By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Hang around Andrew Aultman for any length of time and he’ll call you “sir” or “ma’am.” He can’t help himself. It’s one of those things that sticks with a soldier, active or otherwise. And, like so many soldiers, Aultman’s life is defined by the things that have stuck with him.
Recently, Aultman has redefined those lessons and traits. Once a T.C. Williams High School student, Aultman has returned to Alexandria to help transform local schools into models of eco-friendly behavior through his work with the Southeast Service Corporation.
Born Feb. 15, 1980 in Dayton, Ohio, Aultman was adopted when he was six months old by a high-ranking NCO in the Air Force and librarian’s assitant. From a young age, he was acquainted with the military life.
Aultman grew up on Bolling Air Force Base in southeast D.C. surrounded by soldiers, officers and military families. Luckily, Aultman’s family didn’t have to move around too much largely because of his father’s rank, which made it easy to bond with the kids on the base.
“Everybody on the base knows everybody,” Aultman said. “Even if some of us decided to go to different schools, we’d all be at the rec center.”
On weekends, Aultman and his friends would spend all day at the rec center going to parties or barbeques and playing basketball until the sun was long gone, he said. Aultman even got to play against the legendary Allen Iverson when the Georgetown University men’s basketball team came to the base.
Aultman’s mother was a librarian’s assistant in the Alexandria City Public Schools system. In 1994, when Aultman was entering ninth grade, he began school in Alexandria at the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus. The next year, Aultman went to T.C. Williams’ main campus.
Aultman graduated from North Stafford High School, and already knew he was destined for one of two paths: college or the military.
Life quickly chose a path for him. On Feb. 19, 2000, Aultman and his then-girlfriend had a baby boy. Aultman was 20 years old and working at Office Depot to support his child.
“I was lost,” Aultman said. “I was young, I had a young son and I said, ‘I got to do something. I can’t just sit around not doing anything.’”
The military offered something Aultman needed: structure. He enlisted in the army that April and moved to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina for basic training. After almost four months of basic training, Aultman was already saying “sir” and “ma’am” and, as his family was quick to point out, “walking different.”
From Fort Jackson, Aultman moved to Petersburg, Virginia for his advanced individual training.
Aultman was naturally drawn to water treatment and purification, a role that took on an essential quality during his time in Afghanistan. Analyzing PH balance, determining the difference between potable and non-potable water, he loved it all, Aultman said.
“Everybody calls us Water Dogs, but we didn’t realize when we went to Afghanistan how essential [we would be,]” Aultman said. “… Everybody was depending on us because it’s not just drinking. It’s showering, cooking, rinsing. Anything you can think of that you need to do with water, that’s what we did.”
After graduating from AIT, Aultman spent a year at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina – until the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“That’s when things changed,” Aultman said.
Aultman and his company prepared for six months – three in the Mojave Desert – never knowing when they would leave for the Middle East.
Then, one night in 2002, Aultman’s sergeant approached him.
“He said, ‘You need to go home and spend some time with your wife. You need to be back here at 4 o’clock in the morning because you’re going to Afghanistan,’” Aultman said.
Aultman flew off to Bagram Air Base, where he would be stationed for the next year.
At the time, Bagram was hardly a base at all, Aultman said. It was all wooden tents, dust and camel back spiders. Explosions became white noise, as mines from the Cold War were cleared out around the camp, Aultman said.
For Aultman and his fellow Water Dogs, the region itself posed additional challenges.
“We were used to, here, being by a pond, a river or something, but we had to drill this out of a well that wasn’t in use for years,” Aultman said.
The water treatment team operated 24/7, testing, purifying and distributing water: not only to U.S. troops, but to international armed forces and locals.
Even though he was hesitant to talk about it, Aultman also experienced combat.
“It was a little rough when we first got there. There were some incidents with some firing over there,” Aultman said.
In Afghanistan, Aultman found the structure he needed. He even earned his sergeant stripes. However, personal troubles back home led to his decision not to re-enlist.
“I was getting a divorce. Things were just rough at home. My grandma, she had just passed,” Aultman said. “… It was a lot that went on where I had to get out. It was too much for me.”
The decision still weighs on him. Aultman has enjoyed few things as much as his time in the military. Ask him what he got out of his time in the army, and Aultman might not be able to stop: “Organization, direction. How to be a man. How to have drive. How to be a leader, not a follower. How to give direction. How to implement structure. How to build character.”
He returned to the U.S. in 2003, surprising his then wife, and spent his remaining active service adapting to the sluggish pace of a U.S. base during a foreign war – and experiencing the lingering psychological effects of war.
“You have to adjust,” Aultman said. “… I’m in remission for PTSD. I do see a therapist. I’ve had to see one since, and I suffer from major depression, which I take medicine for. And I’m just at this level. We’re all soldiers, but there are soldiers that see worse and experience worse. I feel for them.”
The transition wasn’t a complete struggle. During inactive duty, Aultman reconnected with his son, met his second wife and worked a few jobs. But after moving from one managerial position to the next, he fell into a fallow period where work was hard to come by. He was lost again.
Aultman’s mother suggested he apply for a custodial position at SSC, a contract company that had partnered with T.C. Williams, while using his GI benefits to go back to school.
Aultman walked into SSC’s office at T.C. Williams in August of 2008 dressed in a shirt and tie. The account manager was taken aback that Aultman was applying for a custodial position.
“He got quiet and he was just like, ‘Do you want to be a supervisor?… There’s no way that you’re coming in here with this resume and dressed the way that you’re dressed and not taking a job as a supervisor,’” Aultman said.
Two weeks later, Aultman started as a supervisor for SSC, overseeing summer cleanup at T.C. Williams. Much like in the army, Aultman’s drive and dedication helped him quickly rise through the ranks. Four years later, Aultman was managing custodians in four Alexandria schools. Now, he oversees seven schools and 70 employees. Aultman received SSC’s Manager of the Year award in 2017 and the Principal’s Appreciation Award in 2018.
“The military mentality,” as Aultman calls it, has served him well. He has emphasized structure, organization and attention to detail. His experience as a Water Dog also played a role in his efforts to push eco-friendly policies in Alexandria schools.
Under Aultman, Alexandria’s environmental footprint has become even more green. T.C. Williams’ recycling program saves between 15,000 and 20,000 tons of waste per month, while a 450,000-gallon tank of water feeds rooftop gardens. Aultman has also prioritized green equipment for his staff, including bamboo mop poles with microfiber rags, electric lawn mowers and eco-friendly cleaning chemicals.
From Alexandria to Afghanistan back to Alexandria, Aultman’s journey has come full circle. He has been lost, but each time Aultman has found himself in structure and community.
“It’s a great feeling to be a part of something,” Aultman said.