Col. Cindy Chastain, BS ’79, knew time was running out. Her pending retirement from the Indiana National Guard in June was like a time bomb strapped onto her camo-colored, Kevlar-covered dream.
Photo by Tom Campbell
Col. Cindy Chastain’s husband, Pete, designed the Indiana National Guard flag she will follow into Afghanistan as part of an agricultural mission.
Tick … tick … tick. Winter, then spring, finally summer and it would all be over. Curtains on a 30-year military career, first in the regular Army, then culminating as director of human resources for the Indiana National Guard.
Sure, she had post-military plans. She grew up on a farm near Crawfordsville, Ind., and, in retirement, planned to return there with her husband, Pete McCormick.
“I bought 14 acres of my dad’s farm to work as a hobby farm when I retired. I think my dad (Richard) would be embarrassed to hear me say this, because he’s a real farmer. But I want to raise alpacas and goats. Maybe operate a dog rescue, too. He doesn’t consider that real farming.”
She just knew something was missing
But last summer, as she looked back on her career, she couldn’t help but think there was something missing, a small but persistent itch that needed to be scratched.
Then in June, in an airport parking lot, it was all revealed to her.
“Hey, did you hear there is going to be an agricultural mission to Afghanistan?” Col. Brian Copes said to Chastain as they were returning to Indiana from meetings in Washington, D.C.
“I know you have an agricultural background, but I don’t know if you would be interested or not.”
The mission, she learned, was to begin in mid-February 2009, and it would give the Afghan people advice on how to improve agribusiness operations.
“I knew I was set to retire in June and this mission wouldn’t start until 2009, so I would have to get an extension to remain on active duty past my retirement date,” Chastain says.
Mission: Find soldiers with ag skills
The unit, designated Indiana National Guard Unit 1-19th ADT (Agribusiness Development Team), would consist of approximately 60 soldiers. Sixteen were handpicked for their agricultural backgrounds. The other soldiers are assigned to protect those specialists while they are in the field.
The farms in the targeted region of Afghanistan are subsistence farming at its worst. Crops are planted by hand and most farmsteads are less than an acre.
“Once this mission was announced, people were coming out of the woodwork to volunteer,” says Chastain, whose credentials made her a perfect candidate to help start the Afghanistan project.
“I thought, ‘This mission is what I’ve been trained to do my whole life.’”
Her Purdue degree is in animal sciences. She grew up on a farm and spent whatever time she could following her father around as he did chores.
The Guard, she learned, would select soldiers for the mission who had backgrounds in agriculture to provide expertise in areas such as livestock management and nutrition, irrigation, crop production and pest management, soils assessment, and food storage and marketing.
“We always had animals on the farm: hogs, sheep, ponies and cattle, all at different times,” Chastain says. “My favorite thing in the world was to just go around the farm with my dad and do anything he was doing with the hogs.”
First she talks with husband and dad
Before the question had left Col. Copes’ lips, Chastain knew her answer. Of course she was interested. But Chastain didn’t rise to the rank of Army colonel by making decisions based on something as insubstantial as a dream. She took a couple of days to think it over and discuss the opportunity with the two men whose opinions mean the most: her husband and her father.
Her husband’s reaction was “Go for it.” As for her father, well, the response from a career military man (he retired as a U.S. Army major general in 1991) did not surprise.
“I asked her if I could go, too,” he jokes. “I think her mom (Marlene) was a little worried about Cindy’s safety when she first told us about the mission, but I think, deep down, she was happy for her. I’m very proud of her and more than a little jealous.”
It was her father who put Cindy on the path toward a military career by enrolling her in Purdue’s ROTC program in 1975.
“Dad said he would pay for us to go to college, but we had to go through at least one semester of ROTC,” Chastain says. Of the four Chastain children, all with Purdue degrees, only Cindy made it through four years of ROTC. Jeff, 49, now runs the family farm, while David, 50, and Laura Smith, 46, are both teachers.
“I spent my entire career in the military,” Richard says. “I thought my children should see for themselves the benefits and limitations of a military career.”