Saturday, July 19, 2014

Army Life: A Real Day as a Weekend Warrior

For those of you who think every drill weekend is shooting machine guns, flying in helicopters, or marching with a 40-pound pack, the following is my actual day at drill from a few minutes before sunrise until well after dark.

Drill weekend begins at 0530 hours when my alarm goes off.  I get straight out of bed and get cleaned up before waking my sons up.  This drill weekend both of my sons were leaving with me and getting dropped off at Jacari's former Foster Mom's house.  They will sleep over and get picked up on my way home Sunday night at abut 2000 hours (8 p.m.).

By 0615 hours we are on the way to Fort Indiantown Gap by way of Fredericksburg where the boys will be dropped off.  By 0730 I am in my seat in the main meeting room for morning formation.  The Brigade Headquarters Company has often has formation sitting in a briefing room rather than standing to attention outside or on the drill floor.  

As soon as we enter the room it is clear why we have formation here.  The PowerPoint screens are lit.  First Sergeant Craig Madonna calls us to seated attention saying "Good morning HHC."  To which we loudly respond, "Good morning first sergeant."  

After announcements about what we will be doing for the day and the weekend from the first sergeant and other leaders, JoAnn Tresco comes to the front of the room and leads a 90-minute presentation about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.  Her particular emphasis was heroin and alcohol.  She told us the National Guard had a drug and alcohol problem and she was there to explain the dangers of drugs to us.  

Because the Army is a socialist as America gets, we all have get any training deemed mandatory by the leaders.  And since the presenter was upbeat, interesting and had professional videos made by Accenture, the 90 minutes went by more quickly than many presentations like this.  But I could not help scanning the room and noting the people like the Brigade Command Sergeant Major, Executive Officer, First Sergeant and others who seemed at very low risk for heroin abuse.

While she spoke I took a page of notes for this blog post, wrote out the Lord's Prayer in Greek, and wrote the Russian counting numbers from one to 89  (один к восьмидесяти девяти).  I don't knit so I write out things I have committed to memory when I watch videos.

After the briefing, I met with Capt. Miller,my boss, about the events I would be covering for the rest of the day:  a change of command at 1300 hours (1 p.m.) another an hour later, and an award ceremony at 1630 hours (4:30 p.m.)

Next, I went out to my car and got my extra camera.  The army issued me two Nikon digital cameras.  The spare one is the one I used in Iraq.  The other one is newer.  I signed my spare camera over to the battalion administrative NCO in my old unit. He has the unenviable task of taking picture of all tattoos on soldiers which can be seen in the Physical Fitness (PT) uniform.  New Army regulations restrict tattoos.  And the best way to be sure a soldier is not adding new tattoos is take pictures of those he or she has as of a given date.

Again, Socialism means we all dress alike--and look alike when wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  

So I spent 45 minutes tracking down the admin sgt. and signing over the camera.  Next was records review.  The HHC full-time training NCO Sgt. 1st Class Dale Shade sat down with me and went through all my records to make sure they are up to date.  Since I am getting out within a year, this review was not terribly important to my career, but it was time for records to be reviewed, so we did.  Dale and I worked together for the last few months of the Iraq deployment.  He is a funny guy.  We made jokes as we went through the records, several of them about whether some of my orders were signed by Patton or Custer.

And with that finished it was time for lunch.

This lunch was actually Sgt. Amanda Spangenberg's lunch which she allowed me to photograph.  I had mostly the same meal, but also had the cake for dessert which Amanda skipped.  I skipped the chocolate milk.  

At lunch I sat with fueler and new father Staff Sgt. Matt Kauffman.  He had baby pictures of his second child in his iPhone.  Halfway through lunch the Echo 1st Sgt. came by and offered Kauffman a ride to the fueling site 30 miles away at Zerbe Airport, and he was off to the fuel site.

At his point I checked out my camera and flash and got ready for the first change of command ceremony.

I will write about the afternoon and evening in my next post.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pissed Off At Dante: "Virgil Got Screwed!"

I just finished Purgatorio, the second book of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.  Next week I will be having lunch with Brian Pauli who was part of the Dead Poet's Society book group at Camp Adder in Iraq.  Re-reading Dante in Iraq gave me new insight into this beautiful epic poem because I read it with younger soldiers.

Easily the biggest surprise I had was when most of the soldiers in the group got angry at Dante because of Virgil.  At the end of Purgatorio, just before Dante crosses Lethe and begins his ascent into Heaven, Virgil gets sent back to Hell.  Virgil, with other great and good pagans, gets to stay in Limbo, the penthouse of Hell.  Limbo has none of the torments of Hell proper, but it is Hell and has the greatest torment of separation forever from God.

The first time I read Dante, I remember feeling sad about Virgil, but the poet creates his own world so I accepted Virgil's condemnation.

But in human terms, the injustice is glaring.  Virgil was only in Hell because his birth pre-dated Christ.  This is consistent with the theology of the Catholic Church, but strikes modern readers as eternally cruel.  I can't remember which soldier said, but one said, "Virgil got screwed!"

I was surprised at the time, but have since come to agree with the group.  I will push on through the very Roman version of Heaven in Paradiso, but believing that the Virgil was, in reality, dealt with more justly than by Dante.

Friday, July 11, 2014

US News and World Report Article on Mid-Life Crisis Includes My Enlistment

This was posted today on US News and World Report on line.  Looks like I am one of the examples of how not to have a mid-life crisis.

Monday, July 7, 2014

My Last Summer Camp--Photos

M249 SAW and M2 .50 cal. machine gun ranges.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The History of Rome

For the past several weeks I have been listening to podcast called "The History of Rome." 

So far I have listened to more than 60 of 200 twenty-minute episodes.  The podcast takes the listener from the Fall of Troy to the Fall of the Empire.  The next episode I listen to will be Claudius as emperor.

The narrator has a voice made for history, interesting but not given to great excitement.  I listen every chance I get.  And I am sure I will listen to his new one "Revolutions" when I have gone all the way through The history of Rome.

As many of you know, I am nearing the end of my Army career and am officially working part time at my job beginning this coming week.  I have two teenage boys and triathlon training to fill my time, but listening to Rome made me think I could do a podcast on the history of tanks.

I love tanks.  And a big advantage I have over many who could do a podcast on tanks is that I spent seven years as a tank commander.

Those of you who like military history, please give "The History of Rome" a listen.  And let me know if you would like to listen to a history of tanks.  If you have trouble with commenting on the blog--it is a hassle--email me at or just send a message on facebook.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Last Annual Training--Found What I was Looking For

Yesterday was the last day of my last National Guard Annual Training.  By the time my unit heads for next year's two-week session of playing Army, I will be a civilian again.  As I drove home from Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., I realized that during this Annual Training, I finally found one of the things I was looking for when I re-enlisted seven years ago.  

When I first enlisted back in 1972, I made some friends for life.  I know that this time around, I was hoping to make those kind of friends again.  In civilian life it is much harder to make real friends than it is in the Army.  Companionship is the soil friendship grows in and no one with a family, a job and even one hobby has time for anything else.

During this annual training, the State Public Affairs Office on Fort Indiantown Gap let me work at a desk in their office.  I even got a key to work on the weekends and at night.  It was great to have internet and a real workspace--I have neither at my unit.  But the best part was being in a large room for hours with other people doing the same job, facing the same difficulties, and laughing at the same misunderstandings--by civilians and by the people we work for.

It reminded me of how much fun it was to work at an ad agency because there were a dozen other writers.  We could all bitch about clients, check each others work, suggest revisions and share jokes.

C.S. Lewis said that the way to find happiness in your work is to work with people you like and admire.  For nearly 30 years, I have tried and mostly succeeded in working with people I really like.  The days I spent at the Public Affairs Office during annual training are some of the best days I spent since re-enlisting.  I am very glad that before I return to being a civilian, I got to spend several days with people who work hard and handle difficulties with skill--and with good humor.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dinner with the New Commander

Last night I had dinner with the new brigade commander, Col. John Kovac.  It was not planned, we just happened to be the last two people in the chow hall.  So we got our trays of chicken and dumplings and biscuits and talked about being old soldiers.  We both joined the Army shortly after high school.  I joined in 1972, he joined in 1979.  We both spent three years in Germany.  He arrived in 1979 just as I was leaving active duty and going home.  Both of us remembered our time in Germany as some of the best years we spent in the Army.

Col. Kovac started his career as a crewman on the CH-47 Chinook helicopter.  The Chinook went on active service in 1962, when I was nine years old and the colonel was two.  He was commissioned later and has flown most helicopters in the Army inventory in the years since.  Before taking command of the brigade, he commanded 1-104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion which deployed to Afghanistan in 2012.

Chinook Helicopter Creates a Rain Shower!!

This was so cool!! Literally.  I stood near enough to get soaked on two water drops by the Chinook helicopter.  A Chinook can carry 16,000 pounds (2,000 gallons) of water, a lot more than the 300 gallons of water carried by a Blackhawk helicopter in a water bucket.

I stood close to water drops by Blackhawks on three previous occasions.  They were fun to watch, but much smaller than the Chinook drop.  When the Chinook lets the water go, the spray covers thousands of square yards of ground.  In this case, dropping water across the length (300 yards or so) of the Lake Marquette.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Combat LifeSaver Training

One of my most vivid memories of training for Iraq was Combat LifeSaver Training. In 2008 it was a 3-day class ending with a hands-on exam, including starting an IV in your buddy's arm.  My training partner was Sgt. Kevin Bigelow.  We both got promoted to sergeant on the same day in June of 2008.  I was training for my first deployment.  Kevin had deployed to Afghanistan several years before.  I am 30 years older than Kevin, but was also a new guy in many ways.  Kevin teamed up with me in this and other training.

Most significantly Kevin and I started IVs in each other.

In the years since, the Army has removed the dreaded IV from Combat LifeSaver Training and has made the training more realistic.  In the picture above, the training dummy moves, yells in pain, and blood pumps from his severed limb.

Medics oversee the trainees as they attempt to treat and evacuate the "wounded."  The sounds of gunfire and screaming echo in the rooms.  The rooms are dark, but have strobe lights firing to simulate gun flashes.

I was tired and streaked with face blood from taking pictures during the training exercise.  It ewas fun.

Friday, June 6, 2014

June 6, 1944

Let me first acknowledge that 10,000 brave men lost their lives on this date in 1944 assaulting the Normandy Coast by sea and air.  I grew up playing Army and wanting to be the kind of man who was brave and strong enough to take part in a great and worthy enterprise like freeing Europe from Nazi domination.  

Today is the first day of Army Annual Training for my unit.  At morning formation our first sergeant reminded us of this 70th anniversary of D-Day.  

History is one of the huge gaps between me and the young soldiers I serve with today.  I grew up reading books about World War II.  I also saw movies, but it was the books that gave me the specifics that I still have in my mind.  The dates, the numbers of men, the generals, the weapons, the weather, the time of year, the vehicles, the terrain, the buildings, the food--I was a sponge for the specifics of the war in Europe.  

Since I learned about war from books and not from video games, I was aware of logistics.  I knew that the real issue deciding many battles was which army could get their troops to the weak point in the enemy line, or to reinforce the weak point in their own line.  When I was in an armor unit, war games were mostly moving our tanks and support vehicles from wherever they happened to be to where they were needed.  

Soldiers stuffed into troops ships, landing craft, transport planes, gliders, jeeps, trucks, armored cars, and anything else with wings, keels and wheels determine the outcome of battles.  

D-Day reminds me of the great tradition I share with everyone who served then and now.  And it reminds me of how much the reality of war is logisitics, moving soldiers, ammo, fuel and food to the fight.

May God Bless all those who are still with us who fought on this day 70 years ago.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Tough Mudder vs. Ironman, Part 2

Both times I did the Tough Mudder, this was the obstacle that showed me Tough Mudder is a team sport.  At each event I ran as hard as I could toward this curved wall three times.  Twice I slid back down.  The third time I reached up.  Two strong men at the top of the wall dragged me over the top.  Strong guys hang out on the top of the wall and pull the rest of us up.  If Tough Mudder was a pure solo event, this obstacle would be a fail for me--unless I brought a ladder.  All through both Tough Mudders people were helping and encouraging me.  I helped them when I could.  If I ever do another, I will get together a group of three or more.  Tough Mudder is a dirt-covered party.

On the other hand, with 74 days left until the Kentucky Ironman, I am withdrawing more and more into the solo world of Ironman training.  This past Thursday I swam 3000 yards, rode 80 miles in rain and a headwind to Philadelphia then took the train home.  On Friday, I was going to ride with my friends, but then I took a train to Philadelphia and rode back to Lancaster, another 80 miles.  There was no rain, but the wind reversed and was stronger than the day before.

To be ready for the Ironman, I have all but stopped bicycle racing and mostly ride alone.  Even though my wife and I are training for the same event, we might as well be training for two different events.  She is much faster than I am in the water and is running about 100 miles a month.  I am not running now because of knee trouble and plan to cram the run training into the last five weeks.  We can't run together.

On the bike our training speeds and riding styles are so different we only occasionally ride together.  I plan on surviving the swim and run and making as much time as possible on the bike. My wife will crush the swim, post a good time on the run and survive the bike.  In the 17 hours of the event, we will be together when I pass her on the bike and when she passes me on the run.

The current issue of Christianity Today includes a feature article on a guy who did the Tough Mudder as part of self-administered therapy for a mid-life crisis (I would include the link but it is subscribers only).  The author was right to pick a Tough Mudder instead of an Ironman.  At the Tough Mudder, you suffer together and laugh about it.  The Ironman means more and more time alone until the event wrings everything out of each participant.  A very tough friend and I rode to and from the Tough Mudder together on single-speed bikes--35 miles total.  If you can run a half marathon and do 50 pushups you can finish a Tough Mudder.  The Ironman is the toughest thing I have ever done that I planned to do.  Recovering from a broken neck was tougher, but I did not plan that.