The rest of the world is listening, and watching.”
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