Call of duty: High-ranking officers got their start at Harlingen South

HARLINGEN — They’ve fought the War on Terror on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

They’ve served in Washington, D.C.

And U.S. Army Maj. Cameron Maples and his brother Lt. Col. Austin Maples both started at the same place, the ROTC program at Harlingen High School South.

“I’d say the experience prepared me, not only the ROTC there but also on the football team when I was there,” said Austin Maples, 39, who graduated from Harlingen South in 1999.

Maples was badly wounded in Afghanistan in 2012 and his injuries almost ended his career. But eight years later, he’s going strong and in fact was just promoted to lieutenant colonel in August.

Teamwork has been a key factor in his success, and he learned a great deal about that principle at Harlingen South.

“It was working with a team, being able to work with a team, not always having to be the leader but also following,” Maples said. “It all works out for the common objective, the common goal.”

That early foundation laid the groundwork for his current position in Germany, where he’s assigned to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center.

“It’s where all the foreign European units come to train along with the Americans,” Maples said. “What we do is we go out there to observe training. We just kind of pull what the units are doing good, what they’re doing bad. And based off that, reporting goes back to the Army.”

Meanwhile, his brother Maj. Cameron Maples is stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

“I work in the Army G4 which is logistics,” said Cameron Maples, a 2000 graduate of Harlingen South.

“We cover the entire Army’s supply, maintenance operations, all logistical operations,” he said. “Right now very important is the COVID response operations that we’ve been conducting. So we have a lot of logistical operations dealing with that right now within the continental United States.”

Cameron Maples served three tours of duty in Iraq from 2006 through 2011. During this time he worked extensively with the Kurds.

“They were great, just fantastic, the best workers,” said Cameron Maples, 38.

The biggest challenge of his Army career has been the sobering reality of combat, which he first experienced as a platoon leader.

He and his troops ran tactical operations and convoy escorts with the Marine Corps between Tikrit and Bagdad.

“At first it was exciting,” he said. “After a few engagements you realize this is the real world and people get hurt, which we did have. We had Iraqi border patrol that got injured and killed, and we had some of our soldiers that were injured.”

His brother, Austin Maples, served in Afghanistan 2004 to 2005 and 2011 to 2012 — with a term in Iraq from 2007 to 2009.

“I was wounded in 2012 in Afghanistan from a pressure plate IED (improvised explosive device) on a dismounted patrol,” he recalled. “It was my left shoulder and my left arm. I basically got busted up on my left side pretty good.”

He spent the next 18 months recovering from his injuries and then another year to regain his strength and range of motion. Many physicians thought the injury had ended his career. He thought otherwise, as did his fellow officers.

“I just talked about this the other day at my promotion,” Lt. Col. Austin Maples said, “about being in an organization that cares about its individuals and its soldiers. I had a whole bunch of good leadership that knew I wanted to continue to serve. They allowed me the time and opportunity to get better and heal up and continue to serve.”

Eight years later, he’s playing a crucial role in training activities in Europe.

His other duty stations have included the 10th Mountain Division and an interagency fellowship with the Army in Washington, D.C.

“I got to travel the world with diplomatic security, learned about the State Department and how security works there for protecting our dignitaries, our ambassadors,” he said. “I was with the First Infantry Division at the division level and learned a lot from the leaders there and about the strategic aspects of a division and how that works.”

A common theme that arises from both men is teamwork and leadership.

Maj. Cameron Maples spoke at length about how the Harlingen South ROTC prepared him for that. He recalled the influence of ROTC instructor Alberto Sanchez.

“He was my mentor over there all four years to prepare me for dealing with people,” he said. “I mean drill and ceremonies, courtesies, all that kind of stuff.”

There were leadership courses, summer programs, and various other events.

“We went to events all over Texas,” he said. “We went to leadership competitions and then we’d also just go around and do community service projects and we’d get to meet a lot of people.”

He recalled serving as the ROTC corps commander and learning how to deal with subordinates. At that level it was different from commanding troops in the military.

“In high school I had to say, ‘OK, I have to figure out what this guy wants,’ and kind of work with them because they were also fellow students,” he said. “So I think that was a big piece, just learning how to work with people, how to deal with everybody.”

And dealing with everybody, he learned early on, means dealing with each individual.

“Everyone’s got issues, stuff they are working on too,” he said. “Every day at school and during the summers Chief Sanchez gave me lessons. He’d tell me, ‘Everybody’s different. You’ve got to deal with people differently.’ I think that’s the biggest thing that’s helped me.”

Working with each individual troop as a team member is what he’s enjoyed most about his Army career. While he’s enjoying his current duty station at the Pentagon, he most enjoys being in front of troops. To be effective in that capacity requires certain key principles.

“You have to have the drive to do it, you have to have loyalty not only to your unit and the mission but to your soldiers,” he said. “You’re supposed to keep them in line but you’re also supposed to protect them.”

Another key ingredient for effective leadership is empathy.

“You have to understand your soldiers, you have to understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “If you don’t have empathy you’ll like make decisions that for you are black and white but will truly affect others in different ways.”

twhitehead@valleystar.com